Saturday, April 30, 2016

Z is for Zombies

I've mentioned zombies before, but I wanted to bring up something that has always been a sticking point for me: the use of the word "zombie" in a fantasy game. I've never been a huge fan of it, to the point that not a single one of my NPCs has ever uttered the word. With the way that pop culture of the last ten years or so has been swarming with the things - both figuratively and literally - I find that it's much too easy to ruin the immersive nature of the game by reference to a common term. (Incidentally, I also have this problem with Ktulu* after Steve Jackson Games started the wave of plush toys... even though Cthulu Dice is one of my favorite quick-play party games.)

Before I started playing tabletop RPGs, I ran into this issue. I got around it then by following the lead of the original Night of the Living Dead, and referring to shambling, reanimated corpses as "ghouls". I'm still a fan of this idea, as it's just vague enough that there's no precise definition. A "ghoul" might be a carnivorous corpse, or a roaming undead necrovore. The only issue is that a "ghoul" in D&D terms refers to a very specific type of monster, that is often semi-intelligent and not usually created to serve a necromancer or "evil" cleric.

I've already demonstrated to my players the lethality of even a relatively small group of zombies, although some of them feel that that specific scenario was unfair; but that's a story for another time. Perhaps there's a good way to keep them scary...

* Yes, I spelled it the way Metallica spelled it. No, there isn't a particular reason. I just like footnotes.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Y is for Years

I'm not talking about the years that a particular person or group can spend enjoying the hobby. Instead, I want to talk about the significance of years in game time.

When describing a game world's history, it's easy to get carried away and have changes occur so slowly that there's essentially a case of medieval stasis. The Great Collapsing Hrung Disaster happened in 300 AGC (After the Grand Conjunction); the Fruit of the House of Gusher was stolen in 350 AGC; and the Murloc Invasion began in 425 AGC, which brings us to the current campaign.

And in all that time, people are still using steel longswords, maille armor, and yew bows.

To be honest, I'm somewhat guilty of this myself, which is why I've worked on establishing a rough technology timeline for my setting. The "Old Era" (which would be when my OD&D campaign is set) has bronze as the main weapons technology, and the ballista is a relatively new invention. The "Middle Era" (where my AD&D2 campaign is currently set) has portable crossbows, though they are relatively rare. The "Late Era" (rules system to be determined) would have non-magical gunpowder just being invented.

It's always important to keep in mind, though, that sweeping changes can happen in under a decade.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

X is for eXpert

As much as I enjoyed reading about B/X, and as much time as I'd spent reading the Moldvay Basic Rulebook, I had never actually read through the Cook/Marsh Expert Rulebook until about six months ago. I caved and bought the PDF, and printed it out.

Every good thing you've ever heard about it is true.

The curve from 1st to 14th level is pretty good, and doesn't do as big a disservice to demihumans as the 1-36 spread does in the larger BECMI rules. The endgame is solid, as players have the ability to build castles and strongholds, sail the seas, and explore in a satisfying way; the wilderness encounter tables are better organized than the ones from OD&D, but aren't as cluttered or unintentionally hilarious as the ones from AD&D1. I'm actually going to start using them for my AD&D2 campaign, as 2e basically has none.

Plus, the art is cool. I particularly like the illustration in the character advancement tables with the human fighter talking to the two halflings. It simultaneously conveys the physical scale of the two species, the fighting capability of most halfling adventurers, the condescending attitude the taller races have towards halflings (in many settings, but not all), and the halflings' impatience with this attitude.

"Gettin' real sick of your shit, Marlowe."
I have yet to sit down and read through the entire rulebook (as I have done with the 2e Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master Guide, as well as the Moldvay Basic Rulebook), but I certainly hope to do so soon. The Expert Rules are just cool all around, and I still kind of want to run B/X in its natural form.

W is for Wizards of the Coast

(Apologies in advance for getting this post out late. I'll be posting the "X" post later today, so don't worry that I've started shirking my bloggerly responsibilities.)
Some people - past and present - seem to have heralded it as the end of an era when TSR was bought out by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. It's true that AD&D 2nd Edition would soon be on its way out, and the 3rd Edition would make some changes that not everyone liked, but it's not hard to realize that these changes were almost entirely evolutionary.

Grid combat? Six-second rounds? Attacks of opportunity? Those all originated (in official AD&D products, at least) in the Player's Option supplemental rulebooks, specifically Combat and Tactics. The Option books came out in 1995 - at the same time as the revision of AD&D2, and two years before the buyout.

I love this cover; it should have been the cover
to the revised PHB, since it shows actual combat
instead of just busting down a door!

Besides, Wizards of the Coast did keep AD&D alive for several years. They released a booklet allowing for the conversion of AD&D characters to the new 3rd Edition rules (which was slightly iffy, but a nice gesture). They released a number of supplemental books, such as The Scarlet Brotherhood (meant for Greyhawk, but could be used for any setting) which updated and revised the Assassin and Monk classes for the new rules. And, they released an adventure module (The Apocalypse Stone) which allowed DMs to end their 2nd Edition campaigns in a blaze of worlds-ending glory.

Alexis of The Tao of D&D, in his most recent podcast, suggested that the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie would never have happened if TSR had still been around as an actual company. I feel that he's both right and wrong on this point. On the one hand, the particular movie that was made is not very good, and it does a poor job of conveying what a good D&D campaign is like (although I just ran the Fast Play Game based on the movie last night, and I succeeded in introducing a complete neophyte to the hobby with great interest). On the other hand, the movie that might have been made in the 1980s - with Gygax's direct involvement - would have been far, far worse, as I read in this article from The Escapist.

