Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Quirks & Qualities Table Available
At the suggestion of a commentator to that post, I've included a second version of the table at the end of the document that leaves several entries on the chart blank. This way, referees can add their own quirks and qualities to the table to customize it for their personal campaigns without the need to rewrite or redraw the table in another application. Just pen in your entries and you're ready to go.
I'm back on track for this week and I have a cunning plan for next week. If all goes according to that fiendish plan, look for a full five days of content next week. I feel I've been slacking a bit lately and I want to make it up to you folks.
Monday, March 30, 2009
I'm Not Myself You See
In addition to E.T.I. both malignant and benign, I’ve had some time to think about ghosts, stemming from a reading of Stephen King’s short story, Willa, and how much I still consider Wraith: The Oblivion an overlooked and underappreciated gem of a role-playing game (once you jettison the metaplot and get down to the themes of loss, melancholy, and struggling against the dying of the light, that is). I’ve entertained thoughts about what the MMOPRG world needs is a sci-fi game about the exploration and colonization of unknown worlds; one that had more emphasis on prospecting, building settlements, a player-based market economy, mapping uncharted landscapes, exploring strange alien ruins, and discovering hidden geographic vistas instead of blasting aliens and the other all-too standard MMORPG themes of grinding and “phat loot.” (A game which, as close as I can tell, has only existed something like this in the very early days of Star Wars Galaxies before the need to remain true to the brand exterminated those same facets from game play.)
I’ve entertained notions of working on my hex maps for both the surrounding areas of Stonehell and for my Gamma World hex-crawl, but I haven’t been cognizant enough to do more than lightly brainstorm (braindrizzle?) in that regard, so no progress was made. I’ve been aware that I still need to finish the last bit of the third level of Stonehell and make that available, but that will have to wait until I’m done with painkillers in a day or two. A .pdf of the quick and dirty snowflakes chart also needs addressing. My apologies on both of those the delays.
In short, this has been a very long and roundabout way of saying I’ll be back on Wednesday once I make my way out of Burroughs/Castaneda County and return to the world of more solid ideas and soundings. I’ll see if I can bring home any souvenirs from the sojourn.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Old School Goodies
The Art of the Old School Renaissance!
Produced by Matt Finch and chock-full of the cool art you crave, evoking a time before fantasy heroes had piercings and lattes of cure moderate wounds, we are producing this book jointly in an effort to win the lulu Author Sales Contest. Currently Fight On! is in third place and Knockspell is in seventh place, and we want to get both publishers in the top three to send a statement to the world that classic fantasy roleplaying is back with a vengeance!
Costing $9 and available for purchase from either of our webstores,
Swords & Wizardry Storefront
Fight On! Storefront
buying this will help put one or both of us over the top in the final contest standings! Heck, buy one from each store and give the extra to a friend – you can combine shipping on lulu even when your products come from different sources. And while you’re at the stores, don’t forget to check out Fight On!, Knockspell, Swords & Wizardry, and all the other great products that we have for sale. All products must be purchased by the end of March to count for the contest, and as of April 1 both these special editions will be gone forever, so don't delay. Thanks for your time and interest!
Fight On! Limited Edition Compendium
To try to boost sales for the contest we are offering a unique product.
Limited Edition Fight On! Hardback Compendium
This is all four issues of FO bound together in a hardback in exactly the order and format they were originally published in. All covers except the front cover of 1 and the back cover of 4 have been made B&W and put on the interior.
We have deliberately made the price higher than the price of ordering the four issues separately, so people who already bought them seperately don't feel robbed. In fact, it's a better deal to buy all four paperback issues separately, and if you're new to the magazine we'd prefer you'd do that since it gets us four sales for the contest instead of one, but some people will want this volume in addition to their regular issues or prefer the hardbound format for some reason.
We are pulling out all stops to try to win this contest!
This and all other special edition products will be pulled from the FO! page on April 1, and then this temporary delay from publishing issue 5 will be over.
Castle of the Mad Archmage March Release Now Available
Joseph of Greyhawk Grognard continues his efforts to document the dungeon depths beneath the Castle of the Mad Archmage. Level Four, "The Lower Dungeons", is now available for download at his blog. In Joseph's own words:
"This level was challenging in a variety of ways. It's very different in nature than the first two, in that it is a "live" level, with the vast majority actively controlled by various factions with the exception of a couple areas in the periphery. Explorers are very likely to get swept up by one of the four factions and pressed into service in the Arena; I hope that nature of the level came through in the text. I was also struck by a horrendous case of writer's block; it wasn't until I came on the idea of having the Arena still in use that it all snapped together. Once I had that epiphany, it all pretty much wrote itself. I'm particularly fond of the new monster-- the earwig-- although it doesn't exactly have a prominent role in the level."
Drop by Greyhawk Grognard and pick up the collected series as a free .pdf.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Open Call For Fast Artists
To help edge both Fight On! and S&W over the top, Matt is proposing a very special joint publication that will highlight the works of artists involved in the Old School Renaissance - with the goal to do so in a very short 72 hours. If you are an artist and wish to contribute to this special publication, please visit either of the following two links for more details:
Swords & Wizardry Forum
Original D&D Discussion
Save vs. Nonsense
If Scott Adams wrote comics for Dragon Magazine, it probably be very similiar to this one.
I find this one more funny than I probably should.
One of these days I'm going to write a book that traces the parallels between the punk rock scene and the old school renaissance. This shall be the cover.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Quick and Dirty Snowflakes
In order to acquiesce to those individuals’ desires, I resorted to the old D&D standby of the random table to address such issues without overwhelming the simple rule set I have in mind. As with the skill-less skill system, nothing here is particularly groundbreaking or unique. Such tables have a long history in role-playing games and this is just another one for that pile. My goal here, as with the skill-less skill system, was to use the mechanics already in play rather than adding new ones. Thus, most of the quirks below either have no mechanical effect or simply modify those already in the game.
