Friday, April 20, 2012

Railroading your party: A Response to Aaron's Comments

Well, well quite a fury of opinions and assumptions about my playstyle. As any who read my blog regularly know, I dont shy away from my personal shortcomings, my gaming struggles or my own emotions. Nor the emotions of others who might take issue with my writings. But I must say Aaron is the first to be so open about it calling me on them all. Thank you Aaron for giving me the chance to rebut and explain myself.

First of all it is awfully hard to communicate the full depth of a gaming session and all of its nuances in writing. Let alone a whole campaign. There is simply too much going on to adequately cover it all. And my writing style is rooted alot more in my own emotional experience of play than in in objective occurrences. So allow me first to try and clearly define how this campaign developed:
  1. Setting is the Inner Sea Region in PF
  2. First adventure was a low level DCC adventure Into Wildsgate--which is basically an assault on a Goblin stronghold
  3. No other assumption were made at that time
  4. The PCs actually spent several sessions getting involved in intrigue related to Lady Aborn and Sergio (the keep "moneylender"/thief)
  5. They do not know that Lady Aborn is at the root of the missing royal "artifacts" now hidden in the Goblin Spires
  6. At this point I didn't even know if they were going to get to the Spires--but they did manage to suffer a nightime ambush, get arrested, put on trial, accused of murder, acquitted on a fluke and eventually get pulled into investigation of a goblin raid to prove their innocence
  7. Eventually they end up in the spires and blow themselves up--long story, but it was a TPK
  8. At this point I am NOT playing Mr. Nicey Nice, this is hard core old school and they had suffered 6 PC deaths and now one TPK
  9. The campaign resumes with new 1st level PCs to the west of the above occurrence near an old abandoned temple
  10. The PCs choose to investigate and suffer more losses
  11. In the process they find from a local diviner that trouble is still brewing in the East near the spires and things have gotten much worse since an explosion has occurred in the spires
  12. Many of the players hold a mighty grudge against Lady Aborn and Sergio and head back east to try and confront her.
  13. They end up investigating the Barrow Mounds on the way as a local village has reported deaths near their town cemetery and are afraid to go near there
  14. By now I had made contingency plans for Lady Aborn, and had her contacted by an Ogre Mage who was heading the Goblins (a current thorn in her side)
  15. The idea for the link to the Drow came from the fact that we had several players playing Drow, and my inordinate love of Q1
  16. I was not planning on any of this "having" to happen, just that I be prepared with a background should they choose to head in that direction
  17. It was about this time that I had decided to start playing "softer". I could go into this more, but if you read my past posts you might get an idea of why I chose to do this.
So, I wasn't railroading at all in my opinion. If my players had chosen to take another route they most certainly could have. I didn't "want" them down there with the Drow because I knew they weren't ready for it. I KNEW they would die. And given their play style (again see previous posts) I knew they would require me to save them, or soften things up so much that I might as well line the cave walls with marshmallows.

And yes, Aaron I was born in the day when DM -VS- Player was the tone of gaming. Adversarial gaming was the norm, and it's how I was brought into gaming. As they say in Hackmaster "Wimps need not apply". I encountered death in adventures at every turn. And as a GM I saw many of the PCs in my dungeons fall. But me and my gaming friends of yore are all still avid adversarial gamers. If you really wonder how I feel about this check out my post here. If you take the time to read this you might understand a bit more of how I feel and how I play--even if you don't agree.

I'm not saying that such play style is every one's cup of tea. I think I made it clear in my post that Pathfinder and 4e foster a different playstyle altogether. And hence why I say Pathfinder is dead _to me_. It serves me no purpose to play a game that I have little interest in or does not play how I want and like to play. And forgive me for making assumptions here, but I find it very likely that you have either taken offense that I am talking about Pathfinder or that you have had bad experiences with my style of play. Either way taking it out on me doesn't do your argument any good.

You see, I'm in a very unique position. I teach Junior High School (8th and 9th grade), and have run the gaming club for almost 5 years now. I play with young kids, 13 to 16, many of whom have never gamed before. Realizing this is an open club I always try to be accepting of different ability levels and the gaming desires of those in the club. It is always hard to decide on a game to play, and even moreso a style of play that caters to everyone. I proudly say I have run almost 120 kids through our gaming club, and introduced gaming to over 60 new gamers in the five years I've been playing. Though many move on to other interests with time, a core group gets the gaming bug and continues to game to this day. I would put that number around 30.

