Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Taking Stock

As the year draws to a close it seems like a natural time to think about where this blog is headed and where I want to take it in the next year.  Of course, this may be moot because, if the doomsayers are correct, then we've all only got a year to live since the Mayan calendar only goes up to 2012 after which time the world will end for some reason.  But we might have even less time, since I've noticed that my kitchen calendar only goes to the end of 2010!  However, on the off-chance that arbitrary time-keeping devices don't actually herald the end of days, I'm going to go on making plans for the next year and beyond.

December has been pretty significant for me - I've made my 100th post and gained my 50th follower this month, which is something that neither I nor the Mayan codices could ever have predicted.  It was just a year ago that the first seeds of game blogging were planted in my  head.  Although I was largely unaware of the old school blogging community, I had been lurking in the shadows for some time, reading Swords Against the Outer Dark.  When I finally stopped lurking and posted some comments, Shane Mangus suggested that I might want to start a blog of my own.  Initially I dismissed this idea - what could I have to say that anyone would ever want to read?

But the seed was planted and a few months later, as I was about to launch a new campaign, I decided that a blog would be an excellent forum to post session  notes, house rules, and my gaming philosophy for the benefit of my players, some of whom haven't been in the hobby for very long and were unaware of how its history has shaped my perspective and play style.  And thus was Tales from the Flaming Faggot born.  Initially I had intended this blog to be solely a resource for players past and present, and had thought to allow only limited access.  I reconsidered, however, thinking that while it was unlikely that anyone else would ever read it, anyone who wanted to was welcome.

Ironically, very few of my intended audience ever read the blog, but I started attracting followers after just the first few posts.  As of this writing fifty-three people now follow this blog, only one of whom plays with me, so obviously the blog has grown well beyond its intended audience and purpose.  This has made me start to rethink the blog, starting with the title, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense outside the context of my campaign.  I've had nearly 10,000 visitors since I added the counter last May, and I suspect a large number of those visits have been from people looking for gay porn.

I haven't decided whether to change the title or not - once you've established a bit of name recognition it probably hurts more than helps to change it.  Also the Flaming Faggot roadhouse has been in every roleplaying campaign I've run for the last twenty-five years so it is an icon of my gaming history.

One thing is for certain - the subtitle needed to change, and I've already done so.  A subtitle should serve as a summary of what the blog is all about, and the old subtitle was suitable when the blog was just about my current campaign, but I've transcended that, so it was no longer appropriate.  My new subtitle, however,  implies a focus that I would really like to steer away from in the coming year.  I'd prefer to post fewer rants and more gaming goodness; but it made me laugh and it will do until I can think of something better.

So, where to go from here?  I've been perusing Google Stats to see what my most popular posts have been.  By a very large margin it has been, and continues to be, my Weird Wonder series, particularly the starfish post.  I assume that most of the visitors to these posts are non-gamers who have been searching for information about different animals and find themselves on some weird gaming blog.  I can only attribute the thousands of views of the starfish post to the fact that I included labeled pictures of starfish anatomy that biology students might find useful.  Discounting visits from people who are here by mistake, my next most popular posts are ones in which I express fairly strong opinions: When is a Dwarf not a Dwarf?, The Tyranny of Magic Missile, and Dungeons and Slavegirls in order of popularity.  The Tyranny of Magic Missile was linked on Grognardia, so that accounts for the large number of hits there, and Dungeons and Slavegirls has slavegirls, which is always good.

What I'd really like to do is to contribute more gaming goodness to the community.  The OSR blogging community is incredibly prolific and creative and I've really enjoyed reaping the benefits of other people's labours of love that have been freely distributed.  At the moment I am especially enjoying the various geomorph projects that people are posting, such as Dyson's Delve, Risus Monkey, Stonewerks, and The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms among others.  I'd love to do something like this, but my computer-fu is weak and I have no skill with computer graphics, layout, and design.

I do have some small skill at painting miniatures, and in the new year I plan to begin a series of articles devoted to all things miniature.  I won't presume to call it a 'how-to-paint' series, but I will cover everything from the basics to advanced techniques such as non-metallic-metal, and object-source lighting, as well as equipment and tools, as well as step-by-step painting projects.  I am by no means an expert painter; I got back into it about five years ago after a twenty year hiatus and I know from reading other blog posts that there are lots of other people getting back into painting just as I did.  I know that I would really have appreciated some 'how-to' advice when I was getting started, and I hope that this can be my contribution to the OSR community gestalt.  Painting has become my main obsession the last couple of years and it has become the hobby within the hobby that claims most of my free time each evening.  Looking back at miniatures I painted a couple of years ago - heck, even a few months ago, I can see how much I've grown and if I can improve this much so quickly so can anyone.

I'd like to thank everyone who had taken the time to read Tales from the Flaming Faggot this past year and I've enjoyed the many thoughtful comments that you have shared.  Stay tuned, there is more to come.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter IV, Dispositions

Chapter IV is quite short, but is of profound importance.  The lesson that this chapter teaches can be summarized as: victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war and then seek to win.

