VTT Games are High-Prep Games

Judged by my reading of the OSR blogosphere, it seems that online play via Google Hangouts alone without virtual table top software (like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds) is quite popular with OSR players. This might be for a number of reasons:

  1. OSR players are old people who find new technology hard
  2. OSR players prefer “theatre of the mind” and eschew the use of miniatures and battle mats
  3. Roll20, Fantasy Grounds and other solutions do not support OSR rulesets very well

I am going to rule out the first point out of hand, because my observation of OSR people is that even if they are old, they are hardly technophobes! Witness the recent coordinated mass-migration to MeWe – sure we haven’t worked out everything yet, but people have generally embraced the task of learning something new.

The second point – about OSR players preferring “theatre of the mind”, could well explain things. That’s probably a topic worthy of its own blog post because the use of miniatures in the original D&D seems overlooked in some OSR circles, in a reaction against the perceived over-reliance on them in modern versions of the game. The miniatures topic was well discussed on Grognardia a long time ago (http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2010/04/miniatures-are-old-school.html) so I won’t presume to do it here. I do think that keeping the focus on the faces of other players rather than on a screen-sized battle mat plays a role in the preference for tools like Hangouts over Roll20, but I think this is only part of the explanation again.

I think the biggest contributor is that Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds do not support OSR rulesets very well, at least by comparison to their support for 5e and Pathfinder. As a consequence, OSR VTT games are high-prep games. Pre-made characters sheets are available for many popular OSR games, but there aren’t pre-made modules ready for purchase and deployment, nor compendiums, not built-in scripts etc as are available for 5e and Pathfinder. Castles & Crusades has pretty good support on Fantasy Grounds with a huge range of modules and support products available for purchase, but even popular OSR games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Swords & Wizardry do not.

I want to stress here that there is nothing which requires a VTT game, using any system, to be a high-prep game. If you don’t want to use maps, tokens, etc, if you’re content with a blank screen, character sheets, nifty dice rolling, and voice/video chat, you can run whatever game you like just fine. If that’s the case, then there’s not much point to using a platform like Roll20 over Discord or Google Hangouts, I suppose. However, I find there is something about the VTT format which demands more visual aids than the face-to-face format. Perhaps it is something about sitting at a computer rather than around a table with my friends which makes me feel like the players need something to look at on the screen – and not just occasionally when combat calls for it, for example, but all the time. I think using the extra features a VTT provides over a simple online chat (e.g. Google Hangouts or Discord) makes playing online more engaging. These extra features also enhance one important aspect of many OSR games:

Mapping! Rather than describe the dungeon and have players keep their own maps, I can have the dungeon unfold visually in front of the players, effectively “drawing” the map on their screen. With Roll20’s Pro features (dynamic lighting and advanced fog of war), this map can be unique for each player, and reflect only the features of the dungeon which have actually appeared in the player character’s line of sight. OK, I grant, this is not really mapping, true old school style, but truth be told my players do not generally make their own maps (either face to face or online), but this automatic mapping overcomes the “player laziness factor”. The examples below are from my Roll20 Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign – from the excellent James Raggi module “The God that Crawls“. If you’ve played this module, I think you’ll agree it benefits from mapping.

Referee Map – zoomed all the way out.
Player’s view of the same map. Illuminated area at the bottom shows what the players can see now. Explored areas are visible via advanced fog of war. Note that players cannot see the referee moving things about in previously explored areas – only the illuminated ones within the current line of sight.

Another location from the same campaign (this one not from any published module) which is “zoomed in” helps show the distinction between areas the player can see, areas the player has not explored, and areas the player has explored but cannot see right now (note that players cannot see the health bars of any tokens except their own, despite what is shown in these images):

Referee’s view of a house, showing the player character (Bernard) in the middle, an NPC in the same room as him, and an alien hybrid family in another room.
Player Character (Bernard)’s view of the same area. He can see everything in the room and can see beyond through the open doorway. Note that Bernard never explored the bottom right of the map, so these appear as black on his screen, as opposed to merely being in shadow.

