Monday 1 December 2014

The Ballad of Xortan Throg

Every now and then I write up session reports for the games that I run. Often, weeks pass and they end up unwritten, lost like tears in the rain. This is particularly the case when I run one shots, or short adventure sequences.


However, over the past couple of weeks we've been playing some more Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e – the game which occupied several months of our gaming time as the party recovered the Crown of Kings [final play report here]. These games will make AFF2e it the 'most played' system for our group over the past couple of years, beating a variety of D&Ds and OSR games (even when grouped together), WFRP, and games from the d100 family. That surprised me.

As you might have seen, I have been mulling over the possibilities of AFF2e quite a bit lately ('capping effective SKILL', 'task resolution' and 'more task resolution'). Most of these are prompted by my thinking that AFF2e might be a reasonable choice for a sandbox campaign, and a wish to iron out the kinks. While I am not sure that AFF2e will beat a good ol’ B/X derived D&D variant for sheer sandbox utility (reasons partially outlined here) with super easy NPC, monster, and encounter generation (assign a SKILL and STAMINA score, and… well, not much more), and with the tools for a longer term campaign in the Heroes' Companion (holdings, hirelings, etc.), AFF2e might not be a bad choice. And, being temporarily down to two players for the moment, and only having three or maybe four even on a good day, I figured that a system in which starting PCs were already pretty accomplished would fit the need of the moment.

So, yeah, AFF2e, sandbox, player freedom, blah blah blah. And then I pluck a 'programmed adventure' – you know, a railroad – off the shelf.

Not just any adventure, though. But the adventures in Dungeoneer. And given that I have Blacksand! and the (pretty rare) Allansia I have all the material for an 'adventure path' that heavily restricts player agency. Yeah!

Nah, but surely I could subvert that, no? As the campaign develops and as the players get a sense of the world, they will develop ideas of their options outside the scene by scene[1] progression of the AFF campaign. Anyhow, a fortnight ago we played Tower of the Sorcerer, the introductory adventure from Dungeoneer. And the map looks like this:

So, yes. Not much Jacquaying going on in that dungeon, but we played it straight. And there are moments when you can really appreciate how Gascoigne and Tamlyn were introducing new players to RPGs with this adventure. Sure, there are few moments in which the players are able to exercise real choice, but aside from missing that key feature of an RPG, it can serve as a useful education.

Let me go through the 'scenes' in turn.

1. Into the Forest
The PCs are introduced to their quest as they ride through the Darkwood Forest with Prince Barinjhar of Chalice, Morval the captain of the Royal Guard, and a handful of soldiers. Plenty of exposition, delivered through conversation between Barinjhar and Morval, but in truth there isn’t much for the PCs to learn. That Xortan Throg employs Goblins, and rides a Griffon, and sometimes his agents ride Giant Lizards, okay. But anything else? Well, there isn’t much information needed as there aren’t many choices for the PCs to make, so this is largely colour. Colour provided by a haughty prince and a gruff NCO.

To justify this beginning I had Grisheart – the swashbuckling swordsman played by A – and Kumchet Wavemane – the scholarly sorcerer played by D – having agreed to take the mission while deep in their cups in a tavern only last night. They are working off their hangovers as they ride, and this explains why the mission is only being explained to them as they near Xortan Throg's tower and why they only have 11GP between them.

And the mission? Rescue Princess Sarissa of Salamonis, who was set to marry Barinjhar. Why has Xortan Throg kidnapped her? Who knows.

2. Into the Crag
So, the PCs are given the task of sneaking into Throg's tower through a cave in the base of the crag, which Barinjhar heads to the front door to parlay and distract. Here, the PCs are introduced to a semblance of dungeoneering, but in truth nothing they do matters until they arrive at a cave. In that cave, which they must cross if they wish to progress, they will be ambushed by Goblins. They will be. How many Goblins? Lots and lots. And what can the PCs do? Well, according to the book, they can pointlessly roll dice until 'each Hero has killed two or three Goblins', after which 'the rest of the Goblins flee back into their tunnels. However, the Heroes ‘are not supposed to die here', so you can have the Goblins flee sooner. 'It’s your film' [1], is the advice. In other words, there is no way for the PCs to avoid this fight, and only one permitted outcome of this fight. The players make no decisions of consequence, and the dice that the players roll don’t matter.

