What I'm Watching: The Big Bad

This has been 6 groups trying to do a D&D 5E "tournament adventure", and then scored for mission success.

The Dungeon Master is Paul Siegel of Paul's Game Blog and the adversary is played by Dan Collins of Delta's D&D and OED Games.

Good Stuff:

  • The Adversary. Having a co-DM play the "Big Bad" is an interesting setup I've seen done a few times in real games, it leaves the Referee free to run the game fairly instead of also running every monster in the world, though of course the adversary's game time is usually limited. And Dan does a great job of chewing scenery (and slimy larvae from his lovin' cup). He doesn't have a lot of troops to control, and I think he's much too passive and defensive with them, but given what he has, he does about as well as you can hope for.

  • The Players. Many of the players put some real character into their pregens, and made good role-playing and tactical choices. They seem like fun groups to game with.

  • Scoring. The rankings are about equal to how much I enjoyed each group's attempt. The Luke Gygax group came in second, I think? And they were my favorite, but otherwise, sure. The last group was so dull, unprepared, and incompetent, and their low score was well-deserved. There's an upcoming episode explaining the scoring, which I'm curious to see.

  • Videoconferencing & Editing. Surprisingly few technical difficulties, mostly switched to the players when they were talking, miniatures when they're being moved. You'd think in 2020 that wouldn't be an issue, but so many of these things are nothing but technical failure.

Bad Stuff:

  • D&D 5E. Not a fan. Just a bloated, thousands-of-pages, over-complicated mess of a game. Somewhere under all that shit, there must be a pony, so many people keep digging. You can see it clearest in this show, when old-school players are confronted with the giant pile of abilities and modifiers they get from all over the place, the spells have weird conditional effects and you're constantly reminding each other of which ones apply. The two-hour game time here would be 15-30 minutes in an old-school system.

    This is especially weird because both these guys are old-school D&D bloggers, Dan's OED rules are pretty good, entirely reasonable interpretations of OD&D. Paul runs a weird hybrid of B/X, D20, and Warhammer FRP for his Ten Dead Rats game; I don't know why he's not just using Zweihänder or some edition of WHFRP, they're much better than his hybrid, but it works. But all of those are much simpler than 5E, and more engaging with the players. They don't have a laundry list of powers to activate, players instead must role-play actions the Referee agrees are reasonable. That's a better test than "oh I picked the Druid so I can turn into an alligator here!"

  • Miniatures. For a visual show, a giant model set and miniatures being moved around is useful, sure. The cavern and altar tower look great. But it's a single room that must've cost hundreds of dollars, and painting minis takes forever, and it limits you in what you can bring out to what figures you have. In any realistic budget, you'd maybe have a styrofoam riser "and this is the stone tower!" Which is why I prefer "theatre of the mind", where you just describe the scenario, everyone closes their eyes and pretends. Or for tactical situations like this, a "battle mat" of butcher paper with drawn lines and chits or cardboard standees to represent the combatants.

    Matt Finch did a series of his Swords & Wizardry rules Swords of Jordoba campaign, and they were fantastic game sessions—how old-school D&D is/should be actually played—frequently interrupted by setting up little mazes of miniatures and a tiny POV webcam. He also did a 5E Heroes of Jordoba campaign which went ludicrously off the rails, about evenly split because Zach's a very unserious player, because 5E's a terrible game, and because the end was running that stupid dinosaur swamp adventure.

  • Easy Mode Dungeon. The entire scenario, played out six times, is a single room, with about 10 opponents, 8 of whom are just identical cultists that Dan calls "Primus", "Secondus", etc. The final party managed to nearly TPK themselves in the river, but otherwise every group has skipped across the river, run up the stairs or side of the tower, killed the boss, game over. Nobody failed, which means it was balanced far too easy; admittedly it's hard to kill 5E player characters. There's no exploration, it's just a toy set on camera.

    The old tournament modules like Gary Gygax's S1 Tomb of Horrors, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Lawrence Schick's S2 White Plume Mountain, the A series (various authors) collected as A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords, Frank Mentzer's R1-4 tournaments collected as I12 Egg of the Phoenix, and Tracy Hickman & Laura Hickman's B7 Rahasia, are all tough, long, complex dungeon crawls. There's fights, including hard boss fights at the end, but they're more about mapping, puzzles, traps, role-playing, often interacting with the NPCs, making use of found magic.

    White Plume Mountain is maybe the best/fairest tournament of those, and has only two major rooms with the artifacts, each on par complexity wise with the Big Bad's cave, but there's 27 rooms total, and clearing & looting several of them greatly increases your chance of succeeding at the artifact rooms.

