Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A Complete Game in Four Parts

Of all the D&Ds, Frank Mentzer's BECM is the one that is closest to my heart. I leave out the 'I' as I never owned the Immortal Set. In fact, as I describe below, I'm not sure that I've ever needed the Master Set as part of my 'complete game'. Certainly I've never played in a campaign that has got beyond the 'teen' levels. Part of the reason that I hold these slim books in such high regard is, no doubt, nostalgia. In the 1980s we got a tremendous amount of play out of just four books – the Basic Player and DM books, the Expert book (which is my favourite D&D book of all time), and the Isle of Dread. We fought our way up from frightened dungeon grubbers, we travelled all across the Known World, by horse, ship, and – later – a variety of flying monsters, we built castles, ruled domains, and lead armies into battle (we didn't have the Companion set at the time so we made up our own rules, which isn't that difficult in an AC/HD system). We could do all this because BECM D&D is a wonderfully complete and well organised game that supports this range of fantasy adventure with a number of simple but effective play procedures.

"Well organised?! It is spread across seven books!" Sure. But do not overlook the virtue of procedures organised by 'tier'. First, it stops players and DMs being overwhelmed by trying to master rules and procedures that are of little to no relevance for their own games. But second and more importantly - and this is something that is missing from plenty of more serious, comprehensive games - it makes material the idea that the kind of adventures that a PC might engage in will change, as they grow. This change will be qualitative as well as quantitative. Play at higher levels isn't just about fighting bigger monsters for more magnificent treasures (though both are there, if you want them) but about different kinds of adventure altogether. The PCs are a 'real' part of the world. In my opinion, if 'serious' D&D has to be three big hardbound books, it would be better for the game (though not for WotC’s bank balance) if the material – the procedures that make up the game – was organised by tiers of PC power (and where these tiers mean something other than the addition of more kewl powerz) rather than the now standard PHB, DMG, MM division. 

Second, do not be fooled by the fact that these rules are spread across seven books. Each book is a pretty slim volume affair. I can use the weight of most RPG rulebooks to press flowers - if I was into that - and many RPGs don't settle for just one big book. These? I couldn't squash an ant with these books, even one on top of the other. Yet within these books there are not only the systems that are found in any fantasy adventure RPG - character creation and advancement, magic, equipment, combat, monsters, etc., but a whole raft of simple procedures that cement the place of PCs within the game world. My expectations of an RPG have been so coloured by the comprehensiveness and scope of BECM that I find other games inadequate in this regard (and end up porting in BECM D&D's procedures to fill in the gaps).

From the Basic DM book we have a procedure for dealing with retainers (BD20), a system for handling the reaction of monsters and NPCs (BD22), treasure tables that provide us with a system of determining appropriate levels of reward with the context of a D&D game world (BD40-42), a system for generating room contents and random treasures (BD47), and a system for determining whether the party will encounter wandering monsters, with sample wandering monster tables on the inside back cover.

The Expert book, as we all know, introduces wilderness travel and adventure (for example, encounter tables on E30 and 35, getting lost etc. on E41), but it also includes procedures for allowing PCs to build castles (E23), hire mercenaries (E24), conduct magical research (E25), as well as adventures at sea (E42-44).

The Companion book brings us rules for ruling Dominions (CD5-10), fighting wars (CD12-17), and, for those higher level PCs without the taste for rulership, guidance for engaging in adventures across other dimensions and planes of existence (C18-20).

And, given that in BECM we’re not talking about a race from 1st level to name level in just under three weeks of actual adventuring (which, judging by the release of the free DMG pdf is the assumption of 5e), the Companion book also introduces some rules for aging (CD25).

In other words, across a handful of pages (not many - count 'em!), using pretty simple systems of resolution (okay, the Dominion rules could have done with a serious trim), we have the procedural skeleton on which a can be built play a campaign in which the players can enjoy their PCs exploring, shaping, ruling, and travelling beyond the game world.

And while AD&D churned out adventure module after geographic guidebook after splatbook, the BECM D&D supplemental line included material that further cemented the idea that this was the D&D for extended, meaningful sandbox campaigns. The C and M series of modules often involved the PCs not only as adventurers but as rulers. Hidden in the GAZ series was material than made them something more than mere geographical guidebooks and sources of variant Class options - consider the trade rules from the Minrothad Guilds and Darokin supplements. And in Red Arrow, Black Shield, the PCs were invited to take a meaningful, consequential part in a continental war - in the war itself, mind, which was not 'merely' the background for a quest for a MacGuffin.  

Kids game, huh?!

[Of course, there are a few things that I don't like about BECM. It is not the perfect D&D. Central to my complaints is the lunatic level spread (36 levels!), and the fact that that level spread is partly responsible for producing the worst iteration of the Thief class in any D&D.]