I despise these types of encounters. But in this case, in which the designers presume that this will be some players first ever encounter with an RPG, the purpose of this encounter is to teach the players and the 'Director' the mechanics of AFF combat.

Of course my players subverted it. A had put a point into giving Grisheart 'Language – Goblin' at character creation, and so as the Goblins came streaming from their tunnels he shouted, 'All hail Xortan Throg!' Well, let’s dig out the old D&D 2d6 (so perfect for AFF2e) Reaction Table and see what happens. Confusion, a bit of time for the PCs to make their way over the cavern. And information exchange, as Grisheart bamboozled the Goblins, who had been told to expect adventurers, with the claim that they had come to see Xortan Throg to help him with his adventurer problem. A few Provisions sweetened the deal, literally.

In truth, I was always minded to allow the players to bypass this encounter in some way, if they came up with a reasonable plan – anything but have the players play out a scene in which nothing that they do matters.

3. The Wizards Tower
This scene involves a number of encounters.

The PCs have to get past a portcullis trap, signposted by a black-red bloody smear on the floor. With careful observation (no rolls - they are looking right at the spot and asking of they see a loose flagstone) they are able to bypass the trap by simply jumping over the trigger.

The PCs will pass two doors, behind which cower peasants, broken men plucked from a nearby village for experimentation. Although the book tells the Director that the PCs will hear no sound from behind these doors, I allowed them to hear a sobbing. You have to give players some information upon which to make a decision. They picked a lock and provided some comfort to one of the wretches, his mind broken.

Then there is a Nightmare-esque sword trap, in which two giant animated hands swing swords across the corridor in quick, deadly arcs. Both Grisheart and Kumchet decided on the simplest solution, which was to use their Dodge special skill to slip past the blades. Equal or beat 14… oh, not a scratch.

Then there are two doors which present the players with an interesting choice, a choice which teaches a lesson that all players should learn. Behind these doors are the Giant Lizard and the Griffon. Now, the PCs could probably beat the Giant Lizard (SKILL 8) in combat, or even subdue it and use it as a mount. But the Griffon is a different prospect. SKILL 12, STAMINA 15 and with 2 Attacks, the Griffon would probably have done for Grisheart and Kumchet. The lesson that Gascoigne and Tamlyn are trying to teach here is this; 'You don't have to open every bloody door. If it sounds and smells like there is a big monster behind that door, and if you have been told about that big monster earlier on, well, DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!'

And that is what my, more experienced players already knew, and so we didn't have a TPK here.

Then there is a final trap, an illusory fireball. This took Grisheart and Kumchet a short while to work out, but a scrap of material torn for Kumchet’s robe was the clinching evidence.

So this scene presents a few more choices for the players to make, and lessons that it is essential that players new to RPGs learn. They have to reason their way past three traps, which will involve asking the Director for more information, interacting with the environment both as players (are there any… does it look like…) and as PCs (Kumchet tears a strip from his robe and…). This is not just a useful lesson for fantasy RPGs in which there are traps, but any RPG as the ‘description-question-description cycle’ of the 'information game' is often missed by new players who treat the first description as ‘total information’ and jump straight to statements of action.

4. The Guardroom.
Another fight, this time with an indeterminate number of Orcs and Grudthak the Ogre. Gascoigne and Tamlyn have given Grudthak some pretty decent lines, and this should teach new Directors to give their NPCs, even those that are most likely destined to die before the encounter is done, some colour. And the Orcs and Ogre are also doing something as the PCs arrive – eating a roast Goblin and gambling – which again is a good model for the new Director to follow when the come to design their own adventures. 

Grisheart and Kumchet cut down the Orcs – SKILL 5 in no time – and Grudthak politely (well, not really, he’s insulting the PCs all the time) waits until the PCs have finished with the Orcs and can gang up on him. He might be SKILL 8, but he’s no match for- KCH-ZZAP! Yep, no match for a ZAP spell causing 3d6 STAMINA damage, and so Kumchet drops to big guy just as he is warming up.

