Friday, 27 March 2015

Madame Desadalie’s House of Wax - Skeleton Encounter #6


I finally get round to getting a sixth 'interesting' Skeleton encounter finished - something other than "Tomb, Skeletons (6), 200GP". This goes with:


#6 Madame Desadalie’s House of Wax

At the edge of the Scholars’ District, where rents are cheap and adventurous students slum it, mixing with artists (piss-, con-, and avant garde), poets, musicians, and other social and political dissidents, there is Madame Desadalie’s House of Wax. A salon, favoured by intellectuals with a taste for luxury, the lounge is opulently furnished. Oppressively so. The walls are lined with extravagantly patterned fabrics, lush potted plants imported from southern jungles loom over the couches on which guests recline, and elaborate, slowly turning, cut-glass lamps create a disorientating flicker of light. And then there are the waxworks.     

Arrayed around the room are six, life-size wax figures. These are sculpted into a likeness of the great and good of Byzantia, particularly those despised as oppressive or vulgar. Prince Geffri, a gambler with bad debts as well as a womaniser and sadist. Guildmaster Hoffenhaus, reputed embezzler. Countess Katterine, rumoured to have unnatural… appetites. Bjorn the Black, public executioner. Chancellor Illantine, whose taxmen are feared even more than the secret police. And the Sage Vorinus, whose pithy, but on reflection empty, aphorisms are treated as the height of leaning by the ‘common’ people. These waxworks are uncanny likenesses of their subjects – uncanny being the word. Their eyes sockets are empty hollows, and their faces are locked in inane grins. They crouch, on all fours, serving as tables for the guests. Hidden within these dummies are animated SKELETONS under the control of Madame Desadalie.

SKELETONS (6) = AC: Special, HD: 1, HP: 6, MV: 60’/20’, ATT: 1 short sword, DAM: 1d6, SV: F1, MR: 12, AL: C, XP 13

These Skeletons are a more difficult proposition in a fight than usual; their wax ‘shell’ protects them from damage. The force of bludgeoning weapons is absorbed, and slashing weapons cut through layers of wax before biting bone. In the first round of combat, these Skeletons have an AC of 0. On each round of combat their AC worsens by 1 as the wax cracks and begins to fall away from their bones, until, on the eighth round of combat their AC reaches 7. If the Skeletons are attacked with fire, or similar, double or even triple the rate at which AC worsens.

Why would the PCs encounter these Skeletons? Madame Desadalie, an attractive, if overly made-up middle-aged woman (who, it must be said, can resembles a waxwork herself) is widely suspected of harbouring agitators and even outright rebels. This is true, and the PCs might be sent on a mission to capture a fugitive or steal incriminating documents. Or they might be interested in a bit of freelance burglary – the party could recover 10d100GPs of bulky objets d’art on a successful raid. Of course, PCs are a rebellious bunch themselves, and may find themselves more directly involved in the ‘occult’ politics of Byzantia. Who supplies Madame Desadalie, no necromancer herself, with her wax bodyguards?

Okay, this one doesn't fit on a 4"x6" index card - and even at this length it doesn't include any real details about Madame Desadalie, her connections, etc. It is about 100 words too long. The index card conceit is a good discipline all the same - and very useful at the table - and I'll try to keep to it as much as possible. 

 

Monday, 23 March 2015

Crypts & Things Remastered


Here's a Kickstarter that I backed: Crypts & Things Remastered.

I like the orginal Crypts & Things - it is a neat swords & sorcery-specific take on Swords & Wizardry. The game has tough, human-only PCs, magic is risky (and magic items even more so), there is a simple but effective 'skill system' based on Saving Throws, and the GM advice (and list of inspirational material) is top notch. I find it to be a more effective evocation of the swords & sorcery genre than Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, though AS&SH, which I like a lot, is a very clean and well put together 'Advanced' OSR game. I'd use AS&SH over AD&D1e, (and happily allow demi-humans, pulling the rules straight from the 1e PHB), but if I wanted to run straight-up OSR swords & sorcery I'd choose C&T.

