Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Essential Repurposing (Part 1)

AKA "Fixing Stuff For Fun And Profit"

I'll cut to the chase: I picked up a copy of the D&D Essentials Kit. Yes, I put money in WotC's pocket ($12 and change), although I do have 90 days to return the thing to Target.

The reason for this? I wanted a copy of the included adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak. I have a bit of a "thing" for white dragons. That may not have been obvious over the years (though the last time I created an adventure with a dragon...nine years ago!...it was a white), but they're probably my second faves, after black dragons. Their Superman-like, liquid nitrogen breath is not only a cool image, and it's a bit easier to justify than a monster that breathes fire...plus, they have the best natural camouflage (IMO) of all the dragons.

I'm rooting for the dragon.
Besides, I dig on snow and ice settings (duh...see Land of Ice for examples); heck, I almost picked up a copy of Frostburn, long after I'd chucked DND3 from my life. Probably would have purchased it, if it'd had a white dragon on the cover.

Anyway, I wanted to see the type of adventure being constructed over at Wizards of the Coast and see if it was anything I might use...or modify...for my own ends. Here's what my $13 bought me:

- An "Essentials Kit Rulebook" that I have zero interest in reading. Really. I've read the 5E books, I've played a session (or two?) of 5E, and I've listened to multiple hours of 5E "actual play" podcasts. I know that the game, as it's currently being produced, is extremely irritating to my psyche and outside the sphere of "things-I-want-to-engage-with." I'd go back to AD&D RAW long before I'd sit down to a 5E game session.

[well, not quite RAW. I will never again play AD&D with character limitations based on sex/gender. Yes, we did this in my youth...even our female players, who generally ran fighter characters...but I'm done with that particular brand of machismo stereotype]

- A nice set of (eleven) dice.

- A DMs' screen that has a lovely illustration on it. If I was crafty at all, I'd find some way to cut it up into some sort of decorative doo-dad. Unfortunately, I'm not.

- Some 5E tools (cards for initiative, conditions, magic items) that I probably won't be able to use. Actually, the "sidekick cards" might work fine as a stack of random NPCs.

- A map of the Sword Coast portion of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

- The 64 page adventure book that was my impetus for buying the box.

Let's see, anything else? Some blank (5E) character sheets. A box for holding cards. Some codes to unlock additional on-line content (not sure if I need to be enrolled in D&D Beyond to use that). Eh. All-in-all, I suppose it's not a bad value for a "starter set"...dice alone would probably cost $5-6. What price would you put on 14 easily re-purposed "dungeon" maps; a quarter a piece? Maybe $.50 to $1, given that they include some possible ideas/inspiration in the text?

Maybe. They aren't great. If you're interested in WHY they're "not great" (or, as some might say, "terrible") I'd direct you to this recent ggnore podcast (episode 175) for the informed opinion of a group of regular 5E users who bothered to play through most of the adventure (their actual play podcasts...about 12 hours worth...comprise four or five of their earlier episodes).

But I already knew that...I mean I did research the thing before I bought it.

Here's the thing, though: I (me) am not quite ready to say the ideas here are "terrible." Many of the quests presented here (the term used to describe the dozen plus micro adventures that make up the whole of this mini-campaign) aren't anything worse than what I'd come up with for a single session or two at the table. Maybe that says more about me (and my lack of creativity), but not every adventure need be a giant, six level dungeon filled with world-destroying threats nor does every event occurring in a campaign require some sort of clever inter-woven story/plot construction. Sometimes a simple kernel of an encounter can yield hours of entertainment.

The real problem, in my opinion, is more one of execution...that is to say, I'm not the fan of how these quests/adventures are supposed to unfold. And that is mainly a 5E issue rather than a lack of imagination on the part of the author. The Essentials Kit wants to provide an introductory adventure (rid this region of its dragon problem), that's a bit too steep in challenge for a a band of newbie adventurers. So it provides a bunch of "warm-up" adventures that the player characters will need to grind in order to achieve the requisite power level to face the ultimate encounter (the eponymous dragon).

Grind is the operative word here...there is little reward offered in any of the adventures, save for the promised leveling that comes with the completion of the "quests." Players need to seek out and check off every notice on the town's job board in order to achieve the necessary milestones (i.e. "auto-level ups") that will eventually (around 6th level) allow them to face down the dragon. Since treasure means little to the 5E character (most of their best upgrades come from levels not equipment...and gold doesn't earn XP) there's nothing to really motivate characters except what "meta" story you want to give your party.

Hell, even the dragon has bupkis in the way of treasure (whoops! SPOILER). One would imagine that the main incentive for fighting a dragon would be, you know, claiming its hoard or getting showered with gold by a grateful community. Not here! The dragon of Icespire Peak is broke as a joke...it lairs on the roof of a ruined castle, eating the occasional mountain orc that it manages to catch, and has exactly zero as far as a hoard. The grateful villagers? Well, the townmaster "might plan a feast in the heroes honor" (emphasis added by yours truly).