True, WotC is responsible for the debacle that is 4th Edition... but that particular cluster of failure is more the fault of Hasbro, who pushed WotC to make a new version of the game (and probably forced them to make it as MMOG-like as possible) after buying them out in turn. WotC is certainly trying to do right by those who have remained loyal to the D&D "brand", and lure people back who jumped ship for Pathfinder (or even earlier cases). The premium reprints are no longer in print to my knowledge, but they can still easily be found relatively cheaply online.*

I salute you, Wizards. You done good.

* Except for the boxed set of OD&D, which (typical of collector's items) has skyrocketed to twice the list price. If I wasn't willing to pay $149.99 USD for a set, who the hell thinks I'll pay $280?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

V is for Variant Rules

My two favorite editions of D&D (that I've actually gotten to run; OD&D might take precedence if I ever find someone willing to play it) are Moldvay Basic/Cook & Marsh Expert (B/X), and AD&D 2nd Edition. These two iterations of the game share some common features. Both are fairly tightly written; both focus on core classes while still giving a few additional options for more non-conformist players; and both have a good deal of rules clearly marked as optional.

At the same time, there is a distinction in my mind between optional rules, tournament rules, and variant rules. The first can be completely excluded from the game without having too many adverse effects (unless the DM or players prefer to use said rules). The second, mostly a feature of AD&D2, set out rules that are used in place of the "optional rule" to allow for greater consistency at events and organized play. An example of this would be the two different sets of rules for encumbrance (in the PHB) and aerial combat (in the DMG); in the latter case, the "tournament rule" is the standard abstraction of passes and movement classes, while the "optional rule" requires the use of miniature figures or markers - to my recollection, the only AD&D2 rule to explicitly require them.

The third category consists of a different way of doing an integral rule. For instance, initiative is an essential part of combat; no matter what system is used for it, a system is necessary. Both B/X and AD&D2 have simple group initiative as the default rule; individual initiative, while marked as optional, is more of a variant rule because it replaces an existing system with a different way of doing the same thing. (AD&D2 also has a mix between these, referred to as "group initiative" - as opposed to "standard initiative" - that still divides battles into sides, but uses a small table of modifiers for which every member of a side must qualify.)

Likewise, weapon damage (in B/X, at least) can be handled in one of two ways. The standard rule is to simply use 1d6 for all character attacks; although it isn't explicitly stated, one assumes that monster attacks would function similarly, as they indeed did in OD&D. The table of variable weapon damage is a variant rule; damage is still calculated and implemented as normal, but the die rolled is different.

To anyone reading this post: what are some of your favorite (or least favorite) variant and optional rules in D&D or similar games?

Monday, April 25, 2016

U is for Unearthed Arcana

Oh jeez... I'm about to get into a topic that has diehard AD&D1 gamers on opposite sides of a ditch, trying to throw things to hit the people on the other side and possibly knock them into said ditch.

I haven't read through the original Unearthed Arcana cover to cover, although I've occasionally thought about picking it up if it's cheap next time I'm in Austin. There is a huge volume of material included within it, though, so I'll just give some bullet points.
  • The addition of the "Comeliness" ability score seems more than a little silly to me. I get that Charisma isn't completely based on physical attractiveness, but adding a seventh score that seems more like a subset of another one isn't a good idea. And history seems to have agreed with me, as no other iteration of the game includes Comeliness as a factor.
    (EDIT 2016-08-18: Having finally gotten the HackMaster 4th Edition rules, I see that they do in fact use the Comeliness score. Since a big part of that game is needlessly complicated rules and parodying the complexity and obtuseness of much of classic D&D, I think that my point still stands. Heck, even AD&D2's Skills & Powers book didn't use Comeliness as one of the two sub-scores for Charisma.)
  • The barbarian class as written here is possibly an even worse party member than the assassin. An assassin could certainly, by the (Players Hand-)book, be played as extreme Lawful Evil, working with the party to further their own goals and realizing that the magic-user and the fighters are helping to watch their back when things get ugly. Not so for the UA barbarian; the rules flat-out state that barbarians will seek to destroy magic items whenever they are found. True, the barbarian was reworked as a more cooperative class for 3e and onward, and the AD&D2 barbarian "kit" isn't too bad, but the way it's presented here makes my brain hurt just thinking of the things that could go wrong.
  • The thief-acrobat is interesting, although it seems like it could have been named a little bit better. I'd imagine that this awkward naming convention was responsible for the stereotype of RPGs having really long and convoluted class names (although B/X is not exempt from this; an 8th-level elf has the title of "Superhero-Necromancer").
  • The cavalier is cool for those who want a game more focused on wilderness exploration, or a low-fantasy one modeled more heavily on medieval Europe. The rules for 0-level play are also good, presaging Dungeon Crawl Classics' "funnel" mechanic. Unfortunately, a lot of players were angered by the changing of the paladin (who is also modified for UA) to a subclass of the cavalier, rather than the fighter. This is extremely odd to modern ears, or those familiar with AD&D2; the arrangement of warrior/wizard/priest/rogue makes sense, so why add a fifth "group" that could easily be subsumed under the warrior group? This class also returned as a warrior "kit" in The Complete Fighter's Handbook for AD&D2, proving my point for me.
  • Cantrips are a nice addition, to the point that I've considered adding them to my AD&D2 campaign. On the other hand, I like the default 2nd Edition idea of cantrip: an improvisational minor magic effect, that might add some wonder back into the arcane instead of making a spell "just another sort of laser pistol" (a quote from the book Authentic Thaumaturgy by Isaac Bonewits).
Finally, I am so dissatisfied with the problem of ability score inflation - a major problem running throughout this book in particular - that I am seriously considering switching my AD&D2 game to using 3d6 arranged to taste. It's actually the perfect time to do so; two of my players kept their old B/X scores rather than roll new ones, one of them just made an exceptionally average character, and the other one (or two, depending on whether the other player decides to join as a regular player) has yet to replace the character that was killed in the last session. I'll poll them this week and see.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

T is for Tables (the physical kind)

As should be obvious to many longtime gamers, the table one uses to play can literally make or break a session. Too long and skinny, and no one has room for their sheets, notes, or miniatures (if they're used), not to mention drinks; too round, and the "space" of each participant gets squashed; too few chairs, and there's no room to put books, food, or other elements of the DM's toolkit.

