Thursday 31 January 2013

The Builders of Byzantia

As we reconvene the gaming group after Christmas, we decided to continue the campaign by having the party return from the mountains empty handed - driven down by bad weather, perhaps. The Beastmasters of Byzantia were disappointed; it is a very competitive calling, with each man judged on the quality and exoticism of his menagerie. But there would be no Hippogriff eggs hatching in their halls this coming spring. Maybe next autumn the party can launch another expedition in search of Hippogriff eggs. The party overwinter in Gateways, brooding on their failure and drinking away the eyes of D'namnas.

The below is what I wrote for the players, presenting some options for adventure.

Your winter passes in a fug of drink and smoke and salted meat. The weather never turns cold enough to freeze the lake, and while the groans of the undead are unnerving, there was, thankfully, no danger of the shambling remnants of the Second Empire of Humanity crossing from the ruins of the Castle of Gaskell the Black to Gateways. Nevertheless, the snow and cold slows life in Gateways down to a crawl... people huddle at home, little news or novelty enter the town. The party enjoys the Festival of Lights during Frostbite, and watch with grim faces as the Baron and the assembled vicars of the churches symbolically bury the world at the end of Earthdeath. They then spend a full week indoors during the storms (and worse) of the Howls of Chaos, when the Intelligences Beyond realise that they have been tricked and the world yet lives.

When the new year begins with the month of Ashunmoon (named after an ancient Alysian shepherd 'saint'), you are keen to leave town. The religious practice Abstention - from anything and everything pleasurable - between the 7th and the 14th, so as to not enrage any malign entities disappointed that the world did not die. There are enough who are devout in town to make this practice all but compulsory.

The first news that comes into Gateways is bad. Goblins, it is reported, have been putting homesteads and farms to the torch. While drinking away the winter, the party made friends with Stephan, a member of a horsetrading clan, he asks that you help his family transport a herd of (very rare) white horses to the Elven market at Rivalyn. Acting as the agent for his brother Pyotr, the head of the clan, he offers 400SP for the party (who have a reasonable reputation now, even if just for the amount of treasure they have squandered) to act as insurance against Goblin horse thieves.

The ruins of Gaskell's Castle are quieter, the [un]dead presumably returning to their restless sleep, but still sits across the water, a black, brooding ruin.

There has been no more news from Abelorn regarding 'the Rahib', but then there has been no more news of anything much. Likewise, there has been nothing new heard of Elwyn, the renegade cleric, though when Abstention is over the Bishop's court is expected to begin it's 'Circle' of the Duchy.

You also hear of agents for the Gnome King of Underhill, who is seeking men and women of repute to protect the the trade caravan containing a winter's worth of industry as it works its way south to Mirror Bay. Mirror Bay is the seat of the Duke and the only 'city' in the Duchy and, therefore, doorway to the rest of the Known World.

The party chose the investigate the ruins of Gaskell's Castle. I decided to place the pyramid of B4 The Lost City in the middle of the ruins of a castle modelled on a Roman fort - the Second Empire of Humanity had a distinctly Roman styling. The style of the pyramid, however, suggests a remnant of an older civilization. I changed much of the details, while keeping the maps and the distribution of encounters (if not the encounters themselves). Major changes had to be made to the different factions in the dungeon; mine are the Builders, the Judges, and the Maidens. The first faction the party met in their delve were the Builder of Byzantia:

The Builders of Byzantia are a human, all-male semi-secret society; almost everyone knows that they exist, but details of their membership, rituals, and purpose are not known with any certainty. Common understanding of the organization runs from the mundane to the fantastical. Many see it as a guild-like network of elite men, some extend this idea and see the Builders as the shadow government of Byzantia, even a cult dedicated to restoring the glories of the First Empire of Humanity[1]. Some will say in public that the Builders are global conspiracy in the service of powerful supernatural patrons. A Demon of Law, they suggest, given the Builders’ emphasis on the virtues of order and planning. There are, though, whispers that the Builders are a hidden cult of Chaos, searching for the secrets of Escherean architecture.

