Saturday, December 5, 2009

Department of Lessons Learned

Quiet, uncharacteristically chilly Saturday morning in Los Angeles. Finishing off what's left of the game-day snacks. Hot chocolate. Dr. Pepper. Quietly analyzing yesterday's game.

Character Generation or, Inventing Brand New Stereotypes

Mandy says:

"Guys will totally call a new character "Smacky McFighty" (guilty) whereas girls agonize forever about their characters' names."

While I have seen these stereotypes broken, my two new players walked right into them. By the time we were ready to play, the only thing holding us up was Frankie trying to name her character. We ended up looking through the books for acceptable names. After the game, she still wasn't happy, and went around looking for new syllables to tack on the end.

Also playing to type, Frankie decided to play a dark elf rogue.

"Ok, so I got armor and weapons, what else do I need to buy?"

"Honestly, Frankie, you're the third elf rogue in the party, so if you need some lock-pick tools or ear-sharpeners you can probably borrow it from one of the other girls."


Similarly, Sam, the only guy in the party, named his character Jaren, rolled up all his wizard's stats in three seconds, gave him sleep and charm and a backstory, and knew all the 3e modifiers for all the ability scores. And knew how many rounds there were in a minute. And is a professional computer programmer.

Spend A Night In The Box

So the PCs (wisely, I think) decided to end last session sleeping in the room where they could turn themselves invisible. In the morning, the new PCs showed up.

Brief confusion ensued as Sam dutifully attempted to role-play being a confused wizard hearing but not seeing a bunch of friends in the next room, and all the girls tried to remember from last game how to make themselves un-invisible.

Then they saw an innocent bystander getting attacked by a creepy doll and fought it.

Lessons learned:

-Nobody remembers anything that happened two weeks ago. Including me.

-My players are bastards. They saw a guy fighting a creepy doll and begging for help, closed the door on him, then sat around and talked about shoes a little bit, then opened the door and decided to save him. Using acid.

"Uh, Mandy, if you pour acid on the doll at that range and miss, it'll hit the guy. Even if you don't miss, it might still hit the guy."



Must remember this when attempting to motivate them later in the campaign.

-The creepy doll had ferocious and disturbing offensive capabilities combined with crappy defensive stats. This meant, in practice, that the old PCs managed to fuck it up long before the new PCs got to do anything. Should've realized that.

-The practical limit on the length of time my players can spend role-playing with any NPC is the length of time I can spend doing a funny voice before starting to feel self-conscious about how carefully and verisimilitudinously thought out and thoroughly backstoried everything in the campaign is. This is a shame since I'm really good at funny voices. Eventually, though, the internal irony kicks in and I start to go "Eighth Unseelie Kingdom of Kel Har Ganoth? What the fuck am I on about?" No-one's seemed to notice yet, so it's all good.

Earning Such Procreative Organs As Are Typical of Your Gender

After a brief recap by the old PCs of last weeks' plot to the new PCs, new PC Sam, excuse me--Jaren--said "Wait, you left a sick unicorn dying down at the bottom of a pit? You guys might as well turn in your vaginas."

Sam is not so much the conscience of the party as the-guy-who-is-actually-playing-an-rpg-of-the-party. In a reversal of the common stereotype, the girls--raised on videogames--are used to finding things to kill and then ways of doing that. Sam is the one actually trying to find reasons to do things. He's also the only one who instinctively addresses NPCs in first-person. Everybody else goes "I ask the guy about what's going on here and if he knows anything about it."

After brief consultation of the map (Oh yeah--we have a map!) everyone decides to Rescue The Unicorn.

Now, herein we encounter a philosophical problem...

Last session the PCs killed the things guarding the unicorn, then went off and licked their wounds.

Now they are, after some hours, re-entering the room.

I decided this would be a fine time to place something new behind that door, namely, the three-trapped-adventurers schtick from James Edward Raggi's "The Grinding Gear".

First, know that this schtick involves (presumably the un-save-vs.-able OD&D version of) a sleep spell.

Second, know that, lurking behind this schtick is the spectre of James Edward Raggian tough-titty-if-you-die-you-should've-used-your-ten-foot-pole/dying-builds character-makes-you-smarter-and-puts-hair-on-your-chest school of DMing.

Third, know that I would very much like to be able to subscribe to this school of DMing.

Fourthly, know that I cannot. For I do not choose my style of play and thenceforth recruit players to fit it. Rather, I recruit players from amongst people I know and like and think would like D&D and thenceforth set out to set things up such that they will be entertained, I will be entertained, and we will all entertain each other as much as possible.

Fifthly, know that in more than two thirds of my games this year I have at least one brand new player--someone who's never played with us, never played ever, and usually both. Generally, these people are curious about this game but have no idea what it entails or whether it would be fun. Also, I don't necessarily know what, in a game context, they find interesting. An intellectual challenge? A chance to role-play? Unicorns? Pie?

