BPCC 4E continues!

The dungeon, which in this particular spin we’re calling vortices, is a dead psionic guy’s mind. For three characters who got their asses kicked, they did in fact revise and re-set the entire premise of my setup, through a number of roll-requiring actions, some of them judicious and some not-entirely-on-purpose.

I’m kind of irked that they did not manage more than the most basic success on any of those Dungeoneering rolls, however, because I really wanted to show off the map I made, or some of it, or briefly, as a feature of play going forward. I included some snippets of the map in the video insofar as they saw it up-front.

You also get to see some real-time grappling with a rule or two, although I snipped the worst of my um’s and page-flips. If I say so for us, we did a nice job of running the fight – my plan is for each session to speed up the routine considerably, as this game’s learning curve is steep to the degree of ability I’m seeking for us, but not actually all that tall.

I’ll talk more about the context of Quests, encounters, treasure, and skill encounters if you want. This is a very meaningful dungeon, not so much in the sense of a puzzle although the characters may feel that way, more in the sense of something will happen due to them being in there. And they can shape what that might be, depending on how much they manage to understand and, well, to survive.

Attached you’ll see my special customized method for getting the best out of D&D 4E encounters. It’s not a character sheet reference at all, it’s a play reference for managing order and actions – in such a way that you’re both playing my guy and running good tactics without disconnecting the two. In this game, you can work with the rolled order of action, the combination of options within a turn, the ability to “hold” certain actions, the rules for extra actions, and most importantly, how others’ actions give you qualities and actions. It’s exceptionally dynamic when you get a taste of it, and I’ve set up the sheet so everyone can look across and see what everyone else might do.


14 responses to “BPCC 4E continues!”

  1. We didn’t win the encounter – but we (l)earned something

    This was a ton o'fun, despite reaching a "dead end" – our combat failure led to a situational insight, in a really cool way.

    I did get a little concerned about being/becoming "that guy" who is trying to stretch the limits of his spells/abilities beyond the literal description. In our first session, the "exert your will over a foe" Telepathic Projection seemed to fit the fighting-your-own-thoughts theme real well, and in this session using the "slow" feature of my Mind Lock as "calm" … I'm pretty willing to just trust Ron to manage the rules, but there's that part of me that feels guilty. And part of me that just says "YES! So cool that my powers match the situation!"

    • I’m still suffering a little

      I'm still suffering a little over what I perceive as slow play, relative to what's happening. The screen medium really amplifies that, or maybe I'm just being impatient with myself.

      I do think we are A-OK in terms of rules purity. The context for the whole vortex as well as the textual rules make those abilities anything but "skinned" power-blasts, and when we add the Skill Encounter conflicts as well as the Quest mechanics, it all becomes its own, rules-interconnected sphere of play. A lot of it is synergistic, for example, James' particular tactic of having Runt use Diplomacy rather than Intimidate just after you'd slowed them … it made the slow into a calm, in a way which wouldn't make anywhere near as much sense for either act alone. Or if you'd used a different power with a direct-damage effect … which I can assure you would mean they'd have pursued all of you into the red-lit chamber. So yes, consequential, meaningful, and by-the-rules indeed.

  2. This is a good time.  It’s a

    This is a good time.  It's a pleasure to finally "meet" Gordon and Ron after knowing them online for a decade or more, and though I didn't "know" Ross I'm enjoying gaming with him.  It's a friendly, respectful social vibe, and I dig it.

    The system is juicy, and although we got stomped in this latest session, what I find exciting about Dungeons & Dragons (in all editions) is the moment when getting stomped becomes a genuine possibility.  4e manages to deliver the "Oh man, this is heading south really fast, and we're running low on options" moments pretty reliably in my (limited) experience.

    (I don't mind the slow pace of play: online is inherently slow, and without aggressive scene framing, D&D sometimes becomes a lot of, "Is this a clue?  Where do we go now?  What's our actual mission, anyway?"  Which is very inefficient, but a natural result of several smart people trying to plan wisely with limited or ambiguous information.)

    I find the pop psychology component of play–"These monsters are your own insecurities!  Accept them and they'll go away!"  "These monsters are ego-driven malice!  It's a dead end, y'all!"–refreshingly odd, and maybe slightly corny, but totally appropriate to the genre in particular the fictional situation we're in.  Very few D&D combats come with a moral.

