All posts for the month July, 2020

A TimerLast week was the first session of my Wednesday night Roll20/Discord group’s new B/X campaign (a continuation of a long-running AD&D campaign that went on hiatus last year). Overall, I think it was a successful revival of the game with both the players and myself quickly falling back into both our roles and the lore of the setting.

There was one aspect of the group’s typical play-style that I was hoping to pre-empt, though: the tendency for the players to over-analyze and debate decisions both large and small so that the balance of any given session is 90% preparing for action and 10% action. While this interest in intense discussion can be taken as a compliment — they’re clearly invested! — it can cause things to drag out unnecessarily.

In the past, I had tried the typical solutions to such issues: random encounter checks, careful tracking of time, and depletion of exploration resources. These were useful tools, but not complete solutions because of two factors: (1) situations often arose where it would not be realistic to interrupt the party’s planning with random events or deplete resources (i.e., the characters are in a secure location with hours/days to spare); (2) any one player could prolong debates with clarifying questions about the situation directed at the Dungeon Master (sometimes relevant, sometimes not) even when a consensus to act had been built.

My solution to the problem of moving things along when the party could realistically be dilly-dallying within the game’s fiction has been to implement strict time limits on decisions on a meta-game level: ten seconds during combat rounds, one minute during exploration turns, five minutes while camping or in a secure location. Failure to make their decisions within those limits means time passes regardless of whether their debates and questions could have “realistically” fit within the time available to the adventurers. After all, we’re playing a game that makes abstractions all the time and there is no reason this approach shouldn’t extend to time management.*

That’s well-and-good as far as it goes, but I also needed to preempt any one player using up the party’s precious time — after all, if individuals are asking me questions and declaring intentions during an exploration turn, there is no way everything is getting resolved within one minute! It was then that the genius of the traditional party caller role become clear to me: a person that was responsible for facilitating a quick discussion of intentions amongst the party members — reminding them of the time limits and reining in those who would use up that time on their character’s individual actions — and then conveying that succinctly to the Dungeon Master for resolution. In short, the caller acts as the editorial voice for the party’s collective Id so that decisions can be made within the time limits imposed by the game’s referee.

The benefits of the caller role are numerous. First, having one person speak for the group means that the whole adventuring party will not be punished for any one player’s use of time unless that player happens to be the caller (in which case the party probably needs a new caller). I can also affirm that, for the Dungeon Master in terms of workload, this system is great: I just need to track the passage of time and not worry as much about making sure no one player is hogging the spotlight during what should be group endeavors. If the group decides to rotate the caller roll, it also becomes an effective way of gently pushing more passive players to step forward and find their voice.

It’s a bit early to give a final verdict on the system since it was our group’s first time trying both time limits and having a caller. There were definitely times the other players forgot to channel their intentions and questions through the caller and times I let them do so. Things did move along at a faster clip, though, and we will almost certain become better at this with practice. I’ll report back on this experiment after a few more sessions when it is clear whether this is a sustainable solution to issue of time management in game sessions.

* I’m not a complete monster, though. My time management rules allow for one thirty-minute discussion each game session without penalty for the purposes of detailed planning or debate during camping/party downtime.


An Ancient Dwarven Space Station Explodes

A scene somewhat similar to the explosive conclusion of the previous campaign

After a hiatus of more than a year and a half, my regular Wednesday night RPG group is returning to the campaign world in which they spent almost five years adventuring. During that time, they explored at least three mega-dungeons (depending on your criteria), had substantive interactions with nearly one thousand NPCs, thwarted at least four intricate conspiracies involving criminal enteprises and antagonistic polities, and finished things off by traveling to space where they defeated an ancient AI before it could open a stargate to unleash an armada of resource-hungry space dwarves. It would be accurate to say that I feel a bit of pressure to deliver an experience worthy of that legacy.

Fortunately, a combination of the choices made at the end of the previous campaign and in my work preparing for this continuation should help these new adventures feel like their own story rather than some kind of nostalgic echo of an epic that had reached its natural conclusion:

  • Within the campaign, the players’ solution to the main threat against their world — that AI-controlled space station and the imminent invasion by space dwarves — introduced a new problem on the same scale that is clearly their characters’ fault. To summarize quickly, the sentient sword that they carried for hundreds of sessions manipulated them into replacing the dwarven AI with Asmodeus, Lord of the DVLs (Dedicated Virtual Lifeforms). Asmodeus then preceded to use the stargate to open a portal to hell and unleash his hordes. Meanwhile, since DVLs powered just about all known magic, spells and enchanted items ceased functioning. The last decision the players made was to begin a search for an alternate source of magic to combat the evil their actions had brought into the world.
  • Outside the campaign, I decided that it would be interesting to try the B/X rules as reformulated in the Old School Essentials publications in place of the original campaign’s AD&D 1E ruleset. All the existing player characters were converted to the new system.

These two factors mean that this new campaign should be able to manage a full reset in terms of both content and form without losing the player buy-in established during their previous exploits. There’s obviously a clear goal to inspire and focus the returning characters — to fix what they broke — but there’s no obvious solution to that problem that would throttle player agency. Meanwhile, the sudden change to the in-game rules of the campaign world is echoed by the exterior ruleset change: the loss of magic is reinforced by the decrease in the power-level represented by the move from AD&D to B/X — it’s a brave new world in both realms!

Tonight is the first session of this new campaign, so it will be clear very soon if these factors help with the transition back into the Curabel campaign setting. For those interested in following these new adventures, check out the background documents on my campaign wiki — soon to be joined, I hope, by session summaries written by my players.