The surface of the table is also a major factor; excessively soft wood is poorly suited for writing, as are tables with rough surfaces - the typical plastic fold-out table is a prime offender in the latter case. The stability and weight of the playing surface are also crucial, since a poorly timed lean might send the dungeon sliding to its demise on the linoleum. (Depending on how messy your players are, carpet may or may not be the best option for flooring.)

For a while, I thought about making a custom pool table like the one Cole had made in PvP. As nice as that would be (plus, it could be used as a pool table!) I realize that it's not economical at this point. My next idea originally came from the one and only John Eric Holmes, who wrote in his article "Confessions of a Dungeon Master" that he used a table covered in chalkboard paint, to spatially map out encounters. And my friend has a chalkboard table, so wouldn't that be perfect?

The only issue is that chalk creates dust - a lot of it. So, I'm thinking a whiteboard table would be the best option, since we could then use wet or dry erase markers on it; I might put some crosses to draw out squares, or even an offset "SquareHex" arrangement of crosses based on the one that Fitz made.

This is sort of a moot point at the moment, since I don't have the room yet; but once I move into an actual house with my partner, there'll certainly be a spot picked out for a table and chairs.

Friday, April 22, 2016

S is for Steampunk

Last evening, I played my first session of Iron Kingdoms. I like the system, even if chargen is a bit confusing. It appears to have been synchronicity at work; I have never heard of Iron Kingdoms until this point, but not only did I recently finish a small steampunk RPG for one of my friends, it uses an almost identical spread of attributes to Physique, Agility, and Intelligence. Nor is this subconscious inspiration; we first started working on this game at least three years ago, when the only functioning RPG I had ever played or read was Pathfinder. The big difference is that my game is much less fantasy-based, with only humans.

The campaign is set in a universe from a video game, which is essentially the typical high-fantasy setting with some interesting changes. My character is an orcish woman, which led to some unfortunate circumstances at the start; the story began with Gnora in a cage, having tomatoes thrown at her! But this did give me the chance to role-play, and to work on my feminine orc voice; the GM was so impressed that he gave me an extra experience point at the end of the session.

As I started writing this post, it occurred to me that Pathfinder borders on steampunk, depending on which supplemental books are being used. If used sparingly, firearms aren't too big of a clash with the typical "dungeonpunk" motif of most newer iterations of fantasy RPGs. Since my setting is still mostly European in nature, I won't be introducing any gunpowder for some time... but it might appear in the future.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

R is for Role-Playing

In my previous post, I talked about the tightness and value of B/X from a purely gamist point of view, and how its rules setup makes some elements of setting design a bit difficult when considered from the perspective of realism (or at least, verisimilitude). The biggest element of this is race-as-class, which has some odd implications in terms of the "monster" lists; there are no 0-level dwarves, elves, or halflings (as there are "Normal Men"), so should the DM and/or players assume that every elf they meet - from the mighty Lord-Wizard (or Lady-Maga) to the humble giant-mushroom gardener - can use any weapon, wear any armor, and cast a 1st-level arcane spell?

JB of B/X Blackrazor has talked about how this idea tends to restrict play to focus on characters as archetypes rather than special snowflakes. This can certainly be a good thing, depending on the kind of campaign one is running, but I've been trying to nudge my players out of their usual goofy, jokey idea of the game into one where they can become emotionally invested - where things like wonder can genuinely happen, even in a world where humans can shoot magic homing arrows out of their fingertips.

I was reading through the recent posts on Playing D&D With Porn Stars (NSFW in places, obviously) when I came across this article, submitted by a different author for a contest. The first mini-article talks about how all fantasy elves since Tolkien (and even more so since D&D) are essentially the same; when one imagines an elf, one usually imagines Legolas; older viewers might (gods help you) think of Crow from Hawk the Slayer. But is that what one is aiming for?

I've spent the past few weeks working, as school permits, on some more detailed ethnic breakdowns for my campaign world. Before the Kingdom took over a third of the Continent, there were at least five very different cultures of humans; some of them still survive in rural areas, but for the most part they have been absorbed into one cosmopolitan whole (much like the way that there's not much difference between Southerners, New Englanders, Midwesterners, and Pacific Northwesterners when you look at the larger cities). Polar humans are still functionally human, and have the same set of capabilities as Steppe or Occidental humans, but there are subtle cultural distinctions that separate them in relatively minor ways.

I've also been doing this for the other sentient races. Orcs are no longer monolithic; I have a tribe of extreme Lawful orcs (somewhat based on the samurai), a tribe of basically Neutral ones (who mostly want to be left alone, or at least to be rewarded for their time and labor), and a tribe of extremely Chaotic ones (who are inherently evil, but it's not genetic - they've developed neurological disorders from their habit of cannibalism). Slowly, I've been doing the same thing for dwarves, elves, gnomes, goblins, halflings, hobgoblins, etc.

The challenge now is to convey this information to my players without forcing them to slog through the 25 AES Census and History of the Kingdom. My next set of adventures should help, if I have a chance to run them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Q is for... um...