But where AS&SH was clean, well-edited, with a consistent art style throughout, C&T had more than its fair share of typos (sorry Newt) and featured a broad mix of art, some very good, some a little rough. I'd imagine that to some readers these superficial vices might obscure the many virtues of the game. So I was very pleased to find out the C&T is getting 'remastered'. The most obvious change will be a consistent art style, with David M Wright providing the art for the entire book, and a thorough re-edit. But there will also be changes to the system - but importantly none which break its basic compatibility with OSR games and classic D&Ds. I am particularly looking forward to the replacement of Saving Throws with a Test Your Luck mechanic, and expansion of the PC background table, and a streamlined system of consequences for the use of Black Magic - PC sorcerers tempted to use darker magic accumulate corruption points! That said, it sounds like the use of White Magic now carries its own consequences too - using magic to resist corruption and protect life attracts the attention of... things.

With a week to go, it looks like Crypts & Things:Remastered will hit all its stretch goals, and all backers get immediate access to the Beta. It is this kind of thing that makes me really excited about the OSR - for all its distinct flavour, it is fundamentally intercompatible with AD&D 2e and earlier editions, their clones, and other derived games.


Friday, 20 March 2015

Typology of DMs?


I've been working my way through the 5e DMG over the past couple of days. I like what I see. Lots of random tables - including a carousing table! Reasonable advice, even if sometimes too much stress is put on a D&D adventure being like a 'story', which might set a DM's expectations such that there are heightened temptations to railroad and fudge. But, I repeat, despite that language, which is difficult to avoid, the advice is reasonable. Certainly much better than the 2e Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide - the first supplement to the 2e DMG, which itself was much inferior to the 5e version - which sometimes seems to be nothing but advice on effective railroading. Along with some sweet isometric maps...

But to go back to my last post, raising the subject of the DM's 'fun', the 5e DMG has a breakdown of different player types. I've seen this kind of stuff in quite a few places now. It's all perfectly sensible advice. The DM is advised to cater for the different player types in his or her group. The player types are described in a non-judgmental way, so a player wanting a hack and slash game is not described as inferior to a player seeking immersive roleplay. But what I want to know is, has anyone done something similar for DMs? A typology of DMs? On that *doesn't* read as a list of 'the ways in which your DM is shitty', but as a mirror image of the typology of players; 'these are the types of DMs that exist, and if you are going to be a good player at the table you will have to adapt your play to their DMing style'?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

On the DM's fun


One thing that is often missing from discussions of running RPGs is that the DM needs to be having 'fun'. I put the word fun in quotes as what a DM (or a player for that matter) gets out of the game doesn't need to be the kind of enjoyment that produces euphoric, face-stretching grins. But 'fun' will do for now. There are plenty of discussions that argue that the DM is responsible for the players' fun. The role of the DM is likened to that of an entertainer, a scriptwriter, artist, actor etc. Fewer argue that the players have a reciprocal responsibility, and those that do often frame is as a responsibility to the group as a whole and not a special responsibility to the DM. 

"Hey, I'm playing this game too. I do all the work for this game. I'm the only one who knows the rules. I'm the one who prepares the encounters and locations. I'm the only one here who doesn't get to enjoy the vicarious high of victory (or the thrill of failure) through the adventures of my personal avatar. I'm the one who can't take a back seat for a few minutes (or a whole evening) and let the other players pick up the slack!"

Hah.

C'est la vie.

Yet the DM is, unlike a scriptwriter (or what have you), part of the group of people meant to be deriving pleasure from the game. DMs are not the producers with the players the audience. DMs are playing the game, we are audience member number one. The DM is the most important participant. Because of the vast difference in required investment (time, energy, and, given who buys most RPG books and other paraphernalia, financial resources) between players and DMs, that the game satisfies the DM is the number one requirement of a good game. Sure, the players' fun is important, but a player can turn up unprepared, roll a few dice, engage in a bit of chit chat and still have had a minimally entertaining evening. The DM having fun is in players' self-interest - it produces better games, with more engaged and committed DMs.

