Thursday, September 26, 2019

Lost Tombs postmortem

Let us start with the observation that more campaigns fail than succeed.  If longevity is your measure of success, at least.  I believe my lifetime average of campaigns exceeding 20 sessions has hovered reliably at around 1 out of 3, which makes keeping a campaign going roughly as difficult as hitting a fastball from a pitcher in major league baseball.

On the other hand, running any number of sessions is a success in a world that seems designed to feed us numbing pablum for popular entertainment.  And since so many campaigns flop at session one, even making it to a second session is a bit of an accomplishment.  And to the extent that role-playing games are a sort of folk art/performance art (which I deeply believe, but will not argue today), even an incomplete draft of a work of art has virtue in the making.

None of the above is said by way of excuses for my inability to keep the game going.  If you signed up but didn't get a chance to play, I apologize.  Rather, the first two paragraphs are written for those gamemasters who beat themselves up when a campaign goes to pieces.  You don't have to do that.  Mourn if you need to, think about why it happened, and decide what you're going to do differently next time.

So what went wrong with the Lost Tombs, such that it fizzled out?  I think there were four key factors at work:

Timing - While working on my dissertation I haven't gotten a lot of gaming in.  It reached a point where my wife told me that one of the reasons I was such a psychological mess was that I hadn't run a game in such a long time.  So during a lull in the dissertation process, I through together the campaign concept and started it rolling.  She was right (as she always is): playing again was very helpful in me keeping my overall shit together.  Then whammo!  The chair of my dissertation returned three chapters for further revisions in a single day and I had to focus entirely on that.  The lesson learned here is perhaps an obvious one in retrospect: if I organize a new game to take advantage of a temporary hole in my schedule, it should be a short-term project and not a new ongoing campaign.  Duh.

(By the way, I have a full draft of my dissertation and hope to defend it next month.  I am almost done with this self-inflicted intellectual torture-thon.)

The Sliding Schedule - I thought I was being really clever proposing that the game would run each weekend, but sometimes it would be Friday night, other times it would be Saturday morning/afternoon/evening or Sunday morning/afternoon/evening.  You would not believe the number of times people have said to me in passing "Yeah I would like to play your game, but your 4am start time is ridiculous."  Basically, I wanted to reach those players without giving up all the wonderful people who were available for my last two campaigns.  This is one of those things that works better on paper than in practice, as it turns out the fetid goblin in my skull responsible for keeping my schedules refuses to take seriously a moveable target like that.  On Thursday, I would say to myself "I guess I'm not playing Friday night, as I should have started player recruitment on Wednesday."  That would be the end of my thought.  Then the next day I would say to myself "Whoops. I should have started recruitment yesterday in order to play on Saturday."  Then the next day...

I love having a large list of wonderful people who I get the privilege of playing silly elf games with.  But the sliding play time was a step too far for my brain to manage.  Furthermore, I am wondering if maybe for the next campaign I should have a public list of players and just designate a single player responsible for recruiting the rest of the team.  Just an idea I am kicking around.

Too Many Cute Ideas - This is an absolute rookie mistake and of all the goofs I made this is the one I am slightly embarrassed about.  I had some Very Big Ideas for this campaign.  The one about futurehumans that made it into the player's handout, as did some of the ideas about the relationship between people and the gods.  The big problem is that none of these ideas were in direct service of the players and their PC's dungeon escapades.  In other words, they were a distraction from the main event of the kind of game I like to run.  If I had been blogging regularly, I would have done what I normally do: write a blog post about my idea and hope that some more sophisticated DM can do something with it.

I sometimes use a pro-wrestling analogy when thinking about my DMing style: I am never going to be the Ric Flair of DMs.  I can't pull off that level of flash (read: high concept), so I shoot for being the Arn Anderson of DMs.  For those of you not in the loop, Arn Anderson was, perhaps, the greatest professional wrestler of his generation not to wear a world heavyweight title belt.  He was great in the ring, he was convincing on the mic.  Most importantly, he did a superb job of making the other wrestlers in a match look good.  But he didn't do flashy.  In an era of face-paint and ten thousand dollar sequined robes, he sometimes wore a windbreaker to the ring.  When other wrestlers hooted and hollered and carried on, he would just look into the camera and give the most credible, most articulate "I am going to beat you up" promos.  That's what I want.  I want to be the best DM of players going into dungeons and beating up orcs.  Any new idea has to be in service of that cause, or it just doesn't fit me and my play style.

