Tuesday, December 15, 2009

SIFRP: Session 3

After creating their house in the first session and the slaughter at the bar in the second session, this was the first full session of the players actually playing their characters for a whole night. The players all showed up this time around and as a reminder, they are:

Erik Wyrmwood (Bill)
Damian Wyrmwood (Randy)
Jasque Wyrmwood (Adam)
Wulfgar "the Nighthawk" Oakmeade (Jim)
Ser Olivar Bryce (James)
Ana Greyjoy (Kate)

The characters and their lord have learned of an attack, supposedly by Ironmen, on one of the villages on their land, so they decide to head for the village immediately. Their party comprises the characters listed above as well as two guerillas, Nyck and Ulvin. Ana was sent along because she's one of the Ironborn and might recognize something the other characters would miss. 

Before setting off, Lord Wyrmwood and the characters discuss what they should do and they decide this is mostly an information-gathering mission; find out if it was actually Ironmen, see how the village and villagers fare, and find out anything they can about the size of the force and how serious a threat it poses to them and the surrounding coastline.

A few hours of travel on horseback in gray, drizzling weather (I view this part of the world having weather similar to Seattle due to the ocean and the mountains) they arrive in the village of Goldwater. It is beset by crows and from a distance they see shapes moving through the ruins. They move up cautiously until they can see the shapes are survivors who've already set to work piling up the victims and finding anything that might still be of use.

The survivors are happy to see help arrive and they all gathered in the mostly-intact tavern to take a break and talk for a bit. Of all the people in town, only one was actually in the village at the time of the raid and apparently the only one to make it out alive. He was the smith's young apprentice Torrhen (15 years old). The others are an elderly woman named Correna and her granddaughter Anya (12-ish) who'd just returned to town the day before, another slightly older boy named Harlan (17), and a Night's Watch recruiter named Staven Manley and his "recruit" Bors, a thief and rapist from Lannisport who was in manacles to keep him from running away or causing too much trouble. I'd actually created Staven and Bors as possible characters for the bar fight that took place in the previous session, but when they weren't used I decided to slot them in here.

During the course of their conversation with the villagers found out that the smith had been taken by the raiders and that, yes, as far as Torrhen could tell they were Ironmen, but he'd never really seen any before, so he couldn't be sure. At that, Harlan spoke up and said they were definitely Ironmen. When quizzed as to how he knew this he hemmed and hawed and generally made the PCs suspicious until Erik persuaded him (with a simple intrigue) to come out with it. Harlan revealed that he was actually a member of a group of bandits who were camped not far from the village. They'd heard the noise the raid caused and came to investigate, but that's all they did because there were so many attackers and not very many of them.

While this discussion was going on, the Nighthawk and Ana were digging through the ruins and looking for anything that might give them some more information. They found a hand axe stamped with the symbol of House Greyjoy and a handful of arrows with fletching that matched that the Ironmen typically used. Upon returning to the tavern they showed what they'd found and the group decided the bandits might be able to tell them more specifics regarding the size of the force.

The players and the characters were all fairly nervous about walking into the camp of a group of "not quite a score" of bandits, especially since there were only eight members in their own party. Of the people they might have brought with them to help in case of a fight, they only took Torrhen. They couldn't trust Harlan to not call out even though he promised not to cause any problems as long as he could go free. They wanted to bring Staven despite is age, but he wouldn't go without Bors and since Bors couldn't be trusted to behave if he came with or to stay put if they left him behind they decided Staven was out, too.

So, off into the woods they went. The plan was to have everyone sneak up as close as they could (Harlan said they didn't really keep close watch, so it wouldn't be a big problem) and let Erik, Ser Olivar, and Nyck ride up to parley. Their reasoning was they didn't want to ride in looking like a big threat and make the bandits nervous, so instead they'd send a small force in and have everyone at hand in case things went south. Good plan.

