Monday, September 13, 2010

The Tao of Steve (part 1)

Steve is one of my best friends.

For whatever reason we’ve had something of a bond ever since we first met a couple decades ago. I say “for whatever reason” as we are different in a LOT of ways. In the past I was always “slim and trim” (something my wife would like me to get back to) while Steve was always a big meaty guy…these days Steve is still big but he’s a LOT slimmer (eating healthier, quit drinking, bicycles a lot). Our interests are also quite different: Steve-O enjoys the great outdoors (hiking, biking, etc.) while I am definitely an indoor cat (I put in my years as a Boy Scout in the Pacific Northwest when I was a kid…I prefer rain on my windows, not on my tent). Steve would probably be considered a “granola” if he didn’t have an insane love for cheap, fried chicken.

Other interests we don’t share include: astrology (me), role-playing games (me), fencing (me), Atlantean esoterica (me), beagles (me), marriage, etc. (me), live music shows (Steve), building space craft (Steve), electric bicycles/vehicles (Steve), kit-bashing computers (Steve), networking with folks/meeting new people/having social gatherings (Steve). In general, Steve is probably more progressive and forward-thinking than me (he thought I should try to develop my book into an App for the Droid), whereas I’m more old-fashioned, anachronistic, and interested in the past.

Of course, we do share the same Roman Catholic upbringing, the same liberal politics, the same dark/twisted sense of humor, and the same penchant for obsessive-craziness. We are also extremely tolerant of each other’s various flaws and foibles. Oh, and we both can really tear up the karaoke stage when we get the chance.

But in recent years there’s certainly been a wider gulf between us, mainly due to me being more “settled down” than I used to be. Not that my wife doesn’t love Steve (the three of us were once roommates), but I’ve settled in Greenwood and Steve is still comfortable being a bit of a rolling stone…and living in Mountlake Terrace. No comment on the latter.

So when Steve told me he wanted to get in on the Thursday night D&D game I was a little surprised. Not that Steve hasn’t played role-playing games in the past (in high school, he and I played Rifts together a number of times, and he’s also been a part of Vampire, Amber, and Ars Magica games I’ve run), but the last few years he’s regarded my role-playing interest with the same kind of disdain my brother has…as something I should have grown out of years ago (though Steve-O himself has a compulsive love affair with Sid Meier’s Civilization).

Probably the interest has more to do with the opportunity to hang out with both my brother and I at once. AB has become fairly good friends with Steve the last couple years, mainly due to partying in the same circles. The opportunity to play with BOTH AB and JB is apparently the temptation that broke the camel’s back (I had previously invited Steve to Dragonflight, Sundays at Gary’s, AND the Thursday Night meet-up with ECGF, all to no avail)…he had REALLY wanted to show up to our last game at Baranof’s, but had a roommate’s birthday that needed celebrating.

Friday, he had a free four hour stint between shifts and decided to drop by my house and play.

Since both AB and I were present and interested (we’ve had the D&D “bug” lately, ya’ know?) the game was on…unfortunately I was a bit wiped out from the evening before AND I was a little pressed for time due to having a few errands to run on my day off AND I had nothing prepared. Add to this that I had told AB the night before that I wanted to play-test some of the new character classes (his replacement for Shmutzy was a B/X Bounty Hunter), and start a 1st level campaign…well, it seemed to me a recipe for disaster. Disaster in terms of “oh, this is going to suck and Steve won’t want to play again.”

that didn’t happen.

Steve rolled up a B/X Barbarian (my current version, not the one previously posted to the blog) as a partner to AB’s bounty hunter. The relationship between the two characters: one had been down-and-out and the other had found him and sobered him up…now they were friends. Steve’s barbarian was named Thundarr (of course) and we randomly determined he had no hat, but a very proud Mohawk.

I found more than a bit of eerie similarity between their characters and Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser duo. Thundarr was Lawful in alignment, while Caindong (the bounty hunter) was Neutral. Both had wisdom scores of 7 though higher than average charisma scores. Thundarr’s best ability was strength (16) while Cain’s was Dexterity (13).