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Hanging Garden - (not quite) Skeleton Encounter #4

Another Skeleton encounter (well, sorta) that fits on two sides of a 6"x4" index card. Earlier encounters in this series can be found here:

#4 The Hanging Garden

Alone in a meadow is a tree resembling a tall willow with a dense curtain of hanging branches. It sways gently, creaking and groaning, even without wind. If the PCs approach, the tree will burst into blossom; red, white and yellow flowers opening along the hanging branches. The tree reeks of sweet decay and small skeletal birds flutter here and there. This is a CARNIVOROUS PLANT, and the flowers are its ‘mouths’. An aberration, it fed on birds until people settled nearby and began to use it as a way of disposing of their criminals and other outcasts. Years of ritualised murder, combined with whatever residual magic produced the tree, keeps the dead from their rest. Tangled in the branches of the tree are 10 SKELETONS. Some are able walk a few feet from the tree, as if one a leash, while others are higher into the canopy and jerk ineffectively as they dangle. 

The PCs might well conceive of reasonable a plan to destroy the tree; if so they will recover the some trinkets and jewellery worth 3d6GP. However, the tree is difficult to set alight and the trunk cannot be reached without entering the hungry curtain of branches. Unreasonable plans might result in PCs being tangled in the branches – Save vs Paralyzation or be trapped, taking 1d4 damage per turn until a successful Saving Throw is made. Other PCs can help, granting a +2 bonus to the tangled PC’s Saving Throw, but risk being entangled themselves. Skeletons ‘freed’ have a 2in6 chance of attacking the PCs; otherwise they will head towards their ‘home’ village.

This encounter presents little threat to a party that doesn’t do anything silly. Unless the PCs decide to destroy the tree, this encounter serves as atmospheric foreshadowing. The next settlement that the PCs reach will be the one that uses this tree as its means of punishment. A sign outside the village reads, ‘Sinners Shall Tend to the Garden of the God’. PCs should watch their manners…

The 6"x4" index card format really restrained me here. I left out the Skeleton stats, something that I'd thought about before as which ever OSR (or other) game you are using has standard Skeleton that supercedes the Labyrinth Lord statline I would reproduce here. This wouldn't always be the decision - a monster or NPC that varies from a standard would need the statline included - what I want here are index cards that I can draw from a file and [almost] immediately play. 

It also isn't all that Skeleton-y. It started out as an encounter with a number of Skeletons in gibbets, but this gives the players much more to do. Or, well, much more to mess about with. I haven't provided any stats for the 'tree' as it doesn't need any. No more than an oak tree would, anyway. It is an environmental hazard, not a 'monster' to be fought. Of course, it is really an introduction to a proper 'Hammer Horror' village, and the PCs have more choices to make when they find that. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Shattered Bone! A [pinched] Skeleton Rule

Skeletons, by Bob Harvey (Talisman of Death, FF#11)

Before I get round to polishing off the other six Skeleton encounters, I came across a cool little rule in Elric! I've seen rules for adjusting damage to Skeletons based on weapon type - i.e. bludgeoning weapons do more damage, peircing weapons very little, but Elric! has a suitably elegant spot rule. I can't say that I'd ever noticed it before, probably because Skeletons are relegated to a 'Natural Beasts & Generic Monsters Table' at the very end of the bestiary. Anyway, here is the footnote that relates to Skeleton 'armour':

"Does normal attack damage. Destroyed completely by weapon damage roll x4 or less, as rolled on D100: thus damage result roll of 4 needs a D100 result of 01-16, or there is no effect. Include any damage bonus." (p 137)

An elegant spot rule, if inelegantly put. I'm not sure what the first sentence means, but given that Skeletons have only 5-6HP I have assumed this means that armour (which in Elric! reduces damage according to a dice roll) does not reduce the damage roll for purposes of calculating the percentage chance of destruction. If attacks also do HP damage, this rule isn't half so cool - most Skeletons would be 'killed' long before they are shattered. However, reading it my way, this rule requires no increase in bookkeeping (indeed, it requires less, as we're no longer tracking Skeleton HP) to achieve an interesting effect. I don't see why this rule couldn't be applied to Skeletons in most fantasy games. 

I certainly could see myself using this in a D&D/OSR game. If I wanted to make 'tougher' Skeletons - such as the Skeleton Champions in The Cursed Holmgang, I would improve their AC rather than fiddle with the multiplier that is used to derive the percentage chance of destruction. As HP doesn't matter (at least not with regard to crude weapon attacks), improved HD would be used to increase their ability to hit.

If I wanted to complicate things further, we could alter the multiplier by weapon type. For example, piercing weapons have a x1 multiplier, slashing a x3 multiplier, and bludgeoning weapons a x5 multiplier. Or something like that.  

