Thursday, 20 December 2012

On Ability Scores (2)

More stuff that everyone and their dog has written about before:

In the last post I said that most NPCs in D&D should not have ability scores. By this, I don't mean that we shouldn't bother writing them down, I mean that they should not have them at all. Ability scores in D&D are not the same as characteristics in RuneQuest (RQ). In RQ, every living thing is statted out just like a PC because in RQ characteristics are a measure of something ‘real’. A Dragon’s STR can be compared directly to that of a PC. In D&D monsters do not have ability scores. If a monster needs only a bare stat line, so does an NPC, though they might have rich, complex histories and personalities.

In most versions of D&D, education does not raise INT, weight training does not raise STR, an improved diet does not raise CON. One of the weaknesses of thinking about D&D ability scores as a measure of something ‘real’ in the game world is that if, for example, we rationalising low CON as being the result of a PC’s obesity, a PCs CON score should be pretty mutable, changing with diet and exercise. If we treat D&D ability scores as representations of a Platonic ideal of the PC, the CON score will remain the same for the entire life of the PC. We might change the PC’s ability score modifiers though...

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

On Abillity Scores (1)

On the forums at Dragonsfoot I argued that a D&D character with an ability score of 3 was simply at the low end of ‘normal’. The corollary of this is that scores of 18 do not represent superhuman capabilities. Others took a much more stretched view of the 3d6 ability score curve, arguing, for example, that INT 3 represented an intellectual disability and INT 18 genius.

Scores of 3 and 18 turn up on 1 in every 216 rolls of 3d6. If everyone rolls 3d6 in order, that’s at least one genius in every village (and one villager that is superhumanly wise, superhumanly dextrous, etc.). So INT 18 is not the equivalent to Einstein, but to the guy with the [capacity to get a] first class degree in Physics.

But perhaps everyone in the village is not rolling 3d6 in order, and so 18s are not as common as 1 in 216 in the general population. In fact, I agree. We roll 3d6 to determine the ability scores of adventurers. In fact, I do not think most NPCs in D&D [should] have ability scores. If 3d6 is the way that we generate the ability scores of adventurers, an ability score of 3 is the ability score of a viable adventurer. An adventurer with a negative modifier when resolving actions related to that ability, but an adventurer all the same. But whatever a score of 3 represents, it does not represent a disability – ability score generation is not a roll on a critical hit chart; not even Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is that cruel and grim.     

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Impressions: Tower of the Stargazer

Earlier this year I ran Tower of the Stargazer for a small group. Two of the group hadn’t played a role playing game before. I wanted something self-contained, short enough to run in a single, short session, ideally a good introductory adventure that was neither a railroad nor a hack-n-slash combat fest. I also wanted it quick. Tower of the Stargazer seemed well reviewed, and at just a couple of Euros for the .pdf, it was a relatively risk-free buy.

The adventure is a location (i.e. not a plot) and can be explored in a non-linear manner. In the case of this group, that mostly involved opening a door and saying ‘No. We don’t like the look of this. Not one bit. We’ll try somewhere else. We shut the door. Quickly’. But this was not bland, mechanical caution, a worry that their PCs would be overmatched by the Ogre hiding behind the curtain, but a growing sense of unease derived from the PCs interactions with the environment, even things that were absolutely harmless. Of course, this is an adventure by Jim Raggi, so there were lots of hazards even though there are few ‘monsters’. Given this, the Tower of the Stargazer encourages caution before the PCs even reach the door of the tower – if the PCs die, it isn’t likely to be a run of bad dice, or a monster that wasn’t ‘balanced’ against the PCs, but because the players made certain decisions as to what their PCs would do, making it an ideal tutorial for old school play.

All this reminded me of one of the better Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. There were few fights – the majority of the adventure is an exercise in player choice and, god forbid, player skill. There is lots of strange stuff for the players to have their PCs mess with, sometimes with catastrophic results. If the players do mess with the Stargazer’s stuff, they will find themselves ‘Testing Their Luck’ via a few ‘Save or X’ throws.

There is even the requirement for the GM to hold his finger in a page as his players decide to do something terribly stupid before the adventure has properly begun. Player choice driven TPK. ‘nuff said.

The adventure ran very well. The players enjoyed it, once we decided that we couldn’t let the session end quite that abruptly*. The one thing my players did not enjoy was the puzzle that protected the Stargazer’s treasure horde. My players could not crack it, and it seems that neither could Raggi’s playtest groups. If I do run the adventure again, I might well change that puzzle.

All in all, I really enjoyed Tower of the Stargazer. It is suitably strange, pretty lethal – though not necessarily so, as the lethality is so strongly tied to player choice – and could be a great beginning to a campaign, providing both a Big Bad and a number of ‘treasures’ that are bound to get the PCs into trouble with somebody or something.

*If this were a game in a proper campaign, you can be sure that there would be no ‘backsies’ – it is the persistence of the consequences of player choice that differentiates a tabletop roleplaying game from a CRPG

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Who Rolls The Dice?

There have been a few posts about the place recently [here are two: Tenkar's Tavern and Raven Crowking's Nest] that have discussed dice rolling and the temptation to 'fudge'. 

Tenkar writes: "By fudging the rolls, you are moving from RPG to Storytelling. [...] That to me is the issue - are you playing a game or a looking for a storytelling experience?" And I pretty much agree with this. As a GM, I have less fun - in retrospect at least - when I have succumbed to the temptation to fudge the dice and ensure that a particular outcome was arrived at. Even if the players do not know it, I have diminished the 'game' when I 'fudge'. 

To help me resist the temptation to 'fudge', like many I roll my GM dice in the open. Where possible, I tell the players what I am rolling for and what the different results will mean - so long as to do so would not reveal a 'secret'. But lately, I've been thinking of surrendering the dice. No, I'm not taking up a diceless system. But when a player can be given the full details of the roll without revealing any secrets, why not let the players do all the rolling? Let the players roll the dice for the monsters that are attacking their PCs, for instance. 

There are still a few people with a sense of humour in the Imperium

Why? On the most basic level, because people like rolling dice. More, it will defeat much of the remaining temptation to 'fudge'. And last, and most, it will diminish any sense that the GM-player relationship is adversarial - that I, as the GM, am rolling against them. My dice are rolled to administer the world. The players' hands and dice are responsible for adjudicating the outcomes of [almost] all the risks facing their characters.

Well, we will see next time we play. 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Jolly Pirates We!

So, back to ‘YOUR Adventure Ends Here’, my project to play each of the Fighting Fantasy books in order, by the rules and rolls, no fingers in pages, no backsies, nothing. Seas of Blood is in dock.

Seas of Blood was one of my favourites, back in the day. And it still is, kind of. Unlike some ‘quest’ orientated gamebooks, in which a map actually merely an illustration of the route upon which your character was taken by the writer/GM, in Seas of Blood there is the illusion (at least) that the map is a sandbox of choices. There YOU are, in the pirate port of Tak, dicing away the evening with rival Abdul the Butcher, when some drunk idiot comes up with the idea of fifty days of robbery to prove which of you is the greatest pirate of the Inland Sea.

The opening paragraph tells you some bare details about Lagash, the seas around Enraki, and the caravans of the Scythera Desert, and then asks; where do YOU want to go?

I choose to send my ship, the Banshee, to ‘the Scythera Desert to plunder the rich western caravans’. After camping out for several days in the burning sun, my crew are eventually able to ambush a caravan of LIZARD MEN. The cost in blood was not really worth the treasure; 60 gold pieces and one Lizard Man slave. Nevertheless, the idea that the ‘rich western caravans’ might include (traditionally) evil humanoids is, to my mind, one of the great things about Titan as a fantasy gaming world.