Swigging from his Potion of Stamina (ZAP costs 4 of Kumchet’s 12 STAMINA points), the doors on the far side of the guardroom swing open and a voice bids the PCs 'Welcome!'

5. The Wizard’s Chamber.
Okay, so now we have Barinjhar and Xortan Throg describe their evil plan to the PCs. Barinjhar has arranged for the disposal of Princess Sarissa so as to avoid Chalice falling under the domination of Salamonis. Fair enough, I guess, but he should have just killed her. The PCs have been hired to lend credibility to Chalice’s rescue attempt. And Xortan Throg? Well, I guess he just hates Salamonis.

Now that is one evil wizard!

Exposition over, Barinjhar leaps into the fight. At SKILL 11, he is a tough opponents, and I have given him decent armour too. Grisheart struggles – having an effective SKILL of 9 – and Kumchet helps out with some magic. Throg, meanwhile, sits and waits – unless a PC attacks him. When the PCs have dealt with the prince, it becomes clear that in the finest Fighting Fantasy traditions Throg, though exceptionally powerful, has a vulnerability. Each time that he casts his Force Bolts at the PCs, the incense burners on either side of his throne flare up. A and D are no mugs, and so charge at the incense burners, dodging Force Bolts along the way. In AFF2e Force Bolts cannot be dodged, but then who said that evil NPC magic has to work symmetrically to that used by PCs? Incense burners smashed, Grisheart and Kumchet have no problem dispatching Throg, But, whaaa-? It turns out that he was nothing more than a hollow mannequin. They rescue the princess, and to nobody's surprise, an image of Xortan Throg appears in the fireplace to vow revenge. Job done.

Post-Credits Scene: How is Tower of the Sorcerer? Well, is linear, and there is not much player choice. BUT, the adventure introduces new players and Directors to both the game mechanics and the 'information game' at the heart of RPGs. It teaches players that not every door need be opened. It shows Directors that they can add colour even to an encounter with a handful of humanoids in a square room. And in the encounter with the 'Big Bad' it presents both players and Directors with the idea that an encounter need not be resolved by the PCs lucking out on the roll of the dice, whether against a high SKILL opponent or a special skill test with negative modifiers. Indeed, resolving an encounter through dice is rather boring. But encounters can be about playing the information game then making choices that circumvent the powers of the enemy. Or whatever is the particular hazard or obstacle. Oh, and Tower of the Sorcerer can be – quite comfortably – played in an evening, an underlooked quality in a beginning RPG adventure that will involve participants who don't know the rules and who are likely unused to sustained play.

Final Credit: Grisheart and Kumchet will return in Revenge of the Sorcerer…  

[1] AFF1e's great drawback – in my view – was its insistence that an adventure in an RPG was like a film, with the Games Master being a 'Director'. Okay, there are a few mechanical issues too, but the 'RPG as film' conceit bleeds though into the advocated Games Mastering style, with advice to the Director often – but certainly not always – veering close to the negation of player agency in the pursuit of a particular 'story' outcome. 

Thursday 13 November 2014

The Foaming Shadow - Skeleton Encounter #5

Finally, here's a fifth skeleton encounter that fits on two sides of an index card, to follow the previous:

#5 The Foaming Shadow

As the PCs travel by ship they or their crew notice that a shadow under the surface of the water, is tracking them. The crew speculate that this is a whale, or a giant shark, or some chimeric sea monster. Those observing closely will see that the surface of the water is broken by roiling bubbles. At least one old sea dog will surely know the following legend... they did hire an experienced crew, didn’t they?

The PCs’ ship is being pursued by a sunken ship crewed by the undead. The ship was once the Basilisk, captained by the notorious pirate Spittlebeard. Notoriety can be a dangerous thing, and the city states of the coast commissioned a fleet to hunt the pirate. The Basilisk was driven into a deep inlet. The fleet set her ablaze, their catapults launching jars of flaming oil. The legend goes that not a single pirate attempted to escape the flames. The Basilisk with her crew, and all her treasure. This encounter can be used to provide a hook for an underwater adventure to recover the lost treasure of Spittlebeard, but none is carried on the wreck of the Basilisk.     

