Thursday, December 13, 2012

Degrading Wands

In my eternal quest to eliminate bookkeeping from the gaming table, I will now turn my attention to magic wands and such.

Here's the deal, I don't want to be counting every time a wand is used.  Nor do I want the player to have any sort of concrete idea of how many more uses he can get out of the thing.  At best I'd prefer if they could, via spells such as detect magic or identify or whatever, get a general sense of how potent the magic in the wand is, which would help them determine the expected reliability of the wand.

Wand Potency
Rather than granting a finite number of charges for magical sceptres--a number which must be tracked each time the wand is used--I give it a potency level ranging from 0 (Spent) to 3 (Virile).  The number represents the number of 6-siders the player rolls against the DM's single 6-sider each time he/she uses the wand.  If the Player rolls higher than the DM then the wand works without a hitch.  If the DM rolls higher (odds ~ 1:86) then the wand is downgraded to WandCon 2 (Functional).  It still works, but, from now on, whenever the wand is used the player rolls only 2d6 to check for success. If (when) the DM's 6-sider beats the player's 2d6 (odds ~ 1:11), then the wand is degraded to level 1 (tepid).  Now rolling a single d6, this thing is on its last legs.  Another loss (odds ~2:5) results in the permanent dissipation of the wand's magic.

Tie Roll
A tie result in the wand wars could go either way; maybe your wand functions normally and nothing unusual happens at all.  Or a tie might result in massive degradation of its power or even bring about a zombie apocalypse.  Here's how it works:

If the wand roll results in a tie, another roll is immediately performed, this time at 1 level lower, i.e., a virile (level 3) wand would roll only 2d6 for the tiebreaker, a functional wand would roll 1d6, and a tepid wand would roll 1d3.  If the player rolls higher than the Cool J--who continues to roll a single 6-sider--then the wand is not diminished.  But if the DM rolls higher, then the wand is permanently downgraded.  Multiple ties can result in even lower degradation of the wand; if a virile wand ties on 3d6 and on the 2d6 tiebreaker before finally losing the roll at 1d6, then the wand is downgraded to tepid thereafter.

When the player is rolling a d3, odds are pretty good that the DM is gonna' win and the wand will be spent.  But things are even worse if they roll another tie, a tie with a d3 roll results in automatic wand malfunction.  I like to just make it explode, inflicting its magic on the wielder and anyone else within the area of effect.  Maybe make it a more potent explosion if the wand started the roll at 2d6 or 3d6.

Staffs and Rods
The AD&D rules stipulate that these guys have fewer "charges" than wands, so the formula is altered in this way: the DM rolls an 8-sider instead of a 6-sider against the players various d6 (as determined by potency level).  This obviously increases the likelihood of the rod or staff downgrading sooner, but also decreases the likelihood of tie rolls at the lower potency levels, thus reducing the likelihood of cataclysmic events.

This makes wands easier to track--you don't need to count every use of the wand, just the ones that result in downgrades.  Also, it eliminates the sense that a wand has a magazine packed with a knowable quantity of spell bullets.  There is the outside chance that even the wands first usage could be its last.  I like that kind of crap. 

Example of wand in use:

Thomas the Thaumaturgious fires off his Wand of Thunder Balls; currently rated Virile.  He rolls 3d6 and gets a 9, the DM need not even roll since she cannot roll higher than a 6.  The wand has functioned successfully.

Yes, that's exactly how it's used.  Why do you ask?
A few rooms later, Thomas calls upon the potency of his wand again, this time he rolls a meager 5 while the DM pops out a 6.  The wand is downgraded to Level 2.

Later on, Thomas fires up his Zeusian wand--now rolling 2d6 each time--for a 4.  The DM rolls a 4 as well.  Another roll is mandated, but for the tiebreaker Tommy is rolling just 1d6.  Another tie! Crom's Balls!  Thomas is sweating now as he rolls a 3-sider against the DM's d6.  He rolls a 2, but the DM rolls a 1!  Thomas unclenches his sphincter as the wand functions normally and maintains its "Functional" (2d6) status.

Had the DM, in the final roll, rolled a 3 or higher against Thomas's 2 on a d3, the wand would have fizzled into permanent uselessness.  But even worse, had the DM rolled a 2, Thomas would have been at ground-zero of Thunderbolt-o-rama 2012; which woulda' been awesome. Maybe next time.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

XPs For GPs: Demi-humans

I won't lie to you, I don't award XPs for GPs and I never have.  Old schoolers praise the crap out of XPs for GPs as the be-all end-all of XP systems, but really, it's very deeply flawed premise and we all know it.  Dare I say it... XPs for GPs can suck it.

That's why OSRians started requiring players to actually spend the money before they got XPs every time they returned a case of Mountain Dew empties for the deposit.  This notion has much more to offer, but, as it applies to demi-humans, I'd like to take it further; to do something with it that will make demi-humans feel more different from humans.

One of the prime differences between humans and demi-humans, I'm thinking, is their particular relationship with material wealth.  Us humans, we like wealth for the power of buying whatever the heck we want, be it hot tubs, influence, chain mail, cock rings, what have you.

This oughta' get ol' Blodgett up to 5th level
Elves are indifferent to the baubles and gew gaws that impress the other adventuring races.  Rather, they prefer the beauty of the ephemeral arts such as music, performance art and ice sculpture.  If they do invest in things of long term value, it will be in the preservation of sacred places; stands of ancient trees, significant rock formations, that sort of crap.  As such, they gain XPs only for those GPs spent commissioning works of poetry, songs, or flower arrangements, and the creation and maintenance of nature preserves, public parks, and gardens.

For dwarves, the value of wealth is not the spending of it, but the hoarding.  They derive ecstasy from the gathering and stockpiling of precious metals, gems and other products of the earth.  XPs are not actually earned until treasure is safely stashed either in a secure financial institution, the vault of a trusted ally, or a dwarf's own personal storage structure; somewhere where it is safe from being spent.  Many "dungeons" are actually the treasuries of dwarves of legend.  Bonus XPs can be earned for transforming gold and gems into fine jewelry, ornamental weapons and other such eccentricities which can be given as gifts or worn about.

Halflings view material wealth as a means to domestic tranquility; as such, they gain XPs only for GPs spent on the acquisition and improvement of real estate.  This ties halfling characters to place in a very measurable way.

As you can see, humans can drop their cash in G'hawk, Mordor, or Lankhmar, and it doesn't much matter.  But for demi-humans, their wealth will be closely affiliated with a place somehow.  Either in the grove of oak trees in Sherwood Forest that Melf has endowed, the treasure hoard and associated safeguards that Gimli has stashed under Mount Fuggitt, or the plantation that Poblo Fraggins owns in Aquilonia, demihumans have some sacred place that they need to be tend to.  Or they can just forego XPs for GPs; which is fine by me.

PS.  The photo was swiped from  They've got other photos of hobbitty places if you're into that sort of thing.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Men Without Cloth: Non-Holy Clerics

You are not a clergyman.  You have no interest in tending the flock for some narcissistic deity, much less converting more sheep to the cause.  Despite your divine powers, pious is not a word that applies to you.  You don't pay for your miraculous abilities on bended knee.

Get off your high horse, Turpin.
Forego edged weapons?  Bishop Turpin can suck it.  No, you come by your powers by other means, and you pay an even darker price than the ritualized humiliation mainstream proselytizers are subjected to.

Rather, you've made a Faustian deal that saved your Aunt Stacy's knitting store from foreclosure and now some pompous, immortal a-hole owns your soul.  You know that using the "divine" powers for which you paid so dearly ever-increases your malicious patron's grasp on your being, but you can't check your self-destructive behavior.  Or maybe that's his growing influence at work.

Or maybe your grandfather was the byproduct of a tryst between Zeus and a rather adorable parlor maid. Though you've never met Great Granddad and he certainly doesn't know of/care about your mortal existence, you've inherited enough nascent divine favor to crank out the occasional heal wounds or fire storm.