When the four men rode in the bandits took notice, walked up with weapons in hand, while a handful sneaked out the back and side of camp to circle around. The Nighthawk, who has the Night Eyes quality noticed that since it was late night and rainy for everyone else. Oh, Ana and Jasque also noticed too since they both have INSANE passive perceptions (24 and 18 respectively, I believe) that even the darkness and rain couldn't overcome. Anyway, the roamers in the forest were being watched as they moved around.

Erik engaged the bandit leader, an older man named Ser John. He considered the Wyrmwoods turncoats because they'd followed the Lannister's lead against the Targaryens during the War of the Usurper/Robert's Rebellion and he insulted the Wyrmwoods incessantly. Erik, for his part didn't rise to the bait and, in fact, didn't even let it be known he was a Wyrmwood. Instead he merely said he was working for the Wyrmwoods and wanted information on the raid. Over the course of a full-fledged intrigue with the old knight Erik convinced the man to give them the information he wanted. Eventually he confirmed the men were definitely Ironmen, but with a shield he'd never seen before -- a red claw on a blue field -- and there were about 100 men in five ships.

With their business concluded, Ser John decided only one of them needed to leave the camp to communicate the information and the rest of them would be staying to be ransomed back to the turncoat Wyrmwoods. As soon as he completed the threat he sprouted an arrow from his eye courtesy of the Nighthawk, who wouldn't stand for a man raising a hand to his lord.

As soon as Ser John fell dead most of the rest of the bandits moved to attack, specifically Erik, Olivar, Nyck, and Ulvin who were in their midst. A couple of the bandits fled into the woods, not knowing what sort of force waited for them in the dark, but most attacked. Erik turned to flee, leaving Ser Olivar, Nyck, and Ulvin to fight eight or nine men on their own -- which didn't sit well with Ser Olivar. The bandits in the woods were taken by surprise by the PCs who'd managed to remain hidden despite some close calls. Even so, a couple of the men were able to charge Erik as he moved back down the path and stabbed him handily in the gut forcing him to take a wound in order to survive. That made all the PCs a bit nervous. The men he left behind faired well against their assailants, especially Ser Olivar, but Nyck eventually took a fatal blow and dropped. When the front line of bandits dropped a handful of others saw the writing on the wall and fled -- their dirks were no match for an armored knight and an unknown number of archers in the dark forest.

At the end of the fight, Nyck was dead, Erik was wounded, and nine bandits were dead on the ground, while seven managed to escape into the woods (a couple earlier and a few more late in the fight).

The end of the fight was also the end of the night, so we wrapped things up there.

Next time: The All-Roleplaying Session!

...and, let's face it, gamers love to bitch anyway...

That's what someone posted on a forum I was reading today to excuse his disrespectful posts. (I assume the poster was male, but that may not be the case. Doesn't matter either way, I just needed a pronoun.)

...and, let's face it, gamers love to bitch anyway...

With that sentence he's removed any interest I have in reading anything he has to say.

Clearly he had an issue with a game I'm interested in and even did some work on, but this post really isn't about that. It's about this: If you comment on a game, then say something like this, how is it possible for me as a designer to know what you really want? How can I take you seriously?  How am I to know if you're actually offering criticism (and hopefully the constructive kind) or just bitching? Will you warn me? Will the bitchy parts be in all caps or italics so I can ignore them since they don't actually contain any information I want or need?

As a creative type, I'm always interested in giving my audience something they'll enjoy and I'm always interested in their feedback since I always want to make the next thing better, but with that phrase he made it impossible for me to take him seriously. I get it, you don't like the way the game turned out because it didn't match what you felt it should have been. I understand that emotion, that disappointment, but I think going on a forum and bitching about it doesn't help anyone. Especially when you undercut your own argument by saying you're just bitching.

Here's the deal; in these, the days of the Internet and public forums that are read by many, many of the people who actually make the games you buy and play, you don't want to be the guy no one listens to. No wait, I want to revise that: In these the days of the Internet and public forums that are read by many of the people who make the entertainment content you consume, you don't want be the guy no one listens to.

