the city of Alar is finally being explored

Absolutely ages ago, I decided I wanted to start running a second D&D game. I’ve been running a 4E game since January 2009, but we only play about once a month, and while I enjoy the game and the players, I find the infrequency of our play to be pretty unsatisfying.

I started sketching out ideas for a new game and fiddled a little with my Scrivener document for the campaign a little every day or so. Because I didn’t have enough local friends who wanted to play, I decided I’d run the game online. This became a big psychological road block, though. I didn’t know how to run a game online, and I knew I’d need a battle map, because playing 4E gridless is not the kind of challenge I wanted.

Fortunately for me, though, I have a big mouth. I kept mumbling about the game, and Nick Perez kept getting more and more interested, and then more and more annoyed that I was all talk and no play. He finally found just the right software to use, helped me test it, and continued to needle me to get things started.

In March, put together a campaign overview document and told a bunch of people I’d be starting the game. People made characters, talked about background, and so on. I kept sitting on my hands. To be fair, summer was really busy, but every part of my year tends to be really busy. Also, I was growing less and less interested in 4E for various reasons. Finally, as I continued to squirm and waffle, I discovered Mazes & Minotaurs. M&M is half joke, half serious. It tries to be what D&D would have been if its origins had been sword and sandal (peplum) instead of sword and sorcery. It initially tried to emulate the feel of the 1970’s rules, and then an entirely revised edition of the game was released, emulating the feel of the 1980’s rules. The rules are all available free, there’s a ton of extra material, and the game even has a somewhat active fan community.

The setting I’d put together was meant to be a fantastic city inspired by Rome and Alexandria of classical antiquity. M&M, with its greatly simplified rules and its focus on nearly the right setting, seemed like a bolt from Olympus.

A few players had already made characters in May. Nick had even gotten a D&D Insider subscription, which was such a massive, farcical undertaking that it would be hard to summarize here. Despite this, after talking to two or three of the players, I declared we’d move to M&M. In late September, I announced the change in rules, declared that the soonest we could start was November 5, and said that no matter what, I would be spending the time in front of my terminal playing M&M, even solo if I had to.

Fortunately, I did not have to. Nick and Abigail showed up on time, and we got to work making characters. The first thing I learned is that Revised M&M character generation is much more time consuming than Basic D&D. There is a big pile of bonuses to compute for each character. This means that even though you basically have six attributes to roll, you then have to figure out all the attribute bonuses and sum them up in a bunch of different ways to figure out your secondary stats – and those are the ones you’ll use most of the time.

Combat was also more complex than I’d anticipated. Or, more accurately, I didn’t understand combat as well as I thought I did. Like Basic D&D, things like missile and melee attacks occur in distinct phases. There seem to be quite a few more, though, in M&M. For example, unarmed combat occurs at the end of the round. Magic takes effect at the end, also, but (I think) before unarmed combat. Initiative is individual, not group, and actions are declared in reverse order before resolution begins.

The result of this is that the round begins simply with the construction of a “who will do what” list, but then becomes more complex as the actions take effect, because they are not strictly resolved in initiative order, and I had to take care to keep things happening in the right phase. Abigail helped keep me in check.

Characters in M&M felt much sturdier than characters in Basic D&D. At first level, they all tended to have at least 8 hits (read: hit points), and none of the threats they encountered did even 1d8 damage. That said, healing is quite slow, so I think it may balance out over time.

I definitely have some learning to do about building interesting adventures.

The game was just the three of us, which was fine, although I hope to have two or three more people in most games. Nick and Abigail were both in the Netherlands, so we were playing in my afternoon and their evening. We used Mumble for voice chat, and it worked very well. Once or twice my client churned and I couldn’t hear anyone, but it wasn’t so bad. I was surprised at the sound quality and lack of lag or other problems. I started off using a lousy headset microphone, but it kept cutting out, so I finally undocked my laptop, opened the lid, and used the built-in mic.

We used Gametable for text chat and dice-rolling, and just once for a combat in which there was slightly more complex terrain. I’d expected to find it merely tolerable, but I actually liked it quite a bit. The ability to label monster tokens with the amount of damage they’d taken, or a common designator (“Monster 2”) was very, very useful.

As for the actual game, I think it went well, and I didn’t get any notices that the players were no longer going to be available or anything. I definitely was not as well-prepared as I like to be, and I need to get back into the groove of running a city-based game. (I was very pleased with the city-based year or so of my Philadelphia-homed “Complexity” sci-fi game, and need to remember what I did right.)

The PCs, a small mercenary group in the increasingly overcrowded city of Alar, were hired by minor government official and crime boss, Carus the Spiteful, to track down the well-known two-bit hood that had stolen not only his gold but also his well-known truncheon. After asking around and determining that Passu (the hood in question) had somehow gotten the service of a few daemons, they tracked him down, roughed him up, lost him, beat his lackeys to death in an alley, tracked him down to his home town, took his sister hostage, and captured him in a secret cave hideout… but lost the truncheon, which was spirited away by a, uh, spirit.

We ended the game there, and I was feeling pretty beat. We’ll probably run fewer than five hours next time – and with a bunch of the learning how things work put behind us, I think we’ll still get as much or more stuff in.

Next steps: fix all the errors in my “M&M in a Nutshell” quick reference, pick a next date, remind the stragglers to show up, and sketch out some notes on what may happen next!

…by the way, the game is still open to comers. Mailing list instructions are under “Alar” at my RPG site.

Written on November 11, 2011
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🏷 mnm
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