...okay, I have to admit I don't have anything for Q. Instead, I'll just launch into some freewheeling thoughts regarding classic D&D that have been rushing through my mind of late.

AD&D2 is a good system. There are a few things I don't like about it, and a few subsystems that are a bit too complex for my tastes, but on the whole it's flexible enough that the rules tend to get out of the way when they're not needed. Plus, I know it better now than almost any other system, and it's what I moved my current group to, so I'm sticking with it.

B/X is also a good system. It's very tightly designed, simple in a lot of places but spelled out where it counts. The only thing I don't like about it is race-as-class. Yes, I realize that the focus on archetypes can be interesting, but when trying to design a believable world, it ends up looking a little silly. For a pure "game", this would be my go-to rules set.

OD&D has been almost beckoning to me of late. Ever since I printed out Greyharp's Single Volume Edition and had it spiral-bound, I've realized that its nature as a framework is actually perfect for my own campaign. There are a few rules I can easily change, but I actually like the idea of designing a world to fit the rules. Plus, the blood-simple mechanics and lack of later developments (such as item/class/spell bloat) make it a perfect edition to run a human-centric campaign set a century or two before my AD&D2 campaign. (This also gives me an excuse to have hobbits by their real names!)

Those are my thoughts for now.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

P is for Players

For a role-playing game, they're pretty damn important, aren't they? Some games are designed to be run with no GM - I assume the players form the tabletop equivalent of an anarcho-syndicalist commune - but players are always a must.

With D&D, the more the merrier. Particularly in "old-school" (i.e., before Wizards of the Coast) iterations of the game, having more party members means having more muscle, more bodies to soak up damage, and most importantly (from a gamer's standpoint, at least) a good buffer in case one or two players isn't able to make it. I often end up with only two or three players; in the latter case, it's usually okay, but in the former case I have to concede to reality and break out a board game or something. (Of course, there was that one time where only one player showed up...)

Even a single player might be okay, depending on the system being run. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a perfect example; the authors acknowledge in their introduction that adults are usually busy, so the game is set up for one GM and one player. My issue is that I have zero ideas for modern-day crime plotlines. (I also take exception to the idea that character death should never happen unless it's important to the story.) Hell, even for The World of Darkness, the most I can come up with is a one-shot.

My apologies if the last few posts (and possibly the next few as well) are a little disjointed and/or short. Writing two term papers in two days, and a third coming up, have left my brain a little bit tired. I will still be doing my best to stick to my commitment for the month.

Monday, April 18, 2016

O is for Otyugh

Me and the otyugh go back a ways. The very first D&D adventure I ran - the Fast Play Game based on the Dungeons & Dragons movie from 2000 - had an otyugh as its final boss, although my players never got there.

When I was running B/X, I was stunned to realize that there was never an "official" otyugh write-up for non-Advanced D&D (at least not in the core B/X or BECMI books, or the Rules Cyclopedia). To find one, I ended up going through The Basic Fantasy Field Guide, and converting the one there to use the old-fashioned armor class.

Then, when game time came, I realized that I had left it at home. So, I just winged it; I decided that it was THAC0 18, and had six Hit Dice. The players fought it, and won. As far as I know, none of them were ever aware that I was just making it up off the top of my head. Honestly, that's one of my prouder moments as a DM.

Getting back to the monster itself, I like that I could hypothetically stick one in a dungeon as an explanation for the lack of toilets. This is, in fact, what I did for the abandoned manse the party cleared out to use as a home base; the entire house has one chamber pot, but the otyugh in the basement served as more than enough waste disposal.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

N is for Necromancer

When I was busy re-tooling my AD&D2 campaign, one thing I decided to do was incorporate level titles for every class. Most of these could simply be carried over from AD&D1 or OD&D, but there were a few that didn't ever have official titles. Chief among these were the specialist wizards (the illusionist notwithstanding), and I decided to start with the easiest and most archetypal: the Necromancer.

These level titles are designed for the B/X standard of "Name Level = 9th Level", but aside from that they can be used with any game. If you use them in a product of your own, please contact me beforehand and I'll probably be happy to let you use them with credit given. (Points to anyone who can name the inspirations for at least four of these!)

The Necromancer (Wizard Class)
  1. Awaker
  2. Graverobber
  3. Skulldugger
  4. Boneman (Bonewoman)
  5. Mortifier
  6. Plagueherald
  7. Soultaker
  8. Fleshreaper
  9. Necromancer

Friday, April 15, 2016

M is for Magicians, Magic-users, and Mages

The different names for the same class across editions are slightly amusing to me. Since the focus of this challenge is "classic" D&D, I won't be naming the name they changed to when TSR was bought out. It's interesting that a lot of OSR bloggers seem to hold a great deal of nostalgia for the "magic-user" moniker, as opposed to the equally clear but shorter and more concise "mage".

Sorry this post is so short, but I'm trying to get it out before 12:00 so as not to miss a day. Work and play have left me dry, but I'm doing my best to stick to my promise (it's 11:58 local time as I write this)!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

L is for Lords (and Ladies)

In all editions of D&D up to and including the Rules Cyclopedia (which came out two years after the introduction of AD&D 2nd Edition), characters of the fighter class who reach the 9th experience level gain the title of "Lord" (or "Lady" for female characters). This is true even for AD&D2 and the RC, which both dropped individual level titles; elves in the RC rules attain the title of "Lord Wizard" or "Lady Maga" at name level, while dwarves simply add the "Dwarven" modifier before the standard title. Since halflings in the RC are, like all non-Advanced editions from B/X onward, are limited to 8th level, they gain the title of "Sheriff" at this point.

