Last night was very interesting and very entertaining, at least from my vantage as the Referee. We were playing a game of Swords & Wizardry, one of the recently published free 0E clones of the original fantasy RPG. So, what made it interesting?
Tomb of the Iron God
We were playing the introductory adventure for Swords & Wizardry entitled, "Tomb of the Iron God
". I have fitted this into my own Tal'Daryn setting, placing it in the hills above the village of Maunder.
Cutting to the chase, we created some heroes and (to my surprise) I decided to run it from the adventure site itself, skipping over the village warm up. The group had an air of skepticism at first, but this quickly began to dissipate as the story began.
This was a very typical dungeon adventure. What was atypical was the manner in which, playing in the Old School style
as best as we could, the story began to unfold as an exploration rather than a killfest.
Let me be clear: when playing D&D 4e, or even Pathfinder, the players are focused upon their character's abilities and powers. This tends to make them focus on thinking about how they can use the numbers on their sheets to interact with the adventure... and this, in turn, tends to encourage fighting (especially in 4e).
Using S&W the players have very few abilities and powers to focus on. Combining this with an almost relentless effort to get the players to be specific about their actions quickly led to a change of style. The consequence was that (with one possible exception) all the players were evidently more engaged than usual.
What was happening?
Exploring the Story
There were several memorable scenes in the story last night:
- In the entrance hall, Hench kicking the mummified and magickally talking warning-head into the "jar" held by the massive statue of the Iron God... because he could.
- At the stagnant fountain, Jonas wading into the water and climbing the central column to see if there was anything interesting at the top... and finding nothing, deciding to dive under the dirty water to see if anyone had chucked any coins in the water.
- Near the embalming room, Hench discovering the tell-tale signs of odd-looking stonework which turned out to be an ooze lurking for the attack... and the retreating battle fought as the creature oozed forward and struck out with long tentrils in hunger.
- The party, folllowing the plan voiced by Humperdink, deciding to enter the room of total, impenetrable darkness, feeling their way along the walls whilst tied together with a rope... and encountering the "metal thing in the dark".
- The moment when, led by Jonas, the group sneaked up to the door with sounds of creatures behind it, noticed the 12-18 pale-skinned gribblies, and decided to quietly close the door and sneak on by... avoiding any hint of having a fight.
Few, if any, of these moments would have occurred if we were playing Pathfinder or 4e. They wouldn't have been played out at all the same way:
- "We search the room." Ok... roll your Perception... nothing to see here...
- "Can I make an Arcane check to see if the fountain is magickal?" Roll. Oh, ok, so we'll jump in.
- GM makes a secret Perception roll for the heroes... "There's a grey mass on the ceiling in the archway... roll initiative..." (Our group would not have retreated)
And so on...
"A Different Kind of Challenge"
One of the players made this comment last night. It wasn't "better" to play this way, but it was different.
Another player mentioned that he was more engaged and "constantly thinking", instead of being able to drift off into stupor.
After the game, reflecting on the fact that we'd only had one fight scene, the guys seemed to feel slightly bemused by the fact that they'd enjoyed playing for 4 hours and mostly been focused on mapping out the dungeon, whilst starting to unravel a mystery surrounding what had happened there.
There were some mumblings in desire of more fighting... but it was interesting to note that the largest fighting opportunity was one that the party chose to avoid, at least for now.
What was going on? In short, we were roleplaying again.
The heroes were sneaking around the dungeon, sniffing for treasure, and risk-assessing each challenge and opportunity as they found it. Even rooms with broken boxes and barrels were eliciting curiousity... before being labelled as "empty" and then left behind. And it was a joy to play, at least for me as Referee.
What Can We Learn?
It seems that less is more in roleplaying. I've known for some time that things have felt bounded around our table... but last night I started to unravel the reasons why.
It's not that "modern" rules systems are "bad" or "wrong", or even that our play-style is either. It's more about all the shortcuts that have crept into roleplaying over the years.
- Want to know if your hero can achieve a risky task? We've a skill for that. Roll and test it.
- Want to know if your hero notices stuff in the room? The Ref'll test your Perception so you don't have to remember to look.
- Does it matter if you run out of lamp oil or torches? Not if we can't be bothered to track how many hours you've been wandering around down here.
In our eagerness to have a super-powered punch-up each session we've somehow lost a large part of the charm of dungeoneering. And it's something that the computer games emulate quite well... so we've surrendered this to the Xbox.
Playing "Skyrim" I was reminded of how exciting it can feel to delve in caverns. Playing S&W last night I had a similar experience... but it was unbounded by the creativity of the programmer. In fact, the players were more free than they've been in a long, long time.
Will I play again? I jolly well hope so.
Labels: fantasy, musings, roleplaying, SnW, Tal'Daryn