Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Reminiscences 2: 11th Grade Campaign Failure

Isle Of The who? A 10th grade creation ...
11th grade and I was ready to go. No more D&D in the science wing lounge under the prying, mocking eyes of the uninitiated. My house was open after school, and the gang was gathering for my campaign twice a week.

I cooked up a new dungeon, a serious dungeon, a ruined castle with a moat and undercrypts and under-undercrypts. Now I had the Fiend Folio, so the place was swarming with annoying jermlaine, bouncing with gorbels, coffer corpses and death dogs, or was it devil dogs? There was a Christian chapel - just one of many religions in the World of Atalona!

I made a punk-style collage homemade DM screen, cut dungeon tiles from manila folders. We'd never had a tactical display last year, but I had my players buy minis for their characters, and used my own small collection augmented with counters from Squad Leader and Citadel of Blood. Every hit in combat I rolled a quick d6 for hit location, just for flavor mind you (that's one habit that's stood the test of time...). I resolved to heed the sage advice of the Great Gygax and play almost entirely by the book. I think my players even rolled chances to have psionics, to no avail, and weapon vs. AC modifiers were definitely a part of play.

Well, eight months later, my players were in revolt, one going so far as to intone the name of Asmodeus repeatedly to see if I would kill the wretched party by rolling the chance for the Devil Lord to appear "by the book." The whole experience left a sour taste on AD&D that explains my current appreciation of the looser spirit of the Basic game I never played.

Who's to blame? Me ... and him. Please turn to page 86 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. There you will find a rule whereby even the character who has played completely true to class and alignment must fork over 1500 gp in training fees to reach second level. Those who are merely "superior" in their adherence must pay 3000 gp and it gets worse from there.

WTF, Gygax? An exemplary thief who has reached 2nd level by earning nothing but treasure has not earned enough treasure to pay the advancement fees. Nor has any merely superior character of whatever class. I think I enforced a flat 1500/level and it still was extremely unpleasant for characters having to take out loans from each other.

It's one thing if you put toxic rules that have clearly not seen playtest, conceived in a fit of hate for "Monty Haul" campaigns, in a book that bills itself as mere guidelines. Another thing entirely if you start and continue the book in the high spirit of ex cathedra pronouncement - this is the One True Ruleset!

Ah, no, I'm not bitter. But I'm also not nostalgic. Good educators eventually come to know that students take everything you say literally and seriously. Yes, the stride made in gaming in the 90's promoted a few cliches that don't necessarily guarantee good fun (see under: heavy-handed board game catch-up mechanisms). But they also brought a huge increase in professionalism to the field, helped along by Magic and its multi-thousand dollar purses resting on arcane interpretations of wording.

Then again, DMG let me roll up this bitchin' random demon.
And my own overenthusiasm and inexperience also doomed the campaign. My dungeon, all three levels, was still a damn monster hotel, with random details obscuring rather than clarifying the sense of discovery. And uh, I think I also bogged down every town visit with random encounters and disease rolls, so help me, and who knows what other foolishness I inflicted on the players. My vague attempt at plotting, involving a Chaotic Neutral conspiracy and a female wizard named Warith Ban who flew around in a cube of force, came too little and too late. Basically, I didn't see that fun was the goal and The Book was not always going to take you there.

I'm just wondering if any of you gentle readers had similarly lousy experiences with by-the-book AD&D. Was I the only insecure 16-year-old with more book larnin' than horse sense out there? And more generally, what have you learned from failed campaigns?


  1. Well, not exactly the same way. See - I wanted to be like you. I read the DMG over and over again, trying to commit all that Gygaxian wisdom to memory. I was thwarted time and time again by CRS Syndrome (Can't Remember Shit.) So, in the end, I'd just made up rules on the fly and relegated many decisions to on-the-fly questions directed in my mind at a die roll.

    My biggest failures tended to occur when I was trying to force something on the players - a quest - a genre - whatever. That's when everything went to Suckville. If they wanted to be lead around like donkeys to adventure, that was okay. But forcing them - never a good idea. :)

    "Have fun damn you!"

    - Ark

  2. I love those drawings--- especially Kong on the tower surrounded by hippogriffs!

    I had the experience of playing like a maniac for years, then stopping, and picking up the books years later to learn that we had never actually played the game the way it was written. We more or less played as explained in the 'Holmes' edition of basic D&D with a lot more options from the AD&D books tacked on.

    After some early sessions under a friend where those armor class modifiers were used, we never used them again as far as I can remember.

    The 'problems' I remember having were usually more social than rules related. The fact that one might have had to pay training fees was usually less of a problem than the arguments that would have raged over whether or not a players performance had been 'exemplary' and if he deserved to pay 1500 or 3000. Plus there would have been all of those debates over whether the 'training rule' was realistic and just where did all that money go? (and why could't we rob the training academy in city A, take the money to city B and use it to level up, then rob the academy in city B, return to city A, etc.).

  3. @Arkhein: This is what I am learning now ... that a rule is just not worth its weight if you keep forgetting to apply it at the table.

    @limpey: Thanks, the Kong is definitely my favorite of the drawings that survived, if not technically the best! My players were much more polite and cooperative than that; I suspect having truly feisty players on board would have either slapped me into reality or sent me to the insane asylum ...