Or you're just a guy who's found a cosmic loophole that's allowed you to hack into the server of the divine realm. You've spliced into Odin's cable box and you're watching ESPN: Old Norse on The All-Father's dime.  Maybe one day Asgard's IT staff will secure its wifi and damnation will be served.  But, increasingly, you're coming to believe that the gods are just guys like you; guys who've figured out how to hotwire the cosmos to their advantage.  Guys who've achieved immortality by convincing the world that they're something special, and who've come to believe in it themselves.

Of course, you can limit yourself to the holier-than-thou, preaching-the-faith-in-exchange-for-cure-light-wounds scene if you want to.  And maybe you can justify why your sermonizing n' moralizing minister is wandering through the 5th level of FU2: Asylum of Turgid Munchkins helping a party of infidels murderize a colony of troglodytes and scarf up their treasure--spoiler alert: not likely.  But the point is, there are other options besides the worn out catholic-priest-with-a-mace that those TSR beardos foisted on us way back when. Try one on for size.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

d4 Thieves can suck it

Can you spot the incompetent weakling?  The eyeliner should be a dead giveaway.
During my brief tenure in Holmesian D&D no one ever played a thief; partly because we thought they were bad guys and we all still wanted to be good guys at that point, partly because--shamefully--we had no idea how to roll percentile dice and, thus, could not figure out how to determine the success of thief abilities.  No, my first encounter with the thief class didn't happen until months later, after I had read The Hobbit and started playing D&D of the A variety.  As such, in my experience, thieves have always, always, always drawn their hit points from six-sided dice.  To this day, when I see these B/X retroblasters with d4 hitpointed thieves it makes me double over in agonizing cognitive dissonance.

Even if I accept that a lot of gamerfolk prefer Moldvanian D&D over all other forms, I still can't, in my mind, justify d4 thieves.  What exactly did they do to deserve such shoddy hit points?  They're only slightly better off than MUs in the armor category, with whom they share  hit dice, and yet they lack their magical potency.  Clerics, meanwhile, get better Hit dice, but also get to use bitchin' armor and spells along with combat acumen near to that of fighters.  The payoff for thieves is, ostensibly, a bunch of reusable abilities, but their chance of success with these is pretty atrocious.  And if you abide by Moldvay's overly stringent rule that, in the event of a failed "move silently" roll, the thief will be the only person in the vicinity who can't hear himself blunder across the dungeon floor, then you've got an absurdly impotent character class.  Why saddle them with such horrid hitpoints?  Why?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tools for Mapping or Mapping is for Tools

Anyone who's been to Lord of the Green Dragons is familiar with this little ditty:
"Ten feet, twenty feet, thirty feet south. Passage turns east and west. Which way do you go?" "We go South." Stupefied look and momentary pause. "Okay. Bump, bump, bump." -E. Gary Gygax to adventurers in Greyhawk Castle, circa 1972

Sure it's an amusing anecdote, but it also does a great job of illustrating the shortcomings of using aural data to convey a visual experience.  Obviously, it's completely unreasonable to believe that the characters would have chosen to walk into the wall, but the players, sadly, don't see through their characters' eyes.  For failing to create an experience that would prevent the players from making an unreasonable decision, the DM must share the blame.  But EGG gets a pass; after all, it was only 1972, he was a rookie DM.

The most effective way of giving the players a visual experience is to give them a visual representation of what their characters see.  Therefore, lacking an arsenal of miniatures and dungeon tiles, I draw them a map. 

I hear you hardcore DMs scoffing, and, I admit, it's not a perfect system.  But it does a far better job of providing an immediate, visual experience for the players to react to than even the most efficient aural description ever will.  Sure, the characters would never be able to draw such an accurate map based on their first-person view of the dungeon, but it absolutely beats the pants off of this sort of confab: 
DM: You hear what sounds like children in distress on the other side of the door.
Player1: The ranger and the dwarf bust in the door the door while the rest of the party readies missile weapons and offensive spells.  What do we see?

DM: You see a large well lit room, approximately 40' by 50' with high ceilings.  There are two doors along the east wall and one on the opposite wall.  The north wall is lined with three alcoves.  There's a large table in the center of  room, tied-up on top of which are several small, squealing humans who resemble the farmer's kids.  Four very large, green men with rubbery flesh and protruding noses stand about.  You've clearly surprised them.
Player1: Trolls!  We've gotta' save the twerps; the ranger and the dwarf rush them brandishing--

Mapper: Wait a sec fellas.  How far apart are the doors on the east wall?
DM: They're about 10' apart
Mapper: Thanks, got it.
Player1:  Like I said, we charge them with--

Mapper:  Hold on.  Is the door on the west wall in the center of the wall or is it toward one side?
DM: It's about 5' north of center.
Mapper: Great.
Player2: My thaumaturgist will blast the trolls with--
Mapper:  Not just yet.  How about them alcoves; how deep and wide are they?  Are they evenly spaced?
DM and other players in unison: [groan]
Part of the problem is that you're translating data from one format--visual data--to another--aural data--so that someone else can re-translate it back to a visual format.  But even with DM mapping you're usually copying data from one sheet of graph paper to another, which involves counting squares on the DM map--4 squares by 5 squares--then counting them out again as you draw the map for the players.  Again you're translating visual data into another format--this time to numeric data--so that you can re-translate it back to visual form.

I like to eliminate the translation process entirely; just keep the data visual.  And to help do this I've dredged a couple of items out of my box of drafting equipment from my skool dayz:

Tracing paper: this stuff is awesome! A pad of it should come with every basic set.  Just slap a sheet on your dungeon plan, trace whatever the characters can see, hand it off to the players.  No more counting squares as they walk down long corridors, no more erasing misplaced doors.  You're working in the visual format throughout the process.  Added benefit for hardcore DMs who don't like giving the players too much info: the trace paper does not have a grid of uniform squares on it so players have to base estimates of distance and area on their own, imperfect visual assessment rather than the much more accurate method of counting squares.  Alternatively, normal bond paper and a light table accomplish the same feat.

Dungeon Module FU2: Marching Band of Sublime Precision
Buy the stuff by the pad or, for prolific and/or thrifty  gamers, you can buy it by the roll from your local art supply store.  Get a 12" x 50yd roll for ~$10 Canadian.  That's enough to map out 180 levels of your megadungeon!  

Circle template: That torch casts light in a 30' radius?  Slap the 1-1/2" circle on the map (assumes 4 squares to the linear inch; 5 squares you'll need the 1-1/8" circle), trace everything in the circle that they might reasonable see--obviously not around corners or through doors--and voila!  No more counting squares, ever.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

DCC RPG Round Two: That said...

The other day I pretty much soiled my drawers raving about DCC RPG and proclaiming it the holy grail of awesome RPGs--and I stand by every glowing word of it.  Man what a great gaming book.

That said, there are some aspects of Goodman's game that just aint gonna make it to my table:

Thanks Doug Kovacs.  Still no permission.
Character Funnel:  I may try this as a one-off type-deal, but, seeing as I'm already killing off my 1st level PCs at an alarming rate, I don't see how making them even more fragile is going to improve the gaming experience.  I just don't see the value of gathering a huge scad of unskilled, unequipped nobodies--as opposed to the barely skilled, modestly equipped dudes we're already playing--and sending them off in search of an early grave.  I don't see this happening without some very specific motivation, e.g. monster in the cemetery is eating the children so the baker and the blacksmith lead a posse of townsfolk to kill the ghoul. 

Ability Names: Say what you will about D&D, but when it came to naming the abilities Dave n' Gary really stuck the fucking landing.  Any straying from the Original Six ability names sounds like so many jars of "catsup" or boxes of "Cereal-Os."  Stamina, agility, personality all sound amateurish if not downright misguided.  Cracking out Roget's does not improve the gaming experience. 

AC 15: Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of these old schoolers who believes that descending AC is objectively superior to all other forms--even if I do prefer the descending scale in my game.  I absolutely see the value of ascending AC; many, many of my house ruling efforts have included the following qualification: "this would be a lot easier with an ascending AC."  BUT... any ascending AC system I endorse must embrace the AC 0 = no armor principle.  Now this is objectively superior to all others.

