Saturday, 30 April 2011

One-Page Crits & Fumbles

I realized that since the first of my one-page graphic play aids got posted here, I'd developed a couple more we use in the Trossley game that I hadn't shared with the class. Both are based on a rough mapping of 2d6, take the lower, to anatomical results. Here's the first one: crits and fumbles, a further working-out of the system I shared previously.

The point of 1 page, 18 point is you shouldn't have to click to enlarge...
I find that neither natural 1's nor natural 20's should be apocalyptic in their results. If they add some craziness and unpredictability to combat, that's good.

The only dangling end is what happens when a missile weapon fumbles. I've been applying the results but it's clear that some of them don't make sense. It's hard to see how a fumbled bowshot could stun you about the head, for instance - leaving aside the incident last night where a notably hapless henchman had a fumbled sling wrap around his head and spent the next round untying it. Any ideas from those of you who use fumbles?

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Dice Icons, d2 to d100

To welcome my 100th follower and honor the 99 before, here's a quick idea that relates to the number 100: dice icons from d2 to d100.

They're based either on the die face or the die silhouette; d2 represents a coin and d100 is "percentile dice".

And one of their purposes is to lend a more low-key, black-and-white design to the modified hexmap I showed last time:

For example, 2d6 centaurs per patrol; no icon = 1.
Definitely taking on a more wargamey feel.

One-Page Wilderness: The Graphics

Telecanter came up with a version of my one-page wilderness map that looks just great, with silhouettes. I'm building on it to get some of the useful information back on the hex while staying true to the iconic form. Range and day/night activity collapse into one hexagonal icon, blue dice-side icons provide the roll for number appearing. Total in lair, as well as "uh what exactly does this stand for again" can be subsumed in key notes for that hex's number (which Hexographer supports).

I also added a red flag icon for simple leadership structure in human-like groups. Roman numeral gives the number appearing that will include a leader of level (base +1), and doubling that will give further increases in the level of additional leaders encountered. For example, the bandits in the forest (V) are base zero-level, but have one level 1 figure for every 5, a level 2 for 10 or more, a level 3 for 20 and so on. If there are 5 bandit patrols averaging 9 each then the boss of all 45 bandits should be level 4.

Silhouettes for every monster, really? Well, it would be cool for other reasons, but I know of some resources that provide a start. The graphic fonts WWFantasy, Imaginary Forces, Mythologicals One, Mediaeval Bats, SL Mythological Silhouettes, and Time Warriors are all free, for one.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

One-Page Wilderness In Action

All right, by popular request here is a sample of my one-page wilderness system in action.

You, the DM, have prepared a dungeon at once naive and ironic, located as it is atop a beetle-browed eminence called Skull Mountain for all the right reasons. You've prepared wilderness hexes covering all reasonable approaches to the mountain and the adjacent hexes, populating them with a mixture of rolls from the Fiend Folio outdoors tables (but replacing Carbuncle with Centaurs; cmon, a carbuncle?) and a few odd features from the Wilderness Alphabet.

The party starts 20 miles to the south in a frontier town called Ygrvale. The Ygrevalians tell of ongoing skirmish wars 'twixt them centaurs an' them haffalings an' them gobbalings and bugbears in the hills to the north. A slight detour takes you through clearer terrain to the east, though. Maybe the locals tell you about the green dragon who lives in the woods just by the detour. Maybe they don't, because the dragon lets them skip the yearly maiden sacrifice if they send him some people with bags full of money and magic items every now and then. The dragon is in league with nearby bandits, who guard his lair while he sleeps in return for being allowed to live.

(It's just this working out of relationships ahead of time that explains why I like this method, compared to random rolls on a table.)

Off you set, your laden mule and footborne henchmen giving you a rate of 9 (90'). We'll say that you can use 3 of those points to enter a plains hex (light green), 5 going through hills, 6 for forest and all 9 to climb the mountain. Advanced maps might have trails, or routes of easier going marked out by landmarks, that take fewer movement points.

Head straight for the skull, or detour right or left? The party decides on a bee-line, so they can get to the center of the first hex and most of the way to the center of the next, going through hills.
  • Morning encounter roll at the crack of dawn (hour 1, rolled on d6), still in the Ygrvale hex, is a 13; nothing. 
  • Hex entry roll, the bugbear hex, is an 8. Potential encounter from 2 hexes away. The d12 comes up 4. Uh oh - two hexes due east is the green dragon, and the dragon has range 2 and flies by day, so it's an encounter. The party finds the dragon dining on freshly chlorinated goat.  Luckily, the dragon is amenable to fast talking, and lets the party march on having paid tribute of one mule, a quiver of magic arrows, and a sackful of gold.
  • Afternoon roll at hour 4, trekking through the bugbear hex, comes up 3. Bugbears? Nope, it's still day.
  • Second hex entry roll comes up 20 - roll twice! 4 and 15, centered on the new hex. No encounter, twice.
  • The party camps for the night and the DM makes two static rolls. First watch rolls a 5, followed by a d6 and a direction of 3. That would be a wight ... if he wasn't stuck in his lair. Second watch comes up 9, which would be a clue except the party isn't moving and there's nothing in the hex to leave a clue.
  • Morning breaks, Skull Mountain looms in the distance and the party continues north. The morning roll is a 1 (empty hex). 
  • Hex entry roll for the second empty hex is an 11, clue to adjacent hex ... it's a 5, the centaur hex ... the party sees, over on the next hilltop, a huge twig and wicker effigy of a centaur, brandishing a spear menacingly at the Skull Mountain.
  • Afternoon roll is a 1 again, and they're at the foothills of Skull Mountain.
The climb is peaceful. Skull Mountain's rooms are found to be exactly as advertised. No jive - all of your five come down alive, hauling fat sacks of treasure.

Coming back, the party agrees to steer clear of the dragon's woods, now they have some real capital gains to be extorted. They decide on a slight detour through the more heavily populated (unknown to them) row of hexes heading down on the west. To make things short:

The first day is uneventful, the silence of the night only broken by the loud sound of centaurs mating somewhere over a hill crest (rolling a 9, you let them have another clue to the centaur hex even though they're not moving, it helps build the ambiance of the hills).

The second day and night pass absolutely without incident, the night camp just north of the mountain lion hex.

The third day's hex entry roll is a 1; they've found the mountain lion's lair with an angry lioness defending three cubs! A henchman is mauled, but the lioness is finally slain; the ranger captures one of the cubs as the others scatter, and takes the mother's pelt in lieu of treasure. The DM crosses off d2 from the mountain lion hex and write in "1" - there's going to be a male mountain lion out for revenge in the hills ...

The only encounter left in the day is a 2 rolled on entering the Ygrvale hex, a patrol from the town that seems amazed to see the party alive at all... And they're sleeping on a down mattress tonight.

Of course, a real killer DM who played monsters to the hilt would have the green dragon get savvy to where the party were going, and trail them to the Skull using every ounce of its guile and spellcraft, for a chance at some of the real loot.

Monday, 25 April 2011

One-Page Wilderness System

And so, here's the one-page, 18 point version of my latest wilderness encounter system for areas being repeatedly traveled through or explored. Call it "Dungeons Without Walls" or what you will. The idea is to mix pre-stocking with randomness to surprise both players and DM, without leaving the latter completely flabbergasted. Click, as always, to enlarge.