Besides sounding cool - albeit not matching up with the class-specific titles of other roles, such as "Wizard" for magic-users or "Master Thief" for guess who - the attaining of the rank of Lord or Lady also has some interesting implications for the setting. If one assumes that the title and experience level are directly linked, then only the greatest fighting-men and -women in the land can become Lords and Ladies; likewise, anyone with such a title must be one hell of a fighter.

I've had an idea for applying this in my campaign. In a world where these particular noble titles are granted based on merit and deeds, rather than simple inheritance, conflicts between nobles might be resolved with single combat instead of sending armies to clash while their masters watch from afar. The ever-excluded-from-the-rules joust might be one such way of settling disputes.

Plus, if someone is able to take a true Lord or Lady hostage, they had better have a small army at their disposal... or be a particularly crafty Wizard, with a capital "W".

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

K is for Killing the Entire Party

I promised to talk about my recent TPK, so here goes.

The party members that were able to make it to the most recent session were Alakar, a half-elven bard; Elia, a human bard (the only one of 2nd level, rather than 1st); and Thebabicus, a human cleric. Notably missing from that list are both of the group's regular fighters (Adira and Ulreth). The three present adventurers were informed that the prison in the military fort town of Ironside had been sealed off under mysterious circumstances. Since Elia had family there, they decided to set off and see what was what.

When they arrived, they eventually found out that the prison had been locked down due to a mysterious illness that spread from some of the prisoners to the guards, and quickly infected pretty much the entire prison. Unfortunately, one of the people trapped inside while he was still alive was Lieutenant Ralston, the man responsible for freeing the original three party members (ironically, none of whom were present now) from said prison to search for a bandit leader. The acting head of the town, Sergeant Obrist, devised a plan to get the party in by dropping a trebuchet stone on the prison's roof... but since the Lieutenant was the only person who had the key to the prison's main gate, the only way to get back out would be to find him. In addition, there was a secret password - known only to the Lieutenant - to stop the archers posted in the towers from shooting at the party if they managed to emerge.

So far, so good; I had a scenario, a set of restrictions, and best of all: a very cool visual aid. I had recently bought the Pathfinder Flip-Mat "Bigger Basic", which fortunately allowed me to fit the entire prison on one side. And since the mysterious disease was actually turning the prisoners and guards into zombies, I had brought Twilight Creations' "Bag O' Zombies" to represent the reanimated population of an entire prison.

My particular bag actually came with 101 zombies in it
(I counted them), but I'm not complaining at all.
The party quickly settled on a system for taking out the zombies intelligently; Thebabicus, on a successful Turn Undead roll, forced small groups of zombies into cells, where they could be picked off (they referred to this as "The Process", and I only gave them half XP for it since we just skipped to the end of each such combat). The only issue was that he needed to roll a 13 or higher on 1d20 for each attempt, and luck was not on his side that session; a large portion of the Undead remained Un-Turned.

They also attempted to bottleneck the zombies and form a triangle to surround them, a tactic which served them well in the past when facing off against bandits through narrow doorways (especially when they cleared out a dilapidated manse to use as a home base). Unfortunately, they forgot one thing: the zombies would not be pressed back to regroup or retreat. This meant that the zombies just pressed against the player characters until the former had all been slain. I left the figures tipped over on the mat, showing how many they had killed, and I certainly had plenty enough to do that throughout the entire prison.

Sadly, this tactical error led to their death. They encountered a group of six zombies, and decided to fall back to an already emptied cell; their error was in choosing one of the smaller cells, with no room to maneuver. The zombies came through, and Thebabicus was not able to turn them. Both he and Alakar were slain in short order, while Elia managed to kill two more of the shamblers before being overwhelmed herself. Even more unfortunate was that, even with the relatively small amount killed (16 or 17), the party would have earned enough experience for Thebabicus to increase in level.

A number of bloggers have been writing recently about the importance of ensuring that player actions affect the game world. In this case, their failure to make it deeper into the "Prison of the Dead" (as I called the adventure) and exorcise the even more terrifying force therein means one thing: Ironside has fallen. The few people who realized this have left in the ensuing days, before the town was overtaken utterly by the corruption.

The person playing Thebabicus was sufficiently annoyed with the loss of his character that he left immediately, and Alakar's player followed suit; Elia's player, however, stayed behind to make a new character. This time, she created a fighter (perhaps mindful of the necessities of that class) who is Elia's older sister. We had already determined that Elia was the middle child in a typical military family, so some of her possessions are going to be passed on to the new character. And both of the other fighters are still alive, so it isn't as though a total reboot is necessary.

I've had a total party kill in the past, but this one occurred to a group of long-time members of the campaign. Hopefully the two other players whose characters were killed come back. Either way, I'm glad that I allowed this to happen; I didn't fudge any dice rolls, and due to the dire circumstances it wasn't really possible to fudge the story (to have them rescued, etc.) without taking a sledgehammer to the integrity of the game. Here's hoping they fare better on their next quest.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

J is for Jean Wells

I'd like to take a brief post to acknowledge the contributions made in the early years of the hobby by one Jean Wells. She was one of the earliest female employees at TSR, in an era where the industry was still almost totally male-dominated (one of the reasons that the class titles and level names in OD&D are all masculine). In addition to her editing contributions for such modules as White Plume Mountain and Tom Moldvay's Basic Rulebook, she was also an artist who contributed images to the original Monster Manual.

The product she's most known for, however, is the infamous Palace of the Silver Princess, which was recalled and redesigned (rewritten almost completely by Tom Moldvay) for reasons that vary from account to account. After this, she was sadly not able to get any of her design ideas off the ground, and left.