    I have a lot to say about the backgrounder campaign document, which frustrated the FUCK out of me, but I think that's a separate discussion.  It's very, very true to "psychedelic retro-pulp," but engaging with the genre in this way, as a role-player, forces me to ask "What is psychedelic retro-pulp for?  What are its advantages, and what are its limitations, as art?"

    • Maybe slightly corny, yes,

      Maybe slightly corny, yes, but also to be fairly compared with any other combination of tropes or subsets of fiction that comprise a historical unit of D&D. I am not, for example, especially interested in Disney elves and dwarves with Scottish accents. At least we're treating our weird little koan-therapy encounters as real combats and skill challenges, not "role-play it away so we won't risk hit points."

      One weakness of this particular set-up, and part of the pop psych that you're rightly identifying, is the lack of NPCs, which I'm especially feeling in contrast to the current RuneQuest game. I've already got it noted that the next batch of critters / places / situations / opportunities is going to be fully external, full of interesting people doing interesting things.

      Your last paragraph lies somewhere between intriguing and fightin' words, but I'll wait for the separate discussion part.

  3. The Setting

    A week or two ago, I wrote, "I have a lot to say about the backgrounder campaign document, which frustrated the FUCK out of me, but I think that's a separate discussion."  

    I felt I owed Ron a fuller explanation, given the amount of time he put into the document.  After a lot of struggle, I think I can boil this down a bit.

    We've got a character.

    We've got the character, in a setting.

    Ideally, the character rambling around in the setting creates a perilous or interesting situation.  The charater's in an untenable spot, and has to scramble out of it, possibly making an even bigger mess in the process.  In RPG terms, a situation is an "adventure" or a "session" or whatever; in Dungeons & Dragons terms, a situation is these characters being on a quest in this dungeon (located on that hand-drawn fantasy map).  Seeing how the situation works out for the character is usually the primary activity of play.

    A particular dramatic situation can arise in a lot of different ways.  But often you're looking at a protagonist's unfulfilled desires which up-end the setting or you're looking at a major instability in the fictional setting that arrives at the protagonist's doorstep.  And of course there are some instances when it's both.

    Speaking very generally, Dungeons & Dragons tends to assume the situation arises out of the setting.  The dungeon is in place; the various supporting characters all have agendas, and the protagonists–who are pretty much blank slates with the simplest possible motivations–fall into that web of causation and create a ruckus.  The protagonist then orients with respect to that ruckus, and we get some agency.

    Other games have different approaches to this.  Sorcerer pretty much does the opposite: your character wants something badly enough to make a pact with a demon, and wow, somebody's gonna pay the price on that one, no matter if you're in 2018 New York, 1999 Chicago, or Diablo Rey, or Azk'arn, or Marr'd.  The hidden fracture points in those settings definitely matter, and will get exploited by the main characters like weaponry, but what we're really doing is watching these really screwed up individuals coping with the consequences of their choices.

    Each approach has its merits and drawbacks.  But as a player, I need to be able to savor the possibility of situations–the one I'm currently in, and others that might evolve from it.  And one of the things a setting does, is constrain the range of situations.  If we're playing a game set in feudal Japan, we're not going to be aboard a starship trying to outwit Klingons above a neutron star.  Instead, I'm going to be relishing court intrigues, impossible moral dilemmas, mass warfare, duels to the death, eerie mysticism, and that kind of sensationalized Orientalist bushwa.  

    A setting is like a restaurant of situations: you may not know what, precisely, the chef is serving that night, but you at least know the cuisine.

    In this specific instance of the "Psychedelic Retro-Pulp" backgrounder, I had no idea what situations were likely to arise.  The cosmos is disintegrating . . . There are weird vortices . . . There are three very alien races with no discernible culture . . . The only social institutions are monasteries or "primitive" tribes. 

    What am I supposed to do with that?  What's an adventurer, in this place?  What do we do, and why do we do it?  Is it, like, a problem that the cosmos is disintegrating?  What are these three alien races like?  Is there a moment other than the immediate present?  Is there a space other than my immediate surroundings?  What's "normal" here–which is another way of saying, "Hey, um, what kind of restaurant is this?"

    Because Ron and I have had somewhat related discussions regarding old comic books, I want to make clear that I'm neither expect nor want a 'Verse.  I don't need a recipe for monastic wayfarer's shortbread, but what do monastic wayfarers do, y'know?  Why are they way-faring?  And, just as importantly, how does this differ from life in the monastery and life outside of it?

