New on Desk #45 — Death in the Party

I wanted to title this “death in the family”, but figured that my friends might get distressed. The dear departed is an imaginary character, perhaps beloved a bit, but mainly worthy of note because I have had such a pleasantly calm week that this was the most excitement we had. I’d like to make a profound comparison to the death of a pet here, but I imagine more animal-loving people would take that the wrong way.

The absurd cornerstone of D&D: character death

We haven’t had any player character deaths for nigh-on two-digit number of sessions in the Coup campaign now — the last deaths were in July, I think. The campaign’s been bloody enough, but my campaign rules go full on into various injury buffer mechanics, which tends to mean that characters often end up going “down”, possibly for months of recuperation, without quite dying. (Much superior compared to binary minimalism where 0 HP = stone dead; would recommend.) Still, a real death came as a harsh surprise to us after the party had managed to avoid that with smart play so far.

There is also a distinction between the deaths of filler characters (for lack of better name) and characters that players have put some emotional commitment into. The common wisdom for this kind of D&D is that you don’t lean forward into developing a new character as an unique individual with interesting fictional positioning and whatnot, as fate can snatch them away from you at any moment; “levels one and two are your backstory”, as they say. I’m very much a forward-leaner myself, and although I don’t get to play as character player a lot, I’ve certainly had my share of falling star characters over the years, burning brightly yet quickly. It works for me personally as an artistic position, as I seem to be able to enjoy the tragedy of character death; this is not a given, it’s relatively common for this feature of destructive antidramatism in old school D&D to be the deal-breaker when the player realizes that these fuckers just killed Blackleaf and runs off to grieve.

This was the hardest-hitting death so far in a campaign that will, by all reason, see quite a few of these as we go along: this is the game, the desperate scrabble and cynical gauging of risk in a world where you can hold onto whatever ideals you care to imagine, but the dice don’t care, and everybody’s a mere hit point counter away from final demise. I hope we’ll stand the grief and frustration here as well as in the future; that’s basically a requirement if I’m to fulfill my dream of finishing a full playthrough of D&D.

(Yes, there is resurrection magic in the relatively Gygaxian Flanaess that the Coup campaign is set in. It is out of the reach of all but the most privileged of society, and you can bet your last saving throw that I’ll do my best to avoid trivializing it. That’s one of the error states of the game, getting a campaign trapped in character perpetuity.)

Make no mistake; character death, even when you’d prefer they didn’t die, is an absolute cornerstone of the game. Personally I don’t view it as the same game once you take that away and leaven it with the historically familiar techniques and ideas like GM oversight (“only kill them if they make a mistake that justifies it”) or whatever. The death as failure condition keeps the game honest in the sense that the it makes choices real, referee neutrality real, artistic commitment to the wargame real. It keeps the game a game as opposed to fantasy story hour.

The Life of David McCloud — an eulogy

“Sir Dave” was generated some dozen sessions past as one of the second-wave characters we needed after the encounter with the dread owlbear statue in the Ytragern Manor secret study. The situation there was entirely perilous, very close to a total party kill, but two of the characters who’ve since risen to perpetual core status in the party — Rob and Phun — survived by the skin of their teeth. Sir Dave was one of the two characters who were distinctly brought up after the owlbear golem massacre; his cadre-mate is the still-surviving Athes of the Barrens, a horse nomad who was instrumental at times in the manorial maneuvers thanks to his wilderness skills.

While Athes is of more common stock, Sir Dave was born special: he was one of the first characters created after the campaign instituted the “nobility” chargen rule: characters with particularly good stat lines have a small chance of being discovered to be “noble”, which is a sort of semi-formal character creation status that affects your available starting wealth, but in the main implies that the character has a great familiar history: the player gets to choose what kind, but in some way the character is intimate with a Name Level person of Flanaess. Sir Dave was found to be a noble (not very likely, the percentage odds are in the single-digits), so we knew he was special from the start. As a Fighter sort we were quick to establish that he hailed from the Shieldlands, this precariously positioned border march of the kingdom of Furyondy; probably the son of some Count-Captain of the Order of Holy Shielding. The player soon decided that while Sir Dave had the stats to be a Paladin, he was not; he was merely aspiring to be one.

