[D&D 5th] The Adventures of Iron Thomas the Loco Motif, Finished

edited February 2015 in Actual Play
So, I just now joined in the mixed-school D&D campaign that the guys have been working on since last fall. Basically, they needed a bit of new blood in it, and I could do with some creative exercise. The campaign is set in a heavily D&Dified 15th century Prussia.

Everything went wrong when I saw the train toys my brother got for his boy as a Christmas present.

My character, he/she/it is a conscious steam locomotive (think Thomas the Tank Engine) created 400 years ago in a Byzantine workshop, intended for mining work. As a Large creature Iron Thomas (as it is known in Prussian lands) cannot fit in the smallest of dungeon corridors, and it is obviously very slow in untracked terrain, but what it lacks in means (say arms, feet, equipment slots in general), it makes up in spirit.

Infernal spirit, to be exact: Thomas is a 1st level Warlock of the Broken God, found whispering at night about his "Creator". It does not speak, yet communicates telepathically with anybody within 30 feet. Thomas spits flaming coals to 15 feet straight ahead, scalds whomever he pleases within 10 feet with boiling water and Charms the minds of weaker men; his chief mechanic, Renfield, speaks for him where human interaction is required. His top speed on rails is over 200 feet per round, and obviously no one would survive a direct hit. Thomas mends minor equipment by eating it and spitting it whole out of its internal forge.

Thomas, however, has certain serious weaknesses aside from an inability to wield a weapon or fit through a door: it cannot move over soft ground unaided, its top speed without rails is at best 10 feet per round, iron rails cost something like 30 gp per five feet, and wooden rails (5 gp a square) can only be used for the most delicate purposes. It goes without saying that while Thomas can, indeed, consume coal and drink water independently, he cannot build rail or perform basic maintenance. Standing up, should he topple over, would presumably take many agonizing hours for this eldritch abomination.

In the past centuries Thomas used to work hard ferrying barges up the Danube river. As the first session opens, Thomas is found in slavery to a Jewish money-lender in Danzig, unable to maintain its accustomed style (coal, water, occupation, etc.) independently in the tumultous world of Reformation Germany. The influential owner sends Thomas out as a support vehicle for adventurers hired to secure an abandoned castle and transport any movable valuables (furniture, etc.) back to Danzig.

In practice I spent the first session managing a rail-building operation from Danzig to the adventuring location 15 miles away. Meanwhile, the adventuring party went ahead to pack the castle up and make sure everything was ready for transportation back to Danzig. I should get to location only 3-4 days after the adventurers, which surely will easily suffice for the packing, assuming they don't get their fool asses killed by the land pirates or whatever lurking in the castle. Quite hilarious.

A few long-term goals:
* Thomas wants to get out of serfdom and become an independent locomotive. For this he needs loyal support personnel, an useful rail network (in a world with nothing of the sort, to be clear) and a steady source of coal (burning wood makes me weak!).
* If Thomas should achieve a fortune of say 100,000 gp at some point, he'd likely start dreaming of a Carpathian Rail deep into Hungary, as somewhere in there lies the Scholomance Technicum (the vocational technical branch of the infamous Scholomance, you know) where others of his kind may yet toil in servitude.
* Give me a paddlewheel and I shall rule the waves! The campaign is supposedly set in the Baltic theater, implying seafaring derring-do. Good luck with that, little locomotive!

Comments

  • Oh my.

    This made my day, Eero!
  • edited January 2015
    This is amazing and really weird. To be frank, I'm not sure whether to clap, roll my eyes, or both.

    Do you get to play in the main game, or is every adventure with Thomas a "split the party" experience? What level are the other characters?
  • The other characters are 1-4th level - they played through the intro adventure for 5th edition with a very high amount of PC death (for a new school game - the campaign gets some ugly side effects from mixing the streams) before this new leg in the campaign. (The GM'll mix the new brew out of original material and old TSR modules, I understand.)

    As far as I'm concerned, I am playing in the main game, it's just that I have a character with a very peculiar role and perspective that might at times make splitting the party a good move. I've found over the late years that I apparently have an almost infinite appetite for the procedurally pure in D&D, as well as ample patience for irony; the combination basically means that I needed to do something rather weird to entice my own curiousity for playing 5th ed D&D. If the above character spec reads like an unique snowflake, that might not be entirely accidental.