20-sided initiative: One of the few things that I do know about neo-D&D is that it embraces the rolling of 20-siders for virtually everything--including initiative.  But you already know this.  Now, I'm far too crotchety to get behind 20-sided intiative, especially when the Goodman guys present a really cool option within their own rule: use the dice chain.  As stated in the book, two-handed weapons use d16 for initiative instead of d20.  This is the kernel of what I think is a far superior idea: why not take this a step or two further and use a greater spectrum of the dice chain: daggers roll d10, long swords roll d8, 2-handers roll d6; something like that. 

Fortitude, Reflex, Willpower: In a game that evokes an atmosphere of menace and chaos in every printed pixel, why would you go with the status quo when naming your saving throws?  The clinical, newfangled titles sound like they were determined by a committee of marketing mavens and real estate copywriters.  For 2e DCC, I hope they come up with more evocative names for saving throws

And that's pretty much it.  Every other aspect of this game exemplifies awesomeness in gaming.  Even the funky dice--which initially had me worried--have been put to such good purpose that there is no feasible means of dismissing their greatness.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Monstrous Taxonomy: Demi Humans

Yesterday I ran the Latin on the Goblinoids, so now we're stepping across the aisle to check out the scientific names of the demi humans.  Unlike the goblinoids, demi-humans are made up of several genuses (genii? as much as I love to bastardize it, my Latin really sucks).   I've added Brownies and leprechauns to the mix because EGG describes them both as halfling/pixie hybrids in the MM.  As you will see, there is some disagreement about which genus leprechauns fall under.

Common Name
Genus and Species
Demihomodimidulum morosus
Surly half-halfling
Paulodudus robustus
Stout little dude
Legolasium pauperis
Poor man's Legolas
Nanorum pilestultum
Silly hat dwarf
Homodimidulum peshirsutus
Hairy-footed half-man
Fortunatem crapulatus or
Lucky drunkard

Homodimidulum hirudosensorem
Leech-riding halfling

Monday, November 12, 2012

Monstrous List: Taxonomy of the Goblinoids

Holy crap has this post been plagued with gremlins!  I've accidentally posted this one before it was ready for public consumption not once but twice.  Sorry for all the false starts folks. 

Inspired by Rients's post on monster lists, my own fascination with Latin, and with classifying things, I went through the ol' Monster Manual cranking out scientific names for all the critters that I want on my list; an exercise I found to be rather addicting.

The cool thing about coming up with scientific names is that there's more to it than just coming up with clever names in Latin--which, thanks to online translators, is a lot more fun than you might think--but you have to take it one step further because scientific names include not just the species but also the genus, so you have to start thinking about which critters are related to each other.  Then you're thinking about families and orders and... and...  Being a monster taxonomist has turned out to be the highlight of my weekend.

Anyway, humanoids are, arguably, a pretty convenient genus, so I started with them.  

Bugbears are obviously missing from this list; for my game, I'm thinking they're of a different genus.  Trolls and giants too.


Art by Doug Kovacs. Used without permission. May the Lords
 of Chaos forgive me.
Have I mentioned how much I love DCC RPG?  So does everyone else, I know.  But It's not often--read "ever"--I drop nigh on forty bones for a single gaming implement.  Nor do I usually consider textbook-sized rulebooks as a viable option.  But for DCC RPG, I tossed aside my reservations and have absolutely no regrets; this game fawking rawks.

Some aspects of this game are so in sync with my own gaming preferences that I can't help but  suspect that the DCC dudes somehow peered directly into my brain when they were writing this sucker.  The magic system is nearly perfect, the experience system is perfect, alignment and clerics aren't quite perfect but they're much closer than anything I've ever seen before.  Indeed, between the scenes of mayhem depicted in the artwork--Doug Kovacs work in particular--the reliance on odd-shaped dice--even by D&D standards--and the intricately developed spell system, you really feel that chaos is a malign presence in this game. 

As with any rules set, there are a few things I'm not thrilled about, but my complaints regading DCC RPG are so minor that they can be dismissed as the niglings of a self absorbed jackass.  For instance, despite purporting inspiration from Appendix N, the rules often stress adherence to a strictly interpreted medieval campaign setting including widespread illiteracy, prevalence of a non-monetary economy, extreme provincialism etc.  All well and good, but not many of the Appendix N books I've read actually adhere all that closely to historically correct medieval, economic, or social structures. 

The same goes for the much vaunted character funnel.  Where are the examples in the Appendix N body of literature--or any body of literature for that matter--of groups of 15+ unequipped, unskilled, foolhardy peasants throwing their lives away in Quixotic pursuit of subterranean adventure?  It may--or may very well not--be a neat idea for a game, but, either way, I don't see that it follows with their purported mission statement.

But all that minor BS is easily swept aside by all the goodies packed into this hefty tome.  Random tables galore, rules for spell dueling, an XP system to end all XPs... but best of all: did I mention the Sample Dungeons?  That's right; not one but two complete m***er f***ing sample dungeons; one for 0-level characters and one for 5th level characters.  Phew!  I'm in ecstasy here.  DCC RPG has put the O in OSR.  I hope it was as good for them.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

AD&D Spell Levels Re-Constituted

Admit it, it has always bugged you that spell levels don't match character levels.  That is, why do you have to wait until your Magic User reaches 3rd level to get 2nd level spells?  Why this arbitrary and confusing separation of church and state?  Why not streamline it so that at 2nd level you get 2nd level spells?

Well, there are plenty of reasons why, but I won't bother getting into them here.  My sole intention is to go through the ol' AD&D spell list and reassess spell levels so that at each level MUs get a whole new level of spells to muck around with while still preserving the balance of powers that the old spell list set out to establish.  How you work this into your campaign is clearly your problem.

Also, you might notice that I've included zero level spells--and no, these are not cantrips.  These spells need not be memorized; if an MU has learned said spell he can cast it without all the rigmarole.  How often, you ask?  Again, not my problem.

Without further ado, here is a partially exhaustive list of AD&D Magic user spells, re-stratified into handy new levels.

Zero Level Spells (aka. “Spells no self-respecting MU would ever admit they have in their spell book”)
  1. Affect Normal Fires
  2. Dancing Lights
  3. Erase
  4. Jump
  5. Mending
  6. Message
  7. Nystul's Magic Aura
  8. Read Magic
  9. Ventriloquism
  10. Write

First Level Spells (AKA, “Spells that pay the rent”)
  1. Burning Hands
  2. Charm Person
  3. Comprehend Languages
  4. Detect Magic
  5. Enlarge
  6. Feather Fall
  7. Find Familiar
  8. Friends
  9. Hold Portland
  10. Identify
  11. Light
  12. Magic Missiles
  13. Protection from Evil
  14. Push
  15. Shield
  16. Shocking Grasp
  17. Sleep
  18. Spider Climb
  19. Tenser's Herniated Disc
  20. Unseen Servant

2nd Level Spells (Formerly known as “Spells that make 3rd level MUs wonder why they even bother to put on their pointy hats”)
  1. Audible Glamor
  2. Detect Evil
  3. Detect Invisibility
  4. Fools Gold
  5. Forget
  6. Locate Object
  7. Mirror Image
  8. Pyrotechnics
  9. Scare
  10. Shatter

3rd Level Spells (Formerly known as “2nd level spells that don't suck taint”)
  1. Continual Light
  2. Darkness 15' r.
  3. ESP
  4. Invisibility
  5. Knock
  6. Leomund's Trap
  7. Levitate
  8. Magic Mouth
  9. Ray of Enfeeblement
  10. Rope Trick
  11. Stinking Cloud
  12. Strength
  13. Web
  14. Wizard Lock

4th Level Spells (Formerly known as “Invisibility is a 2nd level spell but these stinkers are 3rd level?!”)
  1. Feign Death
  2. Flame Arrow
  3. Gust of Wind
  4. Infravision
  5. Leomund's Tiny Hut
  6. Protection from Evil 10' r.
  7. Protection from Normal Weapons
  8. Water Breathing

5th level Spells (Aka. “The spells which will finally get that hot elven thief to notice me”)

I'm losing steam here, so let's just say that here reside all those bitchin' spells like Fire Bolt, Lightning Balls, and Wall of Sheetrock that--finally--convinced the rest of your party that it was worth protecting your pathetic ass through all those early dungeons.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Delving Deeper: Thar be Sample Dungeons!