As if he wasn’t sufficiently special, Sir Dave also got “Foil”, which is another special status in chargen; it’s basically the Basic D&D stat-based XP bonus, except made more interesting. As a Noble Foil Fighter Sir Dave was truly the cream of the crop, head and shoulders above his peers.

In Sir Dave’s second session, I think, I was inspired to expand on his background a bit; this is technically the player’s purview, but they were happy with my suggestion when I thought of some more detail. The conceit was that Sir Dave left his home back in Shieldlands (later established more specifically in Stahzer county) because he had failed the paladinhood tests as conducted by the blackguard neighbour rivals of his father, the Lord McCloud. So Dave knew that all’s not well in the land of Denmark, but as like the third or fourth son, and a failure to boot, he had little traction in the homeland to do anything; he’d decided to go adventuring to find some leverage: get to mid-levels over the summer, gain some ready cash, go back to clean house in Shieldlands, save his father from neighbours who might or might not be secretly working for the Horned Society. Fine plan!

Sir Dave’s our test drive character for the “noble” chargen status, and in hindsight I have to say that I love it, and am eager to get more of these. There are interesting things you can do with a noble starter, particularly when you realize that “noble” is just a rules-formal technical term indicating “has familial relation to a Name status character.” There are some funky options in that regard, you don’t have to be a feudal noble scion. You could be, for example, the chosen successor to a cultivation tradition.

Over the next few sessions Sir Dave settled down for the player. This was when we started working on the “vermintide” (there was a crazy amount of giant rats in the cellars of the manor house, completely bonkers), and, well, there was an issue: Dave had just one hit point from his HP rolls. A fine, above average stat line (of course, you don’t get to be a noble without one), but bad luck with the HP roll. He even got scratched a bit here and had to take like three days off to recover.

In the middle of the vermintide (it was literally left to fester for two weeks), the party was visiting Greyhawk City to offload some more exotic loot, so Sir Dave, this 1st level newb adventurer, put together some of his noble nest egg and his share of the adventuring profits, and ordered a fine full plate armor worthy of a knight from the Greyhawk manufactors. The idea was to grimly hold onto life by upping armor class as much as he could. (I’ve made plate armor less intensely superior than traditional Gygaxian rules, but it is still the best thing in the world.) It would take like three or four weeks for his armor to be ready.

But then it was back to the manor, with the plate armor in the works, and giant rats everywhere. The party didn’t ultimately lose many people in the vermintide, thanks to very coherent tactical play, but Sir Dave could feel the gloom of that 1 HP pool: could he get up to 2nd (and presumably rocket up in HP with a 2d8 roll) before a random lucky roll from the occasional rat that could even manage to try a hit took him out? The rest of us might not have been very pot-committed with Sir Dave quite yet at this point, but his player obviously ways: that’s what D&D does, it gives you a nice stat line you fall in love with, and you make a character of it.

So what the player did next was pretty interesting: they sent Sir Dave, this 1st level character, up to Greyhawk City for a two-week recovery vacation. Campaign rules state that you get to reroll your HP after a two-week vacation (also on level-up, note), so the player calmly had Sir Dave go wait for his plate armor to finish, living off his funds in the City (living expenses are double there, it’s the most urbanized place on the continent). The player rolled up a second character for the waiting period, one Rhat Bastard; the total opposite of Sir Dave, with a very below-average stat line (CHA 3 perhaps the piece de resistance here), Rhat was also special in that he qualified for the “wretch” status. Wretches are in the Coup campaign the opposites of noble characters: amusingly tragic backstory, bottom of the barrel.

The rest of the group fell in love with Rhat Bastard for his self-loathing, hilariously wretched life-style and dog-like loyalty to Rob Banks, the glorious leader of what was slowly developing into the Yggsburg mob. I even have this interesting pet theory of where you’d even get such a truly horrid specimen of humanity. (I like to think that he’s an ex-archmage mind-wiped by his enemies, to be specific.) The player himself wasn’t and isn’t enthusiastic about Rhat, though; he was just a side-show while campaign time crawled forward and Sir Dave could return to the fray.

