|The terrible Wall-Eyed Frog, dread symbol of Team Tsathogga. Awful Latin also became one of their trademarks.|
I found it an enormously liberating game to run. I had a world in my head, and the PCs ran around it messing things up. There was no need for 'plot' or 'story' or 'balance' or 'structure'. I didn't need to worry about problems or obstacles having preplanned solutions: I just laid out whatever made sense in context, and let the PCs figure out their own way of dealing with it. If an antagonist was much to weak or much too strong for the PCs, then so be it. If the dice said that someone lived or died, then so it was. If the PCs made friends with everyone in the dungeon instead of fighting anyone - and that happened repeatedly - then that was just what happened to happen. I was usually able to do all the 'planning' needed for each game in the half hour it took me to get to that week's session. After this, I think I'd really struggle to go back to a rule- or plot-heavy game like some of the ones I've played in the past.
All this said, however, there are some things that I think I could have done better, or should have done differently. So here's my list of lessons learned.
1: What you gain in breadth, you lose in depth
I started this campaign during my first gust of enthusiasm for oldschool D&D, which I embraced with the zeal of a new convert. What's the absolute opposite of a pre-scripted railroad? A game where you can go anywhere and do anything! The game-world sprawled endlessly in every direction, and I was absolutely committed to letting the PCs go wherever they liked. If, at any point, they simply abandoned whatever they were doing and lurched off in a random direction, I would be ready for them. (This came in handy after the whole skeleton adoption business, when that's pretty much exactly what happened.)
Over the course of the game, the PCs roamed back and forth across an entire continent's worth of geography. But the flip-side was that many of the places they visited were pretty sketched in. They lacked the dense specificity of the game's more thoroughly detailed areas, like Qelong, or the Purple Islands, or the underworld beneath Bright Meadows. I'm still absolutely committed to the idea of a free-roaming campaign: but next time I run one, I think I'll try to keep it much more geographically contained, allowing each region to be explored in much greater detail, and ensuring that everything is close enough to connect to and impact upon everything else.
2: NPC development takes work
The game featured a lot of NPCs, but there were relatively few who I felt really came to life. Titus the necromancer did, with his corpse obsession and his doomed romances and his horrible chewed-up face. Bat-Man Ron, with his combination of intelligence and naivety and his tragi-comic aspirations to be the saviour of his people. Vaud, with his passion for freedom and his total lack of volume control. Maybe Hallgerd, with her cheerfully amoral mercantilism. Maybe Elder Amelia, with her endless catalogue of secrets. Maybe Sophie's dim-witted college friend, Becky. Maybe Grick, Grak, and Gruk, the party's comedy goblin sidekicks. And maybe Sad King Nath.
But for every NPC who came to life in play, there were dozens who never really managed to be anything more than plot functions with a few mannerisms attached. Captain Matthew, who loyally ferried the PCs around the world for years on end, might as well have just been a 'map loading' screen with some stock art of a sea captain on it. Dara, the refugee Qelongese novice who introduced the golden lotus flower to the Purple Islands: what was her deal? What about Vem the huntress, who became queen of her people? Titus's ex-wife, Zenobia? The archivist of the tunnel-dwellers? We knew what they did. But who were they?
In many ways, this was a side-effect of point 1. After every scene, I always asked the players what they wanted to do next, and the answer was never 'have a heartfelt chat with Captain Matthew about how he really feels': it was always about moving onto the next item on the agenda. The NPCs who were able to become actual characters were the ones whose personalities were able to emerge through action: everyone else just faded into the background. In future, I can see that I'll need to be much more proactive about staging scenes of character interaction if most NPCs are to end up as anything more than placeholders. Much broader characterisation would probably also help.
3: B/X characters change fast (and change genres)
By the standards of modern D&D, character advancement in this campaign was glacially slow: the characters started at level 0, and seventy-odd sessions later they were levels 7-8. But their accumulation of power didn't feel slow to me. It felt like a massive accumulating snowball that increasingly threatened to crush anything in its path.
I'd say that the game went through three distinct phases. At levels 0-3, the PCs were desperately fragile, perpetual underdogs who had to rely on stealth, trickery, diplomacy, and rank cowardice. At levels 4-5 they started to feel like fantasy heroes, able to wade into battle in the knowledge that they had enough hit points and healing magic to see them through most situations. By levels 6-8 they were starting to feel superheroic, characters who had largely outgrown the world around them, able to resolve most situations through brute force. They became positively reckless, trusting to their spell lists, hit point pools, and saving throws to see them through all but the very worst of disasters. What fear can a man with a knife inspire in a woman with 51 hit points?
I didn't begrudge them their strength. They earned it, and they paid for it, and their road to power was strewn with the bodies of the PCs who didn't make it. But after the desperate striving of the first six levels or so, the high-level stuff felt a bit like a kind of extended epilogue or victory lap - especially given the complete freedom that the PCs possessed to travel the world, and thus to pick their battles, allowing them to smash through situations like a wrecking ball when their lower-level selves would have had to spend months patiently building solutions. They were never invulnerable, and threats like the marsh giants, the Ghost Drummers, Hild the blood-witch, and the robotic guardian of the Pools of Life still managed to give them a run for their money. But if I was going to do this again, I think I'd be more proactive about building in dynamic high-level threats that would move against the PCs once they attained a sufficient level of power, thus compelling them to more frequently pick on somebody their own size.