The original version with the orange cover.
Wells died in 2012, but her contributions to D&D remain with us. Fortunately, she was also willing to grant several interviews before her passing: a multi-part text interview with

Monday, April 11, 2016

I is for International Editions

Voici l'ouvrage indispensable pour le Maître de Donjon de AD&D. Vous y trouvrez toutes les informations dont vous avez besoin pour créer et gérer de passionnantes aventures d'épées et de sorcellerie. Vous y apprendez tout ce que vous devez savoir sur les sorts, sur des centaines d'objets et de trésors magiques, sur les combats, les voyages et les points e'expérience, et bien d'autres choses encore. Cet ouvrage à la présentation nouvelle est votre guide pour l'univers fantastique de AD&D!
That, my friends, is the blurb on the back cover of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Guide du Maître - the French version of the Dungeon Master Guide! I got it as an Easter present from my parents, and I figure it might help me brush up on my French in time for next semester's Intermediate French class.

A few things about the book itself. First, it's much nicer than my TSR/Wizards of the Coast English copy. It's printed on much thicker paper; I'm not sure whether this is just due to being printed in Europe, or if WotC cheaped out on the later AD&D2 printings. Second, the price on the back is written in francs (213,00 F); it's cool to have a tangible reminder that the switch to the Euro is pretty recent from a historical perspective - even the history of roleplaying games. Third, the game is called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; I've seen pictures of French copies of the various Basic rulebooks titled Donjons & Dragons, but I guess they decided to just keep the brand name intact here.

Aside from those differences, it's almost exactly identical to my English copy (the 1995 revision, although my English copies were made post-WotC acquisition of TSR). I'll try to upload some pictures soon, but it might be a while since my laptop (with the built-in SD card reader) is currently out of commission.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

H is for Helmets

Helmets have always been kind of an oddball item in classic D&D. As the numbers for Armor Class are fairly large, there isn't much room for fine division. The usual categories are: unarmored (AC 9 in D&D, AC 10 in AD&D), shield only, leather, leather & shield, mail, mail & shield, plate, plate & shield. AD&D's additional armor categories complicate this a bit, but I've always found the number of choices in the core rules - at least, in 2nd Edition - to be a bit excessive; most of my players stick to the ones they know. I have a feeling that the addition of studded leather, etc. was done to give thieves a slightly more advantageous option than simple leather armor, especially considering their fairly low hit points.

But helmets? Well, they're listed in the armor section of the AD&D2 Player's Handbook, with a price, but they don't seem to provide any benefit in the core rules themselves. I know that The Complete Fighter's Handbook has rules for piecemeal armor (including factoring in helmets); since many people consider 2nd Edition to be "king of splatbooks", it's possible that the designers left helmets there to make for a smoother addition with the PHBR series (the reddish-brown books). One of my players found a bronze helmet in a small treasure hoard, and wears it mostly because she likes it, even though it provides little to no benefit to AC.

There are a few notes, however, that suggest helmets as an assumed part of the metal armors; the notes for rogue skills in the PHB say that the thief must remove their gloves to Pick Pockets or Open Locks, and must remove their helmet to Hear Noise. It might just be one of the tendencies toward granular, literal-minded rules carried over from 1st Edition. After all, characters are expected to choose and spend money on their clothes, shoes, and sheaths for their weapons!

Friday, April 8, 2016

G is for Greyhawk

Supplement I  for original D&D, not the campaign setting (I find it hard to use pre-published settings). A lot of things I love come from there, as well as a lot of things I don't like one bit.

I have a love-hate relationship with variable weapon damage. Yes, it provides a reason to use different shapes of dice. Yes, it gives fighters a clear advantage in that only they can use the most damaging weapons (in B/X, those are the pole arm and the two-handed sword). But using different dice for different weapons - or even for the same weapon, used against different opponents - slows down the game, and is confusing for brand-new players. Particularly the variety whose idea of an RPG is Final Fantasy XIII. Except for the encounter tables, OD&D can really be played with just several d6's and two (old-school, 0-9 twice) d20's. This is just another instance where the commercial circumstances, i.e., not wanting to sort out the extra polyhedrals from the boxed sets, led to something that sticks with us to this day.

Exceptional Strength is one of those things that I love in principle, but in practice is a little weird. Whereas the curve for Strength modifiers for "to hit" and damage rolls in B/X (and, by extension, BECMI) is a straight -3 to +3, the versions of the game that use percentile Strength rolls (OD&D and both iterations of AD&D) have two different curves, neither of which amount to +3 without the character being a spectacularly ripped fighter, ranger, or paladin. Plus, TSR's official AD&D2 character sheet uses tiny boxes for the ability scores, so one would have to use the old calendar technique of diagonally splitting the Strength box to write a percentile score.

The thief class is necessary in OD&D for anyone who isn't an obsessive fan of Myst or Portal. It's also necessary for anyone who, like Delta, decides that the cleric class may not be a good fit depending on its implementation. At least three basic types of characters are needed so that a player doesn't feel hemmed in; even Tunnels & Trolls used three basic classes. (Granted, one of them was really a hybrid of the other two, but it's still nice to have a little bit of choice.) In the amorality of D&D's early years, I imagine that most referees would have allowed the thief to steal from their own party members... if they could get away with it, and live.