And then the Banshee is sunk. Sailing south, I fail as a captain and neglect several opportunities to flee! from a KISHIAN WARSHIP. We had her outmanned, I swear; a whole point of Crew Strike and three points of Crew Strength. The battle, and her booty, was mine, I gambled. But the dice fell against the odds, my crew fell, and I slipped beneath the waves. Glug. Glug.

Not much of an adventure, but enough to remind me of the illusion of an open world that I have always liked about Seas of Blood. Okay, so it is not as open as Fabled Lands, but in the context of the early(ish) Fighting Fantasy books, Seas of Blood suggested the freedom (as well as the adventure and aesthetics) of fantasy roleplaying games.

BONUS: Free RPG with a potential for piracy: Worlds Apart, a Traveller ‘powered’ fantasy seafaring game.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Picturing the Game

David Larkins' post On the Value of Visuals prompted me to finish ('finish' = cut the rambling guff) a post that has been sitting on Blogger as a ‘draft’ for some time now:

Unusually, there is no picture pinched from the internet illustrating this post. There’s not even a photograph of a badly painted miniature – having two kids eats time but has saved my old Ral Partha and Regiments of Renown from being crudely daubed in acrylic. Why? Because I want to ask about the role of art (and, probably, graphic design more generally) in role-playing game books.

Some role-playing game books are full of great art (Realms of Chaos – subject of an upcoming blogpost). Some are full of bad art (D&D white box booklets…). Some adventures have beautiful hand drawn maps. But, excepting free PDFs of OSR games, very few are art free. What purpose does this art serve? In many cases, I would argue, the vast majority of this art is only ever seen by the GM. I understand the argument that good, evocative art builds the appropriate mood for the game, although I will say that as a GM I am so thoroughly steeped in fantasy art I can picture a nightmarish Ian Miller townscape or a bright, clean Elmore adventurer with the barest moment’s reflection.

This is not a post to argue that fantasy art in role-playing game books should be done away with, that the industry standard should be the no art .pdf (or .doc file for ultimate in open-source role-playing), but that the time, energy and artistry invested in illustrating adventures should be spent on material designed to be seen by players. I have scanned and printed the illustrations from published adventures, scattering them on the table in order to set the scene, but why embed these in the ‘secret’ GM text in the first place?

Why not publish sheets of ‘spot’ illustrations to be printed, cut up, to either be spread out on the table handed out as appropriate. Rather than dungeon floor plans, I would like to see a compendium of ‘dungeon views’ that I can use to help align the players’ visual imaginations with my own. And with the fashion for one-page dungeons, why not move to three-page adventures – the text and maps on one side of a GM screen and a series of evocative illustrations on the other side? And maps – beautiful maps – all too often the preserve of GM, but as David Larkins points out, maps (and filler illustrations) can set the tone of the game and their visual style, if not their secrets, demands to be shared with the players.

Of course, I could just learn to draw and do the work myself…

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Meme: .pdf? Pah!

Bookshelves, eh? What's on yours?

These are the shelves that have shaped my view of fantasy gaming, I must admit. My entry point, and constant reference point. On the lower shelves are a bunch of Runequest books (3rd edition and Mongoose v2), a hardback WFRP1e rulebook, some OpenQuest books, and a earlier edition of Call of Cthulhu.

Open one of the IKEA cupboards and we get this:

AD&D1e/2e on the top shelf. WFRP1e on the second with a cardboard box full of BECM D&D books (the rulebooks for B through M, the GAZ series, most B series modules and a few X series and up). The third shelf has a bunch of Call of Cthulhu, King Arthur Pendragon, Dragon Warriors, Mongoose Traveller, and other stuff. A few boxed sets, ring binders, and Monstrous Compendiums on the bottom.

Boardgames and other stuff in other cupboards, and scattered here, there, and everywhere.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Covering Warhammer Fantasy

Three covers:




Which aligns with your vision of the Warhammer world?

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Hippogriff Mountain

To bring us up to date with the current campaign (following from clearing Kalten's Keep and the Exploration of the Mire Wood [One, Two]); The party rested for a few weeks, and considered their options. What was going on in Gateways?

+ Elwyn the Renegade Cleric is still somewhere in the foothills of the mountains west of Gateways. 

+ The Elf who was smoking away his sorrows in the Island of Lost Dreams is dead, and so, therefore, are any leads. Who knows what the Rahib has managed to do in the intervening weeks down in Arbelorn? Consolidate his power, probably…

+ The ruins of the castle on the lake are groaning again. Literally. The castle was once home to Gaskell the Black, ‘King’ of the Mountains. Gaskell was one of the last open worshippers of Um’hurabbu, the Angel of Law that was the power behind the Second Empire of Humanity. The mass executions Gaskell performed centuries ago have left a stain of damnation on the island, and the dead regularly wander the ruins. Periodically the ruler of Gateways, currently a nephew of the Duke, Sir Marcius, hires adventurers to put a stop the infernal – literally – racket. There’s a 1000SP reward for any party who can ‘silence those who have forgotten that they are dead’.

+ There is a murderer on the loose in Gateways. In the past week, a whore and a known pickpocket have both been found gutted, their eyes poked out. The local sage, who might just be a bearded drunk with an authoritive line in story telling, sees the hallmarks of the Chaotic Entity Vis’aya, the Dissolver of Boundaries, in these murders.

+ The Beastmasters of Byzantia have sent an agent to Gateways, looking to buy Hippogriff eggs, or even better, a Hippogriff fledgling. They are willing to pay 1000SP per egg, or 3000SP for a fledgling. There are rumours of Hippogriffs nests high in the mountains that lie west and north of Gateways.

What do you want Hippogriff eggs for? Ah. Aieee!

After some debate, the party decided to have a chat with the Beastmaster, to learn a little bit more about Hippogriff, their habits and habitat, and their mission. With 1000SP on the table, they took up the offer, and equipped themselves with mules, ladders, rope, tents, torches, spears, a wardog etc. (they had read the Old School Primer by Matthew Finch in the meantime), as well as a couple of hirelings. I had rolled up a hexmap of the mountains using the system in Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e (the wilderness is a dungeon), and the tables from Basic/Expert D&D and Labyrinth Lord. Some interesting encounters, and with the difficulty of travelling in mountains, the party were in for quite a few days in the hostile wild.

Near where the Foamfall River tumbles out of the mountains there is a small village. Once, it was a boom town, back when the mine was being worked. Now, most buildings stand empty, with a few families of goatherds that eke a living from the hard lands, and a transient population of prospectors hoping to strike it rich, long after most had given up hope. A pretty unlovely place, but they did have a fine line in goat sausages. Tully, the hermaphrodite Halfling, bought a string.

The party discovered that there were, indeed, Hippogriff in the mountains. The goatherds lost goats to these flying predators with frightening regularity. The villagers also believed that there was a Griffon in the mountain, a massive beast worshipped as a god by the primitive mountain people. This was something to avoid.

The party headed into the mountains, taking the route up to the Shrine of Saint Bvarn, rather than skirt the mountains to investigate routes into the mountains around the abandoned mineworkings. The Shrine of Saint Bvarn is a 20 foot face of bearded man carved into a cliff face. Inside the open mouth were barrels of grain and a few other supplies. At the back of the ‘mouth’ there was a closed wooden door. Which the party declined to open.

With no obvious path, the party stuck close to the cliff face, camping in the open. Heading higher into the mountains, they ran out of cliff face to follow. The party decided to head towards the Foamflow, the best part of a day’s travel north. As they came into a narrow valley, the party spotted a group of seven fur clad humans. Or were they humanoids? And were spotted in turn. The party was cautious, and the CAVEMEN yelled out a warning (or was it a greeting? or a threat?) before moving surefootedly over the broken rocky ground and out of sight. 

The party reached the Foamfall, which here in the mountains was a fast flowing river in a deep, sharp sided gully. The party followed the river upstream, until they came to a small building. The party investigated cautiously, and found that the building was roofless and abandoned. A short distance away from the building was an iron gate set across a tunnel that headed down, under the Foamflow.