1. Anciently the skillful warriors first made themselves invincible and awaited the enemy's moment of vulnerability.

2. Invincibility depends on one's self; the enemy's vulnerability on him.

3. It follows that those skilled in war can make themselves invincible but cannot cause an enemy to be certainly vulnerable.

4. Therefore it is said that one may know how to win, but cannot necessarily do so.

Ah, yet another of Sun Tzu's lessons that has been driven home by countless hours of Civilization IV.  This is pretty self-explanatory; yet another reiteration of 'attack when you are strong and your enemy is weak,' but to summarize: do what you can to mitigate attacks against you and expect the enemy to do the same.  Therefore seize opportunities to attack whenever they present themselves; no one is invincible all the time.  Better still, strive to create circumstances that will increase the enemies vulnerability.

5. Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.

6. One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant.

7. The experts in defence conceal themselves as under the ninefold earth; those skilled in attack move as from above the ninefold heavens. Thus they are capable both of protecting themselves and of gaining a complete victory.

Take advantage of terrain features to aid in your defence and attack.  When defending try to position yourself around a choke point to limit the number of attackers that assault you and prevent them from outflanking you. This is a tactic that, I think, most players have an intuitive grasp of.  Whenever my players are badly outnumbered they try, whenever possible, to defend doorways or narrow passages, restricting the number of enemies that can attack at once, thus eliminating their numerical advantage.

I interpret 'attacking as from above the ninefold heavens' as emphasizing the importance of seizing high ground.  Employing missile fire while your enemies are trying to climb up to your position is a great way to thin out the ranks a bit before entering melee.  You might even force them to make a morale check and flee, allowing you to cut them down from behind as they run.

8. To foresee a victory which the ordinary man can foresee is not the acme of skill;

9.  To triumph in battle and be universally acclaimed 'Expert' is no the acme of skill, for to lift an autumn down requires no great strength; to distinguish between the sun and moon is no test of vision; to hear the thunderclap is no indication of acute hearing.

10. Anciently those called skilled in war conquered an enemy easily conquered.

11. And therefore the victories won by a master of war gain him neither reputation for wisdom nor merit for valour.

These passages are a bit obtuse, but I think what Sun Tzu is getting at is that Warlords who have won mighty battles gain a reputation for excellence that is largely undeserved because their victories were easily obtained.  They seem impressive only to the untrained.  The true master of war garners no reputation because his victories are far more subtle and he wins his wars by defeating his opponent without ever needing to fight and to the untrained observer it would appear that he did nothing at all.

12. For he wins his victories without erring.  'Without erring' means that whatever he does insures his victory; he conquers an enemy already defeated.

13. Therefore the skillful commander takes up a position in which he cannot be defeated and misses no opportunity to master his enemy.

14. Thus a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning.

Finally we get to the meat of the matter and how we can apply this lesson to our gaming strategy:  attack only when victory is already assured.  This might seem obvious, but how often do characters charge into a fight without knowing exactly what they are getting into or how they will win?  All too often they rely on lucky dice rolls to win the day, and we all know how fickle fortune can be.  There are days when I'm sitting behind my screen rolling a shocking string of high 'to hit' rolls for the monsters and maximum damage more often than not, while the poor players can seldom roll above a '5' on their d20s.  What might otherwise have been an easy fight can easily turn into a debacle when you rely on your dice to carry the day.

How do you ensure victory before entering combat?  Don't play fair.  Stack the deck in your favour by taking every possible advantage of terrain and environment.  By doing so the circumstances of battle are so far in your favour that they mitigate against the vagaries of random chance.

If you cannot stack the odds in your favour, in other words win before entering battle, then don't initiate an attack.  Obviously there are going to be lots of occasions when you are forced to fight before you are ready, and in these circumstances, Sun Tzu advises that you fight defensively.  If you have taken precautions to minimize your vulnerability then the advantage always goes to the defender.

15. Those skilled in war cultivate the Tao and preserve the laws and are therefore able to formulate victorious policies.

16. Now the elements of the art of war are first, measurement of space; second, estimation of quantities; third, calculations; fourth, comparisons; and fifth, chances of victory.

17. Measurements of space are derived from the ground.

18. Quantities derive from measurement, figures from quantities, comparisons from figures, and victory from comparison.

Measurement of space includes an assessment of the geographic area; estimation of quantities involves determining the numbers of the enemy, their equipment, and morale; comparison is made between your force and the enemy's, and calculations are made to determine whether or not you will defeat them.  Only after considering these factors can you launch an attack with confidence.

19. Thus a victorious army is as a hundredweight balanced against a grain; a defeated army as a grain balanced against a hundredweight.

20. It is because of disposition that a victorious general is able to make his people fight with the effect of pent-up waters which, suddenly released, plunge into a bottomless abyss.