(Credit for this rule is due to one or more of Willis, Watts, Morrison, Pursell, Shirley, and Shaw, authors of Elric! I'm not sure if there are antecedents for this rule to be found elsewhere.)

Incidentally, Magic World (which is largely Elric! reskinned, though the bestiary is drawn from RQ3), does have Skeletons taking HP damage in the normal way. I think. It has Skeletons taking no damage from thrusting weapons (except on a Special or Critical) and being automatically destroyed when it takes a Major Wound. Except the MW bestiary doesn't give us a HP score from which we can derive the Major Wound threshold (a product, presumably, of an incomplete translation of material from RQ3, which had hit locations, to MW, which has total HP scores). Going by SIZ alone (average 13), we could guess that Skeletons might have 13 HP and a Major Wound threshold of 7. However, Elric! gives Skeletons just 5-6 HP, based on (SIZ+CON)/2. If this was transferred straight over to Magic World it would mean that the Major Wound threshold would be just 3 - so pretty fragile! Shards of bone everywhere!   

Friday, 3 October 2014

A Travelling Show (1d6 Skeleton Encounters #3)

Another Skeleton 'encounter'. This (or these, perhaps) are might not be very adventuresome, but it is (they are) colourful. And there is the potential for the PCs to get tangled up in a heap of trouble (when isn't there?), particularly if they meet this travelling showman more than once.

A Travelling Show

Osteus Arcanus is the stage name of a petty Necromancer. Lacking the, ahem, backbone, for the deeper secrets of death magic, he has put his talents to use as a showman. His carriage is made from painted black wood, polished brass, and carved bone. It is pulled by two black shire horses wearing bull skulls as ostentatious champrons. Osteus maintains a sinister appearance, using theatrical make-up to give himself a deathly pallor and darken his sunken eyes. He wears a brass skull cap and the (tattered) funeral wear of the nobility. All this is a mistake; as often as he puts on a successful show, he leaves a village or town just ahead of the pitchfork and torch.   

OSTEUS = MU (Necromancer from Theorems & Thaumaturgy): 3, AC: 7, HP: 7, MV: 120’/40’, ATT: 1 dagger, DAM: 1d4, SV: MU3, MR: 6, AL: C, XP: 100

Osteus’ spellbook – an overwritten volume of the Hagensburg Register of Deaths – contains the Level 1 spells Exterminate (T&T p12), Read Magic, Scare (AEC p75), Skeletal Servitor (T&T p15), and the Level 2 spell Ray of Pain (T&T p14). He also has a collection of books on obscure funereal rites (worth 200gp to a suitable buyer), and a beautifully illustrated copy of Delvecchio’s Classical Clowning (200gp). A locked chest contains a 50gp and 500sp. He also has four human skeletons, bones linked by wire, hooks drilled into their skulls. These hang on a rack in his carriage when not dressed in cheap costumes and animated using Skeletal Servitor for act – a compendium of famous tragic, historical, and comedic scenes. Each casting of Skeletal Servitor allows him to animate a Skeleton for 9 turns.

There are many ways in which the PCs may (repeatedly) encounter Osteus, but here are three:
1 – At the edge of town, Osteus sobs over a charred skeleton. It is dressed in what remains of a ‘princess’ costume. 'She' was burned by angry, confused villagers. Distraught, Osteus will initially say little other than, ‘They burned her!’
2 – A clown picks berries from a roadside hedge. If approached, it will become clear that it is a Skeleton. Osteus is brewing a kettle of tea a few hundred yards away.

3 – Osteus enters a village with great pomp, with two Skeletons dressed a noble guards marching ahead of his carriage, from which he announces himself as a great dramatist. On behalf of the villagers, roll for reaction…

[This should (it does!) fit onto a 6"x4" index card. Maybe I'll have to put together a PDF at some point for easy archiving. As well as referencing Labyrinth Lord, spells have been drawn from Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, and Theorems &Thaumaturgy - a free(!!) pdf from Gavin Norman of City of Iron.]

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

1d6 Skeleton Encounters [2]

Continuing the series (encounter 1, Archaeologists, is here).

The Cursed Holmgang

When crossing land long lost to civilisation, the PCs hear the ring of steel on steel. If they hesitate for more a moment they will notice the curious lack of cries, shouts, or screams. If the PCs listen carefully, they will begin to hear a pattern in the blows as the same series of strikes, parries, and blocks is repeated. Endlessly.

The sound is that of a ritualised duel that has never ended. Two SKELETON CHAMPIONS in tattered chain fight skilfully but monotonously on a 10’x10’ square ox hide, the boundaries marked by five hazel stakes driven into the ground. To one side is a shield, upon which rests a large iron key. Carved into the shield, in an archaic runic script, is “While Brothers Fight, None Will Prosper”. The PCs should be able to decipher this.