We have this wonderful technology that allows us to talk to each other about the products we love -- and to contribute to them like never before. You have the ears and eyes of the people making your games, novels, movies, whatever. Why would you waste the opportunity to take part in the process, the feedback loop that all creative types thrive on, just to be bitchy? I know, everyone is a unique little snowflake. It takes all kinds. Yada yada yada. But if you have a passion for something and you want the best for it, the way to bring that about is to be as reasonable and rational as possible. Someone -- Not you, by the way. You didn't actually contribute anything to the creation of that product. -- but someone spent hours of their life to make the thing you spend $30 and then "bitch" about to no end. The least you can do is extend the courtesy of treating the creator with respect until he or she proves unworthy of that respect by, say, treating you with no respect.

Oh, and I'm not saying you don't have the right to bitch about something, you absolutely do, but don't expect me to listen to your useless whining.

For those of you looking to break into the industry you're passionate about, you greatly improve your chances by being a decent human being online. For example, the guy who posted the sentence I've been going on about is interested in writing for games. What do you think the likelihood of him getting a helping hand from me or any of the others that worked on the game he's been bitching about is? It's not that I hate him, hell, I don't even know him, but the way he presents himself online makes me not want to know him. If I received a submission from him I'd drag it right to the recycle bin, not because I don't think he'd be capable of writing something of good quality, but because I'd know he's not someone I'd enjoy working with. It's that simple. He might be the next Shakespeare, but I'll never work with him because he's already proven to me he's a pain in the ass -- and that I don't need. So, don't be that guy.

I have some other thoughts on this that have to do with crowdsourcing and truly collaborative projects made possible by the Internet, but I'll save that for another post.

Games as Gifts

Looking for great games to give as gifts? Whether it be for hardcore gamers, casual gamers, young gamers, or really anyone. This list of recommendations from Board Game Geek (.com) is an excellent resource. It covers all the bases and it has a section on two-player games for those couples who're looking for something to do together other than watch TV.

Check it out here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

SIFRP: Session 2

I only had four players for the second session of my Song of Ice and Fire campaign, which was really the first full game, because there was a cold going around the office. The list of players and characters in the game is:

Erik Wyrmwood (Bill) the eldest son of Lord Wyrmwood and the heir. He is a schemer and flaunts his wealth a bit. He's maybe a bit flighty, but very savvy when it comes to negotiations and dealing with other lords and ladies.

Damian Wyrmwood (Randy) the second son of Lord Wyrmwood. He is more practical than his brother and very charismatic and persuasive. He grumbles a lot and has little patience for his elder brother's way of conducting himself.

Jasque Wyrmwood (Adam) the third son of Lord Wyrmwood, but there's some kind of story about his past and origin that makes him a very distant third in the house order. Jasque is actually a bastard of one of the Lannisters, but was taken in by the Wyrmwoods to curry favor with the Lannisters. Jasque is quiet and spends most of his time practicing the Water Dancing fighting style -- which makes him pretty unusual for a Westerman.

Wulfgar "the Nighthawk" Oakmeade (Jim) is the eldest son of House Oakmeade, a Bannerhouse sworn to Wyrmwood. His house is known for their archers, scouts, and guerillas and Wulfgar is one of the men responsible for whipping them into shape. He is an excellent archer, but has realized he'll have to begin spending less and less time in the woods and more and more time dealing with lords and ladies in the coming years. He's the eldest son after all and his father isn't getting any younger.

Ser Olivar Bryce (James) is an anointed knight sponsored by Lord Wyrmwood. House Bryce used to be a landed house of its own, but when Ser Olivar was captured by bandits and ransomed back, his mother worked out a deal with Erik Wyrmwood to take the Bryce holdings in exchange for the money to pay the ransom. Now, Ser Olivar is safely returned, but chafes with the knowledge that he's sworn to the family that took his land.

Ana Greyjoy (Kate) is the niece of the deceased Lady Wyrmwood and cousin to Erik, Damian, and Jasque. She came to stay at House Wyrmwood for some mostly undefined reason because the player isn't very familiar with the setting, but we're working on it.

