Crossing the Streams of Time and Space

Whenever I am at a loss about how to make my dreams for my Greatest Campaign Ever™ closer to reality, I go back to reading old posts on Against the Wicked City and Hill Cantons. Joseph and Chris are the best. I would never have gotten here without their great ideas.

While I consider myself as adequately competent when it comes to running adventures, I never really had much success with the running of campaigns. Most games I ran were one-shots or mini-campaigns that quickly found a natural end when there wasn’t really any drive to expand them into longer running campaigns. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I suspect that this is how the majority of games actually turn out. But I think most GMs have a dream of a multi-year campaign that takes characters far across the world and into the higher levels. Which I think of as a worthy goal to pursue, even if you never get anywhere near to that perfect image.

One thing that I have learned over the years of soaking up the wisdom of those who had come before, is to adjust your expectations to something that can actually work in play. An RPG is a game that is being played, which is an inherently different beast from a big movie or long novel series. You can create something equally amazing and fantastic as a GM, but you have very different methods available to you. The first very important thing is that you will get much better results if you don’t try to make the players act out a movie or a book. Square pegs, round holes. What this medium uniquely offers is to let the players control what happens. They can make the choices what the protagonists do. Not using this aspect with which RPGs can create fun and engagement is a huge waste, and at the same time also make the medium fight you in your attempt to tell your story.

Not having the game follow a written down script has become hugely important to me. If I don’t do that, I could just write a novel and that would work out much better. But it does come with a big challenge of how the players will be making choices about what they want their characters to do next. When RPGs began as dungeon crawlers, the answer was pretty simple and the question not an issue: Everyone came to the game to sneak through dungeons, face dangerous monsters, and get away with their treasures. So when you want to give the players a choice in what they want to do next, you really only have to offer them new dungeon levels that differ in the kinds of threats they contain. Lava monster, ice monsters, or hidden traps? Pick your poison. Or change your mind, leave the dungeon, and head over to another one.

Thing is, crawlers aren’t really doing it for me. I am being pulled by more fanciful ambitions of running campaigns for characters who are facing the eldritch dangers of the wild for more than a generic greed for treasure and power, or a generic sense of saving people. And I think that’s where I painted myself into a corner, wanting to do too many things at once.

I’ve been sitting down and made a list of the various things that I would like to have in my dream campaign:

  • An social environment and culture that really brings across the concept of Points of Light.
  • A world that feels imposingly large and like a Mythical Wilderness.
  • Long distance journeys to different parts of the world.
  • Letting the players take charge of where they want to go and what they want to do.
  • Working strongly with connections to regular NPCs.
  • A long time scale that has adventures happen over many years.

While looking at this list, I noticed that there are pretty much two different campaign concepts lined out. The first and third item point to a world that is highly decentralized, with strong separations between places, and few connections. The fourth to sixth item require an environment that is tightly connected and centered around a home base and familiarity with the local inhabitants and sights.

One is a campaign about widely different places separated by long distances, while the other is a campaign about closely interconnected people over a long time. This obviously is a non-insignificant mismatch. And it very much looks like a very likely root of my problem. It’s not that my plans for past campaigns had regularly failed. In the end, I always went into a new campaign without a long term plan and just hoped that maybe this one would naturally evolve into something bigger. So being able to identify why I never could come up with a proper long term plan feels like real progress.

The first obvious solution would be to make a choice which one of the two approaches I want to use for my next campaign and which one to drop. But perhaps there is a way to eat my cake and have it too. There clearly are two quite distinctive forms of play that are conflicting with each other. But while it very much seems you can’t have both at the same time, I don’t see anything immediately jumping out that would speak against using them in an alternating pattern.

The hypothetical fix is this: The PCs have a semi-permanent home base where they have their followers, assistants, and most of their contacts, and where they can invest their wealth in improving the place to provide them with better resources in the future. They go on adventures to distant places because their home base can be improved with a resource that can be found somewhere else, or because it is threatened by an antagonist who tries to take something away from them.

Jospeh Manola had some interesting ideas about Adventuring Seasons and Winter Phases, which was the main thing that created my interest in long time scale campaign when I first read it years ago. And I think these two phases are exactly what I might need. During the winter phase, the players learn about new opportunities that could benefit then in the future, and new threats that might become problems if they are not adressed. Some of them might be right outside their door and be dealt with in a week. But many of them would require long voyages to distant places, that would take them away from their home base for months. When they come back, there won’t be enough time to go on a second adventure before the winter. Every spring they will be facing the same question: Which opportunity is too good to risk slipping away and which threat is too great to ignore any longer.