If you plan for every contingency and attack only when you are sure to win, you can be assured of the support of your henchmen and hirelings.  Such will be their confidence in your plan that morale checks will be unnecessary and they are unlikely to flee at the worst possible moment.  If you leave battles to chance, an unlucky turn of events can have your hirelings rolling, and probably failing, morale checks and leaving you in an even worse situation, thus compounding the unlucky dice dice rolls and making defeat all too likely.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Night of the Black Mass

With the solstice at hand and Christmas nearly upon us, I've been in a festive mood and so, to contribute to everyone's Christmas cheer, I've taken it upon myself to improve upon Clement Moore's classic poem, The Night Before Christmas.

I might just burn for this.  Enjoy!

The Night of the Black Mass

'Twas the night of the Black Mass
and in the far northern land,
the Men of Leng stirred in dread Sarkomand.

The virgins were bound on the altars with care,
in hopes Shub-Niggurath soon would be there.
The cultists were gathered in black hooded robes,
while visions of chaos filled their left frontal lobes.
And I with my dagger held at just the right slant,
began to recite a blasphemous chant.

When out on the lawn there arose such a wailing,
I interrupted the ritual to see what was ailing.
Out of the dungeon I flew like a flash,
and threw open the doors of the crypt with a crash.
The chuckle-dark moon aloft in the night,
bathed the graveyard below in a sickly, wan light.

I was frozen in terror, for before me, I knew,
stood the Black Goat of the Woods and her thousand young, too.
With her black, squirming tentacles so slimy and slick,
I knew in a moment I was going to be sick.

More awful than Deep Ones, her young, so depraved,
and they gibbered, and hooted, as they danced on the graves.
Now dashing! Now dancing! Now capering madly!
They disinterred all the dead and befouled them gladly!

Into the crypt and through every tomb,
fornicating with corpses in the sepulchral gloom.
I looked on, amazed, at their wild bacchanal,
which proceeded, unhindered, through the great hall.
So into the dungeon, the dark young they flew,
with me in their wake, and Shub-Niggurath, too.

And then, with dawning horror, I comprehended the truth,
amid the prancing and pawing of each cloven hoof.
There was nothing to ward us; ceremony incomplete,
so they fell upon cultists and started to eat.

She oozed foetid ichor from out of each pore,
and her fur was all matted with dried blood and gore.
Black, ropy tentacles writhed on her back;
a dark cosmic horror, about to attack.

Her eyes - filled with malice! A visage so scary!
With a bestial rage that would make Dagon wary!
Her gaping, puckered mouths were filled with sharp teeth,
which she embedded into warm flesh, like a sheath.

The bloody appendage that was stuffed in her maw,
was all that remained of old Jack McGraw.
She had a grotesquely distended round belly,
that emitted foul gases that were really quite smelly.

She was an ancient evil who'd crossed cosmic gulfs,
and when she cast her gaze 'pon me, I soiled myself.
She snatched up the high priest and tore off his head,
and at that very moment my sanity fled.

She spoke not a word, but returned to the feast,
and filled her great belly with ten cultists, at least.
And wrapping a tentacle across my slack face,
one parting caress then she quit the damned place.

She gathered her young with a bestial roar,
and they all capered off to be seen, nevermore.
But I heard her intone, ere she departed the land,
"Cthulhu R'leyh wgah'nagi fhtagn!"

Have a Lovecraftian Christmas, and a Cthulhu New Year!

Assault on Angelis: Round Two

The second round of play in our ongoing Warhammer 40K campaign pitted Dark Angels vs. Tyranids and my Orks vs Chaos Space Marines.

My campaign special rule for this round allowed me to set up my army after seeing how the Chaos Marines deployed and gave me the first turn to boot!  Our mission was Capture and Control, and victory would go to the player who controlled the most of three objectives scattered across the table.

In my first turn I advanced towards the Chaos Marines fortified in the ruins with my warbikes and trukk (carrying my Warboss and Nobs), while the foot-slogging boyz and killa kanz followed behind, hoofing it at double time.

There are few things as awe-inspiring as an Ork horde advancing across the table top - except perhaps the firepower of Chaos Marines.  After my opponent's first turn of shooting the warbikes were mostly wiped out, my trukk became a debris-filled crater and there were fewer boyz in the ranks than I'd started with.

As my Warboss and his squad of Nobs bailed out of the burning wreckage of their transport, they were assaulted by a hideously mutated Chaos Dreadnaught.  Despite a few casualties inflicted by the twisted monstrosity, they brought it down with some well-placed blows from their big choppas, then continued to advance toward the bulk of the Chaos armoured units.

Despite the devastating firepower of the Chaos Marines shooting phases I was still feeling pretty good about my chances.  I was in control of one of the objectives, and still had lots of muscle to bring to bear as my three large squads of boyz continued to advance.  My Stormboy reserves still hadn't deployed, but I was counting on their deep strike ability to put them anywhere on the board they needed to be - hopefully swinging the tide of battle and chasing the Chaos Marine from the field in disgrace.

Predictably, that's when everything started to go wrong.

My Warboss and his Nobs managed to destroy the Chaos armoured Rhino, but were slain in turn, and since they are my most killy unit, losing them was a hard blow.

