Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Questing in Elfgames II - LotR as D&D AKA 'Ring-Quest'

Following on from the last posts about the (lack of) epic scope in D&D, I'm looking at the relationship between D&D and the literature that is supposed to have spawned it. Out of everything, I'm most familiar with the work of Tolkien so that's where I'm going for the majority of my examples.

So I'll look particularly at LotR, from the perspective D&D. What happens in 'adventure' terms is Gandalf tells Frodo that Bilbo's Ring is the One Ring and that it must be destroyed. That's just a bit of backstory as a plot-hook. The meat of the matter is that Frodo is to meet Gandalf at Bree. After some preparation and prevarication, Frodo, Sam and Pippin travel towards Buckland. They meet a Black Rider, Gildor and his Elves, and Farmer Maggot. Then they meet Merry and Fatty. After that, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin head into the Old Forest, to have adventures with Old Man Willow, Tom and Goldberry, Barrow-Wights (afterwards, they get proper armament during some tomb-looting) and on to Bree to meet Gandalf.

So apart from the 'proto-Fellowship' of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin (and the missing Gandalf), we already have  potential PCs in Gildor Inglorion and some other Elves; Farmer Maggot and Grip, Fang and Wolf; Fatty Bolger; Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, who could all potentially have joined the 'party' (for what is the Fellowship if not a D&D party?).

But Gandalf isn't at Bree. They meet Strider who offers to take them to Rivendell. Meanwhile, more Black Rider action. They set off across country. In a beautiful touch (in my opinion) they find the cave of Bilbo's trolls (the relationship between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is more than I can go into here, but it provides a nice backstory at least). More encounters with Ringwraiths ensue. Then the party meets Glorfindel and the race to the ford is on.

So - the Hobbits' original quest is small: take the Ring to Bree. Even then Fatty doesn't come; and Schrodinger's Fellowships of Farmer Maggot and his dogs, Gildor, Tom and Golberry must remain entirely speculative. The next stage of the quest - really a new quest - is 'take the Ring to Rivendell'. During this phase the party is again joined by an Elf-lord, in this case Glorfindel (or Legolas or Arwen if you want to bring in the filmic versions, and why not, they're all potential narratives? In D&D terms, three DMs running this adventure had different PCs in the party here: the fact that JRR Gygax has Glorfindel maybe doesn't make a lot of difference. Maybe it does because the original story is listed in 'Appendix N'; I don't know, but it's a demonstration that the same story can be told differently).

Then at Rivendell something else happens. The Ring, it is decided, must go to Mordor. But the heroes - 4 Level 1 Halflings, a Level 6(?) Ranger-Paladin (Cleric in Basic D&D terms I think) and a highish-level Magic User - are joined by a Dwarf, an Elf and a (Human) Fighter. But, that means Legolas, Gimli and Boromir must subsume their own quests to the 'Ring-Quest'. For Boromir that's OK - his quest was to go to Rivendell to understand the prophetic dreams he and Faramir were having. They were linked with the Ring anyway - and the 'Ring-Quest' is leading him back home. For Legolas and Gimli, the links are more tangential, and the quest would end up taking them far from home. Yes, the mysterious Dark Messenger that had arrived at Erebor was sent by Sauron. Yes, Gollum's escape was orchestrated by Sauron's agents. It's all linked. But the 'Ring-Quest' was not Gimli's, Legolas's or even Boromir's to begin with.

Looking at Legolas for an example... in D&D terms, there is a party of Elves whose task is to hunt for and then guard an enemy spy - they're helped by a higher-level NPC ranger and NPC wizard (because to a PC everyone else is an NPC... Legolas doesn't know they're PCs in a different adventure). They have a fight with Orcs, the prisoner escapes, so they must hunt him, but also go and tell the other Elf-Lords that the prisoner has escaped... once at the stronghold of the 'other' Elf-Lord they have the possibility of a side-quest to find some lost travellers (Bakshi the DM's use of Legolas in place of Glorfindel trying to find the Hobbits here). Then there's a big meeting and a new quest is proposed - the 'Ring-Quest'. The Legolas PC volunteers for this quest.

