Yesterday was a scorcher, but overbearing heat and risk of sunburn will not stop gamers from fearlessly stepping forward into a night of board games played in central air and with a box of Yuenglings at hand. Also, our friends and hosts made Grilled Buffalo Tofu Po’ Boy Sandwiches with Apple Slaw, from a superb recipe on the excellent One Green Planet website. The grilled potatoes, corn on the cob, and watermelon were all tasty and good as well.
I feel that I should warn you that this was a big game night with more players than usual and three big games, and hence this post is bigger than usual. If you don’t have the stamina for big right now, I recommend bookmarking this post and returning to it later. In the interest of defining my terms for this and later posts, I should distinguish between big games and long games. When a game is big, we are talking about its content, and when a game is long, we are talking about its duration in time. The latter only requires a watch to measure, while the former is much more subjective. A game can be big without being long, and vice versa. 7 Wonders, for instance, crams in a ton of content in its 30-45 minute duration. Dungeons & Dragons packs in so much content that it, and RPGs like it, are certainly the biggest games of all. And this is definitely the biggest post on my blog.
Originally, there were supposed to be six of us this evening, with my friend’s sister and brother in law coming, so I packed 7 Wonders, my 5-6 player Settlers of Catan expansion to add on to their Settlers of Catan, and, something I have been preparing for about a year, a homebrew Advanced Dungeons and Dragons adventure. Which means that I packed a vinyl Chessex Reversible Megamat, Vis a Vis wet erase markers, a tin of a hundred dice, and a box of miniatures I had bought off of eBay about 10 years ago the last time I had waxed powerfully nostalgic about playing RPGs, as well as my 1st edition Dungeon Masters’ Guide and Players’ Handbook.
Any version of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons can be played with any number of people, which makes it a great game to have on hand when you don’t know how many people are coming. As to board games, your choice is limited once you hit six players or more. While I have a love/hate relationship with Settlers of Catan, one nice thing about it is that, with the right expansions, six people can play it. 7 Wonders can support up to seven players with a very important caveat: most board game players are used to be able to get up from the table when it isn’t their turn, to get a drink, a smoke, a snack, or a potty break. 7 Wonders isn’t like this at all. Contrary to the normal board game rules of order, everyone plays their turns at the same time. Everyone plays a card, and then everyone plays another card, and so on, until the game is finished 18 plays later. Even after explaining this more than once, don’t be surprised if people leave the table and come back in five minutes and say, “is it my turn yet?”, genuinely surprised that the game stopped during their absence.
It would turn out that the brother in law was not coming after all, which left us a group of five. This filled me with some regrets, as while we have a paucity of six player games in our gaming group, we have quite a few great five player games. Just speaking of my own game collection, I have Broom Service, Puerto Rico, Small World, and Ticket to Ride, and I would have preferred to play any of those before Setlers of Catan, as I already had a Catan fix the week before. There were no regrets over my other two selections, however, as there’s always time for 7 Wonders, and I hadn’t made any time for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in over a decade.
Just how did we enter into our gaming group’s First Great Dungeons and Dragons Adventure? Our friends have never played tabletop RPGs before, but they have watched a lot of the YouTube show Tabletop, and expressed an interest in playing the RPG Dragon Age after watching that episode sometime last year. Also, we like co op games like Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island, and Pandemic, and good co op games, like RPGs, can also create that simulated sense of imperiled camaraderie; good RPGs, on the other hand, can be co op, but that all depends on whether the players want to play nice with each other. In RPGs, co op gaming can turn into killer competition when evil characters are being used. This brings us to one of our new favorite games, Betrayal at House on the Hill, which can best be described in the words that I’ve just used for RPGs. In Betrayal at House on the Hill, the players select characters that enter a haunted house as friends, but when The Haunt is revealed, one of them turns Evil and with magic or monster allies tries to murder the others. The game mechanics also do a good job of simulating the RPG experience with multiple random decks taking the place of a gamemaster.
A few days after we discussed the Dragon Age episode of Tabletop, I was cleaning our basement and found half of my RPGs. I took them upstairs, and shelved them with the other half, which were gathering dust on my shelf. While flipping through my 1st edition Players’ Handbook and Dungeon Masters’ Guide, I realized I still loved this game. The section of my brain devoted to 1st edition AD&D sneezed out a few layers of dust, and I recalled every facet of the rules (even esoterica like the “Weapons vs. Armor” rules).