The awaited day finally came a couple of sessions ago; Sir Dave returned from downtime with some very interesting developments. His armor purchase had gone well, such that he now sported prime military gear, and believe me they know how to gear up a knight in Greyhawk. Dave had also realized that he could leverage his good family name in Greyhawk, so he promptly took like a 1k GP loan from a loan shark. The man who returned from Greyhawk was a well-pampered, self-confident one, full of news from the wider world. (Dave literally brought a dozen rumours, adventure hooks and such with him on his return; quite useful.)

However, what really aflamed everybody’s excitement around Sir Dave was that while in Greyhawk he’d continued following his dreams of paladinhood: participating in the Flower Vigil of Hieroneus the paladin god, he critted a prayer test and got a direct vision from the god himself; couldn’t have been much better for Sir Dave, who was looking for a cause and the holy blessings to elevate himself into paladinhood so very valued in the Shieldlands. (The entire nation is basically a Hieroneus-worshipping military order.)

Hieroneus offered what Hieroneus does, a valiant quest, a chance for the aspirant to test his mettle. He blessed Dave and told him to prove himself by visiting the final death upon one Khaldun (of the Deathcrypt Khalduns, as I like to specify), an ancient undead sorcerer who, as per the divine information-source, hides out his days beneath the Cairn Hills near Greyhawk. (This is somewhat contraindicated by the secular lore; common wisdom has it that the Cairn Hills, while home to many cairns and tombs and such over the millenia, has been thoroughly grave-robbed by the greedy adventurers of Greyhawk.)

We were all rather excited by the insanity of Heironeus here: he was offering a 1st level character the chance to assault a lich dungeon! (For those unfamiliar with the terminology, that’s 1st level vs a level 12+ fortified position.) Three months until the blessing ends, and of course you don’t need to do what the god specifically got around to requesting of you; after all, it’s not like you specifically asked the god for a test of your mettle. Succeed, and we can say that the Paladinhood is a done deal!

So that was Sir Dave’s strategic position on his return to Yggsburg: three months to find and settle one Deathcrypt. (I love the name of the place, so stupid.) Plenty of time to level up some more, gather his allies and rocket to the moon (in terms of scoring XP and whatnot, and who knows, maybe there’s a moon rocket in the Deathcrypt).

The Spider-Doom of House McCloud — a death certificate

The party were exploring the manor again in Monday’s session, except the competing adventuring party, which I’ve decided to call “Basgaard’s Bozos” to indicate their general level of competence, came there as well on the same day. They had a new leader, one Donreg, a mercenary from Greyhawk who’d apparently been hired by the party backer to bring some badly needed backbone into their operation. Donreg did pressure the PC adventurers mightily, demanding them for a loot-sharing agreement (with the implicit threat of violence if they wouldn’t go for it, of course).

Rob got this genius idea of using the Bozos as help in clearing out some monster nests down in the manor basement: free fighting hands and damage soaks, right? So the two parties would first work together to clear out the monsters, and then after that they would work together to clean out the manor attic, splitting the loots from the activities in half. I don’t know if the PCs intended to hold onto the deal, but it was struck. The theory was that the monster nests in the basement (one of giant centipedes, the other of giant spiders) would likely contain some sweet loot.

The social nuances played out such that the party let this new Donreg fellow (a 3rd level Fighter, as was found out) lead the joint exercise, which shaped out after a bit of planning into a static closed formation assault on the giant spiders: set the men up with their shields and spears in close double-line formation near to the retreat route, have some party archers poke the spiders to aggravate them, then slay them when they assault the spear line. Donreg took the line-head position on the right, with Sir Dave on the left side with his new pole-axe (already proven horribly effective in the last session; a very high-damage build for a 1st level character).

There wasn’t anything in particular wrong with the tactics of this spider encounter. The strategy is questionable (think for yourself: was this really a necessary fight to pick? Really?), but the tactical plan was fine. The two adventuring parties may have been suspicious of each other, but those suspicions didn’t prove decisive here. What did, though, was the dice.

There were four giant spiders, 3 HD each. They attacked with 1d20+3 against the various armor classes of the shield line, generally around 16, except for Donreg (18 I think) and Sir Dave (19 or 20). The spiders could not concentrate their attacks (and wouldn’t have, being stupid animals), so they picked random targets. The line got first strike, which was the main idea here; ideally they’d outright slay some of the spiders before they could even do anything. The spiders had AC 15, a bit of shell and that horrible unnatural speed you sometimes see in giant spiders.

