Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Age of Conan: Denouement (Episode One)

I'm horrible at actually finishing campaign records, a fact that I admit most ashamedly and with all apologies to those who were following along with my Age of Conan OD&D game. To give you at least some sense of closure, let me reassure you that the group did finish the adventure successfully, and quite surprisingly without drawing a single blade.

Well, that's not entirely true. They ambushed a couple of guards and took them out in a round, but that doesn't really count.

Their "final" (for now) exploits were rather impressive and consisted of them using charm, wits and brains to gather evidence to expose the conspirators in the Cult of Mitra who sought to drive all other religions out of Aquilonia by framing the Asurans as murderers and demon worshippers. The mystery cult within the Mitraeum was called the Brotherhood of the Bull and was led by none other than the High Priest of Mitra, and funded by a corrupt noble who was secretly a servant of the Stygian government (which sought to foster chaos and instability within its old rival, Aquilonia). The puzzle was a convoluted one, but one which the players, after a bit of frustration and hitting of brick walls, managed to put together very well. They used a cultist who had gotten cold feet as an informant and erstwhile ally (not that he had much choice) and gathered all the evidence they needed and more, which they turned over to King Conan II. In return they earned themselves the gratitude of their second Hyborian king in their last three adventures.

So now that we have that out of the way, what gives with it being over?

Relax. It's not over, just on hiatus for awhile. We have several players in my Sunday group who are GMs and we try to rotate games regularly so everyone has a turn. I felt I'd held the GM throne for long enough and wanted to give someone else a shot. But I have big plans for the Hyborian world post-Conan the Great, so the game will be back eventually.

So, what did I learn by my first experience running OD&D?

First and foremost: it's freeing beyond belief. Not having everyone tied down by what's written on their character sheet to define what they can do is awesome, though it took some time for my players to get the hang of things like:

  • Go ahead and try to tumble around--no it doesn't matter that you don't have any sort of "skill" in Tumble.
  • Why yes, since we're using Chainmail combat rules, indeed you can try to cleave through a number of foes. Instead of the Man to Man tables we'll use the "troop type" combat tables. Roll a number of dice equal to your "man" rating. Each 5 or 6 gives you a die of damage you deal to a foe of your choice.
  • Hmm...does event x happen right now...roll a d6; on a 1 or 2 it does.
I did house rule a few "modernizations" into the game, mostly drawn from my own Spellcraft & Swordplay, which made the adjustment easier and just helped with some flavor issues. I wanted to remove all dice but d6's from the game, so that it played more like Chainmail might have. Thus, in addition to the combat system, I postulated a saving throw system based on 2d6 and drawn from the magic saving throws in Chainmail's Fantasy Supplement and the save categories in OD&D. This saving throw system can be found in my Forbidden Lore and Age of Conan pamphlets. Also, I like to use Ability Checks, so I adopted my own ability check system from Spellcraft & Swordplay. In addition, I created a broad and general "backgrounds" system whereby players each chose two backgrounds besides their character class, which represented knowledge professions to which they'd had some exposure. Rather than limiting the field, these backgrounds gave a +1 bonus to ability checks where they could justify using said backgrounds. For example, a character might have a background in nobility and court etiquette from his parents being servants in a palace. This would give him bonuses to know etiquette, manners, diplomacy, recognize heraldry, etc. Blacksmithing backgrounds give a character a bonus to repair armor (or more likely would guarantee that with the proper facilities he could just do it without a roll). I know some old-schoolers will likely blanch at this idea, but the important thing to remember is, neither of these add-ons restrict player characters in any way. Rather, they serve to keep the game ever more open and give a bit of mostly flavor-based differentiation between characters. What it is NOT, is some sort of codified skill system. It's more of a way to allow players to add descriptors to their characters which helps me make judgement calls in game. For example, I now know that Hrogar is a blacksmith. I know that Lukas is an apothecary. So when in the middle of the game he asks if he can identify the properties of a given plant, I can immediately say, "you're an apothecary. Yes, you can." I think of it as a "yes" aid, rather than a restriction. Certainly there are times when attempting to do something without the proper background is tougher or not possible, but even in the best, most over-the-top fantasy fiction the hero encounters things he doesn't know every so often. I maintain and always have, that ability checks and background descriptors are not in any way "new school" or antithetical to "old school" play. It's true that when you remove other types of dice from play and a monster is defined mechanically and entirely so by its hit dice, monsters can be come a bit ho-hum. An 8 HD ogre, for example, is little different than an 8 HD anything else, special attacks such as breath weapons and poison notwithstanding. This is a problem upon which I'm working, but in the end it strikes me that simple description and player imagination go a long way. Things I learned that are Age of Conan specific... The biggest one is that my corruption system needs work. Functionally it's great. The problem is that the slide into evil and inhumanity happens way too fast. It's near impossible to play a sorcerer who is not evil by the time you hit second or third level. I've given Stygians a boost in their corruption saves based on their innate familiarity with sorcery, but perhaps they should actually go the opposite way. I did it as a quick fix to help out the player of my game's Sorcerer. Currently, every three failed saves results in a level of corruption, and three levels of corruption equate to becoming evil. Each level of corruption equals a cumulative -1 save to future corruption saves. After you're evil you start to show physical signs of corruption with each further corruption level you achieve. The problem is that at first level characters need an 11 to save on 2d6 as it is, with sorcerers gaining a +3 vs. spells (which applies to corruption saves). So a sorcerer needs to get an 8 or better on 2d6 to save vs. corruption before penalties rack up. Considering that spellcasting is skill-based in AoC and not Vancian, sorcerers are prone to throw spells more often, and they'll fail better than 50% of their saves. This results in a very fast slide to evil. I am thinking that an increase of failed saves to five per corruption level is probably a better, more gradual slide. Perhaps a bonus to the corruption save if a wizard starts off as good aligned; say, +2. Maybe +1 if the sorcerer begins as neutral (balance) (see my Age of Conan booklet for more on my alignment system, but in brief there are four alignments: Good, Neutral (balance), Neutral (unaligned/selfish), Evil).

Overall, my style of play is perhaps a bit different than some other old school DMs. I am rather loathe to kill player characters, and have fudged events to save lives instead of conspiring to end them. I enjoy somewhat epic, heroic campaigns, so to my minor shame, my players rarely find themselves in danger of immediate death. The play's the thing, as they say, and in our games the shared story creation is the play. I try and give everyone the chance to feel like the big man on campus in game at some point in time. It has, on occasion, failed miserably and led to what one player calls "follow the Jedi" campaigns wherein one player/character rises up above all the others and dominates the game; these are generally failed experiments but thus far I believe everyone's had a good time with all the games we've run in our Sunday group, whatever the system or character combinations may be.

Well, there was that one playtest we did that went really awful...but that's neither here nor there.

I'm kind of rambling here, and am not sure what if any message there is to get out of this particular blog, save that I've had a great time running OD&D and am actively looking forward to my next turn at DM to get back to it. Just a few thoughts for the road. I'm always interested in hearing yours in turn.

That's all for now, folks. I'm out, and remember: crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of the women!

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