A nice thing about this is that it gives the players a great amount of freedom of who they want their characters to be. They can chose to try to become rulers of their home base, couragous servants of their lord, explorers, or treasure hunters. They also can chose how to invest the resources they gained during their adventures, be it for their own luxury, to gain influence and power, or to improve the living of the people or the defenses of the town. The players don’t even have to pick any of these together. Each one can chose individually and it still makes sense for all of them to follow when one of them prepares for a new expedition.

There is some real potential here, and I am feeling pretty good about it.

How Oldschool is Oldschool?

Years ago there where two sites that listed all the recent posts of private RPG websites. Both have disappeared a while back, as far as I know, but Alex Schroeder has now created a new one, in reaction to Google Plus closing.

As someone who never used Google Plus (because I try to limit my interactions with tech megacorps to the bare minimum of Youtube and Android), I’m actually quite happy to see that people have started posting a lot more in recent weeks.

The new aggregator is called Old School RPG Planet, and I am not in it. Yet. The description says that “The Old School RPG Planet is for Old School Renaissance (OSR) or Do It Yourself (DIY) bloggers.” I feel that I am sufficiently do it yourself to qualify and it does say “OSR or DIY”, so after some consideration I send Alex a mail to add me.

But I still hesitated because it says “Old School RPG”. Am I sufficently oldschool to qualify as oldschool? One the one hand, I recently started to appreciate D&D 5th edition and am right now working very energetically on setting up a campaign. I think, by definition, WotC games can not be oldschool games. But on the other hand, my style is all about unscripted wilderness adventures, random encounters, resource management, and interactivity, and I am hugely into both 30s and 80s Sword & Sorcery. And isn’t that what oldschool has always been really about? Before the Gygaxian orthodoxy?

Wounds and Longer Rests

Two changes that I am considering for D&D 5th Ed.:

Wounds

Thinking of hit points as the ability to shrug of scrapes and bruises until your attention and reflexes are suffering enough for one unlucky hit to slip through your defenses has long seemed to me as the most sensible way to imagine damage in D&D. The spell name cure wounds does imply otherwise, but it’s still the most plausible reasoning for why being down 40 hit points with only 1 hit point left will have no negative impacts and you can be as good as new after a night’s sleep. If you can fight, run, jump, and lift without any penalty, then you’re not really injured.

However, when you do get from 1 hp to 0 hp, you’re in immediate danger of bleeding out within literally seconds. That clearly is a potentially fatal injury. That a bandage and an hour of rest can get you back to full strength just can’t be reasonably explained when you are playing a campaign that puts the “fiction first”. It’s an issue that simply can be ignored completely without causing any problems. But it can’t make sense.

Personally, I quite enjoy it in action and adventure fiction when characters have to adjust or completely change their whole plans because of an injured ally they don’t want to risk dying. It’s a great narrative complication, and one that I think can add a lot to a campaign. My goal here really isn’t to be any more realistic, but to add complications and dramatic tension to the game.

The new rule for wounds is pretty simple. I think that’s actually always an important part of any new house rule. You want the players to have to learn and remember as few new things as possible. Whenever a character drops to 0 hit points, he suffers 1d4 levels of exhaustion. This means a character who already has 2 levels of exhaustion has a 25% chance to die immediately. Since exhaustion is not that common I consider this an acceptible increase of risk. And it does provide a strong incentive for exhausted/wounded characters to avoid combat.

Longer Rests

The DMG suggests an alternative rule for handling rests that increases the time for a short rest to 8 hours and for a long rest to 7 days. On the one hand, I favor adventures that have few fights often separated by days, so I like the idea of the PCs not being at full strength at the start of every day. Giving them only a short rest every night has some appeal. But when you have to rest 7 days for a long rest, then you really need to retreat to the safety of a town (and one that isn’t currently under attack). Effectively, this means that long resta only happen between adventures. And I like adventures that have the characters in the wilderness for a week or two. No long rests during a journey into the wilds seems way too extreme.

The main things that a long rest provides for most characters is the restoration of all hit points, the regaining of Hit Dice, and perhaps most importantly the regaining of spell slots, amd the ability to switch out prepared spells. Hit points can also be regained through spells, so spell slots really is the big problem when you can’t take long rests during adventures. However, both wizards and druids have the class feature of Recovery, which allows them to regain some spell slots during a short rest, once pet lomg rest. I think this makes for a good mechanism to regain some spells for all spellcasters. When you finish a short rest, you recover expended spell slots that have a combined level that is lower or equal to half your level. Unlike the class feature, this ability can be used on every short rest. If you cast very few spells over a couple of days, you can recover all of your spell slots.

I think the biggest uncertainty with this variants are warlocks. With their really heavily limited number of spell slots, this class is perhaps the most dependant on short rests. But on the other hand, this isn’t going to make a huge difference when there are only two or three encounters in a day, as they also have several invocations that don’t require spell slots at all.

