Saturday, February 18, 2017

Magic Items, By Way of 10Rogue

Brief bit of background beforehand: I have been playing a small, little-discussed game called 10Rogue off and on since middle school. A classmate was playing it, and I asked for the name, interested as to what such a primitive-looking game might be like; when I downloaded it and started playing, I was hooked. Even though it took the better part of 5 years to understand most of the mechanics (mainly due to the fact that Googling "10rogue" mostly brought results about MMOG players discussing how best to optimize their rogue character builds... and now those people have taken up D&D 5e), I still found it fascinating. I took it for inspiration when I tried to make a pen-and-paper version of it, until I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and learned that I had been essentially reinventing the wheel.

For those who aren't familiar with it, 10Rogue is a freeware clone of the original Rogue, the game that spawned an entire subgenre of "roguelikes". I'd be tempted to call 10Rogue a retroclone, except that it came out in 1984 - less than 5 years after the introduction of the original. It simulates a randomly-generated dungeon crawl, with the primary divergence from old-school D&D being the lack of a distinct class or race system; the player's character can use any weapon, armor, magical implement, or scroll, and can search for secret doors. The main reason that I prefer 10Rogue over the original Rogue is that the interface is very stripped down and streamlined (you can use the arrow keys or the numpad to move). The ASCII graphics are also a huge plus, as any version of Windows prior to 8 can run it in a command prompt window, although I still prefer to use DOSBox so that the save/load and scoreboard features work properly.

Here's one example of Rogue; graphically, it's almost
identical to the version that I play regularly, 10Rogue.

Getting back on topic, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that 10Rogue cemented in my mind the way that RPGs should work. It definitely comes from the old-school way of thinking about dungeons: monsters are there to kill or be killed; the only way to learn what an item does (aside from using a scroll of identify) is to use it, with potentially deleterious effects; and if your character dies, they're dead. The only flaw with 10Rogue is that having a party of multiple characters - essential for any old-school D&D session - is impossible, which means that the odds are stacked against you from the start. But this is part of the reason I pull no punches as a DM of B/X. Your character died? Do you want to pay/go on a quest to have them raised? You can't? Oh well, better make another one.

(I also haven't pulled any punches when I've run the original West End Games Star Wars, but that's for an entirely different reason; it's damned difficult to kill characters in that system!)

The main thing that I like about 10Rogue mechanically, though, is the way magic items are handled. When you find an implement, potion, or scroll, you don't know anything about it other than what your eyes tell you. This staff is made of mahogany; this potion is blue; this scroll has the words "jujmon lij dodlom" written on it. Unless you have a scroll of identify, the only way to figure out what an item does is by using it - wave the staff or wand, quaff the potion, read the scroll aloud. After this is done - and if the effect is immediately obvious, which it isn't always - then other items of the same appearance are automatically "remembered" as being of that particular type. The appearances are consistent from item to item, within the same game - but when you start a new game, everything changes.

This process of risky discovery is what I want to capture in my B/X sessions. I personally don't like the rule that every single potion, even one with identical effects to another one, is a different color (and presumably scent, opacity, etc.), so I decided to make them uniform. This doesn't mean that a potion couldn't be deliberately adulterated to resemble a different one - indeed, poisons almost always are designed to resemble beneficial potions - but in general, two blue potions of identical size, scent, and viscosity will have the same effect. This allows the party to gradually discover more about the world by experimenting.

I didn't want to just haphazardly assign color values and materials to magic items, though, nor did I want to give too many cute clues (a red potion heals, a transparent potion confers invisibility, etc.) to the players. Since I quite enjoy the system of the eight "schools" of magic in AD&D 2e, I decided to use them as the basis for a unifying scheme of colors, metals, woods, and gems. This was partly inspired by my research into Alchemy and the Hermetic Qabala, but I was careful to not apply them too similarly out of respect for the traditions. (Not like I could, anyway; most Western esoteric systems are based on 3-, 7, and 12-part schemes, whereas magic in AD&D 2e has eight divisions.)

Yep, an eight-part color wheel. At least it allows
for opposition, unlike its seven-part counterpart.

