NoD #124 — War Stories

Yep yep, so much for regularity — once it used to be that I was at most an hour or two late with these newsletters, but now managing one a month seems to be more like it. But as the man says, “Correspondence is about Diligence”; just gotta pick myself up and try again.

Fantasy adventure gaming war stories

“War stories” in D&D are a subtype (arguably the original kind) of the “let me tell you about my character” social feature/bug that bedevils gamers. You know, the one where some geek just mistakenly thinks that you want to hear about what’s going on with their game. (Hint: your audience doesn’t want to know. They don’t have the social and creative context that would make them care about how cool your character is.) I like to call the challengeful D&D version “war stories”.

Speaking specifically for wargamey D&D, I find that the war stories are slightly more palatable than the more generic tellaboutmycharacter-ism. I’m not saying that it’s always going to be super-interesting to hear somebody blather about their old adventures, but old school D&D stuff certainly gets more hits with me than just generic trad gaming stories. There’s a few things that old school D&D has going for it that aren’t true for rpgs in general:

Shared challenge: Insofar as you perceive the game to be a legitimate challenge, there exists a currency of effort that has not been inflated into meaninglessness. This might actually have been a historical origin for the “let me tell you about my character” thing; I could see it being hella impressive if I lived in a ’70s gaming context where challengeful D&D was the default assumption, and somebody told me that they have an 8th level Fighter with a vorpal sword. I’d be like fuck, this guy’s been to Tipperary and back, you know? I’ve been getting kinda-sorta this kind of experiences from other people’s war stories when we’ve talked about known-legit play; it’s actually surprisingly interesting to hear about what people have managed to pull off in their games when you know that the events they discuss have been gamed out in a neutrally refereed, presumably-simulative affair. Like say when the guys tell me that they encountered a vampire in the game, I sit up and take notice; those are rare, damn lethal, the game imposes a scarcity and stakes (heu heu, vampires with stakes) on them. It’s not just colorful noise.

Trauma therapy: I’m using these terms lightly here, the traumas involved in challengeful D&D are mild and the kitchen therapy is similarly casual. Still, it’s humans talking out their experiences, sometimes years afterwards. Like those middle-aged men going over their memories of their sporting days, right? So assuming you give credence to this perspective, it surely makes sense to make social space for it. If your gaming pals seem to get the sudden urge to talk about that one time in Tipperary (for the fifth time within the last two years), then surely something about it is still inspiring them.

Technical curiousity: Most of the time when gamers start blathering about their gaming, it’s just a rambling narrative about the fiction stuff that happened in the game. “And then my character tamed the dragon and got to ride it!” This is boring because it lacks the structural context of what happened in the game mechanics. By default I guess the GM just decided to run an adventure that had a dragon, and let the player character ride it, or something like that. I don’t know, and the storyteller doesn’t know, what the rules were and is this like some emergent rare event, or a clever application of rules, or is it just that the group decided to tell a story about riding dragons. This lack of technical context makes stories of your gaming vastly less interesting. And contrariwise, when I hear war stories of wargamey D&D, such context indeed exists. If your character got to ride a dragon, presumably the referee modeled the situation, made a ruling and had dice rolled. It’s not just an arbitrary story beat, that event could only occur after passing task resolution. So riding a dragon is amazing because it’s difficult and unlikely, not just because it’s a cool image.

General “let me tell you about my character” from some random trad rpg table is a bit weaker in these aspects, I feel, and that makes a difference for how worthwhile it seems. Makes you want to shake the guy who gets lost in the memory lane explaining about some damn game they had once, like they were a stuck record player. War stories can get annoying like that too, of course, but I feel like the above factors cause me to have a higher threshold of annoyance with them.

Putting the theory to practice

That being said, the reason we’re discussing D&D war stories here is that Muster, my recent book, features a bunch of them. I figure that practical description of play is appropriate kind of filler content for an otherwise fairly technical book. With readers coming in at different experience levels, stories can be helpful for actualizing otherwise theoretical ideas.

