Saturday 27 October 2012

Everyone Else V: DCC Free RPG Day module 2012

Free RPG Day in 2012 was a cool day altogether, with some impressive goodies like a cool poster-sized map of Hârn, but the coolest of the many bennies rpg companies had to pass onto their fans and potential fans was the Free RPG Day module from Goodman Games.  Why?  Because it contained two seriously kick-ass adventures, and because it contained a contest that will net someone out there $1,000 and the chance to see their adventure in print.

Now, the contest entry date is almost upon us as I write this, so that isn’t going to be the reason most folks pick up this module (in pdf format) going forward, so let’s look at the adventures!  The two adventures in the module are The Jeweller Who Dealt in Stardust, by Harley Stroh, and The Undulating Corruption, by Michael Curtis

Need I say that spoilers will follow?  They will.  Don’t read on if you don’t want to read them.
If you have read my previous reviews, you know by now that I don’t think Harley Stroh could write a bad adventure if he tried to.  Certainly here has tried to write a great adventure.  The Jeweler Who Dealt in Stardust is for 3rd level characters, and is a city-based adventure wherein the characters attempt a heist in the home of a jeweller known to be a fence for the thieves’ guild.  Nothing could go wrong with this set-up, right?

I’ve been lucky enough to run this one twice, once for my home group in preparation for Free RPG Day, and once at Duelling Grounds in Toronto for Free RPG Day.  The first time, I ran it using pregenerated characters culled off the Internet, the second time I used the pregenerated characters supplied by Goodman Games on their website.  In the following, Group A is my home group, and Group B are the players at Duelling Grounds.

Both times the adventure was a lot of fun.  The basic set-up is that Boss Ogo, a notorious fence for the Thieves’ Guild of Punjar, who fronts himself as a jeweler, has gone missing.  His house is closed and locked, with no sign of life therein.  For the bold, a fortune in jewels is surely there for the taking, but it is equally sure that others will be watching the house, thieves and vultures waiting for their own chance to swoop in and steal the prize.

There are three (relatively easy) ways into the house – through a large window on the upper floor, through the sewers and cellar (Group A), and through a side door protected by a walled garden (Group B).  Within…..well, Fritz Lieber or Robert E. Howard would be proud of Harley Stroh for what is within.  Needless to say, there is enough cool here to seriously creep-out your characters, and enough encounters that require combat or cleverness to test 3rd level PCs well.

There is a nice handout illustrating Boss Ogo’s house from the front, showing all three potential entrances.  Group A includes more than a few outside-the-box thinkers, and they tried the windows on various floors, and checked the chimney as a potential entryway before settling on the sewers.  Of course, these other possible entrances have been considered by Boss Ogo (through the agency of the author), and entry there is made practically impossible.

Group B went through the patio, facing Spiders of Ygiiz – a very well realized monster, with some cool effects that, sadly, I didn’t get to use either time I ran this adventure.  What was notable for me, when I ran this for Group B, was that a player who had no previous experience of the Dungeon Crawl Classics system decided to cast spells not for their primary effect, but for the mercurial magic effect that went along with it, and in a successful way.

The sewer/cellar entrance, the one used by Group A, is my favourite, because the way in offers the supreme creepy moment in the module – three men hang, wrapped in webs, in a place containing thousands of mundane spiders.  The spiders go in and out of the men’s open mouths, which are all that is uncovered.  If you investigate, you discover that they are wrapped in bandage-like cloths marked with runes dedicated to Ygiiz, and they are still alive.

Do you kill them?  Do you not?  Encounters are logically linked together, and what you decide here may affect what you discover elsewhere.  Some of the encounters are potentially quite brutal.  Others have cool eerie components.  All is not as it seems.  Players who decide to use up their resources inside the house

At the very end, Ogo’s lieutenant and his men wait outside for the PCs, prompting a last fight that is likely to be deadly for PCs who have used up their resources inside the house.  Group A shut themselves back into the house and took to the sewers.  Group B was strongly considering surrender when I pointed out that, as a one-shot adventure, they might as well go for glory.  The fight was memorable, and they almost won, but it ended in a TPK.  Still, fun was had by all.

Michael Curtis’ The Undulating Corruption is a different kind of adventure.  In search of the means to deal with magical corruption, the PCs uncover references to the Crucible of the Worm, and eventually uncover its location.  Now, as 5th level adventurers, it is time to remove some of the debilitating corruption that has afflicted the party wizard.  Or wizards.  Or elf.  Or elves.  Or other characters foolish enough to make spell checks using 1d10.

Unfortunately, the Crucible is in ruins when the party arrives, and the very well-conceived Night Worm is on its way toward the nearest population centre.  Will the PCs be able to stop it?

The Undulating Corruption is a pretty cool little adventure, despite being fairly linear in nature.  There are some neat monsters to fight leading up to the Night Worm, and the fight with the Night Worm is one which the players are likely to remember!  The Night Worm makes use of the strengths of the DCC system, so that fighting it is not as straight forward as one might expect, and the party may discover itself loathe to slay the creature too soon. 

That some of the party may want to keep the monster alive long enough to benefit from it, while each round increases the damage that the party takes (and therefore diminishes their overall chance of success in defeating it before it reaches a major population centre) is the masterstroke in this adventure. 

The encounters leading up to the “main event” are flavourful, and help build the proper mood for what is in turns a terrifying, icky, funny, potentially lethal, and potentially useful final encounter.  Players who “figure out” the rules of the Night Worm may be well rewarded.  Those who do not will probably pay for their failure with their characters’ lives.  But there is enough tension between the potential benefits, the damage taken, and the overall threat to force players to make tough decisions for their characters on a round-by-round basis.

While I have not run this adventure yet (I had meant to for Free RPG Day, but the opportunity failed to arise), the themes, setting, and monsters would mesh very well with the Great City from Purple Sorcerer GamesPerils of the Sunken City and The Ooze Pits of Jonas Gralk.  There should be no difficulty in placing this adventure in any campaign setting.

Friday 26 October 2012

Death Frost Doom Part III: Doom Comes to Us All

(Spoilers, Sweetie)
So, last night my players finished James Raggi’s Death Frost Doom.  Running that last bit was a draining experience.  Playing in it seemed to be equally draining.  When the last die dropped, two players were out of characters, and the survivors were pretty glad to be alive.  On the other hand, faced with the overwhelming odds of what was occurring, my 13-year-old daughter swore at me for the first time.  I didn’t blame her, either.  It was an emotion-laden adventure.