    • Three-part reply! Part 1. For

      Three-part reply! Part 1. For those following from home, James is reviewing what I wrote about the character-focus and setting-focus starting contexts during 1998-2001, the late Gaming Outpost and early Forge period. The point at the time was to acknowledge that either way is a valid path to playable situations, and that over-enriching both to start is counter-productive. My only quibble is with your phrasing that both have demerits (in addition to merits); I don't see any demerits in either.

      It's weird for me to see D&D sensu lato cited as an example of strong-setting. We've hashed out the possibly-generational differences in our understanding(s) of fantasy and gaming before, so I'll only briefly mention that my experience of D&D (Holmes 1977, re-issue of the original 1974 game in 1978, AD&D 1977-1979, G, A, and N series of modules) was in no way setting-first, fill-in character play, but instead a glaring blank for both.

      That glaring blankness was roundly mocked by all of SF/F fandom and authorship; I recall none other than Gene Wolfe doing so in my presence at some length. D&D of that era was considered a creative-content failure and the title itself was code for the tropes of the fill-in stereotyped fighter, et cetera, adventuring for no imaginable reason, together for no imaginable reason either, delving in some structure with no history or purpose except to house monsters squatting on sacks of money, with the barest nod to somewhere with a fancy name but nothing in it except a tavern.

      The same blankness is evident in every core D&D book to date; each relies on the idea that something, some kind of "this," is intrinsic and sufficient for characters to be in danger underground. It's the same vague, flapping gestures people make when they say "elf and dwarf fantasy" or "you know, traditional" – and it's circular, D&D because it's "this," "this" because it's D&D.

      I was, and still am, contemptuous of that blankness, including how it engulfed pop fantasy over the next decade, and how a certain dedicated faith among gamers persists in it. I abandoned it by my sixteenth birthday in 1980. So it's a little weird to see D&D held up as a good example, especially since I'm judging my Barbaric Psychedelic et cetera intro document relative to the 4E core book, which is neither better nor worse than any other edition for this variable.

      I kinda think it does better in that comparison, but obviously not as well as I'd hoped.

    • Three-part reply! Part 2. I

      Three-part reply! Part 2. I wrote the introductory document with a certain practice in mind which I've used to good effect with D&D of various editions in the past.

      In this practice, character creation is intended to be low-pressure, no back-story needed, no characterization beyond rather liking their race/class choice of the moment. All you need to do is make the guy up according to the options, embrace the gestalt of what they seem to imply to you, without dwelling on it or filling-in more, and show up to play.

      That works because the DM has already defined the immediate situation of play quite simply and easily for opening the first session. All context for adventuring, "why we're here, what we do" is either baked into it or develops from it easily on the fly. In this case, it was the funeral.

      So the first thing to say is that I'm feeling pretty failure-faced in light of your perception of the races as blanks. I soaked a lot of my blood in the ink that describes them in the boxes.

      For purposes of the extra-light but not absent character prep in this technique, it's not fluff at all. I guess that didn't work.

      During our run-up to play, it was clear to me that you were flailing in some way I didn't understand, creating more back-story than necessary, seeking into website and auxiliary material beyond the texts I'd stated were in use, trying to weird it up more with magic spectacles or whatever.

      I see now that you were trying to compensate for not seeing "what do we do, what do monks do, what is a tribe like, why are we together," et cetera. Whereas to me, all that would easily take care of itself in the first fifteen minutes of play. I kept wanting to say, "settle down, breathe, just show up, and it will be fine." With respect, you were very edgy about it at the time, and I held off.

      Without dwelling on that phase at all, I'd rather be happy that Runt is now a still-sketchy but developing character guy, with no need to rush it or pump it full. As you make decisions and improvise dialogue and see the effects, he'll grow fast and seem to have "been himself" all along. I think that's been happening just fine already.

    • Three-part reply! Part 3. I

      Three-part reply! Part 3. I was trying to describe how I'm approaching DMing, per collective character level, to get across that you didn't have to worry about either aimless wandering or "run through the dungeon" play, nor does anyone have to whip up high-octane characterization in order to have anything to play at all.

      I've built a constellation of encounters and quests across a landscape of environments, tribes, and monasteries. It's full of situations concerning different social groups, vivid characters, newly brewing vortices, and mind-trips.