The party split. One group, led by Tully, readied the building to be used as a camp that evening, while the more martial members of the party headed underground. The iron gate opened to a staircase, at the bottom of which was a dull orange glow. In a passageway deep underground the party found five figures sat in a circle on the floor, their hands stretched out towards a ring with a glowing orange gem. The figures, three large, two small, didn’t respond to the party’s calls. Chip used his spear to send the ring a few yards down the tunnel. The desiccated ZOMBIES groaned; some turned to desperately follow the ring, the others attacked, but the party made short work of these slow, brittle monsters. With the Zombies reduced to dust, Chip took the ring. The gem a pulsating, glowing orange, he ignored the warnings of his comrades and put the ring on. A sense of warmth coursed pleasantly through his body.

Declining to investigate the tunnels under the Foamflow any deeper, the party returned to the surface and enjoyed a Halfling cooked meal. The party surmised that the building was a shelter for goatherds and other mountain travellers, but with it in such a poor state of repair, a family had sought shelter from the elements underground. How long they had been down there before they had died, and how long they had been undead, it was impossible to say. As was the relationship between the glowing orange ring and their undeath...  

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Disease and Disaster in Hammerstein!

There is plenty of death in Hammerstein! But there are no mundane diseases or natural disasters. That’s not because I am after a game world completely lacking the knee-deep in syphilitic shit vibe of WFRP (our next game will involve revisiting the WFRP1e rules to run a slightly higher-fantasy sandbox game [i.e. Hammerstein!]). It’s because there is just no need for mundane disease and disaster – in fact, there is no place for them – in a world in which diseases can be caused by plague demons, curses and warpstone, and in which natural disasters can result from the whims of supernatural entities, from local nature spirits to weather gods, and the intervention of sorcerers. Who needs chaotic weather patterns when you have Chaos?

In a world of gods, demons, and magic, the evils of the world are deliberate. Darwin’s reaction to the reproductive cycle of the ichneumon wasp was to question his theism; what manner of benevolent deity would produce a world that included a creature whose existence depended on such a vile process. But in Hammerstein!, of course, the world did not arise out of the operation of the amoral laws of nature, and it was not created by a single, benevolent deity. Rather, it was the creation of a pantheon of self-interested supernatural beings (and these gods made men, they are not man-made gods), and has been shaped by the actions of all manner of supernatural forces, from the unknowable extra-dimensional whims of the many-angled demons and angels, to the more human, and humanely cruel, passions of wizards and warlocks. In this world, something like the ichneumon wasp would not cause anyone to question their belief in the supernatural; it would be quite correctly understood as the creation of a cruel god, vile demon, or even the invention of a powerful, wicked mortal. 

So, in Hammerstein! there are plagues and floods, crop blights, droughts, and earthquakes – but these are always fantastical in origin. The physics of the world is just… different. The gaming side effect of this is that PCs can always intervene heroically. Or at least, die trying. When the city is riddled with plague, the PCs can root out the Cult of the Weeping Pustule. If the Abby of St Albrax has been reduced to rubble by an earthquake, the PCs can investigate the reason why the Earth Elementals are angry. That’s a more adventuresome world than one in which end up playing Dr John Snow in Middenheim, or quiz professors of seismology at the universities of Genezia before recommending changes to the planning regulations. That might be a game, but it isn’t one of fantasy adventure. 

In Hammerstein!, this picture isn’t an artistic representation of the horrors of plague. It’s nigh-on documentary! 

Does YOUR fantasy world have mundane disease, ordinary famines, and the like? Does it also have monsters, curses, warlocks, and the stalking undead? How on Titan do your mock-medieval settlements survive the threat of the fantastical AND the mundane? Do your mock-medieval populations survive the increased death rate with significantly higher fertility rates than would be the case in a ‘realistic’ setting? Does ‘good’ magic reduce the death rate from the mundane to the degree that the fantastical is required just to prevent a population explosion? Is the fantastical so marginal that is simply does not intrude on the lives of the ordinary people, being the stuff of the frontier, so that the terrors of heroes and villains is just legend to the smallfolk?

[This post brought to you in line with the principles set out in Titanic Bullet Points

Friday, 9 November 2012

Jenny Greenteeth and the Mire Woods: Part 2

After several weeks of game time rest, the adventure in the Mire Woods continued:

The Party (this time consisting of Chip, Dale, Petra, Myna (an Elf, played by A), and Tully (a hermaphrodite Halfling, played by C), with BRAN, a porter, and GILGRIM, a man-at-arms) returned to the Mire Woods to investigate the temple. They found the cottage of JENNY THE HAG, who confounded the Party with her invisibility. She eventually bargained with the Party, once she was satisfied that a bunch of armed men and women were not there to rob that. She exchanged a Potion of Invisibility for some tobacco and the promise of something interesting, magical, or arcane from the Mixie’s temple.

Travelling up the Vein, the Party killed a GIANT CRAB and a MIXIE, before avoiding a nest of STIRGES and more GIANT LEECHES as they surveyed the area around the temple. They found that the ‘throne’ moved to reveal a trap door, and explored the underground complex. Quickly locating the likely location of the Mixies (a warm door with a sweet smell), the Party decided to explore before confronting the Mixies. They found a sacrificial altar guarded by short SKELETONS with the top of their skull removed and silver coins in their eye sockets. They found a statue of a beautiful woman with the top of her head missing and something in the ‘bowl’. The party did not look inside. They found a circular room with a spiral mosaic on the floor. At the centre was a bed, with a plaque that read; “rest ye here and be reborn”. Underneath the bed was a trapdoor and mechanism of some kind, which they declined to investigate further. They found a terrifying nightmare frieze depicting a journey to Hell, which could incapacitate the weak-minded. With time, real and in-game (the party wanted to be out of the Mire Woods before nightfall), they charged into the room that they suspected to be the lair of the Mixies - and they were right. The Mixies were cut down in short order, managing only to Charm Bran and leave Petra with a broken arm (8 weeks out).

The party recovered a great haul worth about 4000SP. In the hands of the statue of D’NAMNAS (depicted as a pissing, rearing black horse, with human hands and spider-eyes made of jewels) they found 10 Gold Crowns from the Second Empire of Humanity. They left one in the Demon’s hands, and gave the other 9 to Jenny the Hag, who claimed to be able to feel the weight of evil. She rewarded them with another Potion of Invisibility.

Other Goings On in Gateways:

The Bishop's agents are still looking for adventurers to investigate the renegade Cleric Elywn.

Several parties went through the trap door in Kalten's Keep. None returned, until last week, when Jorkal climbed out of a secret passage in the woods, laden with treasure. None of his party survived - he described a warren of crypts filled with undead, and a secret ossuary filled with laughing skulls. Jorkal has been drinking and whoring away his treasure; he was a taciturn humourless man before striking rich, but since his return, laden with silver and gold, he has been a changed man.

The Elf in the Isle of Lost Dreams (a black lotus den) eventually wasted away. The Party saw his body being loaded in a coffin and surrounded by ice - the madam of the 'Isle' sold his possessions, and then sold his body to agents of RANGA MARR, a wizard and anatomist in Mirror Bay. Apparently, he is experimenting with reproducing Elven 'infravision' - the ability to see in the infrared spectrum.

An old sage heard the Party’s stories of the Mixies and launched into an exposition on D'namnas, a Chaotic demon associated with dreams and nightmares. The spider eyed, human handed horse is one of his forms. Mixies, he claimed, were once Elves, but sometime during the Second Empire of Humanity they became degenerate through their worship of Chaos. He has read, he said, that they reproduce through the nightmares of their victims.