I will readily admit that this year I've been challenged like never before. Pathfinder was not my game of choice, but I relented. I game old school no matter what I play, so I struggled this year in trying to adapt my playstyle to the PF mechanic. Eventually I changed my playstyle to try and support what my players seemed to want and often kept demanding--at times quite rudely I might say. I have never faced this before, and if pressed I would admit that this group of gamers has been more irascible than those we've had in the past. A few club members have even told me they felt so.

In the end this hobby means a lot to me. It hits very near to my heart, and I've struggled in the role of teacher while at the same time being a fellow gamer to those in my club. Remaining detached has not been as easy as it is in the classroom where I'm not so attached to the subject matter. I'm sure you've gamed with people you don't like, or who have rubbed you the wrong way. If you haven't, consider yourself lucky. I have been putting up with it all year. I have stepped out from behind the screen, let others GM, changed approaches, tried a different system, and at the last changed the very foundation of my gaming ethos. Nothing worked. They still died, and they still played in a way I personally think is ludicrous. You'd really have to be here to understand.

To give you an idea: all of this group plays at home whenever they can. I have heard them talking about their games and some of their characters. One player has a favorite character who is now the figure of death in his world. He looks like the grim reaper, complete with skull head--no idea how he got it--a magical scythe that causes death and well you get the idea. Another player has built a city with clones of himself to the tune of 10 million--at least that's what he said. He created all these PCs with the same name, same character sheet, same stats, etc. (don't really know if he has 10 million or not) and they built the city, castles, forges, etc. etc. churning out magical items, minting gold coins with gold from who knows where and again you get the idea. Another player has a favorite PC he uses in his non-club games who is styled after Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. He has a magical spear headed chain that allows him to pull someone hear him and then he ribs their heart out. No idea how he manages that last feat--maybe it's a magical power of the spear. I could go on, but ... you get the idea. And the thing is these guys have been gaming for 8 months. I have been gaming for 32 years and my highest level character is an 11th level wizard with 28 hitpoints.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not envious. I'm damn proud of that Wizard. I can appreciate the creativity of GM supported Monty Haul characters as this post of mine goes to show. But as a playstyle for regular gaming--sorry it's not my cup of tea.

It was in realizing, letting Pathfinder loose in all of it's crazy madness that this game is actually a part of the problem. You can think what you want about that, but for me it's what I see.

And as for being a farmer who is afraid of everything--I think it was Bilbo who was a humble gardener (well Sam did most of his gardening) that was afraid of just about everything. Being an ordinary guy and overcoming impossible odds is exactly the kind of fantasy I like. Personally it's what I think fantasy is about. Just ask Taran PigKeeper from Lloyd Alexander's Pyrdain chronicles if you question it.

Which is why I hope you stay tuned. I'm hopefully going to finish my entry on "Hackmaster: A History" this evening and maybe that will explain where I'm coming from. It's certainly the land I call home in my heart. Thanks again for stopping by Aaron. Hope to hear from you again soon.

Hail the Mighty Heroes--Laid Low by Mushrooms!

Okay, in response to Brendan's request I shall attempt to frame the stupidity that led to my final Pathfinder TPK. I say final because I won't be playing the game any longer. I still hope to enjoy future TPKs : )

My group had been delving through about one fourth of a three level dungeon, and had just descended to level two. They had recently made it past a low level necromancer who had raised a minotaur skeleton and 3 skeletal knights. Without going into too much detail I had saved them from death twice due to tactical errors and then changed a trap to save another when he stuck his head where it didn't belong. But anywho, they had discovered the opening that led into a "bottomless" chasm. Without taking the time to heal from their wounds, or recharge spells they simply rushed downwards into the abyss. In spite of the fact I had tried to lay on the warnings heavily by describing the strange sounds that emanated from the depths below. And the fact that most of their attempts to illuminate the darkness below was swallowed up by the unimaginable depths beyond.

I also made it very clear (I thought) that the way across the chasm hung about 30 feet away in the form of a cut rope bridge hanging from the opposite wall of the shelf. A good throw with a grappling hook could have easily reestablished them a secure way across. The chasm was an obstacle to overcome--NOT to descend down into!!

