Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Chaos and Surprise Make GMing more Fun

This month my goal is to finish off some of the long-standing projects I've had sitting about on my computer: I have a dungeon crawl classics adventure that needs only a slight bit of retooling and some art to be complete. I have a second DCC module that's about 80% complete and just needs a little additional text and art. And I have a beautiful digest sized OSR adventure set in an Edo-era Japan analog that just needs a little more attention and a map. And I have an adventure about exploring a volcano to refine.

But, I will attempt to continue to put out quality blog articles this month. Thankfully, the work I'm doing on these unfinished modules gives me a lot to think about... and last night my game gave me a great lesson in Chaos.

"Chung Chao-Yi Automatic Drawing" by Zhaoyi0812

Last night and I met up with my playtest group, but was shy a player. We were thankfully in a spot where it was easy to have one disappear: My players are just freed a large number of barbarian prisoners and brought them back to their people. They had intended on rallying The Barbarians as well as the king of the nearby medievalesque setting to attack the evil Baron who had been running secret slave pits throughout his lands and the wilds around them.

Rather than roleplay out a lot of dickering and petitioning of Barbarian Clan-LordsI i instead decided to put them on a one shot adventure to prove themselves to of Barbarian tribe to win respect and honour. I decided to just hand-wave a lot of heavy stuff so we can keep to the action this time around. I only get these people for 90-120 minutes a week, after all.

It also so happened that I had a adventure I wanted to try with them. Namely, I wanted to make some adjustments to The Pacts and Blades adventure that I had run as a solo game last month to create a more generic OSR adventure.

If you hadn't read it, the structure of this adventure is built around randomness to facilitate solo play. I want to be surprised when I'm playing a solo game and know as little as possible about what I'm up against as I can, just as my characters would. So, I created a theoretical labyrinth of ledges, stairways, ruins, caves, and tunnels leading from the top of a volcanic chasm to the bottom where the goal was. Each encounter would include random hazards, use the Basic Dungeons and Dragons NPC reaction table, surprise dice, and even take place in randomly determined terrain.

For each encounter, backing up or fleeing would cost the party progress, going around the obstacle or finishing the encounter grants progress abstracted as a task completion clock in the style of Blades in the Dark.

I had the most magnificent time running the game. My players enjoyed themselves thoroughly. And it got me thinking about the importance of Chaos in Dungeons and Dragons play. How things like morale and reaction tables ensure that the Dungeon Master is as challenged as the player, and has as much of an adventure themselves.

I don't think that this can be understated. modern editions of Dungeons and Dragons and many other role-playing games include very little randomness in play. They leave as much as they can to the referee. Monsters in 5th edition have no morale score, and the morale rules available are very thin . There are no functional random monster attitude rules; is entirely up to the dungeon master whether or not the monsters are hostile and when, if ever, they will back off.

This leads to an a game that makes combat far more likely, far more brutal, and often to the death in the face of the very notion of self-preservation.

it also strips and surprising amount of opportunity from the Dungeon Master. When I played this adventure solo, I rolled a random encounter with a wounded wyvern, and by design, expected it to be a frightening battle among volcanic ruins. Instead, my player characters wandered in on a wounded and frightened creature, one that wasn't even aware that they were there until they had had a chance to act. And, when shown the least bit of kindness, the creature quickly submitted to the party and received healing, creating a flying monstrous ally that would come in handy later in the adventure.

This was far more of a challenge to write and role play.

In last night's game by contrast, I also rolled the wyvern encounter, and the player characters found themselves accidentally backing into a frightened and angry wyvern that hissed and threatened them until a sleep spell brought it low.

Even more interesting was the encounter with the alien creature I called the Bandersnatch. In my solo game, the Bandersnatch was strangely friendly and open with the party. So much so that it trusted Shanix so warrior to get close enough to pull its tongue out when she realized what it wanted.

"Shanix Rips out the Bandersnatch's Tongue" image by Brian Rideout
Made with Hero Forge in compliance with their EULA.

In last night's game, the dice started off with a similar situation. The player characters were surprised but the Bandersnatch was neutral, and I had a hauntingly familiar exchange of dialogue. However, the dice rapidly turned that Bandersnatch hostile, as it decided it would lay its eggs in the comatose bodies of the heroes. However, it did not expect to be up against a very competent rogue and magician duo that were able to overcome its mind control with the magical banjo, and then summoned a lovecraftian horror out of time and space that was capable of negating its own time control powers.

The morale roll when they summoned that horror was so poor, that I decided that the bandersnatch would panic at a grovel for mercy rather than face a predator from its own dimension.

Using these rules and procedures took some of the cognitive load off of running the game. I was in a far more relaxed state and far more ready to ad-lib. At the same time, there were constantly new and surprising situations to ad-lib. I got to enjoy the experience of having a totally different adventure on the second playthrough. And certainly not the one I would have designed had the behaviors of the monsters been solely up to me.

I have only the final encounter left to run in that adventure before the siege of Harkin's Castle can begin. I look forward to seeing how the ancient Queen of the elemental bees responds to my player characters. For my solo adventure she demanded human sacrifices when I expected her to be friendly.

It certainly has made it more exciting for me as the Dungeon Master.

For the next few articles I both want to take some time to talk about lost rules like reaction tables and morale, and I would like to drescribe how I am building an adventure that is spe ifically for highly randomized play.

I also keep you posted on how well I'm doing at clearing my plate of unfinished adventure material.

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