Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape

Tag: D&D

D&D 5E: Scouting and Deception

Since last session, the kids’ schedules diverged a bit, so we ended up having a couple of sessions with varying numbers of players. This provided an opportunity to demonstrate the whole “short rest/long rest” recovery scheme, to both players and DM.

I’ve got this nefarious scheme where I’m trying to leverage D&D for educational purposes. (Hey, it worked on me.) As a part of that, I’ve rejected the seductive path of milestone leveling. When the PCs overcome an obstacle, I award XP, the players do the math, and we see if anybody levels up. I was worried that might slow down the game too badly, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I keep an eye on their XP totals, so I know when they’re getting close to a new level. I try to pace it out so that they level when it’s about time to wrap up for the day.

Reminder, we’re using the adventure, Gauntlet of Spiragos, if only loosely. From this point on, you will surely encounter spoilers. (One thing I did change: the original module has the local goblins being variants with six arms, among other mutations. I left it at just spidery eyes and a poisonous bite. I figured that would emphasize the monstrous nature of… well, you’ll see.)

What Happened

Reaper and RH settled down in a concealed location near the Chasm, keeping watch and eating sandwiches. Styx and Necro went to reconnoiter, approaching the Chasm more closely than before. They discovered that it was a deep, sheer pit. How deep, they could not tell, because a canopy of webs hanging dozens of feet below obscured the view. There were a couple of crude rope bridges, woven from giant spider web, leading from the edge of the pit to a couple of odd stone pillars in the hole’s center.

Taking care to be quiet, the two crossed over the nearest bridge to one of the columns. As they approached, they realized that the column’s surface was riddled with holes, some large enough for a goblin to slip through. Being a slender elf, Styx had no trouble doing the same.

Styx discovered two things. First, upon getting a close look at the column’s surface and interior, her alchemical training allowed her to notice that it was no normal stone, but fossilized bone!

Marveling at the thought of such a large piece of bone, she made her second discovery: the column contained an interior hollow space, dark and thickly coated in cobwebs, that formed a kind of descending spiral staircase. She called to Necro, who was able to squeeze inside with some difficulty. Without keen elven eyes, Necro wasn’t able to see as well in the darkness, so he summoned dancing lights.

They had only descended a short way before they heard something. It sounded like exhausted whimpering, perhaps a wounded creature of some kind. Looking around, they noticed movement a few feet below, behind sheets of webs. A humanoid form?

While they were distracted, the giant puppeteer spider struck! It grabbed Necro around his waist, but wasn’t able to secure Styx. The battle that followed was tense and desperate, fought at close quarters, but in hindsight, the outcome was inevitable. Being grappled by the spider, Necro was an enemy of the spider, within five feet of it, and not incapacitated… which meant Styx could lay down a sneak attack on her every turn. She took it apart.

It turned out the “humanoid form” was really a crude puppet made of webs wrapped around a humanoid skeleton. The spider had worked it like a marionette.

After a shiver at this grisly encounter, the two carried on, taking occasional peeks outside the column to see how they were getting on. Having descended some way, they decided to check the webs outside the column to see if they could support a person’s weight.

As it turns out, Necro is a rather poor climber. Seconds after leaving the inside of the column, he slipped and fell!

The good news was, the webs could support a person, so they quickly stopped his fall. The bad news was, at least some of them were sticky, so he was trapped until he could extricate himself. The further bad news came in the form of a swarm of spiders the size of house cats, looking to see what tasty morsel had fallen into their webs!

Unnoticed on her perch above, Styx reached into her pack and pulled out her lunch. She tossed it in a direction far away from Necro, who held very still. Feeling the impacts on the webs, the spiders were spoofed, and ran off to investigate. While they were out of the picture, Styx quickly climbed down to lend a hand. Working together, they were able to free Necro and return to the dubious safety of the column before the spiders returned.

Descending further, they came to where they could see the bottom of the column’s internal shaft. It opened out onto a makeshift platform, more-or-less filling the entire area of the Chasm. Around the edges of the platform, Styx’s keen eyes could just make out that the Chasm’s walls, at this level, were lined with some kind of metal wall with huts atop it.

Having seen enough, the two quickly and quietly returned to camp. There, they related everything they had seen. The entire party settled down in a concealed camp for the night.