Sample Titles: Grand Planner, Architects, Surveyors, Builders
Alignment: Law
Values: Civilization, Order, Planning, Labour
Patron (publicly, anyway): Saints Constant and Stankov – the founder of Byzantia and a (mythic?) heroic builder. They represent the duality of human achievement and the taming of the world.
Symbol: A pyramid, over which rests a hinged ruler. At the middle of the pyramid is an eye.

The Builders encountered in the ruins of the Castle of Gaskell the Black wear heavy leather aprons marked with the symbol of the Builders. They carry a variety of tools and measuring equipment, and tend to favour warhammers as weapons. Most are NM, others are Level 1 Specialists. Their Leader is Isoclesus, who is a Level 3 Specialist. Classed Builders tend to have skill points in Architecture and Tinkering. Of course, NM Builders will also be proficient in their trade skills (but will be less competent in other aspects of adventuring).

Goal: The Builders in the ruins are looking for technology that pre-dates the Second Empire. So far, they have found a few (inoperable) bits and pieces, and a keen to recover whatever may lie unfound in the depths.

Demeanour: The Builders are friendly towards parties that are friendly towards mostly human (and male) parties, though some heterodox Builders see Dwarfs as admirable fellow men. In general, they see adventurers as the first, crude wave of civilizers; they clear the wilderness of monsters and barbaric humanoids. They are sexists, and disparage the Maidens of Symmetry in vulgar terms. Valuing function over form, they regard the Maidens as the embodiment of their views on women; decorative rather than productive. They fear and despise the Judges, whose adherence to laws as well as Law, and the bloody purges they are wont to engage in, makes them an enemy of progress and human achievement.

Isoclesus is a plump man, generous with his hospitality – such that is possible in ruins. He is fascinated by ants (and other social insects); by their ordered society and prowess as builders. He keeps a glass ant farm in his quarters, and has brought several rare books on entymology with him to the ruins. The distillation of ant scent that keeps the Builders safe from the vicious Black Ants that infest the upper reaches of the ruins is a result of his own research. The Builders ability to move safely among the Black Ants protects them from the other factions.

The party (4 players, 8 PCs of Level 1 and 2) ended the first session deep in the pyramid, having just defeated a handful of Skeletons. That was the only combat encounter in two-plus hours of play, such was the caution of the players, and their intention to find ways down without delay[2]. I also think that they might think that I am a 'dick' DM; at one point I had to say, "If there was writing on the door I would tell you outright, you don't need to keep asking. I'm not going to say, 'Aha, the door said 'trap' and now you're all dead. Ha ha!' Trust me, I will tell you of anything significant unless it is actually hidden." I'll write a play report once they have completed their delve - with a game due tonight (possibly), before I run a different group through  my version of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh using DCC RPG tomorrow! And I plan to submit a revised version of an academic paper this week too - busy times!

[1] The First Empire of Humanity fought a war against the Gods and won, driving them into the Heavens. This victory was won at great cost. The war tore through the fabric of reality and allowed the Intelligences Beyond (of Law and Chaos) into the world, and Humanity fell into a long dark age as the other races of mankind came into being.

[2] For all their tactical caution (opening doors, investigating tombs, etc. - to the extent that the lead PC was roped to the rest of the party, to be hauled clear of any pit traps, falling blocks etc. [I'd give a bonus to the appropriate Saving Throw, I guess]), strategically this party can be very reckless, in previous sessions plunging deeper into a dungeon when there are the sounds of angry humanoids behind them (ending in a TPK), and following an evil Mire Sprite (a Mixie) as it beckoned them down a narrow path (which nearly ended in a TPK), for example. So, trying to not be a dick DM, I think I might have to warn them (remind them) that, generally, the deeper you go, the more dangerous things get, and then let the party live or die by their own decisions.

Monday 28 January 2013

2kCP? It's 1d8SP that's the problem.

I spent a part of Friday[1] converting U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh[2] for use as an intro game for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. I'm still not sure whether I'll invite the players to roll up first level characters, which are pretty powerful compared to classic D&D first levellers, or whether I'll use it as a 'funnel'. A group of townsfolk investigate the haunted house - what could be a better funnel than that? [3] And, never mind the fact that the rest of the U series provides possibilities for future adventure, should the players so choose, U1 itself has the zero-level funnel - The Haunted House - and the first test of the surviving first-level characters - The Sea Ghost.