Is there a way to simulate this in Elfgames? Along with the Wandering Monsters and Random Treasure, is there a way to generate these 'big-scale' evolving plots, in any meaningful way that preserves player agency? It should go without saying that PCs are puppets only of their players, not of 'fate' (ie the DM), and should only have control taken from them in relatively-trivial short-lived situations (eg being under a magical compulsion such as a spell, or a cursed Ring of course).

It should also go without saying that actions should have consequences. Frodo taking the Ring to Mount Doom saved the West. Likewise, Schrodinger's Frodo not taking the Ring to Mount Doom allowed the Nazgul to seize it and return it Sauron. Alternatively, Gildor took it to Tom and they took it to Rivendell, where the Council of Elrond proceeded very differently. PCs should be allowed to refuse quests, or 'do them differently', as Gildor, Fatty, Tom, Goldberry, Barliman, Glorfindel, Erastor, Elladan, Elrohir and Elrond himself (for example) all demonstrate.

There is something like the standard D&D character-path in LotR, to be fair, but it's way in the background and almost totally unexplored. Aragorn's previous career as Thorongil, effectively a wandering soldier in the south; Boromir's earlier service in the army of Gondor; Aragorn, Elladan and Elrohir as Imladrian exterminators, going and breaking up Orc-infestations in the Trollshaws and Misty Mountains: all of these somewhat resemble the way D&D is played, but these are only the background to the story, not the story itself.

What this might imply is that, when they get to higher levels, PCs might be involved in something like the Ring-Quest. Levels 1-5 of D&D are 'the bit before the book happens', or something like that. But it might also imply that in terms of the Lord of the Rings, the PCs are Sir Not Appearing in the Film, and it's the 'other' characters that get the story - rather than one of the PCs, it's the NPC in the inn that the PCs didn't hire as a guide that turns out to be the lost heir of the Ancient Kingdom... the rival NPC party going the other way in the caves is the one that has the world-spanning adventure and confronts the Dark Lord after levelling up 7 times, etc.

Either way, D&D is not simulating fantasy literature. The stories we read are not the stories we are generating for the PCs. The party is not a group of heroes: the party isn't 'The Fellowship of the Ring', it's the 'Fellowship of the Freelance Pest-Controllers', which of course you've never heard of, because no-one wrote about them (except Ghostbusters obviously... but even then the Ghostbusters get to save New York, which is like getting to save Minas Tirith as a first adventure... which First Level party gets to do that?). It's either 'to early' in the career of the hero/heroes, in which case the PCs don't get to do epic stuff until half-way through the 'Expert' set and all the early stuff is just a bit of background, or the PCs, and/or the things they are doing, are not important enough to feature in the fantasy literature at all.

So is level the problem? Is it that fantasy literature is actually about 9th Level characters? I don't think it is. The Hobbits (all of them), the characters in the Many Coloured Land or the Fionavar Tapestry or Daggerspell or Magician or the Forge in the Forest or The Belgariad are 1st Level, surely? Some have particular skills or talents but mostly they are just starting out. They have help and guidance from people who know more about the world (Gandalf, Loren, Belgarath or whoever) but the 'heroes' are just beginners mostly.

Is it then that there aren't enough 'mentors' or 'patrons' around? Is the stricture not to go adventuring with mixed-level parties a part of the problem? Could it be that we need more 9th Level wizards telling the PCs legends and the history of magic artifacts and warning them about Dark Lords and digging out lost heirs... or even being lost heirs? Or can the PCs do that themselves without a Gandalf or a Loren Silvercloak or a Belgarath, a Dain Ironfoot or Thranduil or Elrond, without some lord to send them on a mission or magical mentor to help guide them? Maybe, as many characters in literature have this, PCs need a patron to give them quests (this is what the guy who gives you missions in Traveler is called... "Responding to a job advert, you meet at a sleazy spacers' bar near the Starport - a thin balding man approaches and introduces himself as Alan Eborp before offering you a ...").

Let's assume there are 100 quests started every year. If only one is legendary (ie written about) every 50 years (for example) then there must be 4,999 quests in that time that aren't important enough. But the one that is written about should be the PCs' quest. The story that the PCs are involved in should (surely?) be the most important one around.

Or is this all completely wrong? Ignoring 'Appendix N' and all the rest, the claims that D&D is a game where the DM and players write a fantasy novel, is D&D (or anything like it) really that game?