So I just downloaded the (free!) Delving Deeper pdfs and I gotta' give it 5 enormous thumbs up for being the first OSR scion that I'm aware of that has bothered to include a Sample Dungeon in their rulebook.  Kudos to the Delving Deeply brain trust for that!  Also, I've heard rumors that the Sample Dungeon was lifted from an early draft of Paul Jacquay's Caverns of Thracia module.
Take that! Ya buncha old school mo fo's!

I haven't had time to read much of the rules, but they are pretty comprehensive, covering all the traditional stuff: halflings and saving throws and all that. Plus things like optional thief class, class-switching elves, and d6 hit-dice-for-all which make it pretty clear that this is an OD&D retrobot as opposed to a Holmesian or Advanced D&D rehash, but you probably already knew that.  What I haven't figured out in my cursory analysis is what innovations the Delving Deeper crew bring to the table. Or is this just a straight up re-packaging of the Old Game? I wish there was a "Here's what's new" section that hit on all the highlights so that I could get to bed at a reasonable hour tonight.   

Monday, October 22, 2012

Clericless D&D

As I may have mentioned, I'm running a campaign based on T1 Village of Hommlet which includes my own home-brewed continuation of the conspiracy of Elemental Evil.  One of the challenges has been that we drop-kicked clerics from our game.  You ever try running a D&D campaign based on an evil cult where there aren't any clerics?

It's actually kinda' fun. "Clerics," now freed up from the Christo-warrior-priest trappings of D&D's ecclesiastical class, are able to pursue much more interesting endeavors in the name of their chosen worshipfulnesses. Take T1's Lareth for example. He's too stupid to direct a diabolical cabal of any import, but with his commanding presence he's exactly the guy you want leading your troops onto the field against them tight-ass forces of Superfluous Good. So I've re-worked Larry the Hunkadelic as a sword-and-lance wielding bad-ass knight of evil chaos who is so awesome that not only is he shagging Lolth, she's seen fit to bestow him with some cool demonic powers. Rather than "praying" for new spells everyday--how lame is that?--he can use these spell-like powers--poached from his spell list in the module--a limited number of times per day:
  1. Command
  2. Hold Person
  3. Cause Blindness
As for his other spells, I don't see Lolth granting any touchy-feely sanctuary or cure light wounds type powers, and know alignment and protection from good are nearly useless in my game since most of humanity--including demi-humanity and humanoidanity--are not aligned in any particular way.

Fabricating a cool NPC is fairly easy to do in this manner; I can mix and match powers, poaching from spell lists at my leisure without having to meet the parameters established by any particular character class.  NPCs are whatever I want them to be.  This also keeps the players on their toes, since NPC MUs also live by different rules than their PC brethren.

But can I reverse-engineer a religion-based player class that incorporates the motivations of a divine/malign force or alignment or what-have-you into a progressive character class that is also somewhat balanced with the fighters and the MUs and such?*  Only if there were a very limited number of deities/divine forces to choose from, 'cuz each cleric dedicated to each otherworldly force would, in essence be like re-making the druid class.  For the time being--especially since none of my players are clamoring for a cleric--it's best I leave the godly powers in the hands of NPCs.

* Yes, some old schoolers will try to tell you otherwise, but ever since mail-clad fighters and robe-wearing spell-jockeys started teaming up to pillage underground hobgoblin condos back in the 70s there have been efforts to balance the character classes.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Homer on poison

"Odysseus... was looking for a deadly poison to smear on the barbs of his arrows.  The man would not give him any, for fear of the everlasting gods."  --Homer, The Odyssey (Rouse, W.H.D., trans.)
You hear that?  For fear of the Everlasting Gods.  That's why we leave poison to the assassins, kids.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Roman Polanski, the Sample Dungeon and the Cult of Cuthbert

Ever heard of the Polanski flick Cul de Sac?  I didn't think I had either when the DVD showed up at my house the other day.  But there it was so I must have requested it, right?  Not knowing what possessed me to request this movie, I plunked it in the DVD player and gave it a whirl.  I fell asleep about 20 minutes into it--it had been a long long day; I should not have started a movie at midnight--but I did manage to see enough to figure out why it had made it to my queue: it was filmed on location at Lindisfarne, England--home to a monastery that has two claims to fame of interest to the likes of you and me:
  • Back in 793 AD, it was the site of the first recorded Viking raiding activity on the British Isles, and 
  • It was named after its former abbot, an Anglo-Saxon monk-turned-saint named Cuthbert.
The movie reminded me of another bit of information relevant to the Hommlet-Sample Dungeon milieu; the real world Monastery of St. Cuthbert, which was pillaged by ferocious raiders from across the water, is on the island of Lindisfarne which is accessible from the mainland via a causeway.  The monastery in the Sample Dungeon--likewise pillaged by raiders of unknown origins sometime in the past--was built on an island of sorts in a swamp which was accessible via a friggin' causeway.  Gygax was no doubt well aware of the history of the real St. Cuthbert and his monastery; could it be that the sample dungeon was intended to be a visit to St. Cuthbert's former earthly abode?

As for the flick, despite its name it has nothing to do with suburban street layout.  And despite its setting, it has nothing to do with monasteries or vikings.  Released in 1967, it's an arty flick about a gangster on the lam after a botched heist who forces a mismatched married couple who live alone on an island to keep him company while he waits for Godot. Hilarity ensues.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Etymology of the word "crit"

So I just got the DCC RPG rulebook--I know, last one on the bandwagon yet again.  As you're probably already aware, they use the term "crit" to describe exceptional wounds sustained in combat; a fairly common convention amongst gamers.  Many of you probably believe the term comes from the term "critical hit."  While you shouldn't be mocked for this misunderstanding, the truth is far more sinister.

In fact "crit", as anyone who attended art or architecture school will tell you, is actually short for "critique"; an event wherein students present their work for comments from their elders; sounds harmless enough.  But, for those fortunate enough to have avoided the experience, a crit is actually a most unholy ritual which involves sequestering a group of initiates in a single room called a "studio" for several days (d6+1) and purging their souls and bodies via total sleep deprivation and a diet limited to the output of the nearest vending machine.

After the mind and body are thoroughly purged of any wholesome, life-sustaining elements, the initiate--incapable of meaningful communication and exuding a most offensive reek--is subjected to a protracted self-immolation involving forced pubic speaking before a jury of fashionably dressed sadists wearing angular spectacles.  Through a most thorough and malevolent analysis of the initiate, each member of the jury proceeds to verbally humiliate the prostrate student until catatonia sets in.  The process is repeated 1-3 times per semester for 3-5 years.  

Survivors of a crit are occasionally rewarded with free snacks.

What, pray tell, has any of this to do with the gushing axe wounds delivered to the necks of kobolds?  I'll tell you. 