      It's also full of threats both immediate and impending, using mostly primal and aberrant creatures, re-skinning the Monster Manuals freely. Crucially, the array of potential foes includes a variety of conflicting interests. Therefore, which of these actually get addressed, and when, and which "side" you're on or which goal you'll support, is left up to your decisions and role-playing. It's not about being in fights so you can proceed through the canned "story," it's about creating a story so you can get into fights.

      Therefore all is for naught unless you embrace your character and run with what he or she experiences, and how he or she changes. Add to and develop what you have. Don't be an insincere thespian. Trip out and be intense, make decisions that matter, so the fights do too.

      Granted, our current situation of play is a little more fixed at this exact moment, during our very first situation of play. That's toward the purpose of providing the "what do we do" context a little more firmly at the outset so you guys can find your characters' feet.

      I don't know if we're going to get to the higher-level play and three-tiered scope the rules allow for, but if we do, I will at least point at my scribblings about it. If the character race text didn't work, and was maybe passed over as embroidery, then this probably has the same problem. I hope not, but just in case …

      Higher-level play focuses play into a heroic-mythic arc. 11th level puts your character at Paragon Tier, meaning you choose a specification or path for your character class. So one monk might become, for instance, a Ghostwalker and another, a Radiant Fist. The one you choose brings a whole raft of added-on powers and concepts. 21st level does the same again for the Epic Tier, much more profoundly – the characters become unique mythic heroes, like Godmind or Primal Avatar. If they make it to 30th level, only one more adventure remains, as the characters strive for one or another form of immortality.

      For hybrid-class characters, all the options from both classes are eligible. A githzerai Ardent-Barbarian chooses any one of twenty-three Paragon paths (githzerai, Ardent, or Barbarian). For the Epic path, he or she could choose War Master for Ardent, or any from the nineteen options listed for everyone (subject to individual prerequisites).

      The sweep of it all is impressive, especially for Epic level, which in our setting, basically means the characters become the actual gods of the new world they forge from the wreckage. Our own original pantheon with detailed origin myths – how cool is that?

      Anyway, for what it's worth, I was hoping that'd be both concrete and inspiring on the basis of content rather than "kewl powerz some day" alone.

    • Quick response to two points:

      Quick response to two points:

      (1) You wrote, "it was clear to me that you were flailing in some way I didn't understand, creating more back-story than necessary, seeking into website and auxiliary material beyond the texts I'd stated were in use, trying to weird it up more with magic spectacles or whatever."

      We may remember this differently.  I quite deliberately stuck only to PHB2 and PHB3, because 4e is overwhelming enough without having to think about the supplements, and Runt's "background" was literally two very vague sentences establishing (1) his  single mechanically-required Background choice and (2) a suggestion on why he's at this monastery.  (Email from 12/13/17.)

      (2) I should have been clearer by what I meant about setting in D&D.  You're absolutely right that the game text itself presents either no setting at all (1974), the barest sketch of a setting (Mentzer Expert Set 1983), or an ever-so-slightly more developed example setting  clearly meant to be separated from the rules and replaced as needed (4e 2008).  The core rules ain't gonna help you much.

      Instead, at some point prior to the first session, someone composes a setting document.  This might be just a few notes on a single page of paper, or one of those pernicious 200 page boxed sets that TSR kept pumping out from 1985-1995, or anywhere in between. 

      In my experience, D&D tends to be a game where the story's main conflicts aren't centered on the protagonists, at least initially.  Instead, the problem lies within the setting.  Literally, in the case of a dungeon.  But broader campaign-level threats gradually begin to impinge on the protagonists, they get mixed up in those shenanigans, and eventually they start kicking ass on the global level, changing things up.  And I think we're on agreement on that.

      So, yes, D&D as a rules text is very weak on setting, but I'd argue that setting is the source of situational conflicts far more often than a character's backstory.

  4. Reply to Pt 2

    You wrote, 

    "[C]haracter creation is intended to be low-pressure, no back-story needed, no characterization beyond rather liking their race/class choice of the moment. All you need to do is make the guy up according to the options, embrace the gestalt of what they seem to imply to you."

    …..And that's where the tires began to slide on the ice.  

    There are three races in play, two of which were utter blank spaces to me, but even the 4e minotaur is sort of a kludge, conceptually.  (Find me some mythological or pop-cultural basis for the "thoughtful, noble minotaur" outside of D&D fiction.) 