I diverted one squad of boyz towards the ruins to take out the shooters that were positioned on the upper floors.  They fought their way past a unit of Slaanesh marines outside the ruins, but then ran afoul of a tough unit of Khorne Berserkers who wiped my boyz out.  My other unit of Boyz engaged the crab-like Chaos Defiler, and destroyed it, but were slaughtered in the counter attack.  Only one Killa Kan survived to make it into combat and was quickly immobilized and its weapons were destroyed, rendering it a useless statue.

My last unit of boyz never actually made it into combat.  A sneaky Tzeentch sorceror kept using a dirty, underhanded psychic power to push them back further than they could advance each round, and they suffered constant attrition from Chaos Marine shooting attacks.

Finally, my Storm Boyz, led by the dreaded Boss Zagstruk entered the field and, using their jetpacks, they made a swooping attack onto the Khorne Berserkers, but were , instead, utterly annihilated.  The game was pretty much over at this point, but I made a last ditch effort to run my few remaining boyz to an unclaimed objective.  We were in turn five, the Chaos Marines controlled one objective, and the game could end at any time.  While victory was now impossible for me, if I could at least seize an objective I could force a draw.

Unfortunately, that tricksy Tzeentch sorceror wasn't done with me yet, and he used his dirty psychic tricks to force my boyz away from their objective.  Another turn of Chaos Marine shooting reduced my last squad to a single Nob.  I conceded the game at this point, since there was now no way for him to get close enough to the objective to claim it, and he'd certainly be shot to pieces during the next shooting phase.

While I had started out strongly with a great advantage in set-up, the game turned into a massacre; my entire force was destroyed while the Chaos Marines suffered only minimal casualties.

Over at the adjacent table, the Dark Angels had a bad run of luck and were wiped out by the Tyranid horde. So, now at the end of the second round of battle, each of the four players has one win and one loss - a pretty even match so far.  My next fight will be against the Dark Angels, while the Chaos Marines will test the will of the Dark Gods against the implacable might of the Tyranid broods.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Assault on Angelis: Initial Engagements - Orks vs. Tyranids

Equal measures of illness and laziness has resulted in me being way behind on posting the results of our last Warhammer 40K campaign session and now I'm desperately trying to get both battles written up before our next round of play tomorrow.

Deffkoptas roared overhead, their pilots racing towards the enemy deployment zone, eager to come to grips with the onrushing horde.  Even as Ghazbag leaped aboard his transport truck with his retinue of Nobs, the ground shook from the detonations of the bigbomms the koptas dropped amid the Genestealer brood.  Ignoring the chaos around him, Ghazbag pointed at the Hive Tyrant in the distance and roared at the driver to 'go fasta.' 

The initial battles in our Assault on Angelis Warhammer 40K campaign kicked off with a bang and two very closely fought games.  My battle against Steve's Tyranid army proved to be one of the most exciting games I've ever played.  Our mission was Capture and Control, which requires each player to capture an objective in their opponent's deployment zone while defending their own.

My first turn started out well, with my unit of Deff Koptas making a pre-game scout move, then turbo-boosting deep into the the Tyranid deployment zone where they dropped their bomb payloads on a huge brood of Genestealers - some of the scariest troops in the Warhammer 40K universe.  Although all five bomb templates landed on the Genestealer brood, my rolls to wound were pathetic, allowing a handful of genestealers and their Broodlord to survive the bombardment.

Meanwhile Warboss Ghazbag and his retinue of Nobs careened across the battlefield in a ramshackle ork trukk, to get within assault range of the Tyranid Hive Tyrant.  Bailing out of the trukk, the squad assaulted the Hive Tyrant and it's Hive Guard defenders, but Warboss Ghazbag, already suffering two wounds from a pre-game assassination attempt, was removed as a casualty before he could even bring his power claw to bear.  The ork Nobs retaliated, slaying the Hive Guard and slicing the Hive Tyrant into sushi with their big choppas.

I was able to deploy my reserves in the second turn - Boss Zagstruk and his unit of Storm Boyz.  Storm Boyz are suicidally crazy orks who strap jet engines onto their backs and make deep-striking aerial assaults into enemy positions.  My Storm Boyz targeted a Tyranid Zoanthrope, whose powerful psychic lance threatened to wreak great harm upon my army.  Although two of the boyz crash landed in the suicidal assault, the rest struck home slaying the Zoanthrope and a nearby Ripper Swarm to boot.

By the fourth turn both the Hive Tryant and my Warboss were out of action, and my Nobs and Storm Boyz had dealt with the Tyranid threat in their own part of the board, but things were not going so well elsewhere.  I'd lost an entire 20 man squad of ork boyz to a Hormagaunt brood that was reinforced by a Carnifex, a Biovore and a Tyranid Warrior Brood, and it was time to start looking to claiming the objectives I would need to win the game.  I started moving my remaining squad of ork boyz back to my own deployment area to defend my objective, while moving my Nobs into attack position against the oncoming Tyranid swarm.  The entire Nob squad was wiped out by the few remaining Genestealers and Broodlord that had survived the aerial bombardment in turn one, but Boss Zagstruk and my Killa Kans - goblins hard-wired into metal walkers - brought down the monstrous Carnifex.

