Monday, June 20, 2011

“Pendragon D&D”: Starting Points

Just got back from flying through 60 pages of manuscript of the Domain Game, and boy are my arms tired. Badum-ching.

Seriously though, it's a bit of a roller coaster doing this kind of project: an exuberant high when you are pounding the keyboard and making progress, side-splitting agony when you get bogged down. 

[Me finishing whiny screed and pontification on the high lonesome of writing.]

One byproduct of my recent burst of activity is going a bit farther in fleshing out the bits around “Pendragon D&D”, my shorthand for custom-fitting to classic D&D one specific—yet significant—element from Pendragon RPG: the long-haul timescale that punctuates annual adventures with longer off-table down seasons.

The “why” for this was kicked around here a few months back. As a reminder here was what I sad back then for its possible relevance to the Domain Game project:
A simple innovation [Pendragon's campaign phase] but one that added several layers of depth. Players could realistically play not only a character but a characters' children and grandchildren. The managing of realms—almost inherently a long-term project needing months if not years of “off-stage” time to be interesting—becomes an easier fit. The real sweep of history, more of a thing of years, decades, and centuries even, becomes something tangible in gameplay.
Sounds easy enough, right? Here's a peek at how I have started to over-complicate and badger this simple notion to death.

Part I: The Campaign Season
Like modern combat, adventuring is a physically, mentally, and psychically exhausting profession. Surrounded by near-constant danger, the body is flooded with stress hormones over and over again. The persistent tension, the hyper-vigilance, the physical toil of exertion and combat add up over the weeks. Even the most durable of grizzled veterans find themselves only able to sustain that kind of activity over a few months without starting to feel serious wear and tear.

Long periods of rest can relieve this pressure, allowing the would-be adventurer space to recoup and enter the fray anew.

In game terms, this is modeled by having each campaign year be divided into a “campaign season” of 2-4 months--or 1-2 multi-session “adventures”--and an “off-season” composed of all the time between each active adventure period.

Depending on the setting, the former season should be a contiguous, travel-friendly season, the warm summer and late spring months, for instance, in a cooler, temperate campaign setting or the dry season in a monsoon-drenched tropical one.

Because Pendragon D&D rests on a quicker pace, time moves quicker between table sessions. Where as older editions of D&D typically recommend that one game day elapses for each real day away from the game, this campaign style works better with three game days equaling one real day away. GM's can and should modify this baseline ratio as the need to contract and telescope action arises at the table.

The players can also elect to campaign over the four month limit, but will increasingly be susceptible to campaign fatigue and stress. At the beginning of each game-time week a check will be made against the character's WIS or CON (player's choice).

In the first month past the campaign season limit, the player rolls 3d6 against the attribute score in his weekly checks. If the score exceeds the attribute the character loses a one point of a randomly-chosen attribute (1d6 in order). For each month past the campaign season limit, 1d6 is added to the check, on the second month 4d6 are rolled, 5d6 on the third, and so on down the line.

A rest period of six, back-to-back months is required to restore lost attribute points.

In the next two parts I will take up four experimental methods to play out the off-season: two narrative and two mini-game methods.

Thoughts? Can you see this working in part or in whole? What would you change, spindle, mutilate, or fold?  


  1. This looks like a good start to me. I'm not sure about the one-day-away-is-three-days thing, but that's not due to any problem with the numbers you've used; rather I'm not sure it's necessary to keep track of the days at all, but then my experience with old school D&D is limited, so I'm probably not understanding the nuances of it.

    All in all, this is such a clever and obvious idea, I'm surprised that it hasn't been done before. I look forward to seeing more!

  2. My players would want to peel my skin off my feet and make me dance on 100 D 4's if I had them suffer something like stress induced ability score loss.

    I absolutely love the idea of a campaign with an adventuring season and a quicker passage of time.

    How many real world years to a game year?

  3. I really like the idea of campaign seasons and rest periods. I'm looking forward to more. I think it is brings a bit of verisimilitude to the game that I find appealing.

  4. I love the passage of time that is built into Pendragon. Back when I got the AD&D 2e books, I loved the fact that it had tables for maximum natural age and the decreases in statistics as characters aged. I imagined games in which my old Dwarf fighter wouldn't be as strong as he once was, as he saw old age coming to claim him where monsters and evil magic could not. But our games were always played in a single, perpetual year.

    That, and Dwarfs live a long time, so in a game built on human lifespans even game that eats through the years at a modest pace would trouble the demi-humans far less. Which actually would be an interesting feature of the game; the Elven adventurer who has delved dungeons with the parents and grandparents of the current party.

  5. If I may ask, as Ken St. Andre once asked me: "What does this add to the game experience?"

    That is to say, how does modelling stress during adventure season enhance the Player experience?
    --Are the book-keeping costs commensurate with the Fun-output of the rule's inclusion?

    Those are my thoughts on this particular element.

  6. @ Timeshadows - It adds plenty I'd say. It allows a trade-off in-game and is extra encouragement to think into the game world, a challenge to respond to in actions chosen. I see it as very interesting option.

  7. @Kelvin
    "I'm not sure about the one-day-away-is-three-days thing, but that's not due to any problem with the numbers you've used; rather I'm not sure it's necessary to keep track of the days at all."

    It's one of those resource-management elements that get heavy stress in the rules as written in the older editions. There is a long oft-quoted section in the first ed. DMG about time management where there is a line screaming in all caps: YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT. So serious business ha.

    I myself tend to play pretty fast and loose. Some sessions end on pause and I tend to only use the other one day = one day rule if it fits with a convenient town stopping point.