I won't go into too much detail about the specific attributions I used, in case some of my players stumble across this post. But the advantage of using the schools of magic in this way is that it allows me to assign specific color values, as well as corresponding materials, for both main types of magical effects - thaumaturgic (arcane/wizard spells) and theurgic (divine/priest spells) - because the designers of AD&D 2e were helpful enough to include the appropriate school of magic even in the priest spell descriptions. This does mean that not every potion or implement is unique; there are obviously multiple potions in B/X whose effects fall under the school of Necromancy or Alteration, for example. But I still like this system a lot.

As for scrolls... I'll have to deal with those in a separate post. Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Duemeran Species: Elves

The elves, or erev in their own language, are a demihuman species that live all over the Continent. The Sylvans (or "wood elves") and Varlans (or "high elves") are found throughout the Kingdom of Duemerus, while the Thelvi (or "grey elves") live mostly in the Principality of Le'var to the west.

Elves are outwardly very similar to humans, standing five to six feet high at maturity (20 years) and having soft skin in a human-like range of tones, with Sylvans tending to be darker and Thelvans having ash-grey or white skin. Their primary distinguishing features from humans are their much lighter frames, pointed ears, and lack of facial or body hair. Upon closer inspection, however, even the "hair" on their heads and brows is not actually hair, but very thin feather-like growths. Their extremely light weight is due to having a hollow bone structure; these traits suggest that the elves may have descended from birds rather than land animals.

A close-up of kiwi bird feathers, which have
a texture resembling the "hair" of elves.

Although elves are shorter than most humans initially, they do not stop growing in height after they reach physical and sexual maturity. Because of this, and their extremely long lifespans (often up to 200 years), many elven elders stand well over seven feet tall.

There is virtually no difference in appearance between male and female elves, and in fact their culture holds no difference socially between the sexes aside from the roles played in procreation; attitudes are virtually identical regarding same-sex relationships as heterosexual ones. With an increasing number of elves living in human-dominated cities, same-sex relationships are increasingly seen as desirable among the younger generation who do not want to raise families. A number of elves also have an androgynous persona, which is also normalized by their native language having no grammatical elements of gender.

Despite having very different physiologies, elves do have a limited amount of reproductive compatibility with humans, although the resulting offspring (being of two different species) will themselves be infertile. A sexual relationship between a biologically male elf and a biologically female human is extremely hazardous, however, as the longer gestation period of elves - about twelve months, compared to humans' nine months - will usually result in the mother dying in childbirth. This, coupled with the "half-elf" having a lifespan shorter than their elven parent, but longer than their human one (typically about 120 years), leads many half-elven offspring to have trouble fitting in to whichever society they choose to join; it has been suggested that this is a reason why many adopt the nomadic lifestyle of the adventurer. There has been no evidence suggesting that elves are reproductively compatible with dwarves, gnomes, orcs, or other demihuman or humanoid species; fertilization could hypothetically occur with halflings (due to their physiology being almost identical to that of humans), but such would not result in a child being brought to term, as the mother would die of the strain on her body if a miscarriage did not occur early in the pregnancy.

Elves' hollow bone structure makes them much lighter and more maneuverable than the average human, giving them a +1 bonus to Dexterity; it also makes their bones more vulnerable to breakage, giving them a -1 penalty to Constitution. Half-elves tend to have "chambered" or semi-hollow bones which make them lighter in weight, but do not affect their agility or durability to a significant extent.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

AD&D 1e PHB Available on Print-on-Demand

Well, it looks like the AD&D (1st edition) Players Handbook is now officially back in print. I believe the DMG and MM are also available in this fashion.

It's currently on sale, so if you want a high-quality PDF along with the book, I'd grab it soon.

I'm sorely tempted to pick one of these up, as I don't yet own the PHB. If I do, I'll write up a post about it, comparing the physical quality to my genuinely premium-reprinted DMG.