By now both sides had suffered terrific losses and the board, initially packed with miniatures, was beginning to look awfully thinned out; the race was on to claim the objective in the ork deployment zone and win the game.  Turn after turn, my boyz ran towards the objective, their ranks constantly depleted by weapons fire and a bioplasmic barrage from the Tyranid Biovore.  By the end of turn five things were looking very grim for me as Steve's Hormagaunts, Genestealers and Warriors were bearing down on my few remaining boyz and their Nob leader and we began rolling at the end of each turn to see if the game ended.  I desperately wanted the game to end since I was in sole control of an objective and would win only so long as the game ended before the Tyranids could take it away from me.  Sadly the game went on.  I tried every dirty trick I could think of, including maneuvering my trukk between my objective and the oncoming Tyranids forcing them to either waste a turn assaulting it or wasting precious inches of movement going around it.  The end of turn six still had me in sole control of my objective but with only my Nob and a single boy left guarding it.  We rolled to end the game, and despite my prayers to the ork god, Gork, the game continued into turn seven.

The climactic conclusion of the game saw the Genestealer Broodlord, who had proved invincible throughout the game, surviving a bomb barrage and a direct hit with the wrecking ball of my trukk, assaulting my Nob and Boy to contest the objective.  The game would end automatically at the end of turn seven, so there were three possibilities: the Broodlord could slay my Nob and Boy and claim my objective to win (most likely), each of us could fail to slay the other, leaving the objective contested and the game a draw (next most likely, and my best hope), or I could survive the Broodlord's assault and slay it in turn, winning the game (Hail Mary).

The Broodlord's assault inflicted several wounds on my two defenders.  My lone boy was slain outright, but my Nob miraculously made all of his armour saves and survived.  He counter-attacked with his power claw and killed the Broodlord in the last half of turn seven.

Games don't end any closer than this - the outcome came down to some very tense dice rolls in the last turn but, this time at least, fate favoured me and I managed to win a very narrow victory.  This was an important game for me to win, too.  We begin each round of play by selecting a special gambit.  Steve picked Assassin, which inflicted two wounds on my Warboss before the game even started, effectively rendering him useless, while I picked All or Nothing.  Normally when you win a game you can claim two map tiles, and only one if you lose, but with the All or Nothing gambit you gain four tiles if you win and none at all if you lose, so I had a lot riding on this match.  My victory has allowed me to occupy a vast swath of the campaign map including the  capital city, though I'm sure the other players will have something to say about that.

I like to nominate an MVP for the match and I'm tempted to nominate my humble trukk.  This ramshackle transport, held together by baling wire and duct tape is seldom able to survive past the first turn.  At a mere 35 points my only hope was that it would last long enough to get my Warboss and Nobs into close combat a little quicker.  Instead, this plucky little trukk survived the entire game, and although I didn't do much damage with it, it was a constant thorn in Steve's side as I kept using it as a moving roadblock, delaying his advance long enough for me to hold on until the end of turn seven.  But for shear cinematic flair I have to go with my Nob, Killboy, last surviving member of a squad of ork boyz, who single-handedly slew a dreaded Tyranid Broodlord.  This is the stuff that legends are made of, and it earns Killboy the top spot as my most valuable player of the game.

My next match is against Jordan's Chaos Space Marine army, and I'm looking forward to bashing the skulls of dem Chaos ladz and givin' em whatfor.

New Google Reading Level Filter

Google has an interesting new search filter that breaks blogs and sites down by reading level.  Just for fun, I searched my own blog and apparently I have an overall rating of intermediate, with the following breakdown of posts:

Results by reading level for Tales from the Flaming Faggot:
By comparison, here are the results for Canada's national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, which is also of intermediate reading level, though with a larger overall proportion of intermediate level articles:

Results by reading level for Toronto Globe and Mail:

And it's American equivalent, the New York Times, which has an even spread of Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced level articles:

Results by reading level for New York Times:

And, just for fun, the World Weekly News, which is rated as Basic reading level although, apparently, they have a larger percentage of Intermediate articles and a smaller percentage of Basic articles than my own blog:

Results by reading level for World Weekly News:
This filter is kind of neat, although I'm skeptical about it's accuracy.  I've noticed that the overall reading level doesn't always jive with the breakdown of articles by reading level.  I'm also not sure that the filter is of any practical value, but it is kind of fun to play with.

If you'd like to check out how your own blog is rated click the 'Advanced Search' function below the Google Search bar and select 'annotated reading level' from the drop down list.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Do You Play D&D?

Last weekend was my daughter's fifth birthday and our home was invaded by a small horde of excited little girls, most of whom, like my daughter, were attending their first 'real' birthday party.  Because my daughter attends a private school most of her friends hailed from all parts of the city, many of whom had to drive 30 or 40 minutes to get to our house, so it was more practical and convenient for parents to stay for the party rather than drop their kids off then have to drive all the way back two hours later.  While my wife supervised the party activities, my job was to entertain the adults, which mostly entailed ensuring that the coffee and tea was kept flowing and the snack trays filled.

