A Learning Experience

EVERY TEACHER IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DID THIS!This past Saturday was a day of firsts for me. It had been awhile since I’d been able to get a group together for a gaming session, so many of the things I’ve been thinking about and writing about got a test-run during this weekend’s game. I edited everyone’s character sheets before the game to make note of their current encumbrance, and I made sure all of my treasure had encumbrance noted. I prepared a few hex-crawl sections for the game, complete with detailed encounter tables. I also made an attempt  to include time tracking in my campaign, which I really had no idea how to do, but I tried to work off of some supposition. I also tried a few things which I haven’t written about; including weather in my games, using poker chips to track the party’s resources, and writing down treasure on index cards. I believe those last two were originally proposed by Telecanter.

Like I said, it was an entire day of firsts. Some things worked well, some things didn’t, and most others fell somewhere in between. So now that the game is over, it’s time to review, and revise. Experience is our greatest teacher so long as we take the time to listen to it!

Encumbrance

(Using my Encumbrance system). As I mentioned, I went through everyone’s character sheet and put a red underline under everything which would add to their encumbrance, then put their totals, as well as their light/medium/heavy load ranges on their character sheets. When everyone arrived, I explained the new system to them briefly. I asked them to keep track of their encumbrance during play and let me know if they started carrying a medium or heavy load. I was somewhat surprised that this did not really impact the speed of play even slightly. There were a few conversations about who should carry what, but they were brief, and entirely appropriate. Looking over their character sheets now (this group always leaves their sheets with me, for some reason. It’s not something I normally require), it seems like everybody did a good job. I can tell that the number was erased and increased whenever appropriate.

I don’t feel as though the system has been sufficiently stress-tested, though. Nobody is yet carrying anything other than a light load, so penalties have not come into play. However, for now, I’m completely satisfied with my encumbrance system, and look forward to seeing it in action more often.

Resource Tracking with Poker Chips

The ability to run out of a resource is what makes having the resource interesting!I actually did talk about this once before, way back in November when I said I didn’t like it. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems completely reasonable, and the less my objections seemed to be relevant. That’s what I get for doubting Telecanter’s genius. I used white poker chips to represent arrows (and gave the ranger 24, which I only just now remember should have been included in his encumbrance. Whoops!), red poker chips to represent torches/lantern oil, and blue poker chips to represent rations. I had a large bowl on the table where everyone could toss their chips when they consumed a resource, and pull them out when they renewed that resource.

It worked fantastically. Better than fantastically; it worked perfectly! Everyone quickly got into the habit of tossing their rations into the bowl at the end of the day. They even did it when I forgot to tell them to. The ranger and I both forgot to toss his arrows in the bowl, but that’s only because it took a few hours for the party to engage anything in combat. Tracking torches has been a little bit trickier, but only because of my difficulties relating to…

Time Tracking

(Using my suppositions on the subject) Time tracking didn’t work as well as it could have, but it didn’t not work. During the first few hours of the game, while the party was hex crawling, I kept track of the when the day began and ended, which I think is plenty. I didn’t really take into account any time spent in combat, in town, or otherwise interacting with NPCs, but maybe that’s unnecessary. Later in the game, once the party entered the dungeon, my original plan was to keep track of time in 10 minute turns. I was only somewhat successful in this. I took a page from Magic: The Gathering and used a 12 sided die to keep track of time. After the first 10 minutes, I set it in front of me with the 1 facing up. After another 10 minutes passed, I turned it to 2, and so on. Once it hit 12 I would note that two hours had passed, and start the count over. When I decided to turn it was this issue. I typically assumed that each combat required enough rest afterwards to count as 10 minutes, and that if the players spent more than a few moments in a room it should count for 10 minutes. I also moved the counter up twice when the rogue took 20 on a perception check to find traps.

The whole thing felt messy, but I’m not entirely certain how I could do it better. This will require further in-game experience to fully evaluate.

Weather

I totally spaced on this. Didn’t even mention it during the game, let alone have it affect combat in any way. GM fail.