At character creation, just before buying equipment, everyone who wishes to can toss a pair of percentiles to determine whether or not they have some special quirk or quality. Everyone uses the same table and the dice roll is unmodified. Everyone has the same chances of having something “special” to bring to the table for the first time. This can also help round out a character’s back story if he wants one and is currently stuck for ideas. The simple nature of the table also means that it can add a little spice to that replacement character you’re forced to roll up after losing yet another character to the dungeon without stretching character creation into an hour long process and thereby get you back in the game.
Character Quirk or Quality
Eye for Horseflesh
Eye for Irregularity
Hard to Kill
I Know Something
Oh Captain, my Captain
Owed a Favor
Resistance to Venoms
Swims like a Fish
Well Read/Mind for Miscellany
No Special Quality
Roll Twice (Ignoring This Result Hereafter) or Choose One
Eye for Horseflesh: Character always purchases the best mounts & pack animals from the available stock. Horses bought by this character never possess negative traits and pack animals have a +10% bonus to their carrying capacities.
Eye for Irregularity: The character receives a +1 bonus to notice secret doors or traps. This benefit is in addition to whatever racial bonuses the character might already receive. Thus a dwarf with this quirk would notice traps on a 3 in 6 and an elf would notice secret doors on a 3 in 6.
Free Retainer: Character begins play with a (mostly) loyal retainer.
Hard to Kill: Character is treated as being two levels higher when reduced to less than zero hit points (I’m using Gary’s house rule that characters are dead when they reach negative hit points equal to their level or -10, whichever is lower).
Heirloom: The character begins play with a small trinket of some special worth. Roll on the table below to determine what item the character begins play with.
Potion of healing
An arrow or bolt +1
Treasure Map (leads to cache of randomly determined treasure)
Magic scroll (1 appropriate spell for clerics & magic users;
Silver holy symbol
I Know Something: The character begins play with the knowledge of one absolutely true rumor, legend, or other bit of information about a local adventuring site. This piece of information should be determined by the referee and, while the information is true, it may lack certain other facts that obfuscate the actual legend in some manner.
Inspires Loyalty: Character possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that makes his followers and employees more prone to follow his commands. All the character’s followers, henchmen, and hirelings gain a +1 bonus to their morale. This bonus is in addition to any benefits provided by a high Charisma and can counteract the detrimental effects of a low Charisma score.
Keen-eared: Gains a +1 bonus to Hear Noise
Natural Climber: Has the ability to climb walls as a 1st level thief. This ability never improves. If the character is a thief, he gains a one-time +5% bonus to climb walls.
Natural Linguist: The character begins play with one additional language known.
Oh Captain, my Captain: The character has some prior experience in managing large vehicles of one particular type based on the circumstances of his or her upbringing, allowing him to serve in such a capacity without the need to hire professional help. Examples of such vehicles include ships, wagons, and trade caravans.
Orienteering: The character has a keen sense of direction when traveling outdoors. As a result, the chances of the character and his party becoming lost while moving overland is reduced by -10%. If more than one character in the party has this quirk, the benefits are cumulative, but may never reduce the chance of becoming lost to less than 1%.
Outdoorsman – +1 bonus to outdoorsman checks (foraging, hunting, tracking, etc.).
Owed a Favor: Somebody, somewhere, owes the character for some boon or service he or she provided in the past. At the start of the game, this boon should be left undefined as to what was done and who benefited from the character’s assistance. At any time during the character’s career, he or she may decide to call in that favor with the referee’s permission.
Resistance to Venoms: Due to a hearty Constitution or previous exposure to toxins, the character receives a +1 bonus on all saving throws vs. poison.
Situational Awareness: Character is only surprised on a 1 in 6 under most normal conditions. If alone or using the optional Individual Initiative rule, the character gains a +1 bonus to all initiative rolls.
Swift Healing: The character gains a +1 bonus on all rolls to determine how many hit points are recovered from natural – and natural only – healing (regaining 1d3+1 hp for each full day of rest). As always, any interruption of this full day of rest results in no hit points being recovered.
Swims like a Fish: Character is at home in the water. The character may swim while wearing leather armor without the need for a Constitution check each round. Swims at ¾ normal movement rate.
Weapon Adept: Character gains a +1 bonus on either to hit rolls or damage rolls (determined randomly) with one specific type of weapon (daggers, long swords, spears, short bows, etc.).
Well Read/Mind for Miscellany: Character has a 3% chance per level of experience of knowing some minor fact or legend about a person, place or thing he/she has never personally seen.
Windfall: Character begins play with x2 normal starting money.
Monday, March 23, 2009
The Skill-less Skill System
I’ve had a chance now to look over the comments on my post about skill systems in D&D and I realize that I wasn’t quite a clear on some matters as I had hoped to be. I can only blame myself for not stating them better and perhaps losing something by way of the manner in which I had presented my argument. Rather than attempt eloquence, let me sum up my problem with skills in D&D in list form. Hopefully that might make things clearer.
1) Skills & proficiencies look out of place to me in D&D. I’m striving for as much of a bare bones approach as possible and I’m not looking to add anything to the character sheet, no matter how simple or small. I thank everyone who offered their own methods for adding skills to the game but that wasn’t what I was looking to do. Instead, I’m more interested in using the game mechanics already present in the rules (Labyrinth Lord in this case) rather than add something new to the game.
2) Concrete skill systems can lead to metagaming, which can consciously or unconsciously limit game play and thus rob the players of the opportunity of truly memorable gaming sessions. The time Rolf the dwarf snuck past through the temple of evil cultists is much more of a gaming highlight than Knuckles the Thief doing the same exact thing.
3) A concrete skill system can lead to the referee introducing contrived events to justify the addition of certain skills or proficiencies. When the ride skill is added, more characters start falling off horses because more ride checks become necessary in order to reward those who chose to spend points in riding. This can also lead to the mindset that cooking rolls are required for every meal, fire-building checks for every campfire, and other ridiculous circumstances. While I agree that this is more of a indication of poor refereeing than in implicit flaw in skill systems themselves, concrete skill systems open this door to that way of adjudication.
4) The ability of a character to perform an action well is already determined by his attributes and class and thus a concrete skill system is superfluous.
5) Having a skill system based on points or levels requires the need to artificially increase the difficulty of actions in order to keep pace with character advancement.