Converting an [A]D&D adventure to DCC RPG is a piece of cake[4], for the most part. Monsters can be statted up very simply and straightforwardly, and without the 'compulsion' to make every person a properly levelled character so can NPCs, using the examples in the book as a quick rule of thumb. Treasure is not so straightforward. U1, like many AD&D modules, hands out a fair bit of treasure, and more than a few magical items. This runs counter to the intended tone of my game, which,  while it does not adhere entirely to the principles the in DCC RPG that magical items are exceptionally rare and unique and that no-one is lugging tens of thousands of gold coins about the place, does try to keep close to that flavour.

The DCC RPG fanzine Crawl! #2 has a pretty nifty treasure generation system (which pretty much makes magic items an incredibly rare random possibility - but there is nothing to stop you putting one there as a Judge), and Chris Hogan of Vaults of Nagoh has a couple of useful thoughts on treasure [Simplified Corpse Robbing, Corpses as Treasure], and I could always use the random treasure generators from Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e or WFRP1e (yup, there is one), all of which would provide more appropriate loot than the hundreds upon hundreds of GP on offer in U1. Of course, first I would have to scale back the reward from the Saltmarsh Council - 500GP per person is the sort of money that could hire an army of professional soldiers in AD&D. 

Anyway, I did not mean for the big treasures to be the point of this post, but some of the smallest. So, there's some Goblins, see. And they're each carrying 1-8 SP in their coin purses. If you are going to get flustered by Giant Rats and their 2000CP, you damn well ought be annoyed by this. Why? Because Goblins carrying currency that the PCs can spend raises far more (interesting) questions about the way the game world works than does a pile of treasure in a rats' nest. Does the Goblin economy rely on human currency for exchange? In the default AD&D setting, I'd guess not. Do Goblins regularly trade with human settlements? In the default AD&D setting, I'd guess not. Maybe rarely, when a tribal chieftain carries a strong box full of stolen loot down the crossroads at midnight, to trade with an arms dealer (yes, I know where U are going...). So there is a case for coins in a goblin lair, but 1-8 SP of walking around money...? What are they going to spend it on? Now, despite what is written in U1 (and nearly every other [A]D&D module), in which the Goblin's personal treasure is a handful of coins, perhaps, in fact, they have (silver) jewellery worth 1-8 SP. 

Or, perhaps Goblins do engage in inter-humanoid trade a little more regularly than the default AD&D setting suggests. Perhaps the rules imply a setting that is a bit more Blacksand! than Greyhawk?

They might love their job, but they still want to get paid.

Of course - D&D is a game of abstractions, stupid [5]. Don't break the fun! 

[1] The game didn't happen as everything got delayed and delayed until it was too late to begin, so we played a boardgame instead. Kids, eh? This week though...

[2] Eight pound odd for .pdfs of the complete U series is good value. The scans from, however, are far from brilliant - nothing like the quality of the free teaser, B1. The whole thing looks shoddy, not least because there are missing characters down the edge of some of the pages. The characters can be easily inferred, but still, it is far short of what I had been expecting.

[3] Well, actually, I'd actually like to see - maybe I'll write - a zero-level funnel in which the players are the mob, pitchforks and all, storming Frankenstein's castle. That's 'Frankensteen', by the way.

[4] Though, we will still have to see how this cake actually tastes.

[5] I'm not saying that it breaks the fun, but if you want the abstractions to make sense - at least relative to each other - then you can do a lot worse than Adventurer, Conqueror, King System (ACKS), which is up there with LotFP as a clean, efficient version of classic D&D.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Vornheim Soundtrack

Okay, I know that some stuff has recently been re-released as lovely clean .pdf files. Apart from snagging the free copy of B1, I haven't jumped in there yet. Financial ruin awaits.

Before Christmas, though, I did stump up a bit of cash during Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess sale (it appears that there is another sale on now). One of the books I bought was very interesting Vornheim by Zak S. This is what Vornheim sounds like to me:

Monday 21 January 2013

Predicatability and Meaningful Choice

One of the principles that many people ascribe to Old School play is that player choices (and hence player 'skill') matters. A second principle is that balance - in the 'modern' RPG sense of providing only encounters that are designed to be 'won' by the PCs - is not desirable; in a sandbox game, some things that the PCs will encounter - by design or by chance - will be beyond their abilities. They might have to learn this lesson the hard way, but because the game is a sandbox, not a railroad[*1], the players have plenty of choices of other places to go and things to do.