Happy gaming!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Back in the Ring

Well, it has been a while since my last post. This semester was rough on both me and most of my players, to the extent that I didn't get to run anything for over a month, but I just finished the comeback session of my AD&D campaign. Despite all of us being a little rusty with the rules and mechanics, and one of the four players that showed up having to leave before the session proper, we all had fun. I even have that endorphin rush that accompanies my best runnings; while I wouldn't count this one among my best, it was pretty good considering all of the factors that were arrayed against it. (Plus, the pizza this time was excellent... and one of my most regular players recently started working at the nearest pizza joint.)

This campaign in particular was one I've been itching to get back on its feet. According to the notes of one player, the last time we played it was in June. 😧

However, I used the intervening time to do some work on the rules. My goal throughout was to streamline and organize the rules as much as possible, while still leaving the majority of the content in the Player's Handbook valid rules-wise. Some of the changes I've made include:
  • Simplifying the equipment lists a great deal. I used the equipment tables from the Rules Cyclopedia (and some from the Cook & Marsh Expert Rulebook) as a baseline, only adding extra items where absolutely necessary. I removed a lot of extraneous weapons from the "standard" list (the bloated ones from the PHB can still be used, if a player insists), as well as removing a lot of armor; there is now only one armor type for every AC value (from 8 to 0).
  • Organizing the spell lists by class. Clerics (and paladins), druids (and rangers), and illusionists all use the spell tables from the AD&D1 Players Handbook, while mages (and bards) use the spell tables from the Expert Rulebook; this does mean that they do not have a finalized list beyond 6th level yet, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
  • Adding the assassin and monk from The Scarlet Brotherhood as core classes, while removing all specialist wizards except the illusionist. This leaves a total of 11 classes - three for every group except wizards. I'm considering adding another wizard class to balance it out, but I'm not sure yet.
  • Adding Comeliness as the seventh ability score; it's rolled like any other score, but will increase or decrease when Charisma does. It basically functions as described in AD&D1's Unearthed Arcana.
I also tried out the method of awarding experience by damage, detailed by Alexis Smolensk here; it worked well for my fighter and thief characters when the party fought a displacer beast, but the druid (who only got in one hit) came up short. I'm considering combining this with the optional rules for class-specific experience awards in the AD&D2 DMG, to allow some additional reward for difficult non-combat tasks.

Finally, I stayed up until 3:00am last night (Friday) creating a custom character sheet, incorporating all of my house rules. Both my players and I were very pleased by the results; I'll try and post it sometime soon after I add a page for henchmen and animal companions (the current sheet fits everything else on two pages).

Hopefully, getting to run will give me some inspiration for additional posts. I'll be traveling out of town closer to Yule/Christmas, but until then I'll try and whip something up.

(P. S. I used For Gold & Glory as my rules reference, and my PHB and the one owned by one of my players was used by them. For the most part, it worked; I'll definitely be using it instead of my stack of 2e core books going forward, at least for running at the table.)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Running the Funnel in B/X

So, this past Friday, I ran "The Funnel" for my B group. The original plan was that we would continue the D&D 5th Edition game that is the usual bi-weekly event of the group, but the DM overslept. Brief mention was made of running Call of Cthulu, but since I had all of my B/X stuff with me, I proposed running The Funnel. After some explanation, the players agreed, and I gave them the 3" x 2.5" index cards on which I had written the 0-level characters. There were seven players, for a total of 21 characters. I put them into a deadly dungeon in the Arcadian Isles (the setting for my regular B/X game), and let them loose.

They loved it.

True, some of the characters died. One especially unlucky player lost all three of his starting characters, so I gave him a fourth (the maximum number, so he'd better be extra careful with this one). Another player - his older brother, in fact - played one of his characters as an impulsive, gung-ho type (very much like one of B.'s characters, in fact), and the other two as more cautious; the reckless Bailey died gloriously, and the players kept talking about him for the rest of the session. Still a third player was making a map of his own using a paint program on his phone.

There were only two points of concern. One: the need for a map. I figured that having a mapper might slow down a group who usually doesn't even use miniatures, but since the aforementioned player was already making a pretty good map without the aid of grid lines, I think having at least one mapper would be a good idea. (In general, my players have enjoyed mapping far more than I expected for a bunch of young'uns - or at least, haven't hated it as much as I feared.)