    Considering the practicalities, I figure that the low levels are the toughest. Besides the obvious advantages of money allowing me to hire ever more people to build track for me, there's also the fact that sooner or later I'll hit some sort of flight spells on the Warlock career track, at which point Thomas will certainly have "options", so to speak. As always, the D&D GM will find it harder and harder to keep the campaign on rails as characters grow in power.

    Ah, a high point in Thomas's railroad tycoon career: so as to discourage peasants pilfering his tracks with their sweet, sweet iron(y) content, the locomotive has set about developing a rumour campaign in the countryside. Apparently touching those tracks makes all your progeny come out albino forevermore. Nevertheless, I fully expect that Thomas will meet its end sooner or later by encountering a stolen track section at cruising speed.

    For what it's worth, I do have a spare character in case Thomas bites it when it gets to the castle in a week or so. (Could also perish in random encounters on the way, although Thomas is egoistic and fearless about peasants trying to steal his tracks or whatever.) The spare's name is Marty McFly - he's a teenager 0th level Bard with an 80s attitude and his own car. He's also badly out of his own time, as one might imagine, but hey - he's got a car, man!
  • Clearly your entire approach to this campaign is a vicarious metaphor for the transition from "railroaded" Bad Roleplaying to Cool New School Off-Road Roleplaying.

    If Story Games were playing this game with you, it would probably implode under the weight of unfortunate railroad-related puns. Fortunately for you, we're not.

    We will look on with interest instead, to see which approach to roleplaying wins out.

    I hope you will keep updating us on this experiment. I'm imagining you playing Thomas with the sort of consistency and gravitas you undoubtedly bring to any D&D game, and the images which come to mind are truly Amazing.

    (I would personally love to play Renfield if anything happened to Thomas - perhaps haunted by the ghost of the infernal machine- but presumably that's not exotic enough for you.)
  • Yes, gravitas all the way to hilarity and beyond. Thomas is a sort of combined Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, except wedded to the industrial revolution all the way by necessity; raging against the dying of the light (in his firebox).

    We'll have to see about future characters, depends on how Renfield takes on personality. I'm pretty sure Thomas is going to make him its familiar - I think I saw some crunch for a warlock to do just that.
  • ...Have you read China Miéville?
  • (I had the same thought at some point while reading this...)
  • I did read Perdido Street Station soon after it came out, certainly. I'm sure I'll read more at some point.
  • Ah, ok. This character is very him, is all. The third book in the Bas-Lag trilogy (PSS is the first) deals with trains, as does his "kids'" book Railsea. Though there aren't really any sentient trains. But still, this character concept seems like a Freemade.
  • My character is a grain of sand that another one of the characters carries in his jean pocket. I cannot speak or move, only think. The other players cannot hear me, and I cannot hear or see them nor anything that happens. I write my thoughts in a journal as the game goes on. I rock in my chair to simulate the movement of the hero's front jean pocket. I have four levels in tempest domain cleric but I cannot cast spells because I have no mouth for the verbal components nor hands for the somatic or material components.
    I've never spoken to any of the other players but I've shown my journal to the DM. She asked me to translate it from lojban, and maybe I will someday.

    I chose Sage for my background, I thought it would be the most interesting.
  • You won me at "lojban."

    Eero, I would never, ever let this kind of thing happen in a game I was GMing, because I'd be too worried about it being too special-snowflake and stealing precious game time for just one player. So much of the D&D experience is the party bond, and it's like you want to play in a totally separate game from the rest of the players.