OK - a caveat: in D&D there must be the possibility (should be an even chance at a guess but explaining why I think that would probably take another post) that the quest will get to the Dead Marshes/edge of Fangorn, and the Nazgul on the Fell Beast finds Frodo and Sam/Grishnakh kills Merry and Pippin. It should be possible for the PCs to fail. But it should be possible for them to fail at massive and heroic things, rather than failing at tiny and insignificant things.

If Tolkien had written a short story about how some young men (or young Hobbits, I don't mind) had been spooked by sinister horsemen and run away to the woods and never come back, that would be fine. If the story had been that, it would have assumed a Lovecraftian significance I think (what's in the woods? Who are the mysterious black riders?). That's OK, you can start to build a game on that. But the 'heroes' would be the investigators who go and find out what's really going on... and then perhaps have to fight off the Nazgul and become Ringbearers themselves... so 'Ring-Quest' continues, with different protagonists.

I don't know. Pratchett says that stories want to be told. Why then are fantasy games such a resistant medium to telling them?

Jens has turned me on to the 'Random Narrative Generator'. This is a good thing - it beats just checking the 'Big List of RPG Plots' and hoping for the best. Not that there is anything wrong with the Big List of RPG Plots. But Jens has integrated a list of story-themes into a set of tables that can be directly plugged into the setting - with a bit of thinking about how they integrate into the 'story', such as it might be. They will be my new way to generate plot across different scales and I'll give the players the opportunity to join in with them. I shall try this out and maybe it can start to push me towards answering some of these questions.


Saturday, 24 February 2018

Questing in Elfgames, and the games we aren't playing

I have to admit to a little dissatisfaction at the moment.

Not with my players or the campaign - things are going about as well as they can, people keep coming back, the players are getting really involved in things that are going on (hunting for beetle-glands for local wizards, rescuing Gnome-slaves of the nefarious Orcs, searching for ancient weapons mentioned by shady 'legitimate businessmen', and whatnot).

Nor is it really the ruleset. For me Moldvay Basic is the single best introduction to D&D. Things will be added once the PCs get past 3rd Level for sure, but for the moment almost everything is handled through that slim red book. It's a simple, flexible system, and I think it does what it does really well.

But it doesn't do what it doesn't do.

It's great for dungeon-bashing. That is what the party is up to. In the setting that the PCs are in, there is a cave-complex about two miles from a largish but very recent town - a kind of gold-rush sort of place, built on adventurers exploring the caves. There's scope for the party to get involved in 'the town game' if they want, with factions, feuds, guilds, politics, weirdness and shenanigans should the PCs want to scratch the surface. If they don't, that's also fine, they can play using only the surface and concentrate on the nearby caves (a sort of megadungeon). In other words, the 'town game' can entirely be used to generate rumours and hooks for more dungeoneering (where is the stolen loot from the merchant caravan? Somewhere in the caves! What's this about a kidnapped noblewoman? She's somewhere in the caves! etc).

And that's all great. That's totally in line with how the campaign is supposed to run. I set it up like this to be an open table where players can drop in and drop out, and that dictates the structure. Every 'morning', the PCs troop out of Rift City and go to the Rift where the monsters are. They explore, fight, loot, puzzle and ponder, fight some more, hopefully find more loot and don't die too often, then come home of an evening after a hard day at the Orc-face and take their boots off in front of the fire. If they can be bothered, in the 'evening' (ie, between sessions) they message me to say 'Noggin the Dwarf goes to an inn where adventurers gather and tries to find out if anyone knows about Ulfang the Kobold Lord', or 'Crimp the Thief talks to Madame Nightshade about the poison he found', or 'Jorgar the Fighter goes to the weapon-dealers' shops and tries to sell the armour we looted' or whatever). That generates further involvement in what's going on - more rumours, more gold, more contacts. It's all working pretty well, I think. But if they want to, they could completely ignore the caves and just get involved in what's around town. It's pretty robust and gives a lot of choices to the players. That's obviously all good.

What I'm dissatisfied with I think is D&D. But, honestly, I don't know anything better. It remains the game I've played longest, and most, and am most familiar with, and my players are probably most familiar with (though a couple of them haven't played Basic before, and some started with Mentzer not Moldvay, so... I dunno, maybe it's just me that's most familiar with Moldvay).