(Overnight, both Necro and Styx leveled up.)

The next morning, the party welcomed back Angus, their dwarven driver, upon his return. Leaving him in charge of the camp, they crept back up to the edge of the Chasm, where Styx and Necro pointed out all that they had seen the day before. Their plan was to retrace their steps, crossing the bridge to the same column, then descending to the bottom of the internal stairway. They set out to follow this plan.

Reaper and RH didn’t care for that plan. Having heard about Necro’s close call, they decided to take the quicker, easier route. They jumped from the edge of the Chasm, trusting the webs would cushion their fall. Reaper insisted that, as a drow, he was good with spiders.

As it happened, he wasn’t all that good with spiders.

The web did catch them, but they hadn’t counted on the stickiness. Reaper isn’t really the athletic sort, so he was quite hampered by it. RH was able to free himself, though, and made his way to the outside wall of the Chasm. The spiders came out to threaten Reaper, who attempted to use drow secrets of spider training, to no avail. In the end, they had to use the same trick as the day before, throwing food as a tasty distraction while they fled.

The party descended in two groups, with Reaper and RH climbing the outside wall while Styx and Necro climbed down the goblin staircase. They hadn’t gone far at all before they realized that the commotion with the spiders above had drawn unwanted attention from below. Inside the column, two small goblins followed by one big goblin were climbing up from below, silently, knives in their teeth! At the same moment, RH and Reaper noticed a goblin climber coming up the outside wall, as well!

RH displayed an unexpected prowess with climbing, moving to defend Reaper, who split his time between harassing the goblin with spells and hanging on for dear life. After taking a few hits, RH used his shield to batter the goblin until it fell.

Inside the column, Necro used dancing lights to light up the vertical battlefield. The goblins engaged with darts, so the PCs advanced to melee. After a short duel featuring several attempts to hide and multiple sneak attacks, the goblins were slain.

Now seeing that splitting up the party has its down side, all four PCs regrouped inside the column. RH helped Reaper as they picked their way across the Chasm on the web.

Reaper took a close, hard look at the body of the larger, “boss” goblin. Reaper is a warlock, who knows Mask of Many Faces, which allows him to cast disguise self at will. While this is his favorite party trick, it hadn’t done him much good thus far, because he can only vary his height by a foot either way. The goblins were too short to imitate. But now that he had a big goblin…

When the party came to the bottom of the stairs, they boldly walked out onto the patchwork platform with Reaper in the lead, disguised as the boss goblin who had just gone up the stairs. They had guessed that the huts around the perimeter were guard posts, so he waved an “all clear” and led the party that way. They had guessed right: a goblin poked its head around the door with a questioning look on its face.

By luck, most of the party speaks the language of the goblins, including Reaper. He explained that he had run into these guys (points at the PCs) who had come to join up with the goblins, since they all worshiped the same titan. This being a religious matter, he had to take it to the matriarch.

The guard saw how this all made sense – or at least enough sense for its pay grade and challenge rating – and so the party was waved towards a big trap door. They slid down on ropes made from webs, descending through open air to a pile of rubble. The elves could see evidence of four tunnels off the main chamber along one wall, and a larger, barricaded tunnel to one side.

They were challenged by a gang of goblins, but again, Reaper went through his “it’s a religion thing” story and again, the goblins bought it. They waved the party through to the barricaded tunnel, escorting them into the presence of the tribe’s champion, a mutated, multi-armed giant of a goblin! Again, Reaper did his song and dance, and again, it worked, at least for a short time.

The tribal champion took the party into the matriarch’s chambers. There, under her questioning, the story started to ravel a bit at the edges. The champion finally put two and two together, moving to attack while shouting a warning at the matriarch. Before she could do much of anything to defend herself, she was charmed, and stood confused while the party dog-piled the champion, quickly silencing him.

Reaper settled down to have a nice conversation with his new best friend. With the keys to the city, so to speak, it didn’t take long for them to get what they wanted. She showed them the goblins’ treasure room, containing several hundred gold pieces’ worth of miscellaneous coin, gems, and jewelry. Then she showed them the tribe’s real treasure, two relics of the titan Spiragos: a dagger and a ring! (No gauntlet, though, even though it had been expected.) Finally, she showed them her secret back door that could be used to escape the Chasm without going back through the entire goblin tribe again.

