Monday, January 30, 2012

3d6 Wheel of Fortune

Here's a variation on the ol' 3d6 in Order character generation method: 

Roll 'em up and keep 'em in order just like the old testament tells us, but you don't necessarily have to start the order at Strength.  The first number can be placed on the ability of the player's choice (or randomly determined using a 6-sider), but the rest have to follow in the Uniform Ability Order used in your game.  Think of the numbers as the fixed prizes around the Wheel fortune and the pointer indicating the starting point.  For example, you're rolling up your 6 abilities and you get... [hold on, I'm reaching for my dice]:
11, 14, 8, 10, 13, 9
Unaltered AD&D-era ability order (S I W D C Ch--the preferred order here at the ol' Dice-Chucker Cave) dictates that your character would have a high-ish Int and Con, low wisdom, with the rest being middling.   But say you really wanted a strongboy fighter type, you could shift the entire number set 1 to the left, giving him a 14 Str.  But since this aint no pagan orgy free-for-all, the rest of the number set has to shift as well.  The leading 11 now moves to the back of the line at Charisma and the rest take 1 step to the left.  Your character now looks like this:
Dialin' up a character
S 14, I 8, W 10, D 13, C 9, Ch 11

Alternately, to choose starting point at random you could roll a 6 sider to determine where the first number goes, 1 = Str, 2 = Int, etc. (or whatever order you prefer). Using the previous example number set, the player rolls a d6 to determine the starting point... a 3: you would start your number set at the 3rd ability, in this case, wisdom.  Using the same dice results in the same order, your character would look like this:
S 13, I 9, W 11, D 14, C 8, Ch 10

Indeed, if you're the kind of DM who pummels parity into your players with a giant hamhock, you could give all the players the same set of numbers and assign each of them--at your whim of course--a different starting point.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thursday of the Castle Keeper: C&C--The Stealth-Game

In the four years or so that I've owned the Castles &Crusades rule books I've come to the slow realization that there is a direct correlation between how favorably I view the game and the amount of time passed since I last opened the books.  If it's been a while, the game seems to obtain a reassuringly pleasant glow of warmth, like the steady light from your +2 sword when you're last torch has just sputtered out.  Sadly, whenever I sit down to write a post on C&C I crack open them books to do a little research and, even when the intent was to compose a hagiography of some element of this august game created by the Lords of the Troll, all that kindly warmth turns bilious in my craw and spews out on the screen in the form of yet another excoriating assault on the authors (and illustrator).  So in order to make good my promise of last week to refrain from denigrating the Troll Lord's and their fine RPG, I'm leaving the books on the shelf today.  

Which is convenient, cuz that's kinda' the point of today's post.  When I play "D&D" nowadays, it's a bastardized form of my AD&D and C&C with some vestiges of the Swords & Wizardry game that my friend Bob and I started 2 years ago.  But to watch us, you'd wonder where the hell the C&C comes in.  I don't really use the SIEGE engine -- I've never gotten the hang of ability checks of any sort -- we use the descending AC format (though I secretly convert them to ascending in my head in order to determine to hit rolls, shhhh) and though some of the character classes I use are stripped down versions of their AD&D predecessors that more resemble C&C, the match is definitely not exact.  Indeed, the desert fatigue-colored rulebooks are nowhere to be seen at our gaming table.  So where the hell is C&C in all this mess?

The beauty of C&C, in my humble opinion, is that it aims to be an invisible game, by which I mean a game you can play without ever bothering to reference the rule books.  Sure, by 1983 most people I played with were so familiar with the AD&D rules that we only cracked the Books on the odd occasion to select the type of prostitute we'd encountered or to find the duration of some esoteric druid spells.  But that was after countless hours of poring over every page, digesting every nugget of knowledge, internalizing every table and list, and then countless more hours playing the game and implementing the rules we'd read--and incessantly arguing about them with our friends.  C&C is best when you approach it in a very different manner.  The rules, by comparison to AD&D, are pretty flimsy in that you can take a brief gander at them and decide if it's something worth building on or demolishing.  If it's the latter, you strip it out and do something else.  But if it's the former, then you take it to the shop and thrown it on the lathe for a while or slap a coat of paint it and some designer hinges until it fits your image of a cool game.  It might not really look like C&C when you're done, but the inspiration is still there.