One factor that the party could not account for here was that the spiders were darkbrood nestlers — think Shelob, “bloated and grown fat” on the dark magical residues of this place — and therefore had noticeably above-average hit point scores. Nothing extreme, but they were 17 HP a piece, which proved too much for the party to put down in a single round. They did try mightily, I think the best one took 11 points of damage before even getting into combat.

The spiders, though, were devastating when they struck at random victims: Sir Dave took 18+3 in the face, and the spider used its terrible jaw strength to crush metal plate on the heavily armored knight. Dave now had a respectable HP count of 5 points, but the spider rolled 6, so down he goes. The real kicker was the poison, though: 3d6, save minimizes (to 3, to be clear), except of course he didn’t make the save. One roll later and Dave’s at -17 HP, dead as a doornail. So that’s it for our paladinhood dreams.

The next round one of the spiders went down, but then the spiders critted against Donreg and killed him, too. The darkly hilarious part was that simultaneously another spider happened to chew on Basgaard, the second-in-command and original founder of the Bozos. In one fell swoop all that were left were 0th level hirelings and the remains of the PC party. This would be the last expedition of the Bozos, that was very obvious. (To be clear, the Bozos never had “PC demographics” — it was just this one 1st level Fighter, their 1st level Commoner friend, and a bunch of 0-level hirelings.)

Morale broke, as it does, and the parties escaped without further losses, thanks to some a bit more lucky dice rolls. The bodies were left to the spiders.

I will not abandon you

To be clear, that was horrible. Basgaard’s Bozos being decimated was fine, those jerks were asking for it, what with daring to snoop in on the adventure location chosen by the PCs in the grand game of life. But Dave, we’d just gotten excited about his growth potential. His father (acted by Brian Blessed as a newly vegetarian paladin count) is about as developed as any NPC, and he’s only been relevant as a flashback backstory fellow. I like him and his little family drama so much that we might come back to that even with Dave dead as a doornail. We’d just recently figured out that the elder McCould is married to a Baklunish kungfu lady, so that makes Dave half-Baklunish himself.

Dave’s player is a passionate fellow (I mean this in an entirely positive way; he’s honest, says what he thinks, and deals with his emotions instead of suppressing them), he needed to step out from the session when Dave died so suddenly and meaninglessly. The rest of us continued the game, but I have to admit that I was a bit worried about how he’d take this. This isn’t his first old school rodeo, and he has suffered setbacks (as everybody does), but I’ve certainly felt that his heart isn’t really in it when it comes to this part of the game; he’s an ambitious thespian of all things, and loves middle-school style princess play storyline D&D. (We’ll totally have to do some more of that at some point; I think we can improve on our Chronicles of Prydain campaign even further. Dragonlance next?)

We’ve talked over our feelings like good 21st century boys over the week, so I can happily report that everybody’s recovered from the shock. The other players present at the time are stone-cold hardcore themselves (long, successful campaigns under their referee belts, too), so I was probably the second-most upset by Dave’s death (well, I’m writing a long-ass eulogy here, am I not), and Antti himself was quick to bounce back, as he does. He did promise to not care about his next character before they’re 3rd level, which is a valiant sentiment; we’ll see how it goes! He rolled a pretty average stat line (not that any wouldn’t look like that next to Dave the Chosen One) for the next guy, but apparently it’s good enough for a Ranger, so maybe that’s his next move? Apparently he’s unlikely to return to Rhat Bastard, his side-thing from Dave’s vacation era, despite the rave reviews and clear development path the character has.

Also, there’s been an increasing trend and interest in bringing in old characters from other campaigs. (Coup allows you to bring in any “legitimately developed” character who is “still alive”; basic open campaign hijinks.) With the other players digging frankly ridiculously deep (a couple of them just realized that their character stables from our early-’00s “Bextropolis” fantasy Greek 3e campaign are alive and legit), we also realized that hey, Antti actually has a perfectly serviceable 3rd level Paladin alive in our ’17 fantasy Europe campaign arc. The hella ominous part is that Sir Hawkwood, also, faced giant spiders in his time, and was also struck down by them — but he survived where Sir Dave failed! My pet theory is that the grief in the Life Force caused by Dave’s death emanates through the Ethereal Plane and finally inspires Sir Hawkwood to escape from the troll slavery he’s been languishing in for what, ~3 years now? So that’ll be a thing at some point in the campaign’s future.