The group used a combination of a rope work and a very potent spider climb to get to the ceiling of the ceiling of the main temple, and from there up the shaft.  When they saw that the shaft was barred, some groaned, but Mike, playing Dob, knew that his wizard could rust the bars out as a consequence of the mercurial magic effect on his magic shield spell.  Another wizard then used his rope work to shoot 50 feet out of the hole, immediately becoming ghoul bait.

(As a brief digression, we had a discussion about how something is easier to see if it is above mist than through mist.  Also, used to other campaigns I’ve run, my players know that I tend to have some un-dead able to sense the living.  They also know that my ghouls do not like the sun, and believe that if they can just get beyond the mist, they will be all right.)

They need to haul up their rope, which means having a front line against ghouls converging from all directions.  On round one, 1d6 ghouls come.  On round two, 2d6.  On round 3, 3d6.  By round 4, everyone is either on the floating rope or dead.  Dob, the wizard whose lucky rolls saved him from the Hound of Hirot, is slain and falls back down the shaft into the Temple of Duvan’Ku.  The rope is long enough to drop the remaining PCs beyond the mist, but ghouls follow them along on the ground.  Dropped in the sun, the ghouls leave them alone.  For now.

Two hours later, the PCs discover that their dog and falcon are gone.  Their conclusion?  Zeke Duncaster ate them.  Two hours after that, as night falls, they decide to camp and start a fire.  Remember, the cold is deadly on the mountain.  The PCs are wounded, dismayed, and low on Luck.  For some reason, they think that the un-dead will be confined to the cemetery even after dark.  One of the PCs is still paralysed at this point, because ghoul paralysis in DCC lasts 1d6 hours, and the clerics are concerned about disapproval by this point.

The fire attracts the ghouls.  I decide that 1d30 are attracted every 5 minutes, appearing as they did before:  1d6 on round 1, 2d6 on round 2, etc., until all the ghouls arrive.  Only five are rolled, 3 arriving on round one and 2 on round two, but the players do not know this.  One cleric is paralysed, and there are still two ghouls left.  The players are pretty sure that more will keep on coming.  The PCs flee, leaving the paralysed cleric behind.  I state odds and roll; the ghouls are distracted enough to eat the cleric while they run.

This is seeming more and more like a horror movie with each choice made, and as the consequences of those choices pile up.  The module as written offers players some hard choices, but the extra oomph of DCC magic actually prevented my players from taking some of the “outs” worked into the module, much to their overall detriment.

The PCs reach Zeke’s shortly before dawn, and collapse from exhaustion.  When they have recovered, they take Zeke (“I told you so!  I told you that you were all doomed!”  “Only half of us were doomed.  So you’re half right.”) with them.  As it turns out, going up there to get more names, Zeke found their animals and rescued them, so they are at Zeke’s “hut” in the woods.   

The group flees onward to Hirot, where they attempt to warn the town.  This means soap-boxing in the town square, visiting the new Jarl, Clohn the Bald, and talking to the witch.  Ymae is openly disdainful and asks what they are going to do about it.  The answer?  Nothing.  Run.

Overall, a bleak module, but definitely worth running.  The players keenly felt their net loss.  The surviving wizard has the spell, cantrip, which the player has been moaning about the uselessness of, so I pointed out that they could have recovered the lock of hair they were after with cantrip, without having woken the dead.

We talked briefly about what the players would like to do next, but my players decompression as much as I did, so I am not completely sure what the next session will be.  I am considering running another session of Through the Cotillion of Hours, to give the players a chance to undo some of the damage they have done.  There is a certain pulp grandeur in giving them the chance to travel back through time to prevent the dead from rising – one last chance to win or lose their surviving characters – that seems irresistible to me.  Of course, they would have to solve the Cotillion to do so.  And then they would still have to deal with the earlier version of Death Frost Doom if they succeed with the Cotillion, and James Raggi still holds some surprises for them!

As I said in a previous post, a little Raggi goes a long way.  I think I’ll hold off on The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time for a while!

Thursday 25 October 2012

Everyone Else IV: People of the Pit

I was waiting to get a chance to play this one before discussing it, but then I realized that I would get bogged down with other modules still waiting in the wings.  And, really, have I played through all of Barrowmaze yet?  No.  So better to just hop to it!

I picked up People of the Pit by Joseph Goodman at the same time that I grabbed Sailors on the Starless Sea, and I gave them both a good (avid!) read-through almost immediately.  Spoilers will, of course, ensue, so if you are going to play through this module, do yourself a favour and skip to the next blog.
When you take a look at the basic cover of the core DCC rulebook, and see that adventurer staring at a door across a mist-wreathed chasm, you might as well be staring at the genesis of People of the Pit.  If that image stirs your soul, this module will as well.

And the cover to the module?  It downplays what you are facing.  Considerably.

People of the Pit pits the PCs against a cult of degenerate humans that worships a great tentacled monstrosity living in just such a mist-wreathed chasm.  How big are these tentacles?  You can ride or crawl down them to get from one level to the next.  How degenerated are the cultists?  Depends upon how high in the hierarchy they have climbed…and bold PCs gain the opportunity to risk some of that degeneration themselves.

I noted what I believe to be nods to H.P Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Roger Zelazny ‘s Amber series, and I am pretty sure that there were other nods that I missed.  The climactic encounter could well have appeared in a novel by Abraham Merritt.  The module drips Appendix N flavour.  A wand that can be found herein was influential on my version of the create wand spell that appears on this blog and in Crawl! Fanzine #3.  It is part of a very nifty encounter.

The map itself follows the theme of entwined tentacles rather strongly, and is pretty evocative.  I am imagining that most players will “get” this, either consciously or subconsciously, as they try to navigate the spaces they are exploring.

Joseph Goodman includes magic teleport pods that allow characters to get from one place to another within the complex.  These pods require a spell check, and I admit that I was a little puzzled by them.  Goodman notes that anyone in DCC can make a spell check using 1d10, and it is nifty to include something in the module that allows players to make use of this rule.  But what is the penalty for failure?  Do you get to roll until you succeed, or is there corruption on a natural “1”?  Is there a limit to how often you may try?  I get the feeling that different judges will have different answers to these questions, and that seems perfectly fine to me.

People of the Pit is also interesting as there is the chance to incur a loss of Luck, a strong part of the implied setting from the core rulebook, but not often used in adventure creation to date.  There is also an NPC trapped in the area being explored that can be used as a replacement PC.  This is a good provision, as the module is deadly, but the enterprising judge may wish to prepare a character sheet using the Purple Sorcerer Tools so that the new character can jump right into play.

Judges interested in bringing patrons into play should also consider this module.  Although there is no patron write-up for the great tentacled beast…but there could have been.  You do get two new spells, and you certainly do get some creepy-good ideas.  Not every patron should be PC-friendly, or something that you’d want to take home to meet the folks, and this should definitely remind the players to be careful about who (or what) they make alliances with, if they would not like to end up like the cultists.