A Green Dragon flew over the town. Some of the guards in the High Tower were foolish enough to loose arrows at it - annoyed, it wheeled in the sky and exhaled a cloud of noxious green gas, before swooping over a nearby farm, plucking several cows from the ground. It disappeared, heading towards the highland east of Kalten's Copse. When help reached the High Tower, they found the bodies of the guards, skin blistered and burned and their tongues swollen in their heads.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Adventurer, Crippled, Killed

This morning I bought the .pdf of Adventurer, Conqueror, King System. Mainly because I was interested in the fantasy economics that are designed to fit the assumptions of D&D (I've sent the players in our game to their post on 'The Demographics of Heroism') rather than model historical economics. But, on opening the 'book', one of the first things that I went to was the awesome, single page, Mortal Wounds table, right at the back. Oh, am I going to love inflicting everything from, 'Ghostly visions of lost companions flicker before your eyes as you awaken', to,'Your lips and tongue are severed or mangled (cannot speak, cast spells or use magic items involving speech, -4 to reaction rolls)' on the PCs in our game. It is a good middle ground between single table simplicity and the pages and pages of tables and detail in WFRP1e (with the Character Pack, at least) and Rolemaster.

The thing to remember with Death and Dismemberment tables and the like is that they actually make D&D less deadly - 0HP does not equal insta-death - but they make death much more colourful AND they explain why there might be people with permanent injuries in a world that would otherwise works on the principle of, 'he's fine, he's fine, he's fine, he's DEAD'.

At the moment, I'm only envisaging using ACKS for the economics, some of the ideas about ritual magic, and the mortal wounds table. I prefer LotFP for the core adventuring mechanics and simple, well defined classes. But you never know... it is another D&D-alike to add to my original books (AD&D1e/2e, BECMI/RC), my retro-clones (Labyrinth Lord being my go-to clone) and my simulacra (Crypts and Things, LotFP, and now ACKS). That's a lot of D&D, and lots of things to pick and choose from in there.  

And if we're speaking of copper coins, I really do like the ACKS Treasure Generator.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

On the Great Copper Coin Debate of 2012

So some GIANT RATS have 2,000 copper pieces, do they?

Well, so what? D&D is a GAME of ABSTRACTIONS. HP, AC, Characteristics, Saving Throws, Levels...

Do you want more detail? If it is the round numbers that bother you, make something up or use the random number generators that came in that red box you bought thirty years ago. If it is that there is a pile of coins in the lair of Giant Rats that bother you, remember that 2,000CP is 20GP* worth of treasure that weighs 2,000cns / 200lbs (at AD&D convention of 10 coins to 1lb) / 40lbs (at AD&D2e convention of 50 coins to 1lb). In other words, a big, bulky treasure that isn't worth very much. A nice piece of furniture, perhaps.

I play treasure all three ways - "here's a pile of 2,000CP" / here's a pile of 1,876 Emirati Coppers / "as you catch your breath [after fighting the Giant Rats], you notice that the sideboard on the far wall would complement the furniture of your dining room."

D&D is a game in which advancement is driven by loot. Even if Giant Rats having piles of coins (or any treasure) wouldn't make sense in the real world (if there were such things as Giant Rats), it MUST make sense in a D&D game world. Okay, maybe Giant Rats could be Treasure Type: NIL, but the principle that monsters (might) have treasure, and that this treasure is relatively easily convertible to GP/XP, is an essential part of D&D. 

*Correction - In AD&D it is worth all of 10GP.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Dwarfs and Gnomes

The idea is that this picture, from Mentzer Basic, is still a valid representation of demi-humans in Hammerstein! or My-stara. What we understand is going on in all those pointy-eared heads however, is quite different. 

DWARFS: Obsessive compulsive trainspotters with a fascist tendency

Dwarfs were created after the first Empire of Humanity challenged the Gods. Demi-humans, they embody the concept of LAW, and are a conservative force. They have a love of order for its own sake, of maps, records, archives, and collections. It is their intent to track and record all the moving parts of history, and, for the sake of their sanity, arrest, or at least slow, the movement of these parts. They are great scholars and master bureaucrats, but are agents of reaction. 

Dwarfs have a reputation as having a lust for gold and other precious things, but this is a misconception. That it is such a common view is the result of two things. First, all Dwarfs are natural collectors, using their obsessions to order the world. Not all Dwarves collect gold coins, or jewellery of the First Empire, or other treasures, but enough adventuring Dwarves do. That is why they are adventuring Dwarves. Other Dwarves collect butterflies, leaves, or perfumes, but these tend not to develop the ‘rock star’ reputation that comes with being a dungeon delving adventurer. Second, the Hard Core Dwarfs and the Royal Casts (yes, Casts, not Castes) of Iron Mountain and other Vaults, have an interest in accumulating gold and gems (and whatever else Humans might use as currency). By controlling the money supply, the Dwarfs believe that they can control, or at least restrain, the change and progress driven by rapid movements of money. A Dwarf King will go to war for gold, as will a Human King, but their motivations are vastly different.

Hard Core Dwarfs are the Dwarfs who rarely, if ever, leave the Vaults. Hard Core Dwarfs live entirely ritualised lives, ordering their time and their space according to their interpretations of the Plan. Of course, such an obsession with order means that Dwarven history has included more than one schism. The causes of these schisms appear utterly inconsequential to anyone who is not a Dwarf.

Dwarfs do reproduce biologically, whatever the jokes might say. However, the Dwarven saying ‘True Dwarfs are made, not born’, can be interpreted literally as well as metaphorically. It is not for nothing that the Royal class of Dwarfs are called The Cast.  

GNOMES: Amoral, eccentric inventors with little ability to see the big picture.

Gnomes, on the other hand, are degenerate Dwarfs, or so the legends go. Emerging (or created?) at some time during or shortly after the Second Empire of Humanity, these were Dwarfs who rejected the tyranny of Law. Taking their lead from Humanity – some even taking to the worship of the trickster God Humaman – the Gnomes applied the Dwarven interest in understanding the moving parts of a system to make NEW things. Master inventors, their skill is not in constructing the plausible but the implausible – fantasy inventions. For instance, where Humans might devise a new system of rigging, Gnomes build submarines. For this I’ll be taking a lead from PC2 Top Ballista!, using it to make a Gnome class for my LotFP/Lab Lord hybrid. The Dwarfs are probably not wrong in seeing the Gnomes as tainted by Chaos; Gnomish inventions have a tendency to both cause disorder and become disordered. Most Gnome heroes die not only with their boots on, but their goggles and apron and work gloves too. Thank the Saints that Gnomes are a rare race.

With a Third Empire of Humanity just a twinkle in the eye of any number of would be Tyrants – though Byzantia formally, but impotently, claims to be the seat of the Third Empire – there has been some reconciliation between some of the more adventurous Dwarfs and the Gnomes. Who knows how an automatic counting machine might aid Dwarven record keeping? These adventurous, less rigidly-minded Dwarfs view Gnomes are childish deviants. Hard Core Dwarfs, however, would happily eliminate the whole Gnome race. 

Having the ‘demi-humans’ of Hammerstein! (and My-stara) as derivations from and exaggerations of the elder race – Humanity, grants a licence to make them one-dimensional. This is a good thing. It prevents demi-humans just being short or pointy eared Humans. There is an in-game reason by Humans are a race of great variety, while demi-human personalities have a much more restricted palette. One-dimensional demi-humans also justify race-as-class, incidentally. 

Obviously, these Dwarfs are at least a little inspired by Glorantha’s Mostali, with their descent from the original moulds and their concern with the working of the World Machine. There’s also a little of James M’s Dwarfs in there too – if I remember right, Dwarfs in Dwimmmermount reproduce by sculpting their own children.  

None of these ideas are particularly original, but that's part of the point. When I'm making my game of D&D, I'm not trying to radically inverts the D&D tropes. I just want to play around the edges. I want to mix the good bits of the fantasy games that has shaped my view of fantasy gaming. If that recombination produces the littlest bit of novelty will be enough.

