Sunday, 22 May 2016

Can YOU climb?


Can you climb walls? I can. Can you scale sheer surfaces without rope and gear? Err...

When I run D&D (and clones thereof) I always try to remind myself that the Thief 'skill' percentages are so low because they are not, in fact, skills. Anyone can climb or hide, and any competent locksmith can open a normal lock. The *proper* (ahem!) interpretation of Thief 'skills' is that they are preternatural abilities, beyond that possessed by ordinary humans (and beyond that of even the extraordinary people with classes and levels with whom they adventure).

This, though, takes some overlooking of what the rulebooks actually say. The rulesbooks often describe most of these abilities in utterly mundane ways, and in the case of the Thief's 'climb' skill/ability I had been dimly aware that, at some point, even the name was mundan-ised, from a version that refers to scaling 'sheer' surfaces to one that merely refers to climbing walls. Bah! I thought I'd check through the versions of TSR D&D that I own to see what each edition has to say. 

Moldvay Basic. Promisingly, the Thieves' Abilities table has 'Climb Sheer Surfaces'. Unfortunately, the accompanying text has the ability listed as 'Climb Steep Surfaces'. The description of the ability does, however, lack the kind of specificity that prevents the ability being interpreted in a preternatural way. (Moldvay B88)

Mentzer Basic (and the Rules Cyclopedia) boils down the ability into the boring and not at all preternatural 'Climb Walls', and the text is unhelpfully specific, saying that this ability "applies to any steep surfaces, such as sheer cliffs, walls, and so forth." (Mentzer B44)

Note: Both Mentzer and Moldvay promisingly describe what we commonly call Thief 'skills' as 'special abilities', which is at least suggestive of these chances being something different, over and above what a mundane person ought be able to do.

AD&D1e has the ability - in the 'Thief Function' (ack!) - table as 'Climb Walls'. The description is utterly mundane. Also, in an amusing Gygaxianism, at high levels, this 'function' is not adjudicated by way of a normal percentile roll. After 10th level, the base chance to 'climb walls' increases beyond 99% by a tenth of a percent each level. Talk about marginal gains! The player (or DM) therefore needs to roll a D100.0 - three ten sided dice. My goodness, AD&D1e is one of the least lovely editions of the game. (PHB1e 28)

AD&D2e might have 'reduced' the special abilities to 'skills'. It might have 'Climb Walls' rather than Climb Sheer Surfaces. But by Crom it gets the description right! "Although everyone can climb rocky cliffs and steep slopes, the thief is far superior to others in this ability. Not only does he have a better climbing percentage than other characters, he can also climb most surfaces without tools, ropes, or devices. Only the thief can climb smooth and very smooth surfaces without climbing gear."(PHB2e 40)

I had expected to find that earlier editions of the game were open to a more preternatural interpretation of the Thief's climbing ability, and had expected that, at some point (under the influence of skill-based RPGs) that this would become mundan-ised as a general climbing ability, effectively disallowing other characters from climbing. What I didn't expect to find was that AD&D2e (which I already have quite a soft spot for) is the only edition of those that in which the Thief Special Ability/Function/Skill is expressly something above and beyond that possible for other characters.
  

Friday, 15 April 2016

How do you like your 'historical' settings?


It seems to me that there are a variety of way in which to use 'history' in fantasy RPG settings. While the degree to which an RPG setting uses 'historical elements' is related to the level of magic in the setting, that's not all that there is, I'd suggest there are five levels of 'historical-ness' in fantasy RPG settings:

1) Little to No Historical Elements: I haven't played any of this kind, but a setting such as Eberron or Planescape probably counts as belonging to this category. In those settings, the level of magic renders the world quite alien from any particular historical analogues, but I'm sure one could imagine a low-magic fantasy RPG setting that is similarly devoid of historical elements.

2) Loosely Inspired By History: Here, I'm thinking of setting such as the Forgotten Realms or Mystara. The historical analogues are fairly clear, which enables the players and GM to collectively imagine the game world. However, the level of magic (and the bricolage of historical-like elements) means that while the setting might superficially appears to be (say) 'medieval', the way in which the world works is actually quite different.

3) Strong Analogies To Historical Elements: In this category I would put settings such as the WFRP1e Old World and Dragon Warriors' 'Legend'. In both these cases the game world isn't Europe, but it isn't too far off. It is probably not a coincidence that both settings are pretty low-magic, which means that the close cleaving to the social and political structures of the historical inspirations are not implausible. These settings allow the players and GM to use their rough knowledge of a historical era while placing few demands to 'get things right'. Of course, it needn't always be not-quite-Europe - Kevin Crawford's Spears of the Dawn is not-quite-Africa, for example.

