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.