So there's very little reason I can think of for a group of adventurers to hang around an area being threatened by a dragon, let alone take the time to grind a bunch of step-and-fetch/kill adventures for little reward beside the leveling. It reminds me quite a bit of a video game script...but if I wanted to play a video game I'd be doing that. Video games do video games better than tabletop RPGs do.

And just in case anyone's wondering, this isn't a rant...it's just weary observation.

Back to the point: Dragon of Icespire Peak isn't a great adventure, but that's mainly due to 5E not being a great system. Oh, I know folks love 5E and all that (or are resigned to playing it or whatever) but for my money (and I did spend actual money on this thing) you really start to see the warts on the thing when you look at this kind of product. The ggnore boyz say it's the best WotC adventure since Phandelver...but based on some reviews I've read, that may be damning with faint praise.

Still, I do love white dragons. I love them as a feature monster, not just some knightly mount or frost giant pet. I think they do make a good antagonist for a party of low level adventurers: a sizable (though not insurmountable) risk to balance against a presumably rich reward. That IS what Dungeons & Dragons is supposed to be about after all, right? You defeat the dragon, you divvy up the spoils.

What I'd like to do...now...is rewrite the adventure. Make it a little more "old school friendly;" something with a B/X (or even AD&D) sensibility. File off the serial numbers, prune the edges, maybe slap an OGL on it and sell the PDF for a couple bucks. Try my best to make the thing a bit more useable as a campaign jumpstart.

Would anyone have any objections to me giving it a go?


My favorite white dragon pic.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Vanilla DM


I have a tearful confession to make. I have all but abandoned my "grand plans" to run a D&D campaign set in the post-Columbian South America. I am, perhaps, being overly sensitive to the historical (and continued) atrocities perpetrated on the indigenous people and resources of the region; however, if anything I'd chalk up my resistance to laziness, seeing as how the sheer effort to create an adventure-worthy setting that neither disrespects nor ignores the actors of history feels like more than I'm willing to tackle.

Here's part of the deal: I'm 45, folks. I might incorporate aspects of Mayan or Incan or Aztec or European culture in my campaign, but I don't want to bother devising and adapting whole new systems that take into account the complex pre-hispanic cultures and crafts...things like advanced technology despite a written language (necessitating swaths of re-modeling for spell-casting), cloth armor and the effects of terrain and climate, manners of advancing in a way that doesn't require treasure-hunting (for the cultures that don't value gold in the same way as Europeans)...or that allow portage with the lack of beasts of burden or development of the wheel (without the need to harness slave labor).

Besides which, the more I delve into AD&D and its rules and systems, the more I find myself wanting to run something closer to the pulp S&S source material. There are fantasy game systems that have done a good job of modeling the pre-Renaissance world (at least in Europe)...Chivalry & Sorcery (1e) springs immediately to mind, though I've owned, and played, others. But while other, brighter minds than mine (like Alexis) have managed to shoehorn elves and dwarves and half-orcs into an historical Earth-based setting, I don't want to do that. I don't want a "real world" setting that has infravision, psionics, clerical spells, or "giant-class" creatures inserted into it. Yes, you can do it without creating a whole "alternate history" for planet Earth...but why would you? I assert that a world with dragons and Drow (let alone mind flayers and aboleths!) would completely and radically change the structure of human history as we know it. You can disagree. But if I can't suspend my own disbelief on the subject, how the heck can I expect to create a game or an experience where my players can?

I don't think I can. Not in a sincere fashion.

Consequently, I find myself wanting to run a game in a setting akin to the ones found in fantasy literature: the same fantasy literature that provided inspiration for the writers of the game. Maybe not Lovecraft or Vance, but certainly Leiber and Moorcock. Some kind of cross between Howard and King Arthur...less Tolkien in scope, more Bradley-type weirdness. With at least a sprinkle of Robert Asprin mixed in.

I know some folks will be a little disappointed by this turn of events. Truth be told, I'm a little disappointed myself, though probably not as much. After all, it's not like I can't (at a future date) drop the PCs through some sort of magical portal that drops them into 16th century South America. Have their sailing ship cross an inter-dimensional curtain and end up broadside of a Spanish galleon, or enter a pyramid in some lost fantasy jungle and end up exiting the Tower of the Sorcerer in Uxmal. Starting with "vanilla fantasy" may be a lot less ambitious, but it's utilitarian, and it provides a lot of possibilities that aren't necessarily present with a setting grounded in real world history and geography.

Plus, it's recognizable. I agree with much of what Anthony Huso writes with regard to using banal fantasy tropes as a starting point. It allows easy entry and buy-in to the players. I am absolutely certain there are plenty of individuals who would LOVE to play in a fantasy Latin America, especially one that is thoughtful, well developed, and semi-authentic/accurate. That being said, there are many, many, many players (including an awful lot of the ones who want to play in the setting) who are absolutely UNinterested in learning the ins and outs of the historical cultures that we'd be playing in...at least prior to play. Most folks (I think) would prefer to have information about the setting unfold in-play over time...the way we're used to learning information about most fantasy settings (in literature and celluloid).