(Note to fellow wrestling aficionados: I like Ric Flair, too.  He's just doesn't speak to me the way Arn does.)

Something About the Dungeons - For over a decade now I have been working off of something I call the Collage Theory of Dungeon Design.  In short: I steal levels that other people have already published and you mash them together.  My job becomes building interesting connections between these levels, and, occasionally, erasing the evidence that I'm using a well-known dungeon level.  The Dungeons of Dundagel in the Wessex campaign included levels from the Temple of Elemental Evil, for example, and no one caught on because A) I rotated the maps 90 degrees and B) I swapped out a few key, recognizable encounters for ones that better fit the campaign setting.  And as far as I know, no one has identified the singular publication that nearly every level of the Vaults of Vyzor comes from.

For a long time I found stitching together and editing other people's dungeons to be much more fun than sitting down and making/stocking my own dungeon maps.  But this time I just wasn't feeling it.  I still don't know what the exact issue was.  Did I choose the wrong levels?  I've used some fairly crummy levels in the past with no problem.  Heck, one time I had to add a staircase to a level in the middle of a session because the published map hadn't bothered to include one.  But I just wasn't grooving on these dungeon levels.  Maybe I'm over the whole collage concept and need to come up with a different approach.  Either way, the dungeons themselves, my absolute favorite part of running Dungeons & Dragons, were noticeably less fun than usual.

So there you have.  What I am pretty sure are the key contributing factors to the collapse in my enthusiasm for this particular campaign.  Again, apologies to all concerned.  Let the record show that at no time was the issue the players.  They were all fun people who I would gladly sling dice with again should opportunity arise.

I bet you weren't expecting an Arn Anderson tribute in the middle of a campaign autopsy.  Well, neither was I.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

final Lost Tombs update

So the last run of the Lost Tombs campaign occurred at the end of July.  I'm hoping tomorrow to write about why the campaign fizzled out (hint: it was my fault), but I thought in the name of completeness I'd first post the final player reports.

Illo by Matrox Lusch, player of Kung Pao

Journal of Ruslan Radu (from Vance)

Welp.. I wandered into town a few days back, my purse and gut empty, looking for some hearty folk to roust up some coin with. I don't cotton much with these southlanders. Life's much better up in the north woods. But here I was.

Slept rough and found the Happy Hearth Inn, where folks said explorers tend to congregate. Slim pickins on partners, I ended up with a couple of chaps claiming to be clerics. Some hulking brute calls himself KungPao Chicken and a preacher of one of the local gods named Tony Shinobi. Well, guess you can't really choose your friends... Friar Chicken hires us a torchbearer from the local porter's guild, which was pretty generous of him. Scrawny elf named Ekain. Even the elves down here don't look healthy.

So we head upriver and take a left at Iaqet. I kept everyone on the “path” as it were, and we soon found a chasm that KungPao said he could see some stairway peeking out. He climbed down the bank to the stairs and listened. Not hearing anything, we scrambled down and left a handline in case we needed to retreat fast.

The stairs spiraled down to an empty room decorated in hieroglyphs and runes. Neither of the holy men saw much in them, so we tested the one door leading out.  Friar Chicken took a close look at the door – didn't know that priests around here were students of architecture. After a bit, he shouldered it open cautiously. Which let fly three critters. One latched onto poor Ekain, but Tony and I dispatched the others. KungPao powed the last one with his mace, too bad it was still attached to Ekain. Oh well, that lost nose will make for stories to tell the kids.