Carousing & Companionship

Carousing is a feature of many Old School games. Some give out xp for carousing, and for some, excessive, extravagant, public spending is the old way to turn 1gp into 1xp. I like these ideas, especially as I’m of the mind that one of the best ways to understand ‘the adventurer’ is to think of them as ‘rock stars’. A world in which professional adventurers are a relatively common sight, in which the successful ones end up rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, many die young, and those that live long enough end up as establishment figures with large, country estates… yes, that’s a rock star/D&D adventurer.

With this is mind, levels are understood as more than increases in skill, but broader abstractions that also include increases in fame/notoriety. This idea is already built into the classic games by the fact that higher level characters automatically attract followers, can build strongholds, etc. It’s not just the fact that a character is a good swordsman that allows him to attract a body of loyal, armed men at name level. It is that everyone in the Duchy knows that the character is the best sword in the Duchy.

So far, all I’ve done to mechanise this is to give xp bonuses for high Charisma, and for successful boasting. Extravagant spending might warrant an xp bonus, too… but it’ll have to be on something truly useless, with bonuses for inventiveness. I am thinking of codifying it – probably pinching wholesale from Chris Kutulik’s Hill Cantons Compendium – but for the moment we will play loose with these ideas.

However, extravagant spending on ladies (and men) of the night, or on less mercenary seduction, is not just a means to bolster the ‘rock star’ image of the adventurer. In Mikedemia Press' City Book (which I  really like, so I ought to write about it sometime - and it appears that it is still available here), an optional rule suggests that adventurers are so filled with lust (well, it doesn't exactly say that) if they do not find companionship they risk wasting away entirely.

I think 'Cities' is great - I have the version (loosely) for RQ3, but it's packed full of tables usable for any game.

“Characters must have companionship at least once every five weeks, or see their abilities to concentrate, study, and cast magic steadily deteriorate. Relevant characteristics and skills might drop by a few percentiles or a point or a level a week until companionship is obtained.”

Adventurers as Russel Brand? Hopefully not – Errol Flynn, perhaps!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Dredd – A Two Line Review (and a bit more)

Dredd is an excellent, lean, visceral action film. Dredd is not a good Judge Dredd movie.

That’s the review. Here’s a few more comments.

First, they did, kind of follow through with the reference to ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’. In the trailer, Dredd says; ‘We can’t go over them. We can’t go under them.’ These lines are cut from the final film, but Dredd does say; ‘We’ve got to go through them.

I HATE 3D films, the 3D effects break, rather than build, my immersion in the film – they often feel more like a simulator ride (or one of the 360° cinemas that they used to have a theme parks) than a movie. And they leave me with a headache. That said, 2D films do that to me too – the first Transformers movie was a baffling whirl of visuals and ear-bleeding noise, so I’m obviously not built for contemporary action films. In Dredd though, the 3D effects work. In fact, they’re integral, being used mainly to visualise the effects of Cake, a made up drug, as it stimulates Shatner’s Bassoon. In the film the drug is called Slo-Mo, and there’s no sign of Czech Neck, but its neurological effects appear the same.

But Dredd isn’t a good Judge Dredd film. It is a very violent sci-fi film. And here is the beginning of the problem; Dredd (and Anderson) mete out summary executions left, right, and centre. Now, I have let my 2000AD subscription lapse in the last few years, but the lasting impression of the wardrobe full of progs and Megazines is that Dredd doesn’t summarily execute people except in extreme circumstances. That the Judges are hyper-violent BUT sentence people to the Iso-Cubes was always a big part of the distinctiveness of Judge Dredd and Mega-City One, for me.
And Mega-City One certainly looks like a realistic mega-city of the near-ish future. But it doesn’t look anything like Mega-City One. It has no character – and in Judge Dredd, don’t be mistaken, it is the city which is the lead character, not the faceless Dredd. Mega-City One is the trends of the 20th Century taken to fantastical extremes, not just the degradation of the favelas and banlieues, but the absurdities of pop-culture too.
See that city? That's Mega-City One that is.

I have been talking about Dredd as being like a new Verhoeven film, but it isn’t. It’s got the violence. It is set in future. But the satire is absent, and as a Dredd fan, or a Verhoeven fan, all through the film the question, ‘where is the satire’ keeps bouncing back to the front of your mind. And without the satire, Dredd becomes a much more reactionary concept (especially when there’s summary execution in the bargain); here is your future, and drokk, you better hope we have fascism to contain it. Which might not be that far away in some parts of the Mediterranean Free State.

There is a belly wheel, there is a Hottie House, and there is a poster advertising a ‘The Mark of Krysler’, but these barely perceptible nods only heighten the non-Dreddness of Dredd. It’s a shame when you add it all; Dredd, and 2000AD, played a big part in forming my taste in fantastical fiction, and therefore my tastes in fantasy gaming. I’m struggling to imagine the Mega-City One of Dredd being a city of a Boing(TM) craze, or Otto Sump or Max Normal, one of Judge Cal and the Kleggs, or even one invaded by Judge Death. They’ve made a very good film that is a worse Dredd film than Stallone’s effort. I could imagine a late 1990s Stallone Dredd sequel featuring all of those things. If Dredd makes enough money to warrant a sequel, stripped of licence for visual inventiveness granted by Slow-Mo, I wonder where they can go.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Jenny Greenteeth and the Mire Woods: Part 1

Over Thursday and Friday night (which spanned three weeks of game time) the party explored the Mire Woods in search of Georghe Tincu, the son of a wealthy ice merchant. The boy had lived large parts of his life on the river, travelling on his father’s boats, and it was assumed that he had disappeared while exploring the river. Raglan Tincu has hired several parties of adventurers to scour the countryside.

One particularly lurid theory is Jenny Greenteeth, the monster of the Mire Woods, has taken the boy. The problem was that the locals couldn’t agree on just what Jenny Greenteeth was. A water serpent with a woman’s head, a beautiful but evil maiden covered in river weeds, a child-eating old crone…?

The (shorthanded) party, consisting of D’s Fighters Chip and Dale (!) and A’s Magic User Kitty, accompanied by Nalag, a Goblin porter, and Hengist, a Human man-at-arms (thanks to Meatshields!) followed a stagnant, slow moving stream known locally as the Vein into the Mire Woods. The Mire Woods are a thick tangle of trees, roots, and undergrowth, and so moving along the river avoided the risk of getting lost and moving exceptionally slowly, both of which would equal an increased possibility of a frightening night in wild and weird part of the world.

I'd love to see one of these well funded Kickstarter and Indiegogo OSR campaigns commission some work from Ian Miller... 

The party picked up the trail of someone with boy sized feet on the muddy bank, passed the opportunity to investigate the body of an adult, and were ambushed by a GIANT LEECH. A ‘small’ Giant Leech, which killed Nalag, reducing the already scrawny Goblin to a bag of a bones. So much for that ‘encumbrance sink’.

The party were less keen on travelling on the muddy bank of the Vein after that, slipping knee deep into the brown water with a regularity that was a little more sinister now that they had encountered one of the inhabitants hidden below. Not far up the stream, the woods thinned on both banks. A path on the right bank led away into the forest, illuminated by globes of light ‘hanging’ in the trees. On the left bank a path that might be little more than an animal trail led away from the river. The party were uneasy at the idea of walking down a path lit by balls of light, and so headed along the trail.

There they found Georghe’s exhausted, wounded older brother Vitali. Desperate to be a hero, he had set off at dawn in secret, but had run into a flock of ‘vampire birds’ (STIRGES). The party tended to the sobbing and desperately weak Vitali, rested, ate and watered, and decided to return the boy to the edge of the woods, where their boatman waited.