    But I am not the GM or one of the players, and if I recall, this campaign was a sort of experiment anyway, so I shall reserve any more judgment. The rest of the group is fine with this, I take it?
  • I do dearly hope that they're fine with this, certainly. Wouldn't be very nice to bear a grudge in secret :D

    I definitely agree that Iron Thomas is a special snowflake character that takes a bit of playtime investment from the group. My hope is that it'll provide a bit of a strategic context for the game, though, and win grace through that - I happen to think that the current creative dynamic of the campaign is far too much at the teat-sucking end of the spectrum, it'll do it good to have some PCs with their own agendas. In this regard Thomas is not dissimilar to a PC who is also the secret crown prince, or other similar catalyst characters. Sort of like a combination of the token Klingon and the hidden prince, in fact, in that Thomas both carries its own campaign hook as well as existing largely outside the human social perspective. Just a hanger-on with pointy ears, here to help the Hero save the day, yes siree.
  • As a DM, I would have zero problem with this character.
    As a fellow player, I might.
    I happen to like Iron Thomas but I've been annoyed with other snowflake characters in the past, when I've been a player. Two come to mind:

    • One cleric that worshipped filth, up to and including rubbing herself (male player, female character) with bodily wastes. It was a super lethal campaign so the character was short lived. I was relieved when the character died. I didn't complain because we were a very large group and I was very much a spotlight hog generally (I also had a snowflake character, a vampire made of porcelain) so I felt like kind of being in a glass house.
    • One archer who had dozens of pages of "secret backstory" but was very disconnected from the relationships and drama that was unfurling among the other players in actual play. His schtick was kind of a parody of MPD/DID with just non sequiteur "crazy" answers to everything we talked about, and then when monsters came snuck away (and secretly killed them with arrows).
  • edited January 2015
    I would normally have major complaints about this character, too (and, as Sandra points, more so as a player than I would as a GM).

    However, given that it`s Eero playing him, I wouldn't worry. Eero is well-aware of all these issues, and I would trust him to handle this in a way which remains interesting and fun for everyone involved.

    My main fear would be ruining the existing "vibe" or "feel" of the campaign, but it sounds like here everyone's on the same page (or else willing to explore lots of different pages together!).

    As far as China Mieville goes:

    "The Iron Council" is another one of his train-central books, where an entire train (not sentient, but effectively a traveling city) is the focus of the action. (It is, in this respect, a bit like the film Snowpiercer, or any naval adventure novel where the story is all about the adventures of a traveling ship - I suppose Star Trek is also a story in this mold.)

    I could see this game turning into something like that further down the line.
  • Errr... yeah, I mentioned "Iron Council" up above; it's the third Bas-Lag book. :-)
  • Ah! Sorry, been a while...
  • It isn't my job to review what happens at someone elses table and again, Iron Thomas is inside the lines for me. I'm just speaking generally. Which I shouldn't, with my hollow porcelain vampires (that was in Lab Lord btw) and grains of sand (which was more of a postulated build).
  • @Eero, you're my hero. I love this kind of imaginative character design/snowflake making. The back-story is what makes it really great in my opinion. As a character, I see Iron Thomas as, at the same time, limiting and yet weirdly enabling--I can't really explain why I see it that way, though.
  • edited January 2015
    Limits are good for creativity!
  • image
    We played a second session, and this time I had my character fig to illustrate the fine points of character design to the other players - not that the campaign uses figs for anything, of course. A few notes on the continuing adventures of Iron Thomas the loco motif:

    The humanoid adventurers continued messing about with the Caldwell-look-alike castle, finding Polish bandits habitating the place, as well as many "sofas" that Thomas would have to lug back to Danzig later. Being heavily outnumbered, they didn't really make much progress; one of them is close to dying from some sort of disease contracted from a half-Cerberos. Thomas would have to hurry up in reaching them and helping out!

    Meanwhile, the rail-building operation had its own problems: work was slow due to the low number of workers and the necessity to reuse rail (we only have about a kilometer of rail available). The distance to the castle from Danzig is roughly 20 kilometers, but fortunately there exists a level road to the target that Thomas is high-handedly exploiting in his routing.

    Problems surfaced after a few days of work in the form of Livonians/goblins accosting the rail camp at night to steal our supplies. Iron Thomas stood relentless guard in the night, but unfortunately it only has eyes in the front, so goblins messing about in the train cars caught it with a bit of a surprise.

    Thomas's boiler was powered down at the time, but I made my Athletics check to light up the firebox autonomously, and the goblins didn't notice it, so in 7 minutes or so Thomas would be ready to run over anybody foolish enough to stray onto his short section of rail. (15 minutes ordinarily, but we agreed that an excellent success allowed me to halve the bootup time.) Unfortunately our rail-building team had camped away from the locomotive, too far away for Thomas to support them effectively.