The retroclones all have standard monster bestiaries and mechanized treasure tables, emulating the original systems. Even if the DM creates his own (variations on these) monsters, the lesson of these catalogues is that players can (and I don't mean by leafing through the monster listing and studying the treasure table) learn what the world created by the GM consists of - what rules it runs by - and therefore gain an ability to judge risk and reward. Sure, Orcs in your game might be called the Quezo'll, and their kings might be able to shoot laser beams from their crowns, but the players have the potential to learn the capabilities of the Quezo'll, get an idea of the size of their raiding parties, the treasure they carry, etc.

This is not about the game itself being predictable - in the sense of beaing boring or repetitive,  but that enough of the world is predictable so that players can make informed, meaningful decisions on the part of their PCs.

Several of the second generation OSR games - Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon Crawl Classics, for example - suggest that monsters should be unique. There should be nothing so passé as a standard bestiary; monster manuals[*2] reduce monsters down to dangerous animals, and humanoid monsters to evil humans with different coloured skin. I have tremendous sympathy with this point of view, but I worry as to the degree to which an inability to learn about the dangers of the world through actual play inhibits meaningful player choice. Meaningful player choice demands predictability. If the players have no idea what the possible consequences of an action are, what the risks are, or what the rewards might be, then they cannot take a meaningful action. Of course, as these are games of exploration and adventure, many aspects of the world must remain unknown, mysterious, and if magic plays a part, even contradictory. I guess my question is - to what degree is a degree of predictability in 'monsters' required for meaningful player choices in a game that, more often than not, involves fighting (or at least, encountering) monsters?

[1*] I have seen it argued that a sandbox is just a railroad with so many tracks that the players enjoy the illusion of freedom. Well, uh, sort of. For me, the point of a sandbox is not total player freedom, it is meaningful player CHOICE. It is the choices, and the consequences (including PC death and other negative, even catastrophic, consequences) of those choices, that make RPGs a game.

[*2] To be sure, the Ecology of... articles in Dragon, and the tone of the AD&D2e Monstrous Compendia did begin to make even the strangest monsters mundane.

Friday 18 January 2013

Snow Day

Yay! School is closed. Aw... so is the nursery. So after making peanut butter biscuits with the toddler, I decided to chuck a few things in the blender:

And out poured:

In other news, it looks like the old TSR archives might be available again, sometime soon.

Wednesday 16 January 2013


I recently got myself a copy of Dungeon Crawl Classics - a replacement for my duplicate gift that the people at IGUK were very good about. I might post a review at some point, but I will say several things.

1) The game has atmosphere. To quote Russ Abbot, 'what an atmosphere!' The writing, the art, and the rules all combine to produce a unique, distinctive vibe - all without relying on encyclopedic setting information. There are flavours of older editions of D&D in there, and not a little WFRP1e, but DCC is very definitely its own thing.

2) The rules for magic, which take up half the book, are the best that I have yet seen. They appear to make concrete the idea that magic is powerful, but is a dangerous, corrupting force. Something like this is what the WFRP1e setting promised but the rules failed to deliver.

3) Critical Hits! Yes, we've got kneecap smashing, head cleaving action built into the game, with different tables for the different classes/levels, and separate tables for monsters and dragons.

4) A non-'mechanical' experience system. XP are not won by getting gold of killing monsters, but by engaging in adventuring activity - mortal combat most of the time, but other kinds of activity might also provide an XP or two. XP rewards are tied to the power of the PCs - so a difficult encounter, which might result in a fatality, for example, is worth 3 points - and the XP intervals between levels grows wider as PCs grow more powerful.

5) Indeed, the first level interval, between levels 0 and 1, is just 10XP, which works out at 5 'typical' encounters (a challenge, but no fatalities or significant losses would be expected), is just one session's worth of adventure. And that is 'the funnel': four 0 level PCs per player, with the survivors achieving classed PC status and all the power and survivability that comes with that. Now, I'll no doubt run a funnel adventure at some point in the future, but doubt that such a bloodbath would be the best way to introduce my players to the real charm of DCC.