Some tidbits:
  • The five mile hex is a decent approximation of the core range area of your average lone or pack predator in a prey-rich environment, with the maximum range extending into the next six hexes. Sparing you the details, this comes after rummaging around available ecological data for wolves, lions and mountain lions.
  • Rule of thumb for range: (L) for lair-bound creatures like evil trees, demons, lake critters; (0) if move is slower than human, or habits are reclusive; (1) for normal human move and slightly faster, hunting or patrolling creature; (2) for flying, fast, particularly restless or wide-ranging creature.
  • How you stock the map is up to you, but keep in mind the danger level you want to convey for the area. I figure in a 90% saturated environment, with a monster for nearly every hex, you'll average about a 10% chance of an encounter each roll, or 55% daily chance of an encounter (7 rolls a day assuming 15 miles per day). Going down to 50% saturation, the daily chance drops closer to 25%. In open terrain, monsters will be fewer but have longer range, while the opposite is true for swamps, forests and mountains. For comparison, 1st Edition AD&D has six 10% encounter chances a day for forests and swamps, and only three a day for plains and desert.
  • Clues can be tracks, spoor, victims, old prospectors with a tall tale to tell, distant glimpses, or anything else that tips off a party to nearby monsters. If you're feeling kind, you can ignore these results and just give parties facing a clearly out-of-depth monster one warning clue, instead of their first encounter with it. But the next one is for real!
Anything else you think should go in there?

EDIT: Let's try this version for greater clarity:

Sunday, 24 April 2011

d20 Burlesque in NYC

The funniest things come up when you are searching for images of an icosahedral die. Apparently, there was a role-playing-themed burlesque show at the Parkside Lounge in New York last month! Sponsored by stalwart game store the Compleat Strategist, there were tributes to Red Sonja's chainmail bikini, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire, Felicia Day and the mighty d20 itself.

Blog post here.
NSFW (pasties, naughtiness) photos and my favorite video.

Old school gaming meets old school stripping? I can get with that...

Under Tree and Over Hill

In Friday's session the players took a lead I had been dangling, and while the explorers didn't go into the dungeon, there was action in the other "front" of the campaign - the strange doings in the woods - and a new "front" opened up - a business venture that had been proposed by an NPC that began a trek through the Durrn foothills. All of this will force me to sharpen up my game about outdoor encounters. While I managed to run the session adequately with some random encounter table rolls, I also found myself wanting more control over the environment, as I would over a dungeon or other adventure.

Zak has the insight that there are two kinds of outdoor experience for characters: going from point A to point B, or systematically exploring and scouring a chunk of wilderness (also see ChgoWiz and comments on the topic). I'll add to that three different ways you can handle encounters in either situation:
  1. Straight-up random, figure oout the chance to have an encounter, then roll for one upon a table.
  2. "Quiet on the set!" Certain hexes have encounters that are programmed to go off when the party first enters them.
  3. Open dungeon: creatures have lairs and ranges of roaming; encounters are random within this framework.
For one-shot travel that effectively changes the home base of the party, sure, I could see using number 1. For a scenario whose point is to explore a wilderness, I could use number 2. But for the wilderness surrounding the home base, where many journeys from A to B are anticipated, I'm going to be using number 3.

At any rate, on returning from Utherton the party heard shouts coming from the lumberjack end of town and found one group of lumberjacks arguing with another in their foreign language. Lucille the carpenter filled us in on the story - apparently one group of lumberjacks, the Busiacquo brothers, had been felling some "elven trees" whose wood was uncommonly strong and workable. The other lumberjacks didn't like it. Jessera saw this opportunity to cast her newly learned Detect Magic spell on the timber, which was going into the crude furniture Lucille had been making for them, and found it radiated a faint magic.

The party decided to take the wandering opportunist, The Nameless One, up on his venture to re-establish a trail to the human-dwarven hill town of Saddleback now that the bandits from the Castle were gone. They let him buy trade goods and mules while they went into the woods to see if they could make contact with Burnsteen the Wood Warden. They reached their limit for the day approaching an area where the birds were singing especially loudly. Turning back, they soon found an elf patrol, whose bristly stance softened somewhat as the party dropped Burnsteen's name. The elves said they worked with the Wood Wardens cordon around the unnatural tree that had sprung up in the forest, told of the evil influence that it spread among the forest, and curtly warned off the woodland amateurs from the vicinity.

Returning, the party found Nameless in possession of several bushels of apples and a large stock of the Busiacquos' magical wood, which they had apparently let go at a bargain price. Now warned by the elves, Boniface cast his Holy Light spell, which also functions as a barometer to detect evil, and found indeed a malign influence. He used his Purify powers to free a sample of the wood from its taint, to the awed witness of the village's lumberjacks. And on the next day they set off, following the landmarks that Doug the dwarf bartender, a native of Saddleback, had given them.

The first of these was a hilltop hermitage, in quite good condition (courtesy of Jim Pacek's Wilderness Alphabet) and empty except for the grave of one Mallory, a member of the Greatest Adventuring Party Ever Known, and a painted altarpiece. It showed the messianic figure of the religion of Invictus, the coming New Man who will be the founder of the Fifth and Final Race of humanity. Strangely, the scene at his feet included the Castle of the Mad Archmage. Even more strangely,  although the picture looked decades old, it included the black and white tower with moving bricks that had newly sprung up in the Castle's Black Courtyard. Nobody knew the old High Tongue to understand what the scroll by the New Man's mouth said, but it was faithfully copied down.

Staying overnight in the hermitage, a random encounter was rolled in the second watch. I guess the elves were not enough for one day, because the dice came up dwarves.  Of course, they had to be dwarves from Saddleback who had precisely the same idea a couple of days earlier, and were bringing the goods of Saddleback to Trossley. Had these stout members of the Badgerleaf clan had any encounters on the way? Roll, roll ... oh, just a hill giant that they hid from.

This was a fun session even though it went by without any experience or combat for the players. It's pretty typical of how I wing things - the wood plot element was thought up in brief form the previous day, the trade scenario had been brewing a while, and I'd actually had a completely different set of developments in mind if the party had decided to go back into the castle instead.

More on my outdoor system next time.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Reminiscences 3: Getting Better

More high school art.
Exiled from the DM chair, I went back to playing my fighter in Dave's campaign, giving him a gritty reboot from "Newt Ralgood" to a Saxon-styled warrior known as Stansceaft (which means "stone spear shaft" - funny that I knew Old English but was ignorant both of psychoanalysis and blaxploitation). I was still writing campaign material in my room, but this time I was also reading published adventures in Dragon magazine and various modules.

And my writing got better. The monsters in each adventure had a theme - no more zoos! The layouts were more spacious, after my library encounter with the Holmes sample dungeon. I didn't get to run those adventures and the notebook where they were is long since gone, but I could still rebuild from memory the abandoned silver mine inhabited by a foul being and its servants, the temple to the Toad God shaped like a colossal toad, the forgotten underground wizard's lair on a volcanic isle. I also created a new campaign world - Antellus - that wasn't based on random terrain and city rolls, and wrote a lot of Greyhawk Gazetteer-inspired entries for it.

As much as people write and read procedural advice for making an adventure or campaign, there is still nothing like a good example. If you are publishing a game, the sample adventure is critically important, and it should be the "practice" for whatever you are trying to "preach" in design. If you are getting started as an adventure creator, then reading other people's material, just to see what works and what doesn't, is better than reading a long-winded essay that can't possibly capture all the important elements.