As a for instance, I hate looking at tables, so when my campaign switched over to AD&D for our run through Village of Hommlet, I really wanted a combat system that did not require me to turn to page 74 of the DMG.  I vastly prefer doing simple math in my head to looking stuff up, so I sat down and figured out the mathematical formulas for all of the AD&D combat matrices by class.  Anyone whose tried this knows that, other than fighters, they're fairly arbitrary, especially the monsters.  I never realized before that a gnoll (2 HD) is as good a fighter as a freakin' 5th level paladin!  So I turned to C&C for a simpler solution.  But rather than cop their combat system, I went for the SIEGE Engine instead.  Using 0-level humans versus AC 10 as the baseline, 11 became the target number to score a hit--replacing the "12/18 principal" of C&C.  To this you add a challenge level--in this case more popularly know as "AC".  Because I'm a crusty old bastard and we're playing AD&D, this means I actually have to subtract 10 from the Target AC to determine the "challenge level" but, like I said, I don't mind doing simple math in my head; I figure it probably helps stave off dementia. Anyway, in the end, I'm not really using a C&C rule anymore, but I can still feel its presence in the room when I'm playing.

Monday, January 23, 2012

DMG Sample Dungeon Part 2: Down the Stairs

Continuing where we left off last week, today we'll be looking at rooms 1 & 2 of the Sample Dungeon provided in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

The Dungeon
1.  Spider webs including a large spider at 1A, some moldy sacks, a garnet in a goblin skull over in the corner (B); it all sets the tone of rot and refuse that permeates the place.  That goblin may have been a member of the raiding army that took down the Monastery--or he could have wandered in at any time since.  How the garnet got in his head is a curious mystery to consider.  Also, please mind the yellow mold (25%).

One other thing of note is the oak door over at  1.C: Moaning can be heard behind it and, if opened, a gust of wind will extinguish all torches.  Where did the wind come from?  Sure, there's a subterranean stream running through the adjacent room--typically a great venue for creating air movement in a cavern, except that the stream "fills entirely" the tunnel through which it both enters and exits the room.  Which is to say, there's no room for any air movement, much less wind forcible enough to extinguish all torches.

Those brave enough to enter the dark, windy cavern will find:

Room 2. WATER ROOM: Although the room is described as holding only "8 rotting barrels" (over at location A) from the hoard of casks and barrels which were once stored there, several of the barrels in the room "hold water" as they were "new and being soaked to make them tight" at the time of the downfall. This might give a sense of the passage of time to those familiar with the decay rate of wooden barrels.  

:  The limed-over skeleton of the Abbot lies at the bottom of the stream that passes through the chamber.  His corpse has undergone a "sea change," a reference, as the ensuing narrative example of play points out, to Shakespeare's Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. 

Amidst the remains of the abbot the attentive adventurer will find a scroll tube and a key.  Acquiring these items is not a sure thing as Characters who dislodge the scroll tube have to make a successful "to hit" roll as if hitting AC 4 in order to successfully grab the scroll before the current of the stream takes it down stream beyond return.  Is this a nascent action resolution system using "to hit" as a means of determining success at non-combat actions?  Sort of a proto-SIEGE engine for you C&C fans?

Inside the scroll tube is a map of the underground portion of the monastery, but it is almost entirely smudged beyond use; showing only the two areas that the PCs will already have seen by the time they find this map along with an 80' section of hall in the "crypt area" to the south with "miniature sarcophagi" depicted in it.  Not super helpful, but it will definitely aid parties in finding the crypt area which is accessible only via the elevated secret door in room 3.  (Or the stairs at are 39).

The key in the abbots calcified hand allows the secret door in room 28 to open toward the "treasure room" (29) rather than to the stairs (30) down to the caverns, which is, presumably, the default.  Is this where the fabled fire opal can be found?

