Tuesday, May 31, 2011

ANOTHER Poll? Maybe...

All right, the looooooong weekend for me officially ends tomorrow morning when I move the garbage cans to the curb and head out to work. Ah, man...after being off since Thursday, I can't help but feel I'm NOT looking forward to being back at a desk. There are babies to play with and beagles to walk and sunshine to enjoy right here at home! Not to mention, blogs to write...

And WHEN the work week begins, my time to write will once again be limited. I have several possible topics of bloggersation to write about, possibly even a series or two, but who knows what I'll get to. I'm tempted to let the readership make the decision for me.

Here are some of the possible thoughts rattling around my skull:
  • Iceland/Viking role-playing. We really, REALLY need more of this. Yes, it is very "white" of me to get all Nordic, but sometimes I just can't help it. After hitting up the Seattle Folklife Festival (twice!) this year I'm feeling like going a-viking.
  • Celtic/pagan role-playing...for similar reasons as the Iceland thing. However, the emphasis would be on "putting your witches to work," because (as Tim Brannan will tell you) witches are cool.
  • Hating on Rangers: long time readers will notice that I've never blogged about rangers, except perhaps for an off-hand remark or two. There's a reason for this: they are a dumb class. I can write all about it for those who didn't read my recent thoughtfulness at Dragonsfoot.
  • Re-writing magic-users: and making them more "sorcerous." I have recently decided there are some things I find exceptionally challenging and B/X spell books are one of 'em. I'm not sure if I need to throw one more class into my already-getting-overlarge-supplement or if I should just write-up a freebie for the blog. Possibly the latter, you lucky ducks. Based on my recent re-readings of MZB sword-and-sorcery tales.
  • Start my own adventure creation challenge: based on this damn statue in Tim's yard. I can't tell you when a piece of lawn art last inspired me this much. Um, maybe never. More innocuous animal statues should be this demented.
  • Do some sort of Top Ten List on B/X monsters: either my personal favorites, the best up-front player killers, or the most insidious player-killers. Yes, there is sure to be some over-lap in all three of these categories. Yes, I will provide reasons for all my various choices.
  • More B/X conversions of His Dark Materials: because once you stat up armored bears, where does one stop?

So there they are, all the ideas I've got so far...notice there are far too many for one short week, even blogging through all my lunch breaks. I suppose a poll isn't REALLY the best method for determining what one should write about (it's my blog, after all!)...but I AM open to reader requests and input. What do YOU folks want to read about this week?

; )

Reflections on a Lazy Day Off...

...just catching up on some "stuff" (like blogs and forums and chores around the house). I might also take a nap later.
: )

In reading over yesterday's post, I'm a bit surprised that no one made comment on the fact that my Baranof game has resulted in 40 player character deaths over nine months of play...especially considering that we took several months off during that time frame (due to having a baby or the urge to play Boot Hill or Shadow Run or one-off S1: Tomb of Horrors, whose character kills were NOT counted in the final tally).

That's a whole lot of death. Does anyone else's regular game look like that? Just wondering.

Okay...time to take that nap.

Monday, May 30, 2011

In Memorial...

Are players really traumatized by the deaths of their characters?

I mean, I never really thought they were...but then, perhaps, I've spent a little too much time in the DM's chair to have an adequate perspective on the subject.

For example, it appears Gratuitous Saxon Violence still thinks about the death (and eating) of his fighter at the paws of a grizzly (judging by the comments he makes every time I post something about bears)...and that happened more than a year ago! And every time things start looking grim in our Baranof game, Randy is apt to say, "here comes the manticores," an obvious reference to the death of his first character, Sweet Tito. And, of course, everyone seems to hate goblins (which have been responsible for more character deaths in my games than any other monster...except maybe owlbears).

Ah, well...I suppose it doesn't matter all that much. I mean, if they keep coming to play, any RPG-induced PTSD must be minor right?

In honor of Memorial Day, I hereby commemorate this post to all the poor player characters that have died at the Baranof gaming table. Unfortunately, there are far too many NPC henchmen, hirelings, and random adventurers to list them, too...but those we can bother to remember (on occasion) will be thought of with fondness.