If you haven’t taken a look yet, download the book and read a war story. Get on the same page with me over what they’re like. (I think that the stories in the book are very authentically the kind of stories we tell.) The book’s free.

I’m largely theming Muster on our historical fantasy campaigning that has been going on for the last decade, so the stories all have that proper amount of memory patina from describing events from several years back. The older ones are from like 2012, the more recent ones from 2018 or so. I consciously left our recent Coup de Main campaign out when picking stories to tell, as that campaign is set in the distinctly less historical and more dungeon fantasy setting of Greyhawk.

I ended up writing up most of the stories that ultimately went into the book kinda late in the process of putting the book together. The decision to even put the stories into the book was one of the last creative choices about the manuscript, made after pretty much everything else was done. Not everybody in my studio team appreciates war stories, or my writing style for them, so there was actually clear counter-voices arguing against their inclusion here.

I might change my mind on this later, but for now I’m pretty happy with the way the set of war stories in the book came out. I think they should be helpful for less experienced readers in calibrating their creative expectations and seeing the game from the same perspective I see it. A narrative pedagogy of sorts, if you will. Plus, trauma therapy for me via writing about the experience in the trenches.

Coup de Main in Greyhawk

Just to be conceptually clear, this marathon slog of play session after action reports that I’m committing to with Coup de Main is not “war stories” in the above sense, not really. The indiscriminate and immediate nature of the play report differentiates it from a crystallized, time-proofed remembered story. Some of this stuff will surely become war stories for us who participated in these scenarios, but this blog actual play report stuff is just notes on the events.

That aside, immediately current Coup gaming plans. The game’s open to visitors, newcomers, inexperienced players, cats and dogs. You’re welcome to join us as per:

Sunday Basic session #7 should be happening today, Sunday 27.11., starting around 16:00 UTC. Teemu primarily GMs the time-slot and offers a dungeoneering-focused “Basic” style game set in the Duchy of Urnst. Rules and character stables and so on are basically compatible with the “main” game.

Monday Coup session #110 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 28.11., starting around 16:00 UTC. I’m currently GMing, and we’re doing the usual, strategic full panoply sandbox around the Selintan Valley region of Flanaess.

Regarding the actual play report pile, I’ll see about clearing some Sunndi stuff this time.

Coup in Sunndi #57

The last session I wrote about was on Easter, the kinda big Easter Special adventure involving a spectacular climax to Death Frost Doom and some nihilistic closure to long-running plot threads. Like say the wizard Akuma, who almost managed to bring Koraktor, a powerful grimoire of demonic wizardry, back from the dungeon, only to fail to escape from the ghouls. A big pivot session to be sure, particularly as it ended a five-session long sequence of DFD play.

I don’t have any real notes on the hiatus period Sunndi stuff, which means that it’s been a while since these sessions. Just the rough strokes will have to suffice. I’ll condense some sessions together as we go along, but for now, the single-session adventure of #57:

After the evil band of demon-worshippers and adventurers had managed to awaken the terrible nihilistic nightmare of the cursed mountain last time, we were naturally a bit at loss for direction. Antti came up with a good idea, though; his 2nd level Paladin, Sparrow, had been languishing unplayed for a while, and this undead catastrophe in the Hollow Hills seemed like his sort of thing, ideologically speaking. I immediately seized on this and asserted a follow-up scenario for Death Frost Doom in a flash of insight:

Sparrow the Paladin had been having dreams, prophetic dreams, for several weeks by now. As a temple guardian of Rao, the Cosmic Principle of Harmony (a non-anthropomorphic divinity in the Coup campaign, Rao is sort of like the Force in Star Wars), Sparrow knows that Rao sometimes sends humans cognizant of harmony to places. This is never for idle reasons, the stakes are likely to be high.