4) 'Real World' With Overt Fantasy Elements: Here we get things like RPGPundit's Dark Albion of Cakebread and Walton's Clockwork and Chivalry. In these settings, the fantastical and magical is certainly part of the world, but many of the historical elements are drawn straight from history.

5) 'Real World' With Subtle Fantasy Elements: While the level to which the fantastical intrudes depends on the GM and the play-style of the table, settings such as Mythic Iceland and Mythic Britain, or TSR's Historical Reference series for AD&D2e are built almost entirely (as closely as is gameable) from 'historical elements'.

What sort of levels of historical-ness do you enjoy playing? And running?      

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Skills as Saving Throws


As someone, somewhere, somewhen said, a knight never fell of his horse until they invented the 'ride' skill. I've had PCs fall over when running because the GM, seduced by itemised skill lists and the possibilities that they present for demanding a dice roll, has called for an 'Athletics' check!

I detest skill systems in RPGs. No, that's not quite right. I like the idea of a skill system in principle, the way in which they can add texture to a PC and give colour to the world in which the PCs live. But I detest the way in which skill systems are usually implemented, either through the advice given to the GM in the rulebook/s, or the way in which published adventures set the precedent for their application. Introductory adventures (in particular) for RPGs with skill systems all to often 'teach' the game by demanding that GMs ask for a whole series of pointless, inconsequential skill rolls. Look at Through the Drakwald for WFRP2e, or Caravan from RQ6's Book of Quests. Whatever the other merits of these scenarios, the extent to which they 'teach the system' involves skill tests being called for at inappropriate moments; moments that are either not the result of player choice - railroad skill rolls - or that have no consequential bearing on the adventure - quantum skill rolls - or, worse BOTH. 

But I do run (and sometimes play) a whole host of games which have some kind of skill system - a variety of BRP-derived games, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Traveller, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, even RC D&D etc. - while always feeling a dissatisfied with the way in which I find myself applying the mechanics of the skill system.

And why is that? That's because most skill systems are written as if they are 'rolls to accomplish'. Rolling to accomplish means either a lot of failing on the part of the PCs, or dice being rolled where, whether by way of modifiers or very 'competent' characters, there is little chance of failure. It wasn't until I read this post on Tales to Astound! that I 'got' how I ought to be conceptualising skills systems, and refereeing their application in my games. Take out the Traveller specific stuff and concentrate on this extract:

You poke and prod things fictionally (that is, through conversation between the Players and the Referee), building the world and the situation, until something involving danger happens. [...] No one will be making a skill roll to see if they are competent in some way with their skill. [...] there really is not such thing as a Pilot roll [...] There are Saving Throws… and certain skills and and Characteristics can act as D[ice] M[odifier]s to those rolls.

This! Yes, this. Couple this with an understanding of Saving Throws that stresses player agency (from Courtney Campbell) - "The saving throw versus death, especially at low levels is a roll called for when the player has already made a poor choice that results in certain death. It is a chance to avoid death caused by a bad choice" - and we have a way of interpreting RPGs with skill systems in way that is consonant with 'old school' play, which stresses player agency (and player skill) and which reserves dice rolls made by the players for moments of peril and danger (perhaps not always physical). You're not rolling to accomplish. Rather, as in combat, you are rolling to see if your PC escapes without something terrible happening.

So, under this interpretation, skill systems present a more granular breakdown of Saving Throw categories. Of course, Newt Newport's Crypts & Things, a Swords & Wizardry variant, uses Saving Throws *as* the 'skill' mechanic, which is a neat and simple way of doing things. In a D&D alike such as Swords and Wizardry Saving Throws start off around 15 or so (just over a 25% chance of success) and reach about 5 (a 75% chance of success) as PCs reach name level. Which is just about perfect for a skill percentage, where it is understood that this represents a roll to prevent something awful that would otherwise happen from happening. It puts the skill ratings of starting RuneQuest, and even starting WFRP characters, into perspective.

Now, perhaps none of this is news to you. Great, you've been playing a better game than I have. But given the precedent set by the examples in the rule books and in published adventures, it is something worth putting down in explicit terms, even if only to remind myself to referee skill rolls in a better way.

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Cobwebbed Shrine and the Dark Pool


After making mincemeat of the cultists, the Adventurers push deeper into the caves...