[the list includes only B/X player characters]

AB: Meaty, Shmutzy, Caindong, Lando, Gene, Unnamed Character, Pope, Clownman
Steve-O: Thundarr, Joachim, Jacques
Luke: Hensvik, the Elder Muir, Allster, Kvarkel
Matthew: Gustav, Stump Ryewater, Younger Brother Ryewater
Matt: Unnamed Elf #1
Randy: Sweet Tito (x3), Sexy Kevin, Hickory, Borf the Dwarf, Clem
Josh: Borgnine, Fletcher Jr.
Vince: Sly, Sly Jr.
Heron: Terril, Unnamed Elf #2
Dave: Frezlie, Warwick the bugbear, Milby
Greg: Murillo, Thane, Bono, Edge, Hexmann
Ben: Thwunk

[all "unnamed" characters will killed in a single session during the Goblin Wars campaign when a delve into a goblin warren turned into a total clusterf**k, killing seven of eight PCs. Most of the players erased their old character sheets to make new PCs, preventing me from recording their characters' names for posterity]

Happy Memorial Day, folks!

: )

Sunday, May 29, 2011

B/X Armored Bears

I love bears. I really do.

Not in an "oh, I think I'm a bear and I'm going to party with them all summer long until they eat me" kind of way. I just really appreciate their power and majesty and wish human impact on their continued survival was, well, less. I once saw a pair of polar bears at the zoo in St. Paul, MN in the middle of June and it was one of the most depressing sights I've ever seen. And I've been to Hiroshima and wept at the memorial there!

Anyway, enough of that Lefty gibberish...we're talking D&D after all, where monsters aren't endangered...PCs are! The polar bear is a fierce opponent in any edition of the game, though I've had few opportunities to use them. How badass are polar bears? On average they'll edge an owl bear in one-on-one combat, and those things are vicious. A fighter with a 13 strength wearing plate and shield can kill one in melee...provided he's at least 15th level (9th level with all +1 gear, 7th level with all +2 gear). Not bad for a 6 hit dice monster.

[yes, I realize the AD&D polar bear in the MMII is even beefier with 8+8 hit dice...I play B/X and HD 6 is just fine for me]

Now, there are only a couple things that makes the bear vulnerable to low- and mid- level characters (at least when acting in a coordinated group). One is the bears' weak armor class (AC6 is better than a Normal Human but even a NH can hit it more than one-third the time), and it's low intelligence (which results in a reduced saving throw as the bear is considered an "unintelligent" monster).

Of course, if we were talking about the panserbjorne of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, that would be another story entirely. Intelligent, cunning warriors and dressed in plate armor forged from meteoric "sky iron," these guys are THE brawn of their particular world. Did I mention they live only for battle?

I've written before (or at least I thought I had...couldn't find a post to reference) that I thought the parallel universe world of His Dark Materials would make a great setting for a Basic Role-Playing game (like ElfQuest and Stormbringer). But why horde all the goodness for a system I don't even play? Why not throw the armored bears into my B/X world and watch the PCs run for cover?

Why not indeed?


Armor Class: -1
Hit Dice: 6
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: 2 claws/1 bite
Damage: 1-6/1-6/1-10
No. Appearing: 1 (1-2)
Save As: Fighter 6
Morale: 10
Treasure Type: B
Alignment: Neutral

Armored bears, called panserbjorne, are a race of sentient polar-bears whose opposable thumbs and innate sense of metallurgy allow them to work as exceptional metal-smiths. They are born to battle and fashion for themselves plate armor from meteoric iron (called "sky iron" and found only in their cold northern homeland) which they treat with the same reverence and respect as a samurai does his katana. Armored bears have an exceptional sense of honor and do not give their word lightly; they are a no-nonsense people and can detect deception and illusions quite easily (+4 to saves when applicable). They have the same ability to hug victims for additional (2D8) damage as any bear, if they are able to hit with both paws in a single round.

All armored bears speak their own language as well as the Common tongue of humans. Though generally solitary, the panserbjorne have a king that may call them together in time of war.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Ooo-oo, Witchy Woman...