What I want - and this is why 'games we aren't playing' - is not a game where players are pest-controllers who 'go to work' in the dungeon, but a game with something of the epic scope of the fantasy literature that supposedly inspired the game. Conan didn't start by clearing all the ruins/dungeons/temples in a 5-mile radius of some town; the Fellowship didn't set up camp outside of Moria and raid it every day, returning back to camp at night. Perhaps the closest match to the way D&D is generally played is the Lankhmar series, where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser often travel out of Lankhmar to kick monster-butt (though I'm totally prepared to accept that D&D is nothing to do with fantasy literature and much more to do with a 'heroic' tactical-simulation wargame as this post on Unbalanced and Pointless argues - this is very much related to my point that D&D is perhaps not the game I want right now. It's also perhaps related to noisms asking 'what's the blogosphere for right now?' in this post).

What I want is a game where PCs have 'quests'. PCs (who cannot then just be selfish) involved in epic world-spanning plots. How to marry this to player agency? I don't know. How to marry it (even more importantly) to busy lives and uncertain schedules, well I don't know that either. But I want something that puts 'dungeoneering' in the context of a bigger story. Thorin's Company went into the Goblin-tunnels sure (though not by choice). But they didn't even know they were there. They were journeying from one side of the mountains to the other. The Goblin-tunnels were not 'the point' - taking back Erebor for Durin's Folk was the point, travelling through the Goblin-tunnels was an incident on the way.

Same with the Fellowship - the journey through Moria (and Sam and Frodo in Shelob's Lair, and the Grey Company at the Paths of the Dead) were the result of trying to do something else. Jill and Eustace and Puddleglum in Bism; Taran and co in the passages under Spiral Castle or the mines in the Eagle Mountains; Dolgan and his companions in Magician; were going through the caves and tunnels of the underworld because they were trying to go somewhere else to do something more important. They all had quests that compelled them to go to dark and dangerous (and wondrous) places, rather than those places being the reason for their quest. The 'dungeons' were a means to an end (travelling for the sake of the greater quest) rather than the object of the quest itself.

So what would this 'quest' game look like? I'm not really sure. Of course that means I'm not sure I can't do it with D&D. But it would be D&D with a particular set of assumptions in place. First, that play is directed to a particular goal, which would progressively change. Second that players would generally stick to that goal (PCs might come and go but 'the Quest' must continue). I don't even know yet what other assumptions I need but they're sufficiently different to how D&D is usually played that they'd require a lot of thinking about before even commencing.

Maybe the PCs need to take a message in person to the King of the Elves or deliver a young noble to a distant castle to be married or transport three dragon-eggs to a Princess of the Horse-People. I don't know. But there must, surely, be a way to generate over-arching narratives to make play more than just violent shopping at the local cave-mall.

More will come (that's a prophecy)...

Monday, 19 February 2018

Rift City session 7

The party was joined by two new members for this session - one the result of Sven's player needing a new PC (Daisy, a Halfling) and another as a result of a new player joining us for this session (Karensa, an Elf). So that meant the party this time around was Daisy (Halfling), Karensa (Elf), Berg (Dwarf), Gwynthor (Cleric), Galen (Elf), Gibbet (Thief), Polly (Magic User), Frost (Fighter) and Cnut (Fighter).

First thing was trying to get back to the general area where the party was before. Their map, because these caves aren't in straight lines and 90° angles, is 'a bit wonky'. Corridors don't necessarily join up when they should. But it was OK, they got there.

The first encounter they had was with some Kobolds. There have been several groups of Kobolds in this area before now. This is because this area of the cave-system is the base of two groups, the Orc-Kobold alliance, and the Death Cult with its undead minions. These two factions are in alliance, though neither really trusts the other. They are united however against another dungeon faction that the PCs haven't really encountered yet, the Goblin-Drow axis. Of course there are no Drow/Dark Elves in B/X or BECMI, but that doesn't really matter. These Drow are Chaotic Elves who live underground and like spiders. They have corrupted the local Goblin leaders to their spider-cult, and formed an alliance with them against the Orcs.

The Goblins that the PCs have met so far refused to accept the new Elvo-Arachnoid order and were driven out. They have in fact been exiles eking out a marginal existence in the spaces between the other factions. The Orcs don't really care however if the Goblins worship Maglubiyet or Lolth, they regard both groups as enemies. The Death Cult (the Cult of the Wraith Princess, centred around necromancy and ancestor-worship) is also opposed to the cult of Lolth.