Well, after a few minutes pondering, the wizard decides he is going to use what amounts to Tenser's Floating Disk. I can't recall what it's called in PF. Well, if he took the time to read the spell he would realize if you float the disk out over empty space it is going to wink out of existence. I tell him to read his spell description first, but meanwhile it looks as if a grappling hook could probably snag the opposite shelf. The wizard player looks up from the book and still says he wants to try the disk. I ask him again, did you read the description? Yes, he said I can lift 250 pounds at a time because I'm third level. Did you read the whole thing? I ask again. Yes, I'm casting it and climbing on.

Okaaayyyy ... I describe the act of him floating about five foot out when he falls screaming into the abyss. Amidst gasps and shouts the wizard yells feather fall. Which I allow him to cast. Now, previously I had determined this pit to be 1268 feet in depth. But calculating his feather fall to allow him about 100 foot or so after his initial plummet I simply change the depth (I know, I know). This was actually a stupid decision on my part for several reasons--if I had just let him die the rest would never have occurred.

I describe the floor of the subterranean world as being covered in giant mushrooms that were covered in a fine white powder. Tunnels and fissures led off in every direction and he could hear a slithering sound as if something large and fleshy was crawling on the floor of the caverns (worm children). I also made it clear by directly stating this was a bad place to be. Definitely deeper than they were ready yet to adventure. The best course of action was to find a way up right now. (They had linked 4 ropes together to reach the bottom--they could have just climbed back up.)

But no, they had to take a look around. I explained that the remains of dead creatures lie all around covered in the same white dust that covered the mushrooms. So, one of the yahoos shot a mushroom with an arrow. Well, you can imagine the result. Spores shot up into the air showering everyone in fine, white powder. Save vs sleep--all but three fail. That's when the slithering worm children move in. They lost several of their sleeping comrades to the worms as the three remaining conscious tried to protect themselves and the others. The worms had dragged them off to who knows where, but me in my softness assured them they could still be rescued if they could locate the lair where their comatose bodies were stored.

The battle has drawn the attention of a Drow patrol party, which captured the three remaining adventurers. Why capture? Cause I tried not to kill them. I ruled that they were using subdual attacks instead.

Now at this point you are probably wondering why I am alternating between rather difficult encounters and saving their butts when they got too deep or made stupid mistakes. Perhaps a bit of background is warranted. I had set up an overarching campaign ala G1-2-3, D1-2 and Q1. They were following the trail of trouble in the hills and mountains north of Andoran that involved increasingly brave goblin raids. These gobbers had been encouraged by a band of orcs who were working for an ogre magi that had encountered a long hidden idol of Lolth. She (the ogre mage) had begun to tap some of the power of the idol and that of course drew the attention of the Drow. The Drow saw the opportunity to "utilize" the ogre magi's power over the masses of evil nonhumans in her demesne to open a pathway into Andoran itself. Behind the scenes political manipulation had already begun in the capital with the Drow employing dopplegangers and magically disguised mind flayers to begin to exert influence over political leaders. Hence the opening to the Drow Twilight Realm in the current adventure--though they were NOT supposed to get there so soon.

But if that doesn't explain my wishiwashiness sufficiently strike it up to the schizophrenic way I was trying to game. In so many ways completely against my nature.

So on with the tale. I may have tipped my Drow Hand early, but I was desperate to hold the tale together. My PCs were in too deep too soon and I needed a way out if the campaign and their butts were to be saved. Also, I really felt like the Drow would have just interrogated them under torture and with magical charms and then killed them. But no, I had the Drow take them back to their leader a mid level Drow Wizardess who offered them an alternative. They could take the "DrowPact". Now, I admit to making this up on the spot-- pulling it out of my wazoo as it were. I said that if they took the pact they would be released to find their friends, but at some time in the future they would be called upon to perform a favor for the Wizardess. A time at her pleasure and they would be compelled to carry out her task no matter the cost of sacrifice. (I was planning on having her utilize this at some point in the future by having her make these three turn against their party at the crucial moment when they were close to the end of the campaign.)