I'll go even further and point out a further development that so far nobody's taken up yet: the commented adventure, to teach the art of running from notes or a module. This could be a podcast of an actual run through the module. Or, it could be a commentary track or designer notes. The idea is to follow up the example of good design with an example of good play. Without cluttering up the actual reference notes for a play session, the commentary could address some of the things that players typically try to do, ways to turn the pressure up or down at various points, things that came up in playtest, and rationales for your big design decisions. Anyway, it would be something great to offer as supplementary material or premium content.

In the years after high school I kept thinking about gaming and roleplaying off and on, but my actual activity dropped off. I don't think I ever ran or played in a sustained campaign for more than a few sessions, but I was reading a lot more, learned the value of improvisation in one memorable run, and absorbed a lot of ideas. When the Legend of the Five Rings franchise ensnared me, roleplaying was part of that, and I did a little writing that got published in the "Secrets" sourcebooks, a little playing in games here and there, but nothing too sustained.

So this past year, starting the game has been a real renaissance for me, not just of an old-school approach but the exhilaration of preparing, improvising, and being constantly surprised by my players and my world. I think it all turned out okay ...

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Confronting Gaming Sexism

A brief break from the reminiscences (concluding act 3 up next) to scratch a mental itch.

In case you don't think there's a problem.
These here two blogs are trying to make the same point about sexism and other systems of inequality among gaming and gamers via very different tactics.

1. The Border House

2. Gamers Are Embarrassing

I find it interesting that I resonate more with the second approach. Why?

Short answer: I go more for irony than earnestness, though over the years I've learned to write with both hands.

Long answer: I read The Border House as appealing to morality. The emotions that come through are outrage, anger, disgust. There's the care and the desire to be fair, to avoid harm.  When it's seen by the people whose behavior it's aimed at, that moral appeal in theory should produce guilt, through empathy with the people their ways have harmed.

(I also recognize that this may not be the primary function of the blog. Indeed, it says right up front who it's for - the people who are collectively harmed. For them, a moral appeal can energize and give clarity. But inevitably, that style of argument will be exposed to the outside world.)

The problem with this theory is that this kind of guilt response requires empathy. Which is in definite short supply on the internet. The moralizing earnestness they project is a weak attack against a well-fortified place, the caring position easily subverted by mockery. It's only a game. Get a life.

How do you hit someone without empathy? Make it about themselves. This is where the "embarrassment" emotion comes in. If anger is about morality, embarrassment for someone else is about appearance. It's a contemptuous stance that shames the person you're embarrassed of, rather than guilting them. They don't need empathy or even a sense of morality to respond to shame, because it's in their self-interest to improve how they look.

Shallow? Maybe. But a lot of the cheap talk about "fags" or disparaging women out there is just that - people who think it's cool or edgy or establishing to do that, but don't have any real deep motive to. So if the shoe fits ...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Reminiscences 2: 11th Grade Campaign Failure

Isle Of The who? A 10th grade creation ...
11th grade and I was ready to go. No more D&D in the science wing lounge under the prying, mocking eyes of the uninitiated. My house was open after school, and the gang was gathering for my campaign twice a week.

I cooked up a new dungeon, a serious dungeon, a ruined castle with a moat and undercrypts and under-undercrypts. Now I had the Fiend Folio, so the place was swarming with annoying jermlaine, bouncing with gorbels, coffer corpses and death dogs, or was it devil dogs? There was a Christian chapel - just one of many religions in the World of Atalona!

I made a punk-style collage homemade DM screen, cut dungeon tiles from manila folders. We'd never had a tactical display last year, but I had my players buy minis for their characters, and used my own small collection augmented with counters from Squad Leader and Citadel of Blood. Every hit in combat I rolled a quick d6 for hit location, just for flavor mind you (that's one habit that's stood the test of time...). I resolved to heed the sage advice of the Great Gygax and play almost entirely by the book. I think my players even rolled chances to have psionics, to no avail, and weapon vs. AC modifiers were definitely a part of play.

Well, eight months later, my players were in revolt, one going so far as to intone the name of Asmodeus repeatedly to see if I would kill the wretched party by rolling the chance for the Devil Lord to appear "by the book." The whole experience left a sour taste on AD&D that explains my current appreciation of the looser spirit of the Basic game I never played.

Who's to blame? Me ... and him. Please turn to page 86 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. There you will find a rule whereby even the character who has played completely true to class and alignment must fork over 1500 gp in training fees to reach second level. Those who are merely "superior" in their adherence must pay 3000 gp and it gets worse from there.

WTF, Gygax? An exemplary thief who has reached 2nd level by earning nothing but treasure has not earned enough treasure to pay the advancement fees. Nor has any merely superior character of whatever class. I think I enforced a flat 1500/level and it still was extremely unpleasant for characters having to take out loans from each other.

It's one thing if you put toxic rules that have clearly not seen playtest, conceived in a fit of hate for "Monty Haul" campaigns, in a book that bills itself as mere guidelines. Another thing entirely if you start and continue the book in the high spirit of ex cathedra pronouncement - this is the One True Ruleset!

Ah, no, I'm not bitter. But I'm also not nostalgic. Good educators eventually come to know that students take everything you say literally and seriously. Yes, the stride made in gaming in the 90's promoted a few cliches that don't necessarily guarantee good fun (see under: heavy-handed board game catch-up mechanisms). But they also brought a huge increase in professionalism to the field, helped along by Magic and its multi-thousand dollar purses resting on arcane interpretations of wording.

Then again, DMG let me roll up this bitchin' random demon.
And my own overenthusiasm and inexperience also doomed the campaign. My dungeon, all three levels, was still a damn monster hotel, with random details obscuring rather than clarifying the sense of discovery. And uh, I think I also bogged down every town visit with random encounters and disease rolls, so help me, and who knows what other foolishness I inflicted on the players. My vague attempt at plotting, involving a Chaotic Neutral conspiracy and a female wizard named Warith Ban who flew around in a cube of force, came too little and too late. Basically, I didn't see that fun was the goal and The Book was not always going to take you there.

I'm just wondering if any of you gentle readers had similarly lousy experiences with by-the-book AD&D. Was I the only insecure 16-year-old with more book larnin' than horse sense out there? And more generally, what have you learned from failed campaigns?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Reminiscences 1: 10th Grade and before

I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, the New York comedy writer's shorthand for "old money." It was a nice place to raise a kid. In the 70's the place still had touches of bygone New England charm, like the penny candy store on the corner of our street and the wooden floors in the grocery store on Main Street. All that is gone now, devoured by Whole Foods hell, according to reliable sources. Sic transit ...

In junior high school I was into all kinds of wargames but had nobody to play with. I'd spend a Saturday with myself doing both sides of Richthofen's War, Air Assault on Crete, Third Reich, SPI's Arnhem, or even stranger games I played with the counters from those games and an open atlas page. I did play some Metagaming micro-games with my friend Greg, who'd bought into a couple. And between my own collection - Complete Book of Wargames - and the town library's - Comprehensive Guide - I had learned something about role-playing games in passing. The Complete Book in particular had reviews of D&D, Petal Throne, Tunnels & Trolls, and Runequest ("hacking limbs in loving detail"). Between that and an article in Games Magazine I grew intensely curious about D&D but again, knew nobody who played.

Some time in ninth grade, in the year of our Lord 1981, I also found that the town library, which had battened on the property taxes of the Helmsleys and their ilk, had acquired the AD&D Monster Manual. Wow! I became a monster expert, just in time for the world of geekery to open up for me as I moved on to 10th grade and Greenwich High School.