The Coup continues, even as individual characters fall; this much isn’t enough to break our fighting morale. I hope the players lucky enough to have their characters survive will be diligent in helping others up the ladder. The way the fundamental math works in the game it’s not difficult to catch up, assuming the stronger characters help out.

Monday: Coup de Main #21

Session #21 was productive, exciting and tragic — one of those where every development seems to come to head at once. I discussed the early part of the session above in the eulogy, so just a few words about what we did after that unfortunate giant spider encounter.

The remains of Basgaard’s Bozos, the competing adventuring party, decided to leave the mansion and never come back. The hirelings of the PC party did the same at this point, having been thoroughly demoralized by the events of the last two sessions. This left just two PCs — admittedly our best, Rob and Phun — to continue. Phun aced his CHA check with the Bozos and they revealed to him that their client/boss Kimchiel the Merchant was waiting for them a half mile or so from the manor with four more mercenaries.

The players were very vary about meeting with Kimchiel and his probably-leveled mercenaries out in the woods, what with all the ludicrous conspiracy theories (alarmingly precise, to be clear) they’ve developed about the Greyhawk Wizards’ Guild conspiring with orcs and lusting after their neighbour’s magical relics and so on. This didn’t prevent them from doing one more heist before escaping from the manor: there was a locked chest up in the attic, and the players were pretty sure that it had some good stuff in it, so they should break into that before going.

Now, this was entirely amazing, I was about as astounded as I was shell-shocked by Dave’s death earlier: the chest itself was basically an exercise in fuck you to the players in that while there was indeed good stuff inside, there was also a trap that would destroy the contents if triggered. The trap could only be avoided by a combination lock (four bits, so 16 possible combinations) and the key, which at this point is probably somewhere in Gnarley Forest, laughing as it goes. So hot poison gas for everybody when they get into messing with it, basically.

However, the player of Rob Banks, the resident Thief, is apparently some sort of psychic mastermind. It was amazing to see him proceed to outline his chest-opening plan, completely from first principles. He predicted that the trap (pretty sure there’d be one) would be a gas one (chest bolted to floor; think about it), so the characters painstakingly constructed a kind of tent in an effort to channel the gas safely if it was triggered. Rob splashed himself with water, prepared his retreat route, had a wet blanket to use as a shied if there was a sudden explosion or such… he was like a surgeon here. Unfortunately, to be able to pick the lock, he had to leave a hole in the tenting (just like a surgeon does) to operate through, and it just so happens that the poison gas was set to push with great pressure through the keyhole; it’d come off in his face!

But then, the psychic masterstroke! Rob decides to “press all the pins down” while successfully turning the tumblers of the lock. You can believe that I’d thought it out very carefully as to whether the trap would trigger if the chest was opened without the actual key, but I ultimately could see no reason why it couldn’t be picked — that’s how pick-locking works, and this was clearly a mechanical trap. And, what was the combination to the pins? “If all pins are not pushed down and they rotated…”

This was one of those treasures in the adventure module that aren’t very likely to be successfully captured, what with the combination lock that I at least don’t see any hints for in the module. (The poison gas was wuss stuff, not relevant except in that it’s intended to ruin the treasure.) However, the psychic mastermind walked away with the loot: three partials of early grimoires of none other than Zagyg the Mad Archmage! Sure, it’s just his early apprentice stuff, but that’s what all these guys are; mere beginners in rooting out the arcane mysteries of the Archmage. There’s the Lightning Bolt spell, for example. Good stuff.

The players, being on a roll, stopped to analyze the hexcrawl game-plan the Kimchiel counter-party was likely to adopt (they were pretty sure that Kimchiel would want to take those spellbooks from them), and then trekked through the wilderness to go the long way around: they spent the rest of the day, and the next, taking a more secure route to return to town.