4: Caster vs. non-caster balance is tricky
Something that I didn't foresee, but probably should have, was that the kind of free-roaming, player-led game that I was aiming for, coupled with the Vancian spell-slot system of B/X D&D, would hand a massive advantage to spell-casting characters. D&D is balanced around dungeon environments, with the assumption that each delve is going to be a brutal battle of attrition, and spell slots a scarce and treasured resource. But with the PCs usually free to move at will, free to pick their battles, and free to choose when to strike and when to retreat, situations in which they were forced to have two or more 'encounters' in a single day were the exception rather than the rule. This, in turn, didn't matter much when the casters only had two or three spells each: but by level 5 or so there was often little to stop the PCs scouting a situation, retreating, preparing a specialised spell payload, resolving the situation in a blaze of magic, retreating again, using another full day's worth of spells to heal from the previous encounter, and then moving forwards fully restored and ready for the next challenge.
Under these circumstances, the advantages that non-casters would normally possess - resilience, combat skill, non-magical skill sets - were increasingly sidelined. Your attack bonus doesn't matter when the mage can alpha strike your enemies into goo on the first round, and being sneaky and charming isn't worth much when the wizards can just load up on Invisibility and Charm Person spells. By the end of the campaign, the party were in the habit of 'charm nuking' high-value targets by hitting them with ten or more Charm Person spells in quick succession, thus virtually guaranteeing success regardless of the target's saving throws. The fact that one of the fighters had Charisma 18, which had frequently been a lifesaver at the start of the campaign, became a virtual irrelevance by the end.
In this game, we dodged the problem by giving everyone two characters, usually one caster and one non-caster: a solution not dissimilar to the 'grogs and magi' set-up from Ars Magica. But I do feel that I should have done more to encourage some level of parity, partly by giving the players less ability to control the tempo of the situations in which they found themselves (although I'm wary of reducing this too much), and partly by giving more powers to the poor old fighters besides just escalating hit points. One quick and dirty fix that I'm considering is to let each fighter pick a new area of noncombat competency every time they go up a level, so that by level 8 or so they're less 'meat-shield' than 'Batman', although mastering entire new fields of knowledge every few months does rather strain my disbelief. The real solution is probably just to use more dungeons.
5: Structure, or the lack thereof
This was a campaign which deliberately, and indeed defiantly, lacked any kind of overarching structure. There was no 'main plot'. Nobody had a 'character arc'. It didn't build towards any kind of epic climax. It was just a bunch of stuff that happened, and then kept on happening, and then stopped.
In a lot of ways, I absolutely loved that. I have become so tired of 'epic' and 'awesome' finales, of scenes in which everyone gets together for One Last Battle, of heroes and villains punching each other on the edges of exploding buildings or erupting volcanoes, of scenes in which The Fate of The Universe Rests On Just One Man, of characters completing their Emotional Journeys and then dying tragic but emotionally satisfying deaths. I have become increasingly interested in raggedness, incompleteness, and incoherence, because the stories that we make and the victories that we achieve seem to me to be much more meaningful when there's no hand of destiny moving in the background, forcing them to occur. The adventures of the PCs, much like most people's real lives, was just a series of events that happened to happen. It didn't add up to anything more than the sum of its parts.
But there are drawbacks to that level of shapelessness, too. The two main threads running through the campaign were the discovery of the secret history of the world, and the demon / snakeman threat, and over the course of the campaign each of them got... maybe three-quarters resolved? As a result, the end of the campaign felt very arbitrary, like a TV show that suddenly got cancelled in mid-season, rather than like the logical end-point of the story of these characters, who would surely have wanted to continue uncovering the truth about their world instead of just randomly flying off into the sunset. But given the shapelessness of the campaign, playing all the way through to a full resolution of both strands would have taken years.
I think the lesson learned here is to either go all-in with player-led hexcrawling, with no stories or structures whatsoever beyond those that the players choose to build for themselves, or have the Big Story tied to something dynamic, making it possible to force a resolution whenever the campaign nears its end. I did enjoy the whole campaign, and in many ways I felt that its anticlimactic non-ending was absolutely perfect. But part of me is still kinda frustrated that the players never got to finish figuring out their world's secret history, and that the sealed door beneath Bright Meadows remained stubbornly shut from the first session all the way to the last.
|What did it conceeeeeal?|
Anyway. It's been fun. It's been more than fun. It's been glorious and hilarious and utterly unforgettable, and easily one of the highlights of my gaming career to date. Thanks to all the oldschool writers and bloggers whose ideas I stole, whose advice I followed, and whose adventure modules I took apart for raw materials. A massive thank you to all my players, past and present, for coming up with more demented plans than you could shake a giant projectile maggot vomiting zombie vampire toad at. Shine on, you crazy diamonds. So long and thanks for all the beer.
Or, as the goblins would say...
Blood for the Frog God!