The first four were present for the first night. When we sat down I had them draw from a pile of random "normals" I'd created for the intro encounter. I'd actually created seven characters, but took three of them out of the mix when I learned I only have four players. The characters they drew were:

Escor Smith (Bill) is the smith in the seaside village of Goldwater.

Laurent Cargill (Randy) a messenger on his way back to Lannisport. He is Craven, but the only character with a weapon; a sword he's not very good with. His horse is bedded down in the stable for the night.

Lizbet Shaw (Adam) wife of Timmin Shaw and one of the owners of the tavern. She works as a server and cook at the small tavern. She's a handsome woman in her 40s.

Timmin Shaw (Jim) husband to Lizbet Shaw and the barman and cook at the tavern they own. He's Bound to the Bottle and has access to a knife and a bludgeon behind the bar.

After they had a moment to look over their characters we dove right in with a short scene in which Laurent was sitting at one of the small tables in the tavern eating fish stew after turning his horse over to the stable boy for the night. Escor walked in as he always did for a drink and some dinner after working at the smithy all day. Lizbet and Timmin chatted with each other and their customers and made sure they had something to drink.

There was a solid knock at the back door to the tavern, which was located in the small pantry/kitchen area off to the side of the bar. Just as Timmin and Lizbet turned to see who was knocking, the front door opened and in walked three weatherbeaten Ironmen armed with axes and wearing armor.

(In talking to one of the players later, he said when the men walked in he realized that he and the other characters were all going to die -- and he thought that was the coolest thing ever, that the whole point of this scene was that they were doomed. That was a good thing to hear.)

The Ironmen stood at the bar and surveyed the scene. I explained who the Ironmen were to the players who had no clue and they all figured out they were in a lot of trouble. Especially when they started to hear screams outside and smelled a bit of smoke in the air. Timmin offered the men drinks, which they took, then told Lizbet to get some food, with a knowing look. Lizbet took the cue to go into the kitchen where she promptly unlocked the back door to walk out, but the body of her stable boy pushed it open and gave her quite a shock as it slumped to the floor. Quckly, she snuck out, saw the huts of her neighbors burning and made for the stable.

Back in the bar, Timmin kept the men talking a minute, then took a swing with his knife at the leader, a man named Garron. The player rolled a critical hit, but still most of the force of the blow was blunted by the armor, so Garron took only a single point of damage. Even so, both he and his companion, Athan, cut  Timmin down with consecutive strokes of their axes. The third man went to see where the woman had gone and told them the back door was open.

Escor was very careful not to move or make any action whatsoever as he watched his old friend crumple to the floor. Laurent on the other hand took advantage of Timmin's death and the conversation between the three Ironmen to make a run for the door and made it outside to find two raiders standing guard. The men raised their weapons, but then Laurent was bowled over from behind as Athan ran out to tell his men to find the woman. Again, taking advantage of the confusion Laurent ran for the front of the stable. Once he reached it he saw Lizbet taking his horse from the stall.

Back in the bar, Escor swore he'd sit at the bar until the men returned. He had no interest in dying. So, the men left him there. Alone, Escor took the opportunity to step behind the bar, tsk at his dead friend, and then take most of the money from the coin box he knew was kept behind the bar since he knew Timmin would prefer he have it than those barbarians. Then Escor sat back down at the bar and waited.

Ironmen headed to the front and back of the stable to find Laurent and Lizbet who they'd seen run in. Lizbet stood by the horse and Laurent jumped onto its back. He had the opportunity to grab Lizbet or spur the horse to action. He glanced down at her and said, "I'll never forget you!" and spurred the horse onward. Not defeated yet, Lizbet made a desperate grab for his waist and managed to get a solid grip. Unfortunately for Laurent he was riding bareback (and failed both a riding and opposed strength check) and was pulled off the horse as it took flight! In a jumble on the floor, the pair looked up to see four Ironmen surround them. Laurent was cut down quickly and Lizbet was then treated poorly at their hands.

(The race for the stable and the interchange with the horse had everyone at the table in stitches! It was easily the most hilarious thing that had happened at the table in a long time. We still joke about it around the office. I especially liked it because had the characters worked together there was a very good chance ONE of them (maybe even both) had a very good chance of surviving, but the way it played out was just fantastic!)