Treasure on Index Cards

A Pile of Golden Treasure being pilfered from aboveI believe this is something I first red on Telecanter’s blog. Before the game I spent $1.18 on a pack of 300 index cards. Anytime I added a pile of treasure or a chest into my notes, I would write everything down on an Index card. A typical card would be headed with something like “Crypt of Bonegut the Stone Fisted; Chest in room 8″ and would include the number of gold pieces, gems, and other oddities the characters found. I also wrote a number in red next to any item which would increase a player’s encumbrance.

I really think these cards improved play by a great deal. Anytime they made a discovery, I’d toss a card over the GM screen, and one of them would read off the items to the others. It was really fun to hear them wonder “what are these bottles of blue liquid?” (Healing Potions), and “A stick with a tiny ruby at the tip!?” (Wand of Fireball with 3 charges left). Fortunately the party’s sorceress, Phoenix Dark, was more than capable of identifying all of these objects. Having something visual seemed to help the players in dividing up the loot amongst themselves, and I really don’t think my encumbrance system would have worked anywhere near as well without these cards.

Obviously it would be more difficult to use these in randomly generated dungeons, but they were so useful in this game that they will certainly have a place in any future games I run.

Hex Crawling

An isometric video game using hex tiles. Unknown source. (Using my thoughts on how to make travel more engaging, as well as my thoughts on creating an encounter table.) This did not go so well. At least I don’t think so. The players understood the concept well enough, and I won’t say that anyone appeared to be excessively bored. But with all the rolling, marking down of terrain type, and slowly moving the piece one hex at a time, I think everyone was getting a little impatient. More than once the player who was controlling the party’s marker would absentmindedly move it several spaces at once, which says to me that they were more eager to reach their destination than they were to know what they encountered while getting there.

I believe that part of the issue may have been the way I was marking down the terrain type. A friend of mine got me a nice table-sized, wet-erase hex map for Christmas, so I gave the party a little red bead to represent themselves with, and had them move one hex at a time. Once they entered a hex, I would quickly use one of my markers to identify what the terrain type of the hex was. It was a clumsy method of doing things. One of my players suggested that I let her mark the map, which now seems like a much better idea. It would both involve the players more in the process, and would force me to verbally identify each terrain type (which I was failing to do after awhile.)

If anybody has advice on this, or perhaps an audio recording of a successful hex crawl, I would be very appreciative.

Skills

This isn’t exactly new, but it is something I learned. The more I play with skills, the more I agree with my friends in the OSR movement: the elaborate skills system used in Pathfinder is bad. It’s better than D&D 3.5′s, but it’s still in severe need of being redesigned. Not only does it serve as a source of confusion for new players, but it can be a pain-in-the-ass during play. Having the rogue roll to search for traps at every door quickly became a source of exasperation. And often when I knew I “should” be asking for skill checks, I instead simply allowed players to perform tasks. The sorceress was able to identify magic items, the Ranger with Knowledge(Dungeoneering) was able to identify statues of gnomes as being real gnomes under a petrification spell, etc. I’m not ready to completely abandon a skill system, but I’ll certainly be devoting some attention to it in the coming months.

Funny Story…

Skeleton from the Pathfinder Bestiary by PaizoThat’s everything I’d like to share about what I learned from this most recent game. However, before ending this post, I would like to share one funny story / word of warning for other GMs.

The first boss in my dungeon was a skeletal orc with some fancy fighter abilities. When the players entered the room, it would be lying dead on a slab the way a good corpse should. On the floor around it was scattered a great deal of treasure. The idea was that the players would recognize that as soon as they touched the treasure, the orc would come alive and attack them. So they’d prepare themselves for battle, and carefully grab some of the treasure. When the orc never stirred, they’d figure they were wrong, and go on their way. 20 minutes AFTER they took the treasure, the Orc skeleton would come alive, and start hunting for them in the dungeon. It would be particularly good if he found them whilst they were engaged with some other creature.

When my players finally enter this room, they suspect a trap. So my party’s rogue, Poker, inspects the stone slab the orc is lying on. This I had not expected. Given that rogues receive the “trapfinding” ability at level one, which allows them to detect and disable magical traps, I figured the rogue might have a chance to notice something was amiss here. I told him that he detected a very faint, dormant necromatic aura. Upon hearing this, my players did the logical thing:

The Ranger, whose favored enemy was undead, smashed the skeleton’s head with his sword.

All I could do was bury my face in my hands and give the ranger 3 XP for killing the boss.