So this first session--and, around here, it is almost always someone's first session--is a feeling-out process. I feel like you can't just kill the newbie in his/her first encounter and hope that she decides that even though she has no idea what's going on or why she died or how she could've avoided it or how likely this is to happen again that this all looks fun anyway.

So: the sleep schtick procedes. I use the more merciful 3e version of sleep, which only ends up knocking out most of the party (including Frankie, the total newbie), rather than all of it. That's the good news. The bad news is, the remaining two party members cast sleep right back at their foes and then dispatch them quickly before everyone else wakes up.

So here I begin to worry. It's two encounters (and two hours) into the session, and my new player has gotten to do precisely fuck-all. She got to watch some people kill a doll, then sit on the sidelines while some more-oriented (both in-game and metagame) people talked to an NPC about some plot strands she was just managing to straighten out, then got to sleep through a fight. Yay!

Heavy is the head that hovers behind the screen...

But There's A Unicorn!

Sam has to go soon to drive somewhere and pick someone up. This is sad--especially considering Sam will be leaving for Berlin in a few days, but, on the other hand, now there's a unicorn!

Suddenly everyone is very concerned about saving the unicorn. (And also with patting it on its nose and giving it spare rations.) So much so that one of the three rogues actually thinks to check for secret doors at the bottom of the pit. And lo! There is one!

The unicorn will be saved! What a relief.

Then there's another door, behind which is an ominous clanking.

Frankie, still thinking like a video game, is convinced that "all my character can do is sneak". So she sneaks through the door and sees...

The Ingenious Giant Spider Stairwell Gimmick of Which I Was Inordinately Proud

There is a creepy giant spider (actually a literalized sword-spider, with actual swords grafted crazy-alchemist-wise onto its lower legs) crawling up and down the stairwell walls.

The stairwell has funhouse-mirrors all around. Each is different and represents some aspect of the reflected individuals' selves. Breaking the mirrors (by accident or design) destroys that part of the person's personality and (usually) cripples them in some entertaining way.

So obviously what's supposed to happen is the party goes down there and they fight the spider and every time they or the spider miss, a mirror breaks and whoever's in front of it goes all screwy and beating the spider becomes a weirder and weirder challenge.

I kept track of the relative positions of the players and mirrors using sticky notes labelled with the kind of mirror on the front (fat, skinny, stretched, concentric circles, etc.) and the effect on the back stuck on the table in the appropriate place in the stairwell.

But, Anyway...

For one reason and another, and despite Mandy coming just one away from randomly summoning another monstrous spider to fight the spider (she got a scorpion instead), the fighting of the spider in the shaft was more tactically mundane and less intelligible than I'd hoped. Crawl, hide, shoot, stab, crawl, effect nobody understands, hide, shoot, stab, etc.

Wary was I , and in my own small inventions much disappointed.

Then Frankie said, spontaneously "This is so much fun!". And everyone agreed. Then they killed the spider, smashed the mirrors and tried to get the unicorn down the stairs.

And I thought--Thanks Dave, thanks Gary--no matter what, your game is fun. Then I figured it was time to eat.

Ordering Thai Food

Lessons learned:

-Deciding what to get is hard, because the girls take forever to decide what to eat.

-Paying the guy is easy, because strippers always have lots and lots of ones.

Then There Was Another Door

"Ok, so what's everyone doing when you open the door?"

"I'm going to hide."

"Wait, Frankie, you're going to hide in this room before someone opens the door or you're going to wait for someone to open the door, then go into the next room and hide."

"I'm going to hide in the next room."

"But you don't know what's in the next room, you don't know if there'll be a place to hide, plus if you walk through the door, the person on the other side might see you and so you won't be able to hide."

"I'm looking at my character sheet and all my character can really do is hide, so I'm going to hide."

"Ok, Frankie, look in the kitchen, what if the next room is like the kitchen? Then there'll be nowhere to hide."

(Mandy) "You could totally hide in the kitchen."

"Ok, fine, let's say all that junk weren't in the kitchen, then you wouldn't be able to hide in the kitchen."

"Ok, but..."

"Guys, I'm just gonna open this door, and whatever happens happens..."

So Then Some Things Happened

So some things happened, some plot got developed, this whole dungeon was revealed to all be an elaborate patch on The Masque of the Red Death (the actual short story, not the Ravenloft campaign setting), and a helpful NPC appeared to point everyone towards the more interesting of the as-yet-unstumbled-upon features of the dungeon.

Let Us Now Pause To Examine The Performance of Our Remaining Players

Mandy is not, fundamentally, a team player. She's the Wolverine of the party. She sits back and watches things develop, then when things start drifting away, she goes "I want to find this Duke!" or "Ok, fine, let's save the unicorn," and since she's a tiefling with 4 levels, cure moderate wounds, summon monster, decent saves and a 19 armor class, people generally do what she says.