Consider, for example, Tolkien. The Hobbit introduces us to the Shire then the background of the Lonely Mountain dwarves then Elrond and Rivendell then Mirkwood (with rumors of "the Necromancer") - all gradually unfolding background. The Lord of the Rings introduces more history, more geography, more cultures...and not all in the first book (neither Rohan and Gondor, for example, appear till the second book of the trilogy, and Mordor not till the final book). Even then, the events of the prior two ages are only hinted at in any of Tolkien's first four novels, and it's not until the Silmarillion that we even hear the name Illuvatar or the story of Feanor, etc.

Consider, as a different example, the television series Game of Thrones. Even in the first season, we are introduced to very few places and a very small section of Martin's world. We have King's Landing and its politics, the North and its Old Religion, the Wall and the Night Watch, and a bit about the eastern lands (whatever it's called) following the trials and tribulations of the Targaryan girl among the Dothraki plains folk. But huge and important aspects of the setting don't even come into the story until later seasons: the Army of the Dead? the slaver nations? Highgarden? Dorn? The Faceless Men and the Maesters of Old Town and the Three-Eyed Raven? The setting, its geography, history, and cosmology are all revealed over time, as needed.

With a fantasy setting you can do this...you can have only the haziest of outlines, the roughest of sketches, and crystalize things (as necessary) to fit the needs of the campaign as situations arise and adventures happen. The DM is making stuff up, after all. I suppose it's possible to do this with a historical setting, but it requires much more up front work from the DM (unless the DM is already versed in the history and geography of the setting). I suppose I could do this, given the knowledge, notes, and information I've already acquired...I could do it...

But, again, if you (like me) want to incorporate the weirdness of D&D fantasy into your game (aboleths and elves) AND they're not naturally occurring parts of the setting (as they don't in South America), then you need something more open and vanilla-bland to start. At least, I do.

Just so folks know.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Building An Advanced Combat System

Things are feeling "back to normal" this morning. Kids are in school, wife's in the office, the Seahawks look good, the Raiders look like a dumpster fire. And I'm drinking coffee at the Baranof and researching stupid shit like military picks and flails.

Ah, yes...September.

I'll come right to the point: I have become fascinated over the last few days with the AD&D combat system. After reading Anthony Huso's posts on the subject multiple times, going over the actual AD&D rulebooks, and then re-reading Huso...

I kind of love it. Hell, I do love it...I kind of want it. Something like it, for sure.

I'll get to the why in a second. First I want to talk about my own AD&D experience. When I ran AD&D in my youth (from around age 11 to 16? 17? something like that), I did my best to run the game as written. Casting time and spell components? Check. Weapon speed factor and hit adjustment versus armor type? Check. Potion miscibility, psionics, wandering harlots? Yes, the whole nine yards. Did I screw up? Yes, sure, often. Did I get better at it over the years? Yes, absolutely...I did not make myself handy spread sheets, but much of the more fiddly combat tables were on my DM screens, and other rules were easily memorized (like helmet rules) or looked up the once in a while they came up (like a character who used two weapons instead of one).

In-game we played relatively fast and loose with things like encumbrance...calculations for weight carried was done and noted between sessions not during play (so as not to grind action to a halt). Arrow counts were diligent, but we were haphazard with ration consumption. Rather than tracking light source durations, we were usually adventuring in broad daylight (low level characters spent a lot of time wandering the countryside) or were assumed (civilized subterranean races) or magically mitigated (continual light spells, etc.). Item saving throws were used when remembered and deemed applicable.

Was it crunchy? Sure. Was it tough to do? Not really. Most of the burden of crunch was on ME, as the DM...and to be perfectly honest, following the Rules As Written was probably of importance only to me. And mainly because it allowed me to be a better, more impartial arbiter of the game.

I was not thinking in terms of what the system modeled or how rules were justified. I was not worried about offering players meaningful choices or adding challenge to the game. I wasn't concerned with that kind of thing, no more than I was concerned with writing "story arcs," or worrying about plots and pacing. I simply wanted to run the game by the instruction manual. That was plenty fun. When I stopped running AD&D, sometime in my teens, it wasn't because I was tired of the system or its complexity. It was instead due to a shift in interest, a change in social circle, and the appearance of other games that sparked my passion (like Vampire or Rifts or Stormbringer). If I had gone to high school and college with the same friends I had in middle school, I might well have continued playing AD&D.

How strange and different my life might be today. I've changed, grown, and evolved a lot since the age of 15...and from when I was 25. And from when I was 35.

So what's the appeal of an "advanced" combat system now? Why move away from a B/X system that works so well? Why move back from the ten second combat round where everyone gets one "go" to a one minute combat round filled with segments and mishmash? Why move from a system with such a nice little economy of modeling reality in the abstract?

