Weird Worlds Retrospective 3: Muddy the Waters!
After the ‘CONCurrent Lessons’ panel, the panelists and audience scattered into different directions; we all had different games to organize, attend, and run! It was truly a very busy day, but I loved every second of it!
For this segment, I was supposed to prepare a D&D 5E game about swamps, together with the players. It’s supposed to be a follow-up session from my workshop about swamps and jungles – I had prepared a few swampy kinds of terrain, so I was ready to run games with a few landscapes in mind. I had been keeping tropical jungles, salt marshes, river deltas, mountain bogs…. I had hoped I would be ready for any kind of swamp that the players wanted to explore!
Also, I enjoy OSR (Old School Revival) games – the classic style of D&D fantasy games. Part of the charm for me is well… the random tables, where a lot of stuff gets randomized in play, including character abilities and powers. You could end up with characters who had abilities and powers that may not complement each other very well, and the game was designed around that kind of play. (This sort of randomization is anathema to those more used to contemporary styles of play, where game structures may require a certain degree of optimization and cohesion between character abilities and powers, in order to be playable.)
I had prepared a system of rolling and randomizing character elements, so we could roll a bunch of dice, interpret the results, and build a character entirely from scratch, generate a person from those dice rolls, all the way to the social background, alignment, gender, and class. The 3 players in the game rolled the following:
1, Kyle rolled up a Human Barbarian who was a member of a Merchant’s Guild, and he was also blessed by the Temple of the Invisible Tiger, an esoteric god of unseen giant cats. His barbarian powers were the results of his divine gifts by the Invisible Tiger. What made this even more hilarious is that Kyle had already achieved some degree of fame (or is it infamy) for his antics with tigers in D&D; the way the dice rolled out, and established that his Barbarian Totem was a Tiger Spirit, just made all of this perfect! He played this warrior as a very composed and stoic soldier, of great rectitude and swift, decisive judgment.
2, Erich rolled up a Human Bard, who was also a member of a Merchant’s Guild. (Erich had rolled the same background as Kyle!) A sickly, ambitious man, of impressive dexterity and enjoying a vast knowledge of poisons and knives, Erich’s bard sought to achieve great wealth, fame, and status, and was adventuring with Kyle’s barbarian to search for treasure and trade routes. The two of them made a strange duo; a tough, intelligent, stern warrior and a frail, charming, somewhat slick swordsman, both travelling merchants seeking to make their fortunes in a dangerous world.
Their journeys had brought them to the Petrified Forest of the Mountain-Makers, because the bard had heard of a dragon that had died, and its hoard was ripe for the picking… adventurers and treasure-hunters of all sorts were searching for its lair, to plunder it of all valuables, and our merchant duo wished to beat the others to the chase!
In order to achieve these goals… the merchants had to enlist the aid of a guide to the mountains. That’s where the final member of the party comes into the picture…
3, Erwin rolled up a Mountain Dwarf necromancer, who was an outcast from the Dwarf courts for both his study of necromancy, as well his knowledge of the dirty secrets of the ruling dynasty. A gravedigger and mortician by trade, Erwin’s dwarf eked out a humble existence with his apprentice, a none-too-bright human orphan. This wizard was motivated by the quest for greater power and arcane secrets, so it was pretty easy to get him to travel out; however, the mage also possessed a healthy streak of self-preservation. So it was really quite funny to see the 3 of these fellows RP together….
So off they went, into the mountains. The session ran for around 3 hours or so? Of which 45 minutes, at least, was dedicated to character creation. I enjoy this process of character generation, because it’s something we’re doing together. I’m not giving something to the players to ‘follow’; the players are’t giving me something either. By rolling and discussing and discovering these things together, by establishing and interpreting the results of these rolls together, it was actually rather fun for me, because I got to bond with the players through this apparently empty time of character creation.
The rest of the session wasn’t terribly exciting all the time. But that’s what it means to run an exploration-heavy session of a RPG – I gave a lot of leeway for freedom of exploration, and when the party realized something was dangerous and decided to avoid that danger, I had to dignify their choice with consequences that reflected their decision. Of course, they may wish to avoid the dangers, but they might fail in doing so – but if I aim and shift the results towards such a goal, from the onset, then I should really just be honest with myself, as a DM, and acknowledge that I’ve created, well, something of a false choice.
