[Old School Hack] Rules-driven Character Investment in B3

Started by Daniel Davis, February 06, 2011, 06:30:33 AM

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Daniel Davis

We played our first game of Old School Hack tonight. I'm a mid-twenties GM who started out on D&D3.5 and moved from there to indie stuff (e.g., Dogs in the Vineyard, Burning Wheel) with some D&D4e thrown in. My core gaming group is two of my best friends, Mpose and Tim. We've had mixed experience with indie stuff, although our last experience (a first session of Apocalypse World) went really, really well.

Anyway, I'd never played old school D&D and wanted to give it a shot. It seemed like it'd press my sim-buttons. When I look at the faces of the players, I want to see *terror*--not because I'm being a jerk and they're scared of me but because they're scared of *whatever* is beyond the door. Or maybe of the door itself.

So that's the background. I chose to run Palace of the Silver Princess (B3) because it's free on the WotC website. I read it over this morning, printed out the maps, came up with a few rules tweaks, and showed up to play.

Mpose was playing Glug, the Goblin with a Heart of Gold; Tim played Yosh (I can't remember the real name), the samurai-themed Fighter. Heart of Gold is a talent that says: every once in a while (i.e., between rests) you can break an adorable smile, and no NPC can believe you've done something bad. This is important.

And here's the interesting thing: at the start, I don't know if either player was really invested in his character. There's not much there, after all--no beliefs or instincts or anything like that. Mpose had decided his goblin Glub was the fighter Yosh's lackey. Maybe Yosh had saved his life. I asked Tim what he wanted Yosh's goal to be. Eventually he decided he was totally evil and just looking to score enough cash to do evil more expeditiously. I wasn't happy with that, but, hey I went along with it. They said they both were Chaotic.

THIS TOTALLY CHANGED THROUGH PLAY. And the change was natural and fiction-driven and not at all at my behest or guiding.

Heart of Gold got used right off. While the players were trying to build a lever from scrap metal and boulders (to lift the portcullis blocking the dungeon entrance), they were (via a wandering monster roll) accosted by four bandits. After some fast talking and single combat, they joined the bandits. After all, everyone's here to make money and do evil deeds, right?

But the crucial moment, I think, came when two of the bandits were trying to work the lever to open the gate, and, while the bandit leader was distracted, Glug sneaked up behind him to tear his throat out. I called for a stealthy check. Glug failed. So there he is, staring at the big hulking bandit captain, and the players are like "Well crap."

So Mpose says: "Oh, man, Glug just puts his hands behind his back and smiles at him. Heart of Gold."

It worked perfectly, and, from then on, I think all of us were sold on Glug and this whole situation. The bandit captain just thought he was adorable, and the portcullis-opening continued apace.

The next step in character- and situation-investment came when the PCs, separated for a moment from the three remaining bandits, searched a room and found a family of five kobolds. The kobolds had prepared an action and came out with slings firing. Yosh the fighter took a nasty hit in the face and almost went down straight off. But, after that initial volley, Glug (being a goblin and knowing their language) talked with the kobolds and got their story.

The module doesn't tell you why they're there, but they're clearly a family unit. And I thought "Maybe they're trapped. They're not strong enough to open these portcullises." So that seeps out into the fiction, and the players decide (after they team up with the kobolds to ambush the bandits) to open the portcullises so that kobold family can escape.

And it was this really sweet moment, the little scaly family walking out hand in hand to go do whatever kobold families do.

And then Tim says "Aw, I want to be good."

It fascinated me. Before the initial Heart of Gold use, I would have predicted total kobold slaughter. Even afterward, I thought that's how it was going to go down. But I think something in that moment triggered some kind of psychological response in the players that enabled them to invest in their characters, and Tim evidently didn't want to invest in being a big murderous douche.

That's the main point of my post. All kinds of other awesome stuff happened. It turned out to be one of my best RPG experiences ever.
http://silentstylus.com | read some things I write at my website

Callan S.

Hi Daniel,

This is just an estimate, but sometimes I think GM's don't believe a player character turn of character. They just treat it as min maxing the rules, some exploitation of the system or some meta game thingie, if not outright cheating. But here, possibly assited by some element of the heart of gold mechanic, I'm estimating you went along with the goblin being all good and cute looking and that was belief enough to support the player making a shift of character.

Or summit. Sounded fun! :)

Ron Edwards

Wow, what a game. As a (very) older gamer, I'm also charmed by seeing The Palace of the Silver Princess through your eyes. The usual outcomes include massive butchery and slavery of kobolds, just as you predicted.