This was going to be a post about Molvay and Mentzer's take on Morale, NPC/Monster Reactions, Random Encounters and Treasure Tables, and how they are all part of my fun as a DM. Thinking about those procedures got me thinking about the way that rules like that have slipped out of fashion. 

"I know what the monsters will do, how they will react, when they will flee, and I will place treasure appropriate for my group. I am a competent DM."

Sure, but then it is easy for part of my fun to become invested in certain outcomes. If I have placed a particular magical treasure as I think it appropriate for the PCs to find it, I have become invested in this as an outcome. If I leave it to myself to decide when the monsters will flee, it is easy for me to become invested in a certain outcome, and then I believe that it is only a short slip to dishonest encounters in which, for example, the indeterminate number of wolves are programmed flee after causing 'x' amount of damage to the party. And so on. 

Yes, as a DM I make decisions about what happens in the game world, about what exists and how those things behave. Of course I do. And I derive a certain amount of fun from that. But once I am at the table I like to play, I like to be surprised by things. I don't want to know in advance how every Monster or NPC will react to the PCs. Perhaps those Elves that are (I have decided) predisposed to help the PCs react badly (based on a Reaction Roll) to the PCs. Arrogant Elves. Perhaps the dice fall differently when the PCs encounter the (I have decided) ordinarily hostile Goblins. So... the Goblins are impressed by the PCs menacing demeanour, and seek to make alliance. Without a Reaction Roll only the most egregious PC behaviour would derail the reaction in which I have invested. But here? Here the PCs actions have meaning because I don't know how things will turn out, only probabilities which are affected by the actions declared by the players. Great! The game becomes one of exploration for me, too! I get to explore the fantasy world that I have created and find new things out through play.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

5e - views from people who share my tastes?


Ages ago I bought the D&D5e PHB. I liked the look of it, more or less. Over the intervening months - in which I haven't played it, but have played Classic D&D (and OSR variants) and Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e - I've reconciled myself to some of the bits and bobs that turned me off. Quick levelling? Well, lately I always cut the requirements for the early levels anyway, given the shorter, less frequent sessions we play as adults. Hard to kill PCs with rapid HP regeneration? Well, I long ago turned hitting 0 HP into something other than straightforward death - roll on the Death & Dismemberment table anyone?

And there is quite a lot to like about 5e. For one, it seems pretty streamlined, and the skill system doesn't seem too intrusive (at a read through), more like a codification of the mix of d6 rolls, reaction table/morale rolls, ability checks and Saving Throws by which I tend to adjudicate non-combat situations requiring a dice roll.

I'm not sure if I am going to pick up the DMG and the MM. I am certainly tempted. It is D&D after all, and to me it *feels* so much more like D&D than 3e or 4e ever did (in my limited experience).

One thing still worries me. 

Cantrips. At will. No preparation required. Damage dealing. 

I get the idea of giving low level Wizards something meaningful to do in a combat encounter. I get the idea of trying to provide narrow balance *within* a combat encounter, even though I am comfortable with a more broad based balance, as a game of D&D ought to be about far more than combat. Avoiding combat, for one thing. I also take the point that has been made to me that a Wizard with a crossbow (and decent Dex) will do more damage, on average, than he or she will by casting Fire Bolt each turn. 

But.

But a crossbow can be taken away. It can be left in a room as the adventurers attend a feast or explore a town. It can run out of quarrels. A Wizard who knows Fire Bolt never, ever runs out of Fire Bolts. Every. Single. Round. Plus they can set things on fire. Do they count as magical attacks against otherwise invulnerable creatures? And in that bar brawl? Have you met my little friend the Shocking Grasp? Electrocution damage by touch attack. At will. Every. Single. Round. That Wizard just became a master of unarmed combat, with no question of managing resources.
 