So Sparrow takes leave of his current job (as a royal inquisitor in Sunndi), and journeys guided by his visions to that den of iniquity, the ancient Suloise city of Naerie, at the foot of the Hollow Hills. Therein he finds that he is not alone: Sipi rolled himself another paladin of Rao, a younger model, who had also been having these dreams. Dreams of the coming Doom of Naerie. The entire city would, so the paladins believed, be destroyed by a coming calamity unless they could act to prevent this!

Overtly at the table it was of course understood that while the characters didn’t know about it yet, the “Doom” was surely related to the events at the cursed mountain of DFD: the great hordes of undead would descend from the highlands and consume everything, even overcoming the walls of Naerie on their way. So basically: first one adventurer party awakens an ancient evil, then a second one gets to put it down.

On the GM side I prepared for this new arc of the adventure on two ways: I determined what the cursed mountain undead horde was up to (quite the interesting thing, that; I’ll tell more about it later), and I did some local spec-work on the city of Naerie on the premise that part of this new adventure was sure to occur there. After all, the paladins would want to mobilize local forces in defense of the city, and they’d want to make sure that the Doom didn’t have an internal foothold on the place.

I was influenced in this by the desire to field a new adventure, of course: Under the City by Simon Carryer was in playtest stage in the spring, so I basically just constructed my version of Naerie on top of the dungeon. Simon’s adventure has this great hook-heavy structure that basically means that you have many small adventures that take place in the same complex of sewers, ruins, tombs and caverns. Easy to extend to the actual city, too, with all the serial killers, political corruption, religious stuff and magical mysteries that directly pertain to the long history of the city. Very pulp fantasy, in a way that made it easy to paint a picture of Naerie as a truly wicked, ancient and exotic place.

The premise of the new adventure was that while the players kinda knew that unless I was completely just jerking them around, the supposed foretold Doom of Naerie was just the undead horde from Death Frost Doom, nevertheless the PCs didn’t know this; only a few player character adventurers had survived the mountain from the prior expeditions there, and those generally with incomplete knowledge of what was going on, and even then such adventurers wouldn’t just stumble in the way of the pair of paladins. So the adventure naturally started as a kind of urban investigation thing: where to go and who to ask, how to start to uncover a supposed Doom that you know is coming, but don’t know the nature of?

I thought that the players were kinda on the ball in how they approached the matter. I knew in advance what the pieces in play were in the scenario, but I hadn’t wasted any time worrying about whether and how the scenario could be solved, so I was pleasantly surprised when the players demonstrated a very practical approach on the matter: visiting the local religious institutions would leverage the holy man credentials of the paladins, and be likely to find other sensitives whom they might consult in finding out more about possible divine omens.

This approach basically hit the jackpot as the paladins asked around a bit and figured out that Naerie as an old Suloise trade colony revered Wee Jas, the Loyal Daughter, as what amounts to the city’s primary civil cult. (Naerie partakes of the new-fangled “Divine Marriage” cult that worships Wee Jas alongside Norebo her brother, claiming that the two have formed a marriage that blesses mercantile endeavour and generally shows a new way forward for the inheritors of the Suloise empire.) Going to ask about the matter from the priesthood of Wee Jas at their temple proved very productive, as the Jasidite oracles of the temple had been getting similar warnings from their goddess; as a major temple concerned with the fate of the city, the Jasidites had the magical punch to receive and interpret omens of this nature.

What’s more, the Jasidite priesthood could also arrange for an audience with the king (Naerie is the capital of the stub kingdom of Idee), to occur in 2d6 days, so the priesthood and their independent witnesses could lay out the case to the king and ask them to mobilize to save or evacuate the city, depending on what more could be learned about the purported Doom.

Perhaps most importantly, the Jasidites had a timeline: their goddess had indicated that the Doom was slated to hit within the month or so. Fairly soon!

