Angling Away from Saxon Britain

So, D&D happened last night (as I write this). We took up a lot of time getting characters ready. D&D is at its most complex with character choices, especially if you come at the game as a complete novice. Without preconceptions and assumptions, nothing is apparent and everything is mysterious. Two of the players had no exposure to D&D5E and had not had played D&D for ages – for at least one of them it was pre-3E.

But in the end, the delay in getting the game going wasn’t the biggest problem for me. The biggest problem for me were the setting assumptions hardwired into the system. I should have known this – I did know this at one time, but distance had made me forget. I had not run D&D for a decade and had not run anything even d20 adjacent since 2010 (save for a con game using D&D Next).

I knew how magic heavy D&D was. That was really the issue. The demihumans all became versions of the Fey, matters of belief to those around them, but very few actually interacting in society so figures of prejudice and suspicion. That’s cool. We could work with that. It could fit into early 6th century CE Britain. It was the flashy magic fired like bullets from an AK that gave me pause.

My intent had always been to address the system-setting clashes in the narrative. Give a narrative explanation for the spells. Address the prejudice to the Aelfar through role-playing. The latter works. The former?

And let me say that I very much believe system matters. That is to say that one’s play experience will degrade if one uses the wrong system. I knew this going in, but accepted it because – honestly – I wanted to play D&D again.

All of my games have very specific design goals. Even Sword’s Edge, a generic/genre-free system was built to deliver a specific kind of game, one in which the mechanics serve the narrative. Once again, I knew in my head the mistake I was making, but in my nostalgic heart, I thought I could paper over the cracks.

It just ain’t so. The narrative stretch to cover a cantrip like Fire Bolt in Anglo-Saxon Britain is extreme. And I don’t just mean historical Britain at that time. That kind of magic is not terribly apparent in the worldview and folklore of the time. The Ango-Saxons believed in magic, sure, but not like that. It might fit into the folklore of many places in Asia, but not Europe.

So, in the end, the setting will bend to the system. I am recompiling the setting as a second-world, a place inspired by early Anglo-Saxon Britain, but not tied to it. There will be names and places, cultures and events that are all based on early 6th century Britain, but it will not be that locale, because Fire Bolts and Flaming Strikes have no place there.

Thankfully, the other D&D game that I will be running is built specifically on the setting assumptions of the system. Let’s hope the narrative is strong.

RPGaDAY2015 Day 17: Favourite Fantasy RPG

#RPGaDAY2015 is the brainchild of game designer Dave Chapman. Basically, each day in August there is a question about RPGs. This is day 17.

Favourite Fantasy RPG: This should be an easy answer, but it’s kind of not. One of the reasons I design games is because I am unsatisfied with the games available. Further, what kind of fantasy? Swords & Sorcery? High fantasy? Science fantasy?

I’m going to go with Old School Hack. It’s got that D&D vibe, but it’s a super simple system that has always delivered really fun games in my experience. It’s generally delivers over-the-top games with crazy action, and is abstract enough that it can pretty much do everything from low fantasy to science fantasy.

D&D 5E gets the nostalgia vote – the majority of my gaming time has been spent with D&D, and I like 5E the best of any of its versions. D&D 5E is also a fun game. I enjoy it. The problem is the amount of prep time it takes. Still, for the D&D experience, 5E is my favourite taste.

Honourable mention goes to Jaws of the Six Serpents. This is as close to an off-the-shelf sword & sorcery game as any I’ve played. It was the inspiration for Sword Noir.

And back in the day, I really enjoyed True20 for fantasy. It’s the best complex (or semi-complex) RPG out there, and I had a lot of fun running my historical/fantasy Viking campaign with it.

A Tale of Two Failures: Kid’s Stuff

Last post, I talked about my failure with adult gamers. Now let’s look at kids.

I have two (awesome) daughters, aged six and eight. They have progressed through Lego Heroica, to the Castle Ravenloft board game, to actual D&D. When D&D 5E came out, I got the Starter Set specifically to test drive it with my girls. They loved it, and so we embarked on our own campaign.

Side note: D&D is still known as “Starter Set” by my girls. “Daddy, are we going to play Starter Set today?” I don’t even bother trying to correct them.

Okay, so things were going great, that is until last session. It kind of crashed and burned. We ended up on the couch watching Clone Wars together instead . . . which I generally don’t consider a bad outcome, but not an auspicious ending to a D&D session.

So what happened? I can think of a few things.

My immediate sense was it was due to my lack of enthusiasm. This was absolutely a contributing factor. I can get my girls to engage in anything as long as I am there participating. Practice piano? No problem if I say “I want to listen to you play piano.” Math? “Can you show me what you learned with these questions?” Really anything. So part of getting them into D&D, I am sure, was daddy’s enthusiasm. It wasn’t there on Sunday and they noticed. They started getting distracted and talking about other things – which they generally don’t do.

I lacked enthusiasm because I was tired; possibly still hung over from an epically stupid night of drinking on Friday. Yes, I am old enough that the effects of a night of drinking can span two days. In any case, I was tired and couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to properly run the game. I’m usually very engaged when we play, figuring out funny ways for them to fail or silly things for the monsters or bad guys to do. I didn’t do that. I am proud to say my eight-year old tried to take my place narrating the failures, but she had a small collection of funny outcomes that wore out from use. To keep them engaged, I need to be on the ball – that’s true with just about anything, honestly.

But I think the biggest part is that I forgot what I loved about D&D when I first got into it. I was older than they are – I was about eleven or twelve when I started, I can’t remember exactly – but it wasn’t great overland adventures and epics quests that got me into D&D. Those came later. What got me into D&D were dungeons. My friends and I went through all the early standards. My intro was the Keep on the Borderlands, about which I still have a huge amount of nostalgic love. There were lots of others for which I have fond memories – Tomb of the Lizard King was a favourite; and Against the Giants and then Vault of the Drow, which kind of led into our inclusion of more story elements, like politics and influential NPCs. It was the dungeons that I loved. I’m putting them into the kind of game I would run later in high school or in university. Kind of like the other failure due to complexity, I’m trying to do too much when all I really need to do is take them through some dungeons.

And then introduce them to some dragons, of course.

We’ll see if my suspicions are correct. I’ve downloaded a couple of Dyson Logos’ maps and next episode they’ll be able to free their kobold friends from the dwarves by seeking out the kidnapped dwarven family – taken by the nefarious goblins hiding out in their cave complex!

Wish me luck.

You can find out more about Lego Heroica here.

You can find out more about the Castle Ravenloft board game here.

You can find out more about the Starter Set here.

You can find out more about D&D here.

You can find Dyson Logos’ maps here.