Monday, April 15, 2013

Further Thoughts on Older Edition of Dungeons & Dragons and Cooperative World-Building Play

In this recent post I discussed why I enjoy the casually lethal nature of early (pre-1980) editions of Dungeons & Dragons.  The principle idea is that if you view the game as a narrative of the adventuring party collectively becoming more powerful and successful over time, losing individual characters but building a group identity and engaging in a cooperative game of world-building/exploration with the GM, the death of one's personal character is less of a serious letdown and more of an expected set-back.  A way of analogizing it would be that running a OD&D PC is like playing the main character in a Shakespearian's a great role, but you have to die at the end.

Upon thinking a bit more about the topic, there might be a way to capitalize on the fun of running a PC that has a high chance of dying where the character development is not "lost", and where dying doesn't feel so punitive (there are still penalties for death in ODD, they're just less steep because of the relatively flat power curve).  The method I think might be fun takes a nod from a set of novels popular with table top game folk, specifically Glenn Cook's "Black Company" novels.

The Black Company - Yeah these are the "good guys" of sorts

 For those that don't know "The Black Company" books are a big pile of doorstopping fantasy novels that take place in a generic fantasy world, where powerful wizards struggle to rule the shattered former empire of an extremely nasty wizard/demigod.  The protagonists in the books (and there are several different protagonists) are a mercenary company, notable because they start out morally compromised, and by the time the chapter is done they've suffered some key loses and are sailing North aboard a ship with a skull emblem on it to fight on the side of the "Evil Queen".  Of course all isn't what it seems.  Over the course of the series (which spans numerous decades) characters die a lot and are replaced.  This doesn't stop the narrative, in fact all that really keeps the black company together is their narrative - a set of annals recorded by various soldiers designated as the historian, and a stable system of officers that goes Captain, Lieutenant, Historian/Standard Bearer.  These roles change several times and the character that survive the longest are the companies wizards.

There doesn't seem to be plot immunity in the Black Company Novels and one gets a real sense that all the characters (except maybe some of the horrible lich wizard villains/anti-heroes) is goign to die eventually even if they do well.  This fits in nicely with what I suggested about a PCs - the end of their stories is likely not dying in bed.

So I suggest a way to make a fun OD&D campaign, palatable even to those who feel great sadness when "thier" character dies because of roleplaying effort they've put into that character is to literally make the character the party.  The group of players plays a mercenary company, an explorer's guild, a knightly order, a crusading brotherhood, a bandit gang or a splinter of a wizards school and the character generation bit is largely taken up by figuring out group identity - either with random tables or by consensus.

This is the party, your band of anywhere from 20 - 100, containing some specialists (wizards or clerics), a leader and some officers, but mostly made up of basic troopers.  Each game the players decide who the band is sending on a mission - maybe it's just a gang of 0-level men at arms, and each player picks or is randomly assigned a PC from whomever is one the mission.  Beginning character development would be added to each company member's minimal character sheet, generating simple identities to aid play (that are retained) when they first go on a mission - i.e. "Name: Sleepy  Description: a taciturn youth Secret: woman masquerading as man."  If some PC members die this doesn't create too much loss, because there are plenty of characters left in the pool, and the Roleplaying efforts of how the band or company interacts with the world isn't lost.  Even if a party consisting of the key officers and specialist in the band is wiped out there's always someone left in the company to move forward with the plot, and now the extra excitement of trying to rebuild their company.  This sort of thing is one of the major points of the "Black Company" novels, with a lesser officer taking over and continuing the company's existence after a disaster.

Survivors of course grow into interesting characters and it's presumed that with a high mortality game they'll take on more important rolls as officers and specialists within the company as they advance and develop personalities.  A key is making sure that these quirks are on the character sheets so that anyone can pick up a PC at anytime and play them true to character. This approach also allows a variety of role playing opportunity for players in a campaign.  You can play cynical blackguard one session and a would be hero the next.

With this approach you avoid some of the pitfalls of continuity in high PC mortality games, such as loss of plot-lines with a character death and loss of "role playing"/world-building color. You also get the benefit of feeling like your party is in danger and the story aspect of not always winning or surviving that gives many who like the OD&D style of play a thrill.  There's also the added bonus of allowing for a shifting group of players, you can still have the same "party" with an entirely different group of players, as no character is tied to a specific player.

Anyway - I think I have to write up a generator for random mercenary bands/adventuring parties to try this out now.


  1. Heh, again we come at the same thing from different directions. On Saturday I posted Lexicon and Microscope: A Study of an Imaginary World, bearing an at least superficial relationship to where I think you're going with this.

    Not exactly the same, of course. We never seem to manage to do that... :)

    1. Superficially similar Keith - but you decided to make an entire WORLD! Still gonna maybe nab your dictionary game as a way of figuring out the "company" characteristics for my idea.

    2. You could run the Lexicon/Microscope thing on just an island or small section of a continent. There could be callouts for Way Over There that just never get followed up on, so you can still have not-local stuff exist, without being specifically defined.

      It doesn't have to be an entire world, after all. It should pretty naturally go in the direction people are interested in exploring, and if nobody cares about Somewhere Over There or That Place Far Away or the like, they don't have to be detailed.

  2. we await a table, im sure you have a table for that

    1. Nesting tables - and lookee here S&W day is coming up...

  3. I find this idea most intriguing. I can easily see lots of potential in it.

  4. What you describe feels very much like the RPG "Ars Magica", in which the most durable PJ is the community of wizards itself (which includes wizards, adventurers and servants, all of them electible by the players for each adventure).