With that out of the way and my own personal (and I stress personal) qualms with skill systems in D&D defined, here’s my solution:
Use the mechanics already provided in the game.
I have to greatly acknowledge the Original D&D Discussion Forum for my decision on how to approach the resolution of actions normally covered by skills. Anyone looking for similar insights should take the time to peruse the threads on that forum. It will be well worth your time.
Some of what follows will be extremely familiar to some people. As I mentioned in the previous post on this subject, my method is not new or unique; just better outlined for my own personal use. All of these rolls are subject to modifiers of between +4 and -4 based on circumstances in the game. Whenever a page number is referenced, that page is from the Labyrinth Lord rulebook.
General Adventuring Activities
The following is a collection of actions that might conceivably be attempted by characters during their adventuring activities. It is not a comprehensive list but I feel it covers most of the common bases. Any ability score with a ½ before it means that the ability rolled against is half the normal score rounded up.
Acrobatics: Dexterity check for thieves, ½ Dexterity for all other classes.
Animal Handling: Wisdom check for domesticated animals, ½ Wisdom for wild animals.
Climbing: Under optimal conditions (proper tools; taking one’s time; rough surface), all characters can climb without incident. In less than optimal conditions (no tools; slippery surface; under attack), a Strength check is required. Only thieves can scale extremely high ascents or dangerous surfaces with a Climb Walls check.
Detect Secret Doors: 1 in 6 chance for non-elves to find secret doors, 2 in 6 chance for elves.
Detect Traps: 1 in 6 chance for most classes to detect large traps (pits, swinging pendulums, falling blocks, crushing ceilings, etc.) and 2 in 6 chance for dwarves to detect the same (p.45). Thieves may detect smaller, concealed traps with the Find Traps skill.
Haggling/Negotiations: Roll on the Reaction Table to determine NPC’s attitudes if necessary. Charisma modifiers apply as usual.
Healing: There is no healing “skill” per say. All characters heal 1d3 points of damage for each full day spent resting (p. 54).
Hiding/Sneaking: Any lone individual has a base 2 in 6 chance of avoiding detection in optimal conditions (low light and unwary opponents) as per the rules for Surprise (p. 50). This chance is reduced to 1 in 6 if they’re wearing metal armor, heavily encumbered, or they’re attempting to avoid the scrutiny of alert observers. Heavily armored individuals or those carrying light sources have no chance to avoid detection. Thieves get their normal chance to Hide in Shadows or Move Silently and, in the case of failure of either of these skills, get one “Hail Mary” check on a d6 to avoid detection. In less than optimal conditions (bright light and alert guards), they live or die on the success of their skill check alone. They are the only class that can achieve success in near-impossible conditions.
Jumping: Strength check modified by armor or encumbrance.
Listening: 1 in 6 chance for non-thief humans, 2 in 6 for demi-humans, Hear Noise check for thieves (as per Doors p. 45).
Outdoorsman skills: Characters may attempt to forage for food while traveling (1 in 6 chance) and they may hunt or fish (2 in 6 chance) if they spend a full day engaging in that activity (p. 46). Extrapolated from these chance, characters may attempt to track (2 in 6 chance) under optimal conditions (snow, mud, fresh tracks). This is reduced to a 1 in 6 chance under less optimal conditions and impossible under extreme conditions (over rocky terrain, over bare stone floors, etc.). Characters may also attempt to find water in dry conditions (1 in 6 chance), build fires without a tinderbox (2 in 6 chance) or start a fire with tinderbox and wet fuel (1 in 6 chance).
Performance: Roll on Reaction Table to determine the audience’s response to the performance. Check are modified by Charisma, but Dexterity, Wisdom or another applicable attribute may be used in place of Charisma depending on the type of performance. This attribute provides the same bonus or penalties to the Reaction Table as if it were Charisma (a Dexterity of 16 would provide a -1 bonus to the Reaction Table in the case of a dance performance for example).
Readings/Writing: A character’s literacy is base on his or her Intelligence as per the table on p. 7)
Riding: All characters can ride land animals without incident under normal conditions. In combat or unusual situations, a Dexterity or Wisdom check may be required. Characters can ride unusual mounts (flying or swimming) if the animal is willing to bear riders but a ½ Dexterity or Wisdom check is required if complications occur.
Swimming: All characters can swim. An unarmored and unencumbered character can swim without the need to make a roll under normal conditions. In extreme conditions (rapids, strong currents, etc.) they must make a Constitution check. Characters wearing leather armor or lightly encumbered must make a Constitution check each round spent swimming to avoid drowning. Characters in chainmail or moderately encumbered must make a ½ Constitution check each round to avoid drowning. Characters in plate mail or heavily encumbered cannot swim and begin to drown.
I may be in the minority nowadays but I’ve always assumed that the character’s class is his profession. Adventurers are individuals who, by inclination or lack of ability, decided to eschew more traditional professions like farming, herding, or trade skills to pursue a life of adventuring. As such, they don’t have much in the way of training in such occupations.
Despite this assumption, I’m willing to admit that most adventurers have picked up a few minor talents in regards to their particular class and the support professions that accompany it. In most cases, with the proper time and tools, an adventurer can perform minor tasks relative to their professions without the need for an ability check; a fighter can perform minor repairs on his weapons and armor and a magic-user can mix his own ink and make his own quills, for instance.
If the character attempts to perform a trade skill related to his profession of a more complex nature, he must make a successful ability check against ½ his ability related to that trade. A fighter could attempt to forge a sword or make armor, but would have to succeed against a check at ½ his Strength. A magic-user could attempt glassblowing to make his own alembics with a successful check against ½ his Wisdom. Characters can also attempt to perform trade skills or professions that don’t require a lot of prolonged training or tools by making a ½ ability check. Almost anyone could try their hand at farming or herding by making a successful ½ Wisdom check for example.
A trade or profession that is not in any way associated with the character’s profession or requires a great deal of training cannot be performed. A magic-user couldn’t attempt to forge a sword or a cleric try his hand at alchemy.
In the event that I was to ever include Secondary Skills in a game, I’d allow a character to make an ability check at the associated score’s full value in order to determine the success of such an activity.