There are a lot of imaginative bits in this module, and it is one that I recommend.  I’ll be talking about it again, I feel certain, when my players have gone through it.  The module is very deadly, with some encounters that could certainly decimate the unwary or the unprepared, but adventurers who are clever, mostly cautious, but bold when they need to be, and lucky to boot should do well.  Certainly the players will have had an experience that they will not soon forget.

This is not Joseph Goodman’s best module to date – in the DCC line, I’d say that’s a toss-up between The Emerald Enchanter and The 13th Skull, both of which are cooler than a frozen penguin on ice – but it is a very, very solid 1st level adventure.  That I think the other two are better is a testament to how good they are, and is not a knock against People of the Pit.

I am looking forward to running this one, and give it a big thumbs-up!

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Should You Trust Your GM? (And other stupid questions)

On this thread on DragonsFoot, I have offered some opinions akin to (and the cause of) my previous blog post, Is Fudging Just a Style Difference?  I also opened up two polls to test premises that (1) players can generally detect when fudging occurs, and (2) most players prefer no fudging.

Now, I am a strong advocate of not fudging, and have been so for a very long time.  I am also a strong advocate of the GM running the game that he wishes to run.  Nor am I responsible for the initial thread, or the initial topic.  But, in the “As aplayer, do you prefer your GM to fudge or not fudge?” poll thread I triggered this from Frank Mentzer, who has been active in the initial topic, and whom I suspect has not actually read what he is responding to.

As this topic has turned into 3 separate threads (all driven by Raven_Crowking), I have a brief comment here.
(See the 1e forum thread "DM Cheating" for lots more, mostly from R_C).

The basic and insidious point here is to make you think about dishonesty and cheating in your games. A lot.

I reject that premise entirely. MY games start with mature cooperation and mutual respect.
While dishonesty may occur, it is normally a rare event.

If you accept R_C's premise -- that this is a Major Issue that you should be thinking about while you're gaming --
the entire experience is tarnished and degraded.

Anything can be discussed here on a message board. But when the underlying message starts with "don't trust your fellow gamers," imho that is a Bad Thing.

So be warned. Don't let this infect your game.


I realize that I write mostly from the GM’s point of view.  Most of my experiences take place on the GM’s side of the screen, and most of what I write about is what, for me, makes for the best gaming experience.  I do not think that advising the GM to “be trustworthy” is somehow advising players not to trust the GM. 

I am not responsible for the title of the 1e thread I responded to, nor am I responsible for the wording of the poll options.  Nor do I think that attempting to determine whether or not some assumptions I am making (to whit, that most players can detect fudging, and that most players prefer not to) are valid is attempting to infect anyone’s game with anything.  In fact, there are some results from these polls that are already forcing me to revise my position to some degree, so I believe that they are of value.

It has been a long time since I’ve written on the topic of whether or not you should trust your GM, and that was on EN World….I deleted a bunch of posts there, but some survived the cull.  This one is from April 2011, and is reproduced in full so you don’t have to visit the site.  I’ve used red to indicate the quotes from Hussar that are being responded to, as I reproduced Frank's post in red above.  My responses are in green.  If you don’t believe me, the actual post can be found here.

Originally Posted by Hussar
Reverse it around though. Given the benefit of the doubt, a mediocre player can do a reasonable job.

Maybe we're using "benefit of the doubt" to mean different things here.

In most games, a player advocates for his character. It is neither in his interest, or in the game's interest, that the player try to make things more difficult for himself.

In most games, the GM tries to make things difficult for the PCs in such a way that the PCs can, through effort, triumph more often than not.

IMHO, and IME, a mediocre player will attempt to advocate for his character through the application of the rules, i.e., will attempt to maximize effectiveness (potentially at the cost to other players). If you did not also experience this, your position on the Wizards and Warriors balance thread would be markedly different than it is.

So, no, in terms of "what is allowed", the GM should be actively involved in ensuring that all players have a relatively level playing field before the dice hit the table, and that the characters chosen by one player do not damage the fun of the others unduly.

Good players, IMHO and IME, do not have these problems. It is the GM's job, at least in part, to help a mediocre player become a good player.....just as it is the players' job, in part, to help a mediocre GM become a good one.

OTOH, the GM is specifically in a role that requires that he provide opposition for the player characters, essentially in the role of supplying all of the sudden reversals, unexpected dangers, WTF moments, and villiany that players enjoy overcoming.

If the players do not believe that challenges are there to make the game better, then these reversals do not seem like the GM doing his job, but rather like the GM being a wanker, the players lose motivation to overcome the reversals, causing them either to miss out on the payoff or causing the GM to just give the payout to them. In either of these last cases, the game spirals into a sink of diminishing returns and sooner or later folds.

Given no benefit of the doubt, a great player will seem like a total wanker.

This is true if, and only if, the GM thinks that the players' job is to stroke his ego or to lose. The GM must indeed give the players the "benefit of the doubt" that their attempts to overcome his opposition are in the best interests of the game, and the GM must also give the players the benefit of their efforts.

The GM need not "give the benefit of the doubt" that Class X, Combo Y, or Build Z will be good for the game. But within the parameters of what the GM does allow, the GM must absolutely be willing to "lose" to the players. Each roadblock, each sudden reversal, each problem that the PCs face exists to enrich the game, and to be overcome in some manner chosen by the players.

It's a two way street.

In that both must believe that the others are there to make a fun game for all, I agree.

See, I used to be a bit believer in the whole, "Trust Thy DM" creed that early games espoused. Then I got repeatedly bitten on the ass for it. So, no, my distrust of DM's came AFTER experience, not before.

Well, I suppose we have to take your word for that, but I have to tell you that through repeated discussions I have gotten the definite impression that there is a Freudian slip in your statement (i.e., that you typed "bit" instead of "big"). I suspect that your repeated problems with various GMs has not been as one-sided as you would seem to be suggesting.

But, I am certainly not putting words in your mouth!

I am not claiming that you have said that your distrust has caused problems with various GMs (which would be putting words into your mouth). I am saying that your various statements imply something that you are not saying. Which is, actually, an extremely common state of affairs among human beings. I doubt any of us are immune.

Another way to look at it:

With my game philosophy, I can find a group anywhere to run any system I so choose. I can say, "You must trust me to run the best game I can", and I have to choose who cannot play because I simply don't have the time or energy to run games for all who would wish to.

My games will certainly not be for everyone, but I have no fear of being able to game so long as I wish to, regardless of what happens with WotC or the D&D brand. It is not, has never been, and never shall be "Where can I get some players?" but always "How do I deal with so many who want to play?"