Principals just gotta play Big Brother, don't they?
It must have been in my first couple of weeks there that I chanced across a bunch of older teens playing Dungeons and Dragons at a table in the student center after school. Eagerly, I sidled up and kibitzed as the DM described a strange encounter.

"Within the magic circle, you see a glowing golden animal. It looks like a shaggy horse, with dragon scales, and a horn growing out of its head..."

"Ooh! Ooh! I know what that is!" Everyone turned to look at me. "A Ki-Rin!"

Undaunted by that DM's twenty-foot restraining order, I soon joined a breakaway faction of the school Chess Club that had moved on from knights and bishops to knights, bishops, magsmen and thaumaturges. The DM was Dave, who actually owned an Apple II and was later to have me over for many late nights of cooperative Infocom adventures, Wizardry and Bard's Tale. The rest of the players made up my steady D&D group through high school and college.

The 10th grade AD&D campaign was fun but kind of vanilla. We were all new to the game. I ran a Neutral Good fighter called Newt Ralgood. I'll never forget the dungeon entrance, which had two carved dragon heads flanking it ... with predictable results (sizzle). Dave ran a pretty standard kind of monster maze for three levels, and we all learned to chant the mantra "Open the door...kill the monsters... take the treasure." Outside the dungeon, there was The Town where we rested, bought and sold stuff, and that was pretty much it.

In the spring Dave started spicing up the game; there was a new dungeon that involved overland travel, Newt acquired his signature flame tongue sword, and I remember an underground lake where sea lions lurked and a climactic fight with a Type I demon that emerged from a fog of darkness. Meanwhile, I had gotten the Players' Handbook for my birthday and the DM Guide for Christmas, and was busy statting up monsters to the tune of about 30 loose-leaf pages - sources ranging from the Bible to John Jakes' Brak novels - and writing dungeons like a fiend. I also got my hands on hex paper which I immediately filled with random terrain from the DMG, using that as the basis for an imaginary world centered on the city of Rhadne in the kingdom of The Hane.

I thought I could do a better job DMing than Dave. I had put more work into my campaign world. My dungeons had cooler stuff and themes. Why, every room had a monster or trap, treasure AND randomly rolled up furnishings and dungeon dressing! There was Drakenhame, the dragon hotel in the desert ("suitable for levels 7 through 9"; one page of notes remains, no map). Yes, high levels meant it was cool to put 67 stirges in one room. And then the lower level dungeon, "Bring Me The Head of Alvereithor Gaharts'yah," (two maps remain, no notes except for NPCs) and the mid-level "Shrine of Techulca" (notes, no map). One room in the Shrine contained this decor rolled up from the deathless Tables of Gygax except for one salient detail:
In the room are 3 beds; a large woolen rug under which is an iron trunk in a recess containing 350 gp, 10 sticks of incense, 200 scruples of rare spice (30 gp) and 2200 s.p.; a stone shrine with two candlesticks and an iron Techulca idol; and Brandamare of Bellocitaunia, a 2nd level female paladin, chained to the wall wearing a torn, revealing dirty white garment, and she is being kept there for sacrifice.
Scans or it didn't happen? All right. But next time.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

New Look for 1 Year Anniversary

Well, it's been a year now of going back to The Old School. If you've been reading this blog, appreciated what I have to say, or used some of my materials ... a very big Thank You!

Long-overdue changes ... The title bar is now leaner and meaner and more accurately describes the focus of the blog. Honestly, for the first six months it was pretty much a theory and noodling blog and I did sometimes write about other games. With the campaign, I've come to focus more on things that game can use, and that means pretty much "the original d20 adventure game."

To celebrate the blog-birthday I'll be posting in the next few days about my own early experience with roleplaying games. In which I'll explain why I think nostalgia is overrated.

Gluttony, Wrath and Petty Avarice

Trossley Rule: To precede reports of Actual Play with something everyone can use, related to the run.

In this case, a random table to determine just what it is your gourmand is munching on when gourmandising in ye olde North European fantasy land.

Click, and click again, to enlarge.

Roll d4 according to the intricacy of the dish, from 2 dice for a simple one, to 7 for a true extravagance. Consult the column for each die roll. Any "1" result requires determining the meat as well as cut on subtables 1A and 1B; real foppish gourmands may modify a column 2 result with 1B as well, possibly leading to "larks' tongues in aspic" and other delights. Finally, roll on column 0 to determine the method of cooking, for each 1, 2, and 3 result. I presume you know how to get a d40 and d50 result ...

"Farcing" is the practice of filling the roast animal with its own ground meat. "Jugged" is a means of preserving in jelly. Laver is an edible seaweed. Yes, they ate beaver in the Middle Ages. It was an acceptable non-meat for Fridays and Lent. You there in the back row, would you mind sharing what's so funny with the class?


Our heroes started off the run by making the first moves toward furnishing their abandoned house in the village, mortgaged to them on generous terms for a tithe of treasure. Crude logs worked by a woodsman's wife would have to serve as chairs and table, for now.

An expedition was then mounted to the Castle of the Mad Archmage - that nexus of adventure, menagerie of deadly creatures, level upon level of mystery and danger unparalleled in human history - for the sole and express purpose of retrieving two canvas tents from the stockpile discovered in the stirges' lair. This haul prompted much mirth from the gate guard Fergus, and Motley Tom the magical wares merchant. Undaunted, the party converted the canvas into bedding pallets for their house, and returned to the dungeon the next day to seek richer treasures.

The actual dungeon session only cleared two rooms - explored a long time ago in an alternate reality by the first delvers into the Castle Cellars. This party did not set the oil-soaked scarecrow in fire, saved like fiends against its fear effect, and found the treasure the other party missed. Smart! Then they went in the room with hooks on chains dangling from the ceiling, and just had to pull the one chain that went up through a hole in the ceiling. Not so smart! The hooks started flailing around and poor Balm got hit in the neck by two of them like a doubly unfortunate trout, causing a terrible wound that he's still recovering from.

That DF map is useful.
With a stretch of in-game downtime looming, the party decided to march to Utherton, and sell some of the loot that had been accumulating ever since the days of the millhouse adventure. Part of this involved carousing. Jessera rolled a hangover mishap, and her meeting with mentor Joya was thereby delayed for a day. The dwarf Grumpka rolled a fight mishap ... consulting Dramatic Personae, I found it was a priest, and indeed a militant of the same order, nay, the same training class as our Boniface. This one wasn't very kindly, and after some racial insults flew, each sprang to action with hand weapons concealed on their person. Grumpka had the better weapon with the handax, but this Fretanax fellow rolled better, after fumbling and falling down the first round, and scored two shallow hits with his dagger. Fortunately, Grumpka had completely won over the crowd by refusing to take advantage of the fallen man, and subjecting him to a rousing harangue (12 on reaction roll). The onlookers were able to cover her as she walked away, Fretanax crowing in triumph - but crowing alone.

The only uneventful "carouse" was henchman Cordoon's 68 silver piece meal under the limited but safer "gourmandising" option. Here I improvised on the spot a five-course medieval food porn epic, complete with "a loaf of bread stuffed with dormice" and "an eel in grape jelly and it turns out to be a marzipan eel." Cordoon was able to say, at the end, that he was more a man of the world for his experience, and he gained the second level.