Escor, meanwhile waited at the bar for the men to return. When they did he said he was a smith and would gladly trade his freedom for his life. Garron and Athan considered for a moment, then agreed they could make use of a smith, so Escor was taken back to the boats with them.

With the raid completed we changed gears and moved to the players' actual characters. First, we made some rolls for the House Fortune for the month and they decided to reallocate some of their 14 reserved wealth to raise their House's Law from 27 to 31, which bumped it up a category. They reasoned they spent the money to recruit some new men and supply them with better equipment so they could better patrol and police their lands.

We also defined their troops:

Trained Garrison ☼ 5 Power ☼ Easy (3) Discipline at home or Challenging (9) away
Armor Rating 3 Armor Penalty -2 Defense 5 Health 9
Fighting Damage 3
Awareness 3, Endurance 3, Fighting 3

Trained Guerrillas ☼ 5 Power ☼ Challenging (9) Discipline
Armor Rating 1 Armor Penalty 0 Defense 7 Health 6
Fighting Damage 3 Marksmanship Damage 3 close range
Athletics 3, Marksmanship 3, Stealth 3

Finally, a servant interrupted their discussions to say a woman named Lizbet Shaw had arrived at the gates just a few minutes ago saying her village, Goldwater, had come under attack by raiders. They went to see her and it was clear by the sight of her that she was in shock, badly hurt, and had been walking for days. Once she was made comfortable and the maester was called for, they questioned her. She had little else to say except that she thought they were Ironmen, but she didn't recognize the crest on their shield; a red crab or lobster claw on a deep blue field. None of the characters recognized it either.

They talked a bit and decided they should leave immediately for Goldwater since it was only a few hours' ride by horse.

And that was the end of the night.

SIFRP: Overview

We've played a few times since my last post at the end of October. A brief overview of the sessions follows and I'll expand on them over the next few days.

1) Created House Wyrmwood and did some character creation. This was actually a half session because we spent a lot of time talking about killing the D&D game, deciding on SIFRP, and then finally working on the house.

1.5) None of the characters were done-done that first night, so I worked with the players to finalize things, explain some rules bits, and help write up characters with those players who missed the first session. Character generation is a snap, so it was easy. The hardest part was getting the people who weren't familiar with the setting to "get it." Even so, it all worked out.

2) With their characters done they were excited to play them. So naturally, I had them flip over their characters and randomly choose one of the NPCs I'd created for them. Taking a page from G.R.R. Martin himself, I had them play characters that were quickly slaughtered by some Ironmen raiders. This served the purpose of introducing them to the feeling of the world, the combat system (and it's deadliness), and part of the plot I'd be using (that of the Ironmen raiding on their coast again). When everyone was dead or taken by the Ironmen we switched to their characters and did some House rolls and got them introduced to each other at Coldiron Hall.

3) Having learned of the Ironmen's attack on their land they gathered some men together and went to investigate. Part of their investigation led them to some bandits who'd seen most of the raid and after some negotiating told them how many men and ships were involved. Once that information had been imparted,  the bandits started threatening to only let one of them leave, so Bannerman Wulfgar Oakmeade shot the bandit leader through the eye and a fight broke out. The PCs managed to win, but it was nervewracking for a couple characters.

4) With the bandits defeated or driven off the characters rounded up their abandoned goods and took them back to the sacked village. Then traveled home to find out they'd received an invitation to a tournament in King's Landing (I'll be running the Peril at King's Landing adventure). Which led to a lot of discussion and roleplaying about what they should do about the Ironmen, if they can afford to be gone for a while, how quickly they could get there, and what they needed to make a good showing at the tourney. This was very much a night of roleplaying with only three rolls of the dice called for.

The fifth session is schedule for this Thursday, then we're off for a couple of weeks due to the holidays. The posts that follow will described the sessions more in-depth and I'll also post some game stats of their troops and maybe the characters themselves if I feel like it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

D&D is Dead

We met for gaming last night. Had the usual round of lateness due to people picking up food (and apparently stopping at the game store to buy some games -- I wonder which made them later?), and then conversation turned to the game itself and how unhappy we all were with it.