    Thomas is telepathic up to 30 feet and has Intimidation trained, so my first move was to scare the goblins messing about near the train with visions of grinding gears falling futilely to cosmic entropy - this type of warlock telepathy doesn't require a mutually intelligible language, which I interpreted as allowing the communication of nightmarish visual concepts of the mechanomind.

    Thomas also contacted the building crew and tried to get them to dash quietly to the relative safety of the train (in truth Thomas could do little while still booting up his boiler, yet perhaps it could scare the goblins), but unfortunately only Renfield made it; Bert died to the spears of the Livonians, and Tom was horribly injured.

    As the goblins approached, Thomas actually intimidated them all with the combination of telepathy, intimidation skill and utter alieness to their life experience. The retreat of the goblins gave us time to gather Tom, and for Thomas to get the boiler up, allowing us to move about a bit and blow the whistle, scaring the goblins to leave us alone. There was talk of a theme song for the railroad (for the intimidation factor); the current lead candidate I understand is the theme to Chuggington.

    Renfield had something of a pickle in his hands with Tom, whose injuries were severe. He tried his best to patch up the fair workhand and old friend. Iron Thomas was not very helpful, as its failure in medical skills indicated the misunderstanding of a key detail: Thomas's internal forge that it uses for the Mending cantrip could not, in fact, heal organic creatures (so far at least, although I suspect that the Warlock spell list doesn't give many options for conventional healing). Nevertheless, Thomas insisted that Renfield would have to carry the crushing guilt of Tom's slow death himself, as he refused to feed Tom to the forge despite the urgings of the soulless machine.

    When the dawn finally came, Thomas ordered Renfield to dispose of the bodies as he would (Renfield opted to bury them), so as to make way for a new and better building crew. The nocturnal encounter impressed upon Thomas the importance of taking this northern, chill borderland seriously, for it was quite different to the sunny shores of the Danube where Thomas had spent such human generations in calm and patient toil during its backstory.

    The new building crew is not the minimal workforce provided by Thomas's Dwarven/Jewish owner; rather, Thomas expends its own savings (warlocks get 4d4x10 gp to start, which came out to 1440 silver dinars in campaign currency) to hire local farmhands, with Renfield as its spokesman. Renfield succeeded in a few key Charisma checks at important moments, which ultimately resulted in only one day of delay on the building, while doubling the size of the workforce with workers who have no idea about the sentience of Thomas. (Not that they have much idea about what a locomotive is, anyway.)

    A few words about "management by perdition", the management philosophy utilized by Thomas here: at first the workers are led to believe that Renfield is acting for a wealthy, generous, faraway Master who is something of an eccentric and inventor; little do they know of the dreams and fears that drive Renfield on. Unfortunately, the wealth and generosity is as illusory as is the ease of the work, that soon proves both dangerous and grueling as Renfield drives the hands on. However, they are held to this bondage by the twin shackles of fatalism and fear: stories of the train and the railroad spread in the countryside, and the rites the workers undergo to dare to touch the rails bind them to the railway in their own minds. They shall come to know that the train will catch them should they attempt escape; scald them with boiling water should they harbour resentment; any attempting open rebellion will be shot down immediately by Iron Thomas's Charm Person, and while the target will soon realize the enchantment (5th edition Charm only works for an hour), it will merely increase their fears, now amply realized.

    (Why's Thomas being such a jerk? For the simple reason that it doesn't have much money, and the little needs to go quite a ways here. Fortunately the Old-Prussian country folk are dirt cheap to hire as workers, all things considered, but once the money inevitably dries up, other means of motivation should be in place.)

    Renfield unfortunately failed to convince the new workers to sleep underneath the locomotive for added safety on the first night, what with their homes being just a couple of miles away from the work. We shall be working on their motivation later. Renfield, of course, sleeps in the locomotive cabin from now on - Thomas has no intent to lose its most valuable servant.

    (If it starts to look like Thomas ruthlessly fed its Jewish handlers to the goblins, saving the weak-willed one to act as its voice among the humans, only to then start building up a workforce loyal to itself only... well, plans and accidental occurrences can be difficult to distinguish through the haze of time and distance.)

