I have been having a discussion over the last couple of days with two players that had participated in some of the sessions for the Northern Marches. They had stopped participating and I wanted to get some feedback from them as to why. Both of these players are experienced with d20 and were not familiar with B/X and especially my style of B/X. I am really interested in what they have to say as I feel that it is important that everyone have a good time - it's a game after all.
The feedback that I received basically broke down into 3 categories:
1. They didn't like the power level of the characters and the corollary dependance on retainers.
This is strictly a preference issue to me. They prefer the d20 power level and being the heroes. I have told them on various occasions the quote I posted the other day:
Basic & Expert D&D requires a different play-style than later editions. It is not a game of heroes doing superhero things. The power level doesn't ramp up like that. It is a game of exploration and discovery. Imagine if you, yourself, were thrust into a D&D adventure - you would take all steps necessary to ensure that you survived. You would investigate for knowledge of what you were up against, you would make sure that you had all the resources necessary and available to overcome obstacles and you would make sure you had enough muscle to survive. Instead of Superman think Dr. Livingstone.If they don't care for this style of game then they should not play in the Northern Marches.
As I have mentioned previously, as one goes farther back towards the origins of the game the closer it resembles and plays like a wargame. By this I mean that combat is about resource management. The more hit points, attacks, protection, information and spells you have while minimizing those of your opponent the better off you are. B/X characters are fragile so you need to have as many advantages as possible. Some people don't like that style - that's cool.
2. They didn't feel like they were getting anywhere in terms of the story.
My thoughts on this are threefold:
A. Story? What story?
B. One thing that is perplexing and frustrating to me right now is that the party has not asked any questions and has not done any investigating. They don't ask questions about the who, what, whys of what was going on. The party does nearly everything blind which is very dangerous. I have given out about 4 of my 30 rumours about the ruined castle, 1 or 2 about the abandoned mine, only 1 regarding one of the local rulers and nobody asked what might be in the forest or mountains near the witches hut where they were searching. No one has asked about the paintings or statues in the castle. No one asked where they could get a scroll of protection against undead to get past the wraith.
Not investigating has done a few things: a) it has made things more dangerous and it has been reflected in the mortality rate, b) it has kept a number of nuggets about treasures, mysteries, and history hidden. By asking questions the party could have gotten a sense of being part of a bigger world and a sense that things were going on around them, c) it has also made it more difficult for me. I feel that I am a better DM when I get to react to proactive players. There were glimpses of it when they were getting ready to ambush a bandit to claim the bounty but the party never followed up. I felt I had to keep handing out hooks because there was no direction from the players.
C. Connected with the lack of investigating - in a game where most characters who can use platemail can buy it at the start and where you cannot buy magic items to me there are 3 main uses for treasure (after the XP of course): a) buy information, b) hire retainers, and c) eventually build a stronghold.
As for buying information, I have talked a couple of times about my use of the Retainer Reaction or Monster Reaction tables to handle most social interaction. This does not mean that everything is at the whim of the dice though. There are a number of ways to improve the odds. Spending 25 gp buying drinks for the off-duty captain of the guard will get you a +3 bonus on the roll. When using a 2d6, a +3 bonus makes it hard to really screw up, especially if you have any kind of charisma modifier.
RE the hiring of retainers - it is important in B/X. It just is - see above.
3. "I am more of a roleplayer..."
Honestly, this one burns me a little. Even with my "Gameist" preference I still believe that my style - especially with the low power style of B/X - is very encouraging of roleplaying. Now I don't do a lot of talking in 1st person or, to quote the Pundit, "sitting around talking melodramatically in your character's voice."
As the Pundit also says, "Roleplaying is ANYTHING that you do from the point of view of your character, any in-character action."
From this perspective, I feel that the Northern Marches has the potential for GREAT roleplaying. If you want to roleplay a character instead of roll dice for a piece of paper, put yourself in your characters shoes and figure out a way to overcome the obstacles and figure out a way to survive! In character decisions do not have to be stupid decisions. Again, imagine if you, yourself, were a character in a D&D adventure - you would take all steps necessary to ensure that you survived. You would investigate for knowledge of what you were up against, you would make sure that you had all the resources necessary and available to overcome obstacles and you would make sure you had enough muscle to survive. If you are roleplaying does you character deserve any less? The odds are against you so step into your character's shoes and figure out a way to improve them.
B/X is more dangerous for characters than 3.5. By ignoring this fact and marching into near certain doom is actually poor roleplaying unless your character is a suicidal adventurer with a death wish. Why is it not roleplaying if you have 3 retainers to help protect you? Or if you have to figure out a way to get past the monster that is way too powerful to fight head on?
To me that is smart roleplaying...if I have a character who is doing anything as dangerous as exploring vile dungeons for a living and I put myself in their shoes I would be sure to have lots of help!
Do you feel that the fact that I use the Monster Reaction Table for social interactions makes it not roleplaying? I feel the opposite as I then have to step into the NPC's shoes and come up with a reason for the result. Just because I don't use funny voices doesn't mean I don't have to make in-character decisions for them. In fact it might even be tougher as I am constrained as to the decision I make.
There was also a comment related to the roleplaying one about how the mortality rate was de-motivating. By understanding the points I made above I believe that this issue goes away or they go play a game they prefer.