The paladins and their accruing company of ne’er-do-wells (the other players brought in characters as boon companions, as one does) also found a shrine to Rao in the outskirts of the city. It was basically a sort of open-air barn, with a single attending priest; apparently the primary function of the cult of Rao in Naerie is blessing livestock and treating ungulate hoof infections. The priest was of course very cooperative with two Temple Guardians arriving from the Yeti Valley temple in far off Sunndi. When queried about the Doom and such he was much less well-informed, but the priest was glad to share what rumours of possibly earth-shattering proportions he knew. Namely, apparently some mysterious parties had been stealing sheep in the countryside surrounding the city. Terrible crime for the sheep-revering Raoists!

I’m going to claim for the sake of argument that we wrapped up the session here and continued smoothly next week. Memory apparently fails, and I’ve spent much too long just trying to remember something that nobody could possibly care about.

Coup in Sunndi #58

Last session we’d set up a new dynamic adventure in Naerie, the old, tired and corrupt capital city of the kingdom of Idee. I was excited at it, as Death Frost Doom was busily brewing its aftermath in the background, while Under the City was providing me with immediate building material for breathing life into the city. The players had extreme maneuver freedom here again, as they knew that they had the chance to save the city from its fated Doom, but were completely free in figuring out how to do that.

By the by: the quest XP reward for saving Naerie from the predicted Doom would be 30 000 XP. Not the smallest adventure ever, the stakes are high! While the adventurers didn’t know about the thousands-strong horde of undead rampaging in the Hollow Hills, the players did, so mainly at this point it was a matter of building justification for the paladins to start taking serious action towards that goal.

The paladins had kinda-sorta set themselves up with a way forward in the last session by arranging for a political summit over the crisis situation at the royal court in a week’s time, with the locally influential Temple of Wee Jas backing them about the seriousness of the situation. So this left the party waiting for their audience, free to keep advancing their cause in other ways. The side quest about lost sheep from last session seemed like the thing to address, apparently, so off we went!

(I think the players understood that the lost sheep were unlikely to be involved in the Doom. It was also a simple-seeming side quest that wouldn’t take too much time, and I understand that managing to rack a level-up somewhere in there before having to face 3000 walking dead on thee battlefield seemed like a good idea.)

The party had some nice dice rolls in their preliminary investigations and countryside tracking, and actually discovered a dungeon entrance hidden in the underbrush outside the city without too much trouble. The sheep robbers apparently hid out Under the City (wham boom title drop)!

The cavern-crawling proved fairly straightforward, as the party ping-ponged around in there, looking for tracks of lost sheep and the increasingly inhuman-seeming sheep-robbers. This hidden dungeon was apparently being used by both humans and humanoids, and the party did verify that the caverns branched in multiple directions, but ultimately they were very efficient about finding the long sloping tunnel down to the true caverns.

One of the companions the paladins had attracted was actually a Ranger, whence the ease with which the party followed all these sheep tracks. A good thing too, as the true caverns underneath the city proved fairly expansive, you could easily end up wandering there for quite the while instead of just following the sheep-robbers to their lair.

As the party discovered, the sheep were being captured and presumably eaten by troglodytes lurking in the caverns. It wasn’t quite a full tribe of them, so the adventurers managed the usual half-wit combination of stealth and violence well enough. The paladins actually kept the violence down somewhat, unusually; the adventurers pretty much satisfied themselves with subduing the troglodytes. The troglodytes had fun dungeon geometry and giant bat pets that made for a bracing challenge. The best part was that the trogs hadn’t butchered all the sheep yet, so the party could return like 20 of them upside. (The quest involved in this awarded XP for rescued sheep.)

And that was pretty much that. Such neat single-session dungeon crawls are a bit rare with us.

State of the Productive Facilities

I’ve been doing some late autumn forestry again, which probably contributes to the bad newslettering rate. But that’s fundamentally just life making noise, gotta elevate above that to be productive. I need to enjoy my life less to really bother to sit and write.

3 thoughts on “NoD #124 — War Stories”

  1. I, for one, think that the “war stories” in Muster play their intended role nicely.

    1. Me too. They were overall a bit hasty compared to some other parts of the manuscript, but they’re also easier material to write, and have more flexibility in what they are, so that worked out well. Probably not the weakest part of the book, that honor goes to something else.

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