    Now, at conventions we did tournament modules in 3-6 hours, or sometimes there'd be two blocks of 3-4 hours. That's a lot more than the 2 hours which is stretching Youtube audience tolerance. But there's some balance in between 1 room and 100 rooms where a short tourney's not just a single fight scene.

If they have another season, I may wait until the end and only watch the high-scoring team, or at least put the rest on 2x playback speed.


Wizards Address the Orc Problem

Nice to see this directly addressed. Obviously I still prefer my solution which was just to replace Orcs with a more sympathetic species, but WotC is a business with tight margins so they'll just do the minimum necessary to not be running a minstrel show.

I've never really used "Drow" except in the GDQ modules (Giants went great, never got a party to finish Drow, let alone Queen of the Demonweb Pits), I preferred the Sidhe from Celtic myth making all "Elves" pretty, alien, and sociopathic (interesting point, there's a subworld of Queen, "Caer Sidi", which inspired me to get into Elves-as-Sidhe!), and later the Gazetteer Shadow Elves created underground Elves with a grudge, but they're not Drow. Having the black-skinned, white-haired Elves be "evil" and relentlessly, cartoonishly cruel torturers, poisoners, perverts, and backstabbers wasn't one of TSR's better takes. And then R.A. Salvatore, the third-worst writer in the world (I've read two of his books, part-way, and they're so bad it's impossible to finish them), made his Mary Sue character Drizzle-doo-wah-Diddy who's the One Good Drow, which became TSR canon. I'd flush the entire archetype, I don't think it's fixable.

The Vistani thing is also pretty hard to fix. They're stereotype "Gypsies". You can pull elements out to make carny folk, maybe, but if you have a tribe of thieves and soothsayers in a caravan it's obvious what you're doing. There's also Romani-based caricatures in Greyhawk, and who knows where else, it was a very popular trope with the '80s-'90s TSR writers, because "a Gypsy tells you your fortune" is a super easy plot hook, if you're unaware/unconcerned about your racism.

Changing ability score modifiers is weird. Now, there's no modifiers in Original D&D, everyone has the same 3d6 scores down the line, and fairly simple species special abilities and some harsh class limits. AD&D 1st Ed added the racist & sexist race vs stat & class tables, and each following edition dug in further. Hm, looking at my AD&D PDF (bought back when Paizo had the rights), I could swear in the original print back in '79 there was a Human column up front there, that's been redacted, where Human females got 3/17 Strength and probably Constitution & Charisma (being used more for leadership in AD&D, and women leaders were Not A Thing to those guys). Was this changed in a later printing? And the Half-Orcs got seriously shafted here.

Note this is the AD&D 1st ed text on Half-Orcs. "Orcs are fecund", "player characters which are of the half-orc race are within the superior 10%". What the fuck, Gary?

I don't really have any use for D&D 5th Ed, it's a cartoony game with 10-100x as many rules as it needs, and they've dug themselves into this hole by pushing out old content which was noted as being problematic 20 years ago, but at least WotC's a little self-aware of the things they're publishing now.

The Thing About Orcs

So, there's this piece on Orcs and racism:

And they have a long blog post about Tolkien's racist origins of Orcs & "Eastern Men":

"The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the 'human' form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."
—J.R.R.Tolkien, Letter #210

Which I agree is pretty horrible, I greatly dislike Tolkien the man, and his post-Hobbit work. The post is kind of a waste of time to read beyond that, I eyerolled 180° at the quoting-white-men-about-racism tone, and denial of other people of colors' different experiences (Jason Momoa in particular). Maybe that's just how James talks, all the goddamned time. Someone should set up a medical research fund. Anyway, I'm only in this to read about the Orcs, shit that happens on Earth is not my problem.

My old solution to the Orc problem was to make Orcs tolerated and playable if they lived in civilization, but so culturally different in their nomadic tribes, that you still had something like the classic Human/Orc war trope. That can be problematic when compared to how the US, etc. treated Native Americans and other indigenous populations, but it cut down on the genocides/"we kill all the Orc babies"; players treated Orcs like a hostile tribe of Humans, warred against them until they stopped being annoying, and made peace.

But then why not just use Humans? That's James Raggi's solution, which technically works, but it's not interesting unless you throw an enormous book of "What do the Saxons believe and why are they so awful?" at the players which you don't want to write, and which they won't read. In history it was pretty easy to tell what culture someone was by their artifacts, dress, and speech; but none of those are easily visible in Theatre of the Mind role-playing.

So in everything I've run or written in the last few years, I solved the problem by replacing Orcs with Beastfolk, humanoids with bestial features chosen off a table of local mammals. They behave almost exactly like my previous use of Orcs, and yet because they're not all green-skinned pig-men, and might even be cute & fuzzy, especially the young ones, suddenly reaction is completely different. It either arouses or annoys furries, neither of which is my intention, but that's a small price to pay for how radically it changes the conversation.