The PCs can attempt to flee the shadow under the water (see Expert p44). Treat the Basilisk as a LONGSHIP. If the PCs fail to escape, the Basilisk will surface – within grappling range – in a great burst of steam. 50 SKELETONS swing and climb across, and, when close enough, leap over the gunwales with daggers held in bony jaws. The Basilisk itself is but a skeleton of a ship, merely charred ribs, keel, stern and bow (with Basilisk figurehead). The ship, and the SKELETONS, are wreathed in barely visible hell-flame.   

SPITTLEBEARD= AC: 5, HD: 5, HP: 30, MV: 60’/20’, ATT: 2 Cutlass +2, DAM: 1d8+2/1d8+2, SV: F5, MR: 9, AL: C, XP: 300

These Skeletons are possessed by the lingering personality of SPITTLEBEARD, who has made a pact with a Great Evil in order to continue an unlife of plunder. Dressed in tattered finery, he can speak and reason, but is quite mad, having just two desires, to collect gold, silver and gems, and to kill while doing so. PCs may be able to exploit either of these desires, and SPITTLEBEARD will flee (MR: 9) if the battle looks like it will fulfil neither desire. SPITTLEBEARD carries a map to his underwater lair – presumably a place of interest to a Great Evil – and fights with a CUTLASS +2.

HWWJD? (more on AFF2e Skill Tests)

One of the ways to judge what kind of modifier should be applied to a Skill Test in AFF2e is to consider John of Salamonis, an ordinary human with some expertise in the task at hand (effective SKILL 7), and ask how difficult should this task be for him. As described in my last post, he has roughly a 60% of success at an unmodified Skill Test, which accords with the kind of score I usually give to a competent (but not ‘expert’) practitioner in a BRP/d100 game. Which is nice.

But let’s lay it all out in a table:
* In my own games, effective Skill for any task, including combat, is capped at 12. Achieving SKILL + Special Skill scores of greater than 12 allows Adventurers to have better chances of dealing with the kind of heroic level obstacles that impose large negative modifiers.

So, the top line gives us the modifiers that might be imposed on John of Salamonis. The second line gives us his chances of success (vs a target number of 14) as we vary the difficulty of the task. But we don’t need this level of accuracy when we are ‘eyeballing’ task difficulty. So the third line gives us his chances rounded to the nearest 10%, just as I handle BRP/d100 NPCs. As we see, this means that each extra +/-1 modifier can be imagined as adding or subtracting 10% from his chances of success. Which is nice.

Well, except for the jump from 60% to 40%, and that is fine as in my interpretation it represents the difference between an ordinary task being performed under ‘adventuring stress’ with one that has some distinct difficulties. Note that the 100s and 0s in that line represent circumstances in which John of Salamonis will only fail on a fumble (double 1s), or succeed on a critical (double 6s). Again, the actual chances are pretty close to BRP/d100s 5% fumble/critical range. Which is nice.

So when determining modifiers, rather than looking up tables mid play, I try to simply ask, ‘HWWJD?’ How Well Would John Do? If we think our competent everyman would have a 20% chance of success, we should apply a -3 modifier to the task. If we think he would succeed on anything but a fumble (double 1s), we need to give the task a +4 modifier, at least, if we bother rolling at all. And so on. These are applied to the effective SKILL of the Adventurers, which might well be greater (and sometimes, less) than 7.

I advise working out the task difficulties with John of Salamonis in mind, rather than by reference to the Adventurers’ effective SKILL. This is because if I prefer, as much as possible, to have the task difficulty fixed with regard to the fictional world – and John of Salamonis is a fixed point. If I work out task difficulty by considering the chances of Adventurers I do, unfortunately, find myself tempted to fit the world to the Adventurers. If a player has chosen to play a character with a high Sneaking Special Skill, his Adventurer should be able to achieve different things than if that player had instead created an Adventurer with a high Law Special Skill. The task difficulty should be set vs John of Salamonis, not vs Adventurer capabilities. However, the fourth line of the table does provide a guide to the chances of success broken down by effective SKILL (SKILL + Special Skill + modifiers).

(I promise to stop. Well, maybe. Most of these kind of posts are - quite obviously - me talking to myself, laying out the kind of material that I then turn into bullet points, mantras, tables etc. that end up stuck to my 'Referee Screen'. Or the bundle of notes I am using, whatever. It is intended to help me run a game more smoothly and to act as a check against me slipping into the kind of illusionism that negates player choice.)