6) A chapter titled 'Skills'. That is two pages long, providing GM advice on handling non-combat activities - summed up as, largely Old School, based on player skill, but don't be afraid to roll some dice now and again.

But the first page of the 'Judge's Rules' contains Joseph Goodman's 'Admonitions', which, after the usual advice to house rule the game, are 'always roll your dice in public' and 'let the characters die if the dice so dictate it'. Over the past few weeks I have been idly looking advice on running fantasy RPGs from books published in the late 1980s and the 1990s, and that advice was the exact opposite; the standard instructions to the GM seemed to be that it didn't matter how much you fudged the dice or railroaded your PCs, just so long as the players didn't know and 'the plot' was preserved. So it is refreshing to read something that points out that the very essence of an RPG as a game comes from the idea of challenge, of the possibility of failure.

And with that in mind, I would like to point anyone who has not read it already towards Courtney Campbell's A Guide for New Dungeon Masters. New DM or not, it is still good advice. His articles on player agency are also very interesting. 

Monday 14 January 2013

The Five Minute Work Day

There is some complaint that the resource management/attrition aspects of Old School games leads some dungeoneers to game the system by adopting the 'five minute workday'. Basically, once HP are low, magical resources and special abilities have been depleted, and the dangers of the unknown loom ever larger, the adventuring party retreats to a defensible room, barricades themselves inside, and heals, rests, and recuperates. This is the way you would play a C'RPG', so why not an RPG?

Well, there's nothing wrong with that as a tactic. But an RPG is judged/refereed/games mastered by a living, imaginative person, not dead lines of script. And that person is responsible for the behaviour of the rest of the world, including (but not limited to) the monsters of the underworld. There has been endless discussion of the way that intelligent, social monsters can disrupt these kinds of PC tactics. But even the most mindless of monsters can threaten a five minute workday routine; one word, ROMERO!

Since Night of the Living Dead re-animated the zombie as a horror staple, the standard scenario has seen surviving humans adopting the tactics of the 'five minute workday' and coming unstuck. Resources continue to dwindle. The sheer weight of of the undead on the barricades renders the defensible position a deathtrap. The horror, the horror, sends N/PCs insane (even if you don't have a sanity mechanic for PCs, they've brought henchmen and hirelings, no?). 

And even when the five minute workday is so well organised that it prodiuces something akin to the  moment of post-apocalyptic, post-scarcity utopia in Dawn of the Dead, there are always NPC parties interested in the same treasures. Some of those treasures are already in the PCs' possession...

 Murder-hobos ahoy!

Sleep well in the dungeon.

Saturday 12 January 2013

Experience, Charisma, and Glory

Some regard Charisma as a 'dump stat'. It is a bit difficult to have a 'dump stat' when you are playing 3d6 in order, but you know what I mean; STR 18 gives you a +3 bonus in melee combat, DEX 18 gives you a +3 bonus to AC, CON 18 gives you an extra 3 HP per level. Even modifiers provided by high INT and WIS can provide mechanical in benefits; extra spells, higher chances of knowing a language, bonuses to Saving Throws or adventuring skills, depending on your particular flavour of The Game. But CHA? CHA? CHA 18 should give you a bonus to NPC reaction rolls and an increased maximum number of henchmen. But these are small beer; how many modestly endowed PCs are maxing out on their henchmen allocation? And how many Old School GMs set aside roleplaying to randomly determine NPC reactions? Or remember to?

Now me, well, I am comfortable enough with a Fellowship test, or the like, as in WFRP, to use some kind of CHA test to determine the success of a PC's attempt to inveigle their way into the Black Brotherhood, or persuade the Archgourmand of the Ogres that adventurers are poor, stringy, gristly meat. But even in those cases, it is the actions of the players, not the dice rolled for their PCs, that carry the most weight in determining the success or failure of their actions. The +3 to hit provided by STR 18 counts whether or not the player of the PC can actually lift a sword; the player simply says, 'I hit with my axe' and the GM says 'roll'. The effect of the +3 to NPC reaction rolls provided by CHA 18 is dependent on the ability of the players to put words in their PC's mouth.