The party decided to venture back into the Mire Woods, keen to find Georghe. They enjoyed an unfathomable standoff with a wild Elf, mohawked and inscrutable, bow at the ready. He recommended that the party relax in among the flowers, before he disappeared into the woods. The party came across a marble birdbath, dedicated to Victoria Kalten (‘may this bring you their relief that she never found’), but decided not to disturb the crystal clear water in the basin.

Then, coming across a rise, they found a clearing carpeted with poppies. As they crossed the clearing, heading back towards the vein, A asked if Kitty noticed anything unusual about the flowers. Kitty bent down, heard a crunch underfoot, and noticed that under the flowers the clearing was covered in brittle fragments of bone. The party began to run… and kicked up the pollen as they did so. Chip (or was it Dale?) failed his Save vs Poison, as did Hengist the man-at-arms. Chip was overcome with the urge to simply lie down and watch the clouds. Chip wrestled Dale free of the clearing (or was it the other way around?), and as they passed the edge of the clearing the magical effect of the pollen changed dramatically, with the flowers disappearing and the murder hidden by the flowers visible in all its gore.

Nobody fancied going back in to save Hengist – he was just a meatshield, after all – so the last the party saw of him he was lying down, drinking from his wineskin, with various bits and bobs of the party’s equipment on his back. Including Dale’s (or was it Chip’s – seriously D, two characters with one class, one background, one personality, and not quite two names makes it hard to keep track) long bow. Make the hirelings carry the oversized equipment, sure…

Breath caught, and nerves calmed, the party found themselves back on the banks of the Vein. A brook of clear water joined the stream on the far bank. The party caught the briefest glimpse of a pair of beautiful, naked, green-skinned three foot tall women frolicking in the stream. They turned, smiled, and beckoned the party to follow them up the stream. A clear trap, but if the party wanted to get the boy back…

The party followed the green-skinned temptresses, who flitted in and out of their vision, up the stream, until they reached a large, shallow, roughly circular pond of still, clear water, sitting in a bowl of mud walls. At the centre of the pond was small ‘temple’, open on all sides with simple white columns holding up a roof, not much more than seven foot tall. At the centre of the temple was a ‘throne’, upon which sat Georghe, an expression of dreamy content on his face. Eight MIXIES – a particularly evil form of Nixie dedicated to D’namnas, a Chaotic entity associated with the disorder of dreams and nightmares – surrounded the boy. One stroked his hair.

A Fighter, played by D, fired his heavy crossbow, impaling one of the Mixies. The Mixies transformed into something vile; the lower parts of their faces extending into a leech-like ring of teeth and bony spikes protruding from their wrists. Ululating, they summoned two (small) GIANT CRABS from their lair in the mud walls of the bowl. Chip and Dale cut down the Mixies in pretty short order. However, Kitty, seeing a Mixie move to attach her leech-like mouth to Georghe’s neck, charged. The Mixie speared her through the eyes – while Kitty was only reduced to 0HP, A rolled a 1 on the Death and Dismemberment table. With the Giant Crabs closing, Chip and Dale decided to retreat, and splashed down the Vein as the day ended and the Mire Wood filled with shadows.

They didn’t tell Raglan Tincu, or anyone but the absent members of their party, that they had seen Georghe, or about the ’temple’ deep in the Mire Woods. Tincu rewarded Chip and Dale for returning Vitali. For some reason, as they rested, waited for the other party members to recuperate, and drank in the taverns of Gateways, Chip and Dale span a story that Hengist and Kitty had run off and abandoned the party. Whether this lie will have any repercussions remains to be seen.

Two weeks later (the following night), Chip and Dale returned to the Mire Woods with a few more swords…

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Kalten's Keep and Jenny Greenteeth

After the TPK in the Caves of Mykonos, and a time playing other games over the summer (including playing Tower of the Stargazer, which I hope to write about later, with a different group of players) we re-booted the D&Dish campaign with a pretty simple, straightforward adventure. Kalten fitzKalten, a fat, rich young man who claims to be the heir to the seemingly extinct Kalten family, hired the party to clear the old Kalten Keep of its occupiers. Kalten's Keep is Castle Caldwell, from B9, with a few of the rooms moved around and a rationale given for the range of occupiers; the band of GOBLINS had been running the place as a 'hotel' for travellers who have some reason to stay off the roads and away from towns such as Gateways. Gateways is 'my' Threshold - I've enjoyed offering the players the chance to send their characters shopping in Gateways.  The party of eight PCs (two per player - intended to mitigate against the chances of a TPK driven solely by a couple of poor rolls and to allow the players at least the hope of levelling - a key part of the D&D experience. Plus, have you seen how many PCs are expected by older modules?) took two sessions to clear the Keep. We don't play that long; the time between getting the kids in bed and tiredness overwhelming us isn't that long.

The first session, they took rooms in the 'hotel'; their Goblin hosts unsuccessfully trying to confiscate the party's weapons. After being shown to their rooms - which contained debris that once was a bed, at most, they began to investigate the Keep. Sensibly - and surprisingly, this was the same group of players who managed to get surrounded by Goblins for their last TPK - they didn't launch into any combat. The BANDITS told them to get lost, in less polite terms. The KOBOLDS yipped and yapped at them. Calisteri the CLERIC, dedicated to the Screaming Saint (a cult dedicated to the intolerance of all other Men-Kinds - she could only stomach staying in such a contaminated place as just to south of the Keep there was a centuries' old shrine to Humanity Undivided), invited the all Human party to take devotional prayers with her. Of course, sooner or later the party were going to run into their hosts, and, given that some of the PCs could barely walk they were carrying so many weapons, this was bound to lead to tension, and sure enough it boiled over into conflict. The party quickly cut down the GOBLINS, split, as they were, into two groups of four. Hearing (and in some cases seeing) this carnage, the rest of the intelligent inhabitants of the Keep barricaded their doors and made plans to leave - their accomodation had been invaded by a gang of murder-hobos!

All except Calisteri, who offered to help heal their wounds, as they were clearly here to do Holy work. As it was, the bandits, the Kobolds, and the MERCHANTS, all got out of the Keep with their treasure. The animals that infested the Keep, including STIRGES, FIRE BEETLES, a GIANT SHREW, a SPITTING COBRA, and WOLVES took a bit more effort to deal with. The party rested (in the rooms that had been occupied by the merchants, which contained beds!) lugged their first haul of coins back to Gateways, leaving it guarded by Juan, the Cleric, who had been blinded - which was not as unsafe as it sounds. He had a loaded crossbow - there's no class-based weapon restrictions (so far) in this game) and the party were stopping at the Headman's Axe, a particularly secure inn, the landlord of which is Goryn, an OGRE (humanoids are not exactly accepted in My-stara, but attitudes are a little more varied than simply, 'exterminate the brutes') who was the state executioner for the previous Duke. Buying a mule, in the (sadly misplaced) expectation of more treasure than they could carry, the party returned to the Keep and engaged in a battle with the Fire Beetles, in which (I hope) they learned the value of a good Armour Class. Most of their opponents had been AC7 (13 in the ascending system that I favour). The chitinous exoskeletons of the beetles, however, gave them AC2 (18), and as the battle dragged one, 3 PCs fell. Using Chris Kutulik's Death and Dismemberment table, with a -1 modifier for each HP below 0, we saw a broken leg, two fingers ripped off, and a very nasty facial/head wound. All that for 30xp. These injuries will need up to twelve weeks of recuperation, so we'll be seeing a couple of new characters join the campaign in the meantime. 