The session ended pretty dramatically when the party noticed that Kimchiel was waiting for them back in town. Seeminly innocently he greeted the adventurers (having become acquaintances with Rob previously), gave them some money they were owed from prior dealings, introduced himself to the new faces, generally tried to keep them chatting, perhaps take some drink with him, at least wash the dust of the road off and such. The adventuring party has a pretty mean social game (mainly due to player skill, but Rob’s certainly building himself up with game mechanics, too), so they managed that encounter well enough. Kimchiel’s no push-over either, though, so there was much confusion about what he actually wanted from them now.

The last move of the session was that when they’d finally gotten rid of Kimchiel and convened at the Inn to decide on next moves, the players went over the events and correctly predicted an upcoming riposte assault. Unless you play this game (wargame D&D), you don’t know how rare that is! Usually players are completely blindsided when some party in the sandbox, secretly, decides to go fuck it and react to the party’s deeds by sending a hit crew at them in the middle of the night. It’s an obvious thing to do in a dynamic wargame, but D&D culture has a bias against NPCs seizing strategic initiative, so players rarely expect it when it happens. It’s one of the most dangerous things that can possibly happen to a middle-levels group, and there’s no reason why a group playing merely tactically won’t die to it every time. (I’m not counting the tainted TSR-style dramatic assassin events where the assassin ever-so-conveniently fails to sneak and the heroes get to have a fair fight.)

But here the players thought for a while about what their next moves would be, which led them to (as is good procedure) think about what they believed Kimchiel would do, on the premise that Kimchiel thinks they have the McGuffin and whatnot. And they did indeed decide to move inns well after dark, going to the effort of finding everybody different accommodations just in case Kimchiel would try something during the night. This was just wonderful in that we were already going pretty long on the session, and everybody was already in a relatively celebratory mood, in “the expedition is over” mode, but they still guessed right on what my next move would be. (I’d known that Kimchiel would try this since they escaped him at the Manor.)

We ended the session on the next morning, with the PCs getting the news that their old inn had indeed been assaulted in the very early morning by armed men who decisively roughed up the entire house, obviously searching for Phun Eral and his pals.

For people unfamiliar with this style of play, I’ll clarify that what we witnessed here were four very unprompted, non-reactive strategic moves from the players during this session. None of these were in any way suggested to them by the referee, or even genre conceits; it was just them maneuvering. The first one was a bit of a dud (the “let’s attack the dangerous spiders for no reason”), but then they telepathed the trapped chest, escaped from a waiting ambush, and avoided the night ambush, leaving some potentially pretty dangerous enemies biting dust. I’m just excited at how cogent the moves have been lately in a game that usually has fog of war and general confusion result in hilariously dumb strategies.

Session #22 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 9.11., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

A chat play postscript

As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve been doing a bit of chat play development in between the sessions. This week we actually were pretty productive in that regard, as it was finally time for our accidental #MeToo epic to conclude: Fridswid the Witch had her day in court, accused of manslaughter and Sorcery after she defended herself against a drunken assault by a bunch of stablehands and accidentally killed one of them with her magic.

I developed a specific jury trial subgame for the purpose where players could develop argument quality and roll rhetoric checks and whatnot. I even allowed for side participation by players who wanted to join the jury. Good stuff, and I’m actually looking forward to the adventurers doing more crimes in Oeridian jurisdictions just for more of this legal wargaming.

The actual case was pretty exciting, as it seemed at first that Frida would be completely fucked by the actually competent lawyers on the other side, and her own foreignness and general shyness. However, two specific maneuvers completely turned the tables: Heikki, one of the uninvolved players, had been reminding the trial team for a while about the importance of looking for character witnesses to the slain man’s nature, on the premise that he was a well-known bully and drunk, so it was very credible that Frida had actually been defending herself (as opposed to collecting drunk fat for her Sorcery, or whatever). Because Sir Dave, a member of the trial team, died suddenly, he never could gather those witnesses, so things looked pretty grim. However, Frida, after failing CHA check after another, finally aced one when she tried to entreat the crowds at the trial for anybody to speak in her defense. That covered the situation to such an effect that the manslaughter charge started seeming rather likely to fold in jury deliberation — and Frida’s counter-charge of attempted rape to seem pretty solid!