    Next on the time-table is finishing the journey to the castle, where hopefully the adventurers have succeeded in securing the place so we can load up the furniture and start the return journey. It will unfortunately be slow going, as rail needs to be built (and collected) back as well, but Thomas hopes that its owner will see the sense in building permanent tracks for back-and-forth travel once he sees how handily Iron Thomas handles the current mission.
  • edited January 2015
    Session #   Finances   Work Force   Rail Built   Rail disassembled   Rail Total
    11440 dnr212 km11 km1 km
    21335 dnr51 km1 km1 km
    Distance remaining to the castle: 7 km
  • Wonderful, Eero.

    But your fantastic tales of Thomas the Loco Motif leave me parched for more details about the actual game and the people playing it. How is the group handling the challenge of a railroad-based character at the table?
  • I don't think that there's really been any particular challenges to it. The weirdest bits are probably the oldschoolish willingness to delve into issues that have not been explicitly mechanized and rules-balanced (e.g. availability and construction of iron rail), and the high degree of party-splitting in the play so far. The former is just business as usual, really - if the GM tells us that he'd like to run 5th edition "as an old school game", then presumably this is sort of what it's going to look like. The latter relies on my willingness to e.g. take a nap while the humanoid adventurers do their fleshbag stuff.

    We did explicitly acknowledge it at the table yesterday that apparently the locomotive is not ruining the game for anybody, if you were still wondering about that. The GM says that he's not so sure that I'm not "trolling", but he's just going to troll back, so we shall see what comes of it :D
  • That's exactly what I was curious about, yes. Are any of the people working on the railroad also played by humans, or is it just you and the GM when Thomas gets attacked in the middle of night?
  • So far just me, yes. We'll probably see a bit more interaction soon, though. The main reason that they don't hang around in the work area is that mighty 5th ed adventurers are much too mighty to stoop to mere track-building :D

    This is not to say that the group is split in any way even if our characters are currently operating in somewhat different theaters of activity. If anything, the other players tend to lean too far out of their way to include Iron Thomas in the goings-on, for my tastes; I value natural development much more than swaying the adventure out of its rails for the sake of keeping the party together.
  • I see! Interesting. Has anyone suggested the possibility of having player characters involved with the Engine (e.g. players effectively portraying NPCs like Renfield, railroad workers, etc)?

    Also, what are your thoughts on 5E so far? (Feel free to link me if you've already discussed this.)

    How strong is its application to challenge-based adventure play, compared to other possible D&D modes?
  • The notion of making the railroad project more of a focus for the campaign has tenderly floated on the fringes of campaign discourse, but the overt moves so far have been limited to players earnestly offering to bend backwards to include Thomas in the events of play. (Which I've discouraged - I think it's fine and interesting for the human adventurers to act independently, while I simultaneously appreciate the GM's move in involving Thomas with the adventure in an amusing support role.)

    I would not be surprised if the next adventure was of a nature that unifies the party more thoroughly. I pretty much ambushed the group with my character, too, so the GM didn't actually prep much for having to run the game for a train; the group actually knew that "Eero'll come in and play a locomotive unless you can find some other players to fill the table" a month in advance, but I imagine that they thought I was joking or something :D

    Regarding 5th edition, I suppose I should say that I like it - it has many virtues, and it compares favourably to both 3rd and 4th in many important modes of D&D play. I'm not emotionally hooked myself, but that's mostly just because I'm not into prefab D&D anymore (never was, thinking back), so as far as I'm concerned all the fiddling with the rulebooks and such is something of a crutch. 3rd-5th each wins over the others in their own best application, I think, but perhaps the 5th has the widest dominant swatch, and its application is the one most relevant to the creative mood of the scene right now - in that way a very timely game, I could see many Pathfinder players switching to this boat.

