Tuesday 10 August 2010

Session Report: Storage Cellars of the Castle Ruins 1

Classical music, unlike jazz, is not usually associated with free-form improvisation. Nonetheless, one space for it in the repertoire comes in the concerto (piece for orchestra and solo instrument). Traditionally at the end of the concerto's first movement comes a cadenza. This is a blank space in the score where the instrumentalist is asked to compose or improvise a solo piece based on the themes of the concerto.

Not to compare the Greyhawk Grognard, Joseph Bloch, to Beethoven or anything, but his mega-dungeon opus Castle of the Mad Archmage invites a similar "cadenza" - it starts on level 2 and the DM is encouraged to use their own upper works and first dungeon level.

I am aware that there's another level 1 out there, The Mad Demigod's Castle by Richard Graves. I've had a look, with mixed feelings. I really like the map, because it is very different in design from the other levels and very true to the idea of a storage level. The problem was that there were a lot of red herrings in the adventure. Now this does a good job of conveying a jumbled and ransacked storage area. But I wanted to run something more structured, so I wrote my own.

Anyway, I will have more to say about this thing when I post it; just need to resolve some graphic issues with the map and figure out a style of presentation.

On to the GenCon game. It took place in the meeting room of the Hilton floor that the L5R community occupies every year, with groups of people playing the L5R CCG and other games, and a roving frat-party atmosphere in the halls outside. The master party organizer, Mr. John Ling, kindly provided a huge dry-erase graph mat that covered damn near 8 x 4 feet, two long tables pushed together. Add thereto $20 of bargain-bin D&D minis, drafting in dice as appropriate, and that was our tactical display.

The party was large, about 8 or 9 folks - see previous post. Character generation took place as people filtered in. I could have saved time with pre-gens, but wanted to give the experience of 3d6 in order. You could switch one pair of rolls (including a 3d6 social status that determined starting cash and equipment) but if you didn't you got a 1HP bonus. I made up a character sheet that, together with a couple of handouts, pretty much explained the char-gen and play rules, if you were familiar with D&D. I'm likely to put that set of sheets up on Google Docs soon. I had forgotten to bring a printout of my Rule of the Assayers combat and weapon rules but it turned out that a simplified version of that was quite enough (variable weapon damage balanced by #hands and wielding room).

This suggests a meta-rule of thumb: If the DM can't remember the rule, or doesn't have the attention to apply it while running the game, it shouldn't be in there. For example, I found that time tracking worked quite well if I just rolled a wandering monster die whenever I felt that 10 minutes, or some noisy or tedious activity, had happened. Tallying those rolls would also give some indication of things like torch longevity, but I'm really only inclined to track things like that if there are long stretches of rest or travel. I just can't keep the game hopping while maintaining awareness of a bunch of boring stuff or looking up some chart or table.

Early on in the session, as the first encounter with intelligent opponents loomed (I'm being intentionally vague here because this is not a spoiler report), it became clear there was a rift in the approaches, with a couple of players role-playing their fighter characters to the hilt and going aggressive, and others choosing a more cautious approach. I knew these guys were not mere munchkins so after some slight admonition I decided to let the dice fall where they may, realizing the inherently rowdy nature of the large party which often can offset its advantage in numbers.

After a tense moment where the party wasted two spells - one (Fortitude) essentially forcing the dwarf berserker to resist his violent impulse and another (Ventriloquism) effectively restoring his free will through trickery - combat broke out. The free-wheeling fight ended with a couple of dead, a captive and two runaways. Some exploration followed, the party winding up in a series of rooms that had evidently been used to store various foodstuffs.

After dealing unsuccessfully with a trick and taking some damage from a trap, the party stumbled into a monster ... just about the same time I rolled the next wandering monster, which I had decided would be a large revenge party from the earlier defeated foes. A chaotic melee across several rooms and corridors ensued. Highlights of this included Howard's fighter casting shadows with a set of wooden false teeth to frighten off opponents (I had made up a Deck of Janky Things, a la Jeff Rients, various semi-useless items on cards that were given out at random one per character). This passed the "make DM sit down to laugh" test and I gave it a 50-50 chance to work, which it did. Luke's dwarf at one point fumbled and slid on blood past his frightened adolescent opponent, memorably combining dwarf bowling and Blood Bowl, and Andy's cleric dived in the same way to deliver emergency healing.

Eventually the party, amazingly, survived the whole thing with no fatalities and we called it a late, exhausted and hot night. That was OK, actually - I had wanted to fall on the side of leniency with the starting setup and hit points (best of 3 rolls), so that there wouldn't have to be a break in the action. Earlier playtesting had indicated that the foes in question could inflict a death or two on a first-level party under my system so I guess the god who watches over toddlers who play with dynamite was also watching our table!

A few lessons and confirmations:
  • The rules and system work well, and the gonzo-naturalistic style I followed in writing the level allowed for meaningful exploration and discovery as well as interesting tactical situations.
  • It's a group decision-making and problem-solving game. Let people live out the consequences of their style of play. Put in some situations where cautious is not better (in fact, the foes that ended up being fought might have done some bad things to the party if they'd been parleyed with) and some where it is (in this case, the party did not run into any of the real out-of-level challenges in the area).
  • Good players make the game. Freeform gaming can only work if they respect the DM's rulings and decisions, and respect the basically cooperative nature of the game. Roleplaying systems that rely on rigid rules to manage difficult people or assist inexperienced DMs are necessary, but in the same way that training wheels are.
  • Light rules make things go faster. Going around the table in either direction (a trick I picked up earlier in the evening from tacojohn's game) instead of doing individual initiative really speeds things up. In that situation I would not have traded an ounce of spontaneity for a ton of simulation.
I would like to thank all the participants in the game - Dan, Trollsmyth, Andy, Luke, Howard, Kilian, Doruk, AJ, and Oddysey - for making this a great time. I'm hoping to run the same module at my brother-in-law's house in the next few days. Will let you know if and how that turns out.


  1. I would just like to say thanks for a fantastic time Roger, I had an absolute blast. I would also like to thank all of the other players for a good time. Quick thinking and cooperation on the part of those with better-than-my intelligence and wisdom scores allowed the party as a whole to not descend into any worse a situation than we ever found ourselves in (good light source positioning and rear attack tactics specifically.)

  2. Thanks Howard, your presence is always appreciated and I hope to be back next year with more!