Something else you may notice from these “zoomed in” pictures – the beautiful custom tokens made especially for my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign by the very talented Peter Saga. Peter is also very easy to work with if you are thinking of commissioning similar tokens for your game, by the way: https://www.artstation.com/petersaga_1 These tokens effectively take the place of miniatures, which many people (certainly my players) find both visually exciting and engaging – can’t do that in Discord.

To really get the most of the visual advantages of virtual table top, you need to do quite a bit of prep. First, you need to find/make token-scale maps (effectively battle mats) for more important locations in your game. You can also incorporate regional and kingdom maps, although these can be in any scale they come as precise location of individual player characters tends to matter less. Then, you need to load the maps into your virtual tabletop. To take advantage of the Pro features in Roll20 which enabled the effects above, you need to both pay for a Pro subscription and to draw your dungeon’s walls again in Roll20 to allow dynamic lighting to work its magic. To do this, you need to jump to another layer, and then draw in the map lines, preferably in bright lines so they stand out (don’t worry, you won’t see them in play). When a player character opens a door, you need to jump back to the dynamic lighting layer to remove the line through the door, then jump back. It’s time consuming for large dungeons like The God that Crawls.

The same map’s dynamic lighting layer in Roll20. Note that doors were drawn in red, walls in green. Doors were “moved aside” when they were opened in the game (hence Bernard can see through the open door in the previous screenshot).

Now, I have to make a referee confession at this point. I have never been good at consistently preparing for game sessions, especially in the preparation of maps. And yet, despite becoming adept at flying by the seat of my pants, preparation does make me a genuinely better referee. It means I save my improvisation skills for where it is really needed and that the game world is much more consistent. Playing a VTT campaign forces me to prepare lots of maps before playing – maps that cover everywhere I think the players might go. Preparing these maps also means I stock locations in my sandbox as I go. Dare I say, players also have more agency because I am not “forcing” any scraps of ideas I have on them – they choose where to go and what things to get killed by, not me. 

So, at least for me, VTT games are high prep games, but that’s not a bad thing.

Better Maps by Better People

In my last post I mentioned that you can already find a lot of maps to run B1-9 In Search of Adventure. Some of these, by more talented artists than I, are available commercially through OneBookShelf (affiliate links ahoy – I get a commission if you buy these):

Some other very talented artists have made their maps available for free:

That covers a lot of maps but still leaves me quite a few to draw myself with my limited ability! If you know of any other sources for the missing maps, free or paid, please let me know.

In Search of Adventure

The combination module B1-9 In Search of Adventure (that’s an affiliate link, giving me a commission on any sales) is kind of like a Pathfinder Adventure Path for Basic D&D. I can actually hear OSR people wince as they read that, but it’s kind of true. It links all of the “best bits” of the classic B-series modules for Basic D&D together. It doesn’t do this in a straight “only one path” order, fortunately, and actually starts with module B9 or B7 first.

B1-9 Adventure Flow Chart (p6, In Search of Adventure) – Like an Adventure Path, only good

Since I am soon going to run a virtual tabletop Basic D&D game via Roll20 for players who are new to Basic D&D (and in some cases, new to D&D period), I want to give them the definitive Basic D&D experience. This is why I’ve selected the “best of the B series” combination module.

Virtual tabletop play demands a bit more in terms of preparation. Since you’re not sitting around a real table together, visual aids become more important, at least in my experience. I’m also not trying to recreate just any Basic D&D experience, I am trying to recreate the feeling of the 1991 Black Box which introduced me to D&D. Those who can remember that version of the game might remember the large fold-out map of Zanzer Tem’s dungeon. In effect this was a large battlemat and the other modules which came out for this version of the game tended to include similar fold-out maps. Long story short – I want maps I can display on the screen in “battlemat” scale (1 inch square = 5′ square).

There are, fortunately, some great such maps already made available online and quite frankly almost everyone is better at making pretty maps than me so some of these I have already been able to find. Some are even available commercially – I may review these as separate posts. But for others I will have to make my own VTT versions of these maps. If you are like me and would rather spend your time playing, then I will post these maps as I draw them in the hope that they will be helpful to you.

Here is the Castle Caldwell dungeon level, made in Dungeonographer. This is a player map – you will need the referee’s map from the module (p133) to use it. It is not quite in native Roll20 scale but can be easily resized to Roll20 and since it is fairly plain doesn’t really lose anything in being resized anyway.

