Thursday, April 7, 2011

Thoomp Thoomp Thoomp

The party spent the night in the ruins above the dungeon, nursing their wounds and preparing for their journey back to the Keep.  The two retainers - a magic user and cleric - had angrily quit the group, but agreed to travel with them through the wilderness for mutual protection.  This was their first dungeon together and things had not gone well, but they had all survived.

A few hours into their journey, as they passed through a clearing in the forest, the party heard a loud 'thoomp thoomp thoomp' sound in the distance, emanating from the treeline beyond their line of sight . . .

* * *

As I began to design my campaign world for Labyrinth Lord, I drew large scale maps and painted out a history and cultures and jotted down all manner of ideas for adventure.  I focused in on the maps, drawing more detail and went more in-depth about the cultures and lands.

Then I abruptly stopped.

For thirty years I have reveled in world creation, from top to bottom, bottom to top, side to side - what have you.  World creation is a love.  But something happened in my brain.  Re-reading the classic rules, devouring old school blogs, and listening deep in my heart - I couldn't do it.  I had to stop.  I began to hunger for something that only happened occasionally - something that was never planned - the excitement of what happens when the players go off the map.

At those points, I got to improvise.  I got to fly by the seat of my pants.  I got to pull crazy shit out of my ass.  During those times, I was much more willing to let the players come up with crazy ass shit that had deep impact, not only on the game, but in the campaign universe itself.

I realized, suddenly, that it was there all along - in the rules.  Random tables all over the place.  Monsters, dungeons, treasure, even harlots.  Crazy stuff to keep the DM on his or her toes just as much as the players. 

I'm going to rag on 4e now.  To feel like I was 'doing it right,' I had to prep 4e, and prep it hard.  Every adventure, I had to set up encounters that were balanced.  I had to understand in detail the intricacies of the fighting abilities of each monster and how they would act as a unit.  I could usually only offer the players a hand full of path options during a night as getting off track screwed up all of the planning and balance.  Sure, you can run 4e loosey-goosey - but it never felt right.  I never could pull it off.

But oooh boy, it's not like that in the old school.

NO PREP.  I don't have to think of a single thing before hand.  I can randomize just about every part of the game, and it flows smooth like butter.  Of course, It's hard not to think about things, come up with horrific trap ideas, fearsome beasts, and bizarre NPCs - but I can slap all of that into tables and surprise myself with the combination, no matter how off balance they are.

As the party travelled, I rolled that a wilderness encounter would happen.  I flipped to page 105 in Labyrinth Lord and looked on the Forest/Wooded Column under the Wilderness Monster Encounter Table.  Dan says right there above it, 'The Labyrinth Lord will have to adjust encounters to fit the particular environment and level of the PCs.  Further, this table should only be considered an example."

No . . . I like those tables for this section of my wilderness.  They are all over the place.  Scripting an encounter and carefully measuring it and balancing it is something I'm quite sick of.  Dan has wonderful tables.  Don't let him talk you out of using them.

I rolled a d20.  It came up as a 7.  Green dragon.

* * *

"A green dragon whooshes over your heads.  It's neck cranes, pointing it's beady little eyes back at your party and with a flick of it's wings, it cartwheels in the sky, lining up for an attack run."

The three players stared at me.

"So how young is it?  Juvenile?  A hatchling?" one player asked, used to the age ranks of dragons in 4e.

I shrugged. "It's a dragon - the first one you've ever seen.  Set down the die.  There is no skill check.  You have no idea how old it is, but it's big - about 30 feet long.

I saw numbers flash by in the player's eyes as they determined what the mini of the beast would look like.  Worry set in quickly.

"I run." they all said.  They scattered in different directions towards the trees.

It was glorious.  Some back story is needed here.  In two years of playing 4e - these guys never ran from a fight.  Sure, once they ran after a fight, just in case.  They trusted me to play fair and run things in the spirit of 4e.  In most games, they were on an offensive adventure path and had time to reconnoiter - but even when surprised, they trusted the magic of the balance.

Not this time.

The entire game session dealt with the dragon attack and the aftermath.  Everyone had a good time, even the poor guy who got killed and had to roll up another character.  It was one of the most intense and visceral sessions I've played in a while.

All because I rolled a seven on one of Daniel Proctor's Encounter tables.

- Ark


  1. :)

    I feel the same way about Pathfinder, although from what I understand its not quite as bad as 4th ed for prep. I want to feel like I'm playing a game again and not running a videogame simulation.

  2. Bingo. I wonder how many people who decry that type of gaming have ever actually experienced it first hand, and done correctly? Once you do, why the heck would you ever want to play differently again, as a player OR as a DM? Predictable and boring or surprising and exiting... not a tough choice.

  3. Nice blog i like this blog. all information provide by you are beneficial.Big Flesh Tunnels

  4. Beautiful! The PC in my head was already tying on his running shoes as soon as you mentioned the "loud 'thoomp thoomp thoomp' sound in the distance." It is funny just how much a particular the version of the game conditions our reactions.

  5. *nods agreement*

    Scaling is for minis, not encounters.

    I am also intrigued by John's idea of an organic dungeon...

  6. Yup---THAT'S how you play the game, folks!

  7. The title made think your player's characters went to a rave or some such. But I guess you didn't roll that one on the tables.

  8. Agreed! That's how I roll too -- RANDOMLY! Someone posted recently that the dice are oracles into this other realm. I'm gonna get that put on a T-shirt!

  9. Also, where did you find the Encounter Tables you reference in your post? I can't find them. Maybe I'm not looking in the correct place... Thanks in advance!

  10. @Pierce - I've always like the concept of Pathfinder - the rebels with the heart of old D&D. Yet reading the rules and talking to people about it - well - it's still not my D&D. I hope to play it one day, but I don't think it's what I really want.

    @Anon - Well, people have different tastes. Some people want a secure place where they feel comfortable and not threatened too much. It's understandable. The real world can be a scary place.

    @John - I intend to steal the phrase Big Flesh Tunnels and use it for the name of the first professional D&D adventure that I write, I hope you know.

    @Bard - I loved how they were trying to calculate the chances of their 1st level characters taking on the dragon.

    @Chris - Yes, so am I.

    @Matthew - Funny how this way feels so much more comfortable to me.

    @GratSaxViola - I'll have to amend my tables and be sure to include raves and baby pacifiers next session.

    @Jim - Perhaps the tables are on different pages in different printings - but currently they are on page 105 in the Labyrinth Lord book, pdf available here .

    - Ark

  11. Thanks! The LL books are organized in such a way that sometimes I can't find what I'm looking for -- I expected the charts to be in the back (like the old DMG IIRC) and it's kinda hidden in the middle of the book. :)