SKELETON CHAMPIONS (2) = AC: 4, HD: 3, HP: 12, MV: 60’/20’, ATT: 1 sword, DAM: 1d8, SV: F3, MR: 12, AL: C, XP: 65

The SKELETONS were twin brothers, cursed by their sister as they fought over the inheritance of the family hall. The hall, a few hundred yards away, has crumbled to a few rotten posts and an overgrown hearth. The PCs will find this with if they search the long grass and bushes (perhaps 1d6 chance per turn). A treasure trove is buried by one of the posts (worth 1500GP, mostly copper and silver coins and jewellery - golden torcs, silver rings and broaches studded with semi-precious stones).

The hazel stakes mark the limit of the curse, forming the points of an invisible pentagram. Within, the Skeletons cannot be Turned and are immune to non-magical attacks. If the stakes are all torn up, the monotony of their fight is broken but the duel will not end. However, the Skeletons will turn as brothers to fight any PC that damages either of them, ending the duel. Other methods might also succeed. If the duel, and hence the curse, is not ended, the spirit of their sister protects the family treasure. She sits on the hearth, a weeping corpse, insensible with sadness.

VENGEFUL WIGHT = AC: 5, HD: 3, HP: 10, MV: 90’/30’, ATT: 1 grasp, claw, or bite, DAM: Energy Drain, SV: F3, MR: 12, AL: C, XP: 110. 

Again, this fits on two sides of a 4"x6" index card.

Monday, 29 September 2014

1d6 Skeleton Encounters [1]

Skeletons are boring. They have no motivation of their own and cannot be reasoned with, so a reaction roll doesn't provide for particularly interesting play. They require no morale checks, so that under-used gem of a D&D procedure is rendered useless. In my games, I have been guilty of encounters with Skeletons that are a bit… programmatic. As the DM, I know how the Skeletons will react, that they will not retreat, and that lacking any creativity they will not do anything inventive. 

But it doesn't need to be quite like that. And I want to do this without rewriting the Skeleton entry from Mentzer Basic (or your preferred cross-compatible OSR game). While I have sympathy for the point of view expressed in LotFP and DCC RPG, which suggests that [nearly?] all monsters should be unique and therefore truly 'monstrous', part of allowing the players and PCs to have ‘agency’ is to allow them to make informed, meaningful decisions. Too much novelty, too little stability in the game world undermines the ability of players to make these kind of decisions. 

Anyway, in the format of my 1d12 collection of Goblin encounters [part one, part two*], here is the first of 1d6 Skeleton encounters to add a bit of variety to another stock low-level Wandering Monster. Again, this text should fit on two sides of an 6"x4" index card when printed in Calibri 11pt.

1. Archeologists

The party enter an area of scattered stones. These are not natural features; though worn largely featureless they were clearly once shaped blocks. Several are piled atop each other, the remains of columns long tumbled. Skeletons (6) work with trowels, brushes and small shovels in a shallow pit, collecting pieces of broken pottery and the occasional golden trinket (just 50GP worth in total) in buckets lining the dig site. They are ‘archeologists’, working for the necromancer-sage Angavel Thurm.

SKELETONS (6) = AC: 7, HD: 1, HP: 4, MV: 60’/20’, ATT: 1 tool, DAM: 1d4, SV: F1, MR: 12, AL: C, XP 13

The Skeletons will pay no attention to the PCs unless they disturb the dig site. If the disturbance is minor, the Skeletons will hurry to the disturbance and, using brushes and trowels, attempt to rectify the disturbance. If the disturbance is major, or if the PCs attempt to remove any of the artifacts in the buckets, the Skeletons will attack.

A powerful magic user, Thurm is likely unsuitable as a direct opponent for low-level PCs. If the PCs follow the Skeletons they will be led to a mostly-buried astrological observatory. Thurm is using the dead of an ancient city as the ‘manpower’ to further excavate its secrets. On a hostile reaction, Thurm will send Skeletons armed and armoured in ancient bronze (AC: 4, DAM: 1d8-1) to drive the PCs away. On a favourable reaction, the bookish, cobwebbed Thurm will be interested in exchanging information on ruins – near and far. He can supply adventuring information such as the location of ruins, likely traps, ancient guardians, the translation of hieroglyphs etc. He will also buy ancient trinkets and baubles that the party recovers. Thurm might have use for a particularly powerful party when, in the future, he awakens some sleeping evil, or, accidentally-on-purpose, he prompts the PCs into doing so. 

 [Image by Leonid Yablonsky, borrowed (apologies) from pasthorizonspr.com]

(*I have no idea why everything listed in my Goblin encounters has a Movement Rate of 30' per round. A copy and paste error for sure - I have given it as the Movement Rate of Wolves and Boars as well as Goblins. But which D&D or Clone was I referencing that gives Goblins this Movement Rate? Not Labyrinth Lord or ACKS, which I carry around on my tablet for easy reference...)