A player map for “The Dungeons of Terror” originally from B9, adapted from p133 of B1-9 In Search of Adventure. It’s functional, not pretty.

OSR Guide For The Perplexed Questionnaire

Zak S posted a fun questionnaire on his blog: http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2018/10/osr-guide-for-perplexed-questionnaire.html

1. One article or blog entry that exemplifies the best of the Old School Renaissance for me:

My chosen blog entry is not game mechanic or even directly play related, but speaks to something I think is important to the OSR: http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2008/03/pulp-fantasy-d.html

2. My favorite piece of OSR wisdom/advice/snark:

If you, as the referee, are rolling dice, then stick with the numbers you rolled. Instead of fudging, don’t roll at all when you’re not prepared to accept a possibly “adverse” outcome.

3. Best OSR module/supplement:

A Red and Pleasant Land by Zak S: http://www.lotfp.com/store/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=190

4. My favorite house rule (by someone else):

I like most of these: http://tenfootpolemic.blogspot.com/p/the-ten-foot-polemic-unified-house-rule.html

5. How I found out about the OSR:

I started playing Castles & Crusades and that led me to the rest of the OSR.

6. My favorite OSR online resource/toy:

http://save.vs.totalpartykill.ca/web-apps/

7. Best place to talk to other OSR gamers:

As of about a week ago… MeWe!

8. Other places I might be found hanging out talking games:

Facebook.

9. My awesome, pithy OSR take nobody appreciates enough:

Balance is a lie.

10. My favorite non-OSR RPG:

King Arthur Pendragon

11. Why I like OSR stuff:

The system is familiar but what’s done with it is as creative as hell.

12. Two other cool OSR things you should know about that I haven’t named yet:

Flatland Games’ Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is a truly unique OSR game. I would describe its aesthetic as “hearth fantasy”. I am not sure if that is actually a thing, but I think it sufficiently descriptive of Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures that I think you’ll know what I mean even if you’ve never heard the term before. Mechanically, what makes the game unique is its playbook approach to character generation which means that as you generate your character’s ability scores you also generate their personal history and their relationships with other player characters. The game is also intended to be low preparation for the referee, with playbooks to generate scenarios as well. The campaign supplement, Further Afield, has an excellent mechanic for collaboratively building a campaign setting which would be easily adaptable to other fantasy games as well. Check out Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures here: https://www.flatlandgames.com/btw/

Scenic Dunnsmouth, by Zzarchov Kowolski (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/127039/Scenic-Dunnsmouth)

13. If I could read but one other RPG blog but my own it would be:

Probably Jeff’s Gameblog by Jeff Rients because it is still going: http://jrients.blogspot.com/

I also really appreciate Swords & Stitchery: http://swordsandstitchery.blogspot.com/

But, my favourite RPG blog (now long abandoned) is/was Grognardia (http://grognardia.blogspot.com/)

14. A game thing I made that I like quite a lot is:

My son has been drawing and designing monsters and I have been helping him make game stats for them, which he finds exciting because then he can fight the monsters in D&D. Example below!

15. I’m currently running/playing:

I am currently running Lamentations of the Flame Princess and King Arthur Pendragon (see https://www.savevsplayeragency.net/2018/10/12/what-im-running/).

16. I don’t care whether you use ascending or descending AC because:

It’s your game, do what you want. How could that possibly bother me?

17. The OSRest picture I could post on short notice:

This art is from the 1991 black box Basic D&D rulebook

Vale Greg Stafford

I was originally planning on following up my last post about my campaigns with some details about my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign and the resources I used for that. Before I got started on that though, I learned that Greg Stafford had passed away. Chaosium’s blog broke the sad news: https://www.chaosium.com/blogvale-greg-stafford-1948-2018/

I never met Greg Stafford, but in a strange way I felt that I knew him, because of what he had written, especially for King Arthur Pendragon. Objectively, I know that knowing somebody’s art is not the same as knowing the person. Despite this, when I read the news, I felt genuine grief for the passing of this man whom I never met.