So of course they accepted. Even though one of them was an Elf!! And a magic hating Barbarian no less!!! I told him this went against everything he believed in as an Elf, that he was betraying his people, that he didn't trust this evil magic, and the he had no desire to relinquish control of his will to a Drow Sorceress blah blah blah. It didn't phase him of course--he thought it was cool. ... *sigh*

By this point I am beginning to feel sick inside. I had managed to pull the situation together by bending about every rule that mattered and breaking quite a few besides. And by now I could sense that my players were feeling invincible, like ultimately nothing was really going to harm them. They would always be rescued, no matter the cost. But i trudge on, feeling like I've betrayed my inner gaming "sense" in saving them time and time again. The Drow should have killed them, the worm children should have killed them, the skeletons should have killed them, the Necromancer, the fall--need I go on?

So they accept the pact, are blindfolded (so they won't know the way to the Drow hold) and delivered back to the place the Drow found them. They are about to set off towards the lair of the worm children to rescue their comrades when one of the remaining three decides he has to have some of the white powder. Okay I say there's plenty laying around all over the cavern and the bones. (In case you're wondering this deep fungi lives off the decaying bodies that it puts to sleep; their victims eventually decaying into mushroom food.) No he says, I want to scrape some off of the mushroom into an empty vial. I looked at him shocked. Are you sure you want to do that? I mean the last time you guys touched a mushroom it set off the spores. No, he says, that guys shot it. I'm just going to carefully scrape some off the mushroom itself so it's still real potent.

Okay, here I'm getting a little mad. Because it has got to be so obvious I don't want him to do this. That the results of mushroom molestation had been clearly demonstrated less than an hour before. Was he really going to be this stupid. I looked at the other players, who were all just waiting. No one is saying anything. So I try again. Well, you don't have to get it off the mushroom, you can get it of the floor--I mean it looks like to you that the mushrooms use this as a way of capturing their food, so the stuff has to be operative as long as it's touching flesh (I gave this away to him--no nature roll, no nothing I was just trying to convince him that touching the actual mushroom was not a good idea. But no, he said he was just going to carefully scrape some off with his dagger, that he wasn't going to touch the powder or the mushroom. No, but your dagger will and the mushroom will feel it ... He couldn't be dissuaded.

I shook my head, I was deep in thought for what seemed like a minute or more--likely it was no more than 10 seconds. Maybe I was hoping someone would say something. No one did. What was really going on inside me was that I was slowly and surely snapping. Breaking in two. Coming unravelled. The strange thing was I was so sad. So very deeply sad. Like I was somewhere I didn't want to be. Doing something I hated. I'm 43. A grown man. I do cry--I'm okay with displaying emotion, but I certainly don't truly feel like crying very often. And at that moment that is all I wanted to do. I didn't. Didn't actually shed any tears. But the knot in my chest and the tightness in my throat made clear to me this was really affecting me. Not just the decision they had made, but I realized in that moment I hated the way I was playing. And that's when it all came back to me in a flash. Six weeks of total Monty Haul Crap. And I recall telling myself inside--let 'em rot.

I explained the last thing they recall was a cloud of white exploding around them like a sudden blizzard and then all went black as they felt themselves slumping to the floor. They had all failed their save. I closed my screen and asked them to pass their character sheets to me. I answered the few questions they asked with, nope your dead. And you don't know--you just never woke up.

Was it the worst decision of their career? I'm not sure, but the string of incidents that led up to that point. Their blatant disregard for good common sense. It was just shocking. And I was so stunned by what was either sheer stupidity or a complete lack of respect for the game. At that moment I thought that guys like this shouldn't even be allowed to roleplay. And this is the first time I played a non-"old school" game all year long. The only thing that comes close is when I played 4e for about 5 months or so. And the same problem resulted then. The same sorts of crazy off the wall crap that makes no sense whatsoever. complete lack of fear of the world in which they are adventuring. Reliance on healing surges, recharging powers, endless supplies, sunrods or endless light cantrips instead of torches, etc. etc. etc. It was simply nothing like the fantasy I read, knew and loved. And I had finally come to the opinion that this kind of gaming does not teach or foster the kind of gaming that I like to participate in. So, for me--Pathfinder had died. 4e had been long dead. Pathfinder had lasted longer, but it too had went the way of the Monty Haul ghost. I was just NOT going to put myself through this kind of tripe again. I love this game too much and spend so much precious energy, time, imagination, devotion and love to go through this kind of pig tripe.