One important thing to keep in mind is that this change primarily affects “narrative time”. Whether the GM says that you rested for 8 hours or for 7 days, does not greatly impact the actual “tactical time” of encounters. Not letting the party rest for a week in the wilderness is the same as not letting it rest in a dungeon for 8 hours. It’s just fluffed in a different way. However, a GM would also have to keep this in mind when considering the frequency of random encounters and the scale of the wilderness. It’s not quite the same thing, but I don’t think it will be too drastically different if this is kept in mind.

Oh, no! I am writing about that thing nobody wants to hear anymore.

Yes, that thing. Or “thing”. OSR.

I was just peeking in again at Dragonsfoot, and unexpectedly, though it really shouldn’t have surprised me, I almost immediately came upon onother recent discussion of “What is OSR?” And my first reaction was “probably better not click at it, it’s almost certainly just more bickering and doom mongering about the state of western society”. This is the point where we are now. Where I think we’ve been for quite a while now. And I very much doubt that I am in a small minority of people having this reaction. I did end up looking into that thread and yes it was primarily about bitching about the collapse of western society. I didn’t read very far, but there were some intitial points raised that made me come to a conclusion about the various feelings I’ve had on the subject.

OSR has been over for a couple of years now. It’s not dead, it’s been concluded.

From how I experienced it, that thing that later became known as OSR began in the mid 2000s when the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons kept bloating and bloating until it was eventually discontinued and the plans for the new 4th Edition were increasingly looking like a drastic departure from all that had come before. And for a lot of people, that was the point where they said “I’m no longer wishing to keep up with current developments. I’m just going back to play the game the way I had enjoyed the most and stick with that.” OSRIC had actually been out since 2006, two years before 4th Edition. But I think the end of 3rd Edition really was the point where a lot of people paused to reflect about whether they wanted to hop onto this new thing or stick with their current thing, or perhaps even go back to an older thing.

And I think it is this reflection that really was this thing that went on to become known as OSR. Old School Reflections? It wasn’t just people thiking to themselves with which game edtion they had the most fun, but engaging in a wider conversation on why they feel they had more fun through the medium of blogspot sites. It was a period in which people dug into old rulebooks to critically analyze the mechanics and advice given in them, and exchange their experience with other GMs who were  doing the same. Many things that had been discarded and dismissed as silly where quite literally rediscovered, and with the great wealth of experiences that had been gathered over the decades could now actually be much better understood. Old School Research?

The thing with research of this kind is that you often make lots of easy big discoveries early on, some more difficult discoveries later, and after that only very rarely minor and obscure discoveries of little impact to the bigger  field. And I think this is exactly what we’ve been seeing here. All the really big and exciting stuff in OSR happened between about 2008 and 2010. Then the ocasional neat new idea up to maybe 2014, but since then I don’t think anyone has been making any new major contributions to the field. The Rennaisance had reached its end, it’s work been done.

It’s not like all of it went up in smoke and feded into the wind. I would argue the opposite. Of course, it seems quite ridiculous to say that the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is an OSR game. It really isn’t. But it is also very hard to deny that during the creation of this new game, the creators did draw significantly from this knowledge reintroduced into the sphere of fantasy adventure games by the old school revivalists. Not everything has been widely embraced, some things remain the domain of fringe enthusiasts. But the creative and intelectual space of roleplaying games today is fully suffused by ideas that came out of this period of reflections about what made early RPGs tick. If the term Old School Rennaisance makes any sense, then this is what it’s really about.

This does leave us with this somewhat strange position in which we are finding us today. Today, when something gets labled as OSR, it really is an “Old School Roleplaying Game”, which is “D&D Editions released by TSR”. It is a group of games, one among many other options that groups can chose from. But I think many people are fondly remembering the creative movement from a decade ago and are still somewhat under the impression that the two are still the same thing. And when there is nothing really left to discover or create, the only thing left to “the movement” is an endless cycle of self-reflection. Which is a conversation lots of people see little appeal in, which in turn provides much more space and attention for people who relish bickering. There probably has always been bickering, but with the intelectual and creative conversation having been concluded, that little bickering is now the only thing that is still going on.

Looking at my archive of posts, I stoppded using the OSR tag in mid 2017, almost two years ago now. It’s not that I no longer care about reaction rolls and morale checks, random encounters, encumbrance, noncombat-XP, and monsters that are safer to circumnavigate then to fight. I still love  them, and I discovered their value from the great ongoing conversation about older RPGs. But all the things I am doing and writing now don’t feel to me like contributions to this discussion. A discussion that has concluded.