With your game philosophy, can you say the same?


I still stand by that post.

That I believe that the GM must indeed give the players the "benefit of the doubt" that their attempts to overcome his opposition are in the best interests of the game, and the GM must also give the players the benefit of their efforts is not in opposition to, but complimentary to, the concept that the players must also give the benefit of the doubt to the GM.

If you don't trust your GM, the game will suck.  Frank Mentzer is spot on about that.  But I am not advising you to mistrust your GM.  I wasn't doing it in 2011, I am not doing it in 2012, and I will not be doing it in 2013.  That would be as dumb as a bag of nails.

Friday 19 October 2012

Death Frost Doom

In this post, I talked about my players' first foray into James Raggi's excellent Death Frost Doom, as our group's Halloween Month themed adventure.   Last night, we had the second session of that game.

Having ended with the group's finding the lens that allows them to read the language of Duvan'Ku, the characters decided to go back to the cabin and take a look at the book on the desk, which for some reason they had largely ignored during the first session.  This led to an exploration of the house overall, but, oddly enough, they still didn't follow the footprints leading from the back door.  Ah, well, after this session they probably never will.

So, the party examined the book of offerings, and discovered that there were about 40,000 names in it.  They figured out that the last names were being marked by Zeke Duncaster, and even that he was using blood to mark them because he had no ink.  Cool.  They read the writing on the outside of the cabin, and, examining the mirror more closely almost figured out what it was for.  They still think that the clock is just random.

They discovered the bedroll, coins, etc. in one bedroom (and ended up putting the coins back, not wanting anyone to know that they are there and block the trapdoor.  Which, of course, is left open and un-padlocked.  Heh.

They find the purple lotus powder and take that.  Again, heh.  James Raggi certainly knows how to come up with ideas that play with players' expectations.  Even knowing that the purple lotus powder can destroy you, I feel certain that it will get used.  It hasn't yet, but.....

In the harpsichord room, they discover the thousand-year-old oil painting of the party.  This actually offers a major clue that makes the tombs below more survivable, but the players seem not to have remembered it.  Once, in the altar room, one player asked if there was a door.  Ah well.

In this room, I had a great chance to play with the characters, because they wanted to see if the lens could translate all languages.  One player wrote "Hello" in Chaotic on the floor.  The other player, and only the other player, saw "Help" written in Elvish.  He could not read it through the lens.  After trying several other things they finally went to leave the room where the second character saw "Agony" written in large letters on the door, in blood.  Real to the one character, not to the other.  They decided that this was because they had sacrificed their dead elven companion's teeth to get further into the complex on the last session.  There is some discussion about whether or not they should add the elf's name to the book of offerings.

So, back down into the crypts!

On the way up and down, I made sure to find out who was going first and who was going last.  It is not that these decisions had any serious importance in terms of events in the module, but asking the question made certain that the players understood that someone was going to have to be down there -- and up there! -- alone.  It is hard to run a creepy scenario without making the players think about, and commit to, their choices about things like this.

Once more, they use the dead elf's teeth to bypass the bronze door.  This time, they are more careful in their examinations, and turn right.  There they discover, using the lens, the Grimoire of Walking Flesh.  Do they take it?  No.  "Let's leave that now and get it on the way back."

Their wanderings take them to several other crypts, and, while the full extent of the burial vaults may not become clear to them, that there are a lot of dead folks here is.  On top of that, there are 40,000 names in the book of offerings....

They discover the Eye of Many Eyes, and are suitably creeped out, although they are fairly certain that the perception that the eye is following them as they move is an illusion.  They are concerned that, perhaps, there are eyeballs in the basin, and that they will have to pluck one out.  They go fishing in the basin, and discover that there are old copper pieces in there.  Dob, the Chaotic wizard, tosses in a copper piece, and gains a point of Luck.  That causes several other people to toss copper in, losing Luck or Intelligence, depending upon the character.  Then one character takes his copper back, and leaves.  Cough, cough, wheeze, wheeze, fever and illness.  Instant Stamina 4!  "I don't even get a saving throw?"  No.  No, you do not.

They then discover the Prayer Room, where the lens proves treacherous, because Dob reads aloud the inscription in the language of Duvan'Ku, causing characters to begin to make saving throws, in order, until one decides to tattoo the Dead Sign of Duvan'Ku on his body.  Luckily, he is prevented from doing so by his party, but during the long wait for him to recover, there is some talk of just letting him do it, and some talk of just smashing the ink bottle.  In the discussion of the terms of the curse, the inscription is almost read a second time (!) but wiser heads prevail.

They then discover the children's crypt, and open the door without putting coins in the fountain.  Twice.  With two separate characters.  Ah well.  Make a note of their ages, and go on.  The result should be fun if the characters survive the next session.  Dob is an old man in his 60's, so there might even be some initial benefit for him.

The characters then discover the High Priest's Temple, slay the sussurating plant creature, and move in to examine the room.  Quest object recovered?  Check.  Hmmm.....these golden chalices look interesting.  Better snag them.  Let's take a look at the book.  Another couple of inscriptions in the language of Duvan'Ku?  We will not read them, thank you very much, but it is interesting to note that a sentient creature must be sacrificed on the alter to open the secret door to the left of the altar.

Wait a tic....what's that noise?  The dead are starting to rise?  Best get out of here while we can!  Just a dozen or so there at the end of this tunnel?  We can push past them!  Err.....the numbers don't seem to be diminishing, the front lines are being cut off, and the judge has rolled three Critical Hits already.....One wizard has spellburned, twice, to recover flaming hands, and then immediately lost it.  Some of the players are getting that bleak look that announces an expectation of, if not a TPK, their characters not surviving.  Time to flee!  But where?  Wait a said there was a shaft over the altar?  Why, yes there is.

(A funny moment when they think they might end up having to fight their own fallen characters, and it is noted that the elf, at least, won't be able to bite as easily with far fewer teeth!)

(At another moment, Dob, the Chaotic wizard, is so effective at ordering the troops to fight these minions of Chaos that he is docked a point of Luck.  He is beginning to reconsider his alignment choice, although we also had a discussion of the many, many ways he could get that Luck back.)

I ask if anyone has seen The Walking Dead.....then casually point out that if you took all of the zombies in all of the episodes and added them all together.....there are more zombies down here.  Over 10,000, in fact. I'm not sure if saying this is a good idea or not, because the characters have no idea, yet, just how deep in it they are.  I think it is a good idea, though, to let the players know, because creating a sense of dread is as much about the players knowing how bad it is as anything else.

Of course, the rejoiner is, "That's better than we thought.  We thought there were 40,000!"

And then they remember the graveyard.