Cha-, Cha-, Charisma eighteen, Russia's greatest love machine

Regardless, CHA can be made mechanically meaningful in an Old School game by making it every adventurer's Prime Requisite. And then some. A +1 bonus (CHA 13-15) = 10% extra XP, a +2 bonus (CHA 16-17) = 20% extra XP, and, naturally enough, a +3 bonus (CHA 18) = 30% extra XP. That is a lot of extra XP, but then someone with CHA 18 is a person that is more likely than most to turn the bare facts of their deeds into legend.

But then, for me, XP are not literally a measure of 'experience' - after all, what do PCs get XP for? Finding treasure, mostly. Sometimes killing stuff. And, if you are that way inclined, completing quest-like objectives. And accumulating this XP does what? Makes PCs better at fighting, others better at magic, and some better at sneaking about. The same experiences improve characters in different ways. Why? Because D&D is not a BRP game. D&D is a more abstract (and less 'realistic'). In my games, XP (and Levels) are measures of a PCs fame, glory, and legendary status - I've argued before, D&D [only?] makes sense when adventurers are 'rock stars' - though this 'legendary status' is only in part a social construction (boosted by carousing and conspicuous consumption too; you can buy 'charisma'), but is built into the physics of the game universe itself.

The idea of using the CHA modifier* to boost XP rewards comes from a number of sources: Mongoose RuneQuest II uses CHA to determine the number of improvement rolls that a PC gains per session/adventure, on the [dubious] basis that charisma helps PCs find tutors/training partners better than gold, or intelligence. Pendragon has a Glory statistic that is a combination of a Player Knight's repute and something more 'real'. Old School games have, since they were New School, awarded XP for carousing and the like (Chris Kutalik, of Hill Cantons, not only does this but increases PC Charisma scores as they level, looking at the relationship between CHA and level from the other end of the telescope [take one // take two // Hill Cantons Compendium]). But the tipping point came when I was reading some Pelinore stuff, and came across the Free/wo/men NPC class. "The level of a Freeman or Freewoman is not determined by experience points but by a combination of their wealth, age and influence". At first I though that NPC classes such as this are a great way of avoiding the situation in which every NPC of interest has an adventuring class and a few levels, or else is a fragile 0 level non-entity. But then I thought that the idea of levels relating to 'wealth, age and influence' might help us to think about what XP and levels are meant to/ought to represent. 

*I am all about the modifiers these days. I'd rather have a PC roll 1d6/2d6/xdy (whatever) and add their modifier to beat a target number, than roll 1d20/3d6/xd6 (whatever) to roll under the relevant statistic. Using d6 rolls to resolve adventuring tasks obviously owes a lot to the streamlined D&D rules found in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. 2d6, though, gives a probability curve, and Stars Without Number (via Traveller) provides an example of how to use this in an Old School context. Dyson Logos has a nifty conversion of B/X Thief skills to d6 and 2d6.  

Sunday 6 January 2013

A Finnish Sensibility?

I didn't know James Raggi had made a Christmas movie...

Well, he hasn't. But Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale seemed to have a very similar vibe to a Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure. Basically, the wholesome is subverted, ordinary enough people face off against a powerful, inhuman evil, and all for the sake of a few gold pieces. 

Perhaps not as good a Gremlins for Christmas horror, but certainly worth watching.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Biggest disappointment of Christmas 2012

It wasn't that the only boardgame I received was one that I already had (Elder Signs).

It wasn't that my copy of Blood of the Zombies had a drink spilled on it before I had a chance to read it.

It wasn't even that the kit bag that I asked for turned out to be a rucksack smaller than the one that I already have, too small for my judogi, never mind anything else.*

Nice work, Zhu Bajiee [compliment]. Nice work, Zhu Bajiee [sarcasm born from dashed hopes].

However, Gygax Magazine is real. Despite the big names associated with Gygax Magazine, we will have to wait and see if it is better than Oubliette, Knockspell, Fight On!, or any of the other OSR magazines out there. 

*Yes, I am an ungrateful so-and-so.