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12 thoughts on “A Learning Experience”

    1. I considered giving him “minor success” experience (1XP) since his action was simple and put him in no danger, but the monster was a major obstacle, whether or not it required a major solution, so I gave him the full 3 XP.

      I’ve got nothing but respect for a player who outsmarts me, even though it makes my job harder.

      Thanks for the comment!

  1. Sometimes for the players, those sorts of moments can be even more entertaining than having the massive boss fight. I recall one game I was in where the GM had planned on us fighting a massive brute of a creature. One of the players got lucky with some magical scrolls that encased the creature’s head in ice, and the GM was unlucky in that he kept rolling criticals on the creature’s attempts to bash the ice off it’s face. The end result was we all stayed well out of range and pretty much let the boss beat himself into submission. We still talk about that fight to this day.

    1. Sounds like your GM is doing things right. Attempting to force a difficult encounter by fudging rolls or secretly increasing a creature’s HP is never going to be as fun for the players as letting them foil your plans will be.

      It just means that you need more devious plans in the future! >:D

  2. I’m really glad to hear how well poker chips worked out for you. I still haven’t gotten a chance to try them out. My players are back in town now after a series of sessions in Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, so maybe I’ll be able to try it on their next foray (they’ve already been tracking encumbrance LotFP-style).

    Regarding item cards, do you worry about telegraphing which items are important? I generally don’t like to expose which things are planned and which are improvised, because I find my players trying to seek out the planned things (I suppose that might be a boon for some referees, but I like to be surprised). I like the idea of item cards, but in implementation it reminds me of video games where elements you can interact with are highlighted in some way and everything else is just dressing. That seems to work against the flexibility inherent in tabletop RPGs.

    For the hexcrawl, I think part of the problem might be the minigame nature of using a public hexmap. By public, I mean talking in terms of hexes to players. I have always used hexmaps as a referee-only tool. Players just hear descriptions of where they are, what they can see, and what their choices are. They never know when they move from hex to hex or if they have fully searched a hex. Also, if they are moving a game piece around a hexmap themselves, isn’t it difficult for you to manage when they get lost?

    1. I don’t worry about telegraphing which items are important. The cards only include a physical description of the items in question, and I try to add at least one detail to everything. So an item should have the same level of detail whether it is important or not. I don’t randomly generate treasure at the table most of the time. I determine which creatures / rooms have treasure on them before hand, so it can all easily be written on a card.

      If my players went into completely unfamiliar territory and I needed to start improvising everything, I wouldn’t mind if they knew I was improvising. I don’t mind giving my players occasional glimpses behind the GM screen. For example, in my most recent game one of my players doubted the importance of something because they heard me rolling random encounters behind the screen. So I informed the player that while the encounters were random, the random chart had been created from the story of what is going on around them.

      What you say about the hex crawl sounds really wise to me. I think I need to re-evaluate my methodology based on your advice.

      1. I think written cards in details like what you do will be more challenging for the player. Because that way, they should be wonder, what kind of item is it? Reading the description, and quessing what item(s) that fits the description would be like an “Bonus Identify Check” for them. Hehehehe~ That is quite fun, i quess.
        And about hex-crawl, well…. I plan to use it in my game too. Since the square-tile battlemat doesn’t offer much more challenge for me anymore. Beause of it’s “plain” and “normal” feature. So, I expect that Hex would give a fresh and new challenge more.

  3. My players always, always, burn, chop, and destroy any bodies they find, in case they might rise up and attempt to kill them.

    I dread the day they begin trying to raise those bodies.

    1. It’s a reflection on the GM when players are that cautious. Well done sir! =P

      Someday, I really want to see my players start out as goodly adventurers, then slowly gravitate towards evil as they realize the possibilities of necromancy/conquest. From there I could run a world domination game, and it would be glorious.

    2. Ah, not really~ :p Sometimes, I use necromancy for the dead body I found, turning them to be my Faithful Undead Slave. Hehehehe~ Altough, some people in party would question my “Heronity” and ask “You are a Hero, right? What kind of Hero who use Undead/Zombie as their underlings?” Well, I always thinking to “use everything i found to the max of it’s potentials, so why not i turn the corpse i found to be my companion? TeeHee~”