Befor I knew it, that evening I had written the first few pages of a homebrew first edition AD&D module called The Dark Tower of Zyval. At first, I treated it like a hobby, with no intentions of ever using it. This attitude of free play was probably instrumental in my taking a little bit of time with development of the accompanying world, Estion. I decided to question everything about the generic fantasy world, and in so doing, decided that Estion was in a trinary star system, with three suns: Azru, Caegil, and Shaiakan. Estion also had two moons at one point in its history, but one of them, Jondur, was destroyed in ancient days, which created a ring around Estion. I want to write more about the planet Estion’s history, but I can’t release any spoilers to my gaming group. Suffice to say that the current state of this fantasy world’s solar system is tied to deities and ancient wars.
I’d been working on this adventure on and off again for about a year, and realized that it might be ready to introduce to our group. (When they admitted that they liked that awful Dungeons and Dragons movie, that seemed to cinch things. Kidding. Not kidding.) As I edited my adventure this past week with the objective of playing it for real players, I set myself a few restrictions and challenges.
First, I decided that any time we played, we would limit the game to two hours. I didn’t want it to take more time than the other games that we played, and also, I wanted to limit the amount of unused time as much as possible. With a deadline in place, it would ensure that both the gamemaster and the players would work as fast as possible to meet objectives, which would hopefully sustain an entertaining and exciting pace. Those of you reading that have played RPGs for any length of time know that you have played too many sessions that were six hours when they had no reason to be based on the too few fictional events of the adventure. I wasn’t going to have that, as my gaming palette is a lot broader now than it was when I was a teenager, and I enjoy games like Broom Service, Puerto Rico, and Castles of Mad King Ludwig just as much as Dungeons and Dragons.
Second, I didn’t want to be bogged down by too many rules, so I decided not to upgrade to any of the other Dungeons & Dragons editions. The first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons has just the right balance for board gamers; in fact, each person’s character has such abstracted powers and abilities that they greatly resemble a board game piece. My thoughts were that if the “Game” aspect was as simplified as possible, leaving it in the form of a miniatures board game as it was in AD&D 1st edition, it would allow us to focus more on the story, or the “Role Playing” part. Now that I think about it, it may have been the tendency of RPGs in the 90s to move away from abstraction toward needless detail (in the rules, mind you, not the role-playing, where the detail is of course desired) that drove me away from these games in the first place.
As I was developing the game for play, I decided to create pre-generated characters. Creating characters is fun for RPG enthusiasts, but I was creating an adventure for people that, with one exception, had not played before. They didn’t know the races, classes, alignments, spells, and equipment lists, and rather than have them muddle through it and possibly not be satisfied with the results, I created five pre-generated characters for my players to pick from. This also gave it a point of similarity to a game that we have all played before, Betrayal at House on the Hill, in which everyone picks from a selection of pre-generated characters. Not only would it make the unfamiliar familiar, it would also only take a few minutes of the two hours that I had apportioned.
We began our game night with the first chapter of my AD&D adventure. As our fifth player had not arrived, my three players at hand picked three of the five characters I had pre-generated: Kastasia Duncke, a Human Paladin; Sakaala Valyarus, a Human Cleric; and Paten Raseno, a Human Ranger. The Magic-User Izapraxius Denholm, and Reikketta Thyrndoch, a Dwarven Fighter, went unclaimed.
The adventure begins in Cambir, the northwest tip of the conservative, bigoted, and restrictive nation Ostrand, which was created as a trading outpost to deal with the nations, cultures, and religions that Ostranders despise. Cambir has swelled into a large city, and as it retains more tolerance than the rest of Ostrand, and is the only city in Ostrand where freedom of religion is allowed, it continues to attract immigrants.
Kastasia and Sakaala arrive in Cambir’s Waterside Borough by carriage, having been sent by their respective religions to create and maintain shrines. They arrive on a market day, and disembark into a crowd of people that is buying and selling goods. Uniformed men go up and down the main street to post a notice, which is read aloud by the town crier that accompanied them. What do town criers do? They are the fantasy world equivalent of Craigslist, and this one started to read a laundry list of the Governor’s odd jobs which included kitchen work and bridge labor. More interesting to the adventurers that have rolled into town dead broke, a 600 gold piece reward is offered for the return of a wagon and accompanying caravan that disappeared as they traveled from the Governor’s northern estate to the city.
When the crier finishes his reading, the gathered people go about their day. Paten, a resident of Cambir, overhears the two new arrivals–both armored and armed—talking about their religious differences, and he decides to cast his lot in with them. He joins in the conversation and steers it toward talking about what they could do with the reward. The three get more details about the missing caravan from the town crier and walk north to find it.