It is not just a case of narrow balance within the combat encounter, even if I like games in which, once the steel is drawn the Fighter class is undoubtedly superior. It is also a question of what kind of game world do these rules imply, in which damage dealing magic is an unlimited resource for even the most modest of 'magic users'. Has questions of this sort figured in your games? 

I asked the O5R Google+ group, but what I am really looking for is answers from people who share my tastes. Do you like Classic D&Ds and their clones and variants? Have you played (or more, run) 5e? The opinions of people who hated 'old school' Magic Users are no good to me in this context. Yes, I get it that this game is fun for you, but I want to know how it plays for someone with a taste in D&D that instinctively sees these things as problems, rather than features.

I want to be reassured that my prejudices are misplaced. I want to like and play the new D&D. I want to spend my money.

[Next: is it true what they say about those Dwarven Wizards in armour, eh?]

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

AFF2e Sorcerers are Muscle Wizards




In which I argue that Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e (AFF2e) Sorcerers are ‘Muscle Wizards’, but first I bore you all with a discussion (moan) about transferring rules from the ‘closed’ system and world of a gamebook to the ‘open’ system and world of a tabletop RPG.

AFF2e has four types of magic – Minor Magic, Wizardry, Priestly Miracles, and Sorcery. The first three were designed with a multiplayer, tabletop RPG in mind, while Sorcery is the product of the Sorcery! gamebooks by Steve Jackson, and while this is the source of its great flavour, it is also its great weakness. It is a weakness, as the use of Sorcery in a gamebook allows the ‘dead’[*1] GM to operate a pretty tight control over the use of magic. Steve Jackson limited the player’s access to spell components, the choice of spells in any particular circumstance, and decided on the outcome of spells as he saw fit, unburdened by an ‘objective’ rules system.   

So, in a gamebook, the player can’t declare that he is going to search the fancy dress shops of Arkleton to find a green wig, or divert from his quest collect a sack full of teeth Goblin hunting. You've thought of an innovative use of a spell which will ‘break’ the encounter? Tough. Either Steve Jackson didn’t think of that, or he did and decided not to offer it as an option. You don’t get the option to simply fly over the walls of Khare, or cast MUD at the feet of every monster. And whatever options the player is given, Steve Jackson has used pre-emptive GM fiat to ensure that the results come out the way he wants them to.

And that is fine and dandy. Such is the way of a gamebook.

In an open-ended tabletop RPG, players are free to declare that their characters are going to collect a sack of sand, and ‘spam’ the MUD spell during every encounter. Or that they will hunt Goblins and conduct post-mortem dental surgery, ensuring that the party can outnumber any opponent with some Jason and the Argonauts-style sowing of teeth. This is not to say AFF2e’s Sorcery is ‘broken’, only that it needs co-operative players, and likely some invention on the part of the GM as to what actually counts as a spell component. Do the Goblin teeth used in GOB need to be free of decay? Does the ‘sand’ used in casting MUD need to be filtered silica? Etc.

“Why are you trying to limit players’ powers?” I hear you ask. “Enable their power fantasies and make the players feel awesome!” you shout. But the other voices in my head tell me to make life difficult for the players. And when the arguing voices in my head quieten for just a moment, I remember that limiting the players’ access to Sorcery magic is true to the ‘fiction’ – but that as a ‘living’ GM I have to make my decisions explicit to the players in order to allow them to make meaningful decisions.

But (and here is where AFF2e Sorcerers turn into Muscle Wizards) spell components are not the only limiting factor in Sorcery. The magic systems of many RPGs treats magical capacity as a finite resource, typically by way of ‘magic points’ or ‘mana’, which is often separate from the spell caster’s physical ‘resources’. But in AFF2e, casting a spell eats away at a Sorcerer’s STAMINA (AFF2e equivalent to, say, Hit Points). So an effective AFF2e Sorcerer must have a high STAMINA score – and one way of looking at that is that other words he or she needs to be one of the most vigorous, fittest men or women on Titan. 