In theory, I’d like to remain true the old school tradition of allowing players to rely on their own individual knowledge in order to reason out intellectual challenges that are presented in game. I’m also aware though that their characters, from benefit of “living” in the game world, would possess information that their players wouldn’t. In these cases I allow for Intelligence or Wisdom check to determine if the character knows something about the situation.
If the information the character is looking to recall is general knowledge or specific to his class, I allow an ability check against the full value of the character’s Intelligence or Wisdom. Examples of situations where I’d allow checks are trying to remember who the current lord-mayor of a major city is, the major exports of a neighboring country, and the date of the Battle of Seven Rivers. Class-based examples would be a cleric attempting to identify the religious vestments of a band of pilgrims, thieves looking for a good fence in a nearby city, magic-users trying to decipher a rune, or a dwarf or elf attempting to recall facts about their race’s history. Characters may attempt to recall information pertinent to another class (a fighter trying to identify the religious vestments for example) but do so at ½ their normal Wisdom or Intelligence.
Lastly, if a character is trying to recall some information of an extremely obscure or esoteric nature, provided it is relevant to their class, they have a base 5% chance per level of experience of knowing that information. A 4th level cleric attempting to identify an altar dedicated to some distant god from the West would have a 20% chance of being able to determine the deity. Being the type of referee who always likes to give the characters a chance, I also allow a 1% chance per level for characters to identify or remember information not directly related to their class. This represents any campfire stories or taproom tales they might have heard over their lifetimes.
Improving One’s Chance
There is not set rule or method for allowing a character to improve his chances at any of the above attempts. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, however. For one, I’m running in the very old school mind set of starting the characters off as “potential heroes” meaning they roll 3d6 for abilities. Because of this, I’m more inclined to allow various special dungeon encounters or items that permanently modify the characters’ ability scores. Just a casual look at Stonehell reveals there are more than a few opportunities presented for the characters to gain (and lose) a few points in their attributes. This of course will indirectly modify their chances at certain “skill” attempts.
Secondly, if it’s important enough to a player to increase his chances at a certain talent, I’ll allow for them to undergo specialized training to modify their rolls to determine success. This training always requires a certain amount of both money and game time to be spent before the character learns enough to modify their rolls. Both the expense and time required depends both on the complexity of the training and the overall effect it will have on the character’s chances of success. A character looking to become a better horseman for example might only be required to spend one month in training (and thus, not going on any adventures) and pay a 500 gp tuition cost to his tutor. At the end of that month, a note is made on his character sheet that he receives a +1 or +2 bonus to all ability checks pertaining to riding. A character looking to improve his chances at noticing secret doors, however, might have to spend 6 months and several thousand gold to gain tutelage under an obscure elven sect (provided he can find them in the first place). In the end, he gains a +1 to his chance to find secret doors – a much greater increase in probability of success and overall impact upon the game. In cases where a character normally rolls against 1/2 an ability score to determine success, undergoing training will allow the character to roll against his full ability value instead of half.
The reason that improving one’s chances at “skill” attempts is both costly in time and money is that I’d like to keep the emphasis on adventuring in order to improve the character’s success rather than education. I believe that if an adventurer really wants to improve his chances at finding secret doors, learning esoteric knowledge, or gaining some bonus to ordinary activities, he should be tracking down leads to magic items, mystical locations, and long-forgotten tomes (and thus adventuring) rather than enrolling in training courses.
It’s quite obvious that this post has gone on for much too long. Congratulate yourself for reaching the end. Because of the length of this, I’m going to hold off until Wednesday to present how character background “flash” can affect these game mechanics in play. It’s not a long piece but there are tables involved so it’s best to leave it off for another day. You may now fire away with the comments, critiques, and other verbiage as you see fit.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Stonehell: The Hexperiment – North
I know, I know. I planned to take some downtime but Grognardia’s review of Monte Cook’s Dungeonaday.com and the map of the Upper Catacombs of the Monastery of St. Gaxyg-at-Urheim started poking at my “publish or perish” nerve bundle, forcing me to finish up this week’s section of Stonehell.
This section is a little different. I wanted to play with the One-Page Dungeon idea (or Two-Page in my case) and see how it handled covering a larger area of the dungeon. I had an idea for a series of rooms for Level 3 but it became apparent that the layout of those chambers was going to be larger than 300’ long. I was forced to split the rooms between two quadrants. From what I can tell so far, it’s not too much of an issue. I’ll have a better idea once Level 3D: The Hexperiment – South is completed.
Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m not averse to throwing out logic and realism in my dungeon if I think that that will make a more entertaining evening’s worth of adventuring. That doesn’t mean that I won’t make allowances to try to explain some of the illogical events if the opportunity presents itself. This section of the dungeon gave me a chance to provide a logical explanation for why there are Higher Baboons and Carnivorous Apes lurking in the depths of Stonehell. They’re escaped lab animals; ones who have slipped from their cages in this section of the dungeon and established a breeding population in the overall dungeon ecosystem. The adventurers will find traces of their captivity here, but no live specimens remain.
This whole section (along with Level 3D) was once used for various magical experiments by an unknown magic-user (who may or may not remain in the dungeon somewhere). There are a few techno-magical devices, spell labs, and an entire series of chambers dedicated to the crafting of magical items. The origins, but not purpose, of the Small Men is revealed here as well. In addition, a medium level magic-user has set up camp in this area as he tries to win his way into the sealed chambers that he believes hold a plethora of magical goodies. So far his efforts have been for naught, but he and his hired band of bugbears are intent on holding the area against any who try to beat him to the goods.
It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that the party will be able to breach all the chambers that comprise the labs dedicated to the crafting of magical items. Some of the spells needed to power the rooms and open the doors are most likely beyond the ability of the party’s magic-users and elves. This is a feature, however, and not a bug. I like including areas in the dungeon that bear revisiting and this is especially necessary in a megadungeon that serves as the campaign tent pole. Just knowing these rooms exist is enough for the party at the moment. Once one of the magic-users or elves hits 9th level and is ready to craft magical items of their own, it will be time to pay a return visit to the Hexperiment section of Stonehell. Who knows what will be waiting for them upon their return?
