Sunday, December 15, 2013

Musings on my home group and my DMing style

Last weekend, a member of my home group ran a one shot game using the final D&D Next playtest packet, and I have to say I was impressed.  I found the system general simple enough for me to like it and also that several things it did, such as backgrounds and the way profeciencies work, closely mirrored things I have been wanting to implement in my S&W games as part of an attempt to make them more like WFRP.  Naturally, I soon turned my thoughts towards how I would modify the system to run a Dark Country game for my home group.

But home groups are funny things.  The G+ group that I've been playing with for the past two years, aside from being very patient with my constant flitting from one setting to the next, has also really really dug the Dark Country.  This should come as no surprise as they're made up of people who saw my add for the Dark Country G+ game and went "that sounds awesome. Sign me up!"  My Hattiesburg group is, instead, made up of close friends I've had since high school.  Because the group is based around our friendship rather than our taste in particular kinds of fantasy games, this means there are some differences

Some players in my home group have never liked the Dark Country, and before last night I was never entirely sure why, even if I had inklings.  Sure, some did, but the ones that didn't often were the ones who were most invested in the idea of playing D&D, so if they aren't having a good time it kinda drags the whole thing down.  After discussing what I wanted to run with my players last night, I discovered the reasons that they don't like my Nightwick game.

The first, and this was primarily the complaint of a single player - though one who is, again, one of the ones who tends to get invested and thus his complaint is probably worth considering - is that my constant need to limit character options in an attempt to get a specific tone is damaging to game balance, since the game assumes that all options are in play.  I don't particularly agree with this, since I think that D&D was, is, and hopefully will always be set up as a tool box for individual groups.  Using all the tools in the toolbox is the quickest way to Boring Town imaginable, as it leads to the high fantasy nonsense one sees in post Forgotten Realms D&D.  What you leave out is, at least to my eye, just as important as what you put in.

The other complaint, which I think was more broadly held, is that the Dark Country was too shitty, and that there was little sense of progress in the Nightwick Abbey games I've run for them.  The most obvious reason for this is a problem I've noticed with my own DMing style over the last year or so: I treat the setting as a noose slowly tightening around the PCs' collective neck.  This might not sound like such a bad thing, but I noticed in my Cocanha playtests of Feudal Anarchy that it lead to the G+ group sometimes feeling like they could take nothing but missteps, and in my G+ Dark Country game it eventually led to my having to advance the timeline of the setting by several months in order to avoid all of the adventures suddenly becoming solely about procuring food for the village of Nightwick.  This is a problem, I realize its a problem, and I'm trying to figure out ways to fix it.

More importantly though, talking to my players helped me realize another issue they were having, and I think that certain G+ players such as Robert and Zak were having is that Nightwick Abbey's very nature means that one doesn't feel like any progress is happening.  In other megadungeons, the dungeon is mostly a static environment.  I don't mean that the monsters don't move or that there aren't active factions in the dungeon.  I mean the dungeon itself isn't alive.  Nightwick Abbey is.  So in Greyhawk or Dwimmermount or whatever, clearing an area might not be permanent, but you at least feel like you did something.  In Nightwick, on the other hand, the dungeon is still living and still mad at you and still vomiting up monsters, so there's little sense that anything got done, regardless of how much you mapped.

This is something I previously hadn't considered, and would explain my home group's general preference for Uz over Nightwick, even if it often contradicts the problem of limited player options I first identified.  There's more of a sense of progress in clearing out a level of the Uz undercity.

Last night I discussed a number of possible options with my players, noting that I would prefer to run something that I made because the thing that I enjoy about the classic D&D settings is that they were created through play.  The organizations and historical events in them are a combination of the creativity of the players and the DM, and that is super cool.

So initially I pitched the Wilderlands, since, for that group, there a large part of what I would be doing for that setting was created through play.  In my old 3e game, several of their characters are legends if not out and out (minor) gods, and my wife destroyed a giant robot that was rampaging through the CSIO (my co-DM used the stats for the Tarrasque) by rolling 3 20s in a row* while only level 6, ensuring both the immortality of her character and, by the collapsing of the giant robot, the destruction of large sections of that famous city.  So the changes made by player character action would, hypothetically loom large over any future Wilderlands campaigns.

But my tastes have changed since I ran the Wilderlands in college.  Back then I was primarily interested in Late Antiquity, my intellectual imagination fired by the works of Walter Goffart and Patrick Geary, not to mention Jordanes and Bede.  And while I do still clearly enjoy pre-medieval fantasy settings, my tastes, both intellectually and in terms of fantasy fiction, have turned more towards things related to the high to late Middle Ages.  I like knights and guilds and medieval depictions of the Devil and fortified manors and even the Church.  These are largely incompatible with both the Wilderlands as generally conceived, and, more importantly, the Wilderlands as it is likely remembered by my players.

So I'm not really sure what to do.  My G+ players, particularly Michael, Huth, and Zzarchov, would likely prefer that I keep running the Dark Country (and to a lesser extent the Terran Directorate) until Christ in His glory comes to sit in judgement, and I greatly appreciate those players, but as Chris Kutalik has noted on several occasions, there is something about the experience of playing with a face to face group that is just better, even if G+ is a great deal better than other forms of digital gaming.