It was a bit awkward, though, having to make conversation with a group of people, mostly women, that I knew only slightly if at all, for two hours.  I'm not a particularly out-going person and once we've discussed the weather, my repertoire of small-talk is pretty much exhausted.  After about an hour, with the ladies still deeply engrossed in 'baby' talk, Jeff, the one father among the visitors suddenly blurted out: "Hey, do you play D&D?"

"Umm...yeah," I replied, uncomfortably aware that all the women were now looking at  me as if I had just been caught peeing in their flower beds.

Although I'd been careful to 'sanitize' the living room of any obvious gaming material, Jeff had seen a small corner of a piece of hex paper sticking out of a book shelf.  To a fellow gamer, that's as good as a flashing neon sign.

He and I happily chatted about gaming for the rest of the party while the women squirmed uncomfortably and tried very hard not to listen.  It was an interesting situation and it got me to thinking about how D&D has become mainstream enough that folks are comfortable enough to 'come out of the closet' and talk about gaming in various social situations, which seldom happened back in the '80's when we were vilified as demon worshipers, but it's still regarded as an odd enough hobby to get you a raised eyebrow from folks who figure you should have outgrown such childishness years ago.  Had Jeff and I been talking hockey, football, or cars we wouldn't have gotten a second glance.

Actor, Mike Meyers' Wikipedia entry states that "Mike is a Dungeons and Dragons player and was one of several celebrities who participated in the Worldwide Dungeons and Dragons Game Day in 2006."  Apparently being a Dungeons & Dragons player is an odd enough pastime to warrant mention.  I'm sure Mike has many hobbies and interests, but the only other one mentioned was soccer, and this because of notable achievements in the sport, such as playing for Hollywood United F.C. and scoring a penalty shot during a sudden death shootout during a UNICEF UK soccer match.

It appears that despite the bumper sticker I recently saw, while driving down Main Street, that read, "I was playing D&D before it was cool," we're still not quite out of the ghetto.  Sure, it's now seen as a fine pastime for young adults; BADD has packed up their bags and left town, and kids are no longer likely to get suspended from school for playing in the lunchroom, but apparently it isn't the sort of hobby that respectable middle-aged adults ought to be enjoying.  But you know what?  I'm okay with that.

One of the great things about getting older is not having to worry about what anyone else thinks and I'm perfectly happy to talk D&D with a fellow gamer in a room full of nervous women trying not to ogle the car-wreck.  This is a far cry from 30 years ago when I worried that D&D might impair my future reproductive success.  Fortunately it didn't and I have the crumbs of chocolate birthday cake I'm still picking out of the carpet to prove it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Callers: They Ain't Just for Square-dancing

I've often wondered if everyone in North America was subjected to square-dancing in school, or if this was just a special torture reserved for kids growing up on the Canadian prairies. While the rest of the world was boogying to Stayin' Alive and Disco Star Wars we poor adolescent wretches at Sutherland Elementary School were lined up in the gym, and ordered by the Caller to 'Bow to our partners, and bow to our corners.' It was an awkward affair; nervously clasping the clammy hands of the girl next to you and shuffling through the steps like the walking dead. Inevitably, at some point during the dosie-do, my arm would brush her budding bosom and I'd die of flaming embarrassment under her outraged glare.

For some reason, the Saskatoon School Board thought that square-dancing was a vital skill that no child should grow up without, though I've never actually seen or heard of anyone square-dancing ever since, for which I am profoundly grateful.

I have much fonder memories of Callers in my early D&D games. The caller, for those who started playing with later editions, was a player designated to interact with the DM on behalf of the party. This is a role that has fallen by the wayside in contemporary play, and I've heard it argued that the Caller was an artefact held over from the earliest days of D&D when twenty or more players supposedly played at once. I don't buy this. Our group always used a Caller, even though we usually only had four players not including the DM, and we found it damned useful. Furthermore,the example of play in the Holmes edition rule book, which I started the hobby with, features dialogue between the DM, the Caller, and the Players. Likewise, AD&D's Dungeon Masters Guide also has an example of play with dialogue between the DM, the Leader, and Other Characters. So clearly a Caller or Leader was assumed to be a normal part of play in these days.

We often divvy'd up responsibilities among the players: one would serve as caller, another as mapper, a third kept track of the treasure, while the fourth recorded everything that happened for future reference. So every player had a hand in keeping the game session organized and well-documented and it worked really well.

It's been many years since I've had a caller at my game and I really miss it. I don't think anyone who hasn't sat behind a DM screen can really appreciate how much multi-tasking the beleagured Game Master has to do, and how difficult it is to pay attention to everyone, particularly when everybody is talking at once. Try as I might to encourage everyone to wait patiently and state their actions one at a time, as soon as things heat up and people start getting excited everyone wants to be the first to announce their actions.

DM: Okay, Ragnar, the orc hits you for four points of damage.
Player: But I drank a potion of invisibility and ran across the room.
DM: What? No you didn't!
Player: Yes, I did. I told you, remember?
DM: Was that what you were muttering while I was talking to Bob?
Player: Yeah!
DM: Sucks to be you. Next time wait until you have my attention. You're standing in front of the orc, bleeding from four points of damage.