    For gamist adventure play 5th is equal to 4th and 3rd, although they each are best for somewhat different types of play. For an old school adventure type sandbox game (which you might be asking about here) 5th is mediocre; better than 3rd-4th, about as good as 2nd, worse than actual old school systems. And that's with the obvious rules-hacks of course - you have to have xp for gold (or some other form of quest xp) to make a sandbox sing.
  • edited January 2015
    The third session with Iron Thomas was relatively uneventful: one of the humanoid adventurers had contracted a rotting disease from a half-cerberos in the last session, but some rather lucky dicing had him find a competent surgeon who amputated his arm to stop the daily saving throws and consequent inevitable decay of the form of flesh. The ailing adventurer requested Renfield to grant him a place to rest post-surgery; Iron Thomas was pleased by the temerity of the man, and released the funds to procure a bed for the transportation of a resting patient in his train.

    Rail-building work proceeded without distraction, and Thomas released funding sufficient for Renfield to continue paying daily wages to the builders for the next week of work. Less book-keeping for me that way, let Renfield worry about the daily expenses.

    Meanwhile the humanoid adventurers continued their interminable efforts at ousting the den of thieves from the castle Thomas is supposed to be emptying of furniture. I took a nap, but understand that while they managed to slay the ruinous devil dog, the siege continues. Considering the exhaustion of the adventurers, odds are that we'll see Thomas bring its iron rail to the problem directly in the next session.
     
    Session #   Finances   Work Force   Rail Built   Rail disassembled   Rail Total
    11440 dnr212 km11 km1 km
    21335 dnr51 km1 km1 km
    31270 dnr52 km2 km1 km
    Distance remaining to the castle: 5 km
  • Very interesting, Eero!

    What does Thomas plan to do when he arrives at the castle? Does he have any means of getting involved with the adventure?

    "Meanwhile the humanoid adventurers..." as a great way to start a sentence. Any sentence.
  • Some players have been speculating about using Thomas in a surprise attack, on the premise that while building the rails up to the entrance to the keep will take a few hours in plain sight of the enemy, they are rather unlikely to understand what the rails are for. Thomas could then get up some speed from further away and crash onto any enemies unfortunate enough to have been lured into the foyer of the castle.

    I personally expect that Thomas will have limited means of engaging the enemy, should they continue lurking within the keep like rats. It happens to be the case that the place has a double door wide enough for Thomas to enter the foyer, but surely the internals are full of narrow corridors and standard format doorways that won't fit Thomas's enormous width - it's something like 6-8 feet wide, I imagine, allowing traversing of 10 feet corridors, but not doorways or such.

    I just checked, and apparently Enlarge/Reduce is a 2nd level Wizard/Sorcerer spell. Fortunately Thomas has its mysterious warlock benefactor with the custom expanded spell list - chances are that the "Broken God" will bestow the ability to shrink to half-width to Thomas if it ever makes it to 3rd level (when warlocks gain their 2nd level spells). That will improve Thomas's capabilities for operating inside puny humanoid architecture quite a bit. Of course it'll do little for the fact that the firebox of the locomotive will eat up oxygen from any enclosed space relatively quickly.

    As a general policy Thomas expects that intimidation and selective use of Charm Person will enable it to encourage the pesky outlaws to vacate the premises. They are only human,after all, and therefore need everything from food to fresh water to survive. Meanwhile the iron being is a tireless guard upon the gate.
  • Interesting! I'd love to hear how this pans out.

    The idea of building a railroad right to the doors of the enemy and then surprising them with a train is very entertaining. ("What are they doing out there?" "I don't know. Let's stay vigilant!")
  • Eero,

    I wonder if you can share your thoughts on why 5E isn't as well suited to old-school sandbox play as actual old school systems. I'm not familiar with 5E except for brief overviews here and there, but I've heard some people seem to think it would work well for this purpose.

    I'd imagine that, taking part in this game for several sessions now, you'll have a fair bit of an opinion developed on this topic. (If I'm wrong, no worries!)

    Thanks!
  • Mostly it's the character build philosophy - 5th is not quite as buildy as 3rd and 4th, but it is closer to them than the opposite end of the spectrum. Now, obviously you can play 5th edition in a more old-schooly way, I'm not disputing that; I'm merely observing that the game includes a lot of material that encourages different kinds of thinking.