5. The Cobwebbed Shrine
The Adventurers’ lanterns light a heavily cobwebbed room. Cocoons of spider-silk hang ominously about the chamber, which is obviously a shrine. A SPIDER-MONK, sits cross-legged suspended in webbing, chanting before an altar crawling with normal-sized spiders. A tapestry spun from spider-silk hangs behind the altar, showing Arhallogen astride an astrological representation of the Heavens. If the Monk is inspected Adventurers will notice that he has two small extra sets of legs growing at awkward angles from his hips. Compared to with withered, aged skin of the rest of the Monk, these legs have bright pink, babyish skin. The Spider-Monk is in the midst of metamorphosis – being most blessed of Arhallogen – and is unable to respond to the Adventurers.

If the Adventurers do not take care in this room, they will pull on the webs. If they do so, they will alert 1d6+2 GIANT SPIDERS to their presence.

There are four exits. To the [north] there is a climbing rough cut stair-way, from where can be heard the clang of metal and brutish shouts. To the [south] there is a tunnel that slopes up, back to the entrance chamber. To the [east] there is a climbing tunnel, which is illuminated by flickering firelight. Also to the [east] there is also a smaller, downward sloping tunnel. This tunnel is utterly silent and utterly black.

GIANT SPIDER
SKILL 7 STAMINA⑧⑦⑥⑤④③②①             
Weapon
1
2
3
4
5
6
7+
Bite
2
3
3
3
4
4
5
Giant Spiders can make 2 Attacks.
Armour
1
2
3
4
5
6
7+
Bristly Hair
0
0
0
1
1
1
2

Snaggletooth the Dwarf decided that he would use his battleaxe to clear a path through the cobwebs... so any real investigation of this room had to wait until after the Adventurers had dealt with the Giant Spiders that he had alerted. Once that was over, and much of their recent rest and recuperation undone, the Adventurers had the chance to inspect the Spider-Monk. Unable to break his meditation, Rhoda Red-Tress hacked off his head.


5a. The Dark Pool

At first glance, the pool here seems to be filled with water, but is impossibly black, no matter what illumination is used. The pool is made of the essence of Krazan Krazan’s magical webs, and is an extremely sticky and utterly black substance. It can be collected, perhaps, and used imaginatively. It is, however, also partially in Eternal Web, the Realm of Arhallogen, and so will act as a homing beacon, should Arhallogen turn his attention to the Adventurer carrying the stuff. 

Naturally, enough, after poking the blackness with their weapons and finding it almost aggressively sticky, the Adventurers decided to 'chuck stuff in'. They cut down several of the cocoons from the Shrine and tossed them into the pool. Tendrils of black climbed up the cocoons thrown into the pool, dragging them down, but before they were fully submerged the cocoons faded out of existence. Puzzled, the Adventurers decided to throw the body (and head) of the SPIDER-MONK into what they presumed was a cosmic dustbin.  

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Cultists


I've been a bit quiet on the blog, but here's the first of some encounters from last week's AFF2e game.

4.  The Cultists

This is the rough dormitory of the spider cultists. At any time there are 1d6+3 ACOLYTES here; cooking, eating, sleeping, engaging in ritual scarification, including inserting glass beads into cuts on their foreheads, in order to mimic the multiple eyes of a spider. But hey! They’re not Orcs, so they won’t be found round a table idly rolling dice until the Adventurers show up.

The Acolytes are a mix of peoples. A few are red-haired Vynheimers. But there are also acolytes who appear to have come from the Isles of Dawn and some that resemble Old Worlders in their appearance. Any with curious mind will realise that this is not a local cult, springing up solely from native corruption.

ACOLYTES
SKILL 6 STAMINA⑤④③②①             
Weapon
1
2
3
4
5
6
7+
Dagger
1
1
2
2
2
2
3
Poisoned Daggers. After successfully causing damage, victims of the Cultists must Test for Luck of lose 1 SKILL for the remainder of the combat, as the weak poison on the daggers saps their strength.

The Acolytes carry vials of antidote to spider venom. However, as this is a potion concocted in the service of Arhallogen, those using the antidote will find that they ‘owe’ Arhallogen a death, and he will seek to collect this debt. This is not a problem for cultists. Arhallogen will visit any using the antidote in their dreams to remind them of what they owe, and how their debt can be paid.

Tunnels lead [south] to the daylight of the entrance, and off to the [east], sloping down into darkness, from which can be heard the chanting in a dark, alien tongue.

Thanks to the assistance of Midweek One-Eye, the Adventurers knew that this room contained a number of cultists. They planned to lure the cultists into an ambush, but spent so long loudly arguing over their plan that they disturbed a GIANT SPIDER (the 'scuttling corpse') and alerted the cultists to their presence. So, instead, it was they who were ambushed!

