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Year in Review – 2020 – Gaming Under the Bat Plague

Some notes on what probably was, ironically, my single best year of playing tabletop roleplaying games since I started in the early nineties.

Data:

We played 34 sessions, 21 of which using a heavily house-ruled version of The Black Hack (2e) with various modules, and 13 using OD&D (Hackbut) with Castle Xyntillan. The modules we played through were: Prison of the Hated Pretender (1), The Croaking Fane (4), A Single, Small Cut (2), Tomb of the Serpent Kings (5), Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine (3), and Beneath the Windowless Tower (6). (Number of sessions for each in parentheses.)

The chart below shows the number of sessions for each month and the average attendance per session for that same month. Before COVID-19 we played a monthly face-to-face game. When our first lockdown in March happened we switched to a weekly remote game. In June a player took over to run a couple of sessions that are not part of my dataset. In August we had to cancel a couple of games due to low attendance because of people vacationing. In December we skipped the final Friday due to Christmas. Also worth noting is that we started our current OD&D / Castle Xyntillan campaign in the second half of September.

Our group counts seven players, not including myself. The top 3 players were good for 55,6% of the attendance. Most sessions had 3-6 players, with 3 being the most common. Once, we had two, and once we had the full seven.

Reflections:

Although I am eternally grateful for The Black Hack as my gateway to classic D&D, I am really happy we made the switch to OD&D for our current campaign. Black Hack is very accessible, easy to run, and easy to hack, but the roll-under-attribute core mechanic leads to player-characters that are very unlikely to fail. In addition, the armour rules and the out-of-action rules make it very unlikely characters perish. As a case in point: Over the course of 34 sessions of Black Hack, we had 6 player-character deaths, whereas we had 8 character deaths in 12 sessions of OD&D. That’s an 18% versus 67% chance of a character dying in a session between the two systems. Of course, I ran different modules in both systems but I don’t expect the numbers to be that much different. OD&D is ever so slightly less accessible to new players because of the greater variety of die rolls, but several players have expressed really enjoying the fact that the game is more perilous and challenging. On the referee side, OD&D is more constrained in its probabilities so I don’t feel like I constantly need to keep my foot on the brakes. Because of this, ironically, I think OD&D is easier to referee than Black Hack once the basic rules have been grokked.

As those who follow my Castle Xyntillan play reports know, I very much enjoy running this module. Of the modules we played through before that in The Black Hack I think Tomb of the Serpent Kings and Beneath the Windowless Tower were my favourites. Reasons for this included the fact that they are not too small but can still be completed in a reasonable number of sessions. They also have sufficient non-linearity built in to lead to surprising player approaches. Furthermore, they are both quite deadly, which makes for a tense and challenging game. Their vibe in both cases is very much classic D&D as well, with Windowless Tower in particular including some very enjoyable science-fantasy elements.

Playing online took some getting used to, and it’s a poor substitute for playing face-to-face, but the choice between an online game and no game at all is easily made. In addition, even if the quality of the experience is lacking, we do get more gaming in partly due to the fact that logging on after a hard day’s work on Friday evening is just easier to manage than convening at someone’s house. We are all getting older, and many of us have started families. An online game is just easier to fit in.

Our setup is pretty straightforward and probably resembles that of many others. We use someone’s corporate Zoom account for video and voice. I’ve found this to be incredibly stable and easy for everyone to on-board onto. For dice, we prefer to roll physical dice using the honour system. It is by far the quickest, and most fun. If someone does not have dice on hand, or wants to “roll in the open” because the situation is particularly high-stakes, we also have a Discord with a dice-rolling bot. (We tried many bots and ultimately settled on rollem, because it does not require commands to be prefaced with anything.) That’s the core of it.

Now, currently, for Castle Xyntillan, we are also using Roll20 — I loaded up the excellent VTT player maps that come with the module and unveil it using the fog-of-war feature. Players also take notes directly on the map for future reference. I ended up going with this because I did not want to inflict mapping by hand from verbal description on my group for this module — Xyntillan is just too big and labyrinthine. In other games, however, we did to the classic style of mapping. Some of our players really enjoy that part of the game.

Combats we run entirely theatre-of-the-mind, so do not require any digital support. Running combat TotM is by far the quickest and most versatile way of doing it. On my end I do have a little physical setup with tokens and a battle mat when I need to keep track of big battles with many combatants. Overall I am pretty happy with the setup we’ve got going. In general, my aim is to limit the amount of on-screen manipulation I have to do during the game to an absolute minimum because I find it takes me out of the game. This setup lets me for the most part just face the camera and run the game by talking.

With regards to player count, I find it much harder to handle a large group of players online than I do when sitting around a table. Playing online, I think three players is actually the sweet spot. Beyond that, things just bog down. This is also at least in part due to the challenges of group decision making over a video conference. Having the classic D&D role of a caller helps a bit, but does not entirely solve the issue. The absolute maximum number of players I am comfortable handling online is probably five.

In conclusion, although I can’t wait for this global pandemic to be behind us, it did lead to a remarkable amount of very enjoyable tabletop roleplaying game sessions. I hope, around this same time next year, I will sit down to write another report on a great year of gaming, but it will be titled “After the Bat Plague”.

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