    Having "character builds" in D&D implies several things:
    * You design characters instead of generating them, which creates a sense of ownership and commitment, because the design process starts with thinking up an interesting idea you want to explore.
    * Characters are unique and exceptional individuals, which implies yet more commitment to the individual character.
    * Character creation takes time and effort, as per the above.
    * Play is character-focused, as the individual characters get opportunities to show off their capabilities as well as fluff-related peculiarities.
    * Character advancement is a central part of play, as that is how character builds flower.
    * Character build play of this sort relies philosophically on a precise rulebook upon which specific builds rely. This undermines dynamic rulings and discovery through play.

    This character build element penetrates to many levels of play. A simple example is how GMing hygiene is endangered with heroic unique snowflake characters: the pressure on the GM to not kill characters is immensely stronger in this environment than it is in a systemic environment designed for an agnostic referee-GM. Alternatively, the GM lets the chips fly as they may, which may be cause for player frustration at character death (while character death is fun in Paranoia or old school D&D, it is not fun if you've put a lot of advance work into making just the kind of character you like).

    Aside from the objective presence of a character build approach to the game, there is of course the cultural context. This is more of a problem in the heads of the players, but you have to play these games in real conditions, so it's not a non-issue, either. In our game this comes up in the form of creative discord, as half of the table plays towards an old school agenda, while another half plays towards a new school one. This is actively encouraged by the presence of modern, commercial D&D books at the table - for some people they support certain habits of thought ingrained through the last 15 years of partaking in new school play. If it looks like new school D&D, it is pretty easy to stick to playing it that way.

    The third issue is skirmish combat focus. This, again, can be mitigated in various ways, but the basic observation is that while being more streamlined than 3rd or 4th edition, the 5th edition rules are still pretty strongly concerned with setpiece combats: the purpose of combat is not to bring about sharp choices and quick consequences in the midst of a general exploratory and strategic framework, but rather it is an opportunity to express character builds and roll dice. This can't help but influence the overall nature of the combat system.

    Those are my main observations at this point. They are in no way insurmountable difficulties for a GM wanting to impose a refereed sandbox regime (a few pages of house rules takes care of that), but it is still fair to say that this falls much short of e.g. Basic or LotFP or Swords & Wizardry or such actual old school D&D variations.
  • We didn't play last week due to a flu-ed in GM, but today was again a session. Unfortunately, it seems like the adventures of Iron Thomas have come to a conclusion of sorts:

    In the last session one of the flesh-and-bone adventurers encountered a devil dog of some sort in the castle, and was poisoned by its vile disease before the party retreated. This time play was started with figuring out what would happen to the poisoned barbarian. He retreated back to Danzig to seek a doctor rather desperately, as the poison disease of the hell hound was not trivial to cure for a largely 1st-level party, and one character had already had an arm amputated to save them from the same ailment.

    The barbarian found in Danzig to his accumulating amazement that there was little in the way of healing temples in the (15th century German) city, and the doctors were largely helpless when faced with the exotic disease; surviving it would require an arduous struggle lasting weeks and requiring some luck in dicing.

    At this point the player's patience ran out: he'd joined the game to play a heroic fantasy adventure game in the spirit of 5th edition D&D, not a mudshit (a term Finns have started using for a particularly historical, grim sort of low fantasy) game where a 4th level character he's worked on for months of real time dies to a paltry status effect. He crumpled his character sheet and dashed out, inviting the rest of the group to have fun without him.

    So yeah, hardly ideal - I mentioned earlier about the agenda ambiguity in the campaign, and this was practically a schoolbook example of such: some players want to make character builds and dream fun tales about heroics, while others want to see drastic failures and earned successes. The GM belongs in the latter group despite the system choice, and while the game worked well enough as long as this particular player's character continued surviving (pretty much everybody else has had regular fatalities all along), the pain of a serious setback caused him to lose his composure altogether.

    (Those who've read about my D&D experiences over the years know what sort of D&D I've been mostly interested in lately. This doesn't mean that I have anything but sympathy for ruined fun and frustration of this sort; I used to run a middle school D&D game for the crew last year specifically because I wanted to give this player - among others - an opportunity to play some low-stakes D&D in an environment increasingly dominated by old school precepts. Unfortunately they swapped into the 5th edition game last fall, and apparently haven't quite gotten on the same page about the creative fundamentals.)