I decided I would fall back on my old stand-by: B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. Does this module ever get old? No, not really. You might as well call it a “timeless classic.” I’ve run it for three different groups (and five different parties!) in the last year-and-a-half…as a one-off or multi-session adventure it’s just fine and dandy, and it’s easy to use with pretty much zero prep time.

[and thinking about it just now with regard to my earlier post, if ANY module could make good use of a “random motivation chart,” B2 certainly could…it’s so wide open!]

House rules in effect included:

- All three random tables (Hats, Relationships, Deaths)
- No variable weapon damage (all weapons do D6)
- Two-handed weapons add double their strength bonus to damage (though striking last)
- MY “crit hit” rule (see below)
- MY “cleave” rule (see below)
- My new classes (of course)

The “crit” rule isn’t really a “critical anything”…it’s just something that’s developed over time, in play. Simple enough, when a PLAYER CHARACTER (not a monster) rolls a natural (un-modified) “20” to hit, I simply award maximum damage instead of rolling it. While I agree with Gygax’s sentiment on the whole value of “critical hits” (i.e. very little to possibly negative value) there’re a few reasons I do this:

- First off, everyone gets excited when a natural 20 is rolled: “Pow!” or “Sha-Zam!” is usually the reaction. Giving a slight bonus (maximum damage) makes it that much more special.

- Second (and in contrast), nothing is more frustrating than rolling a natural 20 and then seeing the damage dice come up a “1.”

- I’m not changing the abstract nature of D&D combat by creating a “spectacular hit” and doubling damage (i.e. breaking the rules), I am simply awarding the maximum POSSIBLE damage (it is possible the damage roll would have been a “6” anyway…I’m just making it a certainty).

- The rule doesn’t SLOW combat down (checking “critical threats” or rolling again to “prove the threat”), but actually SPEEDS it up (one less roll to make).

- It’s a set rule, not arbitrary or based on DM fiat (I’ve seen some DMs that make all sorts of wild side rulings based on how one rolls their “to hit” dice…from dropping weapons to getting them stuck in an opponent to doing double damage to knocking down opponent’s or costing them their attack or initiative in the following round). Simple and swift: roll a 20, score max damage.

- I see no reason to apply the same rule to monster attacks. One of Gygax’s issues with the idea that allowing critical hits would give monsters (with their endless, infinite spawning) an advantage against PCs with a random mechanical advantage. The solution: don’t give monsters the advantage. Monsters do NOT operate under the same rules as PCs in B/X. High hit dice monsters can damage creatures only harmed by magic weapons. Monsters use their own Attack Matrix, not based on class. Monsters (generally) don’t have ability scores and have abilities based on type, not level. Critical rolls are thus ONLY available to PC character classes (and perhaps NPCs belonging to an adventurer class).

Okay, while the “natural 20” roll may not be all that controversial, the “cleave” roll might be. When a character embroiled in melee with multiple opponents does more than enough damage to drop a foe, I allow the extra damage to “carry over” to additional opponents. This mainly comes into play when fighting small and weak humanoids. For example, when Meaty swung his hefty war hammer at the two kobolds trying to stick him, a high damage roll was enough to kill both kobolds twice over. Since the “attack roll” does not indicate a single swing but a flurry of blows and maneuvers, I had no compunctions with allowing him to down both “little dog men” with a single roll. It just makes the B/X combat faster and MORE streamlined.

Ugh…I can see already that this is turning into a two-part post. Ah, well. More fodder for the blog-o-sphere.

; )


  1. Nice call, with both rules. I'll certainly use the first, and probably the second, the next time I run LL.

  2. I have a love/hate affair with the critical hit on 20 thing. My natural impulse is indeed to want to celebrate that rare 5 percent chance when you that 20 comes up, but it's been a little rocky in actual play--on both ends. Maybe your rule makes some sense, max damage and only for players (though it kinda takes out some of the bite of the dice don't lie philosophy of my own campaign).

  3. @ ck: Not sure how it takes away from "dice don't lie." Consistency is important...20 always scores max damage. But I hit players enough with my normal monsters that I don't feel bad giving 'em a little tasty "gift" every now and then (you'll note from my recent game posts that it hasn't helped the players all that much).

    @ Shimrod: thanks...they haven;t broken my game yet.
    : )