Wednesday, January 21, 2009

War Stories

I found it odd to discover one of my gentlest readers, KenHR actually requesting “war stories” about actual play…because I remember when we used to have a rule about such things. That rule (invented during my University days, when there were about a dozen DMs regularly hanging out in one club room) ran as follows: if you can’t tell the story in three sentences, shut the fuck up.

That’s because most war stories used to go on and on, pretty much like listening to someone tell you the dream they had last night:

”…and then we found a sword, and the sword had the ability to control dragons, but not all dragons, just green and white dragons, dragons that were evil but not as powerful as red dragons, oh and black dragons too, the sword controlled black dragons. But we didn’t know that when we first got the sword, first we had to try putting the sword into the right groove in the temple, which wasn’t easy. First the fighter tried it, but his intelligence wasn’t high enough so we had the mage do it, but then we found out that it had to be done by a fighter, so the paladin tried and the sword started to glow and speak and the sword said, ‘I am the Great Sword of Baldish, and I control evil dragons!’ That was great. So then we had to have a mock fight to find out who would use the sword, but then the paladin said he didn’t want it because he had a +2 holy sword already…”

And at this point you’re ready to kill people.

Invariably the guy telling you this story is the same guy who already has 600 pages of his novel written based on the campaign he’s running, based on a system he’s worked out for meshing together Middle Earth and Star Wars. With a little of Champions thrown in.

No, not all players tell stories like this. But if you tell your story, you know dipshit is going to tell his…so let’s just have everyone NOT, okay?

It is for these reasons that I have resisted getting into any play-by-play descriptions of my campaign (yes, I know, I’ve broken that rule a little…and not just in three sentences). I’m a little safer here on the blog because it isn’t quite as difficult to stop reading as it is to stop listening, which usually requires leaving the room, jacking up one’s MP3 player and moving quickly before blood starts coming out of one’s ears. But still, I ask myself, why press the point?

One time I have been driven to attempt a novel based upon something that happened in my D&D world. But the novel I tried to write was intended as a stand-alone story based on the peculiar circumstance, included none of the characters of my world and was not even meant to be a fantasy novel (I made an attempt at something closer to Ivanhoe). It sits, unfinished, unenjoyed, among the papers of my room. For a long time I thought I would dig into it and finish it, but generally I found that people could not relate to a story told in 15th century Ireland that was not fundamentally a Romance. Not wanting to make it a Romance, I gave it up.

The D&D running that inspired it involved a large castle, Killybegs Castle, in Connemara in Ireland. The players had smashed their ship upon the shore after a storm, refused to pay the nobility there the treasure the party brought with them from the West Indies and wound up losing a standup fight, mostly due to a lot of bad, bad luck. Most of the party escaped, but two were thrown into a dungeon of the castle, presumably to be ransomed. The party decided to slip into the castle at night and free their friends.

The castle being very large, and the party numbering about twelve players and henchmen, they decided to break into different parts of the castle simultaneously, in groups of two or three—though the monk and the thief went in singly. What resulted was a comic farce. Of course, the players in the dungeon managed to escape in the following chaos. While the castle guards tipped onto different groups (some of which were able to kill the guards quickly and slip back into the shadows), a series of mishaps resulted in a launched catapult by one party group nearly killing another party group, the thief indirectly setting a part of the castle on fire and the monk’s slipping from the roof of the keep succeeding in killing the master of the guard seconds before executing the mage’s group. The adventure ran over a series of four nights, was anything but pre-planned (I tend to have a general idea of what is in a room or who is present, but I make my character personalities up as I go) and was a complete and total success, both from play and from the position of treasure/experience.

But that’s as much detail as I care to go into. It all happened about 18 years ago and I hardly even remember the castle’s layout, never mind the moment-by-moment order of events. There was a lot of hiding in shadows and backstabbing and thieving and creating diversions and costumes worn to fool guards and so on. There was a lot of laughter.

Should I tell other stories like that?


Chgowiz said...

Most definitely. I'm getting away from the ramblings as well, just pointing out what worked and what lessons I or players learned during a game, or something really neat or funny or sad if needs be.

Carl said...

That's not bad -- there's a lot of potential comedy in there. Personally, I find how those kinds of things go down around the table more interesting than the In-Game perspective. In-game is nice, but I read stuff like this to understand how the players and the DM handled the various haps and mishaps, which tasks were resolved with dice and which weren't and why. I'm a complete gamist whore, I know.

When you described distributing treasure on 3x5 cards by casually tossing them into the middle of the table -- well, I still giggle when I think about that. I tried the same thing in my game hoping for something similar, but it didn't pan out. The players first looked dumbfounded at the cards then they looked at me as if waiting for permission. After a long pause one of the players scooped them all up and then handed them around the table so everyone could have a look before they selected, as a group, who would benefit most from the possesion of a given item. It was anti-climactic, but made me proud that I game with such a mature group. Still, I was hoping at least two of them would get into a shoving match over the magical sword.

KenHR said...

Late responding. So again..."100% what Chgowiz and Carl said." I find such stories far more useful to my gaming than long-winded theoretical stuff.

Alexis said...

"The players first looked dumbfounded at the cards then they looked at me as if waiting for permission. "

Gotta tell you Carl, that speaks towards a lack of trust. Of you, I mean. Could it be that you're putting too many breaks on the natural competitive instincts between your players? That is, "Why play cutthroat if the DM doesn't like it?"

Most campaigns would prefer a minimum of vicious competitive in-fighting. I would like a little less in mine, but, well, I won't play nanny.

Carl said...

Could be you're right, Alexis.

I may have enforced too much egalitarianism on my players. That was a response to one player who tended to hoard at the expense of the rest of the group. I probably should have let that go and forced the group handle it on their own.

Game balance has been tricky. When one character would gain a 2 level advantage it meant that she breezed through fights and the rest of the party got their asses handed to them. One or two sessions like that is one thing, but after a while the rest of the group got sick of it. One character gots all the treasure, plus whatever was left behind by the dead PCs and survives to collect the experience. That makes a great game for one person, but not so much for the other 6. I never found a good way to deal with it, so I tried to make sure one character didn't get too much more powerful than any other.