Now, magic in DCC can be quite costly to the caster, but it can also be quite powerful.  Clerics are healing people to shore up the flagging lines.  Ropework is cast to good effect.  Mighty Deeds are performed to cover retreats.  A natural 20 on magic missile gives the party a short breathing space, followed by a natural 20 on spider climb, and the assistance of the lucky halfling, gives the entire party the means to ascend the shaft.

Surprisingly, nobody dies this session, despite an initial decision to charge into the zombie hordes.  There is a growing sense of hope.  We leave it there for the night.

I am pretty sure that my players will be trying to think of a way to deal with this between now and next week's game.  Once more, massive props to James Raggi for writing this opus of fun and dread!

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Better World Books

A big thumbs up to Better World Books for responsive customer service!  You guys rock, and I will certainly keep you in mind for future purchases!

Is Fudging Just a Style Difference?

I contend that it is not.  To my mind, a difference in style is cosmetic, whereas a difference that actually affects the substance being offered is not.  If you don’t buy into that premise about style vs. substance, the odds are very good that you will not buy into the reasons I think fudging fundamentally changed what is being offered by a game.

The issue arises from a discussion on Dragonsfoot (, and is related to previous blog posts on Context, Choice, and Consequence: 

Simply put, you can run your game however you like. So long as you have even a single player interested in the type of game you want to run, you should run your game however you matter what I, or anyone else, thinks about it!

But the interplay between context, choice, and consequence is real, and it is what drives player interaction within the game milieu.

In my experience, the GM “fudges” for one of two reasons:

(1) He believes that the consequences of the choices made by the players should be ameliorated (for good or ill), or

(2) He believes that he has made a mistake in presenting the context, and therefore the (die roll dictated) consequences do not follow from the choice as presented to the players.

Either way, the GM is fudging because he has no faith in the choices made by the players. If the players play smart, and make a scenario “too easy”, they are effectively punished when the GM pumps up the opposition.  Likewise, when the GM makes things easier to prevent an “undesirable” outcome, he makes smarter play irrelevant while simultaneously deciding which outcomes are desirable and which are not. He narrows the range of the game to a very few possible outcomes.

There are three basic arguments that arise from the “pro-fudging” side of the debate:

1. Fudging allows the GM to keep “the story” on track.

This, of course, assumes that there is a single story that must be kept on track, with a known beginning, middle, and end.  It is a fallacy, for example, among some GMs that every module has a known beginning, middle, and end.

In reality, events in a game without fudging are a story only after the fact.  If you have determined the middle and end beforehand, then what do you need players for?  How can something where the players only occasionally get some minor input into what occurs be at all the same as a game driven by player decisions?

Let's take, as an example, a lovely outing against a Hill Giant Jarl. There is definitely a beginning, but what the middle and end are no one can say until events play out.  Do they find a way to burn the giants out?  Are they cautious and clever?  Do they tip their hand early, and end up facing the giants en masse? And the they find the route to the next module in the series?  Do they learn where to go by using speak with dead upon the Jarl's decapitated head?  Do they give up and run away?  Do they all die?

Even in a ten room dungeon, how do you know ahead of time that Room 10 is the end?  Perhaps there is a TPK in Room 5.  Perhaps Room 7 is so scary that the PCs give up and seek greener pastures.

Every published module has a beginning. Every published module has a lot of potential middle. Every published module has a lot of potential ends. If you know the middle and the end before you start playing, then you might as well be writing a novel.  In fact, the very difference between player choice mattering and not mattering may be summed up with whether or not there is “the” middle and “the” end.  And, as soon as you start lopping of ends (“Can't have a TPK in Room 3!”) to meet your idea of what “the middle” and/or “the end” are supposed to be, you have moved away from doing anything like what I am doing with the game.  The further you go down that road, the less this is “style” and the more it is substance.

Note also that there are game systems that give bennies allowing outcomes to change.  Many of those games give those bennies to the players, allowing them to choose when to alter the dice, thus allowing them to choose narrative paths by regarding context and while keeping potential consequences in mind.  This is different, in my mind, to GM fudging, because there is no attempt to create an “illusion” that choice matters; instead, another layer of choice is being added.   There is no “the story” before the fact; the story is what happens at the game table.

In essence, this argument supposes that a player-decision-driven sandbox and a railroad are two “styles” of the same thing.  I reject this supposition, and contend that they are two different things.  There is no reason for the GM to keep things “on track” unless there is a track to follow.....and I would argue that such a “track” destroys the core strength of a P&P game, which is the interplay between context, player choice, and the consequences of that choice.

You might as well be playing a computer game….and it is notable that computer games attempt to emulate that interplay of context, player choice, and consequence as far as they are able.  That this is important, and considered desirable, by a large segment of the gaming population should be made obvious by its adoption, in so far as possible, by other gaming industries. 

Indeed, if tabletop games were just Resident Evil when Gary and Dave set pen to paper, without the fancy graphics, I very much doubt that there would be a tabletop rpg industry today.  Computers can do it better.

2. Fudging allows the GM to re-balance encounters when they seem unexpectedly unbalanced.

Although this is addressed somewhat above, I would like to note that the perceived need for “re-balancing” is often the result of player choices, which have made the encounter easier or harder than the GM expected.  It is, specifically, removing the effects of those choices.  Changing the encounter or fudging the die rolls in this case absolutely removes the value of player choice, for good or ill.

Another common rejoinder is that the GM is fudging to ensure the outcome desired by the players.  But if the goal is to ensure an outcome that is desirable for the players, why not let them make that decision?  Leave it up to them to fudge their die rolls, and fudge their current hit points?  The answer is obvious – because it changes what the game is. It is not just style.

Any game that makes changing the die roll an overt choice, with limitations as to how that choice is implemented, empowers choice at the table. I am all for that. My game of choice (Dungeon Crawl Classics) uses a Luck mechanic that allows players to adjust their own die rolls, for example (or, in the case of halflings, die rolls of your friends as well).

Conversely, any game that attempts to make you believe that your choices matter, while the GM secretly fudges events behind the scenes to reduce the impact of your choices – whether by changing die rolls or otherwise – dis-empowers choice at the table.  It is the same problem that would occur with players being allowed unlimited ability to fudge rolls and hit points at the table; it changes what is being done at the table, and it is more than just a change in style.

The funny thing is, whether or not the GM’s fudging is of benefit is very easy to test.  I would encourage any fudging GM to instead put that power in the hands of the players, in the form of Luck or Fate points, or what-have-you, and then discover when the player wants the dice to stand or not.  I will guarantee you that 90% of the players I have encountered – in two countries and several American states – are happier to have that decision in their own hands.