Thursday, March 19, 2009
On the other hand, there's been a few unforeseen events that have taken a toll on my psyche and have left me not very much in the mood to flex my creative muscles. This week's installment of Stonehell is about three-quarters finished but I'm not feeling up to the task of getting the last part done just for completion's sake. I'd rather delay it a few days than do a half-assed job on it.
I'm going to take a few days off to attend to some pressing matters before I return with both Stonehell and a final look at the skill-less skill system I've been brewing. I need some time without a deadline looming over me; something that I've not experienced for a few weeks now. I expect to be back by Monday and it is possible that I might have the weekly Stonehell piece up over the weekend, but it's best to not make any promises in that regard.
In the meantime, I invite you all to leaf through the posts from the past, especially if you're one of the recent arrivals to my neck of the blogosphere, and to visit any one of the fine blogs listed over there on the right of the page. I've got a pressing engagement with the white-coated gentlemen from Happydale Sanitarium to attend but I hope to see you all again on Monday.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
What’s Your Story?
I’m a man who prefers to be cold rather than hot. The reason for this preference is that, when I’m cold, I can always put on another layer of clothes to make myself more comfortable. When it gets too hot, I’m limited by how much I can remove to cool down. You can’t get past naked without making yourself a bloody wreck.
When it comes to my characters and their backstory, I have the same preference. I like to start with as little as possible and add more layers until I get comfortable. My foremost preference is to begin with nothing more than my character’s ability scores and class. Maybe a name if I’m feeling daring. If I’m forced to, I can accept having a come up with a paragraph of information describing what I’ve been up to prior to the first adventure session, but anything more than this is really too much in my eyes. It’s like being asked how your new car handles before you even get it out of the showroom.
A fresh first level character to me is too rich a canvas to apply the limits of backstory to. I’d much rather let things develop through the organic process of playing him on a regular basis rather than sitting down and working out the previous two decades of his life in order to see what makes him tick. By entering the game with absolutely nothing predetermined, I’m free to try out different takes on him, see what I like and don’t like, and give him a chance to be influenced by the events that occurred in game rather than theoretical ones that occurred off-camera.
I’ve been known to say that I don’t really know anything about my character until he’s hit third level. By then, I’ve played him long enough to make him seem real, not only to myself but to others around the table. I also suspect that this philosophy has something to do with the fact that many old gamers don’t want to get too attached to any character unless he’s made it out of the “high casualty twos” of first and second level.
Despite this preference, I am aware of the needs of the referee to have convenient plot hooks to hang things on the characters in their games. In acquiesce to their needs, I’ve been known to throw referees a bone or three during the initial character creation process and early adventures. Sometimes it’s something simple like noting that my character has an odd-shaped birthmark. If the ref decides that this is the mark that the local evil cult believes prophesizes the return of the Old Gods, then so be it. I can run with that. Other times, I might have my character develop a crush on a insignificant NPC. If the referee needs to use a damsel in distress or some overprotective big brothers to funnel adventure my way, I’ve just given him a way to do so. By giving the referee something to work with, I’m making his job easier without me having to work up some grandiose backstory that I may or may not like to spend the next two years of my recreation time stuck with. It’s a fair compromise.
When I’m on the other side of the GM screen, I try to encourage the same tabula rasa approach in my players but I’m willing to work with them. Experience has taught me a lot, however. I’ve lost track of how many times players have approached me with a backstory to their character that includes being a lost heir to the throne, heir to a sizable fortune, chosen of the gods, or destined for greatness. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not a referee who likes to tell my players they can’t do something. Instead, why not give them a chance? Here’s a social class table. Roll the bones and let’s see what you get. Maybe you are an heir apparent but there’s also a chance you’re a newly freed slave. Still want to chance it? You’ve got to go with what you get if we go down this route.
Players who come up with a perfectly normal backstory are free to play it that way with no strings attached. I will take the time to let them know that a well-formed character history isn’t going to save them any sort of plot immunity but if it they get more enjoyment out of the game, I’m not going to stop them. I’ve even worked out a method that will allow them the chance to have a little bit of “backstory flash” to work into their meticulously constructed biography. That method serves a purpose in regards to my hunt for a skill-less system of resolving challenges under the B/X and Labyrinth Lord rules set. I’ll get into the method in more depth in the final post in this series, wherein I reveal the simple yet consistent way of handling conflict resolutions not covered in those rules.
Monday, March 16, 2009
“Conan Could Climb” Syndrome
To my friends and me, the most obvious example of these broken rules was the fact that they didn’t take into account the varied abilities of classic sword & sorcery figures who displayed talents beyond those given to their individual classes. Thus we uttered the refrain: “Conan could climb.” In D&D, only thieves could climb, so how did that account for the superior mountaineering abilities of a certain bi-polar Cimmerian who was so obviously a fighter? (This was before the release of Unearthed Arcana and the official barbarian class.) Another example of debate in this field was the well-known fact that Gandalf had a sword, which, as we were all aware, was not an allowed weapon for magic-users. How on Oerth could TSR be so obtuse to ignore these “facts”?
In retrospect, our way of thinking was completely ridiculous of course, but many of you probably have some personal experience in the way the minds of twelve-year-old boys work and can relate. This was serious business! At the time we were unable to distinguish the difference between literary creations and game mechanics, righteously thinking that they must each conform to the other. When Unearthed Arcana, Oriental Adventures, and the two Survival Guides were eventually released, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. TSR was finally fixing what had been broken for so long with the introduction of the proficiency system.
For many years I embraced the proficiency system. When I heard older gamers complain that it had disgraced D&D, I could only shake my head and wonder why they couldn’t see how this was an obvious improvement to the game. It made characters more realistic and allowed you to play a role that was each a unique creation, much like we are in real life. The irony of this school of thought does not escape me, seeing how I’ve now gone back to the older and simpler way of gaming.
Despite this initial acceptance of the proficiency system as an improvement to the rules, I would eventually begin to question their inclusion. The reasons for this doubt were myriad. They didn’t increase with level like other in-game skills, such as thief abilities. They slowed down character creation. They were, in many cases, too specialized. Did I really want to waste a non-weapon proficiency slot on Slow Respiration? But the real deal-breaker was going to be two elements to the proficiency system that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until much later.