Of significance here is that the abbot's body is a) located where it would easily be found if it were still encased in flesh, and b) still in possession of the ring and scroll case.  Presumably anyone who had reason to seek the Abbot out--such as would be the case if the besiegers were either politically motivated or looking for the fire opal in his possession--would have searched every corpse to find him; either to make an example of him by trying him posthumously and impaling his corpse on a stake for all to see, or searching his carcass for the gem or some clue as to its whereabouts--like, say, a key or a map.  That his body is lying in what would have been plain sight at the time of the siege and yet retains these two possessions indicates that the marauders were probably neither aware of the fire opal nor concerned with the political significance the abbot's corpse.  Rather, the raiders who took down the monastery were more likely foreigners looking for obvious treasure; much like the first Vikings who raided the Monastery of St. Cuthbert* at Lindisfarne in 8th century Britain.  Whoever these dudes were, they were in it for a quick score; snatching gaudy, jewel-encrusted religious implements, potential slaves, and casks of wine and beer would have been their prime interest.  Rifling the pockets of an ascetic monk probably didn't rank too high on their to-do list. 

*Yes, I did intentionally reference the real St. Cuthbert as a not-so-subtle nod to T1 Village of Hommlet and its sequel T2 Temple of Elemental Evil.  This place is a religious edifice sacked by an army years ago, now an unholy ground inhabited by lowlifes, critters, and the undead; doesn't it maybe seem like it might have been an early version of the Temple of Elemental Evil? Sure, pretty much every dungeon had a background that sounded a lot like that back in the day, but considering that the DMG was published around the same time as T1... maybe this is what T2 might have looked like before it spent the next 6 years simmering on the back burner.

Next up: Room 3 and the Wandering Monster Tables

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thursday of the Castle Keeper: Highs and Lows of C&C revisited

Last year when I first wrote the article about hits and misses of Castles and Crusades, I had yet to actually play the game.  At the time Dr. Rotwang over at  Crossbows of Navarrone left a comment in response to my griping which sagely pointed out that, like other versions of the-game-we-all-love-to-obsess-about, you just take what you like and ignore the rest.  Since then, I have actually run a brief C&C campaign and found, of course, that Rotwang was right; virtually everything on that list was easily swept under the rug--polearms, Prime Attributes, Illusionists, what have you.

But two things I couldn't ignore and they, more than anything else, turned me from the game: the illustrations and the odiferous flavor text.  You may say "Hey Caveman, just take the rules and play; who cares about the wall paper?"   But the art and language of the rule books help to create a mental  image of what the C&C universe looks and feels like.  And thanks to Peter Bradley and the Chenault brothers (or whoever penned that mound of dross) I view C&C as a game that caters to  preening, pantywaist heroes who consider the art of bombast to be the utmost  achievement of mortal kind. 

Bradley's strike-a-pose heroes and look-at-my-ass-when-you're-talking-to-me heroines, combined with the ornate-yet-vacuous verbiage that dominates the core books (and the one module I own) lead one to believe that the Castle-verse is occupied solely by narcissists more concerned about whether their armor makes them look fat than they are with taking out the bad guys and/or stealing their treasure.  Heroes of this land rely not on tales of derring-do to impress nubile barmaids/men but rather they boast of hours logged on the elliptical trainer or loudly quote inflated SAT scores. 

As an example, here's a fairly typical sentence; this one from the character class description for barbarians:
"From windy steppes to mountain tops, from deep jungles to arid plains, barbarians live in freedom--a part of their environment rather than a slave to it."  
Sounds like it might have been written by Queen Latifah's character on 30 Rock; the congresswoman from Rhode Island who--mesmerized by the power of her own voice--unwittingly derails her  speeches onto rousing yet entirely meaningless tangents. 