Second room was a big affair, with only a fancy canopy bed in the center. Being prudent, I shot an arrow at it. Nothing happened. Being less prudent, I pulled the curtain back. Nothing but a couple of dead. We relieved them of their jewelry, and Tony found a clutch of eggs under the bed, which he collected for his coop or omelet later. There was a blocked stairway with a sulfurous smell in a corner, so we took the one exit out, another door.

This was an abattoir of horror. Some skinned soul hung dripping from a hook in the center of the room. His discharged dripped into a grate in the floor. After a bit of fussing about, Chicken glowed up a piece of rock and tossed it down the grate. It fell down a shaft before splashing into some chamber. And awakening something. We backed away. The remains of a door surrounded by debris exited to the south. Creeping through we came to a narrow room with another south door. KungPao checked this one too. He's a cautions one, this priest. Or maybe just obsessed with doors. Must be part of his religion.

When he yanked this one open, we were beset by a couple of ghouls. Tony and I stuck one, and Friar Chicken proved his religious qualifications by doing the holy explody thing to the other.

This room at least had options. A door in each wall and another blocked stairway. Someone doesn't want something to come out of the basement. We go west.

KungPao does his door absolutions again. This time he finds a trap, and pulls out his holy tools... waitaminute... 

Trap disarmed, we enter, finding an irregular room with a bed and chest. No dead this time, but the chest is tempting. KungPao pokes around at it and declares it to be protected by a glyph of some sort. After some consultation between the priests, they agree that their respective tenets are cool with calling up some help. So Friar Chicken pulls out a wand and goes and gets poor Mr. Skinned Dead Guy from a couple room back, wakin' him up as a trap-finder. I really don't know what these priests have going on down here...

After Mr Skinjob fails at sliming open the chest, KungPao pulls out his holy tools and picks the lock. Old Skinny finally slops the chest open, releasing a black smudge. We run.

After slamming the door closed, we consider our options. The room is surely full of deadly gas. But chests are often full of good things.... We go through our packs and scratch our heads. 

KungPao comes up with this old trick he either tried once, or maybe saw at a carny show. He takes a spell of water breathing, then borrows my waterskin to breath thru to filter the gas. Sure, whatever, big guy. We throw open the door.

To find out that the gas has congealed to some demon thing. Well, it was a good idea, Friar. The demon and priest slap-fight a bit, and I whiffed an arrow. The holy men get their acts together, pull out their symbols and start up a holy racket. Something works, because ol' fog demon backs up. I grab the chest and we slam the door again. Good haul this time. 4000 silver and a 1000 gold. Brother Tony gets a scroll of demon protection (too late for that, eh) and I pick up a potion of speed...

Ok, south door. Chicken does his thing, we wrestle with it a bit before letting poor Ekain have the honor of opening it.  Another blocked passage, but someone has tunneled into a wall. KungPao and Ekain investigate. They say it's too narrow for a good fight, and it dives down after 30 feet. We don't play that.

East door. Another irregular room with some cloaks on hooks. What the hell. Costume party. We put them on. Bro Tony says they are cloaks for the Cult of Shoom, his god. So there's that. Opening the next door we surprise a bunch more ghouls. But they stand down, seeing as we are wearing them robes. All right then. A few doors exit off this passage. Keeping and eye on the ghouls, we choose one on the left.

Its just a bunk room. Must be cultists around somewhere. But Bro Tony decides to do a reverent thing. Instead of tossing the place, he just lights a candle and says a few good words. Don't know quite what happened, but he said old Shoom gave us a boon.

Thinking that the sun was moving fast across the sky, and that we'd found a good haul, we decided to back on out with our gains. The trip back to town was uneventful and we counted coins. Friar Chicken offered his share to us in good faith, which was big of him. We tipped good ol' Ekain, who scuttled off in search of some elf surgeon. Brother Tony and I hit the town. Tony can't hold his liquor. Not sure what he was singing in the middle of the street, but it was funny. 'Course, not sure what's in this southern booze, 'cause I woke up with a helluva hangover. And a new tattoo. Looks like I tried to convert to the Cult of Shoom last night. But whatever illiterate worked the needle misspelled it Shroom.

Oh well...

Ruslan Radu''s map

Kung Pao's map