The first factor was that no matter how much they tinkered with non-weapon proficiencies, they always seemed to be a poor fit with the rest of the rules. The fact that they had been grafted onto a set of game mechanics that was originally built with no consideration for skills couldn’t be completely hidden to my eyes. It was like looking at a car where someone had replaced one of the tires with an old wooden wagon wheel. It served the same purpose but didn’t look quite right. I think that, mechanically, the skill system in 3.5 works much better and doesn’t suffer from this problem simply because it was built into the d20 system from the beginning. I expect, and have been told, that the same applies to 4th edition as well.
The second element was something that I hadn’t been able to pinpoint until recently. This tenuous problem was summed up quite succinctly in the latest version of OSRIC, which featured the following statement:
Certainly the authors could have included a skill system covering activities such as “horse riding” or “swimming”, but doing so is actively detrimental to heroic gaming. Had we included a “horse riding” skill, characters would start falling off their horses.Upon reading this, the factor that I had been dancing around for so long suddenly came into crystal clear focus. My problem was that by defining concretely what a character CAN do, you’re also defining what he CANNOT do, or at least not do well, and I, for one, have grown very tired of falling off horses.
As both a player and a referee, I have very little interest in the words, “You can’t.” I don’t like being told it and I don’t like telling it to my players. I much more prefer the words, “Give it a shot.” By introducing skills, in whatever form, to D&D you’re beginning the trek down the slippery slope that leads to metagaming; where people (and their characters) aren’t willing to try to perform actions outside of their narrow field of expertise simply because they didn’t put points in a certain skill or spend a slot to get a certain proficiency. To me that’s a very boring way to play the game. The victories are always that much sweeter when accomplished by someone who had the slimmest chance at success.
Although I’ve become a firm believer in a more simplified version of D&D when it comes to the rules, I’m not so much of a curmudgeon that I can’t appreciate the effort made to accommodate those players who wanted to have a concrete system for deciding on what their characters can and cannot do, as well as the option for making each one of the characters unique. In my opinion, it was done with the right intentions – to give the players what they asked for. Despite these valiant efforts, I feel that the concessions to the “Conan could climb” school created too many limitations on the original spirit of game. For me anyway. I now see in attempting to give the players what they wanted, TSR and WoTC proved that the customer is not always right.
In a post from an earlier date in this blog’s history, I stated that I would be including a streamlined proficiency system in my games. My thinking has since changed. Originally, I had intended to run under the AD&D rule set but will each passing day I grow fonder of the simplicity of Labyrinth Lord and B/X. My belief is that any skill system to those elegantly simple rules is not only unnecessary but detrimental to them as well.
I have some ideas on how I’m plan on adjudicating matters in-game without a concrete skill system. These ideas are nothing new or groundbreaking, but the journey to arrive at the house rules for them has taken a bit of time and a lot of thought. I’ll cover those house rules in a future post but I wanted to lay the ground work for them first. I also want to cover another topic that’s been hot in the blogosphere as of late – character background and history – as my opinions there tie into my house rule systems. Look for a post on that subject next, with the house rules presented in the third part of this series.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Stonehell: Hothouse Flowers
“It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.” – That episode of “What’s Happening?” where Rerun joins a cult that worships a head of lettuce.
The second quadrant of Stonehell, Level 3C: Hothouse Flowers, is available for download here.
It started simple enough. I wanted to feature a section of dungeon with a monstrous vegetation theme. The problem was that there’s not a heck of a lot of plant monsters in either Labyrinth Lord or Moldvay/Cook – at least, not ones suitable for use underground. Even looking through some of the Mentzer era supplements didn’t turn up a decent variety to use. A lot of them were plant monsters that had their *ahem* roots deep in modules and were tied in with the backgrounds or settings of those published adventures. I considered creating a half-dozen new monsters but I realized that by going that route I’d fill up a lot of the limited space of my two-page layout.
Then I remembered Mutant Future. There was bound to be a few funky plant monsters in there I could steal and they’d already be compatible with Labyrinth Lord. I flipped open my copy of Mutant Future and started looking.
Sweet Mordenkainen’s codpiece, were there ever plant monsters in there!
The result is that there are a lot of monsters in this section that require a copy of Mutant Future to run as written. If the .pdf wasn’t free, I’d probably have settled on some other theme for this quadrant but it is, so I didn’t. Introducing Mutant Future to the mix opened up some pretty big flood gates too. With so much high weirdness already on the page, it was a small matter to start thinking in new, crazy directions. The Hypnotoads and the mutant dryad soon followed. Rounding out the mix are the Spellspiders whose resemblance to the aranea is 100% intentional.
I think I officially pushed the two-page layout to the absolute limits on this section. I doubt I could cram any more information within the confines of the template without shrinking the font down to microscopic size. This is a good thing, however. One of the reasons I've been using the template is to get an idea where exactly the wheels come off of it and where I need to work on getting as much information as I can in as brief a form as possible. The file's a bit bigger than normal; partly because of the sheer amount of text and partly because I went with a full-color map on this one. You'll see why I had to once you get a look at it.
The gist of this dungeon section is that, once upon a time, a radical Nature cult settled in the area to pursue their heretical form of worship. The cult started messing around with forces better left alone and, before too long, something went kablooey, making a big dent in the layout of this area. Most of the cultist were killed in the either the explosion or by the rampant mutant plant life that started eating their former caretakers. This dungeon section is now mostly under the control of the plants, a race of fungoid caretakers, and a mutant dryad who may or may not be the original object of veneration by the cult. A group of spellspiders lurks in the area, studying both the effects of the explosion and waiting to try and gain control of what’s occurring in sections 3B & 3D, which we’ll get to in the weeks to come.
See? It all makes sense when you look at it that way. Who says megadungeons are unrealistic?
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Six-Guns & Sorcery
While watching these or any other films of the Western genre, it’s hard not see the similarities between the themes and characters of these films and those of D&D. This reflection is hardly surprising since D&D is, at heart, a game that was created by Americans and there is nothing more American (and I mean American as in “North American”* rather than “United States of”) than the Old West.