Throughout the agonizing crit ritual initiates are prone to fantasies involving any number of ghastly bodily injuries they might sustain which would, hopefully, excuse them from completing the process.  It is these febrile imaginings which became the source of the first "crit tables" when, back in December of 1976, an aspiring architect at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who, in the midst of the 'cleansing' portion of the final--and most intense--crit of the semester, compiled a comprehensive list of these masochistic fantasies on a scrap of vellum.  When tending to said student, a young EMT saw the list on an adjacent drafting table and, intrigued by the heading which read "Crit Injuries," pilfered it.  Being an avid D&D player who was always looking for lists to randomize, he knew he'd struck gold.  He immediately put it to use in his Friday night gaming group, word got out and, after 30+ years of proliferation throughout the gaming community, DCC published a book laden with "crit" tables in silent homage to the suffering of design students everywhere.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

12 Irritating Magic Swords

I broke into the Dungeon Dozen's house last night and stole his his schtick.  I figure I've got maybe a day or two before he tracks me down, so here are 12 quirks for magic swords:

  1. Sword increases its density making itself too heavy to lift
  2. When it's annoyed, Sword goes inert, functioning only as a normal weapon
  3. Sword refuses to allow you to pick it up, scooting a few feet out of reach each time you reach for it
  4. Sword charms you into being its servant
  5. First chance it gets, Sword will jump into the hands of a better fighter
  6. Sword gets jealous of your other weapons; cuts your bow string when you're not looking
  7. Appalled at your chickenly methods, Sword yells out to enemies when you try to use stealth to gain surprise or circumvent combat; insults opponents when attempting to parley.
  8. When facing overwhelming odds, Sword refuses to leave the safety of its scabbard
  9. After its first taste of blood, Sword starts eyeballing your colleagues like they might be its next meal.
  10. Sword is pining for its old flame, the Rapier of Stabbiness.  Whenever you enter a new town, Sword coerces you into visiting armories, swordsmiths, and mercenary halls in search of news from its one true love.
  11. Sword insists on getting the final say; will always take the last blow of every combat, whether it's necessary or not
  12. Sword has a horrific case of halitosis.  Elves and other fey folk within 12' of you must save vs. nausea or vomit into their hats whenever Sword is drawn. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Moathouse Monday: Structural matters

A while back I was doing some excavation over at the moathouse for my revised T1-2 Moathouse of Hommlet/Sample Dungeon of Evil Chaos.  As my crew dug out the rubble and cleared the stairway down to the dungeon level, I began to notice that things didn't line up quite right.  For instance, the stairs at 13 run smack into the curtain wall.  And the doorway to the stairs at 8 opens not to the hallway where both the number and the arrangement of the risers would seem to indicate an opening should be but, rather, it opens to the side into room 6 at the mid point of the stairway, by which point the steps are presumably several feet above the floor level.

ABOVE: Curtain walls outlined in magenta, bailey walls in blue
Now we all know that, back in the day, the cartographers of TSR were gleefully insouciant when it came to practical considerations of underground construction, so none of us gave them any grief over these sorts of quirky inconsistencies of structure.  Yet, oddly, the Dungeon directly beneath the moathouse seems to be excessively concerned with structural matters, as manifested in the forest of big, fat, presumably load-bearing columns arranged throughout the level.  There is nary a span of ceiling greater than 20' that is fearless enough to refuse the support of one of these pillars.  And yet, once you descend to the sub-dungeon level, accessible via the secret doors in area 7 and 5, the columns are no more; even though this portion of the dungeon supports a vast and sodden fen on its roof.   

Intrigued by these subtle clues, I decided to pry a bit further to see what other oddities I might find. So I had my CAD guy draw the outline of the curtain walls and the exterior wall of the moathouse (above) and transpose them to the dungeon level below. 

BELOW: Moathouse outlines transposed onto dungeon level
First off, notice that the stairs don't match up.  The stairs from area 13 Above that butted into the wall have now turned completely around in area 1 Below; a much more sensible arrangement to be sure.  And the stairs in the wall of the tower of area 7 Above seem to drop you into the room below from the ceiling of the strangely enlarged area 7 of the dungeon level.  And I'm not even going to get into the wide staircase from the bailey up to the Black Chamber (6 Above).

Although it seems pretty obvious that the dungeon level was intended to fit snugly into the footprint of the moathouse, for some reason the 5 zombie cells in area 4 and Lubash's quarters in 7 have expanded outward.  Why is that?  Could it be because Gygax wanted to make the secret door hidden in the south column of the torture chamber (5) that much harder to find?

Hear me out: If the columns in area 5 were the first columns encountered in the whole place, it wouldn't take an elf to smell something fishy; every old school gamer worth his beard would know something was up and spend the next several rounds/turns/days looking for traps, secret doors and lost lunch money around those pillars; resorting to mining operations if such were necessary.  So he made sure that PCs approaching from either access point to the dungeon level would already be inured to the presence of structural columns; pillars went up roughly every 20' through the level and what once stood out like a sore thumb became just one more finger in a pair of ordinary-looking gloves.

But pillars would look pretty suspicious in a 30' x 30' room (7) and downright tacky in a 10' wide corridor, so in order to accommodate these structural elements in an inconspicuous way, the dungeon engineer expanded  room 7 Below to a 40' x 40' square and widened the zombie corridor to a voluminous 20'  wide hallway at area 4.  The result: a much more pleasing pillar arrangement, but the curtain walls have been undercut and the zombie cells protrude out into the bailey. But, thankfully, fantasy adventure gamers are not too particular about these sorts of things, and no one ever noticed. 

Also of note: the east wing of the dungeon level does not extend all the way to the south curtain wall.  Too bad, because if it had gone that extra 10', there would have been exactly enough room for a sixth zombie cell to accommodate the last, homeless pair of zombies from area 4.  For those not in the know, the encounter at area 4 involves 12 zombies who are lurking in pairs in the chambers off the west side of the corridor.  Of course, anyone familiar with basic arithmetic will quickly notice that there are only enough cells for 10 zombies so arranged.  Some bloggers have taken this misstep and extrapolated vast and exaggerated conspiracy theories regarding the provenance of the V. of H. and other Gygax-penned dungeons, but we shan't deign to acknowledge those wingnuts here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Interview with a D&D Neophyte: Part I

I've finally gotten my hands on a copy of Moldvay's much vaunted Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons and I see that it was published in January 1981, just a few weeks after a friend of mine received the Holmes Blue Book for Christmas. I wonder, on hindsight, if the Moldvay book had come out a month earlier, would I have been deprived of my Holmesian roots?

Anyway, I decided to writeup yet another Holmes vs. Moldvay comparison, except this one will be different because I'm handing the Moldvay book to an 11 year old kid who's new to gaming: Me in 1981. To do this, I had to go 31 years into the past and 3,000 miles across the country.  Eleven year-old-Me agreed to meet up at the pizza place in town after school on a Wednesday in mid-February, six weeks into his/my gaming career.
Another Holmes-Moldvay comparison?  Gee thanks Caveman.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the old pizza joint--which is still in operation, I hear--was the complete lack of video games in the place.  This would change by the end of the summer, when Space Invaders showed up and ushered in the video game age to this backwater burg in the hinterlands.

The second thing I noticed: 2 slices and a can of soda for $1.25!  I order some slices and a Mountain Dew and sit down to wait for 1981-Me to show up.

He walks in the door wearing a bulky winter coat and blue jeans that reach almost all the way down to his tattered sneakers.  Jeez, was I really that goofy looking?  He spots me right away and the look on his face tells me that he's thinking something similar.  He comes over and sits down.

1981 Me: Glasses, eh?
2012 Me: You had to have seen that coming; you're already squinting your way through class in 6th grade.
1981: yeah, but I hoped they'd have cured bad eyesight by then.
2012: they sort of did; but there's surgery involved.
1981: What about contact lenses?
2012: Yeah, you'll use those for a while in your 20s, but mainly they're too much of a pain in the ass for... us.
1981: No Silver jumpsuit?  Rocket pack?
2012: I left them at home.  Seriously though, computers and telephones are the only thing that changed all that much.
1981: [has clearly lost interest and is eyeballing my pizza]
2012: Oh, would you care for some?

[junior me nods vaguely, though I know he's vigorously disguising any sense of enthusiasm; I recall being permanently hungry in the 1980s--and the bulk of the 90s as well--so I give him my slices]

2012: So can I ask you a few questions about D&D?

1981: Ok.

2012: What dungeons have you been through so far?

1981: Uh... we played the dungeon from the book [Tower of Zenopus] on the Sunday after Christmas.  Then we went through Dave's orc dungeon.  That was on Eddy's birthday (Eddy is our older brother, he's just turned 14 in 1981).   Then I took Jessie through the spaceship dungeon.  [Jessie is our little sister, and, like gaming sisters everywhere, she showed little interest in RPGs though occasionally she was good-natured enough to humor her brothers when they needed an extra player.  The spaceship dungeon was my first ever dungeon, penned just hours after meeting Holmes.]

2012: You haven't gone through the Keep on the Borderland yet?

1981: The what?

2012: You know, that purple dungeon Kevin has? [Kevin was the neighbor kid who got the Holmes set for Christmas that year]

1981: Naw, he's working on some Demon thing for our next dungeon. 