I don't usually want "half-breeds", because that directly leads to racial theory bullshit, but in a magical world full of Owlbears it's certainly possible for species to be crossed, and Edgy McEdgertons always want to be a half-breed Goblin/Dark Elf with a tragic backstory or some such, so unless you want to waste half an hour arguing before the game, just say yes and move on.

Old-School D&D

  • How To Get Started Playing Old-School D&D For Free: Fantastic list of resources. Though systems wise, I'd suggest either:
  • My own Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Extremely variant but still recognizably D&D. Definitely not for novice Referees, but I've used it with novice players and they were fine because they don't know better (and the Profession system is more forgiving to novices who might "make mistakes"). When I get Delvers in Darkness done we'll see if that's more novice-friendly.
  • Swords & Wizardry Complete: Updated version of OD&D + Supplements I-III + some early Strategic Review & Dragon Magazine articles. About as close to a "final" OD&D as you can get.
  • White Box FMAG: Just the OD&D white box, very well cleaned up into a standalone game.
  • Blueholme Journeymanne Rules: Slightly variant take on the Holmes Dungeon & Dragons Basic Set. In theory this should be my favorite game ever, because Holmes is what I imprinted on first. In practice, it's almost too accurate, there are some elements like multiple saving throw categories that I find annoying in actual OD&D, and the Blueholme doesn't give you much guidance on acceptable races. Also there's no setting or module as found in the actual Holmes book.

Wendy's RPG

What. Wendy's made a free tabletop RPG about fast food kingdoms.

Very weird. It's D&D5E-like (but not explicitly; it isn't OGL, it doesn't use any WotC trademarks, but it rips 5E off completely), very rules-light. I don't like all the 4d4 rolls (some Wendy's marketing thing is "4 for 4", so this pun is all over), otherwise it's unexceptional.

I do like this variation on critical:

If you roll a 20 on an attack or skill roll, you go into FEAST MODE. You do the maximum amount of attack damage, plus an additional roll of the normal attack dice. You also get advantage on your next roll, making going into FEAST MODE again even more likely. Going into FEAST MODE can completely change the tide of a confrontation.
Likewise, rolling a 20 on any skills check will result in your character’s best possible outcome in their current situation. After all, you went into FEAST MODE.

The equipment list is ridiculous, with Ukuleles, Tiaras, healing by eating Chicken Nuggets, fishing poles. Armor's silly (Apron, Red Polo Black Visor, etc.) but an interesting idea: Some adds to Defense, some to Arcana (magic stat) or Grace (dexterity). Weapons range from Spoon (1d4) to Cast-iron Skillet (3d6). I kinda want to steal a bunch of these stupid ideas.

The book gives you buffs/debuffs based on the food the player eats, obviously encouraging Wendy's food and not anyone else's. What a bunch of jackasses.

The classes are Order of the Chicken (magic-user/thief depending on subclass, 5 subclasses), Order of the Beef (fighter, 4 subclasses), Order of the Sides (spoony bards, 5 subclasses). The powers are jokes but overpowered if you did play them out, and it goes up to level 5; there's no experience, the adventure just says "everyone levels up" after each boss fight. No choices anywhere, just roll stats, pick class, go.

PCs can't actually die, just pass out from hunger and then wake up when the team camps. I guess you could TPK a group, and that'd be a sweet merciful release to death.

So then there's the adventure, which is a pretty standard 5E railroad with five chapters and a couple side-quest areas; zero difference between this and any "adventure path" or recent WotC adventure book, except the branding is different. Some puzzles aimed at small children or drunk frat boys, some very silly monsters. Queen Wendy ("of the Clapback" which either means something very different than I think, or is rather rude) commands heroes who brave the french fry forest to yadda yadda light a bacon beacon, yadda yadda go murder an ice clown in his funhouse and castle. Dave is dead which by my understanding of the rules can't happen, so I suspect Wendy froze him into a statue to seize the throne. Really no sillier than that Chult book.

The art, maps, and layout are very professional (aside from the maps being so linear even Disney couldn't run them as rides), it really makes it clear how commercial-friendly Wizards of the Coast & Paizo are, as if He-Man was selling junk food instead of toys.


Back in the latter days of TSR, Inc, there was a module WG7 Castle Greyhawk, with 13 short comedic adventures by different writers around the themes of Gary's mega-dungeon (some humorless people really take offense to this module; I think it's a funny homage and several levels are great). Level 8: Of Kings & Colonels, by John Nephew (who wrote for TSR, Ars Magica, and Over the Edge) covers a similar gag, with a cavern wilderness fought over by Colonel Sandpaper and King Burger. But he wasn't being paid by KFC to say how great their chicken parts in a bucket are.