Paladins are, well, a mixed bag. I think they're necessary to provide a warrior class that is neither directly going to conflict with other players (the barbarian from Unearthed Arcana comes to mind...) nor extremely limited in their actual special abilities (like the original ranger). Their role in the setting needs to be determined, though; considering the unlikelihood of rolling a 17 Charisma on 3d6 in order, the referee should have plenty of time to think about that.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

F is for Freedom

I've always wanted to run a sandbox game. Initially, the reason I didn't take that tack with my current AD&D group is a bit complicated. At first, I lacked a concise set of rules for adventuring in the wilderness. The 2nd Edition Dungeon Master Guide is of absolutely no help in that regard; where the original DMG has diagrams and page after page of random encounter tables, the second iteration of that book basically says "Do it yourself - good luck!"

To a certain extent, this problem has been fixed. I've printed out the two pages from the Cook/Marsh Expert Rulebook that deal with this (the instructions, directional diagram, and encounter tables all fit on both sides of a single sheet of paper!) and I can easily have it in front of me while gaming. The other issue is more complicated: my players aren't familiar with sandboxes.

I admit that part of this second reason is my fault; one of my players (and, by the summer, two of them) was part of my original group that started with the Pathfinder Beginner Box. I was younger then, and made liberal use of subtle railroading and fudged die rolls in the belief that it improved the game. And each time we add an additional player or two to the current group, I try to start off with a simple dungeon-crawling adventure, to allow the new player(s) to get a feel for how everyone plays; many of these crawls are drawn from my use of the random dungeon stocking described in the Moldvay Basic Rulebook. This wouldn't be a big issue, except that there seems to be a new player - or three - every other session.

More than that, though, the majority of my players have (like myself) been raised on video games. A cornerstone of our gaming experiences are the RPGs made by Bethesda - not only Oblivion and Skyrim, but also the post-Infinity Engine Fallout installments. These not only have fetch quests, but actual compass markers directing players to the next objective... even within a few feet. The games literally lead you around by the nose, and the built-in fast-traveling means that exploration is reduced to an optional element by the later stages of the story.

Were we a little bit older, we might have cut our teeth on Morrowind, which barely even had an organized quest log; one of the things I quickly grew to love about the third installment of the Elder Scrolls series is the freedom to do stuff however one sees fit. Morrowind has a much greater degree of freedom than any other Elder Scrolls or Fallout game since. Want to kill the leader of the Fighters Guild? If you're tough enough, do it. Want to break into Vivec's chamber (lock level: 100)? If you've got the skills and the tools, try it. Want to hop around the island like Ang Lee's totally comic-accurate Hulk, or teleport out of a tough fight? If you have enough money, Magicka, and Mysticism skill, you can make it happen. I personally experienced more inadvertent sequence breaks in Morrowind than I did in Metroid: Zero Mission.

And I loved every second of it. The game wasn't holding my hand or keeping me on a leash. It wasn't so much a story as it was a world. True, this world was full of behavior that could be easily exploited (Ghorak Manor comes to mind), but then so is the real world (I like to think of retail returns as my own little form of "save scumming", to borrow a term from roguelikes).

I have the resources now to run a serviceable hex-crawl in my AD&D campaign. Hopefully I can convince my group to interact with the world in a more granular way.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

E is for Evil

I've never been happy with the idea of "good" and "evil" as cosmic, opposing forces, either in fiction or in the real world. As one might surmise from my previous post on alignment, there are a lot of nuances to both ideas. I much prefer the "Law" vs. "Chaos" dichotomy present in B/X, although I disagree with the idea that Law is usually good and Chaos is usually evil. It's strange to see a greater degree of moral ambiguity in a version of the game ostensibly targeted towards children.

If I have to use alignment for my PCs, when I run B/X I always just assume that Law is Lawful Neutral, Chaos is Chaotic Neutral, and Neutrality is True Neutral.

My distaste for the good/evil polar framework is another reason I tend to keep the deities of my campaign mostly hands-off in their actions (if they even exist there, from a metaphysical standpoint). After all, if the gods can be conclusively proven to exist, and one is good and the other is evil, who in their right mind would follow the evil one? Clerics do have miraculous powers, yes, but the wonder-workers aren't only found in the "good" camp. (This is kind of the opposite version of the argument used by militant atheists - that no person of any religion actually derives any benefit from their beliefs, so religious belief should be abolished entirely.)

Speaking of following certain gods, I dislike the idea that an Immortal has to have mortal worshipers in order to continue to exist. This would preclude the idea of a long-dead god being worshiped by a small but growing cult.

Sorry if this post is a little disjointed; hopefully tomorrow's will be a little bit better.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

D is for Dragons

Shorter post today; an interesting little side note from my film-watching escapades. In the film Dragonslayer (not a great movie, but definitely worth watching for fantasy gamers), the sorcerer Ulrich says this upon his first meeting with the band of travelers from the kingdom of Urland:
In fact, if it weren't for sorcerers, there wouldn't be any dragons.
I've actually taken some time to think about how this would play out in my own campaign. Any interested readers should do the same.

"If he's ready to lay a dragon in its grave, he's nothing to fear from me."

Monday, April 4, 2016

C is for Clerics

I've been debating with myself regarding the thorny issue of clerics. Not whether they should have a spell at 1st level (I think they shouldn't, but at least it gives me an excuse to throw very tough challenges at the party), but whether they should be in my game at all. I wonder if they fit thematically, and whether their role in society is properly thought out.

The thing that got me thinking about that in the first place was coming across Delta's D&D Hotspot. In the sidebar giving a quick list of his "Original Edition Delta" house rules, there are two simple words under Classes: "Clerics removed."

I wondered why, and clicked on the link where he explained his rationale. And I found that I can't disagree with a single one of his points. My setting doesn't have the gods (or Immortals, in non-Advanced parlance) just popping in every week for tea - as seems to happen in, say, Forgotten Realms. So far, the only major miracle to occur in my campaign aside from the usual Turnings and cure spells occurred when my cleric, Thebabicus Roswald, encountered an altar covered in axe marks and blood, with a stirge feeding on the latter.

