Saturday, November 23, 2013

Men are the worst monsters...

I was 10 or so, playing on my dad's Commodore 64:

"It is pitch black.  You are likely to be eaten by a grue."

"What's a grue?"

"I don't know," my dad said.

I typed my question into the prompt:

"The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of earth.  Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light.  No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale."

I think of Zork as my first instance of fantasy role-playing.  As a consequence, the Grue has forever remained the perfect incarnation of the mysterious and unknowable monster that lurks in the dark.


The early 90s, high school: I was not a "cool" kid and had finally accepted it.  I ate lunch everyday with kids in the same boat as me (some of them longtime friends, some of them new).  One kid was obsessed with D&D and guaranteed we'd all love it.  I was skeptical, still suffering from the church I'd gone to for most of my childhood, I was left with a ridiculous idea of what was the Devil's work (Metallica, D&D, girls) with no clue as to what was God's work (um, angels, I guess?)  I remember saying, "Fine, I'll try that other role-playing game he's talking about, but not Dungeons and Dragons - it's Satanic!"

I can't even remember what we played first, but I do remember him handing me Homeland by R.A. Salvatore.  I'm also not sure why I read something I was steadfast ready to hate and dismiss, but of course I was wrong.  There was nothing Satanic about it and I read the next 5 novels as soon as I could (the rest of that trilogy plus the Iceland Dale trilogy).

Soon enough I was running weekend long delves into Menzoberranzan via 2nd Edition AD&D.  (By the way, I owe it to AD&D and Metallica and that church for converting me from a hypocritical Christian to a judgmental atheist; college helped me get over the latter...)

Also during this period (which I'll call "high school") I played some Shadowrun, Marvel Heroes, Paranoia, and a few of my homebrews (both based off TV series).  Transformers borrowed heavily from Marvel Heroes and featured a chart with 100 vehicles that players rolled on to determine what they were (I was quite proud of that chart).  Sliders was a combination of 2E and Marvel Heroes that featured a slightly or radically new setting each week.

The decade including college was lacking in any quality gaming.

Now: after getting back into M:TG, then onto serious tabletop gaming, and finally RPGs again, the last decade has been a reclamation of those things I've been missing all these years.

My first endeavor was to buy eleven 1E books and convince some of my gamer friends into trying it out "for nostalgia's sake."  I had never played this edition, but figured it was popular at some point and I wanted to experience what those who first played it might have experienced.  I think we missed the point, because for us it was a struggle.  There were certainly fun moments, but there were a lot of missteps.

1) None of us could keep the rules straight (we were all too well-versed in 2nd and 3rd edition).

2) I was trying to tell a story, and so after intense development during character creation, one of the characters died on the first adventure by giant centipede poison (the centipede rolled a 20 to attack and he rolled a 1 for his save against poison).  I think I didn't want the character to die more than the player and allowed him to live.

3) I tried creating everything from scratch.  This was overwhelming as a new DM, and so I started to use the modules (like Temple of Elemental Evil).  These were also difficult as they were constantly killing them.  (I had to create a racist Paladin that would step in and save the characters after they died.  The trade-off being they got to live, but didn't get XP, and had to deal with this asshole.)

Finally, after a year, we switch to Pathfinder.  It was glorious.  We all loved it.  The balance, the ease of creating encounters, the clarity of the rules, the focus on storytelling and characters being heroes.  This is still happening once a month.

Another year by, and at free RPG day I pick up Better Than Any Man by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  It looked pretty fucking cool, but I wasn't sure there was room for another fantasy RPG in my life (after all, I was, and am, still trying to get GURPS, Mutants & Masterminds, Fiasco, Tremulous, and dozens of other things to the table...)  However, after reading it, I knew that I was required to play this game.  I ordered the Grindhouse Edition and snagged the PDF for the Tower of the Stargazer.

My friends were skeptical at first, especially after our experience with 1E.  But I like to think that their trust in my good taste and sense won them over.  We played A Stranger Storm and their interest has kept us playing almost every week since.

This is where we're at: I'm running Pathfinder and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  This blog will explore how to traverse these different terrains.

What's the same:
I required my players to be humans.
I tend to make things dark (I'm more interested in running stuff like Valhalla Rising than Lord of the Rings).
I like grays (re: morality, "bad" guys, monsters, Joss Whedon, etc.).

What's different:
Pathfinder: the PCs probably won't be dying, but face other penalties.
LotFP: death is everywhere and I revel in their blood.

Pathfinder: features a mix of traditional and new monsters, but the PCs don't have knowledge of them (although the players may recognize them).
LotFP: nobody knows shit about anything they're fighting.

Pathfinder: I'm creating a story arc, but trying to give as much freedom as possible within that, also allowing players to pick from different forks and working their interests and goals into the game.
LotFP: I'm running the modules as close to canon as possible.  I'm trying to be completely neutral; even decisions I should be making are instead handled through various charts, tables, books, etc.  (This allows me to be a bit more gleeful when they suffer and die.)

Pathfinder: features all the bells and whistles, feats, skills, combat options (lots of combat), long reaching story arcs that take multiple sessions to complete.
LotFP: simple rules system, basic characters, combat is rare, and the focus is on player problem-solving and exploration.

The title of this post comes from Gary Gygax (DMG).  His point was that players needn't play monsters, since humans quickly become the most destructive force in the game.  Interestingly, this plays out differently in each system.  In Pathfinder, the characters are like superheroes, slaughtering entire ecosystems of creatures.

LotFP embraces a more realistic stance.  Humans are monsters in a very real sense - this is why we have things like the Inquisition, witch trials, slavery, and war.  In the former, players are viewed as heroes, in the latter, slightly crazy people looking for profit.

I'm hoping that even if the PCs are the real monsters, that I still get to be the grue.


  1. Looks like you got over your apprehension about killing a PC. That's good.

    I love the neutrality of deadly random charts, too, but don't forget that the GM's job is to interpret all results based on his own aesthetics and the campaign's overall success.

  2. The problem with killing them in the Pathfinder game was how much time we spent on character creation and the fact that I had built almost every aspect of the campaign around these particular characters. It was way too much work put in to have it all destroyed by an unlucky die roll.

    Quick character creation, an explicit warning of high character fatality, and GM neutrality in LotFP all work to making character death acceptable. In fact, it adds to the story and the fun rather than detracts.