*I never remember if this was a houserule or an actual rule, but we always said in my group that 3 20s in a row meant that the thing was auto-dead regardless of other factors, much like the similar rule in EPT.


  1. 1. No plan made by Evan survives contact with Evan.

    2. I definitely feel like there's a lack of type-of-conflict change-over-time in most of your games a la
    however it doesn't bother me much, possibly because I am doing so many other things with those characters (both in your games and out) that it's not a real issue. However: if it was my home game it might bug me more.

    Like: I've never found an internal organ of Nightwick Abbbey or a gall bladder of Nightwick Abbey or a tendon I could cut off of Nightwick Abbey, so the idea that it's alive just feels like The Way To Explain The Weirdness. Which is fine. I go, I get xp. I come back. But I could see it feeling a little aimless for other people.

    3. Never noticed the "tightening noose".

    4. Honestly it escapes me why Dark Country, Cucanha, Uz, Nightwick, Wilderlands, etc can't all just be different continents on the same planet. I mean theoretically this could lead to mood-deadening lack of direction but I find, in my games, in practice, that A Session Spent Entirely in the Radioactive Jungle feels like A Session Spent Entirely In The Radioactive Jungle. Especially when you consider all those same exact players are going to then be going to the High Medieval Devil Dungeon (in this game or another) next week and the only change will be what they call their PCs. Though I have learned that this is simply The Way of Evan and I don't question it. You want these things separate: so be it.

    5. Maybe that last sentence at the end of 4 is it.
    You're a good GM: either you can continue to be motivated to run games while figuring out how to meet player preferences half way or you can't.
    How flexible are you? And about which dials and levers?

  2. Why not run them in the WFRP setting? It has elements of horror and allows you to play with guns. I just started that with my group, it's a completely different feel from the standard High-Tolkien fantasy campaigns we've been running since '99. I realize you enjoy rolling your own campaign setting, but perhaps off loading some of that would allow you to experiment with how you run the play sessions themselves. In the end it's making sure that everyone, including the DM has enjoyed themselves.

    1. The longest campaign I ever ran, unless you unfairly count Nightwick as one continuous stream, was a WFRP 2e game I ran in college. The players liked it for the most part, but ultimately found that the setting was also too shitty.

    2. I'd say, based on the home group's experience with WFRP - under both of our reigns, that the A#1 advantage of WFRP over other settings was it's consistency of tone. FR, Eberron, and many other settings are such gumbos that they vary wildly from DM to DM. WFRP, however, makes what its tone should be very clear to everyone. The way we run our games differs, but despite the baton handoff half way through the WFRP days it still felt like the same setting. That clarity of tone makes it very easy to get the tone right and, despite the fact that that tone basically got old for the group, while it was fresh it was itself a source of much of the fun we had. Hell, we had entire sessions that, while fun, amounted to little more than kicking around orphans or dealing with creepy pie mongers.

      That aspect of WFRP synergies well with Evan, who's primary joy in DMing seems to be the establishment of a clear tone.

  3. A possible solution to the "you can't beak Nightwick" issue, in two parts.

    A) Don't have it really generate "new" areas when it changes, so much as shuffle. If you "clear" an area of the dungeon, maybe it recoils in pain and moves that vulnerable part away from its exposed entrance - but it's still in there somewhere. So, as you "clear" more areas, it becomes more likely that you can stumble upon them later on and find reprieve deeper in the dungeon. Even if the dungeon does get stronger for some reason and generate new rooms, leave the old clear ones somewhere in the network.

    B) Let them thus "clear" areas. The g+ group was theorizing that the painting wing was, effectively, a monster generator that, if sabotaged, would quit spitting out monsters and make things a bit safer. I see no reason their assumption can't be true - especially if you use the above "shuffle" idea to mitigate the ammount of true security that provides.

    As such, they can slowly be winning - but can never be confident. They can never actually be certain about where they are or how much progress they've made. Just that they've moving forward somehow.

    If Nightwick is an NPC, rather than a traditional dungeon, than the party should be able to think of it as they would a more complex fight with a new monster. You carefully observe it, keeping out of harms way, poking it here and there to see how it reacts and gauge its abilities (it's strong and has a high resistance to most forms of damage) until you find a weakness to exploit (it has a poor will and is subject to domination!). But, you know, for a building (Go for the forward sensor arrays!).

  4. Not all setting/styles appeal to all people. I do think it's good that you had a (hopefully) constructive conversation with your players about it.

  5. The autokill roll was an option in the DMG: if you got a critical roll on your critical confirmation roll, and then rolled over the AC again, then you killed it dead.

  6. The 3 20's rule is legitimate, but I think from Unearthed Arcana; I'm gonna go ahead and cop to some mild chicanery on that one--I kind of think that I was the most vocal respondent to that and then just kind of let everyone get excited enough that your conspirator co-DM would go with it.

    1. Manipulating the DM is valid play.

    2. It's not like we didn't use the rule before then. It had come up before, just not in such extraordinary circumstances.