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Notes

Year In Review – 2021 – Spitting in the Face of the Bat Plague

The second year of blogging has come to a close, time to take stock. Contrary to my hopes and expectations this time last year, 2021 turned out to be the second year of playing in times of a global pandemic. In spite of this, we managed to continue our gaming.

What we played

So what did we play? Most notably, I refereed two seasons of Castle Xyntillan using my homebrew classic D&D rules, Hackbut. Season two ran for 14 sessions, from late January to late April. Season three lasted 10 sessions and ran from mid-September to mid-December. In between these, from early May to mid-July, one of our players stepped up to “warden” a season of Mothership. We played one session of The Haunting of Ypsilon 14 and 10 sessions of Gradient Descent. Over summer I ran a two-shot of The Coming of Sorg, again using Hackbut. When circumstances allowed for it, we managed to resume our monthly face-to-face boardgame night. To celebrate, I acquired Kemet Blood & Sand, which according to many is the pinnacle of Matagot “dudes on a map” games. We managed to play this three times between late July and late October.

With regards to our ongoing Castle Xyntillan campaign I kept pretty extensive records. What follows is some data on attendance, character deaths, and experience points. Just for kicks.

Attendance

Like last year, our play group numbers 7 players, not including me. Most sessions had 2-3 players attending, with average attendance being 3,6. Season 2 had an average attendance of 4,4, season 3’s average attendance was 2,6. This drop in attendance is probably the result of a number of factors, including big life events for at least one of our players, and perhaps also some fatigue with online gaming setting in for a few others.

Attendance

The top 3 players were good for 66% of the attendance. This was 56% in the previous year. This shift can be explained mostly by one of our group not participating at all this year, and another only playing in the beginning of the year.

Number of players

Character deaths

Ah, killing player-characters, the thing every classic D&D referee enjoys doing the most. I am kidding of course, but still, deaths is a good indication of how hazardous my game is. Seeing as how a key distinguishing aspect of classic D&D is that it is a game of challenge for the players, character death serves as a reasonable proxy for it.

Deaths

In total, 10 player-characters died in the dungeon. That’s an average of 1,7 per session. The most PCs killed in one session was four, which happened during session #18 when the company had an ill-fated run-in with a bunch of ghouls.

Retainers were unluckier still, with a total of 27 perishing across this year’s two seasons, for an average of 2,3 per session. The most retainers killed in one session was five, during session #33, when the company got lost in a pocket dimension forest.

Overall, 37 characters were killed by the dungeon, for an average of 1,5 per session. I don’t have a baseline to compare these numbers to, so I really can’t say if I run an extraordinarily deadly game, or if I am soft-pedaling it. I guess over 1 PC killed on average every session is kind of rough, but I don’t go out of my way to try and slaughter them. In fact I often feel bad about not giving the players the challenge they deserve. Maybe this number is an indication I should relax a little on that front.

Experience points

In any case, was all that dying good for anything? I would say so. The players brought back 132.796 XP. This breaks down to 84.754 XP in season 2, and 48.042 XP in season 3. That is an average of 5.533 XP per session (6.054 XP in season 2, 4.804 XP in season 3). I think it is safe to say Castle Xyntillan is a pretty generously stocked dungeon, but not overly so. I think this nicely offsets its lethality. Yes it is easy to die in the dungeon. But it is is also easy for players to get back into the game reasonably quickly, and level up past those first fragile levels.

Experience points

All of this XP is from treasure recovered, at a rate of 1 GP equals 1 XP. I award no XP for killing monsters and in case you are wondering, magic items also do not yield any. Another important thing to note is that players get to divide XP between all player-characters that participated in an expedition as they see fit. I do not enforce shares for player-characters.

The highest single haul was 15.900 XP, in session #21 (in season 3, the biggest score was 11.660 XP during session #34). In general, it is those wine barrels in the cellar that are the real money makers.

The seven currently active player-characters between them have acquired 106.393 XP. The average party level is 4.

The lowest level character is Guillemette, a level 1 thief, with 432 XP collected over 4 sessions. But this character saw no action this year. The next lowest-level character is Robert, a level 2 cleric, at 2.529 XP, all of which was acquired in one session.

The highest level character is Hendrik, a level 6 magic-user, at 36.000 XP, collected over a whopping 24 sessions of careful, diligent play. Level 6 is the highest level in the game and the magic-user is of course the class that requires the highest amount of XP. Getting there was quite an achievement, well-earned.

Closely following Hendrik is Jürg, a level 6 fighter / level 1 thief, at 31.600 XP collected over 14 sessions. Jürg is the only multi-classed character in the game. I wonder if more will follow now that some of them are plateauing and have no use for XP anymore. It’s also worth noting Jürg began life as a retainer (and husband) of this player’s previous PC, Bartolomea.

Blogging

Moving on, what happened with the blog? I mostly wrote play reports, for Castle Xyntillan seasons 2 and 3 (see the index), as well as the Coming of Sorg two-shot (a, b).

I also continued to write up commentaries on my homebrew ruleset, Hackbut. This year I covered the four character classes, equipment, encumbrance and retainers.

WordPress tells me I had 3.519 views and 1.188 visitors over the past year. This is of course very modest, and in truth I pay little attention to this sort of stuff. I do promote my posts on the OSR discord server and my twitter, but not anywhere else really.

The best performing posts this year were the first Castle Xyntillan play report, the thief class, and The Coming of Sorg.

I got quite a bit of traffic through referrals from Beyond Fomalhaut (thanks Melan). Most of my visitors are from the anglosphere (US, UK, CA) and also from The Netherlands of course.

Looking ahead

I hope I will be able to keep our weekly online D&D game going. It is definitely something that keeps me sane, and a welcome outlet for my many creative urges. I think we have one more season of Castle Xyntillan in us. I might try to add a new player or two to our group, so that we push the average attendance back up to the 3-4 mark. We are a close-knit group though, so recruiting will have to rely on our immediate social networks.

After Xyntillan, I think I want to try my hand at running material of my own fabrication. I have come to realize that this is the purest form of D&D, homebrewing everything, and I want to experience it first-hand. I have been quietly chipping away at a mid-size dungeon (about 120 rooms across three levels) and am about half-way through completing it. It is strongly OD&D inspired, but filtered through my personal fantasy canon, which is very much in a science fantasy vein and includes things like Masters of the Universe, Storm, and The Incal.

Of course, once we are able to, I look forward to once again playing games face-to-face, but that will most likely mean more boardgames. I recently acquired both a copy of Tigris & Euphrates, and Quantum and I hope to get those to the table in 2022.

In terms of blogging, I will continue to write up play reports for as long as I referee games. I like keeping a record of what happened and most of all reflecting on what went well and what I can improve on as a referee. Occasionally I get a comment saying others are getting some use out of them as well, which is always nice. I also intend to continue the series on Hackbut, although we have now hit the section on running the game, which may lend itself a little less well to the kind of posts I have been doing so far.

In any case, despite circumstances, 2021 was another good year for me for gaming, and I hope to maintain this in the year to come, bat plague be damned.

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Notes

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”.