Another frequent point of confusion is when the party engages in a lengthy discussion about what to do next. I use this time when the players are talking amongst themselves to review my notes, check the map, prepare miniatures for the next encounter or look up a rule in the book. I am NOT paying the least attention to what the players are saying. My assumption is that when the players figure out what they want to do someone will explain it to me. Instead they say, 'okay that's what we're doing,' and look at me expectantly as though I've been hanging on their every word for the last five minutes of debate.

Here's where the Caller comes in. Having one designated player interact with the DM means that he will always have the DM's undivided attention while he describes what the players want to do and explains their plan succinctly and unambiguously. This means that no one ever gets stuck on the end of an orc's scimitar when they intended to be hiding invisibly on the far side of the room, and that the DM has a thorough grasp of the party's plan.

It is interesting to note that the DM's guide refers to this player not as the Caller, as Holmes called him, but as the Leader, which is a subtle difference and implies that the role extends to more than just being the player's voice to the DM. I've never played in group where one player was designated as the leader, per se, but as I've been studying The Art of War, it has become apparent to me that it would be beneficial to have a designated leader, not only to serve as the caller, but also to ensure that there is someone paying attention to the party's overall resources and deciding when it's time to rest and to make sure that every player's opinions and ideas are heard rather than allowing one alpha-player to dominate the rest, as I've seen happen in certain groups.  A leader might not be necessary for all groups, but I think it would go a long way to ensuring that the players and the DM are all on the same page and the party never again wipes because no one was aware just how low on hit points and spells the whole group was before going into that boss fight.

Now, I give you music to boogie to, courtesy of the 1970's.  May square-dancing die a grisly death.

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter III, Offensive Strategy

This chapter contains some excellent advice on maximizing your gains while minimizing your losses.  A lot of Sun Tzu's advice in this chapter is obviously applicable to gaming and much of it doesn't require a lot of creative interpretation.

1. Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this.

2. To capture the enemy's army is better than to destroy it; to take intact a battalion, a company, or a five-man squad is better than to destroy them.

3. For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill.  To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

This statement nicely illustrates the difference between old school versus contemporary play styles.  The ultimate goal in old-school dungeon adventures is to get the treasure horde and get out alive.  To quote Sean Bean's character, Spence, from the movie, Ronin: "Got the swag, kept the money. It's a job well done, a job well done. That's a fact."  If you can get the swag without having to bleed for it, all the better.

Remember, too, that you want that swag intact.  Big battles in the treasure room can put your investment at risk.  Indiscriminately hurling fireballs and lightning bolts everywhere can melt the gold and potentially ruin any magic items that are in the area of effect.  All in all it's best to dispose of the guardians without engaging them in protracted battles and decrease the chances of damaging the treasure horde you've worked so hard to find.

4. Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy;

5. Next best is to disrupt his alliances;

6. The next best is to attack his army.

7. The worst policy is to attack cities.  Attack cities only when there is no alternative.

Try to avoid getting drawn into unnecessary battles, and above all don't go charging headlong into the Big Boss Lair (TM).  BBL's are deathtraps just waiting to kill unwary adventurers.  You can be sure that the Big Boss ain't in there alone - he'll have minions and all sorts of nasty surprises.  Moreover, he's probably got a prepared and rehearsed plan for dealing with intruders.  So don't give this guy the home-court advantage.  Instead, try to be such a pain in his ass that he is tempted to come out and fight you on ground of your choosing.  This is a tactic I learned from playing WAY too many hours of Civilization IV; when an opponent's city is heavily defended I find that rampaging around the countryside destroying his tile improvements will provoke him to send his troops out from behind those city walls to fight you on open ground.  The same tactic can also work in the dungeon.

But better, even, than fighting your foe on your terms is not fighting him at all.  Look for opportunities to force him out without battle at all.  If you can cut the Big Boss off completely, isolating him in his lair you may be able to negotiate a surrender, allowing him to withdraw, leaving you free to ransack his treasure horde without ever having swung a scimitar.

Another possibility is to look for rivalries within the dungeon and exploit them to the best of your ability.  Getting two rival factions to fight against each other while you sit back, watch the show and eat popcorn is an opportunity not to be missed.  Then you can mop up the survivors and possibly loot two treasure hordes.  Job well done.  That's a fact.

8. To prepare the shielded wagons and make ready the necessary arms and equipment requires at least three months; to pile up earthen ramps against the walls and additional three months will be needed.

9. If the general is unable to control his impatience and orders his troops to swarm up the wall like ants, one-third of them will be killed without taking the city.  Such is the calamity of these attacks.

10. Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy's  army without battle.  They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.

I fondly remember a recent dungeon adventure wherein the players decided that it would be more efficient to split up and search three different areas at once.  One character all by his lonesome came upon the goblin king's throne room.  Seeing the goblin king sitting by himself on his throne, the already-dead-but-didn't-know-it fighter charged in and was ambushed by a whole lot of elite goblin warriors who had been hiding out of sight waiting for some hapless adventurer to charge in by himself.  Losing even one player character weakens the party considerably - representing 20%, or more, of your fighting force, just like the ill-advised city assault that Sun Tzu warns us about.  So don't get buck fever and throw your character away in a suicidal attempt at glory.  Stay frosty and stick to the plan.