Or check out the "Narrative of Combat" section of the C&C PHB (p. 119) where the author(s) actually encourage the proliferation of their cumbrous verbal stylings by urging potential Castle Keepers (DMs) to use unwieldy language when depicting combats for the players. Instead of this serviceable if stilted sentence:
"Three goblins who have swords and shields are sitting around a table drinking"  
They advise aiming for something like this: 
"Three humanoids are ranged around a table drinking from large wooden tankards; they're a foul-looking lot, with mottled skin, spindly limbs, toes, and fingers, with wide eyes and maws emitting a putrid breath; the creatures are armed for war with wickedly curved blades and iron rimmed shields."

Who gives a barf-scented air freshener if their shields are rimmed in iron?  Indeed, avoiding run-on sentences such as that one is exactly why the word "goblin" was invented.

Mind you, there's a time and place for descriptive extravagance; I just can't imagine a situation where an encounter with 3 goblins would call for this sort of verbosity.  If you burn through the whole thesaurus on the run-of-the-mill what are you gonna' have left in the tank when the party runs into that squad of Amazon C'thulhu Stormtroopers down on the 8th level?

And from the next paragraph, the authors advise you to replace:
"The goblin swings at you.  He hits for 3 points of damage"
"The goblin twists about, bringing his sword across your shin.  There you have no armor, and the notched blade cuts the cloth of your leggings effortlessly to score through ash and blood, biting to the bone for 3 hit points of damage."
Aside from revealing that the Castle Keeper owns stock in a Greave Manufacturing concern, should it really take 40 words to tell a player that they've suffered a minor leg wound?  While I agree that a protracted melee can sound like a tedious game of Battleship if you don't make an effort to spice it up somehow, inventing new, ever more florid ways of saying "You take x points of damage" will not only bring mockery from your players but it will really sloooooooow the gaaaaaaaaaaame dowwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnnnnn.

Aaaaaaaand once again I have set out to praise this game that I actually mostly kind of like--in theory--but instead ripped into it like a hungry gamer into a bag of Doritos.  Sheesh.  Next week I will convey one of the positive aspects of this game; I promise.

23 Questions

I gather this was started by Zak over at Pornstars, but blogger won't let me open his website lately so I can't be sure.  Anyone else having this problem?

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?
Last time we played, I made up a rule that actually made one of my players decide to use one of them pole arms with his new character.
2. When was the last time you GMed?
Just after Christmas.
3. When was the last time you played?
May or June 1997
4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.
It's a mega-crime adventure incorporating U1, L2, and Barnacus City in Peril et. al. with C'Thony Soprano as the ultimate kingpin.
5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?
Try to figure out ways to save my monsters from whatever the PCs are plotting.
6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?
Old days: Doughnuts and rootbeer.  Now: Beer.  Sometimes cheese.
7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting? 
No, but I am not a very good GM.
8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?
Good question... good question.
9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?
By the 3rd or 4th beer, seriousness has left the building.
10. What do you do with goblins?
Sell their souls to the lowest bidder.
11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)? 
Crime syndicate based on The Sopranos; see 4 above.
12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?
Heheheheh... you had to be there.
13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?
Hackmaster PHB:  seeing what it had to offer to the Ranger class, but the first thing I saw was  dolphin barding: How f*cking cool is that?
14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?
I prefer the ensemble artist approach to gaming illustrations; nothing sucks more than an entire game whose imagery is limited to the vision of a single artist.  Unless the artist is Tramp.  So the short answer is Tramp.
15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid? 
Ha!  Though there have been moments when I have been genuinely afraid of my players.
16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)
When my friend Bob and I turned CotMA into an adventuring amusement park complete with park rangers and mumbling middle managers.
17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?
Sound proof room with adequate lighting and a view of the End of the Universe.
18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?
Castles & Crusades and Hackmaster 4th Ed.
19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?
80s terrorist activity, Thundarr the Barbarian
20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?
I don't think I've ever played with someone I didn't already know as a friend.  So the kind of player that I would most like: Someone whom I am familiar with.
21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?
Back in '86 I ran a D&D adventure based on an actual terrorist bombing of a night club in Berlin.
22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?
There are several that I wish did not exist, mostly the post-EGG Greyhawk products.  SO I guess the RPG product I wish did exist would be something Gygax came up with about Greyhawk.  Not so much Castle Greyhawk, more about the setting itself.
23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?
There was this one guy, but then he joined my group and is no longer a non-gamer.   But before he joined, conversations generally went like this:
Him: "What did you geeklords do on Saturday night?"
Me: "Rolled dice, banged your mama."