Three things.

1. In all the old-school adventure packs, the various NPCs and monsters are clearly doing something, room by room, and it's never explained at the local level. Or even if it's explained in a neutral sense, "two orc guards sit and wait," et cetera, one can almost always find some nuance to a more emotional context for those characters at a second glance. The nuances range from utterly comedic to sociopolitical to heart-wrenching. Dungeon design in my own tribute to old-school play, Elfs, is almost entirely based on this idea; well, the low comedy end anyway. My cursory investigation of the game website doesn't turn up much discussion of it, but I suspect that the author, or at least members of his discussion community, are so familiar with this point that they hardly give it a second thought.

2. I want to know more about Heart of Gold. What exactly is the fictional component? Can it be used hypocritically? If so, then it's doubly interesting that the player, and secondarily all three of you, decided that the initial use of the ability was, in retrospect, not hypocritical, or at least if I'm reading your post correctly. But I don't want to speculate more without knowing how the thing's mechanics and required fictional components actually work.

3. There was some built-in thematic tension in the character Yosh from the start - did you see that? On the one hand he's saved this goblin's life and somehow accepted him as a buddy (OK, lackey, but he didn't skin him, stuff the skin, and mount it, so OK); on the other, he's apparently all-evil, all-the-time. What's fun to me is that all this was clearly off-the-cuff, casual talk that didn't even need to be included, and yet it was, and then in the end, became a sort of setup for a profound character development.

It's also sort of neat that the transformation took place across the two characters, rather than just in one of them. And oh yeah! We might actually have a genuine opportunity to discuss alignments here in a rational fashion, a rare thing on-line.

Best, Ron

Gregor Hutton

I'm very intrigued by Old Box Hack. I gave my print out of it to Joe Prince the other week (I got pointed in its direction by John Harper highlighting it).

The exact wording of the talent is as follows (and it's unique to Goblins -- I told Joe how happy I was that Goblin was a character choice, I'd play one every time).

QuoteHEART OF GOLD non-combat talent, usable only once after a rest
Every now and then, your normally sinister nature is completely subverted by random acts of adorability. By breaking into a huge innocent smile, no non-player-character will possibly be able to believe that you've done something bad. Your fellow party members may know better, however.

(It reminds me of the Merit "Sanctity" from The Player's Guide to the Sabbat, but with better definition of usage -- once a day, use after resting, and you can recharge it with some role-playing and spending 2 Awesome Points.)

Daniel Davis

Quote from: Ron Edwards on February 06, 2011, 04:58:36 PM
It's also sort of neat that the transformation took place across the two characters, rather than just in one of them. And oh yeah! We might actually have a genuine opportunity to discuss alignments here in a rational fashion, a rare thing on-line.

More on that: during my prep, I read that the Tower Level of the palace is guarded by "the Protectors," translucent guys who are all about some Law. The way the module describes it, they've got this club going on the tower: no monsters, no "treasure," but tons of rest, weapon racks, and safety--and a killer view to boot. Lawful characters are automatically granted entry, while non-lawful characters get bum-rushed as soon as they try to get past the doorman, so to speak.

That consideration is what prompted me to ask the alignment question in the first place. They said "chaotic," and I said "interesting." So, at this moment, the alignment choice for the players was this--predictive label? I think they answered chaotic thinking "Yeah, we'll probably be doing lots of crazy junk."

But then play proper started, and Yosh (the fighter) was ordering around Glug (the goblin) back and forth, and Glug was always smiles and nods and "Yes, Yosh." I didn't realize it at the time, but, even though Yosh was ordering Glug around, he was never doing so in an evil overlord fashion--more like a chain of command.

At one point before the "revelation" I'll talk about in a second, Tim (Yosh's player) had to leave the room to put his kids to bed, and Mpose (Glug's player) and I start chatting about how the game's going. He tells me that his original plan was to have Glug play nicey-nice until he got a chance to kill Yosh to death. I don't think he explained why he changed his mind, but I assume it had something to do with the kind of interaction the characters developed.

And here's the "revelation": later on, while I was reading up on whatever insta-kill trap/creature waited in the next room, Mpose says "You know what? I think Glug's lawful. He does whatever Yosh tells him. That's his principle."

And, after that, we get this interaction where Glug is wanting to sneak after these skeleton sentries to see where they're going, and Yosh holds him back because he's concerned for his safety. And the character vocalizes this, something as explicit as "I care about you, Glug." And the thing is, it's totally believable. It's the second or third emotionally touching moment of the night, and this was supposed to be about killing things and taking their stuff.