The GM is plenty empowered – determining the context and what choices are available, as well as the range of consequences – without having to fudge anything.

A final rejoinder is that the GM cannot always balance encounters “properly”, or take every eventuality into account, and therefore should fudge die rolls to maintain fairness.

I don't believe that at all.  It is noteworthy that the “eventualities” that the GM fails to take into account are the decisions of the players, and the consequences of those decisions.  Changing things to revert an encounter back to the “expected status quo” is intentionally nullifying the choices made by the game’s participants.  In my opinion, the GM should be making it possible for the players to worry about balance.  It is up to the players to determine when they are in too deep, and to take appropriate action.

This does not mean that the GM need not do his best to make a playable environment for the game, but it does mean that, having done his best, the GM should not then fudge to ensure that his expectations for how encounters will play out are met.  It also means that, so long as the GM includes context by which player decisions can be made, it is possible to include encounters that are “unfair” if the players make poor choices. 

An excellent example of this can be found in Sailors on the Starless Sea (By Harley Stroh, for the DCC system), where there is a creature which can be easily bypasses, or which can easily kill over half the party if they fail to understand the clues providing context.  I have run games using this module where both have occurred, and the players had great fun under both circumstances.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon the GM to help make the context, and possible consequences, of choices available to the players.  It is not incumbent upon the GM to fudge encounters.  And, again, if the GM really feels that he is unable to do this properly, it is always better to put some form of “fate points” in the players hands, so that their choices matter, rather than remove the effects of their choices from behind the curtain.

In my experience, sooner or later, players always realize that the fudging GM isn’t really the Great and Powerful Oz.

3. Not fudging is being a “slave to the dice” or a “dice fetishist”.

This one is easy.

If you don’t want to consult the dice, don’t roll them with the intent to consult them.  If you don’t want something to be random, don’t make it contingent on the outcome of a die roll.  There.  Done.  You don’t need to be a “slave to the dice” in order to stop fudging.

Sometimes, in order to preserve the contextual information of the players to a level appropriate for their characters, the GM will want something to appear random when it is not.  For example, when a thief is checking for traps when there are none.  Not rolling is too good of an indication that there is nothing to find.  So, yes, you can roll the dice without the intention of consulting them, and still not be fudging.  If, however, you are rolling the dice with the intention of consulting them, and then decide to ignore the result because you don’t like it, then, yes, you are fudging.  And, also, either you should not have included that as a potential result, or you should not have consulted the dice.

The “dice fetishist” rejoinder is laughingly easy to respond to, because no one is suggesting you be a “slave to the dice”.  Simply don’t make random rolls if you don’t want randomness.

There is always, of course, the possibility that you are the type of GM who wants to fudge, because you want to preserve your storyline, or because you worked hard on an NPC or encounter, and you don’t want luck or good planning on the part of the players to ruin your shining moment.  If that is what you want, and you can find even one player that goes along with it, or is actively pursuing it, that is the kind of game you should run.

But I will not be playing in it. My response is a firm, but polite, “No thank you”.  And I do not believe that it is a difference in “style” – the farther you walk down the fudging path, the more you are doing something that is very different from what I am doing.  And that, my friends, is a difference in substance.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Fans of Doctor Who and RPGs ought to know....

If you are a fan of Doctor Who, and enjoy role-playing games, you really owe it to yourself to check out the Earthbound Timelords fanzine, Diary of the Doctor Who Role-Playing Games, and free adventure modules hosted on the site.

Another great resource is The Space-Time Vortex put together by Tim Hartin (which frequenters of Dragonsfoot will know as Turgenev, creator of many extraordinary maps).

I have yet to find a Doctor Who rpg that both satisfies my itch for Doctor Who and my preferences in role-playing games.  I have taken a run at the FASA game, Timelord, and Cubicle 7's Adventures in Time and Space.  I have also taken more than one stab at designing my own game to match both the programme and my preferences.

Still looking for that one perfect Doctor Who RPG.  What are your preferences?  And, if you have found yourself wanting to play in the Whoniverse, but have been dissatisfied by the current offerings, what sort of changes have you made to make the games better?

Friday 12 October 2012

Speaking of James Raggi......

 ........Last night I ran the first part of Death Frost Doom for my group of home players.  Now, if you haven't played Death Frost Doom, and you think you might want to play Death Frost Doom, or you happen to be one of my players, you might want to skip this post.  There will be spoilers.

Still here?  Okay.

As you are probably aware by now, my game of choice these days is Dungeon Crawl Classics (and if not, welcome to my blog, newcomer!), so I had to adapt Death Frost Doom to that system.  James Raggi wrote an easy module to adapt, and DCC is an easy system to adapt for, so that took next to no time.  Mostly, it was coming up with appropriate save DCs.  Whether or not a save should be Fort, Will, or Reflexes is generally pretty simple.

Death Frost Doom centres around the exploration of an abandoned graveyard, cabin, and temple of the cultists of Duvan'Ku.  It is a module where the GM gets the chance to warn the players repeatedly that this is where BAD THINGS ARE, and then gives the players more than sufficient rope to hang themselves.  It is an excellent module, and one that fits the vibe of certain Appendix N authors very well.

I began this campaign arc with Harley Stroh's Sailors on the Starless Sea, about which I cannot say enough good things.  Because one of the players wanted more information about a magic item the party had found in that module, I lured them to seek the witch in Hirot, and ran Doom of the Savage Kings.  I staged this adventure as a "favour" done for the witch in exchange for information about the magic item.  She wanted a lock of her daughter's golden hair returned from the vault of Duvan'Ku so that she could lay the unfortunate girl to rest.

As a result, I was able to have the witch advise that the characters touch nothing else, disturb nothing else, and above all not sleep on the grounds.  "They were bad people there.  It is a bad place."

The module gives the same job to the thoroughly disgusting and well-drawn Zeke Duncaster, who has been trying to lay the souls of those slain by the cult to rest for 40-50 years, and has succeeded in doing so for less than half.

Zeke is one of the best realized NPCs I've ever come across in an adventure module, and role-playing his character was a lot of fun.  Honestly, my only fear is that I didn't do the character justice!

The module has an excellent line for old Zeke that I was unable to use, because the party offered him no violence. But, at least, I was able to reinforce the witch's warnings, and use the "You're doomed!  You're all doomed!" line.

Eight hours up the mountain from Zeke's place, the group finds the graveyard and the cabin.  That the place is lifeless takes a while to sink in -- they end up retreating for four hours, and build a fire.  Because a few PCs didn't even have blankets, I called for a Luck check from them, and those who failed took hit point damage from their night's "rest" -- I was fully prepared to allow them to freeze to death.