    Of the six classes in play . . . man, I literally had no idea what half of that stuff meant.  Barbarian?  Okay, I know what that's trying to get across.  Monk?  Sure, I've seen some kung-fu movies.  But Psion?  Battle-Mind?  Ardent?  To me that's gibberish cobbled together around game mechanics, created for publishing reasons.  ("The monk is a psionic striker.  We need a controller, a defender, and a leader with psionic stuff.")  The game mechanics look pretty solid, mind you, but still.  

    So, for me, "embracing the gestalt" wasn't an easy process.  One night I was walking around blaming my kitchen equipment in a Deep Minotaur Voice when a meal didn't come together, because my appliances were TOO WEAK to feed my mighty hunger, and just decided to Be That Guy.  I have a handle on the guy now, but he was sort of a soulless bunch of numbers before.  (Side note: screw osso bucco, man, seriously.)


    This hopefully branches out into a larger point about psychedelic fantasy.

    It isn't that the fluff material was bad in any way.  It was just really abstract.  Let's take the githzerai: slavery, and liberation struggles, are big honkin' deals, but why were they enslaved?  By whom (and what happened to those guys)?  How long ago?  How's that connect to their mechanical aspects?

    Or, to take the minotaurs: immigration is also a big deal.  But why did they leave the Old Country?  Are they fresh off the boat?  How are they assimilating into the new culture, or preserving their old way?  

    Psychedelic fantasy leaves the familiar behind, but once you stray outside of the hero's journey, like, what's actually there?  Does the world exist without the hero's adventure?

    This is a really bad example, but I'm not sure of common points of reference.  The film The Dark Crystal isn't exactly the finest movie ever made, but it tells a fairly familiar fantasy story in a pretty alien world.  But, being unfamiliar with Froud's other artwork, I find it tricky to imagine stuff that "fits" that world but which wasn't seen.  There's clearly a strong creative aesthetic at play, but it's a little tricky to collaborate with it.  If you said, "Hey, come up with three new things in that setting, unlike anything we've seen before," I'd struggle a bit.

    For me, this is a property of psychedelic retro-pulp in general.  I have a feeling that the setting is a Potemkin Village that has little reality beyond the immediate needs of the story.  For me, there needs to be something concrete to riff on.

    In thinking about these posts, I was looking over some of your other games; the closest fit seems to be the Azk'arn in Sex & Sorcery.  (I seem to have misplaced my copy of S/lay.)  Azk'arn at least gives you: "Yo, there are these bugs, and even bug-goddesses.  And some folks cut a deal with the bug-goddesses and live in these decadent city-states, and others are just tribesmen who know bug-stuff."  That's not a lot to go on, but insects have a rich symbology and, of course, are real.  "It's humans and Earth-ish, but, you know, with magic bugs."  Somehow that's a much easier world to imagine persisting past the adventures of any one hero.

    This could totally be idiosyncratic on my part.  I'm rushing out right now, and wish I had time to give this a little more thought.  I feel I'm expressing it badly.

    • It’s depressing me how badly

      It's depressing me how badly we've missed gears; what you experienced as blanks and slippery ice are like a wonderful playground of content to me, full of things to do. I really don't want to have any more explained to me, as you've been very clear and it's getting me down because you seem so certain and adamant. I'm not trying to argue anything in some way that's supposed to convince you. We seem to be having at least some fun in play so I'll stick to that.

    • Regarding noble minotaurs:
      Regarding noble minotaurs: This is tangential, but I know of a few takes on the original Minotaur which present him as such, from the 1940s. Borges’ The house of Asterion is the best known for me. But a few days ago I came across a Cortázar little book, a sort of a play, which is so medium in quality that I must presume it’s a very early work and not very original. It’s called, I think, “The two kings” and it shows a very civil, depressed Minotaur.

    • It doesn’t really matter. The

      It doesn't really matter. The entire purpose of the setup throws literary justification out the window in favor of "cool imagery and color text, what do I want to do with it." Any rulebook-based descriptions go out the window too, retaining only those bits I included in the color text. The last thing I want to go into here is debates about this or that justification.

    • Oh, I get it! (I think.) It
      Oh, I get it! (I think.) It was just an offhand comment that caught my eye; I’m saying nothing about the game.

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