So, we killed it.

After another while of talking over games I'd be willing to run, which included Mutant City Blues, Deadlands Reloaded, Day After Ragnarok, Mutants & Masterminds, Dragon Age, Champions, or the Song of Ice and Fire (SIFRP) we whittled it down to either Deadlands or a SIFRP. After a few more minutes we decided on SIFRP.

Once decided we immediately set about creating their House, which was a lot of fun and everyone really seemed to get into it, coming up with justifications for how the house was established (took on the role of their former lords who'd been wiped out in the War of the Usurper), where they were located, who the head of their household was, and what their various holdings were.

For some reason they really wanted a lawless domain with a harsh head of household and the random rolls bore that out for them, which was nice. The end result was:

House Wyrmwood of Coldiron Hall
Motto: Honest steel
Realm: The Westerlands
Sworn to: The Lannisters
Head of House: Lord Karl Wyrmwood (wife Marta ne Greyjoy, deceased)
House age: New, created after the War of the Usurper
Historical EventsDecline (-1 Infl, -2 Land, -1 Power, -1 Wealth), Favor (+6 Infl, +3 Land, +6 Law, +1 Power), Scandal (-2 Infl, -3 Land, -4 Power)
Defense 21 (Coldiron Hall (20 points))
Influence 34 (Heir (20), Second Son (10))
Lands 22 (Mountain, Hamlet, Coast)
Law 27 (-2 to House Fortune)
Population 13 (+0 to House Fortune)
Power 30 (Banner House (20), Trained Garrison, Trained Guerrillas)
Wealth 54 (Mine (10, +5 to House Fortune), Port (10, +5 to House Fortune), Artisan (10, "castle-forged" weapons), Maester (10, +3 to House Fortune), 14 points in reserve

Their banner house, which one of the player's is the eldest son, is House Oakmead of Mourningwood Tower. (They thought that name was pretty funny, but it was getting late, so they were punchy. I wouldn't be surprised if it changed or remained as-is.)

The head of their house is Lord Karl Wyrmwood, a 51 year-old former merchant who is (to quote the players) "a mean sonofabitch and cranky," who's looking to cement his relationship with the Lannisters. He is, however, a devoted family man who only wants the best for his family. Oh, and he can't control his temper.

Yeah, he'll be fun to play.

More soon as I map out some ideas.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Good Example

This past Saturday was Free RPG Day. If you didn't get the chance to hit up a game store you missed out on some cool freebies.

Free RPG Day is a great idea and pretty well executed on the distribution side of things, but I find that the stores I frequent don't really do any promotion or hold any events to make it more of an EVENT. So, while ultimately, I appreciate a few free games and previews, I'm not sure how successful the program is.

This year there was a bunch of nice-looking giveaways of which I grabbed only one; Khyber's Harvest for D&D 4th Edition. If you read my last post you know that I've had some issues with my D&D game and with 4th Edition in general. And I have to tell you, this adventure is a perfect example of how adventures should be written. It includes some background and world-setting information that's both interesting and important . . . and then the adventure goes on to actually use that information! The encounters are inventive (and include some interesting bits that I haven't seen elsewhere as well as a very cool use of the trap mechanics) and the overall adventure is mercifully short. Maybe not short enough to run in a single evening, but short enough that players will remember what they hell they're doing there. The adventure also introduces some new monsters, or at least monsters that are new to 4th Edition. Players familiar with Eberron will recognize them right off.

If you were lucky enough to pick up this adventure, I think you'll enjoy it. I already want to use it in my game -- or at least use the monsters and the trap. (Specifically the Living Darkness and the Baleful Eye.)

This is exactly what I want to see in a published adventure. String a bunch of these together and make an Adventure Path from them and I'll be a lot happier with my 4th Edition experiences.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

D&D Has Let Me Down

Sorry for the looooong break between posts. Briefly, I took a new job, moved (leaving my new house and fiance behind), started the new job, had to find some people to game with, and finally, find some time to blog.