2012: [snickering] That'll be awesome when it's done.  [As long as I knew him, Kevin was always tinkering away on a cleverly crafted Demon-infested megadungeon--though we didn't use that term back then--that no one ever set foot in].  Anyway, I'm writing up a comparison of the Blue Book that you guys are using and the red book that just came out [i.e. the Moldvay book, published in January of 1981].  That's the one I sent you in the mail last week.  Have you had a chance to read it?

(nods as he pulls the copy I sent him out of his olive green canvas backpack)

2012: What did you think?

Long Pause as he looks at the book.  Jesus, when do kids learn to speak?  this is getting painful.

2012: What about the art on the cover, which do you like better?  I know it's fantasy art so it's a new genre for you after all the Star Wars stuff you've been into.

1981: Are you kidding?  Have you seen all those black light posters at Spencer's Gifts?  And the Molly Hatchet Album covers?  And van murals??  I'm living at the apex of bad-ass fantasy art.  If I saw a poster with either of these book covers on it, no way would I hang that crap on my wall.

2012: Touche.  But which do you prefer?

1981: Well, this red one has that hot babe with the boobs, but I don't really like the way it's drawn. [I felt a certain degree of disdain for Erol Otus's work back in the 80s]  I like the dragon on the other one, really makes you feel like you're facing that dude and he's going to roast you and your magic-user friend alive.  And look at all that fuckin' treasure!

2012: Did I really say "fuckin" when I was your age?

1981: No, I'm still working my nerve up to say "shit" at this point, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to try it out on you.  Since you're me.

2012: Fair enough.  [Opening the cover] What about the introduction?

1981: Why would I read that?

[I smile, cuz, yeah, I still can't be bothered to read that kind of stuff.  I don't tell him that we'll be diagnosed with ADD when we're 26.]

2012: What about the instructions for making a character?

1981: Well, this one [Moldvay] makes the abilities seem more useful.  With the blue book, I didn't really understand what they were there for except for us all to brag about who has a higher constitution, whatever that is.  And I never really understood the difference between hit points and hit dice, so that part was helpful.  But what happened to alignment?  Why can't I be chaotic good anymore?  I don't want to just be Chaotic, I don't even know what that means.

2012: I don't think anyone has a good answer to that one.  How about the Equipment list?

1981: You can't buy helmets anymore, that sucks.  Or a silver mirror, small boat, or a horse.  Do people not travel anymore in this game?  And now they make thieves buy thieves tools; wouldn't they just steal them?  That seems like it would be the first requirement to graduate from thief school.

2012: You're preaching to the choir, kid.

[At this point, my cell phone rang--my wife asking about dinner plans. 1981 Me was very impressed with my piece-o-crap Nokia un-smart phone, though I'm starting to wonder what sort of mayhem I've unleashed by introducing this technology to an 11-year-old kid in 1981.  I guess I'll see when I get back home tonight]

I need to break up this post anyway, so I think we'll take a moment here for station identification.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Crayfish and Abbots: More Fodder in the case of the Sample Dungeon vs. Hommlet

Back when I did my big DMG Sample Dungeon vs. T1 comparison last winter, I did not look very closely at the Giant Crayfish encounter in room 13 of the Dungeon level of the Moathouse.  Perhaps because I considered the crayfish encounter to be a monster encounter, I never made a connection between it and the water room in the Sample Dungeon, even though both feature... water.  But on closer inspection, there does seem to be something of note going on.  Not with monsters, obviously, as there is no evidence of a giant crustacean loitering around the abbot's old bones, [EDIT: Actually, there are crayfish hanging out near the abbot's bones, check this out from the description of the pool: "There are a score or so of small, white blind fish in it, and under the rocks are some cave crayfish, similarly blind and white.  Thanks to my fact checker over at Zenopus Archives for catching this one.] but check out the treasure description for each encounter:

"The limed-over skeleton of the abbot is in the pool of water... If the remains are disturbed in any way, a cylindrical object will be noticed, the thing being dislodged from where it lay by the skeleton, and the current of the stream carrying it south at 6" speed.  To retrieve it, a character must be in the stream and score "to hit" as if it were AC 4 in order to catch it. It is a watertight ivory tube with a bone map of the whole level inside."
"in the water on a ledge is a platinum pin set with a ruby (2,000 g.p. value) and a bone tube. The pin is under a skull (human) and the the tube under some bones.  Unless searchers use their hands, their is a 50% chance that either or both treasures will slip off the ledge and be lost below.  The tube is water-tight and contains a scroll of magic user spells (push, stinking cloud, fly)"

Sure, one's an MU scroll and one's  a map, but c'mon, two watertight scroll tubes hidden amidst bones with a chance of dislodging and losing said item to the PC's eternal dismay?!  It should be noted that in monastery, the moving scroll tube has only about 10-20' of stream to go before it flows through the outlet tunnel at the south end of the room and is lost forever.

Also of note: the ruby pin under the human skull, though much more valuable, is somewhat reminiscent of the garnet in the goblin skull in room 1 of the Sample Dungeon.  Red gemstones hidden in skulls; what would Freud say about that? 

To be sure, this is not jaw-dropping evidence that these two dungeons are derived from a similar progenitor.  But, given the vast amount of other forensic evidence, it certainly enhances the argument.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Hommlet Session 1 conclusion: The Grim Reaper loiters at the Moathouse

This post was scheduled to go live back in January.  For some reason it never did, and I never corrected the matter, though I must have noticed it at the time.  It's a bit dated now, but here it is nonetheless:

Readers may recall what went down when the gang took on the murderous frogs of Emridy a while back.  As a refresher for those who don't care to go there, the party consists of 3 PCs: Ahmad the Prestidigitator, Ponce the Paladin, and Jerry the Rogue(Apprentice), as well as several of the stock NPCs recruited from Hommlet: Elmo the Ranger, Kobort the Dimwit, Furnok the Thief, and Zert the Warrior.  Spugnoir the Second Level MU had already met his end against the frogs outside the gate earlier in the same session.  Before we go any further, I should make you aware of a few changes I've made to the moathouse:
  • the 3 crossbow-wielding brigands in room 7 have upgraded to short bows.
  • I've added an undercroft level between the main floor of the moathouse and the dungeon level.  The undercroft is accessible directly from the bailey of the moathouse via two large, vacant doorways which lead to a stable located to the right of the gate.  I innocently threw some skeletons in there for good measure. 
A crappy photo of my incomplete moathouse revisions
I did not at all foresee that these two seemingly innocuous changes would create a death trap that would leave half the party dead.

Once inside the gates of the moathouse, the players saw the opening to the stable and headed straight for it.  As soon as the entire party was in the open, the Brigand archers opened up on them from the arrow slits on the north side of the bailey, taking out Ponce the Paladin and causing the rest to run for cover in the stables... where 7 undead skeletons rose out of the rubble.  Jerry the Rogue (apprentice) soon met his end at the blade of a skeleton sword; two PC deaths in just 3 rounds.  But that was not the end of the Reaper's day; while the party was still engaged with the skeletons, a few of the brigands snuck down to the bailey and launched spears and javelins into the players' backs before bolting back to cover.  Their surprise attack inadvertently did the party the favor of taking out Zert, who is actually an evil agent of the Temple, but at that moment they really needed his sword against those skeletons.

No matter, they managed to eliminate the rest of the skeletons without any more fatalities; thanks almost entirely to the mighty axe of Elmo and sword of Kobort.  And Ahmad the Prestidigitator's uncanny hit point total (7) came in handy as well.

Including the death of Spugnoir at the end of the previous session, the party had been reduced to half of their original number in only a few minutes of game time.  And they were pinned down in the stables; the only door out--other than the open entrance from the bailey--was barricaded and Elmo and Kobort, despite all their 18 so-and-so strengths, blew their chance to open it.

But those two, at least, were still unscathed and, convinced that the brigands must not be too tough, they took it upon themselves to storm the entrance to the moathouse counting on nothing more than their insurmountable ACs, exorbitant Strengths, and excessive hit points to carry the day. Pretty brave, huh?