After the stirge was dealt with, he asked me if he could use the vial of holy water he had to perform a rite to cleanse the altar. I hadn't thought about it beforehand, but I decided that this was certainly in character, and he was giving up a potential in-game advantage (the chance of using the holy water as a grenade against later skeletons and/or zombies) to do something that he felt obligated to do. He poured the water over the altar and said a short prayer, and the altar began to steam as if splashed with acid. When the steam cleared, the blood was gone, along with the axe marks; any evidence of evil had been washed away.

The looks on my players' faces made me so happy. They were genuinely surprised and impressed. Obviously, they knew that magic existed in the campaign world, but to see it employed in a way that wasn't as predictable or dramatic as they were used to was new to them. This moment of peace had a greater effect on them than the largest horde of monsters, the tallest tower, or the most monstrous villain. Would that I could make this happen every session.

Since moving to AD&D 2nd Edition, I've considered toning down the presence of magic. Until recently, we didn't have a single arcane caster (although the bard now has the ability to cast spells, she hasn't found any to use yet), and the cleric wouldn't have had any spells to begin with under B/X. It would be fairly easy to simply remove spells, but keep spell-like abilities such as turning undead; it would also mean that the only person able to cure with a touch would be a paladin, making magical healing rare indeed. Some method of buying potions of cure light wounds could certainly be done.

Hmm... I'll have to think about some of this stuff.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

B is for Beholders (and Basic)

It's interesting to me that the beholder - a classic D&D monster, present almost since the beginning (introduced in Supplement I: Greyhawk along with the Thief class) - isn't in B/X D&D at all. It didn't even appear in BECMI until the Companion Set. I'd imagine that, had the original promised Companion Rules been released, the beholder would have appeared there.

Still not as poorly illustrated as in Greyhawk...
or the original Monster Manual, for that matter.

It also appeared in the Rules Cyclopedia, albeit with a nicer illustration.

Why does everyone complain about the art in the Rules
? I think this is actually pretty menacing.

Somewhat off-topic, I recently bought the AD&D game Eye of the Beholder on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Being a huge fan of AD&D 2nd Edition, I love the wide selection of rules-accurate class and race combinations, including multi-classing for demihumans. Unfortunately, the game is almost unplayable without the SNES Mouse accessory. Thankfully, this game is worlds better than the Eye of the Beholder game I got a while back for the Game Boy Advance (GBA); that one was awful in ways that are too numerous to describe on a tabletop gaming blog.

Friday, April 1, 2016

A is for Alignment

(Thanks to Stelios for pointing out that I need a theme for the month. Okay, the theme is... Classic D&D! :D )

Law, Neutrality, and Chaos represent a character's ultimate goals. A Lawful character seeks to create and/or solidify order in a given group or society. A Chaotic character seeks to dissolve any existing order, and prevent further order from forming. A Neutral character either seeks a balance between the two, or doesn't care too strongly one way or the other.

Good, Neutrality, and Evil represent a character's reason for seeking their goals. A Good character wants to give life, liberty, and happiness to as many creatures as possible, and is altruistic. An Evil character wants to deprive creatures of the same, and might be described as power-seeking. A Neutral character wants what's best for themselves, and might include others in their goals or not.

Lawful Good: Order for the sake of security and fairness. The Paragon.
Lawful Evil: Order for the sake of personal power and control. The Machiavel.
Lawful Neutral: Order for order's sake. The Bureaucrat.

Neutral Good: Balance (or status-quo) for the sake of tranquility and contentment. The Peacekeeper.
Neutral Evil: Balance (or status-quo) for the sake of maintaining personal power and control. The Tyrant.
True Neutral: Balance (or status-quo) for its own sake, or for some mystic reason. The Independent (or The Druid).

Chaotic Good: Disorder for the sake of liberty and happiness. The Dionysian.
Chaotic Evil: Disorder for the sake of personal power. The Destroyer.
Chaotic Neutral: Disorder for disorder's sake. The Wildcard.

Some examples from fiction:
  • Randall Flagg in The Stand is a good example of Lawful Evil. He establishes a draconian regime that militarizes against Mother Abigail's "Boulder Free Zone" (based on the events in the miniseries, I'd call them Neutral Good for the most part). His methods are extreme, but they get results, and he's able to attract a large group of people that would probably be Lawful Neutral under a more benevolent leader.
  • By contrast, Flagg in The Eyes of the Dragon is Chaotic Evil. He is explicitly stated as seeking to cause chaos and bloodshed, somehow feeding off of it. Note that his methods are not necessarily crazed or random, as many tend to think of Chaotic Evil; he plans methodically, playing a long game in the hope of creating utter, violent anarchy when his machinations come to a head.
  • The priests of the Temple of Syrinx (from Rush's suite 2112) might be Neutral Evil; they do want to maintain their power, and head up a hierarchy to do so, but they don't really need to create further order as they already control everything. Their destruction of the guitar seems to be motivated more by spite than by a desire to maintain the hierarchy; otherwise, their behavior might occupy a grey area between Lawful Neutral and Neutral Evil.
  • The Vogons from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are extreme Lawful Neutral. Few of them seem to enjoy causing death and destruction, but they aren't bothered by it so long as it's done according to the proper procedures. Their destruction of the Earth is amoral, yes, but not malicious; Jeltz mutters "...apathetic bloody planet, I've no sympathy at all." This seems to imply that they would have happily left the humans alone if they had bothered to get down to the planning office and register a formal complaint; the hierarchy is paramount. (Side note: I wonder how strongly the Modrons were influenced by the Vogons...)