I decided to post what happened yesterday and my analysis of it separately, because both feel like walls of text already. I imagine as I get sessions under my belt I'll not need to post so much, but I think this is important for my learning to DM better.
Introducing Swords & Wizardry
So, I got my two completely new players. I found out last session that I had too many sheets of paper, so I bought some little presentation folders at the local office supply and slipped all my streamlined Swords & Wizardry handouts in those.
This allowed me to place related pages facing each other, so when making gear choices players could just glance across to see weapons to choose from too.
Essentially, these are simple player's handbooks. I thought about making them in booklet form, but ran out of time and was worried that the smaller format would work against my attempt to simplify and clarify. I may still try.
The new players seemed to grasp everything fine. It took us a little more than 30 minutes to make characters. Later, after their characters died, they were able to make their own in a matter of minutes. I was thinking about Vancian magic in regards to explaining how magic works-- it is very easy. I used the metaphor of a gun with one bullet, and later referred to the Sleep spell as the mage's shotgun, with one shot. I can't imagine a spell point system simple enough to explain to a newbie and get playing without confusion.
Another thing that I noticed last session, players need help with names. Now maybe if I left them to their own designs I'd get cool names like Tenser and Mordenkainen, but I was surprised to find that the slowest part of character creation was choosing a name. Luckily, I had a rough list of medieval European names, but I think it would be a good investment to put a little thought and energy in a few sheets of names, especially when characters keep dying.
The new players started out with the idea that it was them versus the already existing players. It was unfortunate that they couldn't have started the same session to avoid this feeling, but once people started dying, they quickly realized they would have to work together.
These rules are simple and effective. The new players understood and are coming back for more next Friday.
These are essential in low level, old school play, period. But because of their presence I have to be careful. I tried to give each at least one trait to give them something identifiable. I really need to start having them act more like separate entities. The players were having them do all the risky stuff, like look in windows and climb down wells. While I had the hirelings protest a little, they never balked. I think that is going to happen next session. I'll roll to see if any of the hirelings don't want to even go on the adventure, the rest will demand renegotiation of terms, and no more taking the big risks. Rumors will spread around town that the characters are bad bosses if they aren't careful.
My portraits for the hirelings helped give them a more solid existence, but I didn't have enough prepared. I suggested players make their own portraits for their hirelings, to distribute some of the work.
In my campaigns of the past I kept track of all experience myself and let players know when they leveled up. I didn't want the met-game of XP getting in the way of roleplaying. Now I'm realizing that if players knew the treasure they found was worth more than the monsters slain, they would be even more hungry for the former and even more interested in avoiding the latter.
Also, I usually tallied up experience points post-session so as not to slow down play, but we never used hireling in the way we are now. This is a nightmare to figure out. Do I divide experience points among PCs and hirelings? And if so, each hireling that died acts as an XP sink? I'll have to remember exactly which battle each hireling died in. And, only one solitary, original PC survived until the end of the session! So, I suppose he'll be the sole recipient for the XP from most of the early monster encounters. But the rest of the current party, getting a share of the final loot, will still benefit from the adventure. Another reason for giving XP for treasure in a high mortality game.
I can see easily why the game evolves towards a PC safe system if you don't resist it. I felt horrible about the players losing their characters. They had started developing interesting personalities; Ricarda the female mage had a beard she had to shave off each day! I could tell the players were a little bummed too, especially Ehud's. This is his second character and the second death. And if not for a random encounter he would have made it out of the ruins alive. But after the initial glum looks, they seemed to take it as a challenge. They want to try again and survive. They even started rolling up new characters without any prompting from me.
So why such high mortality? Well, they made some bad choices, they were standing around for a long time just looking at their new-found treasure map when the flock of stirge buzzed in to attack. And down in the Convent cellar they left a threat behind them! With no rear guard-- a frail porter and a mage with 3 hit points brought up the rear! They haven't figured out how to fight tactically yet either. A few times I mentioned that, yes, hireling so-and-so could attack from the second line because he had a spear, but I don't think they caught the important advantage that fact could give them. Also, they haven't thought of buying some shields or leather armor for their hirelings now that they found gold.
I am really seeing in action the idea that old school play is about players learning how to play. When I was a player back in days of yore, because mortality was so rare, something like combat tactics was not that big a deal. I don't remember being afraid as a player of our old 1e campaign. I think my players were afraid in the convent cellar.
I stood and paced the entire session. I was conscious this was the first roleplaying experience for two players and tried to explain each sword stroke in detail, what the players smelled and heard. I tried to give the bandit leader a realistic personality, with a slight accent. I tried to move things along quickly and not get bogged down on any rulings. It seemed to work; when they sliced a rat in half or impaled a ghoul, the players would say "yeah!"
I screwed up on a simultaneous initiative ruling and felt it was important enough to backtrack a little, which ended in a hireling death. But I think I got it now and that shouldn't happen again. I put a key in a chest which I had intended to open a door in the convent basement, but completely forgot about it. Oh, well, it can open one of the cell doors . . . or, wait a minute . . . aha, maybe they need it at the treasure map location.
I'm getting the sense that one of the most important qualities a DM needs is confidence, confidence that they can make things work, that they can improvise if needed, that mistakes will happen and are important to learn from.
On my sandbox, I've been fllowing the Western Marches philosophy that town is a boring place to buy supplies. Adventure is out there, in the wild. But I feel I was too brief in my sketch of it. When I asked what the players planned for next session the mentioned following the treasure map, "because, really it's the only thing to do." I felt bad at hearing that. I plan to make a player map of the area and sprinkle some adventure hooks. I want the players to have choices.
Luckily, the map shows another feature on the way to the final destination. This is my megadungeon lying in wait. This will be a choice for the players, "Do we investigate this ruined city, or push on to the treasure?" And even then the megadungeon will be there for the exploration. Now to get cracking designing that thing . . .