Because of those things that I didn't care about in my youth: Challenging players. Offering players  meaningful choices. Modeling a certain type of messy...and yet heroic...reality.

The fighter class is the simplest option available to the players. It is the easiest class to learn: there are no spells, no skills, no special rules. There are no limitations to the armor or weapons the class can learn, the equipment that can be carried. For the novice player, it is an excellent choice for a first character...just to learn the game (with a decent chance of survival).

And yet, even for experienced players it's a highly practical and useful class to have in the party. The ability to hit more often, inflict more damage, absorb more blows (that might otherwise kill a comrade) is immensely important to an adventuring party...and, yet, on the surface it seems to be a "boring" choice to the experienced player. Where are the cool special abilities of the ranger or paladin? The spells of the cleric or wizard? The skills and stealth of the thief? Where are the meaningful choices for the character, without resorting to a list of "feats" (i.e. martial-type spells)? It's just wade-into-combat-and-swing-sword, right?

But with an advanced system, choice reappears for the class. Choice of weapon (for speed, reach, encumbrance, and hit bonus) becomes important. Using the right weapon for the right circumstance becomes important. Weapon proficiencies become a precious commodity. All of a sudden, combat becomes a more interesting strategic and tactical exercise for ALL players...and the fighter, with her additional choices, becomes the expert at combat. I really, really like that.

And with the one minute combat round, and the addition of "fiddly" rules like segments and casting times, you start being able to model things you can't in the B/X ten second round. Like spell-casting variants based on the power/type of a spell. Power word kill isn't just devastating because of its ability to snuff an opponent...it has a one segment casting time as the wizard slays with but a single potent word of magic (compare that to the 6 segment disintegrate or death spells). Wizards have to choose between using a long-winded incantation or something short-and-sweet that has less danger of being interrupted. Dexterity bonuses to AC aren't counted for spell-casters in combat...this models a mage needing to focus and concentrate, not act like some Doctor Strange superhero, dodging and shooting lasers from his fingers. This I really like, too.

An advanced system gives real guidelines as to how movement, attacks, and spells interact. And the one minute round allows for extra actions to take place in a single "go;" drawing or sheathing a weapon, finding a potion to quaff, attempting some sort of maneuver or fancy footwork in addition to making a standard attack. I like the idea of giving players this kind of freedom, and I really like Huso's concept of initiative dice doing "double duty," establishing quality at the same time they do duty in binary fashion. A tied dice roll happens one-time-in-six...rather than see that as a simple simultaneous strike, we get to see this as "there's a one-in-six chance of something SPECIAL happening every round." A chance that speed factor and bonus attacks might come into play. Without throwing a third die.

That's pretty awesome.

There are things that Huso does that I'm not terribly interested in: he's incorporated MOST of the 1st edition rules, and I'm inclined to ignore the vast majority of the Unearthed Arcana, for example. Other things he does...like only using weapon vs. armor adjustments for player characters, not NPCs...I will totally steal. Huso's already tested his house rules (over years) and found them to be of practical value.

[I've used rules like comeliness extensively in the past...I have no need to go back to that]

But I think I'm still going to start on a smaller scale than full on 1st edition. Do I need 15 types of pole arm? Probably not. How about splinted armor? Maybe? Like Alexis, I'll probably reduce the total number of weapons available in the campaign to something that seems reasonable based on the setting (Mr. Smolensk has also customized his AD&D rules over years of play-testing and has several systems worthy of theft). I am tempted to go back to CHAINMAIL and Supplement I (Greyhawk) for the specific rules with relation to weapon adjustments.

But one minute combat rounds? With segments? Yeah, I think I'm doing it. It's not that hard to get into...I've done it before. And I was a lot less smart back in those days.
: )


Wednesday, September 4, 2019

My DragonFlight Adventures

I know I said I'd post about my DragonFlight sessions, but it's been a busy couple weeks (kids starting school, managing three different soccer teams, last minute road trips, etc.). So before the memory fades too much, I'll jot down some things that stand out, minus any ennui. For the first time ever, I went to the convention with no expectation of running a game, and I played zero indie/story games, instead focusing squarely on Dungeons & Dragons:


Session #1: Captain Zhudo & The Last Crown of Atlantis (B/X)

DM: Scott

My Character: a chaotic fighter with 18 strength and a big axe.

Quick Take: One thing that I noticed right from the sign ups was that there were a lot of common players scheduled for all four games I would be attending. It wouldn't be until my final session that I'd find out that many of these players attend a regular old school game up at Around the Table Games. So a lot of these guys were buddies since long before DragonCon.

I know I wrote that I was going to take a less blood-thirsty approach to the con games, but the beefy axe-guy (a pre-gen) was too hard to pass up.