Under fire from the arrow loops and facing polearmed brigands blocking the doorways at the top of the stairs, our heroes fought there way into the "Black Chamber" where they were outnumbered 4 to 1.  Elmo was surprisingly inept with the dice on this day; he was stymied for several rounds by the halberd-wielding brigand at the door, all the while taking arrow fire from the adjacent arrow slits.  But he finally disarmed the halberdier and moved to the aid of the ailing Kobort who, thanks to his adroitness at dispatching the pole-armed bandit that stood in his way, had been taking on the rest of the bandits on his own--including the bandit leader with whom he'd been trading blows while two others marauded his flanks.

Once inside, Elmo succeeded in drawing the attention of a few of Kobort's assailants but soon found himself surrounded as reinforcements arrived from adjacent rooms.  Though any hit from Elmo's axe meant a death sentence for the brigands, he managed to take out only 3 of them over many rounds of fighting.

Furnok the thief--excuse me, the Ferd--arrived just in time to take on one of the archers who had just arrived from the arrow loops in the adjacent room and at last Kobort bested the Brigand leader in the war of attrition they'd been waging, and the rest of the brigands took to their heels and fled through their escape hole in the tower.  The boys were worn out and lacking in missile weapons, so they made no effort to pursue the fleeing brigands through the swamp. They gathered their dead and cleared out before dark with only a few coins purloined from the 4 brigand corpses to show for their losses.  It was with more than a little shame that the depleted party straggled back into town later that evening with barely enough cash to pay for funeral arrangements for the fallen.

Unbeknownst to the party, the surviving brigands returned to the moathouse later that night and dug up their treasure stash in the rubble before fleeing the scene for good.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Battle of New Jersey: Tales from the Edition Wars

Just got back from a trip back east to visit family and, for the first time in almost two decades, I got the chance to sit down with a quorum of the ol' D&D gang and hack some slash.  My brother and my next door neighbor from the homeland both happen to live in New Jersey, and so we ditched our families for an evening and chucked dice together.

Is that Natty Bumppo?
As things turned out, this would be my first taste of action in the edition wars, as my old neighbor--we'll call him Bruce--is a full-on Pathfinder enthusiast.   As I've probably mentioned elsewhere, up to now I've avoided the edition wars via the old head-in-the-sand technique: I have never knowingly held a post-Gygaxian D&D rulebook in my hands, much less read or played any of 'em.   That is to say, I have nothing against P'finder or other later versions of the game except one thing: none of them is the version that I am familiar with.  As such, I was not at all interested in tainting my old-school view of the world with intimate, firsthand knowledge of a later edition.  Plus, for nostalgia's sake, I suggested we stick with good ol' AD&D.

Bruce did not feel this way at all.  He believes that Pathfinder is an objectively superior game and thinks that I am a fool and a Luddite for not adopting it. Indeed, he'd been anticipating this gathering as the perfect opportunity to indoctrinate me into the 21st century, fully convinced that I'd instantly see the light.

My brother--who played D&D somewhat more than I did during the 90s and 00s and is thus somewhat familiar with later editions of the game--at first professed indifference on the matter but, as usual, once Bruce and I started arguing he came in on my side; fraternal solidarity can be a wonderful thing.  Bruce's Pathfinder books got shouted out of the room.  Besides, we'd already wasted too much of our limited gaming time arguing about which edition to use, did we really want to spend even more time learning/teaching a new version of the game?  Right?  Shut up Bruce.

Anyway, as winner of this skirmish in the edition war, I got to be DM, and I'd brought my revised T1 along as fodder.  We did make a concession in the character generation dept., allowing Bruce to slap together some sort of trans-editional amalgamation I referred to as a ranger-ninja-pederast.  Basically he was an AD&D ranger with a few thief abilities--pretty similar to how I run rangers in my game--and some other weird-ass crap that migh have been feats or something; whatever they were, they were forgotten by all once the game started.

The argument left a pall of tension in the room that didn't disperse for the first half hour or so, which made the trip through the streets of Hommlet a pretty curt affair compared to the Bacchanalia of mayhem that we all loved so much back in the day.  Actually, Bruce didn't have a good time back then either; it was his paladin that bought it in the rumble with Elmo.  

This sort of tension is an aspect of the old game that I had forgotten all about.  But when you play with family--and Bruce is nearly as close to family as my own brother--you have no qualms about arguing full-throttle over stupid shit, which inevitably leads to some acrimony.  When I play with my chums back in Seattle, things are pretty light and no one gives a crap about things like rules or characters getting killed or rolling the appropriate dice so, though insults are extremely common, arguments are nonexistent. 

Bruce and my brother do not share my obsession with T1 and thus hadn't seen it since that fateful day in 1982--nearly 30 years to the day--when we wreaked havoc on the V. of H.  Like me, they remembered little of the action in the moathouse except the frog incident, though we couldn't agree on how many or which characters were eaten.  I still think two dudes got the bight, but they both agreed that it was only the gnome.  I'm willing to concede that only one dude got chomped by the frogs since I really can't remember who the 2nd dude might have been, but I'm absolutely certain that the gnome was still alive when we fought the puncture-resistant zombies.   They insist it was the halfling who was still alive, but I think their memory has been colored by the buff little dude on the cover of the module.

With only a few hours to play and a lot of side chatter about things like life and family, we didn't get very far.  I'd love to say it was a blast, but the curfuffle about Pathfinder really did put a bit of a damper on the evening, to the extent that I almost regret not submitting myself to the indoctrination.  Almost.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Level Titles: Blogger

Fortunately you don't need a sharp edge
to be a blogger.
I'm on vacation in a place far, far beyond the reach of the internet so please forgive this piece of filler that I wrote up 2 years ago and never bothered to post. See you in the new year! 

Blogger Character Class 

Level    Title    
1          Flatulent Typist  
2          Ingratiating Penster
3          Self-indulgent Hack
4          Poo Flinger
5          Bile Spewer 
6          Axe Grinder
7          Empowered Wingnut  
8          Adulating Gasbag
9          Bloviating Wordsmith
10        Livid Pustule
11        Florid Onanist
12+      Prolapsed Orifice

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bitchin' Mace

A while back, Rients posted a pic of a coolass bar mace.  I'd never seen its like before but then, whilst researching a completely unrelated topic, I came across this image:

This dear lady represents the virtue of Fortitude, as depicted by some dude named Giotto on the walls of Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, c. 1304.  Do not mess with fortitude, you just don't have a chance.

Friday, July 20, 2012

B2-T1 Keep of Hommlet: a self-diagnosed T1 obsessor goes off his meds again

Keep THIS!
As mentioned in yesterday's teaser, today we're exploring B2 Keep on the Borderlands and its potential as a link in the Hommlet series.  No, B2 is not based on T1 or the Sample Dungeon or any of that nonsense.  Don't be ridiculous.  But there are some similarities nonetheless.

For some background, a few months ago I posted a deal about some of the more remarkable similarities between T1 Village of Hommlet and the Sample Dungeon in the Dungeon Masters Guide wherein I made the claim that the Sample Dungeon was probably the original dungeon upon which T1 was based.  And though I'd accept that they both were separately crafted from the roots of the same prototype, my money still says that the Sample Dungeon is closer to the original Hommlet campaign than is the published version of T1.

This all started when I was looking around for a sequel to T1 for my current AD&D campaign.  I started eyeballing the Sample Dungeon as a potential source for a T2 Temple of Elemental Evil of my own semi-design.  I liked it initially only for the dungeon's inherent Gygaxian flavor, but as I started reading into it more closely, well, you know the story.

Something similar happened the other night when I started checking out B2 as a potential sequel--T3 if you will--to my semi-homebrewed T2.  Inspired by the stand of tamaracks--a tree unique for being both coniferous and deciduous, and, thus, particularly well suited to cold climates--on the wilderness map of B2.  Obsessive weirdos like me will recall that tamaracks are also present in the vicinities of the moathouse and the Sample Dungeon--indeed, I have it on good authority that the "T "in T1 initially stood for Tamarack. So I thought here's evidence that they're all set in a similar climate, that's a good starting point.  Plus: again with the Gygaxian flavor.