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Skill Rolls in AFF2e

In which I talk about the way in which I handle Skill Rolls in AFF2e, especially the ‘problem’ of what to do with low SKILL characters who are meant to be experts in a particular Special Skill. In short, don’t roll, and if you do roll, roll high unopposed.

1. Special Skill Points represent competency. This is independent of general SKILL levels. As per AFF2e p.25:
1 = Basic Training
2 = Fully Trained
3 = Expert
4+ = Master

2. Don’t roll the dice. Adventurers should succeed automatically when using Special Skills within the bounds of their competency. The dice should only be rolled when Adventurers are acting under unusual stress or attempting tasks beyond their competency. This means that an Adventurer with SKILL 5 and a Special Skill of 4 is far more able than an Adventurer with SKILL 8 and Special Skill of 1. In mundane situations, the first Adventurer will rarely be called on to roll the dice. As a ‘master’ most tasks will be within the bounds of his competency. The second Adventurer will only automatically succeed at tasks within the competency of someone with basic training. But when the situation is not mundane…

3. Roll the dice. The dice should be rolled when the situation is unusual or perilous, or when an Adventurer is attempting a task beyond their competency. In these situations there will be no difference between the chances of success enjoyed by the two adventurers described above. The Adventurer with SKILL 8 is able to make up for his lack of professional expertise in such a situation by his or her sheer grit, natural talent, ability to work under pressure, and/or downright heroism. The Adventurer with Special Skill 4 can make up for his lack of natural talent with his professional training. So, in such situations, does the Adventurer succeed or fail?

4. Does the roll beat 14?  All non-combat tasks should be resolved by rolling 2d6, adding SKILL and Special Skill, adding or subtracting any modifiers, and attempting to equal or beat 14{*}. This means that a character – let’s call him John of Salamonis – with an effective SKILL of 7 (an average human – SKILL 5/6 – with some training Special Skill 1/2) succeeds just a bit less than 60% of the time.

5. Modifiers to Effective Skill (see Capping Effective Skill)

A Legendary Feat [-8]
As an example, this is the modifier to an Awareness test if a sneaking character is invisible. This would reduce the effective SKILL of John of Salamonis, and most people and creatures of Titan, to 0. This means that, if the Referee rules the action possible at all, the chance of success is just under 3%. An Adventurer would need an unmodified effective Skill of 11 before this chance is improved (to 8%).

Almost Impossible [-6]
As an example, this is the modifier applied when fighting in darkness. This would reduce the effective SKILL of John of Salamonis to 1. Again, this means that the chances of success (vs. a target number of 14) is just 3%. However, expertise and talent tells more quickly, with Adventurers with an unmodified effective SKILL of 9 having an 8% chance, rising to nearly 17% at 10, and nearly 30% at 11.

Extremely Difficult [-4]
As an example, this is the modifier applied to Swim or Dodge tests when encumbered by a very heavy weight. This would reduce the effective SKILL of John of Salamonis to 3, which means that he has an 8% chance of success.

Difficult [-2]
As an example, this is the modifier applied with fighting while drunk. This would reduce the effective SKILL of John of Salamonis to 5, which means that he has a 30% chance of success. He will fail more often than not, but will succeeding often enough.

…er, but hang on. What about positive modifiers? What happens when things are easier than normal? In most cases, I argue that this should mean that Referee simply rules that the Adventurers succeed. Even the chances of our everyman, John of Salamonis, shoot up to over 70% with a +2 modifier, over 90% with a +4 modifier, and 97% with a +6 modifier (assuming double 1 is an automatic failure). The exception is, of course, effective SKILL in combat, in which positive modifiers do play a part (though I propose capping effective SKILL for human/mortal scale Adventurers at 12). In this case, the roll is not to beat a target number of 14, but the Attack Strength of the opponent, which can be much higher. The modifiers for combat are well detailed on p59 of AFF2e.