The other concern was the order of actions. In a group of four to eight player characters, it's not extremely important who goes in what order on the same side... but with twenty-one characters in play, it gets a little chaotic. Next time, I'll probably just go clockwise around the table.

Fun was had by all, and hopefully I'll get to finish the adventure soon. It was also a morale booster, since the last two meet-ups with my A group kind of fizzled. The cool thing about B/X is that it has all the rules for The Funnel hidden inside the saving throw and combat tables, and the monster section (look under "Normal Man"). It's sessions like this that remind me why I persist in being a referee despite the difficulties and frustrations that crop up every so often.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Character Creation vs. Character Building

This is mostly a response to this post on The Word of Stelios, and is expanded from the comment I made there. Read his post first if you haven't already, and then come back here. I'll wait.

First Stelios, then Cirsova, and now me; it proves the point concisely, though.

I'll just come out and say it: I really, really don't like point-buy systems. They make character creation drag, they repel newcomers to the hobby, and they take the focus away from immersion and place it on min-maxing. Even in the simplest, most rules-lite games, so much time can be spent agonizing over where to put those last few points. It's one thing to have points able to be allocated to skills, if the game uses a skill system - heck, even AD&D 2nd Edition uses such a system for its rogue skills. But when the basic attributes of a character are determined by shuffling little numbers around, I call foul.

Let's use my current favorite game, Basic/Expert D&D (Moldvay/Cook & Marsh) as an example. To create a character, roll 3d6 in order. Then choose a class. Then roll for hit points based on that class (that is, if you don't just give maximum HP at 1st level like I do). Then roll 3d6 one more time for starting gold, and use that to buy equipment. Then write down Armor Class based on armor and Dexterity. Total time for an experienced player: 15 minutes or less.

The basic, essential attributes of a character - everything he or she has innately, before equipment, spells, and special abilities are factored in - can easily fit on half of a 3" x 5" index card. In preparation for a Dungeon Crawl Classics-style "Funnel" for B/X, I rolled up twenty-six 0-level characters - "Normal Humans", in B/X parlance - gave them first names, and figured out their Armor Class and Hit Points. All of this fit comfortably on an index card that had been cut in half to make two narrower ones.

"But what about equipment?" Write it on the back; it's a plain white surface.
"But what about saving throws and attack rolls?" Well, I can easily look up Normal Human (or, to use the exact wording in the table, "Normal Man" - although I tried for an even balance of masculine, feminine, and neuter names) on the Saving Throws table, and I know already that all of these characters have a THAC0 of 20.

True, there technically is a way of adjusting ability scores by lowering one to raise another - but as far as I can recall in my gonzo B/X campaign so far (the third session of which wrapped up this past Thursday), no one has actually done it. The curve for ability modifiers means that most adjustments wouldn't have a big effect; one of my players could have raised her cleric's Wisdom to 18, but she decided not to since it would only have affected saving throws, and wouldn't have raised her XP bonus at all (those cap at 16).

Now, I have a player who prefers point-buy to generate ability scores; part of this is due to his terrible luck with the dice when rolling up characters (something I've witnessed firsthand), but part of it is due to his desire to have as much control over the character as possible. I'm starting to think that this player suffers from acute Special Snowflake Syndrome, as the three characters he's had in my games are as follows: a Kitsune merchant, a Dhampir, and a giant(ess). You'll notice that none of those are even remotely core in any role-playing system outside of maybe The World of Synnibarr. In the first two cases, I had to scrape something together from homebrew sources; in the latter, I've had to combine information from The Complete Book of Humanoids with some references to the more obscure implied rules from the PHB and Monstrous Manual. This player insisted that his character had to be about 16 or 17 feet tall, but the largest giant-kin in the CBOH is the Firbolg, who stands about 10' 6". Fortunately, I was able to fudge this because the much taller Hill Giant has the same maximum Strength as the Firbolg (19).