So why did I feel like I knew Greg Stafford? I think the answer is that Pendragon was a very personal game for Greg Stafford. He has said so in several places (for example, in the welcoming message on his personal webpage about the game, http://www.gspendragon.com/):

King Arthur Pendragon is my gaming masterpiece. I’m very proud of all my gaming work, especially of Glorantha, but Pendragon holds a special place for me. The main reasons for this are:

• It combines two of my major interests: medieval history and mythology. These two come together in the Arthurian legend. 

• It’s a roleplaying game, which have been a major part of my life.

• I did all the work. I have generally worked with committees to develop RPGs, because the task is monumental and requires a team to finish it in a reasonable length of time. However Pendragon was done almost entirely by me, both the game design and the background writing.

• I have accomplished a lifetime goal with these publications, of finding a way to share my passion with others in a meaningful way. 

Greg Stafford, www.gspendragon.com

The current version of Pendragon, 5th edition (including 5.1 and 5.2), including all of its supplements, is almost exclusively authored by him. This is Greg Stafford’s vision of the game, with no adulteration, no “committee” with which to compromise. The thousands of words which comprise the game are his alone.

Pendragon is a unique game. More than any other roleplaying game I have ever played, Pendragon perfectly captures its source material. It feels mythical and historical at the same time, and its system of traits and passions leads to player knights behaving like knights in Malory and other classic Arthurian retellings. The Great Pendragon Campaign book is a behemoth, lavishly detailing the whole mythic history of Arthur, from the reign of his father and the civil war which led to his conception, through to his final conflict with his son. As you play through this epic campaign, you’ll find that Pendragon plays differently in different eras, the rules perfectly complementing the campaign. Greg Stafford was right to call it his gaming masterpiece.

The crazy thing is, Pendragon isn’t his only masterpiece.

Glorantha is one of the great fantasy settings from the early era of roleplaying games, probably the first fantasy gaming setting which felt truly mythic in its scope. Glorantha is the quintessential RuneQuest setting (although there were versions of RuneQuest without it) and is certainly as worthy of the title masterpiece as Pendragon.

I think it says a lot about Greg Stafford as a giant of the gaming hobby that he has two unquestioned masterpieces. There are a lot of designers who have a portfolio of great games, but true masterpieces are rare. The creative genius responsible for creating two such masterpieces is rarer still.

Greg Stafford is dead and I fear our hobby will never know his like again.

What I’m Running

I’m presently running two regular campaigns:

  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess – I am running a campaign set during a weird fantasy version of the English Civil War, built out of the excellent but often underrated/overlooked England Upturn’d module by Barry Blatt.
  • King Arthur Pendragon – I am running the Great Pendragon Campaign. Our last session was 503 AD – the campaign started in 480 AD using the expanded material in the Book of Uther.

The above are affiliate links to the products mentioned on DriveThruRPG if you are minded to check them out in PDF form. If you buy PDFs through those affiliate links, I will receive a small commission. Irrespective, I don’t actually recommend that you buy Lamentations of the Flame Princess books in PDF unless they’re not available in print from www.lotfp.com (not an affiliate link), because their print books are just so beautiful. But I digress…

The LotFP campaign is a virtual tabletop game played via Roll20. The Pendragon campaign is a face-to-face game. Both campaigns have been running for over a year – the LotFP campaign for a little longer still. Both games generally run fortnightly, which seems to be a sustainable but still regular-enough time for (theoretically) responsible adults with proper jobs and families to balance their commitments with their fondness for elfgames. The style of each campaign is very different.

I have gotten into the OSR in recent years, and the LotFP campaign is the most successful of the OSR games I have run. Fundamentally it is a sandbox campaign, set in Civil War England. Combined with being a virtual table top game (where there is more of an expectation of virtual maps/mats and tokens being used during play), this game arguably takes the most preparation, as I have to prepare not only notes and thoughts about all the various areas the players might go, but also potentially provide area maps and even battlemaps for the those places as well. I have a love/hate relationship with Roll20 with respect to preparation – if I do the work beforehand, it looks great while we’re playing, everything runs smoothly, and some aspects of play are even better than playing at the table (no way I would pull out the sheer quantity of maps at different levels of detail on a tabletop full of other people’s books, dice, snacks, etc). If there’s something I haven’t fully prepared before the game, however, building areas on the fly on Roll20 either slows down the game or produces substandard results or both. I use a mixture of pre-bought maps and assets from the Roll20 marketplace, maps I’ve made myself or imported from LotFP and third party PDFs, and historical maps found online of early 17th Century England. Combined with a set of tokens custom made for the game on commission by the talented Peter Saga, this is a very visual game, and there is a sort of emerging aesthetic which makes it feel quite distinctive from other flavours of D&D.

