First gulp of a homebrew

We were not able to find time to do any gaming with my family over the pre-Christmas weekend, but I did run a game with my wife and in-laws on Boxing Day. I used the opportunity to try out my homebrew ruleset, tentatively titled ‘hacKnaved’ in homage to its inspirations
I took them through Skerples’ excellent Tomb of the Serpent King, which I’m also currently using in my D&D 5e online campaign. I will aim to give as spoiler-free a post as I can.
As far as an evening’s entertainment went, it was alright. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, judging from the laughter around the table, which satisfied my primary concern. I have a number of thoughts which if for nobody’s sake but my own I feel it worth reflecting upon.
First, let me briefly sum up the players:
A – 20s, played a couple of sessions of D&D 5e before, regular board-gamer
B – 20s, plays D&D 5e online and knows the system pretty well, regular board-gamer
C – 20s, started RPG hobby playing a D&D-esque homebrew game of his own before moving onto playing 5e online
D – 30s with young children, little RPG experience but keen board-gamer, very quick grasp of rules (and probably best person I know at explaining a set of rules of any game clearly to inexperienced players)
E – 50s, little RPG experience, regular board-gamer
Now let’s have a think about the game:
Ruleset
I will go into the rules that we used in more detail in a dedicated post, but it’s worth a cursory look at the game itself and what could be taken into consideration in the future.
After a bit of explaining, I think most players got into the groove pretty quickly, which was reassuring. I did find myself cutting out some elements of the game as I went through the basics, chiefly for the sake of brevity, and it didn’t seem to negatively impact on gameplay. There was no focus on the equivalent of Usage Dice since being a de facto one shot, tracking every resource wasn’t really necessary. The Luck mechanic was downgraded to simply being a death save. I didn’t even bother mentioning magic, and nobody seemed to bat an eyelid, including the regular 5e players.
E had a bit more trouble grasping the mechanics, but was thankfully next to D who, having picked up the system very quickly, was able to help indicate which dice should be rolled when. The Stamina system probably proved the most difficult aspect, and in hindsight I probably wouldn’t have bothered using Stamina Dice (approximate equivalent to Hit Dice, and we just didn’t need them beyond initial Character Creation.
The Character Sheet worked well enough, and A commented that she particularly liked the experience system – boxes to fill in as and when experience was earned, with the borders on milestone boxes being bolder – in comparison to players having to add lots of high numbers together. I used essentially a milestone system whereby an experience box was coloured in after characters moved down a dungeon level or took out a boss monster.
It was a highly lethal game. At the close only A had her original character – B and C were on their second, E was on his third, and D lost his third at the climax. The high body count was partly down to different player approaches – more on that later – but I wonder at the pros and cons of characters being quite so squishy in a one shot. On the one hand it meant that the loss of a character was less of a tragedy, and so players felt happier taking more risks – subsequent characters were particularly expendable. This ensured that gameplay was fast, and we pretty much got through the dungeon in two and a half hours – which I’m sure is a very speedy run through in comparison to the module’s intention. However, there was less of an incentive for creativity. The players didn’t seem to mind too much, but it’s an issue I want to keep in mind going forward.
Character Creation was a quick affair of a couple of minutes – thankfully, considering the six extra characters we needed to conjure up – though even that disrupted the flow of the game – in future I would probably roll up a reserve of sheets for when a player’s first character is killed off. The players all rolled for stats, professions and equipment, and having hit the experience milestones they rolled for advancements too. Characters were thus created and developed quickly, though at the expense of character investment for most players (apart from A, who doggedly ensured that Colin the Sailor survived to the end).
Ultimately I was happy with how the system ran, considering this was its first outing from the recesses of my head. I had a quick reference sheet for my own use, but it would really have handy for some of the players to have had something they could glance at as well, perhaps an annotated character sheet. I do feel that there is scope for a quick-start one shot version, though in all honesty it would be so similar to Knave that I might as well use that instead (and it gives starting characters more hit points!).


Playstyles

That said, character longevity had very much to do with the various approaches each player had to the game. My online games have all had players cut from a similar cloth, so I wasn’t perhaps as prepared as I should have been for the three distinct styles encountered, which I feel can be summed up with reference to certain television series:
Taskmaster – A took the premise of a character dungeon crawling to pay off a large debt to heart, whatever happened to anyone else! She focused on getting past the traps in one piece first and foremost, and after that on gold accumulation. Comedy and larks were welcome, but ultimately she was competitive, and she was going to beat the system. Her preference was for problem solving and creativity.
Fargo – B & C, the two regular 5e players, stayed in character as trader and servant, and then miller and trapper brothers after the first pair’s demise. They developed their characters, in so far as they could with the evening’s premise of debt-ridden average ‘adventurers’, but accepted that life was cheap and the story could go on. Their main interest was in the plot.
Monty Python – D & E, the two players with the least RPG experience, cheerfully had their characters charge into rooms and at creatures, playing for laughs and largely unconcerned if their imaginary avatars got squashed, stabbed or electrocuted. Their primary concern was humour. To give an idea of their approach, D’s character names were, in chronological order, Twinty, Nonteen and Octeen.
For an evening’s entertainment, these three styles coexisted comfortably enough for everyone to have a good time. The Taskmaster approach was the one I was more mentally prepared for, and which I think works best in Tomb of the Serpent Kings, but had all the players been of the same mind we would not have got through much of the dungeon by the close of play. That would not have mattered for a few linked sessions over a couple of evenings, but may not have given the same level of satisfaction for a one shot.
Timing
Mileage will vary considerably on this point, but with this group of players I would try and play RPG sessions a little bit earlier in the evening. Several of us were flagging after two and a half hours due to a combination of age, hearty seasonal meals and young children. Even an hour or half an hour earlier might have given enough of a boost to get to the end before eyelids drooped.
As it was, we sped through the adventure. I cut out about a quarter of the map to ensure that there might be some sort of climax which I felt would end the session on a high note (essentially turning one of the more significant challenges into a treasure guardian). Considering the time limit, I might have done better to choose a different module – as fun as the Tomb of the Serpent King was, I don’t think it is best done in a hurry.
Playing around the table
This was only the second time I’ve properly GMed a game with the players being in the same room, and there is much room for improvement. For one thing, I need to put together some resources I can use at the table. The first time I GMed in person a tried using a laptop as my GM ‘screen’ since it had an excel file with all my random tables. I didn’t like how my scrolling around on it slowed down gameplay (partly due to a very old laptop) so tried to make do without it this time round. I have become very dependent on Roll20 to track my NPCs in combat. I tried just coping with a notepad but everything was getting too messy and unintelligible by the end. Perhaps some basic NPC sheets for future occasions. The module’s OSR-friendly stat blocks did convert nice and quickly, though, so a definite plus there.
This was also my first attempt going full theatre of the mind – again, pros and cons. Any fights that happened were nice and cinematic, though I don’t think I gave the environment enough furnishing to get the players’ imaginations working as much as they could have. I did struggle with describing progress through the tunnel system, so I will probably revert to what I have occasionally done on Roll20 – I have redrawn the Tomb of the Serpent Kings map for player use, and since I messed up the scan a bit the map is now gridless. It’s not quite as freeflowing as theatre of the mind, but image is so abstract that it pretty much forces a player to imagine in the scenery.
Anyhow, all food for thought. I must get back to walking off and sleeping off the Christmas calories.

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