In game time, it took about four hours for the adventurers to walk there, but in real time the above paragraphs only took about 25 minutes of our allotted two hours.
Sakaala, Kastasia, and Paten arrive at the Governor’s northern estate without seeing any sign of the caravan. The estate’s butler has only a little information that will help with their search: the goods that the Governor wants back are actually actors, minstrels, and dancers that were being conveyed to the Governor’s mansion for his personal entertainment. He has nothing else to tell them, but allows the adventurers to share dinner with the staff. At this point, the group is wondering how to proceed, and I decide that in the interest of helping my players that are new to the game, and to keep things moving, I’ll give Paten’s player a prompt to use his Ranger’s tracking ability to find the caravan’s departing tracks.
And so after their meal, Paten searches the grounds for the caravan’s tracks, and finds the beginning of their trail. The caravan’s tracks follow a scenic dirt path along the coast rather than the road.
In the real world, our fifth player arrives and drops into the game. She selects Reikketta Thyrndoch, the Dwarven Fighter, from the two that are remaining. For expediency’s sake, as we have about an hour left of the time allotted, I decide that Reikketta had taken a job guarding the caravan that they were following. The job was very boring, and she had taken to drinking too much on the journey, which led to her falling off the wagon—yes, literally—and, stone asleep, she lay there until the other adventurers found her. They wake her up to discover that she had been guarding the caravan that they were tracking, which lets them know that they are indeed on the right track.
The tracks ultimately lead to a farmhouse overlooking the sea, where five barbaric-looking ships are anchored. Believing that they see a wagon parked next to a barn on the farm grounds, they move toward the barn. Paten decides to follow on an outlying arc of his own, so that they can keep some of their fighting strength out of sight, and so that he can hopefully have a wider angle on any upcoming combats.
In their walk up to the barn, Sakaala, Kastasia, and Reikketta stumble across another group of adventurers that were going after the reward. As this situation went nuclear quickly, introductions were never exchanged, but I’ll tell you, the reader, that they were Dunward Huncorr, dwarf fighter/thief; Verela Cevine, elf fighter/magic-user/thief; Mandal Navoom, human cleric; and, Hubrek Banwood, human ranger.
Both groups were immediately suspicious of the other, and as heated words were exchanged, Paten, from his point of concealment, grew anxious and fired an arrow. His intent was to knock the dwarf’s sword from his hand. I explained to the player that as a 1st level adventurer, a “hero shot” like that would be difficult for him now, although he had the natural attributes to learn to do something like that later. So he said he wanted to shoot an arrow at the ground at the dwarf’s feet, in order to let them know that he was there and make them nervous. My response was that, sure, the ground should be easy to hit, but due to some possible accidental targets in the area of the shot, you have to roll a 2 or better on d20. He rolled a 1.
I rolled a random arrow attack without any modifiers on one of the group at random, and it turned out that the arrow deflected off of Verela’s armor. The dwarf yelled “Attack!” and battle lines were drawn. Hubrek, however, moved away from the others.
In my notes for this adventure, I account for a few different possibilities. Three of this group are evil, but the players are heading towards a vastly superior force (five ships, remember), so they would have been in favor of an alliance. However, knowing that new RPG players are often bloodthirsty due to wanting to test their characters’ abilities, I fully expected this battle. The first time I played Dungeons and Dragons, my older brother was excited to be Dungeon Master, until his younger brother and friends ruined the concept of Keep on the Borderlands by killing the shopkeepers.
From his vantage point, Paten sees that there’s some other figures moving towards the battling adventurers. He shoots some arrows and moves toward the group.
In the three-sided combat that follows, the PC (Player Character) adventuring party defeats Mandal and Dunward, of the NPC (Non Player Character) adventuring party, just as five lizard men beset them. One of the evil adventurers, Verela, flees the battle field with two of the lizard men pursuing her. Of the remaining three lizard men, two of them are defeated and the other one flees.
I’m a firm believer in smart monsters in RPGs. Any lizard men that are smart enough to have weapons, armor, and five ships will be smart enough to save their own skin and come back in force. This is the kind of thing that, unlike pointing out a skill on a character’s sheet, I’m not obliged to point out to a new player, as it falls in the realm of common sense and strategy, not knowledge of rules.