I love Pendragon, and think it is a shining example of a game system which perfectly captures its source material. Pendragon is the Arthurian RPG. There is no need for any other. I’ve run three Pendragon campaigns through my gaming career – one in 4th edition, and two in 5th edition. The first of those 5th edition campaigns came to an end when I moved to the other side of the world, to a country where I assumed (wrongly) that nobody would be interested in Arthurian myth or RPGs, let alone both. Just over a year ago, while enjoying a drink with and admiring the gaming library of a friend whom I regard as something of a gaming oracle, I discovered that there were indeed gamers in these part who were interested in Arthurian myths and Pendragon specifically. With great enthusiasm, I got back into Pendragon, acquiring the new expansions which had come out since my last campaign 8 years ago or so, and we started our campaign. As a face to face campaign, this was always going to have a different feeling from the LotFP VTT campaign, but I found it was different in other ways as well. For those unfamiliar with the Great Pendragon Campaign, it is an enormous tome intended to take your party from the days of King Uther Pendragon, to the final battle of King Arthur’s reign, covering every war and quest and intrigue along the way. By the end of the campaign, players will likely be playing the grandchildren of their original player characters. There are elements of this campaign (and the memories of how I ran it and its 4th edition predecessor beforehand) which are fundamentally incompatible with the OSR approach and mindset I had cultivated for the LotFP campaign, however, and it took me a little while before I felt like I was in the right head-space again as a Pendragon Gamesmaster.

Both of these campaigns have given me different perspectives on the concept I made into a gag for the title of this blog – namely, “player agency”. The underlying design philosophy of each game is very different. Running both games (and of course, playing and running many other games beforehand) has taught me that there is no “one true way” to giving players meaningful agency in a campaign.

Black Box Basic Set

I have been playing a lot of old school roleplaying games in recent years, both original TSR versions of D&D, and a number of retroclones/modern OSR games. The version of D&D which introduced me to the hobby was the 1991 “black box” basic D&D set. Despite selling half a million copies in the early 90s, this version of the game seems almost forgotten by the OSR community today. Probably OSR gamers are slightly older than me and got into D&D with earlier boxed sets and thus don’t have nostalgia for this one, but the Rules Cyclopedia remains very popular and the black box came out at the same time. Another potential reason is that it doesn’t cover as complete a range of rules as Mentzer Basic, even though it covered levels 1 to 5. Whatever the cause, the 1991 black box had a lot to commend it.

A comprehensive history of basic Dungeons & Dragons, and the source of this image, can be found at https://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/setpages/basic.html

This is the box which contained “Dragon Cards” in a small red combination DM screen and folder. The Dragon Cards taught the game in small, digestible chunks. In addition, there was a conventional rulebook, full-colour fold-out map in the style of modern “battlemaps”, a complete set of fold-up figures for player characters, NPCs, and monsters, and of course, a set of funny-shaped dice. I bought this box set with money I had for my birthday as a kid, with no prior experience of D&D or tabletop RPGs, and the contents of the box were sufficient for me to teach myself how to DM, and to teach my friends too.

Incidentally, for years, I secretly worried that we weren’t doing it right because everybody who gamed with me had learned how to play from me and this black box!

I am planning a new “black box” campaign to introduce my children and their friends to D&D. I am also preparing a virtual table top Basic D&D game to introduce the game to some adults too. The virtual table top game will probably be shorter, and I want to give the players an authentic feel for what Basic D&D was/is as opposed to the more modern versions of the game some of them have played before. To get this feel right, I am leaning towards running B1-9 In Search of Adventure, a module which combines most of the best bits of modules B1 through B9.

I plan to post on this blog about how preparation and play for each of those campaigns progresses, among many other gaming topics and thoughts.