This player is certainly not a bad person or even an annoying player while actually in session; he and I get along quite well otherwise. It just frustrates me that he seems unable to stick with the stuff already in the book. Isn't it enough to be able to play one of four to seven races, and choose from four to nine (or eleven) classes? Apparently not.

I think part of this is a result of said player having begun with D&D 3.5... which leads me to my next bugbear: feats.

I can't stand feats. They take too long to choose from, they're so vague that the player has to either write out a summary of the feat on their character sheet or resign themselves to the fate of having to crack open the rulebook every time they attack or get attacked, and there are some feats that are just plain better than others - a beginner's trap. (I have the same problem with the inflated spell lists in AD&D, but that's a whole other rant.) They're just another reason for me never to run D&D 3e or 3.5, or Pathfinder ever again.

At first, I thought that D&D 5th Edition had improved by making feats optional. But as I examined the process of character creation more thoroughly (and "built" a few characters of varying level myself), I realized something: no matter what optional rules are dropped, feats are still there, hiding under a different name. You might know them as "backgrounds" and "archetypes". Short phrases that have little to no meaning in and of themselves, serving only as shorthand for little packaged abilities or "skill bundles", chosen at character creation? Them there's feats.

Of course, feats are far from the only thing about 3rd Edition and 3.5 that would be a cause for Special Snowflake Syndrome; the mania for prestige classes and supplement bloat (the latter, naturally, also a problem with AD&D2, and even oD&D if you think about it) probably had something to do with it, along with the inclusion of a point-buy system into the core. Making a new character for any standard d20 System game - be it D&D, Star Wars Saga Edition, or something else - takes way too freaking long. Even worse is having to make a character, and then level it up to whatever number the DM has arbitrarily decided as the starting point. I joined an in-progress campaign where everyone was 8th level - and I do mean everyone. Not content with the evened-out XP table that is the same regardless of class, this particular DM (also a good person, and a fun guy to game with) did away with XP entirely, and just levels people up as the "story" moves along.

So anyway, I needed an 8th-level character. My first thought was to make a wizard, but I quickly realized that that was a bad idea; the class features gave me a big enough headache to incapacitate a hippo. Even making a fighter - a fighter, by the Nine! - required choosing a Martial Archetype, and following along with all the fancy feats that came with leveling up. This is probably why I like older versions of D&D more; in B/X and (core, no splatbooks) AD&D2, a fighter is a fighter. Sure, there's weapon specialization in AD&D2, but for the most part one fighter starts out the same as another. The uniqueness of each comes out in play. Delmar the Mighty is famed for his killing of the Dragon of Grindly Grunn, while Ulysses is a very smooth talker.

Likewise with wizards (or magic-users or mages). In either edition I typically run, you have one spell, four hit points, and no armor. You'd better play smart. I find that this is still somewhat the case in 5e (my 3rd-level wizard character got injured in a fight), but much less so thanks to infinite cantrips. (Of course, that's a whole other rant.)

I'm not really sure how to end this post; I've been working on it for two days off and on. Anyhow, thoughts? Has there ever been a system that, in your view, was so fun to play that it didn't matter how long it took to make characters?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

For Gold & Glory: First Impressions

My copy of For Gold & Glory just arrived in the mail today! It arrived much sooner than expected, which is fortunate since I'm planning to get my AD&D game back on its feet in the next few weeks. I'm looking forward to having a single-book rules reference to use in-game, and I'll likely post a more in-depth review of it once I've actually gotten to use it as such.

For now though, I can comment on its physical quality. I opted for color hardcover, and even then the price was just over $25.00 USD (including shipping). It uses matte paper, which doesn't show off the art as well as glossy (and some of the art - mostly drawn from Renaissance and later paintings, as far as I can tell - is very good), but it looks like it'll take pencil much better. Since I'm using this as a reference guide, and it's not a vintage or rare item, I will try to overcome my compunctions and make some notes of my own! It's also quite easy to read, being in my absolute favorite format: serif font, somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-10 pt, two-column layout.

More to come! ( some point)

(Unrelated note: I'm so glad for the new, larger mailbox that was decided on after the previous one fell over in a storm. The whole book fit in it easily!)