a mind blank and improvisation

When I’m tired my language skills are terrible. I wrote this at 1:30 AM after a very long day. please forgive me.

It’s been a while since my last post here. About 10 days.

It also must be said that meanwhile I started about 10 drafts, but none of them seemed worthwhile enough. Possibly beause I’m very tired and feel very spent, possibly because (before sunday) I haven’t run a game since April 4th, when the party went TPK. I played Carlo’s GURPS fantasy sandbox a handful of times in the meanwhile, enjoyed a few games of Agricola, Sankt Petersburg, Carcassonne, San Juan. But no games run.

But Sunday players came over, rolled new PCs and decided to start over in a random campaign location. to pick the spot one literally closed his eyes and pointed at the map. Turned out the location was exactly one hex away from there the TPK happened. I could have had railroaded them back to the “main campaign” but they wanted something different, so I just came up with this village of hunters, loggers and shepherds, and unilaterally declared that their PCs are teenagers, a few months before their “coming of age” ritual.

I could have gone a bit further and, instead of let them pick a “normal” equipment, force them to look around and pick stuff up.

But they decided to go hunting, to show off. And stumbled in tracks, that ended at a cavern, smoked out what was inside and killed a bear. In the bear cave they found a dungeon entrance as well. They went in and did neat old school stuff. As in having their gender changed by a magic fountain, set a tapestry afire, which in turn made angry an ogre, which later was dispatched as it charged the spear-set characters. Enough loot was had to max-out level 2, mostly jewels (which are extremely valuable in B/X and BECMI), plus a +1 long sword, light on command (but they don’t know the command, and it’s switched on). Nothing too complex, but good fun was had, and later feedback was good.

Same setup as last time (at the Glasgow University gaming club), except I didn’t chicken out. Because, despite not having prepared anything, I spent some time preparing myself to improvise; decent “fluff” comes easy, but decent “crunchy bits” are a way, way harder for me. My mind was blank, but I had tools.

A few notes from the session:

  • d6 as oracle: simply put, if something is in doubt, a x-in-6 change is determined and a dice is rolled.
  • Kellri’s Old School Reference manuals proved to be awesome again, specially volume 4.
  • Dungeon was built using geomorphic tiles from A Character for Every Game. If a dungeon is needed it can be uncomfortably hard to come up with one. In this case tiles were pulled out randomly from a stack. I expected to see a 8×8 pattern of content but a mix of transcription errors and a bit of fudging made it more organic (and made the tiles reusable). Sure, it can feel a bit randomish, but most probably it was built by a number of different cultures/people over the years and not just by the current inhabitants, so there is the increased verosimilitude of both adapting the inhabitant needs to the living space and the inhabitants adapting the living space. Kobolds burrowed and the ogre kept for himself the bigger room. The magic fountain makes water available (the magic wears off if water is taken away).
  • Moldway suggestion to stock the dungeon with a few selected monsters and fill the rest with the dungeon stock table. Jeff Rients, in a great article in Fight On! #6, advices to split the population in “main guys” (say, a tribe of kobolds), a “lone wolf” (say, OGRE) and random creeps (snakes, fungi, etc): coming up with interaction between these three groups is up to you and, while technically not needed, can add complexity and depth to the dungeon (the ogre is fed by the kobolds so to keep him from going “OGRE SMASH”). Sham wrote on the topic of empty rooms and dungeon stocking a lot (also in more meaningful posts that I can’t find at the moment) so if you want to know more just follow the link.
  • Rients suggests also to create a random encounter table specific for the location. The tables provided in B/X has entries that probably won’t fit with your dungeon. My suggestion is to start with an empty table and fill it with random results from other tables, replacing entries that don’t fit with handpicked ones or with monster from the above three groups.
  • my GM screen (AC7) doesn’t have any table that I use in game. I prepared a list with 22 items I needed to refer to (more or less) frequently that my stupid screen doesn’t make available. I might try to consult Dragonlance DM screen (my favourite from AD&D) to to see if it has any good bits I missed.
  • take notes on what you create, so you can refer to them later. Running a campaign like this is like a flyweight: if it’s not moving, it takes effort to move it, but as you fill in the blanks it will be easier and easier to create material. In this case coherency can be both a great help and a really powerful tool, because if something is “wrong” you have an “instant mistery” (as in “why the caravans that left the village last week never made it to the city?”).
  • the biggest asset tho was to have no idea whatsoever of what would happen next. I often riff off my player’s ideas because, well, if it’s fun to “say yes”, it’s even funnier to run away with them.

For me, improvisation is a skill that needs practice and can be helped a lot by the right tools. It requires confidence from the DM and willingness to risk (both to be wiped out and to have a bad game) from players. It’s definitely thepart of running games that I prefer, and with practice it gets more and more effective and easier. It’s just a matter of getting started.