Wizards? Pah! Old, weak men digging over dusty books.

Sorcerers look like this!


Now, I am partial to the idea that magic should have a physical cost in my fantasy – both fiction and gaming. I enjoy stories in which Merlin has to recuperate after working some great, taxing magic. When I read Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, I found myself wanting to model not just the visceral combat, but also the sort of magic that left the Magi Bayaz at death’s door, comatose, after saving the party from an ambush. Having magic ‘damage’ STAMINA is one way of doing this. But, just as with D&D Hit Points, in game terms STAMINA is all or nothing – while we may understand having a single point of STAMINA as being close to dropping from exhaustion, there is no mechanical impact in having 1 STAMINA point as compared to having 24… er, other than to significantly decrease the chances of the character surviving the next physical strain to which he or she is exposed![*2]

[*1]As opposed to a living GM, sitting at the table, applying rules, making rulings, improvising, and accountable to the players.


[*2] This is something that it is easy to miss – and all too often is – when playing (and criticising) a game that has a D&D-type model of ‘attritional damage’.



Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Songs of New Games and New Years


New Year, New Games. Okay, the really radical thing that I am planning to do (gaming-wise, at least) is to learn to run, play, and appreciate Fate. That's radical for me, anyway. I'll probably wimp out and end up playing something closer to Fudge, but hey...

If we rule out games of King of Tokyo, Tsuro, Ingenious/Mensa, and Snake Oil with my wife, my mum, my aunties, my brother, my sister, and my cousins, then tonight was the first tabletop gaming of 2015. And I don't think we should rule out those games. So this was the first geeky, fantasy-themed gaming of 2015. A couple of games of Songs of Blades and Heroes with D.

This was the first time that we had played SoBaH, and I am pretty impressed. It is easy to learn, quick to play, and able to accommodate pretty much any figure - and 'character' concept - that you pull from the box. I can see it reinvigorating my miniature gaming - I can't even imagine assembling and painting several whole units at the moment, and mass-battle games swallow up too much time to squeeze them in with any regularity.

Our first game of SoBaH pitted a group of Dwarfs (mostly my old Citadel minis) against a small band of Beastmen raiders. I used the Hyena-man statlines from the rulebook as stand-ins for the Beastmen. We played at about 200 points, and - possibly due to the small scale - the game was convincingly won by the Dwarfs. I gave the Dwarfs a 'Commander' with the 'Leader' ability, and with with reasonable 'Quality' across the board already, the Dwarfs were able to hold their discipline and get a lot of 'Activations' each turn. At a higher points total, and with a more interesting scenario than 'FIGHT!', the Dwarfs might not all have been able to stay within range of the Commander's 'Leader' ability. But as it was they were able to make up for their 'Short Move' by their reliability and ability to take orders. The Dwarfs held their line until the opportunity to charge arose, and once of few Beastmen fell their morale broke and they scattered from the field of battle.   


For the second game we opened up the board and played a slightly expanded Beastmen tribe against a small, shambling warband of Undead - including the Harryhausen-esque Reaper Bones Skeletons. This was a more interesting force to play, as it included the poor 'Quality' but hard-hitting Zombies and a Mummy, as well as the weak but relatively reliable Skeletons. Much rested on the Activation rolls (6+) of the Zombies as they came shambling up the right flank while the Skeletons made a nuisance of themselves in the centre. We drew the game to an end when we realised that the Beastmen, having finally taken down the Mummy and most of the Skeletons, could, if they wanted, keep out of combat with the Zombies all night long. 


Our next game - which will likely be Chaos Warbands done SoBaH style - will definitely involve some more interesting objectives than simply 'Kill 'Em All'.