I honestly don't know what to make of this. There doesn't seem to be any mechanical force producing these effects in the fiction. I wonder if it's an expression of the jazz metaphor I've run across around these parts: the players and I were just grooving on the same page.

But how did that even happen? It was completely non-explicit. All explicit talk ran counter to this. So we weren't even intending to be on this page.
http://silentstylus.com | read some things I write at my website


Hey Daniel, 

First, it's a great Actual Play and I'm very happy you guys had fun.  Switching to early editions of D&D after the latest stuff is really eye-opening and refreshing.

Quote from: Ron EdwardsIn all the old-school adventure packs, the various NPCs and monsters are clearly doing something, room by room, and it's never explained at the local level.

Yes, quite.  This is occasionally maddening.  One of the worst offenders here is B2: Keep on the Borderlands.  Gygax designs this valley chock-full of little micro-dungeons, and all of the ~60 rooms say things like, "5 Orcs, 3 hp each" or "2 kobolds".  Seriously, Gygax?  This is your distillation of the hobby?  Quite obviously the idea is that all of the inhabitants of the micro-dungeons have complex relationships within their own "family" but also really screwy politics with their neighbors, but none of that is supplied in the module.  So in order to make this thing fun and interesting, you've got to basically re-write the whole module.  At which point you might as well have started from scratch.  Ugh!  (The fact that the dungeon will vary enormously from group to group, and that the customization will happen regardless through repeated play, is of course one of the design features of the game.)

Quote from: Daniel DavisAnd here's the "revelation": later on, while I was reading up on whatever insta-kill trap/creature waited in the next room, Mpose says "You know what? I think Glug's lawful. He does whatever Yosh tells him. That's his principle."

Everybody always picks Chaotic the first time, and they almost never follow through on it. 

Quote from: Ron EdwardsWe might actually have a genuine opportunity to discuss alignments here in a rational fashion, a rare thing on-line.

In the very earliest version of D&D (1974), alignment isn't really explained.  It's like, "Uh, there are these teams, right?  The Lawful team and the Chaos team, and some Neutral guys.  Pick a team!"  And that's it.  Presumably back in '74 everyone knew Moorcock and Poul Anderson and so odds were good that those terms meant something to somebody at the table.  What's interesting is that the term used is pretty explicitly political: you're pledging your allegiance to some metaphysical principle, which presumably carries socio-political weight in the day-to-day world of the characters.

As far as I know, the only explicit mechanical consequence of alignment is that if you grab an intelligent sword (and all magical swords are intelligent in 1974) then your alignments might clash explosively.  But other than sort of a compatibility test, there's not much to it.

But in Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975) Gygax introduces the Paladin class, sort of like a prestige class for highly charismatic Fighting-Men.  Here, we get the Alignment Police type thing - if the Paladin ever does anything Chaotic, he or she permanently becomes a regular schlubby Fighting-Man.  This introduces all kinds of dysfunctional play, because "chaotic" isn't well-defined, who has authority to define it is itself ill-defined, and the definition can do a lot of violence to your character concept.  (Greyhawk also introduces the Thief class, which cannot be Lawful, but the stakes aren't as high.) 

Note also that here we're talking about a "chaotic" action, rather than an action in furtherance of Chaos.  Alignment is working, in other words, as a desciption of someone's personality, rather than a relationship with the metaphysical world.  You can still get there, but you have to squint.

1e (1979) isn't my forte, but alignment is generally used in a descriptive sense, along with the Good & Evil axes.  The idea is that alignment is more-or-less your outlook, and that through repeated action your alignment may change - but this means you lose a level and Cleric-types may lose access to spells.  (Several classes also get screwed if their alignments change.)  This design permits some freedom of choice, and the alignments are pretty well described for the first time, but there's still a lot at stake. 

(In my mind's eye, I can just see a million 15 year old boys screaming at each other about what is, and what isn't, Lawful Good behavior.  Imaginary sex is involved in 90% of these arguments.)

In the Moldvay Basic Set (1981) and the Menzter Revised Basic Set (1983), alignment is explained a little more clearly: alignment is basically a measure of how much of a douchebag you're intending to be.  A Chaotic character is a lying, untrustworthy sociopath who would rather be lucky than hard-working.  It's pretty clear that the authors are describing not just how well you'll fit into society at large, but also, how much of a dick you're going to be to the other players.  The Mentzer version recognizes that PC's alignments may change over time, and suggests a significant penalty if this happens, but doesn't require it as in the 1e rules. 