Pig Tripe ... Yum? NOT.
Onward and upward my friends--keep the torch burning! Hell who am I kidding? We ARE the torch!!!!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pathfinder is Dead ... May it Lie Still Forevermore

Well, I did it. I tried. I really tried. Eventually selling my soul to the demon of soft GMing. An unholy pact that I would do whatever it took to help my players out. I fudged die rolls, created exits where there were none, dropped in potions of healing like rain, pulled more Gods out of more machines than I ever thought existed to save their sorry butts. I kept them from two TPKs and over 6 individual PC deaths.

But that wasn't all.

I gave into their whining about low ability scores, their cravings for prestige classes, their mad desire to play crazy-assed monster races, hyper-maxed out HP scores. I simply overlooked cheating in any form and guise. I literally told one player he could put straight 20s on all his stats for all I cared.

Eventually I felt like a cheap and tawdry GM whore. Dont just call me Monty Hall ... Call me Tracy-Freakin'-Monty-Lords-Hall. Used, spent, wasted, depressed and now with a group of players finally reaching fourth level I witnessed them make perhaps the most stupid move of their adventuring careers. Without going into the details, let's just say they all died. They made such an obvious and blatant error in judgment I was shocked, nay speechless.

My mind turned gyrations as I sat there in stunned silence. No desire on their part to check their action, to change their minds, to remedy what was obviously going to be a wholesale and tragic end to the entire party. Should I save them? It would be so ludicrous for me to do so, so clearly biased, a ridiculous attempt to keep them alive and continue the game. When something in me snapped.

And truthfully I don't know what it was. I had put up with so much over the course of this year. And the last 6 weeks especially. Why now? I don;t honestly know. But something in me reached my limit.

You'd be proud of my restraint. I didn't scream and shout, berate them, insult their playing, their intelligence or their lineage. I didn't even lecture them. I had tried lecturing and counseling before. I just closed my screen, and declared the campaign at an end.

The next day I handed out the following note:

Dear Club Members,

As many of you know I have started my summer job. Usually I cancel the club for April and May due to the extra demands on my time. This year I tried to keep going to see if I could fit everything in. Unfortunately I didn't even make it to my second job last night. This has made me decide that I have to cancel the club now. I apologize, this makes me feel bad too. I wish you all well. It has been a fun gaming year. Have fun gaming this summer!!

Mr. Jones

Not a total lie--but I was in no mood to justify. Let them think what they would. The real truth is I probably could have kept it up, but I needed a break. I was burnt out with the way we were playing and the game we were playing. I needed to get back in touch with myself.

Which actually explains alot of my absence from the blog as well. I have tried many times to start entries, but I just couldn't come up with anything. As far as my gaming went I was confused, depressed and more than a little bitter. I simply needed time to heal.

It was actually two things that turned me around. First my son bought me a renewed subscription to KODT for my birthday. After not reading the comic for over 6 months I was more than a bit out of touch. But I wasn't 8 pages in when I felt like I was back home. All of my long neglected roots were finally getting nourishment again. I laughed out loud, nodded in agreement and felt that familiar warmth of longing to game with real gaming friends once again. The second was a call from my brother, the 4e gamer. He had started a discussion on some fora or other about whether bad die rolls should kill a PC. He certainly felt like they should. That the dice were the virtual wall of gaming reality. That, in a game of pure imagination without some external physical law the game premise itself falls apart. Beyond the rules are the dynamic force that fills our games arbitrated by the chaotic and random nature of the die rolls themselves. But it went much deeper than that.

The game Is. it Exists in a very real sense apart from us. Yes, our imagination gives it life, but the course of that life, the flow of reality that stems from the game is a thing with a life of it's own. Some would say the GM has ultimate control of that reality, but this is not really true. Many variables go into the game to make it what it is, not the least of which is the structure provided by the rules and the random number generators we utilize. If you are familiar with artificial life programs you might be aware of what I'm trying to say. From simple random generators and a short list of rules a dynamic living environment is born. We can watch it unfold with little to no interaction on our part. Such is the life of the games we play. If we step in and take too much control, they cease being what they were and turn into something else. We can very literally suck the life out of them; or as had happened in my campaign allow such chaos to enter in that anything goes and noone fears the consequences.

Yes, it is all beginning to make sense again. I am also starting to understand my own motivations a bit better as well. The assumptions made before I even started Pathfinder were not as wise or as intelligent as I might have thought. What did I really want and need out of this game I love so much?