The plus side of running something like this, is that – when you actually have an exciting encounter, it’s real. Sometimes you just can’t run away, or you try to evade something, but it fails; or you’re just trying to get by, and somebody or something else has other plans for you. Then the situations change, and the players make decisions to react to that; sometimes we don’t even have to roll, and sometimes we do, to determine just what happens…
For example, one night, the party encountered a strange series of occurrences as they traversed the lonely highland moors. It was a jangling sound of chains, that travelled on the night wind; they stealthily padded over to an area where they could get a better vantage point to look out for what could be causing these weird noises. They were able to see what appeared to be the source of these noises; some kind of open mine shaft, an entrance to a mine of some sorts, and around this opening, there were tools of all sorts strewn about; miners’ picks, shovels, helmets, etc. There were also small chunks of ore; as they snuck closer, they realize the screaming metal of the chains came from behind this mine shaft.
Then I described to the dwarf, with his darkvision, that he could see leg-like structures behind the mine shaft; they were spidery legs made of what appeared to be chain and wood, coiling behind the shaft, which was actually a gaping open maw, of some sort. The player of the dwarf asked if he could roll an Arcana check, to identify this phenomenon, and I ok-ed it; he rolled high, and I told him it appeared to be on the legendary pests of dwarf-kind, the ‘Mine Mimic’. Most Mimics pretended to be treasure chests, but these bigger specimens instead pretended to be mine shafts, and they would lure miners and prospectors into their maws, or off cliffs and into dead-falls, where they would eat the dead and use their tools/ treasure to enhance their disguises and serve as bait.
The dwarf swore at this, and quietly, he led the others away from that deadly ravine with the Mine Mimic. He said, ‘the other dwarfs can take care of this’, and stealthily, the party left this monstrosity behind.
I mean, it’s things like that; these are near-encounters which become a different kind of encounter, all on its own, by the very nature of allowing and encouraging player choice and slowing down/ breaking the action into more firm, intense sequences. By slowing down the pace, intensity ramps up, and consequences of actions become, or at least feel, more clear and apparent to the players.
Over these few hours, we managed to get through several days of boredom, several days of harrowing tension, and several moments of terror and anticipation. They made clever plans and sensible ones too, to find a place to rest, to sleep, to recover provisions, to gamble and smoke and gather rumors… to make allies and look for new equipment or hirelings… and finally they made their way, not even to the lair of the dead dragon they were seeking, but just a hidden highway, a tunnel shortcut that circumvented many of the dangers of the Petrified Forest.
This tunnel itself was another dungeon of course; they explored it, interacted with the flora and fauna in interesting ways, triggered traps but did not suffer the traps’ effects, for they managed to find a resolution to its effects before they happened… the barbarian ordered possibly hostile apes to submit to his authority, but sadly, his athletic skills proved to be less mighty than his animal magnetism, for the Tiger Warrior proved unable to climb or jump over several obstacles. Meanwhile the bard nearly died from getting choked by poisonous fumes and getting stomped on by giant automatons, but he survived.
After all this, the party accidentally released a swarm of deadly metal-eating cockroaches, aka rust monsters, another beast much-detested by dwarfs for their dietary patterns. We ended the session after that battle; we were out of time, and couldn’t finish the game, but they said it was fun to play, and it was fun to run, for me, too.
Erich commented I have a tendency of overloading players with small bits of minute details and a lot of random information about the world, which would be great for campaigns; I admit I love doing that, these small bits of information are the literal foundations of the campaigns I run. It makes the world feel more real, and it also helps generate so many more possible directions of play, interaction, and exploration! Erwin remarked on the travel sequences and random conversations being the heart of the session, and he said something about a spectrum of Tolkien fans – there were many different kinds of Tolkien fans – some don’t really enjoy the overland travel and picnics and banter and songs, while others love this stuff. He said a hexcrawl probably appeals to the latter type of Tolkien fan, and that’s pretty cool – I hadn’t thought of that before. Kyle was a bit quiet – I think it was a long and tiring day for all of us – but his character was also a very composed barbarian, so he may have been RPing really consistently, as he was the voice of reason for the party. (Apparently, that is not an usual occurrence at all!)
I guess, in closing, I was happy to run a swampy game that was more about the bogs and moors on mountains, rather than the tropical jungles I was more used to. It did allow me to see and feel a lot more differently than usual, which I appreciated. As a GM of a hexcrawl game, I’m travelling and seeing the sights along with the other players; I’m part of the journey as well. Perhaps, to follow the Tolkien reference, in this journey, I become a bit like Gandalf, not really a mortal, and not fully a spirit, travelling along with my friends in worlds unknown, with tigers unseen, and mysteries we might never fully comprehend or master. And all that… all that’s quite all right. The world’s a big place… So, stay Curious! 🙂