2e (1989) devotes a fair chunk of space to alignment, again stressing that it's a general outlook, not a straightjacket.  But again the design requires certain classes to behave according to a strict code with severe punishment for straying, and regardless of class changing your alignment might require you to earn double the XP to level up.

Frankly, the 1974 version seems the most functional.  "Here's this description, you can kind of figure it out from context, but we're not going to harp on it.  It probably ties into the premise of the imaginary setting somehow, you figure it out."  Subsequent designs that required you to develop a legalistic understanding of not one but two metaphysical abstractions, enforced through severe penalties, while acknowledging that players could do whatever they wanted because it didn't have any guard rails, were just asking for massive acrimony.  The minute one guy gets burned, you've got an Alignment Snitch on your hands.


To add some more content directly to Daniel, rather than nattering on:

Daniel, if I'm understanding you right, you're a little puzzled that some seemingly random at-the-table play crystalized into some really nice role-playing without explicitly setting anything up beforehand - and in fact ran completely counter to what your players had explicitly decreed prior to play -

That more or less matches my recent experiences with Olde-Timey D&D.  You get this guy who's a bunch of numbers.  And you've got some ideas about What this guy is up to (treasure acquisition, killing monsters, bossing peasants around) but not Who this guy is

There might be some cognitive dissonance at that point immediately prior to play, so you toss off a one-liner, like, "Uh, this guy is the son of a brewer, and likes beer a lot," or "This guy was a deserter from the Imperial army and is eager to prove his courage."  Sometimes these one-liners are more interesting than others, but they're sort of like a place-holder for an actual personality. 

In a recent game, I played a Fighter who bought a pole-arm.  So, naturally, this guy became a pole-arm fanatic, sort of like Gygax, who loved to yammer on about the difference between the Lucern Hammer and the Bohemian Ear Spoon, and kept a "pole-arm quiver" sort of like the comic book character Hawkeye, where he could attach different pole-arm heads as needed,  This amused me a great deal.

But all it takes is one really sharp moment for all of that stuff to fall by the wayside.  Suddenly there's this new, incongruous take on the character, and it quickly takes over everything.  Typically this happens around the third session of play for us, but it could happen earlier.  And in your friend's case that sounds like what happened.  (Actually I suspect he set this up by selecting "Heart of Gold" as an ability, so he was at least open to the possibility.)  When these moments happen, the character is really born, and there's a legend in the making.

In one of our games, I was playing a Magic-User with 1 Hit Point.  This guy was cowardly in the extreme - simply because an unlucky slip down the stairs could kill him.  But when a fellow party member ended up sending our mule into danger, I suddenly realized that this mule was my Magic-User's only friend: the mule didn't judge him.  From that point on, I was a ferocious madman in defending the mule, leaping into danger, creating diversions, and so on, if only my friend could survive this dungeon intact.  (The inevitable occurred about 3 sessions later, but I had a good run.)

Here's my guesses on why this happens, and they're only guesses:
* Early D&D is like connect-the-dots, strung randomly on a piece of paper.  At first you're like, "Blah, just some dots."  But after a few hours of play, you're like "Hey that looks like a lion!"  I think the brain wants to see a pattern, and you'll use that to rationalize where your play was already trending.

* The first moment when your character concept starts to shift is pivotal.  Up until then, you're just maintaining your character's status quo: "I'm a cowardly Magic-User."  But when that concept shifts, it's like the story is really beginning: "And then someone threatened my mule."  It's a Kicker from Sorcerer that arrives through play and is purely internal as your understanding of this guy changes completely.


Ok, so this is my first post ever, but I figured I should say a word or two seeing as how I was one the players.

Daniel, it's SHIFU (pronounced sheefu).  Have you not seen Kung-Fu Panda?  Come on!

Anyway, my tendency is to always play good characters (lawful good, chaotic good, neutral good, etc.).  This goes for tabletops and pc/console rpgs.  I always go with the good.  The only reason I think I initially chose "chaotic" for this session was because I wasn't completely committed to this "old school hack" and decided to go contrary to what I normally do when being serious.  I tend to not like playing one-session games.  I like investing my time in character building only if I think I'll get to see it pay off (i.e. over the course of numerous sessions), I don't usually put much thought into something I think I'm only going to play once.   Matt/Mpose, our other player, is the opposite.  He pretty much puts alot of thought into it either way. 