So, um, yeah, I basically took about as twice as long to make the food porn table as to write that report.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Building on Locks and Traps

Arkhein asks the question that has been on everyone's mind since the Quick Primer on Old School gaming dropped - how do you get all descriptive and Old Schooly with mechanical devices when you're neither an engineer nor a locksmith? How do you solve in-game mechanisms without game mechanics?

So, Telecanter comes up with this neat, simple flowchart thingy for dealing with locks and mechanisms.

Zak adds his own take on the system.

I have but three things to add. One is an observation that with a lock, you succeed by getting it to work and fail by jamming it. With a trap, you succeed by jamming it and fail by getting it to work. So, you can use the same procedures for the two, but with different desirable outcomes.

Two is a variation. Roll on the list of 36 text-adventure-style action words from the "black die 1" column of Table D in my Endless Bag of Tricks pdf. Do this once for each of the action words you're using to solve the mechanism. It's then on you to come up with a trap/trick/lock description that uses them all. I just rolled up "Move," "Turn," "Sit on," and "Push" which suggests a nasty-looking rotating door with a built-in seat.

Three: could you use an actual puzzle in-game? Having played a fair number of the Big Fish hidden object computer games, I am excruciatingly familiar with the kind of old mansion whose exploration requires completing Towers of Hanoi, 15/16 slider puzzles, pipelaying games, and the like. I am pleased to say that the recent Mansions of Madness board game from Fantasy Flight includes this kind of mini-puzzle in a way that doesn't feel overly forced or corny. At least after one play. So perhaps that can be useful, every once in a while.

Another inspiration for a "get the sequence right" puzzle designer, by the way, is the GROW series of flash puzzles (strip of square icons to left in that link), the perfect blend of clue-giving, trial and error, and sheer surrealism.

Oh yeah, and speaking of mechanisms, this, if you ever wondered what a DC 35 lock looked like.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Who Rolls?

It's Delta's in-depth recounting of a run of Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl that has me thinking again about saves and hit rolls (previously on RRR), and in particular the part about giving monsters saves against critical hits:
Since the "save" is in the hands of the target, the player doesn't potentially "fail" at a confirm roll to end their round on a sour note (instead, the experience is that the monster target managed to skillfully avoid a potentially devastating strike).
Common wisdom has it that the more rolls a danger resolution has, the more bogged down it gets. Simplicity is the grail, so two-roll combat is great and if you can get it down to one roll so much the better. Right?

Well, the one-roll versus two-roll debate rages in the halls of miniatures wargaming, from where the concept of the saving throw came. And here we find - as Delta found - that some people like distributing the rolls between the players. The reason in wargaming is slightly different. In a game with dozens of figures on either side, it's desirable to have both players engaged in the action at all times.

In a smaller, skirmish sized game with less of a player downtime problem, it may still be desirable for both sides to roll dice in any given resolution. Influential systems like Runequest and GURPS have taken this approach, and there are a couple of benefits:

1. Probabilities work out cleaner. For example, in one-roll standard 20 combat, a -3 to hit when you hit only on a 17 means you will be doing 1/4 of your average damage per round, as 3 of your 4 hit chances on d20 are taken away. But a -3 to hit when you hit on an 8 means your hit chance goes from 65% to 50%, reducing your average damage only by a third. This makes rules like "you may take -2 to hit in order to get +2 Armor Class" subject to game-y thinking in a single-hit system. For example, a well-armored and skilled fighter against a weaker for should always take this option, because it hurts the enemy much more than it hurts you. Bonuses or penalties to a separate defense roll, though, are not affected by "to hit" probabilities on attack.

2. More interactive feel. Delta's observation is sound. Who rolls the die can make a psychological difference, and having both sides roll allows the most give and take between the players and the "world."

One way to keep things simple is to divide up the task in the classic D&D manner, so that for combat the attacker rolls, but for dangers and traps (and crits in Delta's game) the defender rolls. 4th edition divides things up somewhat differently. Saves are now reserved for trying to break free of ongoing effects like poison or slowing, while things like traps and spells make attacks.

There's also the solution I came up with for my dodge defense rule (here, bottom right of sheet) only to find that Errant RPG has a similar idea. Forget  the weaksauce +2 to AC that 1st edition gives you for giving up your whole attack. I answer the question "why can't you save against a melee swing the same way you save against a spear trap?" by letting characters do just that - if they dedicate themselves to concentrating on defense instead of attacking. By replacing the attack roll, the total amount of dice slinging is kept constant.

Anyway, the basic design lesson: while fewer dice often means more, fewest is not always best. There are good reasons to get people involved in both sides of the dice ritual.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

A Gygaxian Summoning

Gary Gygax
Hello, visitor! If you're interested in the legacy of Gary Gygax, the game he helped create, and what do-it-yourself hobbyists are creating from his vision even to this day ...

Please do check out some of the fine posts, other blogs, and resources over to the right.

Explanation for my fellow blogerati:

Google keeps directing people who search for pictures of B. F. Skinner to one of my previous posts. In fact, it's the number two result on Image Search, and all those people looking for hot behaviorist beefcake have pushed that post to number four in all-time pageviews on RRR. Today alone Google sent me three views for Skinner, and one, inevitably, for "hot elf."

Could it have something to do with my picture of B.F. Skinner having the caption "B. F. Skinner?" Is this a broken Google/Blogspot combo? The above post is a test. Let's see how it works out.

If it works ... well, when I start my social science blog, it's going to be unstoppable ;)

Cities by Dwarf Fortress

Although I've stopped playing it, the development of the vast, ponderous, procedurally generated, obsessive-compulsive amazingness that is the Dwarf Fortress computer game continues to fascinate me. The two programmers have set forth a task truly worthy of a Demiurge: to represent everything in a vast and random fantasy world, down to the last severed left toenail of a naked mole rat, down to the last one-humped camel leather loincloth and prickle berry bush. What it lacks in graphics (strictly ASCII), DF makes up for in detail.

Sometimes the random generation intersects with the needs of roleplaying and coughs up something useful. I'm not so sure about typical DF names like "Udo Spoonsclasped" but this series of random city maps just cries out for Photoshopping into a campaign. Draw on a wall, some big buildings, street names and you're good to go!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Combat Rules My Players Actually Use

Whether it's the rules system, the group, or the fit between the two, I'm finding my players are taking a fairly basic approach to the combat game. That is, the game for them is getting good position vs. the foe, using the right combination of missiles, spells and melee, and working out the timing of things they call out, rather than grabbing for the options I give them or inventing ones of their own.

That's fine and it suits the rules system. It makes me think that any special combat maneuvers should be rulings- rather than rules-based, at least for this bunch. There is also something to be said for the referee as rules interpreter. The players say what their characters are doing and the referee judges the wisdom, possibility and success of that move, rather than the players working at the game rules level. My wife and I once had a session of Advanced Squad Leader run by a friend well-versed in the binders and binders of rules for that system, and it was brilliant. Given the wargaming roots of the hobby, the DM as referee is also the DM as rules expert, lowering the learning curve to participate.

Anyway, I present below the 1page-18pt version of our combat sequence. It's decidedly "OD&D/Basic" rather than "AD&D." All rules about combat actions in a skirmish should really converge on the elegant system "move, plus move or attack" seen in 4th Edition, Mansions of Madness, and so on. Testing in actual play showed some streamlining that could be put in, and ways to make initiative count (first OR last move, and first strike in all rounds of combat.) For next time I might give players pawns or cards representing their major and minor action, and see how that works.