Much hilarity and blood-letting ensued as we looted our way into the ruined Atlantean settlement...mostly our own blood owing to some invisible stalker mischief. In the end, we went through a teleporter that beamed us to the lair of "the big bad" and while I was discussing strategy with our party cleric, a pair of fireballs from our wizards/elves wiped out all the monsters in a single round. Yay, initiative FTW. It seemed very easy...no party deaths occurred.

After the con, I would discover that the adventure was, in fact, an existing OSR adventure written by our DM (though I believe it may have been written specifically for Labyrinth Lord).

Funny Anecdote: Early on in the session I got the "uh-oh-serial-killer" eyeball from my fellow players for "going too dark" (I believe it was the dismembering of one recalcitrant captive in order to compel the other to act as our guide to the lost city) but, well, these were bushwhacking goat men we were dealing with and things needed expediting.


Session #2: The Masks of Lankhmar (B/X)

DM: Travis

My Character: a female "acrobat" (thief)

Quick Take: Another adventure that I learned (after the con) was pre-published, this one for DCC, converted to B/X. Because it took place in Leiber's Lankhmar, the pre-gens were setting appropriate (no clerics, more than half the party consisted of thieves, magic-users had pretty light magic). The DM used a twist on AD&D2 thief rules when setting thief skill percentages (so my character was really good at climbing, while another was our trap expert, etc.). He also included a "heroic luck" mechanic that I found to be less-than-stellar in practice, but was still kind of neat in that it encouraged us to try more risky maneuvers.

For the life of me, I can't remember how the session ended...oh, wait, now I do (floating masks in an abandoned temple). I liked this adventure quite a bit, as it had a real "sword & sorcery" feel...reminded me of the stuff I used to run with first edition Stormbringer, but more supernatural and less alien/extra-dimensional. Having a party consisting mostly of thieves (with a sprinkle of lightly armored sell-swords) helped immensely. That being said, I found the adventure again to be way too easy (no one died despite the absence of healing magic; damage was d3s and d4s), and there was a lot of "roll under ability score" mechanics that made accomplishing tasks waaaay too simple (when you have a character with a 17 dexterity and know something's a DEX check). I'll stand by my earlier assertions that these need to be cut out of the game.

Funny Anecdote: Jokingly asked if I was going to play my character "suicidal" again (based on my actions in the earlier session of prompting folks to follow me through an unknown teleportation device), by the end of the session I had been nominated by at least one player as the "MVP" for braving a fire trap to recover the loot we were after. I later had to escape through said-wall of fire with a bag over my head. Again, my character survived the entire session (as a 1st level thief!). Chalk it up to the double gin-and-tonics.


Session #3: Beneath the Ruined Tower of Zenopus (Holmes Basic)

[if you check out the photos in the link, I was to the left of the guy with the green thermos. You can't see it, but my beer glass was emptied rather early on]

DM: Andy

My Character: a first level magic-user

Quick Take: This was my first time playing the Holmes edition of basic, something I really wanted to do (and a nice way to fend off any leftover ennui from the night before). This was an expansion of the adventure found in the Holmes rulebook, but it wasn't anything I was familiar with. Andy played mostly BTB (except for trading out some of the wonky combat stuff...my character did not strike twice/round with a dagger, for example). The DEX-based combat went very well, and added an extra level of tension as each monsters' DEX was diced for at the start of an encounter (when the 16 DEX orcs showed up, we knew we were in trouble!).

Since this was a con game, the acquisition of treasure was actually a secondary consideration for us despite, ostensibly, that being our characters' goals (in the earlier sessions we had some specific objectives of play). The "for reals" goal was exploration and survival...could we navigate the labyrinth beneath the town, pick up some bling, and make it back alive? And in this, I think I chose a very challenging character.

We created our characters at the table (3d6 rolls in order), and it just so happened that I rolled up the stats to play a magic-user. Poor rolling for "spells known" precluded me from taking the usual spells of sleep, charm person, or magic-missile (or even read magic!), but I was satisfied with protection from evil, which I used to ward myself against possible undead in the first crypt we had the chance to desecrate.

While I would not go so far as to say Zenopus was exceptionally easy, it's a fact that only one PC died during the session (see below). However, I'd say that death for our fragile characters was mostly mitigated by good game play (we were very much on our toes during the game), and partly through sheer strength of numbers: it's harder to kill PCs when you have a large party (we had eight plus two NPCs) and can rotate bodies in and out of the marching order. We actually found a respectable amount of treasure; definitely enough to encourage further exploration.

Funny Anecdote: The one character death that occurred was my PC, at the very end of the game. The crypt room (where I used my one and only spell) occurred near the very beginning of the adventure, so for most of the four-hour session my character had neither spell, nor armor. What's more, I was injured early on in the game as well (hit by an arrow? maybe) and spent nearly the entire time adventuring with 1 hit point.

Did that mean I was huddled up in the middle of the party doing nothing? Of course not! When we were ambushed by orcs, I spoke to them in their same language and tried to bluff them into letting us pass. When there were trap doors in ceilings, I was the first up the ladder. When we found some sort of venomous gorilla straining at the bars of its cage, I'm the one who splashed oil on the damned thing and set it on fire.