So I'm giving B2 a thorough read-through for probably the first time ever.  In contrast to The V. of H., EGG seems to be going for maximum genericness with the KEEP. NPCs are bereft of names, ability scores, and background of any meaningful sort; these are things that you, the introductory DM, are supposed to come up with on your own.

There is one exception, however: the jovial priest in apartment 7b of the KEEP.  Though he is nameless and statless like the other denizens of the Borderlands, he does have an agenda spelled out.  As you may recall, he is described as being a genial mo' fo', and, along with his two acolytes, would love to help the party on there quest for glory in the ol' Caves.  But don;t turn your back on him for too long because he'll club you senseless at the worst possible moment He's actually "chaotic and evil" and is "in the KEEP to spy and defeat those seeking to gain experience by challenging the monsters in the Caves of Chaos."

So just as in T1 we have evil agents in town who are only too interested in getting in on the party's expedition.  But in contrast to the malevolent traders in Hommlet who project an off-putting aura of d-baggery--only the most desperate of adventuring parties would ever do business with them, much less accept their company into a dungeon--the cleric in the KEEP has a better grasp of tradecraft; he actually has the sense to make himself likeable. Also of note: the dude who hires himself out as a guide in the Sample Dungeon is also up to no good; he's just hoping to steal the Fire Opal with the assistance of the party.

Over at the Caves Of Kaos, there is an imprisoned merchant awaiting his fate--just like the poor merchants in the ogre's pantry in T1--though this time he's to be the entree at a hobgoblin banquet. And just like his compatriots in the moathouse, he too offers a reward for his release, though he's a much more generous chap than the cheap bastards in Lubash's pantry who could only spare meager wad of silver pieces for their saviours. 

Also, there are a couple of fire beetles in adjacent-ish rooms in the minotaur caves, but that's a similarity to the Sample Dungeon, not T1.

And then there's Cave K: The Shrine of Evil Chaos; a cloister of evil clerics and their malevolent little underground chapel in red and black that bears some resemblance to Lareth's malicious little cult. And possibly to the cleric and hobgoblins in the Sample Dungeon as well. Plus, try to convince me that "Shrine of Evil Chaos" is not the Basic-ified version of the phrase "Temple of Elemental Evil"--they're one and the same. 

And again there's the long tunnel to a location off the map near the cleric's quarters, just as in T1--and possibly the Sample Dungeon--though this one is blocked with fallen rubble and is obviously not their personal means of egress.  Though the head cleric's quarters are described as lavishly decorated, much as Lareth's joint is in T1, there are no flaming eyeballs or fire opals or other physical evidence to link this cult to those that inhabited T1 or the Sample Dungeon.  But the place still has the feel of something ominous hiding just barely beneath the surface, awaiting its chance to break out and corrupt and oppress all of humanity.  I wonder what Gygax was reading back in the late 70s that inspired all this cultiness.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Into the Ruined Monastery of Evil Chaos on the Borderlands of Hommlet... Near a Keep

That is the working title for a campaign I am cobbling together using T1 The V. of H., the Sample Dungeon of the DMG, and now... B2 Keep on the Borderlands.  Yes, I've found adequate linkages between B2 and T1/Sample Dungeon to enlist it into the fold.  I won't go so far as to say that B2 is based on the same source material as the other two dungeons, but there is enough evidence to suggest that Gygax was not done scratching his evil cult conspiracy itch when he penned B2.  More on this tomorrow.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Character Generation: Our First Optimal Character

So the gang was rolling up new characters the other day--quite probably several months ago by the time I finally get around to posting this--when something alarming happened.  Odyssey the Assassin--the name only becomes mildly humorous when you consider that there is also a paladin named Prelude in the party--rolled off this set of ability scores using 3d6 in order:

Fit to play the part
Str 14
Int 12
Wis 12
Dex 15
Con 10
Cha 9

What's amazing here is not the scores themselves--though slightly above average they are nothing spectacular--but that, considering we choose character class before rolling abilities, Odyssey is the first ever character that actually looks like what one might expect his chosen class to look like if we were arranging our ability scores.

Not only do Odyssey's ability scores exceed the minimum requirements for assassins per the PHB (Str 12, Int 11, Dex 12)--a first for a member of a subclass in our game--but, what with his highest ability being on Dex, next on Str, next on Int, lowest on Cha--aficionados of AD&D will recall that characters with Cha of 5 or lower can only be assassins thus making low charisma a de facto trait of assassinry--he actually seems optimized for the role.

In ~2.5 years of the Choose-First method, we've had loads of big dumb MUs, clumsy thieves,  charming dwarves and the like, but this is our first truly adequate character.
It should be noted that we've been completely ignoring established AD&D ability score thresholds for character classes ever since we moved our game from S&W rules to AD&D (via C&C) a year ago, but it brought a feeling of triumph over our gang to see that a straight up,  3d6 in order could finally score us a qualified member of an AD&D subclass.

It need not be noted but I'll tell you anyway that assassins in our game are more of a fighter/thief hybrid: they can choose up to 5 thief abilities--the more they choose, the more they suck at each of them--and they use fighters' combat table but at the +2 / 2 levels as opposed to +1/level progression if that makes any sense. 

Those who recall the Gold swap rule mentioned in a previous post might be interested to know that Odyssey opted not to swap his Gold score, which was 12.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

So what did come of Tramp?

Thanks for the ride, Dave.

Yes, I know; back in the late 80s, he dropped his ongoing Wormy cartoon mid-storyline and disappeared without a trace.  Then in the early 00s, thanks to the Saluki student newspaper, he briefly resurfaced as a cab driver in Southern Illinois and has remained out of the public eye ever since.  But really, his vanishing act started long before that.

With only my admittedly incomplete collection of early D&D products to go on, it seems that Tramp came into the TSSR fold in ~1977, when he contributed a few drawings to the Holmes Basic D&D book and then split up the bulk of the artwork for the Monster Manual with David Sutherland.  They teamed up again for the PHB in '78 and the two of them handled most of the early module art as well--notably, Tramp did all the artwork for the original T1 Village of Hommlet (1979), with Jeff D's cover art showing up only with the later printings.
Head of a rat, hands of an artist

Also in 1979 came the DMG, the third core rulebook of the Game.  But rather than another tag-team effort between the two Daves, this one features more of an ensemble cast.  The artist with the greatest visual presence in the DMG is probably Darlene, followed by the numerous single-panel cartoons of Will McLean, though DCS also made his mark.  There are some early Erol Otus, DSL and Roslof pieces as well.  Tramp's contribution was limited to about 5 or 6 new illustrations and a rerun of his Satyr drawing from the MM.  It is, however, the venue of one of his most iconic drawings: the full page Emerikol the Chaotic.

But by 1980, Wormy notwithstanding, Tramp is pretty much gone.  His name is listed as a contributor in the Deities & Demigods cyclopedia, but, to my eye, no illustrations in it are obviously his. [EDIT: As it turns out, several of the drawings in the American Indian Mythos and at least one in the Central American appear to be Trampier's.  Thanks to ClawCarver's sharp eye for catching these.]   And the Moldvay Basic rules are completely bereft of the Trampier touch.  His only presence in the TSR-verse from 1980 on seems to be the Wormy cartoon from Dragon magazine.  Indeed, this article about life at TSR verifies that by 1981 he was no longer contributing to the "gaming side" of D&D.

I'm guessing that he couldn't have been living too high on the hog on the proceeds from Wormy alone, and I've never seen any works of his published outside of TSR; some old school reprobate would surely have dredged up something by now if he'd been, say, contributing work to a competitor--Lord knows Judge's Guild could've used his help.  So perhaps even back then he was driving a cab or some other anonymous vocation to put a table under his bread.  Which is to say, one foot was already planted outside the rpg art bizness.

What is astounding to me is that virtually everything we came to know and love about Tramp was drawn (or at least published) between 1977 and 1979.  Two or three years this young man--Wikipedia says he woulda' turned 25 in'79--had to influence the imaginations of millions of gamers, and man did he take advantage of that time.   Thanks Mr. Trampier.