* Missile weapons get great advantage; they go first even when attackers close to range (point blank shot), as long as they're not distracted from loading.
* There is some gamesmanship possible with spellcasting. Attackers could try lurking outside spell range (in my system either 30' or 90') to charge the caster and delay, but not spoil, the spell with a successful hit. I think this reinforces the need for minions, which is generally a good thing. I'm not sure that allowing "snap casting" of spells to hit advancing attackers is that great a thing, but your experience may vary.
* Figures get their full 12 MP (human standard) but effectively can only move 6 5' squares in each half of their move. 3 MP vs. 2 is also a neat way to handle diagonals. None of this "taxicab geometry" when simplifying diagonal moves, as in certain latter-day editions.
* As I said, everything under "instead of melee attack" is seldom used by players. That may change once they sees the foes working them to advantage ...

click to enlarge

Hm. Needs more graphics, I think. Oh yeah, and there is no free swing at the fleeing. Speed matters.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Dungeon.ppt Download

All right. Perfectionism aside, I've put the dungeon.ppt slides on Google Docs: Elvis doors, DM attention markers and all. The first slide has all the symbols as grouped objects and the second slide is a how-to, with tips and a sample mini-dungeon that you can steal and modify rooms and passages from. The format is MS Powerpoint 2007 for Windows (.pptx).

The main innovation over the previous series of posts is a way to show unusual ceiling height - deviations from the usual 8 or 10 feet - with lines above or below the room number.

If you use this and you work in inches, let me know how the inches/cm conversion goes. My suspicion is that the background grid might be a little off for large scale inch-based work, but otherwise the .5cm = .2 in rule seems farily handy. Also let me know if you convert the symbols to other media, for example, Photoshop or CC brushes. Powerpoint is not a perfect graphic system and I think there's at least as much interest in the symbols as in the PPT implementation.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Monster Body Image

(SKULL MOUNTAIN, April 8) In a press conference held today in Skull Mountain's Hall of Pillars, Dungeon Lord Doombane announced the start of a publicity campaign calling attention to unrealistic images of monsters in gaming.

"A normal, healthy displacer beast should not have a nine-inch waist," he said, showing a picture from a Wizards of the Coast Monster Manual. "And this umber hulk? Bah! More like an umber husk if you ask me!"

Doombane contrasted media images from the past 10 years with those of an earlier generation. "They showed monsters of all body types and sizes, and it was perfectly all right, " he said. "In fact, the bulkier a beast, the scarier it was. Even stirges were plump little hairballs," he reminisced affectionately, "not the starving mosquitos from today's manuals."

"Mark my words, this impossible standard has baleful consequences for today's monster generation," he continued. "I had a neo-otyugh throw back a dwarf explorer the other day for being 'too fatty and gross.' And between the oversized weapons of today's adventurers and the skinny little Popeye limb joints of today's monsters, work-related mutilations are up 68% in Skull Mountain since 2001."

Doombane snapped his fingers, and a sniveling minion threw back a curtain, revealing a tray piled high with hard iron-ration biscuits and scraps of unnameable meats.

"Therefore I command you, monsters of today: HAVE A SANDWICH. OR ELSE!"

Friday, 8 April 2011

Original Standard Final

1P18PT is not a Canadian post code (well, maybe it is, who knows?). Rather, it is my new rule design principle. I like to have to simplify rules down to fit on one page using no less than 18 point type, and the benefits of this commitment to simplicity, I've found, usually pay off in actual play or writing. With this in mind, the final version of Original Standard (click to enlarge):

A few things. I figured out a way to give a standard reference to skill tests you want to implement, based on the input to the test rather to the actual die or numbers used. Most inputs to a skill test, apart from circumstance bonuses or penalties, come from a character's abilities, class or level, if there isn't a specific skill for it. For things that are often used, you may not need to do this, but if there is a weird test in your adventure (fishing a key from a drain with a piece of string, for example) you will want to say what stat is used, whether level should count, and whether level should only count for certain classes.

I also had some thoughts about broadening the standard to cover most Old School games (T&T, Chaosium, TFT). I thought about terms like "normal human hits", "longsword damage," "leather armor equivalent..." Where this fell apart was trying to square level-based characters with skill-based ones, but I'm interested in other people's attempts to truly live up to Old School completeness.

I guess time will tell if people find this or a similar standard useful. So it's on to other, more directly practical things. I have been struggling with a tricky issue on the dungeon.ppt slide (graph lines: overlay or room fill?) and it will take a while to detail both of my jury-rigged solutions. Bear with me ... it'll be great when it comes out, I promise!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Trossley Campaign: Stairs and Stirges

It's been a while since my last update on the Trossley campaign. I find campaign reports tend to go uncommented and I myself often skim over them in other people's blogs, with a few exceptions. Are play reports kind of like "tell me about your character" for DMs?

Well, they're a good record of the campaign so I'm going to keep posting them. But I am going to spice up proceedings from now on with a kind of "Joesky rule" for my reports, which is to talk at the end about a lesson or idea that emerged from the session, rather than "bla bla bla and then they killed the hobgoblins." It is optional for this lesson to be presented by one of those 1980's moral-delivery characters that child psychologists stuck into cartoons for kids to identify with.

Otherworld Minis stirge
Two sessions have gone by since. The first one had a lot of exploring, with the party finding themselves banned from the Yurog Kobolds stomping grounds because they didn't want to play "The Game" - unlike the "Finger of Fazio," a rival party's mercenary the kobolds took prisoner on that group's ill-fated dungeon run and forced to play along.

Lots of dungeon terrain got mapped and connected up, lots of empty storerooms explored, a troglodyte released who was suffering from strange excisions on the groin, and some in-town bickering and haggling. Oh, and about three more stairs down got discovered. One was a huge spiral stair that led up as well as down. It had the dwarf suffering direction-sense vertigo as they ascended, but they'd been warned about this particular dimension-churning staircase by the veteran explorer Lord Mayor Felmere. What they didn't expect was that the stair was winding into a ceiling of water, with fishes swimming and sunlight dimly shining from above. Prudence dictated descent.

The second session, picked up from where the intact party left off in the dungeon, was an epic two-delve battle against a colony of stirges in a section of the cellars that someone had been trying to mine into. Spirits were tense as Grumpka the dwarf ventured alone time and time again into the low-ceilinged tunnels, drawing out pack after pack of stirges like a daintily-bearded fishing lure. Cordoon the henchman caught a beak that put him out of action, but thanks to good post-traumatic dice rolling was back on his feet in a day, and the party went back, disposed of the stirges, and raked in a motley collection of items, coins, and an intact suit of plate/mail armor. Boniface's attempt to peddle a stirge's beak to the old witch who sells healing potions, though, met with nothing but contempt and antipathy. Charisma won't get you everywhere...