The party collected the magic items and about 60% of the treasure. (They didn’t want to take all the treasure and leave the whole goblin village destitute.) They then took quick advantage of the matriarch’s secret tunnel, emerging some distance away from the Chasm, and then walking some distance to return to camp. Angus was happy to get on the road immediately, and so they returned to town after three days on the road.

While on the road, RH leveled up, and the party inspected the magic items. It was discovered that the dagger was a +1 weapon with some special poison-related powers, and the ring offered some spider-related spells and powers to warlocks. It was decided that Styx should have the dagger and Reaper should get the ring.

After reflection and research back in town, the party realized…

… (spoiler space, no, don’t look)…

… the entire Chasm had been the gauntlet! The story goes, Spiragos and another giant-sized titan had fought on the site hundreds of years before. At one point, Spiragos fell, plunging one of his hands deep into the earth, where it was momentarily trapped. The other titan took advantage of Spiragos’ situation to cut off the titan’s trapped arm, leaving behind the gauntlet on that hand, the ring on one of the hand’s fingers, and the dagger that the hand had held. Over time, once they were out of contact with their owner’s flesh, the ring and the dagger shrank to human size. The gauntlet remained in contact with the titan’s bones, though, and stayed mega-sized.

Future Plans

Styx wants to go back, take the rest of the treasure, evict all the goblins, excavate all the giant titan bones, and return the gauntlet to human size. It is acknowledged that this might be a higher-level quest.

Everybody wants familiars. Styx wants a pseudodragon, and Reaper wants to research how to befriend a flameskull. (He first wanted a crawling claw, but I guess a skull wreathed in flame is more metal.) Once they get to town and can buy the right incense, though, they’re going to settle for spiders and bats.

 

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D&D 5E: The March

Since the kids’ last D&D session, they had the opportunity to go to our Friendly Neighborhood Gaming Store’s annual D&D camp. There, they were exposed to the 5th Edition. They wasted no time telling me that 5E is superior in all ways to my crusty old version. 🙂

So, we abandoned the Cyclopedia and switched to the modern version of the game. Their characters from camp had made it to 2nd level, and they wanted to continue those characters’ careers. To bump up their numbers, we decided to have each kid play two characters simultaneously.

We picked up 5E play with four PCs.  They are Styx II (female wood elf sage/alchemist Rogue 2, with an eye towards Arcane Trickster), Reaper (male drow elf noble Warlock 2), Necro (male-identifying warforged sage Wizard 1, aiming to specialize in conjuration), and Rienhardt (male human noble Paladin 1, also known as “RH”).

Just like the last campaign, I snagged a free adventure to jump-start things; in this case, that adventure was Gauntlet of Spiragos. I’m making little tweaks as I go along, but be warned, there’s still likely to be spoilers.

What Happened

Styx and Reaper were teleported home at the end of the camp adventure, but something went wrong. While the rest of their old party returned to their lives, our heroes were swept away by a strange arcane misfire. They found themselves on the dirt floor of a crude stone hut, far to the north of their previous location. RH had taken shelter in the hut earlier. His initial surprise at the others’ sudden appearance was compounded when he recognized his childhood friend, Reaper.

While Reaper and RH caught up on old times, Styx poked around in the dusty hut, discovering a coffin-like crate. It was locked, but this presented no barrier to an experienced 2nd-level Rogue. When opened, the create proved to contain a mothballed clockwork “robot” with a crystal face. It slowly awakened when Styx started clearing packing materials away from it. Barely able to speak, it introduced itself as Necro. Styx was drawn to Necro by curiosity, while Necro took Styx to be his creator, and thus worthy of loyalty.

When discovered, Necro had an old piece of parchment clutched in his hand, which proved to be a map. After some discussion and orientation, the party decided that the map pointed towards a location called the Chasm of Flies, and hinted that one might find three magical items there: a ring, a dagger, and a gauntlet. They left the hut and walked up the road a bit to the nearest town, Cragfort, where they got their expedition organized.

Styx and Necro visited an alchemist’s shop, where they became friendly with the gnome shopkeeper and picked up necessary supplies. The shopkeeper provided some scraps of information about the legend of the Chasm of Flies, saying that after it received its name, the infestation of flies had attracted spiders.