So, back to Threshold, er... Gateways, for the party. The game this Tuesday (which might well have involved beginning to play a modified version of Rahasia - the party found an Elf babbling away about 'the Rahib' in the Isle of Lost Dreams, a Black Lotus den) was cancelled as most of the players couldn't make it (except my wife, who struggles to pull out of a game played at our dining table). One could, and he asked if we could play a mini-adventure, and, despite my misgivings about the dynamics of just two players (and a DM), I rolled up a short one-session adventure; a merchant's boy has gone missing while fishing just downriver from Gateways. The locals seem to think that he has been taken by Jenny Greenteeth... 

I like to offer my players more options than, 'here is the adventure', but at short notice, what else can you do? Here is my prep:

Oh, to be able to map like Nicholson...
Only, that last player (excepting my wife) then cancelled, so we'll be playing tonight. Do not enlarge the photo, Dave, you cheat! The rest is in my head. Not many locations, but as I said, we aren't able to play for all that long these days. I think that is why I'm keen to build resource management - a key part of D&D - into the space around the adventures, by making sure that healing takes time, living costs are deducted, spell research takes time and money, etc. Of course, there's nothing wrong with running multi-session adventures, in which managing resources during an adventure figures more heavily, but absent players can quickly choke the momentum from a campaign when everyone is waiting to pick up from where the party left off last time. With injuries like the ones suffered exploring Kalten's Keep, whether we like it or not we'll end up with a broad 'cast list', presenting the option of running parallel adventures with a different set of characters.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Gods on the Moon

That the old gods of Hammerstein! (and My-Stara) are exiled on the Moon is an idea that draws on a number of sources. Of course, the Moon has been associated with one god or another, or with the supernatural, in most human cultures. That something lives on the Moon isn't a particularly Modern myth either; Lucian of Samosata, in the second century AD, wrote a story of Ulysses' journey to the Moon. Flying boats, eh? I told you that they were cool.

Mystara has its own Moon dwellers, the samurai cats of Myoshima. Not the Samurai Pizza Cats (my wife refused to believe such a thing ever existed, until I showed her the YouTube video [warning: awaful theme tune]). But the real superhumans on the Moon that I'm referencing are these:

Kirby also drew The Mighty Thor (and the rest of the Asgardians), and characters such as Hercules also find a home in the Marvel Universe, and so the idea that the once Gods of the world of Hammerstein! exiled on the Moon is meant to evoke these kind of characters. Superhumans, immortals (some of THE Immortals of Mystara, perhaps), but diminished greatly since the era in which they made the world from clay, now trapped in their Olympian domain. Some still worship them, for sure (some of the Vikings of the Northern Reaches are confirmed Lunatics), but the main religious focus in the Modern Age is the Church of Humanity, and its myriad saintly cults.

P.S. My vision of extra-planar travel has always been VERY Kirby...   

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Hammerstein! Demihumans

In the world of Hammerstein! (and in what I’m calling My-Stara, the heavily modified version of Mystara that our group is currently exploring), Humans are the oldest sentient race. They were created by the by the trickster god Humaman. They were made in the in image of the Gods, and they shared their passions and vices, though on a mortal scale. At first, the Gods were amused, and congratulated Humaman. They walked amongst the humans and played with them, damaged them, and disposed of them as a spoiled child does with his toys. 

But Humaman’s joke wasn’t intended to offer the Gods amusements to idle away the eons. It was a vicious satire that built to a terrible punchline. While the Gods played at being Emperors and basked in worship, Humans got on with making History. Without an eternity to while away, mortal Humans are creatures of action and progress. Ages passed, countless generations, but eventually Humans built a civilization that rivalled the power of the Gods – the First Empire of Humanity – that wielded great magic and constructed enormously powerful machines. Having mastered the world, the First Empire made war on Heaven.

The war destroyed the world spanning Human Empire, buried cities, rent great wounds in the landscape, and left magical residue that brought into being all manner of Men-Kinds; Beastmen, Goblins, etc. and the proliferation of monstrous creatures. 

The war also damaged the Gods terribly, and they fled the world to their city on the Moon. But before they left, they created the Elves and the Dwarves. The twin gods of Time, Moment and Eternity, took the Man Rune, first carved by Humaman, and used it to create races that were meant to hold Humans forever in check. 

The Gods were alarmed by the ability of Humanity to create History. Moment, created the Elves in order to distract Humanity. Moment set the Elves down on the back of a LEVIATHAN, upon which they built their homeland, ELVENBONE (in My-Stara these Melnibonean Elves replace Alphatia). Moment gave the Elves the impulse to explore every sensation that can be experienced in mortal life. Experiments in food, art, sex, drugs, and violence fill their lives, and the lives of the Humans that they live among, with anything and everything other than the drive of History. They are agents of CHAOS.

Face it. He's a Elf. An urban/e one.

And this guy is an Elf too. My-stara's version of Alfheim will be a bit more... punk.

Eternity created the Dwarfs as a conservative check on Humanity. Eternity set the Dwarfs down within IRON MOUNTAIN, and gave them a complaining, suspicious character. The Dwarfs took the task of recording all of History within their great mountain vaults. Eternity ensured that the Dwarves would be a force for LAW. If there is one thing a Dwarf dislikes more than change, it is progress. If things must change, they should change slowly. That is the Truth every Dwarf is taught.

Unfortunately for the Gods, and for all the Men-Kinds of the world of Hammerstein!, some Dwarves became ever more extreme in their pursuit of Law, in ordering the world, while whole communities of Elves took to the worship of Chaos itself. The very essence of the world had been damaged during the war between Humans and Gods, and through these wounds crept the alien intelligences of primal Law and Chaos. Under the influence of an Angel of Law, the Human’s built a Second Empire of Humanity, a terrible continent spanning death cult, which only ended when the barbarian king, Hammerstein Heartbreaker, stormed the Ziggurat of Permanent Order and killed the demon, bringing into being the current era of free men and petty kingdoms. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

Nothing New Under the Sun

In our games of D&D (or whatever it is) I had been using the long trusted method of dealing with natural 20s and 1s in combat; double damage and a 'fumble' respectively. Of course, under this system a high-level fighter has exactly the same chance of scoring a critical hit as an clumsy child, and they both stand the same chance of dropping their swords. And it is more than a bit implausible to have even high-level fighters dropping their swords once every twenty combat rounds. In the past, we've played combats with these kinds of fumbles and have had swords flying all over the shop, bowstrings snapping like elastic bands, and sling stones scattering all over the slippery dungeon floors. Funny, for sure.

So for fumbles, we've just adopted the rule of two - a natural 1 leads leaves the unlucky dungeon delver with one round -2 across the board penalty, to hit rolls, armour class, saving throws, and anything else that might pop up. So everyone over stretches themselves once every twenty combat rounds, but the more able characters are more able to cope with the effects.

As for critical hits, I've seen houserules that try to emulate the RuneQuest critical system, where higher skill=a broader window of scoring a critical on the attack roll. Most of these involve rolls a certain number over the target number being a critical success, i.e. the lower the THAC0, the better the chance of striking a critical. Those systems look too fiddly for D&D. So I took my guide from WFRP1e, which allows the d6 damage dice to 'explode', so long as a second roll against Weapon Skill is made, and decided that a natural 20 would prompt a second attack roll. In other words, a natural 20 might cause 'double damage', but only if the attacker is skilled enough to 'hit' again. Another natural 20 results in another attack roll, and so on. But the chances of a series of natural 20s are microscopically small. Sure, you might kill a dragon in one blow, but only once every century or so... 

And then I sat down yesterday with my Rules Cyclopedia, my AD&D1e PHB and DMG, and my AD&D2e PHB and DMG, all to try to work out what I'd make my D&D players pay as upkeep costs. I didn't want them scrabbling for coppers in vein of our WFRP1e games - this was meant to be D&D(ish), after all - but I didn't want the game to completely ignore these things. My AD&D2e DMG is a much travelled book - it was posted the Dominican Republic to me for my birthday in the early 1990s, came back across the Atlantic to sunny Scotland, and since then has followed me around the UK - so it is no surprise that several pages are loose. One of these loose pages described the optional critical hit systems. And one of these systems was the system described above.