The players head immediately to the barn, which the player characters discover has been turned into an abattoir of sorts in which the livestock, the caravan people, and the farmers have been waiting their turn to be consumed by the lizard men.
At this point, the two hour timer went off on my cell phone. This was a perfect stopping point, as not only did it occur after their first combat, but it also makes a lot of dramatic sense to let the next chapter begin with the lizard men’s siege of the farmhouse. Ruh-roh. But even if everyone dies in a bloodbath or gets sold into slavery to mind flayers, at least everyone in our group now knows the game that Munchkin directly parodies.
My takeaway from this return to D&D is the obvious: look how much content you can pack into two hours of an RPG compared to other tabletop games. As I wrote above, RPG games are very big in terms of content even when they are the same length as other tabletop games, and there’s no need to go long with such a big game when you can leave your players wanting more and still fit in Power Grid and Broom Service.
Speaking of which, next up was Settlers of Catan with the 5-6 player expansion. For those of you who haven’t played with the expansion, it is easy to sum up: it makes the game board bigger with extra tiles, adds additional development cards, resource cards, and harbors, and it adds two more sets of colored tokens for additional players: brown and green. It also adds a new rule: the “special building phase.” In ordinary Catan, every person’s turn consists of rolling for resources, trading, and building. The 5-6 player expansion adds an additional fourth phase to everyone’s turn—the special building phase. In the special building phase, the rest of the players in a clockwise manner get ONLY to build roads, settlements, and cities, or buy development cards. There is no playing development cards or, more importantly, trading during the special building phase. This means that while on your normal turn you could pay two ore, two wheat, and four lumber for a city (the lumber taking the place of an ore due to standard maritime trading rules), in the special building phase you need three ore and two wheat exactly because trading is not allowed then.
Our group agrees that the logic behind the special building phase is that in a five to six player game without a special building phase, the robber would often kill players’ production, as instead of getting to buy things every three or four production rolls, you would have to wait until the fifth and sixth roll, by which time your hand may be stuffed with cards. The special building phase allows you to use the cards you’re taking in before your turn so that you’re not a sitting duck for the robber.
This was one of those Catan games in which the “Tyranny of Numeracy” was a killing influence on the game, as half of the die rolls were 7s, 9s, and 3s. With so many 7s being rolled, the resources coming into the game were limited, and the game stretched out much longer than we had anticipated. My wife turned out to have the most lasting Catan-stamina, winning with a “build to win” strategy, and having four cities and the longest road card at the end of the game. She was not expecting to win this one, as one of the other players had been reading my blog and dominated the first half of the game with my “wool/ore/wheat” strategy. One thing I had not anticipated is how much easier this strategy is in 5-6 player Catan, as you don’t even have to wait until your turn to buy development cards, and with additional production rolls from the additional player(s), it becomes easier to afford them. If more 6s and 8s were rolled, the “wool/ore/wheat” player would have won easily.
After this, 7 Wonders. We wanted to use the more advanced side of the wonder cards today, but by this point everyone was exhausted from overeating that wonderful food and an over-long game of Catan with unbalanced numbers, and we used the easier three-stage Wonders. In this game I noticed a potential for the red military cards that I had not seen before, but only in a four player game in which you make an alliance with the player across the table. Because if both of those players agree to buy tons of red cards, this creates a 24 point gap between them and their neighbors, as the two players that were saving military earn 18 points and their neighbors earn -6 points. When buyers of military cards are more staggered around the table, the scoring of them is more asymmetric and unreliable. So, in revising my statement on 7 Wonders strategy in “Grokking Games: 7 Wonders and Strategic Ambiguity,” it appears that our gaming group has discovered that red military cards can be of use when two players across the table in a four player game make an alliance to defeat their neighbors.
Overall, it was an excellent game night. In addition to the high-content adventure of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, there was a challenging game of Settlers of Catan, and a new cooperative military strategy was unveiled for 4 player 7 Wonders games. The actual food we ate was scrumptious but the games, as you can see, gave me a lot of food for thought, including a working definition of the terms big and long as they apply to tabletop games, in which we see that depth of content doesn’t necessarily correlate to investment of time.
Aisde from 7 Wonders, what are the biggest quick games that you play? That is, a game with epic content that is done in under an hour. Leave your answers in the comments.
Here’s a Friendly Link to First Edition AD&D Products on Amazon
Chessex Role Playing Play Mat: Megamat Double-Sided Reversible Mat for RPGs and Miniature Figure Games 48″ x 34.5″
Only use Wet Erase on a Megamat. But not the red one!
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