The other key maneuver was when Phun, fresh from his adventures the prior day, came to testify to the court that his divine patron, Wee Jas the Mistress of Magic, had granted him a detailed vision of the case, guaranteeing that Frida was innocent of manslaughter or Sorcery. Phun is a Foil Cleric, which means that his Cleric-ness is very evident to even mundane observers with a whit of Wisdom; that plus his relatively high level (3 — pretty solid in this campaign, it’s more of a 1–10 affair than 1–20), and the high level of piety in the jury, helped him actually convince the people about his very real divine information.

After these two moves, coming back to back in our resolution process, the trial went to recess and then folded like a house of cards: the Blackfair Manor (who were pressing the manslaughter charges) dropped the charge in exchange for Frida dropping the rape charges against the stablehands, and the judge offered to Phun that the town would drop the Sorcery charge if he would take Frida on as a ward, taking responsibility for her possible future witchcraft. The team accepted both offers (there was a 1.6% chance at this point that the jury would after all uphold the Sorcery charge; low, but horrible consequences), so the trial was over! A neat thousand XP to the trial team for what amounted to a flawless victory.

Thursday: Varangian Way

Why isn’t the newsletter’s feature theme “I’m great and all of my gaming is going great?” I mean, after the intense Coup earlier in the week, our game development campaign of Varangian Way was also very good. This is the viking age story game GMless sandbox thing we’ve been playing for months by now, slowly improving the game. Petteri, the game designer, has started making noises about how it’s time to start changing the game up again; he thinks that we’ve gotten what we can from what we have, and I think he’s right.

The group has generally sharpened out into a seriously good game development crew; I can’t imagine Petteri hoping for a better one. This time Tommi was the one to shine: he has this deliberate way of thinking that’s very different from my own “gallop over the speed limit” genius, which is actually very helpful in pinpointing what one should actually be working on, moment to moment. (My own process is more “write this down, I’ll now list a dozen things for later consideration”.) It’s ironic because he’s the one who complains when the game devolves into a design debate, but this time it’s entirely his fault, because he was the one who questioned the pacing of the map phases in the game.

“Map phase” is this rudimentary structural concept that we’re using to interleave character-level personal drama scenes and broad-strokes historical movements in the game; there’s a “personal phase” and “map phase” that occur in turns. Obviously enough the diegetic length of the map phase, how far apart they are in time, is very important to the feel and pacing of the game. So we talked development strategy on that, how the game should — and whether it should — determine how many weeks, months or years pass between the phases. It was very productive, we basically hashed it out for Petteri.

And then, later in the session Tommi does it again, this time questioning whether it’s a good thing for the game to be so hellishly lethal to player characters. I am happy to say that my exploration scene revolving around “he’s a shepherd, but he’s also a Mongolian Jason Vorhees” directly inspired the question — gotta push that envelope. The debate on that has been on-going for half a week by this point, but I think it’s been supremely productive; the issues are very clear, and we’ve branched out to solve all kinds of other stuff as well. As long as Petteri keeps diligently making notes (his job, he’s the game designer here), the project is advancing in leaps and bounds here.

We didn’t get much actual play done — just two scenes — but who cares, I’m doing this for the game, not the play.

State of the Productive Facilities

I mean, I’m evidently working a lot, so that counts, right? I’m even writing a hell of a lot, that trial arc alone was probably like 20 pages (even if written into chat). It’s unfortunately usual for me that the process is pretty top-heavy: lots of great development on various projects, less finished audience-ready material.

Hope springs eternal (Did I already use that cliche in this context earlier this year? I’m procrastinating too much.), so maybe I’ll do something aside from gaming hard next week.

5 thoughts on “New on Desk #45 — Death in the Party”

  1. Using myself as a comparison, I think it pretty awesome that — on top of the workload of playing and developing games — you manage to blog about it all, regularly and at length. Way to engage a wide audience!

  2. “The other players present at the time are stone-cold hardcore themselves (long, successful campaigns under their referee belts, too), so I was probably the second-most upset by Dave’s death (well, I’m writing a long-ass eulogy here, am I not), and Antti himself was quick to bounce back, as he does. He did promise to not care about his next character before they’re 3rd level, which is a valiant sentiment; we’ll see how it goes!”