Friday, January 13, 2012

DMG Sample Dungeon Part 1: Background

It should be no secret by now that I like to analyze the crap out of esoteric stuff that only a few members of our species care about (see The Restenford Project as further evidence), but that's kind of what the OSR blogosphere is all about, right? No, you say? My mistake.

Class, please turn to page 95 of your Dungeon Masters Guide.
Anyway, the latest object of my obsession is, if you haven't guessed already, the sample dungeon provided in "The Campaign" section of EGG's DMG beginning on page 94.  As you're probably aware the sample dungeon included a map of a single "dungeon" level and a write up detailing the first few rooms along with a smattering of background information that indicates that the dungeon is beneath the ruins of an abandoned abbey.

To describe the sample dungeon as "unfinished" would be an understatement; on appearances, this thing was barely even started.  But even in the tiny amount of material provided there is a wealth of detail that will help the obsessive DM to extrapolate an entire adventure out of this tiny fosselized finger bone of a dungeon.  In today's edition, I intend to dig into the background information found primarily in the first three paragraphs of the "The First Dungeon Adventure" section on page 96.


Rumor has it that "something strange and terrible lurks in the abandoned monastery" located in a fen outside of town.  The monastery was sacked sometime in the past and now lies in ruin, but we know not the identity or the incentive of either the monks who lived there or the marauders.  Was the abbey a warren of  heretics besieged by their own papal leader--a monastery gone wicked?  Or were they the last true believers brought to ruin to erase the shame of the fallen majority?  Or was it something entirely different?

There is another rumor circulating, though somewhat less well known--that there is treasure to be had as well:
"A huge fire opal which the abbot of the place is said to have hidden when the monastery was under siege... the fellow died, according to legend, before revealing it to anyone, so somewhere within the ruins lies a fortune."  
Always good to know.  But this could be more than just a potentially apocryphal tale to induce adventurers to explore the region; this could be evidence that avarice had overtaken the monks and they had deviated from their monastic cause. 

A "two mile trek along a seldom used road" brings the party to the edge of the fen.  There is a  causeway to a low mound on which lie the ruins of the monastery--sounds reminiscent of the approach to the moat house in T1.  A few tamaracks grow sporadically on hillocks that barely rise above the mire of the swamp.  There is also a "fairly dense cluster" of tamaracks and "brush" about "a half mile beyond the abandoned place" indicating another area of high ground nearby.  There is no hint as to the significance of this "cluster" in the abbreviated text of the dungeon, but it seems unlikely that such a detail would have been included without some significance given to the matter. Perhaps it was once linked via underground tunnels to the monastery grounds? Just something to consider if you're re-creating this dungeon for your own use.

Also: It may be worth noting that tamaracks are unique among coniferous trees in that they lose their needles in the winter; an adaptation that makes them the most cold-hardy of trees.  Which is to say we're probably talking about a boreal climate here. If you want to move this thing to a warmer clime you might want to change the trees to mangroves or cypress.

That's all for today but pack your gear folks cuz tomorrow--I use that term loosely--we'll be searching the ruins. Kind of feels like a real adventure, right?

Gygax, G. Dungeon Masters Guide.  Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Games, 1979

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Top Ten Things That Suck About AD&D

Stirges: They really suck.
Since many of the things in Rients's poll last week didn't really irritate me too much--they were mostly things that were either inconsistent or overly cumbersome but easily ignored, or else inoffensive to me--famously, demi-human level limits--I wanted to get in a few jabs at my personal AD&D bugbears.  So here's the Caveman's Top 10 things that suck about AD&D:

10.  Grand Master of Flowers--Reason enough to retire your monk before he gets to 17th level.
9.  Pole arms--I took 3 years of high school French in a futile effort to figure out why someone would ever bother to use a  guisarme-voulge, bec de corbin, fauchard, or ranseur. Also, how long did it take everyone to realize that it wasn't kosher for your cleric to use a Lucerne Hammer?
8.  Ring Mail--Five pounds heavier and twice the price of studded leather yet you got the same protection.  At least padded armor and splint mail were slightly cheaper than their significantly less-cumbersome AC-mates.
7.  Wisdom--"A composite term for the character's enlightenment, judgement, wile, willpower, and intuitiveness." Which is a very long winded way of saying "Dump stat."
6.  Chance to Know each listed Spell--"I rolled an 87, crap! My 18 Int MU just isn't smart enough to figure out how to cast Mending."
5.  One minute melee round--Player: I swing at the orc... got a 7.  DM: You miss.  He swings back and hits for...  2 points of damage.  Well, we've still got 51 seconds to kill; wanna' order a pizza?
4.  Illusionists can't cast evocations--No, I don't really care about this one.  Curiously, it is true.
3.  Ten coins to the pound--Are they made of unrefined ore?
2.  The Character with Two Classes--Human's with ambitions to branch out beyond a single class were denied the normal multi-classing option.  Rather, they had dual classing--multi-classing's scoliosis-riddled, imbecilic step-sibling.  If your 9th level thief cum 1st level MU finds any traps in this dungeon he can forget collecting any experience.
1.  Alignment Languages--Several people in the comments section of Rients's column mentioned this one as the pinnacle of sucktacticness/nadir of coolness and I have to agree.  Where did this idea even come from?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Less Than THAC0

Thac0 was a part of AD&D?  Seriously?  Because I played AD&D (1st ed.) for a long time and wasn't aware of it.  Thanks to Cyclopeatron's research, I now know that Thac0 actually predates AD&D--or at least the DMG--but unless you were a computer nerd at UCLA in the late '70s, my guess is you probably didn't know why Thac0 was listed in statblocks for NPCs in the occasional module or what that unexplained column of numbers in Appendix E of the DMG labelled "To Hit A.C. 0" was all about.

Indeed, pointing to Appendix E as proof that Thac0 was a part of AD&D is like saying that "Less than Zero" was a Brad Pitt movie.  Sure he was in it--according to Imdb he was an uncredited partygoer--but it's only on because 2e adopted Thac0 full on--or so I gather--that this gains any significance at all.  If 2nd edition AD&D had gone with ascending ACs and to hit bonuses more akin to Castles & Crusades, et. al., Thac0 would be as familiar to us today as all those other party-going extras who did not become Brad Pitt. 

Thanks, but what's my Thac0?
Just as Andrew McCarthy, James Spader, and Robert Downey jr. were the headliners in the 1987 film of extreme LA youth decadence while Brad Pitt was an as yet unknown--except, perhaps, to a handful of "Growing Pains" devotees--the combat matrices on page 74-75 were the stars of the AD&D combat system.  When Aggro the Axe and Gutboy Barrelhouse squared off in the sample combat narrative on page 71 of the DMG, they used the combat matrices on the following pages to determine the success of their attack rolls, not some goofy acronym.  The continued absence of Thac0 rules in 1985's Unearthed Arcana is further indication that Thac0 was still not a significant part of AD&D, or had yet to be officially sanctioned by TSR anyway.

But obviously the Appendix E reference indicates that there was something going on with Thac0.  But did anyone outside of a posse of computer science majors at UCLA and a few Lake Geneva insiders actually know what Thac0 was supposed to be used for?  As a kid, I assumed that it was listed to give a measure of relative combat acumen--just as AC is a measure of defensive capacity--that could, in a pinch, be used to recreate the combat matrices.  Why anyone would bother doing such a  thing was beyond me since the matrices were readily available on every DM Screen that ever partitioned a gaming table.

But I could be totally wrong.  My sample size is not large; maybe loads of people were using Thac0 back in the day, despite TSR's refusal to endorse it.  Is there anyone out there that was into Thac0 before it went mainstream?  And what was the first TSR publication that actually explained what Thac0 was all about?