My character survived the entire scope of the adventure. I was killed by another player at the table, in a fit of PVP violence, as we were leaving the flaming tower, loot in hand. He attacked my AC 9 character from behind, apparently piqued by my setting the place alight as we were making our escape (I assumed we should leave no evidence of having despoiled the place). It was more of an epilogue to the session than an actual part of the adventure.


Session #4: The Castle That Fell From The Sky (B/X)

DM: Scott (again)

My Character: a cleric of Odin

Quick Take: Yes, I ended up playing four different character types over the weekend, none of whom were demihumans. This was yet another pre-published adventure that I'm not familiar with...it had kind of Krull-crossed-with-White Plume Mountain vibe to it. It was also exceptionally loooong...we did not reach the game's objective goal (getting through only about one-third the thing). Of all the adventures I played, it had (probably) the most challenging encounters...we even saw an actual PC death!...but it probably evoked the most listless performance from myself of any of the sessions. Maybe it was fatigue (on my part), but I just couldn't get up for it like I had with earlier games.

One thing The Castle That Fell lacked was any connection to an implied setting. Here's this thing: go explore it. Oh, you're trapped, find your way out. So what? Boring. Even though the earlier adventures were still "con games" (i.e. one-offs and not a part of any on-going campaign) there were cities/towns involved...a sense of place. When our caravan was ambushed by goat men on the road to whatever-whatever, there was still this place (whatever-whatever) that we had been attempting to get to...we almost continued on anyway (after dispatching/dismembering goat men) to stock up on supplies and whatnot before we realized (meta- like) that O Wait, this is a con game, and we're just supposed to follow the goat men's back trail into the jungle. Lankhmar is a place...with themes and concepts and history and its own weird culture. Portown is likewise a place...it was our following of rumors that led us to the secret entrance of the place in some woman's root cellar; when we were making our escape, it was with the knowledge that we would be fencing our loot somewhere in the town...some place we probably lived and resided.

Just working with set-piece challenges (giant hypnotic albino snakes, huge lurking spiders in mirror-crystal caverns) isn't enough to get my blood churning. It isn't enough to evoke a sense of wonder...at least not when it occurs in a vacuum. It's not that I've "outgrown" dungeons or that I need my dungeons to "make sense." It's just that there has to be some sort of larger consequence or reward for my actions; that my actions need to matter (even in the most paltry fictional way) to the setting. That I'm not just playing a board game or some app I've downloaded on my phone. There are already apps for that.

Funny Anecdote: I've got two for this session. First one goes like this: we thought we had too many people at the table (I'd actually been on a waiting list) so when the last two folks arrived, the DM thought we were waiting for two others and (gently) turned them away. Upon discovering that those guys were the ones we were waiting for (the couple we thought we were waiting for hadn't signed up for the session), one player commented that "they sure were quick to leave" (rather than staying and explaining they were signed up for the game). And the DM said, "Yeah, and the funny thing is, one of those guys was that dude who writes the B/X Blackrazor blog!" Of course, I then had to explain no that's me...the same guy they'd been gaming with for two days.

The other funny thing: the same guy who backstabbed my character in session #3? At one point his character was in danger of dying (the reason is a too-long story about hypnotic toads, armored dwarves, and boggy swamps), and the only PC in any position to save him was my own. And I did, solo and unprompted (possibly to the surprise of some people at the table...). Sometimes, you just have to break that karmic wheel.
; )

Sunday, September 1, 2019

O Canada

Currently typing from a darkened hotel room in Victoria, British Columbia as my family rests up from the rather long day we had yesterday. Yes, it's morning, but the kids aren't used to waking at 5am just to bust ass up to the ferry terminal in Anacortes. Then (because the only cheap hotel room we could find on short notice is in some sort of fancy golf resort) the boy and I hit a couple hundred balls on the driving range before hitting the pool for a couple hours. Absolute exhaustion set in before 10pm (early for my kids).

I, on the other hand, was up before 7 this morning...but then, eight hours of sleep is a lot more than I'm used to, and that was after a two hour nap yesterday evening (I'm not much of a pool guy). So, while my family sleeps the morning away, I get a little "me time" with the laptop and the self-serve hotel coffee (not sure why the Starbucks roast tastes better in those little machines than it does in an actual Starbucks...one of life's great mysteries).

I do like this part of the world. It's cooler than Seattle, but not uncomfortably so. I find the grey sky to be quite pleasant. It's very "Pacific Northwest"...it reminds me quite a bit of Port Angeles (where my father is from) and that isn't surprising given the proximity of Vancouver Island to the Olympic Peninsula. I haven't been here since I was a small child: I remember playing with Bozo the Clown playing cards on the floor of the ferry ride over. Damn, that was a long time ago (I'd never yet heard of Dungeons & Dragons).