But note. Combat is the only place for ‘opposed rolls’ when I run AFF2e. When Adventurers are engaged in a contest vs the environment the roll is unopposed. Equal or beat 14, with modifiers for difficulty. In all non-combat contests vs NPCs, Adventurers likewise roll to beat 14, with modifiers for difficulty. I do not construct NPCs symmetrically to Adventurers. They have SKILL and STAMINA scores for combat, but their non-combat expertise is handled by key words and associated modifiers, which apply to the effective SKILL of the Adventurers, not the NPC. So, if an NPC description has that the NPC is keen eyed, I will also write that all Sneaking tests conducted against that NPC are at -2, for example. I don’t have to give him Awareness 6 to make up for a feeble SKILL score. Or the other way round – If Adventurers and NPCs are not symmetrically constructed I don’t need to worry about the effect of giving an NPC a high SKILL score – this only represents combat effectiveness, as per the original gamebooks.

It really does make statting up NPCs a piece of cake.

{*} The AFF2e rulebook has a suggested target number of 15, which means that there is a big difference between the default ‘roll low’ system and the alternative ‘roll high’ system. With a target number of 15 for the ‘roll high’ system, a character with effective SKILL 7 would succeed just over 40% of the time. In the default system, a character with an effective SKILL of 7 would succeed in rolling 7 or under 60% of the time.

Thursday 30 October 2014

Can I join the band?

I've had Dungeon Crawl Classics DCC RPG for a while now, and In the past I have run the funnel The Portal Under the Stars as well as a few levels of B4 The Lost City converted to DCC RPG. I hadn't looked at it in ages though. I could never find affordable 'weird' dice to complete the 'dice chain', which is an important part of DCC RPG. Simulating the weird dice using the 'standard' weird dice didn't quite click, but now I have these (pretty hefty) things I'm up for giving it another go. Especially as there are a few things about DCC RPG that scratch particular itches for me - but that is the subject of another post. This is simple dice porn. 

Thursday 23 October 2014

Everything is Uncertain, Including Death (and Taxes)

“Quick, we must retreat!”
“Why? You look absolutely fine to me.”
“Yes, but the next the next sword blow will surely kill me.”


“Have no fear, I will leap into the fray and hold them off, for I am fresh, so even if they all strike me I shall remain standing.”

Such are the caricatures of the abstraction of HP; combatants can take HP ‘damage’ without risk until they’re right down to the little numbers. These caricatures, and the implicit criticism, have some merit. Players do know that the Orc with a handaxe (1d6 damage) will not be able to kill their 8HP Fighter on this round. And they do know that their 6th Level Fighter, whittled down to 3HP, is now in serious trouble, even if we can see no difference in his physical capabilities. 

Or rather, we think we can see no difference in his physical capabilities. The 5e Basic pdf says "The loss of hit points has no effect on a creature's capabilities until the creature drops to 0 hit points" (v0.2 p75). Of course I know why the rule book says this: we don't apply penalties to characters and creatures that have taken HP damage. But it is language like hinders and 'proper' understanding of the abstraction of HP and D&D combat - though as I note below the abstraction of HP is terminally undermined in newer editions. When the abstraction is understood, we can see that of course a loss of hit points does have an effect on a character or creature's capabilities. A PC with 3HP has far less ‘fighting ability’ than one with 30HP, even if their AC and THAC0 or BAB remain unchanged. Simply put, the 3HP Fighter will survive fewer rounds of combat than the 30HP.

But anyway, it is often difficult to grasp such abstraction, and the 'certainties' (see above) that it produces can sit uneasily with players and DMs. We might intellectually understand the abstract nature of D&D combat, but we often - instinctively - fall into making sense of these numbers (HD, HP, AC, ‘to hit’ rolls, etc.) as if they had a one-to-one correspondence with world.

So, let’s make things a little more uncertain, shall we?

Carcosa has PCs roll their HP at every encounter. You also have to roll to see what type of HD you have! Fun for a diversion, but the certainties in the two 'examples' above are not mitigated. Why not have the PCs roll their HD every time they are 'hit'?