So, Orko, enough telling you about my campaign. Tell me, what have we learned about stirges?
  •  Striges (r before i, the plural of Strix) in Roman legend were blood-sucking screech-owl witches. Thomas Burnett Swann in the novel Day of the Minotaur, made famous by Gary Gygax's Appendix N, adapts them as soft-feathered "vampire owls" with fangs instead of beaks, but has the singular as "Strige." From there, that iconic monster is just one long beak and one momentous typo away.
  • Striges ... aggh, stirges ... were part of my introduction to D&D circa 1980, through a feature article in Games Magazine. It included a sample dungeon that could be reached through a trap door in "Madame Bam's" disreputable establishment (anyone else remember this one?). The "Stirges (vampire birds)" described therein had a weirdness to them that had me hooked from the start.
  • When your players imagine out loud ... and they imagine stirges with barbed beaks in the middle of a stirge encounter ... it takes every ounce of willpower not to make them pay for it ... just yet. Instead, I cooked up an Alterna-Stirge table:
1-15: Normal stirges
16-17: Barbed beaks; do 1 more point of damage when extracted, 1-3 if wound is healed over.
18: Acid stirges, inject caustic bile on first turn of sucking for double damage.
19: "Stirges Blow": deviant stirges inflate instead of draining their victims' blood vessels; save (Death/Fortitude) or suffer a fatal embolism.
20: Tiny Burnett-Swann stirges, fangs not beak, 1-2 hp each, hide and sneak as a 5th level thief, settle on back of neck with a hit, hide there and drain 1 hp/round unless noticed.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Original Standard in Action: Of Molds and Magic
To illustrate some final issues arising in the quest to write an adventure using only the common rules elements of 5 out of 6 D&D editions, I give you the red and green molds from Egg of the Gazolba.
Red mold: dies from water, spore cloud if touched or burned, all within 20‘ risk 1d6x10 minute coma.  Green mold: infects by touch, grows rapidly when wet, dies from burning.
To write about these things we are going to need a common time scale. The combat round varies in literal time from edition to edition, but is keyed to action, so can stand as it is. If you want a time course outside of combat, use minutes, hours etc. (the ten minute turn, alas, was put to death in 3e by the more "logical" usage of "turn" as a given figure's combat round.).

In the stat-free writeup I used "risk" to signify a saving throw situation, which all editions but 4th have, and 4th can simulate with a Fortitude attack. Now, which saving throw? Really, I could leave the situation as is; the 3e system using Fortitude saves would obviously use those, and earlier editions can assimilate it to Poison. Nor would it do any harm to give some pointers in case the save to use is not obvious. For example, an arrow trap might be saved against using (Reflexes/Breath Weapon).

The green mold can give a similar (Fortitude/Poison) save when touched with bare flesh, maybe at -2 for the audacity to touch it. All editions' saves or save-like procedures, like hit rolls, use d20, making bonuses and penalties easy to apply. Like green slime, it will infect you and kill you in a certain amount of time ... let's say 1d6 hours ... provided it is not excised with fire (doing fire damage to the victim) or with a cure disease spell.

Okay, okay, "magical curing." But this brings me to the most vexing question. How to deal with spells, and magic items beyond the simple +2 sword? The very thickness of those sections in D&D rulebooks shows that there is no easy way to boil them down, though some have tried ...

Without going through my thought process in too much detail, here is my solution. Each OS document has a "base reference edition," or core rulebook it can refer to for itemized things such as spells, items and monsters, without having to stat them out.

Most of the time, I think, that will be enough; the DM using another reference can improvise or substitute from the name of the thing alone. If you want to deviate from your base reference edition, then give a short description of the new or outsourced spell's effects and other statistics.

A good default reference edition would be OD&D + Greyhawk (of which Swords and Wizardry is a reasonable facsimile). This is the source identified by Delta a while ago wherein most of the iconic spells in the game can be found. This spell list has shown remarkable persistence right through 3rd edition.

To sum up, Original Standard writes with these numerical and categorical mechanics:

Ability stats, 4 classes (race and class descriptors), hit dice or level, armor class (ascending and descending), damage (d8 longsword standard), move as a 12" human standard, saves either descriptive or (original/3e), coins on a gp base, time in rounds or normal units, modifiers to all the above stats, and a base reference edition that can be used to refer to itemized game elements like spells and monsters.

So tell me what I missed, and if this is something you can use - and if not, why not?

Monday, 4 April 2011

Original Standard in Action: Monster stats

Statting a monster, Original Standard style, is fairly simple. Let's take the giant troll in Egg of the Gazolba. The original can be found in the Fiend Folio and these stats will suffice:

Hit Dice: 8
This is fairly straighforward to apply to all editions except 4th, for which a very inexact conversion factor seems to be "monster level = old-style hit dice x 1.5". Hit Dice also determines monster hit point, attack, xp for killing, and saves in various ways.

Armor Class: 4[15] - fairly simple, as with NPCs.
Move: 12" - As mentioned previously, this scales to  a move/speed of 6 5-foot squares (edited) for 3rd and 4th edition.
Damage: 2d8 - Give multiple dice-codes if multiple attacks exist.

Damage from any source presents problems for OD&D and the like where the base hit die and damage is d6 rather than d8. Attack damage dice seem to be to a similar scale in 3rd and 4th edition, just with more bonuses from abilities and powers, which will be calculated anyway in further detailing the monster. I would scale damage to Swords & Wizardry basic damage simply by bumping the die down one size and cutting bonuses by 75%, so 2d8+4 becomes 2d6+3 and so on. There's also a tendency in Basic and OD&D to eschew the multiple attacks in other editions, but that is hard to model in a regular way, and probably best handled by the individual referee.

Special: Regenerate 2 hp/round.
In particular, this regeneration number will need conversion upwards in 3rd and 4th edition where monster hit points double if not quadruple. Remember, OS is an attempt to find out what's common to the more complex editions, not to give them an easy time. "When in doubt, and you really need a number, scale to AD&D First."

In general, monster special abilities are a mixed bunch. If they affect Original Standard stats directly they can be described in those terms (like regeneration, slowing, or extra damage). But some things, like paralyzation, level drain, or poison are best described in words, with a time course for their duration and whether or not you get a save. More on this in the next post where I go into more detail on specials, traps, and effects. And yes, I'll get to spells shortly after that.

That's really my conception of an OS monster stats block. Useful, but not essential, is an additional descriptive portion I'll call the MRI. Like a brain scan, it gives details of the monster's morale, reaction and intellect in a sentence or two, without resorting to stats. For the giant troll I would say:
The giant troll is cowardly when faced with superior power (which isn't often). It is surly but will bargain to its advantage. While stupid, it knows it is stupid, so will be suspicious of overly complicated explanations.
From here on in the hard part starts: trick/trap/skill mechanics and (ulp) spells and magic items.

Original Standard in Action: NPC stats

It has been said that I'm a complicated man and no-one understands me except my woman. But when even she isn't clear what you're trying to achieve with a series of posts, it's time to get a concrete example going.

We're going to expand some elements of my one page dungeon "Egg of the Gazolba" (link to the right) with Original Standard stats. The introduction is mostly scene setting and can be skipped, but lurking in the back is a formidable woodsman who will have to be dealt with if the party isn't sufficiently cautious in covering their entry into the caves...
the keeper of the forest, one Syrax: high level, tracking ability near flawless in his own woods, prone to arrest trespassers
This casting decision sure makes him interesting...
So goes the mechanics-free description. First things first is his class. We have the four base classes to work with, and Iit's a good idea to also put in parentheses a word or two that can be matched to classes or races in more advanced settings, or treated as descriptive words otherwise. "High level" implies someone you don't want to meet; for low level characters, say 2-3, we can make him 9th level.

Syrax, Fighter (Ranger) Level 9. Another example might be Fighter (Ranger, Half-Elf). Descriptive words can be anything but obviously "Ranger" is going to be more understandable than "Puma Dancer."

Because he's an NPC, he gets stats: S 15, D 15, I 13, W 16, C 12, Ch 10.  The range of these stats, for NPCs at least, is pretty constant across versions.