Who'da thunk it?

Nothing original.    

Nothing to see here. Just the story of a gamer finding that everything he thought of had been first invented over twenty years ago. It is funny feeling like one of the designers of D&D Next, eh?

p.s. Tenkar's thoughts on Attacking the Darkness certainly bear thinking about as an alternative fumble system, mind. They seem original, but who knows what rules are hidden in my gaming cupboards?

Friday, 28 September 2012

Playing it Wrong

At the moment, we’re playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP). And we’re doing it wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Why? Because we’re using the core mechanics of LotFP and playing classic D&D with it. That isn’t what James Raggi wanted, is it? But it is a compliment.

The core mechanics of LotFP are D&D made elegant. I love them. The combat rules (this is the game that converted me to ascending AC), the streamlining of weapon options, the d6 adventuring rules, the rules for spell research and the creation of magic items… and the Specialist! A classic D&D Thief that doesn’t suck! LotFP is the version of classic D&D that I want to play. But I want to play classic D&D with it. I want the tone of the Mentzer Basic/Expert sets mixed with some Brit-fantasy to darken the mood. But it’s laughable thinking that a dash of Titan, a pinch of Lone Wolf, and a sprinkling of Warhammer will ‘darken’ a game when LotFP provides the possibility of mis-casting a Summon spell and have a party compelled to genitally mutilate each other? Actually, the mis-casts of the Summon spell are BRILLIANT. But they’re not part of the game that I’m after at the moment.

I’ve got my Rules Cyclopedia on my table as we speak, and my BECM (never did get I) books sit in a box alongside my collection of Gazetteers, modules, and assorted classic D&D accessories. But RC/BECM (or Labyrinth Lord, which I use as a proxy to avoid having tea poured all over my precious, precious RC) it isn’t exactly the game I want to play either. It lacks the elegance of Raggi’s system, and it’s power scaling is all wrong. 36 levels?! Back when I began playing D&D I had the Basic and the Expert set, and that was the system. 

So my house rules try to use LotFP to play D&D. All classes increase in attack bonus (though much, much more slowly than the Fighter. Not every monster is a unique Cthulloid entity; we’ve got Kobolds and Goblins, Trolls and Treants. The spells are mix of LotFP (Raggi’s interpretations of the classic spells are often extremely well done) and classic D&D (well, actually, for ease of reference at the table, I’m relying on Labyrinth Lord quite a bit). And I’m using D&D Treasure Tables – a mechanised Experience Point system that runs on loot demands a mechanised loot allocation system. In other words, I’m doing Raggi a terrible insult, stripping away the deliberate and consistent tonal qualities of LotFP to leave myself with the skeleton of the rules.

I'm worried about tea? It looks like they'll fall apart of their own accord soon enough...

The thing is, I appreciate the tone that Raggi strove for when writing Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It’s something that I’d be happy playing as a player. Strangely, it’s a game that I'd probably be happier playing that running. But right now, we’re dungeon delving and monster bashing. And, when you end the first adventure with a character blinded by a SPITTING COBRA, and three characters (a serious head wound, two fingers severed, and a broken leg)  needing lengthy spells of recuperation thanks to some FIRE BEETLES (oh, and Chris Kutalik’s Death and Dismemberment table), you know that you’re not playing too light and breezy a game.     

Oh, and of course, the Rules and Magic books for LotFP are available free. They're art free, but if want some cutting edge art criticism, try HERE. God knows what I'll do with my FOUR Rules and Magic hardcovers when they arrive (thanks to the Indiegogo campaign), but I'm looking forward to the Ken Hite adventure. And Kelvin's.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Realistic Fantasy

Monsters and Manuals is back with a post about the quixotic quest for ‘realism’ in fantasy adventure games. Noisms makes the point that even convincing works of fantasy fiction are set in worlds that are only as ‘realistic’ as necessary for the suspension of disbelief. I think this is an important thing to consider when engaging in world building for fantasy gaming, but I think that a distinction must also be drawn between the veneers of 'historical credibility/accuracy' that work for fiction, and the veneers that work for a game, particularly a fantasy adventure game such as D&D.

A work of fiction can get by with very rare monsters, just one site of adventure, or even just one adventure - because the whole thing is a massive railroad. I've tried playing Lord of the Rings like a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, but I still haven’t got the bit where I can make a decision. A fantasy world made for fiction can have a more convincing veneer of ‘realism’ because most of the world can be filled with the mundane. Adventure doesn’t need to be everywhere, it doesn’t need to be in lots of places, it just needs to be in the one place the characters go.

They've taken the railroad to Isengard! To Isengard! To Isengard!

A game such as D&D needs adventure to be everywhere. It needs to be in enough places that the exercise of player character ‘freedom’ does not depend on quantum dungeons appearing wherever the players go, or years of in-game mundanity while the player characters traverse the world without coming across the Lair of the Spider Queen, or the Crypts of the Last Men, or… These travels might involve peril, even opportunities for interesting roleplay, but not for fantasy adventure.

In the end we are back to my post on Titan – and I promise to switch to another topic soon; we’ve been playing using the elegant mechanics of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but with the tone of the game taken from D&D read through Titan – which in summary, even if you don’t like adventurers as ‘rock stars’, is that a world for fantasy adventure needs to be a world packed with fantasy adventure. If accurately representing medieval demographics, economics, politics etc. gets in the way of this, then these have to be done away with. OR, the inconsistencies have to be glossed over – this is the cost of playing a fantasy adventure game in a pseudo-historical setting.     

Thursday, 13 September 2012

This used to be a place...

Chris Kutalik of Hill Cantons has written a couple of posts [here and here] ostensibly talking about Greyhawk’s population density, and comparing it to what we know of Medieval Europe. Shorter: Greyhawk is largely empty, at least given the demographics that Gygax proposed. Whatever Gygax’s intentions – and it seems to me that Greyhawk is intended to be much more populated, settled and civilized than the population densities imply – this produces a suitably post/near apocalyptic world, in which settled peoples are living on a knife edge, in which to play D&D style games.

Why is this world covered in ruins and packed with lost treasure? Why are all the lords 9th level fighters, all the archbishops 9th level clerics, in a world/system in which that degree of advancement can only be gained by a life of great danger? Why is there anything adventuresome at all for lowly 1st level characters to do? Well, as Edgar Johnson says in the comments, “this used to be a place once, but now it's not”, which is the best summary of what a D&Dish setting should be. Sure, for a game in which character advancement can be achieved by engaging in diplomatic plots, or subtle schemes, etc., a well settled, civilized place is fine. But if the game system describes a world in which personal (and political) power is derived (only) from adventuring, from risking great danger and looting the remains of dead societies, the world that accompanies such a system needs to be one of ‘howling emptiness’.

This is what is wrong with Mystara as a D&D setting (even as Mystara is lots of fun, and a perfectly decent setting for a system that doesn’t rely on the same method of character advancement) – so much civilization makes D&Dish adventuring implausible. Most fantasy settings are too settled, indeed, it is one of the mistakes I almost always make when engaging in world building (embryonic worlds that mutate and are reborn with each campaign re-setting TPK). That is why I wrote myself a Titanic Lesson Plan – with point 5 “Pay no attention to real medieval settlement patterns. Civilisation exists as pockets of light amid the fantastical peril. Culture can vary tremendously within a short distance - European inspired fantasy can sit alongside fantastical names inspired by a trip to Thailand”. I did this to remind myself that in order to remind myself that I’m not writing novels, I’m creating the locations for fantasy adventure gaming, and ‘game’ has different demands to ‘story’. The setting has to fit the game, and if the game is D&D…

Adventurer, Conqueror, Queen? They look like late 1980s, early 1990s D&D adventurers, don't they?