11. Your aim must be to take All-under-heaven intact.  Thus your troops are not worn out and your gains will be complete.  This is the art of offensive strategy.

12. Consequently, the art of using troops is this: When ten to the enemy's one, surround him;

13. When five times his strength, attack him;

14. If double his strength, divide him.

15. If equally matched you may engage him.

16. If weaker numerically, be capable of withdrawing;

17. And if in all respects unequal, be capable of eluding him, for a small force is but booty for one more powerful.

I think these points are all pretty self-explanatory, but line #16 is worth emphasizing.  Adventuring parties are almost always numerically inferior in dungeon settings so be certain, whenever possible, to leave yourself a path to retreat in case you find you've bitten off more than you can chew and are in over your head.

Small, weakened bands of adventurers are excellent sources of treasure and magic items that no evil warlord can pass up.

18. Now the general is the protector of the state.  If this protection is all-embracing, the state will surely be strong; if defective, the state will certainly be weak.

My interpretation of this is that a party is only as strong as its weakest link.

19. Now there are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:

20. When ignorant that the army should not advance, to order an advance or ignorant that it should not retire, to order a retirement.  This is described as 'hobbling the army.'

Just about every single party-wipe I've experienced in the last few years has been due to the party advancing when they were out of spells and low on hit points, but couldn't resist going 'just a little further.'  This is when you are most vulnerable to the vagaries of fate - a few bad dice rolls can spell the end of the party.  Likewise if you are still in good shape it might be better to push on and keep the opposition back-pedaling rather than retreat and allow the enemy to regroup and consolidate his losses.

21. When ignorant of military affairs, to participate in their administration.  This causes the officers to be perplexed.

This is a mistake I see in the workplace all the time: micro-managers who insist on 'managing' things they don't understand, causing no end of confusion.

In the game, I have often seen dominant players dismiss excellent suggestions made by quiet players who allow themselves to be over-ruled.  These dominants then go on to lead the party to defeat.  If you have a 'type-A' personality alpha-dog among your players make sure that he or she doesn't dominate the group to the exclusion of others.  Some players, particularly shy or quiet ones, have excellent ideas that they sometimes are afraid to voice or defend strongly enough in the face of a strongly confidant player who shuts them down.  I've don't know how many times I've heard brilliant but diffident suggestions, that would certainly have succeeded,  over-ruled by strong willed players who act without thinking.

22. When ignorant of command problems to share in the exercise of responsibilities.  This engenders doubts in the minds of the officers.

23. If the army is confused and suspicious, neighbouring rulers will cause trouble.  This is what is meant by the saying: 'A confused army leads to another's victory.'

In a D&D tournament I played in back in the mid-eighties, our group managed to do exceedingly well during the first round of play, winning every single point that was possible.  Looking at the score sheets at the end of the day we saw that our lead was so commanding that only the next highest scoring group had even the smallest chance of winning, and then only if they did very well the next day and if our group got no points at all.  Our victory was assured.

During the next round of play the following day, our group's well-oiled machine fell apart during the very first encounter, as we became confused and started arguing amongst ourselves.  Unbelievably, we wiped without scoring a single point while the second place team did very well that day.  They snatched victory from almost certain defeat and won the tournament (each receiving a very spiffy replica sword for first place), while my group had to be satisfied with second place.

My friends and I learned a valuable lesson that day about not fighting amongst ourselves; it only leads to confusion and defeat.  We realized it would have been better to pick a course of action - any course of action - and execute it as a unified group all pulling together.

24. Now there are five circumstances in which victory may be predicted:

25. He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.

26. He who understands how to use both large and small forces will be victorious.

27. He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious.

28. He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.

29. He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious.

30. It is in these five matters that the way to victory is known.

31. Therefore I say: 'Know the enemy and know  yourself'; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.

32. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.

33. If ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.

I can't think of any better advice for dungeoneering than this.  Know what your enemy is capable of  and understand what you are capable of.  Knowing yourself also means monitoring the status of every member of the party, which sometimes gets forgotten.  All too often players whose characters are low on hit points don't speak up, assuming that everyone else is good to go and don't want to be a party-pooper.  If every party member is running low on go juice and if no one speaks up then the party is in real trouble.

As I delve into Art of War and closely study its lessons for gaming, I'm coming to appreciate the value of nominating a party leader.  Such a leader can be responsible for monitoring the status of each of the characters and keeping an overall eye on the total party fitness, thereby enabling him or her to decide when to retire and rest or keep going.  A leader can also serve to cut short argument and debate that carries on too long, and force the group to make a choice then follow through without dithering.  And finally, the leader can make sure that every player is being heard and that one strong player is not dominating the game.  I believe that this leadership should come from among the players and not the DM, who needs to remain neutral because it can become far too easy for the DM to start leading the party if he becomes involved in player management.

Next up: Chapter IV, Dispositions