So what it boils down to is two main groupings: Orcs-Kobolds-Acolytes-Undead against Goblins/Hobgoblins-Elves-Spiders. If the PCs venture further south they will probably run into the Goblins. If they go further west, they'll run into Cultists and Undead, then more Kobolds and Orcs.

Going down a level inside the caves will lead (from the Goblin caves) to more Goblins and some Bugbears, and also some weirdness that I've barely started to comprehend at the moment... a re-skinned evil Treant that is controlling some of the Goblins via its drugged fruit. From the Orc caves going deeper is liable to lead to more undead but also some Ogres.

However, there are other ways in - the cave-system is built into the side of a valley and has maybe 30 entrances, with those nearer the bottom of the valley being the more dangerous. The PCs have so far entered about 5 of these entrances, all on the 'left' (uphill) side of the road. There are more caverns to explore on the left, but there are also caverns below the road to the right. Further on, the road loops back at a lower level, providing access to the lower-level caves where it's rumoured a Minotaur (possibly, in this campaign world, a 'Minrotaur', as it may be named after the legendary Minros, once the king of the Minrothad Islands) and a Dragon dwell, among other powerful monsters.

But at the moment, the caverns the PCs are exploring are Level One caves on the left (South, up-hill) side of the road. So, Orcs, Kobolds, Skeletons and Acolytes are going to be what they run into up there. and indeed this is pretty much the roll-call of monsters that they encountered.

First, the Kobolds: skirmishers moved back by the Orcish chief into the previously-cleared caves. They didn't wait to be massacred and when the party dropped a few, the rest ran off after a very failed morale check. The party pursued - but the Kobolds were tricksy, leading them to a guard-room of Acolytes. The Kobolds vanished - somewhere - while the PCs fought the Acolytes. It wasn't ever going to be a fair fight - there were only 5 of the cultists (in plate and shield to be sure) but there were 9 in the party, also for the most part in plate and shield. And the Acolytes had no missile weapons or magic. So the party managed to see them off pretty quickly. They then stripped the bodies and piled up the armour hoping to take it home to sell.

In a nearby room - Skeletons! This is part of the complex patrolled by the Death Cult after all. Necromancy isn't just a fun family pastime for these guys, its their sacred duty. Until all the cultists are driven off the undead will just keep coming round here. This is something like the 5th encounter with undead the PCs have had in 7 sessions, and like all the other groups of Skeletons, the party made short work of these too. Skeletons are much less likely to fail morale checks of course, but that just means they are stupider than Kobolds. They haven't got any brains you see.

After smashing the Skellies it was back to the job at hand. The Kobolds however had fled, so the party made the quite sensible decision I think to go a different way - away from the part where everyone was warned they were coming. So, they crept down a corridor they'd not explored before - a properly-constructed straight corridor this one, running due west. After about 80' or so, there was a turning to the right and just past that a door to the left. They checked out the door to the left first - Orcs! Several of them! I can't actually remember off hand how many, 5 I think, but enough to cause a temporary headache anyway. Particularly to Berg, who got herself killed. Luckily the party dispatched the Orcs and tried first aid which meant Berg's condition was upgraded from 'dead' to 'very poorly'. Daisy was also injured in the affray. She and Berg stayed in the room with the dead Orcs while the rest of the party went round the corned to check out the other passage.

There was another door there - Skeletons! In a room with some stone coffins and a few more dead bodies (luckily not more undead). The PCs smashed these Skellies too, and looted the room (including a stash of silver hidden under a flagstone), then went back to Berg and Daisy.

Finding out that Berg was at least conscious they made the decision to leave while they were all still alive. Pausing only to pick up the armour, they were attacked by Fire Beetles (not part of the factions in the dungeon amazingly, just some wandering wildlife)!

Fire Beetles have been on the party's hit-list since hearing a rumour that a MU was paying cash for 'interesting monster parts'. So they harvested as many fire-glands as they could and took them home too. Polly the Magic User was particularly pleased as she's been trying to find some monster parts for weeks to trade with Gisuintha the Magic User. As a professional courtesy, I suppose.

Just time to divide the loot back at the city and tally up the XP, and the session was over... who knows what will happen next time?