Despite the substantial difference in effective SKILL - the 6 for the cultists was outmatched by any Adventurer, with martially inclined beginning Adventurers starting out with an effective SKILL of 9 in their chosen weapon - the poisoned daggers made for a moderately threatening encounter. With LUCK a diminishing characteristic, and with falling SKILL resulting in an increased frequency of Tests for Luck, this was not the cakewalk it might have been. Nevertheless, the Adventurers eventually made a bloody mess of the local congregation of Arhallogen, but did need a good rest, during which Provisions and Potions were consumed.
  

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The One-Eyed Birdkeeper and the Scuttling Corpse


Another giant spider, but this one only woke from its gorged stupor after the Adventurers had made a lot of noise planning to lure out the cultists from one of the room deeper in the complex. How did they know that there were cultists down that tunnel? Well, they persuaded Midweek One-Eye to give them an idea of the layout of the first few chambers of this cave complex.

3. The One-Eyed Birdkeeper
An one-eyed old man wearing a wide-brimmed hat sits in the corner of this chamber, bird droppings caking his hat, cloak and long beard. He offers the Adventurers a genial welcome.

He struggles to remember his name. Or anything much for that matter. He thinks his name might be MIDWEEK ONE-EYE, and he seems to think that he swapped his eye for something magical, though, patting down his cloak, he can't seem to find it anymore. If pushed, he seems to think that he came into this forest to keep an eye on things, and he will tap his nose theatrically as he says so. 

His ravens (see 3a) bring him food; mice, voles and the like. He will crunch through one of these noisily, and will offer the Adventurers a snack. Adventurers eating a small mammal raw will recover 1 STAMINA, but it is absolutely vile. Midweek will say that the birds also bring back other bits and bobs, and invites the Adventurers to take a look 

There are two exits from this chamber, both on the 'east' wall. The first slopes down to the entrance chamber  (2), the second slopes up into a sunlit chamber noisy with the caws of ravens.

Midweek is actually a powerful ancestor-spirit (practically a demi-god) of the Vynheimers. He is able to see through the eyes of his ravens, and even to shapechange himself but is loath to intercede - it should the through the heroism of Humanity that they are saved from evil. When he does use his powers, he will still do his best to seem like a befuddled old man. In fact, he might actually be that befuddled.

3a. The Ravens’ Nest
This open cave is home to innumerable ravens. They have collected a pile of trash, but among the bits of wood, leather, bone, shiny stones, etc. there is the off glitter of gold. In an Adventurer wishes to search this trash pile, roll 2d6. On a roll of 8+, the Adventurers have found 1d6GP, but on the roll of a double the Adventurers have enraged the ravens who inflict 1d3 points of STAMINA damage before they calm.

Midweek actually transformed himself into a raven to explore the caves on behalf of the Adventurers. However, after transforming back into an old man he didn't seem to realise that he had explored the caves himself, appearing to take his description of the layout from the (silent) raven resting on his shoulder.

2. The Scuttling Corpse

Inside the cave entrance there are more be-webbed corpses. One appears to sprout giant, articulated arachnid legs and scuttle towards the adventurers. It appears as if the corpse is riding the spider, jerking like a puppet-jockey on its back. The first 4 points of STAMINA damage involve chopping away the corpse. Only then will the Adventurers strike the GIANT SPIDER.

GIANT SPIDER
SKILL 7 STAMINA⑧⑦⑥⑤④③②①             
Weapon
1
2
3
4
5
6
7+
Bite
2
3
3
3
4
4
5
Giant Spiders can make 2 Attacks.
Armour
1
2
3
4
5
6
7+
Bristly Hair
0
0
0
1
1
1
2

There are three exits from this chamber. To the ‘west’ a tunnel slopes upwards, from which the Adventurers can hear the caws of birds. To the ‘northwest’ there is a roughly level tunnel that appears to wind somewhat, but from which can be seen the flicker of what might be firelight. To the 'northeast' there is a tunnel that slopes downwards into darkness, from which the chanting can be heard.

The Adventurers made short work of this disturbing sight, but having taken a long time loudly discussing their plan of action, any hope of a stealthy approach have evaporated.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Choices & Consequences - a go read someone else post


There are some things that you *know* that you ought to do (which you might even have written about), but that you don't always put into practice. One of these things, for me, is making explicit to the players choices and consequences that are the axis upon which an RPG turns. The game is not about rolling dice or CharOp or any of that jazz, but about making choices as your character and playing out the consequences