Connie is the door-kicker. Although she has to occasionally be reminded of what exactly a scimitar is, she is eager to use it, and use it first. She also finds hidden doors, smashes mirrors, fiddles with mysterious items, uses her lantern to set things on fire, and remembers to feed the unicorn. Though impatient, she isn't a hothead. In time, she may turn out to be natural D&D people. She seems to be happy as long as she's doing something. And if she isn't doing something she starts flipping through a magazine. Ok, I take that back--she is definitely natural D&D people. Only the magazine is Elle instead of White Dwarf.

Satine likes to backstab. She also likes to tie people up. I also find myself asking her what her character's strength score is a lot because she's always shoving people around or grabbing people. What does this mean? Perhaps: She's always doing the thing that needs to get done after the door gets kicked down but before someone needs the cure moderate wounds. She's an opportunist. I also obscurely sense she's the most eager for some sanity or meaning to emerge from this dungeon.

And Frankie...Of Frankie, much has been said. Though she is still being tested...

...And Then The Lizardmen

The party attempts to parlay. The lizardmen speak not the tongues of men or elves.

Mandy pokes one of them. They swiftly knock her unconscious.

A flurry of scimitars and backstabbing, Satine likewise gets knocked out. Everyone tries to drag the helpless party members out of the way.

Frankie then examines her trusty character sheet. What's this? Darkness once per day?

Now nobody can see but Frankie. Fight or flee?

Frankie is perilously indecisive.

In the ends she decides to fight solo while Connie bumps around in the dark. In-the-dark-backstabbing turns out to beat blindly swinging a halberd. Down go the lizardmen.

And Next Session?

Will I be able to impose thematic or narrative order on the door-kicking hack-and-slash-chaos this dungeon has become? Should I?

Will Frankie remain indecisive and character-sheet-bound, or will her eyes be opened to the full panoply of D&D?

How many syllables will Frankie's dark elf name have next? Will we be able to pronounce it before the game ends?

Is Mandy's 4th-level character way out-of-whack with everyone else? Or will everybody else soon level up to the point where they can take on fiercer foes?

Who else will show up next friday, and will they know how to play?

And, for god's sake, what about the unicorn?

I have a week to figure it out.


  1. The player descriptions were about the characters, right? Because Satine's could go either way.

    As for new player experience, here's a thought...
    I've read here and there about DMs letting each player once per game roll a D30 as a substitute for any roll not a part of character generation e.g. To Hit roll, Saving Throw even damage.

    they do it just for the cool factor for the player-"Sweet! 23 points of damage with my dagger!" sort of thing. Even if you don't want to do this with your regulars, you could do it with newbies. Or allow them one reroll for first time with the group and one for first time ever playing. Even reroll all saves their first session (Training Wheels), although that might foster bad habits. Would anyone notice?

    I can relate to the creepy doll incident. Long ago I was playing a dwarf berserker. The party open a door, six trolls in the room. I charged in being a berserker and all. Apparently, only the DM heard me say that, so the group closed the door and held portal/wizard locked it.

    So the DM and I start the combat to a chorus 'Dumbass' 'You idiot' 'Just roll up a new character'. Then I starting winning. so the group opened the door, mugged the trolls regenerating back form 0 hit points and split up the treasure amongst themselves as I was unconscious from the fight.

    So yeah, you've got natural D&D players on your hands.


  2. I have only two things to say at this late hour (12:35 AM in New York, NY)after a quick once over...though I look forward to reading this all the way through sometime tomorrow...

    First...Sam is a professional computer programmer? What kind of sick, twisted profession is that? Who let this guy in the group?

    Second...regarding Frankie...I think I'm in love.

    Now off to once again attempt this thing I've read about on the internet that so many of the college kids are into...sleep.

  3. Wow. With this post, your game just leapfrogged to tied-with-Planet-Algol as the game-on-teh-Intarwebs-I've-read-about I'd most like to play in, ahead of Jeff Rients' or Chgowiz's.

    This sounds like so very very much fun.


  4. The weird thing is you didn't notice how I dictated to everyone what they should do/what their options were during the whole lizardmen battle. While I was supposed to be unconsious. "Guys someone needs to bind up my and Satine's wounds so we don't bleed out." "Frankie you can cast darkness and then the lizardmen won't be able to see you but you'll be able to see them. And then use backstab." Actually I think everytime someone used backstab during this entire session it was because I mentioned they should. "If you use backstab you'll do more dammage!" "Ok! I backstab him with my scimitar!". These thiefs these days not remembering to use night elf rogue from WoW loved to backstab things. I don't think they listen to me because I'm 4th level. I think they listen because unlike real life I'm kind of desicive and demanding in D&D and other than Satine, I've played more. (Hence the 4th lvl character.) And I've played the most D&D-like videogames.

  5. Also I feel it's worth noting that Connie wore shiny gold skintight pants and a ripped up metal band t-shirt over to play, and then put on my 6 inch heels when she got here and wore them until it was time to go home.

  6. "Verisimilitudinously." Coolest word ever

  7. I'm glad someone finally decided to help out the poor unicorn. I also like the spider with the sword legs. Very creative and an excellent post as always.