Saw a pod of orcas yesterday, being pursued by two packed boats of "whale watchers." The ferry captain, bless her heart, stopped the boat so we could gawk, too. Truly majestic animals. Never remember seeing them before in the wild.

(*later*)

Another beautiful morning. 8:45 now (though I've been up since 8); kids still sleeping however (wife is in the shower). Spent yesterday in downtown Victoria, mainly at the harbor (excuse me, "harbour") front and the Royal BC Museum. Idiot American that I am, I had no idea that Victoria was the capitol of B.C. until I saw the provincial legislature building. What a vibrant city this is. Yes, it's a bit touristy, but not in the way of say San Francisco. I think it benefits immensely from being tucked up here on Vancouver Island, hard-to-reach except by those in the know. Plus, better seafood than I've found in most parts of the world (still prefer Seattle)...I'd like to come back when the shellfish season is in full swing.

I'll be a little sad to leave this burg.

I know it's semi-fashionable for lefty Americans like myself to talk about "moving to Canada" whenever a Bush or Trump type gets elected to office. I've never seriously contemplated emigrating myself...fortunate as I am to live in Seattle, many of the woes that plague other parts of the country don't have nearly the same impact. What's more, I've lived outside the United States...I appreciate how good we really have it (compared to most parts of the world).

Still coastal B.C. is pretty nice. And I'd very much like to return to this town some day.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

System Shock

Anthony Huso of The Blue Bard writes the following with regard to the rules for system shock:

"The PHB calls out system shock: ANY TIME the character is affected by unnatural/magical aging (or) petrification (or) polymorph, they must make a system shock roll or die. Harsh but vital. Haste and Potions of Speed force the fighter to run this risk. So does Resurrection and Wish. Without this check to powerful magics the campaign becomes a world where everyone is always hasted and magic-users are altering the fabric of the planet without consequence. Use it unrelentingly."

Anthony also relates an amusing anecdote about a 16th level NPC cleric, being convinced to resurrect the party's 6th level magic-user, fails his system shock roll for mandatory aging, thus depriving the party of their source of easy healing.

System shock, originally called "Probability of Surviving Spells," has been around since Supplement I: Greyhawk (1976)...that is to say, since nearly the very beginning of the hobby (for a point of reference, Greyhawk is also the supplement that introduces the thief class to the D&D game). The mechanic is very little changed between OD&D and AD&D save that the percentage chance of survival has been granulated for each individual point of constitution from 3 to 18. The original table condensed the numbers as follows:

Constitution 3-6:   35%
Constitution 7-10:   55%
Constitution 11-12:   80%
Constitution 13-14:   90%
Constitution 15:   95%
Constitution 16:   98%
Constitution 17:   99%
Constitution 18:   100%

None of the "basic" editions of the game (Holmes, B/X, BECMI) make use of system shock, and I'm not sure that's to the good of a better game. One of the knocks against all versions of basic D&D is its tendency to devolve to more superheroic fantasy with the acquisition of readily utilized, high level magic. Parties that can haste themselves with impunity, polymorph their henchmen into dragons, and raise dead with nary a concern make for nigh unstoppable forces in a campaign world, untroubled...and unchallenged...by the usual dangers and detriments of the game world.

Utilizing system shock, "unrelentingly" as Huso suggests, is a great way to make such high level magics feel a bit more dangerous to the user...a double-edged sword, certainly worth the risk in many cases, but still risky. And it's such an easy rule to implement: players write down their percentage on the character sheet (based on an ability that rarely changes), and whenever the character makes use of a risky action, the DM simply requests "Check system shock, please."

No fuss, no muss. It adds to depth of play, as players have an additional tactical decision to make, without adding a significant amount of procedural time. It extends the challenge of play past mid-levels. And it models a bit of fantasy literature with spell-casters displaying reluctance at the casual use of high powered magic.  For me, that's a win-win-win.

Shocking.
I've been thinking about this a lot over the last few days (in addition to other things), and I can see reason NOT not to add system shock to my table games...regardless of whether or not I begin to play AD&D again. Even with B/X...a fixed-up version of OD&D...it's an easy matter to adapt the Greyhawk rules to an "advanced" version of Moldvay, perhaps changing the break-points to line-up with the ability adjustment tables found in the rulebook. I’ll be the first to admit that I probably didn’t use “system shock” enough back in my AD&D days (although I DID use it...) but I definitely won’t be as lax about it in the future!

Happy Wednesday, folks.
: )

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Going (Not Growing) Old

My wife's been out-of-town the last few days and I've taken the opportunity to show my kids a bunch of films they've never seen: The Secret of NIMH, The Wizard of Oz, and The Dark Crystal. I started showing them The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957), but the blank-verse used in the dialogue proved very distracting and weird for them.

These are some of the "kids films" of my youth; films of fantasy and death and subtle humor. They weren't rated PG-13 for bad language and excessive explosions. They weren't filled with especially silly or crude humor. The concepts being discussed weren't especially shallow repeats of morality that most grade schoolers already know by heart; and they're fraught with tough choices and hard life lessons.