    The overall idea is just to encourage a sense that the time scale is being sped up. How you get there is the druthers of the particular campaign.

    I know, it does smack of evil DM doesn't it. My motivation here was to set up a boundary not so heavy handed that it would exist only by GM executive fiat, but would give players some flexibility--albeit with the question of mounting risk.

    Those kinds of resource dilemmas appeal to me, it can add a sense of urgency in the adventure.

    Alternately (and I may add this based on yours and Timeshadows' feedback) you could have no set penalty but perhaps have two separate time accountings for each season. In campaign season, you could have the standard one for one day, and in the off-season three to one or higher.

    That way you could adventure in the off-season, but it would be limited by smaller windows of opportunity at the table(perhaps this models having few days that you could travel in safety and comfort in winter or rainy season months).


  8. @Johnathan
    Agree, much of the brainstorm arose out of HC players laughing at what a slog of a life the adventurers seemed to have. Fight your way across country to a scary kill hole only to hightail it back to town for a few days of rest--and then back to more of the same. What a crap job.

    Yes that perpetual year seems the constant in every campaign I have ever run too. D&D always seems like a game set in an nearly-imutable present. There is a backdrop that is supposed to be a long, deep past--but is usually only really as deep as a movie-set facade. Of course the future gets even shorter shrift.

    I actually hadn't thought much about the distancing that aging would produce for demihumans, agree that this seems ripe with interesting implications for the characters.

  9. @Timeshadows
    A good, tough general question (one I will have to remember to ask more often). In general as I said above it's to set up a flexible, player-chosen boundary.

    My gut says that most players would avoid it like the plague, but I would also imagine there will always been that constant temptation to push it just a bit more when there is a hint of greed or ambition in the air.

    My expectation would be, in other words, that it would tend to be invoked in exceptional circumstances and would (hopefully) play out as something more like a race against the clock than a routine exercise in book-keeping.

    But that's what rigorous play-testing is for, right? To see if your half-baked ideas pass muster in actual play.

  10. Thanks for the explanation. It's not something I think I would ever use, but then whenever I run a game it tends to run on narrative time, so actual in-game timekeeping is a bit strange and unusual to my eyes.

    Perhaps instead of the hard stick of the fatigue mechanic you can use a softer one of tying the adventuring year into the healing rate of the characters; maybe it takes a full year to heal back up to full hit points or recover from ability and level drain?

    Of course, magical healing throws this off kilter, so perhaps it doesn't work. Such healing, of course, doesn't exist in Pendragon, so it's easier to say that the party must wait for Sir Boris to heal before they go adventuring once more.

    Pendragon also doesn't have immortal or long-lived player-characters, which is one place where bolting the idea onto D&D improves it; I really like DrBargle's elf who has been on adventures alongside multiple generations of his human comrades.

  11. @Porky: Thanks. I appreciate it more due to your description. Thanks. :)

    @ckutalik: Thanks for taking the time to explain it from your design PoV. I really appreciate it.

    I think kelvin is on to something with the carrot v. stick.
    --Perhaps some combination of carrot and stick? :D

  12. I want to echo kelvingreen's comment. Why put any set ratio of days away to in-game days passed? Just go with the flow of what the campaign needs.

    I'm an avid Pendragon player and am on session 32 of a campaign we've been playing for about 18 months now. We've gone through 21 years of game time. Whether a session moves a whole year, two years or less than a year just depends on the nature of the session in question. It works well.

    I've yet to try this approach in D&D; but, could envision it working well.

  13. As a known power gamer, I can't accept that my superhero necromancer can't drink, pillage, fornicate, crawl and kill 24-7-365. No way. My Tolkienesque elfs and half-Vulkins don't even have to sleep...they just mediate or nod out or whatever but always with one eye open.

    I do welcome the opportunity to play ancient demi-liches or Gray Elven F/MU/T types at maxed out levels alongside the 1st level great grandchildren of long deceased mere mortal fellow adventures.

  14. @Kelvin and Timeshadows

    I like the idea of adding a carrot. The stand-in more D&D-centered methods for Pendragon's Winter Phase provide modest ways to accumulate exp, gold, and other goodies--perhaps beefing them up provides more incentive to lay off the campaign season activity.

    I'll have to think about doing this more for the published version.

    @Il Druno
    Does this mean I should count you out of the playtest for the upcoming Peon Game?

  15. As we all know, time flows faster the busier you are. At low levels with characters with few obligations and plans the BtB rule (a short hand time keeping method if a wilderness map isn't used) is that it takes ingame 1 week to do a dungeon crawl door to door.

    Being strict with a wilderness adventure map helps time flow, but once PC's start doing things (spell research) or moving in large groups (mass combat) time progresses faster as more things happen. For each 100 men overland movement rates slow by 1; so simply going from one keep to the other begins to take weeks instead of days. etc.

    Introducing skills the way arneson did in his "Adventures in Fantasy" would help as well. Castle construction etc.

    Have you read arneson's adventures in fantasy? I've got the "blackmoor remembered" folder that has that plus the FFC and a few other blackmoor things if anyone wants it. contact me at the 0dd74 boards my name is "cooper".

  16. @UWS
    There is a strong dose of Arneson ala the First Fantasy Campaign in the Domain Game. Indeed if you looked hard behind the math of say the construction rules you'd see some similar baselines (though it's all reconfigured to fit in my system).

    The bigger influence would be in the over influence on game play, namely that domain-level play is not an "end game" but a dynamic and organic dimension to the campaign.

    I had envisioned introducing an EPT-like simple set of skills for characters to train on during off-seasons. Listening to your comments I'll take another look at AiF's education subsystem to see if there are some elements to adapt.