So, my character was initially supposed to be a samurai/sword-dancer with the goal of successfully blending sword-fighting with the flamenco.  Daniel didn't want me to do this, however, because it was too silly.  So then I'm like, "Whatever, how about I just want to find loot and kill stuff?" Then we argue about it for about a minute, which is normal for us, and then he says, "Whatever, let's move on."  So then he asks about our alignment, but I didn't know that was going to be part of the game (since I didn't read about it in the player's section of the handbook).  So I just said chaotic since it seemed to fit with the "get loot and kill stuff" idea.

Obviously, things didn't really follow the aformentioned character goal.  Although I initially tried to play on it by setting up a backstab with Glub against the mercenary leader, that ended up being probably the only truly chaotic decision I made.  After developing the attachment to Glub and saving the kobold family, my natural tendency to want to do good started to come out.  Things just seemed to work in our favor when not trying to be a douchebag and always trying to kill stuff.


1) We tried to be amicable and joking with an orc patrol (I told Glub to play along, and we proceeded to walk around the corner into their line of sight with me saying to Glub, "So I said, 'Rectum!? Damn near killed 'em!'").  The orcs were taken aback, and reacted with hostility when we told them why we were there.  We proceeded to run away down a hall with a trap floor, which we happened to know about because we had saved the kobold family. The orcs then fell down into the pit to their deaths.

2) We were camping in a room when we heard something in the hall.  Glub hides underneath a big tub (for cooking) while I hide behind the door.  Three animated skeletons enter the room.  We continue hiding INSTEAD of ambushing the skeletons.  They then leave the room and continue down the hall towards the previously opened portcullis. We close it behind them.  They can't open it back up, so I use my sword to cut them up through the bars of the portcullis.

3) We find an injured carrion crawler underneath a table.  Although Glub wants to try and tame it with a stick of dead rats (for food) and then ride it, I tell him it's not a good idea and I don't want to risk his life on such an thing.  We leave it be.

4) We find an adolescent bear cub in a lower level of the castle, where it's more like a cave than a dungeon.  We decide to feed it some rats and leave it alone.  We proceed into a nearby room, finding an old sauna and bath.  The bath has clear water with what appears to be a large diamond covering the drain.  Although we're all about loot, we're also about NOT DYING.  And, although influenced by meta reasons, my character does not like water.  He is wary of all pools of water, small or large (I had a bad experience with the water elemental at the beginning of the Age of Worms campaign setting).  So, I use a nearby fan stick to try and push the diamond to the end of the pool.  It barely moves and seems to be showing resistance.  I find myself curious at this so I take some of the nearby bath oils and pour it into the water.  The colored oil doesn't sink into the water but just hovers on the very surface of the water.  We then tie strips of nearby towels to Glub's pickaxe and then toss it into the pool in order to drag out the diamond.  We are able to move it a foot or so, but continue to meet with an invisible resistance.  Suddenly, the whole body of water begins to move WITH the diamond!  It is all moving as a giant mass, and then to top it all off, starts to hover/fly!  So we book it out of there and close the door.  However, there was a door on the other side of the room which we weren't able to open, so we decide to lure the bear cub into the room using the dead rats (Glub's food, btw).  The bear cub, smelling something sweet in the "pool of water", bends over to take a sip, but then falls over limp and is pulled into the aquatic mass, lifeless.  Right about this time, we hear the return of momma bear outside the room, and she is coming into our room.  The only direction we can go is back into the pool room with that thing, hoping to make it to the other side so we can open the other door.  We run past the pool, seeing no signs of its movement, only to find that it's a FALSE DOOR.  We're trapped!  But this room is small, with only 2 feet of walking space on either side of the pool.  Momma bear can't get to us without toucing it.  So what happens?  Momma bear touches the pool and is paralyzed, and then also consumed into the aquatic mass.  But baby bear and Momma bear are so large that displace alot of the "water."  They are consumed and trapped, but separated by only a thin layer of water.  Now we see that the "diamond" has been displaced to the outer edge of the water membrane and can easily be accessed.  So I take my sword and slice it up.  Two dead bears and one dead diger.  That was close.

It was definitely one of the most interesting sessions I've played, especially since I love combat (which is why I enjoy 4E, contrary to my cohorts), but with surprisingly little combat.  I think Daniel said he expected us to have died several times, but through our spontaneity and sometimes utter cowardice, we survived. It was crazy-go-nuts, and it was awesome.