    I feel for Antti: I also have hard times facing the death of my characters. For me the problem hasn’t been so much the death itself, but how it’s dealt with in the game. If the character is respected and her story is told to the end (what happens to her corpse? what about her family? how does the incident change the other characters?), I recuperate a lot faster. After all, I don’t care about the character per se but I do care about her story.

    Therefore I hope that Antti keeps on caring about his characters in the future and making up their backstories. Challenge-based gaming is much more fun (for me at least), if the failure and losing the character actually stings a bit. Emotional attachment prevents the game from turning into a dry rational strategy exercise. After all, caring about the characters seems to be Antti’s thing, and he is lucky enough to be part of a gaming group, where at least someone else also seems to care about his characters.

    1. I agree with you, personally speaking: as I mentioned in passing there, I tend to front-load character as well when being a player in these. I vividly remember how in Heikki’s campaign (about five years back) I created a character with a completely mediocre stat line, and during one session discovered his epic backstory — he was actually the gypsy that Victor von Doom would have been if he’d lived in medieval times. Very tragic about what happened to his mother. I had just about managed to sort this out over two hours or so when we hit first combat encounter with some random cultists in the dungeon who then proceeded to kill poor Victor.

      For me the process is mainly about creativity; it’s natural for me to create, so I’m going to personalize the character in all kinds of ways that will then become real in the game by influencing the strategic and tactical decision-making. It’s not really a choice. Plus, as you say, the stakes are higher and the game more exciting when you put some flesh and bone into the character 😀

  3. Great campaign, great post! I approve of all things lethal, but am also intrigued by your approach of replacing death with long-lingering injuries: It requires the players to create character stables and makes time pass in the campaign, both of which I find desirable.

    (We used to have characters starting at age 16 and level-up to level 20 by age 18 in D&D 3e on account of the relentless pacing of various adventure paths. No downtime, no (permanent) deaths. Yuck. Also, you can’t build dynasties unless your PCs’ children actually grow up, perhaps to become 1st-level adventurers in their own right one day! Haven’t seen that so far, but I hope to take my campaign there eventually.)

    I suspect I wouldn’t be bothered by character death myself anymore and would get some enjoyment from the tragedy, but I’ve been GMing almost non-stop since I set out on my quest to become a killer GM. One player more or less said he’d like me to experience death from the other side of the screen (getting a taste of my own medicine, I guess) but alas! he only GMed for a few sessions, so I never got the chance.

    His current character is betrothed to a princess, a first for us, and his investment in the character is even higher than usual. A heartbreaking death is very much a possibility here, so I appreciate Sami’s point about acknowledging a death and detailing its aftermath in the fiction. We’ve had a hall of fame for a while (a record of all deaths, including cause, last words etc.) but that’s out-of-game. So I’ll reign in the players divvying up the deceased’s gear and will ask for eulogies around the table the next time, think about the NPCs’ reactions and more. Whoever is next, I hope this will soften the blow.

    1. Yeah, the emphasis on character stables and longer downtimes is the specific reason why I like the slow healing we have in the Coup campaign. I’d been doing “soft death” (an extended range of results between being fine and being dead) for a long time, but what’s new here in Coup is that I’m not using my homebrew’s fluid hit point totals — characters actually have a “Max HP” statistic here, and natural healing occurs at a relatively slow rate, if not quite as slow as in orthodox texts.

      I’ve yet to see how magical healing fucks up this arrangement (it’s something of a car crash waiting to happen, for all that I’ve weakened cure spells and such), but at low levels I rather like the effect of characters having to spend one day, two days, three days, a week, or even more simply healing the ordinary HP attrition they suffer during combat. In general I find anything that slows down the operative pace to be salutational, as it increases the often minor effect that logistical expenses have on the affairs. It’s not nearly as obviously a winning strategy to hire all the hirelings you can get your paws on if the operational pace of the dungeon crawl requires regular rest days during which you’re on hook for paying for your hirelings, too.

      (Not that doing slow HP healing isn’t a headache and a half as well for all kinds of well-known reasons. I’d be unlikely to approach the matter from quite this angle if we weren’t working with a Basic D&D chassis in the campaign.)

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