Here’s how it would work:

Characters and creatures start with 0 'hit points' (HP). They have not yet been 'hit'. When a character or creature is 'hit', damage is rolled as normal, and this many hit points are added to their HP, which accumulate. A character or creature rolls their HD every time it adds points to their HP. So that 6th Level Fighter would roll 6d8 (assuming no modifiers from CON), giving him somewhere between 6 and 48HP. It wouldn’t be quite as 'swingy' as that might look as the multiple dice produce a pronounced bell curve. If the total rolled is greater than the accumulated HP of damage, the character or creature can fight on. If the number roll is equal to or less than the accumulated HP, the character or creature is either dead or has suffered a serious wound.

Naturally, I need a good critical hit chart to generate the wounds and determine the chance of death. I am tempted by the extended critical hit charts from WHRP1e (found in the Character Pack, maybe one of the Apocrypha books) which have different charts for all kinds of weapons and sources of damage. ACKS’ ‘mortal wounds’ table might also be a suitable base. While I would want the procedure to be relatively simple, I'd also have to work out a simple set of modifiers to rolls on this chart. Presumably these would involve level, CON modifier, and perhaps the difference between accumulated HP and the last rolled HD total. And death? This would either be an automatic result on the far reaches of the chart, a consequence of a wound that is not treated or bound in time, or perhaps, to keep things simple, a Saving Throw (vs Death). For simplicities sake, most monsters and NPCs might die as soon as the HD roll is not greater than accumulated HP - this is a system about PCs, after all.

Or maybe the 'dice-drop' table I suggested ages ago... 

Whatever table I eventually use I've a feeling that it will have to be kind to the PCs. Or, at least, as kind as a critical hit/serious wound table can be. PCs are going to be more vulnerable using these rules. While 1st Level PCs will get killed/wounded by a single blow in this system and the traditional one, the real effect will be on PCs with around 3 or 4 HD. In the traditional system there is no chance that the first sword blow will drop them (especially with the kind of house rules that boost HP - max HP at 1st Level, re-rolling 1s, re-rolling all dice at each level, etc.), in this system some of those formerly 'insulated' PCs are going to fall in the first round of combat. But then, so are some of the monsters in the same HD range, which brings a much wider range of the bestiary into play much earlier on... along with larger treasures and greater XP rewards. Swings and roundabouts, eh?

But why do this?

Well, it gives me an excuse to use a critical hit chart. And do I love me a good critical hit chart. But it also means that even PCs (and monsters) of moderate to high level/HD are in an uncertain amount of danger once the daggers, axes, and swords are drawn. The cartoon criticism of D&D's accumulating HP is disarmed. Sure, higher level characters are far more likely to be able to fight for longer than low or zero level characters, but there will rarely be the guarantee that the next swipe of a sword will not do for them.

But more importantly than that, much more, it allows me to incorporate an aspect of ‘newer’ D&Ds from which I have always recoiled – easy HP recovery (or easy HP reduction, given what HP 'mean' in this system). As I've said, the abstraction of HP and D&D combat is often difficult to maintain in the imaginations of the DM and players. And players and DMs really do need to buy the abstract nature of HP and D&D combat in order to understand how the game effect of low HP = reduced overall fighting ability = a ‘wounded’ state. But for this abstraction to work, HP ‘healing’ has to be slow and/or difficult. If a PC can easily replenish their all HP, say with a ‘long rest’, the HP abstraction is terminally undermined. If a good night's sleep allows a PC to recover all their lost HP, then low HP very definitely does not = wounded, not even as an abstraction.

But at the same time I will concede that rapid HP recovery can improve some aspects of the experience of play. If PCs can recover their HP by taking a rest, swigging some brandy (see Crypts & Things), or hearing a rousing speech, then (of course) they can get a lot more adventuring done, especially during the first few levels of play. And these early levels are the key to a sustained campaign. So I'll be experimenting with this system in the next games that I run.

As a final point, easy HP recovery and no ‘real’ wounds means that PCs can fight all day, every day. This puts them on the 5e track – which given the 'XP per adventuring day per level' table in the DMG pdf I can safely caricature this as 'How to Hit Name Level in 30 Days, or Your Money Back!' I know that this meant to make players feel 'epic', but I can't imagine feeling less 'epic' than having my character, starting at 1st Level, is set to become a mighty lord in a matter of mere weeks of game time.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

A Complete Game in Four Parts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kids game, huh?!

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

Monday 20 October 2014

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

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

#4 The Hanging Garden

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

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

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

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

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