And hit points ... Here we have a problem. The different editions of the game scale hit points very differently, but this is one of the most important stats you can provide. Or is it? Let's set a precedent and let the DM decide what a Level 9 character should have. I mean, I often forget the hit points I wrote down for a monster and just roll them up on the spot with a large stash of d8. If the person has above or below average hits for some reason, this can be remarked upon.

We can write down his weapons and equipment. I didn't because of space constraints of the one-page dungeon, but plausibly a tracking, sneaking ranger-type of high level will wear leather armor +1, carry longbow, 12 arrows +2 and 20 normal, longsword +2 and dagger. Note how simple magic item plusses are also OS across all editions.

It won't be necessary to list his Armor Class as this can be figured out from equipment and stats; alternatively, Swords & Wizardry style ascending and descending can be given, in this case AC5[14]. This light equipment also means his move is 12", or 6 new-style, but for an NPC this can also be figured out according to the rules in use.

Alignment, morale, friendliness can all be given descriptively, or left up to the GM. From the game text and "Ranger" description we know he is great at tracking in the woods, and will probably notice if the party leave any marks on the cliff face or large, obvious marks by the cave mouths 10 feet up. He's in good shape and because the climbing is "easy" he can get to the desired cave mouth without too much risk, but if he can't see much to choose among them he'll just watch the caves. And he can wait a long time. All these details could have been put in the module, but they also show that most of the time for an NPC, skill stats and mechanics can be reduced to "can they do it or not"? NPCs don't have to play by the same rules as PCs.

And his treasure ... well, the point is that he can't easily be defeated to get at it, but traveling light, he would carry about 20 gp for personal needs, well secured from clinking and probably hidden on his person. Treasure is more relevant to the monsters, and that's next up.

Anything else stats-wise you'd need to know about the ranger?

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Original Standard

As promised last time, here are the elements I've identified that are common to the base rules of five out of six editions of the D&D game.
  • Characters have six Abilities: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution and Charisma. How they are used differs, but their theoretical range is 3 to 18.
  • Characters have levels, and monsters have hit dice, that determine their power.
  • Characters and monsters have Hit Points, that increase with level or power, and which determine how much damage they can take before being taken out of combat. How those Hit Points are determined varies greatly.
  • There are four basic classes, variously named, but most often called Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric and Thief. Two of the editions use race-as-class.
  • Armor Class is a measure of defense. It either goes up from 10 or down from 10 (or 9); but it is usually immediately obvious that an AC over 10 uses the ascending system.
  • Movement rate varies, but is easily scaled; a human's base move per round is 12 (120 feet) in earlier editions and 6 (30 feet) in 3rd edition on.
  • Saving Throws exist to determine whether various dangers affect a being. They use d20 and are of several kinds, but what they are exactly varies.
  • Combat uses d20 to determine hits and various dice to determine damage on a successful hit.
  • As much as I love to use the silver standard, all base sets of D&D have used the gold piece (gp) as base currency.
  • Technically, magic should be on this list. It shares a surprisingly great deal across all but 4th edition. Magic-Users and Clerics have different lists of spells, which are used by expending different spell level slots. Most of the spells from the original D&D have continued on through 3rd Edition. All the same, this is the area with the greatest flexibility, and it certainly would be tough to have to itemize a list of standard spell names. I'm still thinking out a solution for how Standard should refer to spells.
Does all this mean you should be playing a game with these rules? No, you can feel free to call Constitution Fortitude, use a different magic system, track specific injuries instead of hit points.

But when it comes to producing material for the many people who have taken to playing all kinds of variations on this game, this is the common language. A document produced using only these stats, and using system-free explanations for the rest, will speak to the greatest number of people. A rule set and its supporting documents will be more widely usable across variants of the game the more it builds on this "common language" property.

... So maybe "Original Standard Rules" sounds too much like I'm dictating the play of the game. Maybe just "Original Standard." You can be fully compatible so far as nothing in your game or module contradicts these concepts (for example, you don't split Dexterity into Agility and Finesse). You can be fully compliant so far as all the mechanics in your game use only these concepts.(for example, you don't refer to encumbrance or psionics rules using stats, names and numbers).

Some examples using Egg of the Gazolba next time.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

OSR = Original Standard Rules

Wrong OSR, sadly - love the crab!
Let's make the reasonable assumption that an experienced DM running a version of D&D can run an adventure written for the One Page Dungeon contest, from which system-specific stats are purposefully banned. The more rules-light, the quicker to conjure up monster statblocks, improvise skill-like procedures, and do whatever else it takes.

Let's also assume that even the experienced DM would like some stats in the adventure, as long as that information fits the system they're using.

Let's further assume that there is such a variety of base, clone, and home-brewed systems being played that the best anyone can achieve is partial fit. What stats, at minimum, can an author provide that meet that fit for the most people?

I'm wary of ever achieving an opinion-based consensus. I mean, over on the right are 25 different blogs I follow. If you got all their authors in a room together you'd get 50 different opinions.

I'm more optimistic about an objective rule to build consensus. Look. We're all playing D&D here, with or without serial numbers filed off. There have been six major versions of D&D (Original+Supplements, AD&D, Basic, 2nd Ed. AD&D, 3rd Ed., 4th Ed.) Let's partially route around the quirks of the Zero and Latest Editions, and base our judgments on this rule: A game element is only Standard D&D if it appears in 5 out of 6 of these versions. 

Even 4th? Yes. Wizards may have taken a RotoRooter to the game mechanics but they have shrewdly preserved, in name, most of the elements that make up the game's persistent identity.

Next post I'll lay out what this means in more detail, because it's not without twists and oddities.

I have seen Chad Thorson's logo idea and Thomas Denmark's suggestions for its use. Let me propose a more specific rule for what I think Thomas was getting at.

OSR as a brand name for me makes most sense as:
  • "Original" - because D&D is the original roleplaying game, without violating copyright, or being coy about the issue.
  • "Standard" - if a supplement or adventure is mechanics-free except for the Standard elements of the game, it will automatically be compatible with all related systems. Any further details of the system the author is using should be explained, or handled by making a reference to a published product. Any further fine-tuning to fit the system the DM is using is the DM's responsibility.
  • "Rules" - because that is really what we are doing at a minimal level that everyone can agree on. Not everyone is into a Renaissance, Revival, Revolution, Revanchism, Rearguard, Revelation, Raid, Regurgitation, Rap-battle, or Riot. 
More later, but let me know if this makes sense to you right now.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Spawn of Fashan Retro-Clone Project

Now that I've made you look ...

See, since back when I read Lawrence Schick's review in the April 1982 issue of Dragon (p. 76), which ended up explaining this ill-conceived RPG as a parody, I always assumed the review itself was an April Fool's joke on a nonexistent game.

But over the years, Dame Experience has since taught me that there's no satire like reality. Information about SoF is surprisingly light on the net, but it looks like it was a real game.

It's reviewed at length on

Older and wiser, the game's creator reflects on his 15 minutes of fame.

As I noted reviewing bad monsters, there's a difference between "flamboyantly awful" and "just awful." In hindsight, Spawn is just your garden variety, poorly edited, simulationist-preposterous attempt to improve D&D. What's sad is that the championship belt of "worst RPG ever" has since gone to systems that topped  bad design with worse social attitudes. The fate of such should be obscurity, not the notoriety they crave.

PS: Speaking of "just awful," have a gander at the carefully segregated official April Fool's content in that Dragon magazine issue. Um ,wow.