Returning (carrying firewood), they arrived before dawn, to see the moon apparently trembling and the petrified trees seeming to move in the off light.  They decided to wait until sunrise.  One wizard had a dog, and one elf had a falcon, neither of which was willing to enter the area.  The dog (using my Golden Lion house rule, by this point a very loyal pet) actually threatens to attack his owner if dragged in.  They find some rocks to tie their pets to, and hope for the best.

It takes the players a while to note that, although Zeke had been carving the grave markers out of wood, everything in the graveyard is stone.  That can't be good.  Closer examination shows that the wood has petrified.  There is an eerie, otherworldly susurration droning across the graveyard, faint but piercing.

They briefly examine the well ("at least there's fresh water") and note the tracks leaving the back door (although they do not follow them).  In the front room, they note the weirdness of the chairs facing them, the clock changing its time when they are not looking (but not every time they are not looking!) and that the mirror does not reflect them all.  I believe that at least some of the players realized that the mirror's reflection trick was alignment-based.

They also briefly explored the harpsichord, but, being well admonished to leave things alone, they didn't explore much further than this.  But, then, what group of PCs was ever able to leave things alone for very long?

A note related to the Detect Evil spell in Dungeon Crawl Classics:  This is a potent spell, lasting a very long time, and it indicates anything that is inherently dangerous if cast well enough.  But, in Death Frost Doom, the entire area is inherently dangerous.  And I made certain to repeat this time and again.

The party decides to head down the trapdoor and explore the area beneath, following the witch's information that the lock of hair is in the shrine below the cabin.  They actually have little difficulty deciding who is going first, sending a dwarf on a rope because the dwarf has infravision.  With length to hold on top, and length to tie the dwarf on, the rope is not long enough, though, and everything down there is a uniform cold that appears black indeed to the dwarf.  Not deterred  the party ties two ropes together, and they are soon all in the area below.

They traverse James Raggi's effectively creepy entrance hall and take a long time to reach in the fanged maw of the door at the end, turn the key, and pass beyond.  Even determining that the door was not magical and had no moving parts (Find Traps) didn't make this an easy decision.  The room beyond was also creepy, and the party wasn't sure if it was some clue to use the left-handed double door to the next area, or that you would lose your left hand if you did.

(Several times during the session, the group had encountered writing that they could not read.  DCC uses random language acquisition, which results in PCs who can read a wide variety of interesting languages, and "Do you know what I can read?" came up more than once.  I simply smiled and didn't answer the question.  More on this later.)

The next room was the initial chapel, and here we would have the only three fatalities of the day.  Again, Detect Evil proved to be of great value, although the dwarf's ability to sniff out gold and gems indicated that the very areas they were warned most strongly about were the areas that they might find treasure.  What to do?  They did the wise thing, and left well enough alone, taking the northern door when they were unable to open the (strongly magical) eastern door.

The northern door led to living quarters of various types for the cult.  They found nothing there of real interest to them.  Although no one said a thing, yet, the absence of any sort of opposition was being noted.  Surely, things could not be this easy?  Having little else to do, they went back to the chapel and tried to figure out how to open the door.

Now the dwarf could smell gold in one of two basins half-filled with black water.  He stuck the tip of his sword in, and stirred around, feeling something like gravel moving within.  Eventually, he reached in and pulled out a gold locket and a handful of old teeth.  Within the locket was a picture of a golden-haired woman, but the painting had been damaged by the water.  They tried the other basin, and also found old teeth.  They considered smashing the basins, but ended up putting the teeth back.

Then they decided to get the treasure from the organ.  After examining it to figure out how to open it (which none of them could do), one of them decided to play it.  "What are the rest of you doing?" I asked.  One player said "Move away from it" but the rest just had their characters cover their ears, and the resultant yellow mold killed three of them.  On the bright side, they got the treasure, and they were able to use the dead elf's teeth to get through the eastern door.

They come across the first of the "air lock" (or vault) style bronze doors, and decide to strike north through another "air lock".  They discover the first of the massive crypts, which I carefully describe as a narrow passage 30' high and as far as the characters can see, with a burial niche roughly every 3' square.  I.e., the dead are stacked 10 high in a room that extends as far as the PCs can see, on either side.  If they had explored farther, found out how large the rooms are, found out how many rooms each burial vault contains, and realized that there was another level that was exactly the same....there are a lot of dead folk buried here.

They then discovered the room with an 18-volume History of Duvan'Ku and an eyepiece that allows a character to read the language.  I printed out slips of paper with everything written in the language of Duvan'Ku, and passed around the one reading, "The History of Duvan'Ku" to everyone who used the eyepiece, with a strict admonition that, while they could read it aloud if they desired, they could not pass the slip to anyone else.  The slip was always passed to me, and then passed to the next person.  Apart from trusting each other, there was no way to be certain that they were each getting the same slip.  This was very much intentional, and those who have read or played through the module know why.

Now, the earlier questions about languages hopefully made sense to everyone in the group, and the players all thought that the eyepiece was a neat magic item.  Again, those who have read or played through the module know why it was included!

That's where we left it for the evening.  The group felt (correctly) that they had gotten a lot done in comparison to other recent adventures (it took 4-5 sessions for them to work through Doom of the Savage Kings, meaning that Hirot lost a fair number of NPCs to the Hound while they worked out what to do).

Overall, I feel that I have a good group of players.  Although their performance was sub-par during Doom of the Savage Kings in terms of overall "player skill", they definitely had fun amid the frustration, ending the adventure with a spell duel, a one-on-one combat with the Jarl, and the general hilarity that ensues when players assume that the world exists to serve their character's desires/needs/whims.  By contrast, they really soared in Sailors on the Starless Sea, as well as several other DCC adventures used in different arcs of the overall campaign.

But that is how it is with players -- sometimes they truly amaze you with how clever they seem to be, and sometimes you are left wondering how they failed to realize the obvious.  From those times when I get to play, I have noted the same in my own performance.  Some days you are in tune with the game; some days you are stumbling around.

I am really looking forward to next week's game (we play Thursdays).  I have said before that a little Raggi goes a long way, but it is also true that a little Raggi does wonders for keeping the players from assuming that the world is set up to ensure that they win.  Death Frost Doom is a great adventure for breaking the bonds of 3.x's "everything is designed for you, so you will never encounter anything too challenging!" assumptions.  Death Frost Doom forces characters to think, very likely to run, and very possibly to make real Faustian bargains that will haunt them for many, many game sessions to come.  I highly recommend it.

I'll let you know how the game goes next week.......