Look at the opening scenes to The Wizard of Oz. Almira Gulch comes and takes away Dorothy's dog, ostensibly to have it destroyed by the sheriff for biting her. This is not some twirling mustachioed villain who the audience knows will get her comeuppance for being under-handed; this is a woman with a mean streak, a legal claim, and the influence (due to owning "half the county") to exercise her will. The Gale family has no choice but to give in to her demands; what's more she's RIGHT...the dog did bite her, Dorothy admits her own fault in the matter, and the girl is now forced to face the CONSEQUENCES of her negligence. That's a tough lesson to learn, but it's true to life, too.

Contrast this with, say, Moana, where her disobedience suffers no consequences but is instead rewarded. We celebrate her courage and adventurous spirit, even while giving her no real choice of action (what, she can stay on the island till everyone dies of starvation?).

I know, I know...that's all apples to oranges. And anyway, I'm not trying to fire up another rant about how everything sucks now and why can't we go back to the "good ol' days" (whippersnappers!). Really! MY POINT (such as it is), is that I wanted to share some of the motion picture stories from my formative years with my children, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I still enjoyed them and found in them a depth and complexity I hadn't really expected...mainly because they don't seem to make movies like that anymore.

[yes, yes...there are still good children's movies being made, even of the "dark fantasy" variety: the Maleficent film of 2014 comes to mind, though I didn't find it especially subtle. 2008's WALL-E was also better than most, though perhaps overly slapstick]

My wife sometimes gives me grief for wanting to "re-watch old movies," and often becomes hesitant when I want to show the kids something that they have the slightest trepidation about being "creepy" or "scary." That's why I took the chance of her being gone to screen these films...I didn't want her to add to the trepidation or (worse) give in to the children's complaints. "We don't want to watch that! Can't we just watch Incredibles 2 or Lego Ninjago (for the fiftieth time)?" No, dammit! Getting Diego to watch The Dark Crystal was like pulling teeth, and he spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to convince his sister that it was too scary for her, based on his nervousness of the Skeksis.

Of course, they ended up loving all the films (and wanting to re-watch them) and telling mama on the phone later how they'd watched all these great movies and now she needed to see them, too. Sometimes, I guess, papa is right about this kind of shit and maybe one day they'll come to trust his judgment from the get go. Maybe. And maybe there's something to "old stuff" that's actually kind of cool and not-so-terrible after all.

Which, of course, is all preamble to talking about AD&D. One of my readers (Grodog) hipped me to Anthony Huso and his blog, The Blue Bard. Mr. Huso appears to be a much more accomplished, creative, and interesting person than myself. However, that alone does not inspire nearly the envy in my heart that his gaming does: the guy is a dedicated and devoted adherent to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition).

And it's not just "lip-service AD&D;" apparently a man after my own heart, Anthony attempts to run run AD&D as By The Book as possible...and he's having a great time doing it. His story is pretty damn amazing: he jumped back into gaming in 2014 with Pathfinder. After playing it for eight months and finding that "It sucks balls" he forced his group to adopt the original AD&D system, costing him one player while gaining two new ones. They've been playing it bi-weekly ever since, and loving the hell out of it.

In order to run AD&D as written...something that even Gygax was purported NOT to do...Huso studied his ass off learning and memorizing the texts (the DMG and PHB) and then went about creating his own spreadsheets and DM screens to enable him to run the game with little fuss and muss. He's brought little to the game in terms of "house rules:" slightly changing movement value per segment in order to enable easier miniature use, simplifying weapon vs. armor adjustments to not be armor dependent, reducing spell components to their simple cost in gold (as a resource expenditure), and slowing down psionic combat (so that PCs don't get gaffled by psi-monsters out-o-hand) seem to be his main changes.  Most everything else he runs RAW.

And running the game RAW he finds it preserves the integrity and (system) economy of the game, allowing for a deeper experience with meaningful character choices and dramatic, enjoyable gameplay.

That's fantastic. Hell, it's inspiring. I'm always...mm, disappointed? Disgruntled?...when I read or hear  some player or blogger who purports to run and prefer AD&D but can't be bothered to learn and/or utilize its inherent systems. Jeez...my group was doing that back when we were 12 and 13 years old, and we didn't even have computers in those days (certainly not ones you could take to the table). Yes, we'd make mistakes...or find some previously overlooked bit of minutia scattered through the pages of the rulebooks...and then learn from those mistakes and incorporate that minutia.

I've been playing B/X the last many years (in part) because I wasn't interested in dealing with the crunch of AD&D, not because I couldn't or didn't have the ability to do so.

Anyway, his blog posts on the subject of AD&D are worth a read for those interested in that particular edition...I've already taken the time to read most of them more than once. As I consider how to best "advance" my own gaming agenda, I have a feeling I'll be using The Blue Bard as a reference and example of some of the possibilities of a truly old method of play.