We’re a young continent when looked at through the lens of recorded history. As such, we don’t have quite the rich cultural and mythological heritage that our counterparts in the other areas of the world possess. We have no King Arthur, no Nibelung, no Achilles or Herakles, and no oni or kappa to lay a claim to. At best, we can summon up the shades of Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed, but even these are both young and steeped in the only mythos that we can call our own: the Wild West.
While many of the themes of the Western are universal (the lone righter-of-wrongs, the evil land owner, the populace in need of salvation) there is one theme that resonates more deeply in the American psyche, which is the taming of the frontier. Being the youthful nations that we are, the idea and challenge of pushing back the frontier and bringing order to the wilderness is a goal that hasn’t been faded by the mists of elapsed time. There’s still an enticing draw to this, even when the wilderness of America has largely vanished outside of protected parks and other established boundaries. I know that it calls to me, despite the fact that I live in one of the oldest settled areas of the United States and have had little direct exposure to the American West outside of books and short visits to the southwestern states.
I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that the “end game” of OD&D – the establishment of a stronghold in the wilderness – was a result of our cultural heritage of the American West. Despite Gygax’s and Arneson’s knowledge and love for European history, they are American by birth and steeped in that same cultural heritage. The idea of taming the frontier would be a natural goal for high level characters to pursue. The fact that these characters could also acquire followers and henchmen, which would allow them to engage in protracted wars with their neighbors and conquer established lands, thus being more akin to European and Asian history, is a secondary goal. The prime motivation is the clearing of a hex of land to call one’s own and to build a permanent structure within it.
I can’t help but speculate that, had D&D been the product of the minds of two European or Asian war gamers, the high level end game might have been very different indeed. Perhaps rather than the taming of the frontier, it might one that focused more on the establishment of a dynasty through the conquest of settled lands or through the elaborate networks of alliances and treaties. It might even be more Tolkien-esque, requiring the confrontation and defeat of a larger evil to maintain or restore order to previously established lands. I doubt the emphasis on clearing the frontier would have been as pronounced.
I know this blog gets visitors from around the world and I’d be interested in hearing their thoughts on this matter. Does the old school end game have the same allure to you as it does with Americans and do you think the end game might be different if D&D had been created outside of the United State? North Americans are welcome to share their thoughts as well.
* I’m aware of the parallels to the North American West that occurred in South America – the gaucho, the chalan, and the huaso, as well as the similarities in clearing the frontier for settlement but I’m limiting my scope to the U.S., Canada, and Mexico for the purposes of this post.
Open Game Table Set for March 23rd Debut
Initial reports indicate that WIRED Magazine’s GeekDad blog will be doing a preview of the anthology next week, followed by a complete review on release day.
As I mentioned briefly before, Open Game Table is a collection of almost fifty posts chosen by the readers to be the best of the blogs from 2008. These posts cover such topics as play style, game play, characters & players, monsters & NPCs, encounter settings and locations, adventure design, campaign design, classes & equipment, RPG history, and tools for the GM. The anthology also features a Forward by Wolfgang Baur.
Having seen the draft of Open Game Table, I can safely say that this looks to be one of the most useful and entertaining projects in recent memory. No matter what game you play or edition you prefer, you’re bound to find something within its pages that applies to both you and your games. Expect a smattering of reviews to occur around the March 23rd release to help you decide if this book needs to be on your bookshelf. I, for one, think that does.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Brief Initial Impressions of Dungeonaday.com
I’m attempting to approach Cook’s project with as few preconceived notions as possible. To be rather honest, its success or failure will have little impact on my own efforts and I don’t have any vested interest in something that’s using the 3.5 system, no matter how “rules light” that may be. I also have no plans at the moment to become a subscriber but I’ve long since learned to never set such intentions in stone.
My gut response to what little is available and what I’ve been able to process through my tired mind is this:
- The use of the Dwarven Forge models to detail the individual encounter areas is a nice touch. I’m a sucker for little touches like that and it’s one that I would have never thought to include on my own. Then again, I can’t paint all that well and don’t have a big inventory of Dwarven Forge pieces to draw from.
- I’d forgotten how much text is required to describe a simple encounter in 3.5. I’m aware that Cook has to make the content of the dungeon both beefy enough to justify a paying audience and that he’s has to make his encounters as descriptive as possible so that they can be run according to “the script”, but after my own efforts to trim down my dungeon notes to the bare minimum, these elaborate room descriptions look odd to me.
- My honest-to-goodness reaction to seeing the map for Level One was, “That’s it? That’s a so-called megadungeon level?” I’m aware that this could easily be built upon and more might be forthcoming, but that was my honest first impression.
I’m going to reserve commenting further until I have a chance to really sit down and digest the available material. In the meantime, I’m going to go with the Mythbusters method of judging the viability of Dungeonaday.com and call this one “plausible.”
Monday, March 9, 2009
Sneak Peak at Level 3C
I can give you one hint:
Swords & Wizardry Second Printing Available
The entire Swords & Wizardy product line is available here.
I realize now that a) I don’t know a lot of what was occurring behind the scenes at TSR that required the reboot of the Basic series under Mentzer and b) I would have loved to have seen a third boxed set published in 1981 or 1982 done in the style of B/X and crammed with Otus, LaForce, Dee, Roslof, and Willingham artwork.
Other than for the obvious monetary reasons, anyone know why the reboot under Mentzer occurred and care to enlighten me?
In the defense of Stonehell existing solely as a .pdf format and available for free rather than for purchase as a printed supplement, I wanted to clearly state the two reasons that I’ve pursued the path that I have with it.
The primary reason is that I don’t feel that I have the right to distribute Stonehell in its current format in any way that could turn a profit for me. The Two-Page dungeon method that I employ in detailing each section of the dungeon is nothing more than a modified version of the One-Page method first developed by Sham AKA Dave of Sham’s Grog ‘n Blog and the template I use is derived from the one created by Chgowiz. At best, I can claim the tentative credit of showing what can be done with that template and how it can be slightly expanded on to pack in a little more detail into each section of the dungeon. If anyone stands to make a few bucks on this idea, it’s certainly not me.