Thursday 11 October 2012

The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time

Tonight, I am going to begin running my group of Dungeon Crawl Classics players through James Raggi's excellent Death Frost Doom.  I think that a little Raggi goes a long way.  As with a recent Dreams in the Lich House blog post about mundane adventures, I think that it is important to allow the PCs in a campaign milieu to experience a lot of things that are outside the "same old, same old" of dungeon exploration.

Appendix N is widely diverse, containing within it high adventure and lurking horror.  Tales both humorous and  light-hearted are balanced with grim stories of doomed men and women.  One of the strengths of Appendix N gaming is that a campaign can run the same gamut of emotions and styles.

Because of earlier reviews, I had been a little hesitant to pick up The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time, but I am very happy that I did so.  So much so that I wish Mr. Raggi would consider making all of his back catalogue of adventures available as Print-on-Demand products.  There are several that I would like to own print copies of.  Thankfully, other reviewers convinced me to plunk down money for this and The God That Crawls, and it is possible to order print copies of these!

As with some other reviewers, I think that it would be a disservice to prospective players and judges to go into details about The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time.  Suffice it to say that Mr. Raggi has accomplished his goal -- a truly Lovecraftian adventure that doesn't reference Lovecraft.  This module not only begs to be read, but it begs to be played.  The events therein may be campaign-altering, but most importantly they will prevent the players from assuming that the world is level-appropriate, or that things are always what they seem.

And that note about the world being level-appropriate is meant in a good way -- this is not a "killer dungeon", but it is an adventure that creates situations destined to creep out the characters (and the players!) and one which may cost the PCs much in the long run.  Or not.  The players have hard decisions to make, and those determine the outcome as much as anything else.

Frankly, The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time is a masterwork of the macabre and the eerie.  In it, James Raggi fully accomplishes his stated goals.  This is a perfect adventure to adapt to Dungeon Crawl Classics, keeping in mind the importance of player agency in choosing to tackle the adventure.  And while it does need some adaptation and some tweaks to make it work in the multi-planar environment that is many of our campaign milieus, IMHO it is very much worth it.

(P.S.:  I am considering adapting The God That Crawls as a 0-level funnel, using the base setting of the module -- the real world of 17th Century England.  That should be great fun for all involved!)

Monday 8 October 2012

More on the Sandbox

If you don’t read the comments, you might have missed it, but GaelicVigil put together a pdf file of the first sections of the Sandbox series.  It is available here.

Thanks GaelicVigil, and good gaming to you all!

Thursday 4 October 2012

Reading Appendix N: The Efficiency Expert

Edgar Rice Burroughs is a prolific author, and an author whose works include far more than the Mars, Venus, Pellucidar, and Tarzan novels.  Some of his works have no overt fantasy or science fiction elements whatsoever.  Whether these novels fall into the “Appendix N” criteria is, of course debatable.  They probably did not from Gary Gygax’s point of view, as Gary once told me he preferred Robert E. Howard for plots and ERB for monsters.

There are no monsters in The Efficiency Expert, except for the purely human kind.

Still, I think that there is some value in looking at ERB’s other works, because he followed the same general pattern in crafting all of his novels, and because there are always imaginative details to look at.

The Story

Jimmy Torrance is the son of a wealthy businessman on the West Coast, who is doing very well in College sports, but whose grades are not the best.  He manages to pull it together, graduate, and then heads to Chicago, hoping to make it good out East.

Needless to say, his understanding of his job prospects are unrealistic, so that he ends up doing menial labour of various types before getting a job as an “efficiency expert” – on forged credentials.  He discovers that the factory’s assistant manager is actually embezzling from the company in order to pay his gambling debts.  The factory’s owner, Elizabeth Compton, is engaged to the assistant manager.  Eventually, the embezzler kills the owner, and frames Torrance for the crime.  Only the help of a pickpocket and safe-breaker known as “The Lizard” and the prostitute, Little Eva, prevent Jimmy Torrance from being convicted and hung.

Interestingly enough, although ERB has his protagonist marry Elizabeth Compton’s friend Harriet, it is not until after Little Eva dies that this occurs.  ERB makes certain that we understand that Little Eva is the “best girl” that Jimmy Torrance knows.  Without killing Little Eva off (in what seems a contrived manner), it is clear that ERB would have been left with his wealthy hero marrying a street worker….something that the publishing world of 1921 probably wasn’t ready for!

Elements for Gaming

Many judges will recognize their PCs in recently-graduated Jimmy Torrance, who is surprised that the world isn’t flocking to hire him to run their businesses.  Being able to box, play football, and play baseball may be wonderful, but they don’t translate to social prestige (unless you do them professionally); similarly, being able to survive a 0-level funnel adventure makes the PCs special, but it does not mean that the campaign world will fall all over itself to enrich them!

Jimmy Torrance is literally a man who gets by with a little help from his friends.  But his potential friends are not just friendly for no reason….in each case, Jimmy does something for them first without any expectation of reward.  He earns his friends.

For example, the Lizard is introduced as a pickpocket.  Jimmy foils the pickpocket, but refuses to turn him in to the beat cop that investigates the altercation.  This is the beginning of Jimmy’s friendship with the pickpocket, and of the antagonism the cop feels for him.  When the Lizard follows Jimmy back to his room, he offers to return Jimmy’s watch.  Now, Jimmy wasn’t even aware that his watch was stolen, but he takes it in stride, with good humour, and even offers to pay the Lizard what he would have gotten had he simply fenced the watch.

It should be noted that (1) the world isn’t waiting for Jimmy to roll it over, (2) it is Jimmy’s willingness to come to the aid of others – even at cost to him – that gives Jimmy the necessary advantage of having friends, and (3) the circumstances wherein he helps someone come at a cost to someone else, and that someone else ends up being an enemy to some degree or other.

These are good pointers for a judge dealing with social encounters, and they are important for players to consider as well.  The player who imagines that NPCs exist only to be used by his character will end up with characters who are not very popular with said NPCs.  Notably, Elizabeth Compton is the only character in the novel who absolutely fails to learn this lesson, and she is punished for it.

For the judge, it is important to remember that having NPCs behave this way – doing something for the PCs without hope of benefit to themselves, sometimes at their own detriment – is a great way to make the players care about the NPCs in your setting.

In addition, ERB draws a number of stereotypical characters – the union boss, the embezzler, at least two versions of the job boss, the beat cop, the prostitute with a heart of gold – all characters that can be used almost directly in a role-playing game.  As a character, the Lizard begs to be used in a game.


There are certainly some non-PC elements in this novel.  The idea of someone doing good being “mighty white” comes up more than once.  As a modern reader, you might find this both jarring and/or offensive.

The Efficiency Expert is not ERB’s best book, nor is it the most important book for adding the “Appendix N” feel to your games.  If you find yourself having access to a copy, however, it is a reasonably interesting and quick read.