Reaper and RH reserved rooms at the inn for the night, and then retired to the common room for carousing. There, they met a dwarf who worked in the local copper mine who liked the way they drank.

Realizing that it would take them several days to travel to the Chasm and back, and being told that opportunities to forage along the way were limited, the party purchased a large amount of rations. Unable to afford mounts, they instead hired the dwarven miner to drive them to the Chasm in his wagon. Bright and early the next day, they left town, heading north. The trip was punctuated with good-natured banter and a steady stream of RH’s sandwiches.

While the party slept on the second night of the trip, Necro stood on watch. He spotted a flicker of movement in the distance. He cast dancing lights, sending the glowing orbs thus produced over to cast some light on the subject while he shouted an alarm. The others awoke to see a goblinoid dressed in black leather, standing surprised and blinking foolishly in the light with knives in hand.

RH came off his bedroll at a sprint. Not bothering to arm himself, he simply tackled the smaller creature, applying a grapple and seeking to beat its head against a nearby rock. The others joined in the dog-pile as well. Once the goblinoid was immobilized, Styx put the point of her rapier against its throat and demanded its surrender. It spat defiance, telling them that people like them didn’t belong here. Styx shrugged and sent it to its reward.

The next morning, they left the hills behind and made their way across the Devils’ March, a wasteland left devastated after magical wars a couple hundred years before. Shortly, they started to hear the baying of hounds in the distance, a sound that seemed to grow closer as they went. They cautiously proceeded, with weapons close at hand. It wasn’t long before the more keen-eyed of the group spotted a humanoid figure in the distance, half-running, half-staggering towards them.

Only seconds after they first saw the person, he was brought down by a pair of large dogs. The party shouted at the dogs, who raised their eyes towards our heroes, revealing themselves to be partially-rotted undead. They howled once, then charged. Their howls were answered as two more undead hounds came over the ridge.

The heroes jumped off the wagon and ran to engage. Styx had to use acrobatics to avoid being surrounded, and would have ran away, if she weren’t forced to run back to aid Necro, who had been pulled off his feet by one of the dogs. RH caved in one of the dogs with a single swing of his warhammer.

In the end, the party stood victorious. The hounds carried no treasure, but each of them was wearing a collar with a tag. The tags bore a rune, something like a simplified sketch of a fanged skull. The party was able to identify the rune as a wizard’s personal rune, but wasn’t able to identify the wizard.

After a short rest, the party carried on into the wasteland. In the early hours of the afternoon, they came within sight of a circular hole in the ground, about 150 feet across. The Chasm!

The party had their driver park the wagon behind a handy boulder, then formed up with RH in the lead to march the last couple hundred yards on foot. As soon as RH stepped out in the open, however, an attacker appeared atop the boulder! It was a strangely-misshapen goblinoid riding a giant spider, who threw a dart at the paladin. The dart bounced off his helmet ineffectively, but then a second goblin popped out of concealment, high above, to harass the rest of the party.

Having no missile weapons, RH drew his warhammer and struck a two-handed blow against the rock, hoping to shatter the surface and bring one of the spider-riding goblins down. It almost worked, forcing the spider to dance quickly upwards to avoid falling.

The magic-users were able to bring down one of the spiders with a combination of acid splash and eldritch blast. Its rider fell to the ground, where it stood to find itself at melee distance. It bared its needle-sharp teeth, ready to fight like a cornered rat.

Styx tried to use her short bow to cripple the other goblin’s spider, but wasn’t able to make the shot. Commenting that she was really coming to dislike the bow, she drew her rapier and ran acrobatically up the rock face to where the goblins lurked. There, she grabbed a handhold and wounded its spider. The spider bit back, injecting its paralyzing poison. Styx was left alive, but unconscious and unable to move, her hand locked closed around its perilous hold.

While the one goblin bit at RH and Reaper and the other played hide-and-snipe, Necro tried a desperate gamble. He cast sleep, knowing that RH was inside the area of effect, but hoping that the goblins would be affected before him. Hoping in vain, as it turned out; while one of the goblins and the surviving spider did fall asleep, so did RH!

The other goblin turned and ran. It ducked for a hiding place, eluding Reaper, but Necro spotting it where it lurked. Found out, it scurried up the side of the boulder and vanished over the edge of the top. After a few moments of confusion, the party spotted it when it broke cover on the far side of the rock, running swiftly for the rim of the Chasm. Reaper stepped backwards to get a clear shot, then took the goblin down with a well-aimed eldritch blast to the leg.