And I have.

Shortly after moving here (Los Gatos, CA) I decided to get a D&D 4th Ed. game going. I'd only run one or two sessions previously, but I'd played in about a 20 sessions. (Rufus the dwarven cleric, donchaknow?) I wanted to run something that wouldn't require a ton of prep work for me, so I decided to run the Scales of War Adventure Path from Dungeon Magazine. Everyone was cool with that, they created characters, and we started playing. Everything was fine for the first session or two, although there were some slight grumblings about powers and effectiveness and so on, but we chalked that up to inexperience with the system for most of the players.

The thing is; things didn't really get better and the adventure path was a real slog. Quite literally one fight after another after another with very little chance to inject story or characterization. We play weekly for the most part, so over the course of a couple of months we made it through the first adventure and almost through the second, before things really seemed to fall apart. The old grumbings about powers and effectiveness were still there, but now they were paired with complaints about overpowered bad guys and a big, giant lack of any sort of story for the players and the characters to care about and get invested in.

I had to agree. I'd also been really unhappy and thinking it was time to make a change to the campaign. So now, I'm working up some ideas on what to do with the game so it has more story and isn't just a dungeon-crawl week after week. This will definitely mean more work for me, but I'm really going to limit the time I spend on it.

All this to say, D&D let me down. I was trying to run the game the way the creators intended -- using an adventure they created -- all in an attempt to play regularly without giving it too much of my time. And it sucked.

Rather than spend all my time complaining about it, I have a few suggestions on how to make games better for everyone (players and GMs):

1) Keep the story in the forefront of everyone's minds. Even if the story is prototypical and strightforward it gives the players something to base their characters' motivations on and makes the game more interesting.

2) Keep "dungeons" or "adventures" relatively short. Unending dungeon-crawls get old and don't provide much in the way of role-playing. By keeping adventures short you give the combat/tactical guys the chance to have fun in their element and you give the role-players/immersive types the chance to have fun the way they like (typically back in town interacting with folks).

3) Vary encounters. This is tied closely with #2 above. If you're going to have a long adventure, don't have one combat after another -- even if the bad guys fight in a totally different manner. It's still a fight and they get boooorrrrring. Instead, have a fight, then some sort of interaction, then another fight, then a trap/ambush, interaction, etc. It makes the game more fun and it makes it easier to insert story beats to keep everything moving forward in a way that makes sense.

4) Let characters shine. Also tied into the two above. Combat isn't some characters' strong suit. Sure, every class can contribute to a fight, but that shouldn't be the only place a character can shine. Elric, Conan, Fafrhd, Croaker, Locke Lamora, etc. weren't interesting because they could fight, they were interesting because of how they acted and what they fought for (or against). If your games are a string of unending combats, you and the players will never get to learn much about their characters and you'll never find out what defines the characters as a fictional person as opposed to a bunch of stats on the page. Finding moments in and out of combat to put each character into the spotlight will make the game more enjoyable for everyone.

5) Make rewards and punishment more immediate and scaled to level. If a dungeon goes on too long, players will forget what they hell they're supposed to be doing and why they're doing it. That's not good. Shorter adventures should have minor consequences and longer adventures should have major consequences. A short adventure about rescuing some townsfolk is good because players will remember, "Our goal is to rescue the townsfolk and get them home" for a session or two pretty easily, but the longer it goes on and the more damage they take and the more it looks like this could go on forever, the less immediate and important those townsfolk look. Whereas longer adventures that revolve around a major consequence such as, "Defeat Nedrebos the Necromancer before he can usurp the Raven Queen and raise an army of undead to take over the world," will stick in the players' minds a long time (as it should).

I'm sure I can come up with more of these, but those are what leapt to mind as I sat down to write this.

Going forward in my D&D game I'm going to try and take these teachings to heart. Hopefully that will make the game more enjoyable for everyone. And hopefully I can do it without writing up my own custom critters and sprawling plotlines. I want the game to be fun for me, too.