The second reason that I make the dungeon available piecemeal and gratis is because the whole project is mostly done for my own personal edification. Constructing Stonehell has been, and remains, a learning experience. Having never built a true old school megadungeon, I’ve been honing my skills and learning from my mistakes as it grows, hopefully so that the next time I take a crack at something of this magnitude I’ll know what to do. Any feedback I receive from the project is taken to heart and filed away for future reference. As James mentions, the old school community has the talent to produce something that’s just as good, if not better, than anything Mayfair Games or Judges Guild put out in their heyday. I just don’t feel that I’m currently at that level of talent, but Stonehell is helping me get there.
James’ is most certainly correct that Stonehell isn’t finished, and even when it is, I doubt that it will become something available in a physical format. The next project, however, might be a different story entirely but we’ll see what happens when we get there.
And James: Yes, everything that I post here is archived and preserved in case of an unforeseen “oops” by Blogger or the crash of my own hard drive. And thanks for a post title that lets me slip a Fear reference in by response.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Friday, March 6, 2009
Stonehell: Monster Dorm
One of the challenges about doing Stonehell the way I have been – with very little planning ahead – is that each new level surprises me by the time I’m done with it. I’ll look back and realize that I ended up someplace I couldn’t possibly have reached with a lot of preplanning. Sometimes this is a positive result and other times, not so much.
I suspected the third level of the dungeon was going to open up new problems. Starting about third level, there’s a gap in the monster lists that don’t allow for a lot of mindless creatures like giant bugs, big rats, and an abundance of oozes and slimes. Most of the monsters within the 3-4 HD range have at least some semblance of intelligence, so cramming a bunch of them into a dungeon level might strike some people as unrealistic. Once, I would have worried about this; but ever since I learned to stop worrying and love my dungeon, I’m not going to sweat it. Instead, I’ll embrace it.
Not too long into Level 3A, I began to see that there was going to be four main groups of inhabitants on the level: ogres, gnolls, harpies, and wererats. There’s a few more sentient beasties but these four comprised the majority of the monster population. The theme to the “Odd Couple” began to resound in my head. I asked myself the question, “Can four monster races share a dungeon level without driving each other crazy? Or eating one another?”
The answer is “yes,” if you look at it like a college dormitory. With that in mind, I started giggling.
Viewed through that mental lens, the ogres started looking like member of the college football team. I even gave them their own weight-room. The harpies became a clique of vapid coeds - the loud kind that scream and shriek when drunk at the bar. The gnolls were the dorm rats - social misfits that the rest of the residents shunned. The wererats became the brainy guys who put their intelligence to use cooking drugs in the lab after hours. The section makes more sense if you keep the dorm mentality in mind.
Although that doesn’t really explain the giant skunk…
Notes on things to come: I’ve made a change to the Equipment List on the right side of the blog. I’ve removed individual links to the first four sections of the dungeon (Level One) and replaced them with a link to a zipped file containing all four of files for that level. I’m going to do that with each level once I’ve completed them and they’ve been available separately for about a month. Otherwise, by the time Stonehell’s done, I’ll have a list of files running the entire length of the page.
Next week’s section will be Level 3C: Hothouse Flowers. I’ve got to skip around alphabetically because I’m trying something with the eastern section of the dungeon and will need to release Level 3B and Level 3D back-to-back. Just a heads up so you don’t think you (or I) missed a section.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Year of the Dungeon Redux
Last month, I mentioned in a post that I thought it would be very cool if the old school community made 2009 the year we took back the megadungeon. Over the past week, it seems that a lot of other people have had the same idea. I claim no responsibility for this sudden influx of interest in the megadungeon. If anything, I just caught a whiff of something that was in the air and commented on it.
In a recent announcement, Monte Cook stated that he plans to start a subscription based site called Dungeonaday.com, where subscribers would have access to a new megadungeon setting and its environs with new material posted each weekday. His plan is to do something rules-light and detail heavy that might be useable to players no matter what their personal edition preference might be.
James Maliszewski posted about Dungeonaday over at Grognardia and the comments began. “Why can’t the old school community do the same thing?” was a very common reaction. Thus, a very tiny germ of an idea was born.
I’d like you to go over to Grognardia and read the comments there if you haven’t already. Just so you know what’s being kicked around. What I don’t want you to do is take this post as an announcement that the old school community is going to do what Monte Cook is doing and James is in charge of it. This is NOT the case. I don’t want an angry email from James saying that people are thinking he’s spearheading the old school megadungeon project, simply because there is no old school megadungeon project. At least, not yet.
A very tiny idea has been born and it may die a crib death without going anywhere. There is no current direction to this idea and there is no roster of contributors being drawn up. This is just vaporware. I wouldn’t even mention it except that I was asked to help make people aware that this idea is out there and, for some crazy reason, people come around these parts and read what I have to say.
I hope this increases awareness without starting any crazy-go-bananas rumors. Thank you.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Wise Words From A Fellow Gamer
When a computer tries to run too many applications at once, it tends to slow down until it becomes useless and crashes. This is what happened to the computer in my brain yesterday...I completely get where he's coming from. This week, my own CPU has been running pretty heavy and I'm trying to finish running those apps as quickly as I can to free up some space. Or to put it in more D&D-friendly terms: I feel like I'm trying to memorize spells with all my daily selections already filled.
The best way to fix a computer with a maxed-out CPU is to close all the open applications, give it some time to cool off, and then reopen only the essential files.
The good news is that I've got one of my submissions out the door and I'm about halfway through my second. The first installment of Level 3 of Stonehell just requires me to ink in the location numbers, scan the map, and slap in into the completed template.
The bad news is that I've got the second installment mapped out but have yet to begin the stocking process. On top of all that, I've got a new writing project in mind that looks like it could be rather lengthy, so even if I clear off the backburners of my creative stovetop, there's a big old roast waiting to be put in the oven. I was also hoping to submit something to Green Devil Face.
I think I'm good for the evening, writing-wise. I'm going to start shutting down some applications or maybe cast a few detect magic spells to clear my head. Maybe watch Spartacus on DVD.
I just wanted to thank everyone for their patience while I reboot my head. Content of a more deeper depth will appear again next week. Hopefully, the wait will be worth it.