The party rescued Styx from her perch. RH laid on hands, healing her and bringing her back to consciousness, but couldn’t do anything about the paralysis. Necro examined her and concluded that she needed an hour or so to get over it. Accordingly, the group settled down for a rest.

While they waited, RH and Necro performed some interrogation. RH spoke the Goblin language, and Necro loomed threateningly. (He would have engaged in some light torture, just to make sure no lies were told, but RH wouldn’t stand for it.) They learned that the Chasm was home to a tribe of spider-like goblinoids. The captives didn’t know anything about any magical items, but said that if there were any such items in the Chasm, they would likely be held by the tribe’s matriarch.

Having extracted all the information they were likely to, the party loaded the bound captives onto the wagon and instructed their driver to take them some way out into the wastelands and turn them loose. He happily agreed to undertake this task, unloading a day or so of rations before driving off, whistling cheerfully.

The party turned their eyes towards the Chasm and the expected treasures within.

 

D&D Known World, Session #5: Troglodytes

The kids carried on, without the guest players. Despite the scuffle that broke out last time, they decided to give the magic sword to Timi, the halfling henchman.

What Happened:

Being out of spells and low on hit points, the party decided to camp out in the easily-defended room with the pit trap and the bed. During the night, Kohncrete and Nautical left with the charmed orc, to do some scouting, but they never returned. The next morning, Anya prayed over Styx, healing his wounds, before they set out for the day’s exploration.

Carefully working their way past the pit trap, they paused at the door so Styx could listen and peek through the keyhole. He heard voices, and observed a group of troglodytes dragging a bound woman into place in front of a stone idol shaped like a humanoid alligator. While the trogs chanted, Styx slipped up behind them, making off with a couple of stone clubs and taking up a position behind the dagger-wielding priest.

Shouting war cries, the rest of the party burst from the room and engaged the trogs from behind. Everyone but Styx was sickened by the troglodytes’ terrible stench. Shadow charmed one, while the others fought to the bitter end.

The party took a bit of damage, and used a couple of spells, but was left in generally good shape. Their new troglodyte ally was dubbed Clod the Trog. Once woken, the would-be sacrifice introduced herself as Aniria, a cleric. She healed Styx, who took special pride in the rescue.

For a moment, it looked like there would be a disagreement about who would get the glowing, obviously-magical dagger, but then Styx noticed the alligator-idol’s two gem-set eyes. He climbed the idol to pry out its eyes, in approved old-school fashion, while Shadow put the dagger in his belt.

With that settled, they turned around and retraced their steps. They went all the way back to the room where they had appeared after falling victim to a teleport trap. There, they again went through the “everybody in the room, close the door, open the door” cycle a couple more times, just to make sure they didn’t go anywhere. They didn’t.

Since the trap still seemed to be one-way, they went back the way they came, re-examining the route. Thinking it led upwards, they returned to a stairway they had marked on their map, but discovered that it actually led down. No thanks!

Taking a right where they had previously taken a left, they came to a door. When Styx listened at the door, he heard nothing, but he detected the telltale smell of trogs. Clod wasn’t able to talk to the others, as none of them shared a common language, but he pointed at the door, shaking his head vigorously and holding up six fingers.

Rather than taking a head-on approach, they decided to try for subterfuge. They sent Clod in, while everyone else hid. After a few minutes, Clod returned, bringing one of the troglodytes out with him. Distracted by Clod, the trog was easy prey to a group backstab.

Shadow liked the way that had worked out, but wanted to speed up the process. Pulling a chicken leg from Timi’s rations, he opened the door and waved it at the five surprised troglodytes, shouting “Come and get it!”

Of course, all five charged. Battle was joined, as it so often is, at the doorway. Aniria tried to help, but with no armor and only a stick of firewood for a weapon, she wasn’t all that effective and soon fell back, wounded. Timi was knocked unconscious and Shadow had to drag her out of the melee. In the end, everyone was wounded, some badly, but only one troglodyte remained standing against them. It chose to turn and flee rather than carry on. The party chose to let it go, rather than pursue.

Once more entirely out of spells and low on hit points, the party decided to go to ground again, in the trogs’ old room.

 

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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