    Anyway, the rest of the session was spent in talking about future plans for the campaign; without the 4th level barbarian the party felt themselves outmatched by the adventure altogether, which forced a retreat, and made for a natural juncture to discuss the general progress of play. The GM had purchased the first three boxes of Mentzer D&D just last week (he already has the Compendium) to further his studies of old school D&D, so the discussion turned to switching rules systems in the hopes of finding a better psycho-social support for the old school ethos. We'll see what comes of it; I certainly support increasing cohesion and clarity of creative agenda, but I also think that it's a shame for the crew to abandon 5th edition like this - it's a fair mid-school (or maybe new-school) D&D, and would deserve better than being a budding old school GM's chew toy :D

    As for Iron Thomas, I believe that I'll retire it at this time, as Basic D&D is definitely not about unique snowflake characters of its ilk. It fits the tone of the locomotive saga that Thomas was just about to finish making its way to the adventure location, but never quite got there - we're left guessing whether it would have proved useful in a 5th edition dungeon skirmish, or merely a massive pain in the ass :D
  • Interesting post, Eero, and I agree that an ending rife with uncertainty about the future suits Thomas just fine.

    Not much to say, except to ask:

    How was this disease thing handled in play? Is it a "by-the-book" kind of thing (e.g. from a module or monster write-up), or was it negotiated at the table, in a more old-school style, and, if so, what did it look like?

    How was it established, for example, that the city doctors couldn't help?

    Thanks for the detailed write-ups! Fun to read.
  • It's in the Monster Manual, I think. The dog was a half-Cerberos sort of deal, with two heads. (Typical of the caliber of "humour" in this circle would be to note that the crossbreed of a proper three-headed Cerberos and an ordinary dog would, obviously, only have two heads.) As far as I know the dog and its nasty HP-reducing disease bite was handled as per RAW.

    While the disease was handled by the rules, the particulars about available treatments and such were derived by the GM from the setting precepts - historical fantasy genre for starters, and he clearly assumed that the bite of the hell dog was an esoteric ailment that wouldn't be familiar to most doctors. Nothing particularly special to that, you'd see the same sort of deductions at any old school table. The conclusion was also, of course, completely kosher for an old school challengeful game, it was just the player who was entirely unwilling to entertain the possibility that their character would die unheroically of a disease - or almost as bad, would have to recuperate for weeks upon weeks while he'd play another character.
  • Makes sense! Thanks.
  • edited February 2015
    Dying from paltry status effects is part of what can happen in D&D 5e!
    I have sympathy for all players of it.
    5e is "all things to all people", I came to it straight from a Lab Lord group and started my own group. So far, those who have fared best are those wholly unfamiliar with 3e and 4e. The new players. They know how dangerous it really is.

    This was the conversation we had before play began:
    "Is this a story game?"
    "If by 'story' you mean your character lying dead on a damp cavern floor, then yes."

    Some deaths can be really cheap, like the death recently in our group. They were given chance after chance: not provoke the bats, out-AC the bat's attack, out-dex the narrow rope bridge, remember to activate their Immovable Rods, out-HP the 5d6 fall, out-save death itself. That's six chances, but four of those are "numbers vs numbers", not much you can do once play sets in.
  • The agenda ambiguity is really a huge problem for 5E, which is such a shame since it isn't hard to run it in a way that's more focused, you just have to know what you're doing from running other games. I think unfortunately that sort of "all things to all people," as @2097 aptly puts it, is an inevitable consequence of D&D's status as the flagship of the hobby.
  • I certainly agree with the sentiment - I prefer highly focused games, which for D&D means extremes like the '74 edition or Dungeon World, rather than the more historically organic and commercially motivated mainline of development.

    I'll see about encouraging the more drama oriented players in the local circles to start playing something like Dungeon World or TSoY or Dragonpact, rather than insisting on sticking with the hardcore crew intent on spiraling ever-deeper into wargamish old school D&D. It's a somewhat difficult, somewhat tragic phenomenon when gamers who have only limited tools for appreciating anything but dungeon fantasy experience their go-to game transforming away from under their feet like this. That combination of highly crystallized elf-wizard-ranger-dragon aesthetics and a strong dislike of lethal adventure gaming is a somewhat narrow thing in the field of rpgs.
  • That said, D&D 5e is my favorite game of all time. But I've already said that.
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