SO...having a couple martinis in me and a little spare time, I thought I might pen some of my "design notes" regarding my B/X Witch class. After all, I'm not putting any designer's notes in the book and I'm sure some folks are curious about this stuff.

[or not...but as I said, the gin HAS been flowing, ever so gently...]

Now, I've written about witches (in a "where are they?" kind of way) before on this blog, and NO, I've never owned the Dragon magazine that provided a sample witch class. But I'm sure I would have been mainly dissatisfied with it. Not just because I "respect witches" or have known the odd witch or two (I have)...no, I'm sure Dragon, or any TSR/WotC product would have treated the poor beleaguered witch far better than, say, Kevin Siembieda.

No, the reason for my dissatisfaction would center around the way witches would be written to be just another "variant magic-user" like the AD&D illusionist or something.

I hate that.

Not because "I know witches and their magic isn't Vancian." Look, I know guys (and gals) that dress up in armor and beat on each other, but I wouldn't call them the equivalents of "fighters" (really). I understand it's a game and games take liberties and do gamey things. But I hate the intellectual LAZINESS of it.

Clerics are different from magic-users. Why can't witches be different from either of those classes?

Answer: they can be. You just have to figure out a way to do it.

Enter my version of the witch. They've got a big book of spells called their Book of Shadows (a real world term, though you could call it a witch's cookbook or witch's bible if you wanted). They need material components (unlike other B/X spell-casters) which ties them to the natural world/Laws of Sympathy (standard witch stuff). They can collaborate with each other to perform greater magics than they could individually.

That last one was probably the most important. Whether you study real world Wicca or New Age druidism...or, hell, if you watch any cheesy movie/TV show about witches...you see the importance of witches working in groups (or covens). Few there are of the solitary witch...ritual is much more powerful when worked with a circle of the initiated or a couple of close friends. I needed to make a way for NUMBERS to have power...hence the "effective level" based on participating witches, as well as the ability to write/scribe/learn spells of higher level than the witch could individually cast. You may know the theory of doing a big enchantment, but you need a couple buddies to stand at different points of the pentagram to get the ju-ju right.

This has the effect of both balancing the witch (10th level spells! Holy cow!) and making it play different from any other spell-casting class. Whereas magic-users are solitary practitioners, pursuing their own spell research alone, and hoarding their spell books, WITCHES are all about the sisterhood, baby...and the occasional "brother witch" that happens to join the circle. Magic-users are taking individual roads to power...witches can accomplish great things by working in tandem with each other.

To me it's a nice parallel of the male-female difference in peer interaction.

The spell components? Well, I never thought magic-users should have spell components. For Shame! cries the AD&D grognards. "Get over it," says I...magic-users were originally based on Vancian magic...and Vance doesn't use spell components. Gygax's inclusion of spell components in AD&D is (I believe) his attempt at slowing down the too rapidly escalating power of the high level magic-user. Game balance be damned anyway.

But for the witch...when ISN'T a witch looking for "eye of newt" or "fat from an un-baptized baby" to make some potion or work some spell. Tea leaves and entrails and wands and salt and sand and crystals and "voodoo dolls"...these are just some of the many ingredients used by witches in their craftwork. Witchcraft is (traditionally speaking) "magic of the hearth;" these magical wise-women are cooks, and they're baking up hexes and love potions and all sorts of goodies with their ingredients. Tying them to spell components ties them to the natural world (witches use sympathies to cause supernatural effect on nature)...plus it puts a very real limit on just how many spells they can sling.

Not that they're slinging all that many on an adventure. Craftwork takes time: brewing a potion or working up a charm to give one back their youth takes time...and the more powerful the spell, the longer and more complicated the ritual. Aside from the expenditure of money on material components (which can be offset somewhat by harvesting magical monsters), time is the main limiting factor for witches. Why do they enchant a broom to fly? So they don't have to waste time casting the same spell over and over again.

And witches will have a lot of spells to choose from...mid- to high-level witches with a decent intelligence score will have quite a few spells in their cookbook...er, Book of Shadows. So many that it might be tough figuring out which one she wants to use at any given time. That's on purpose...I want the character to PLAY like a witch. A ditzy or indecisive witch might indeed spend a lot of time hemming and hawing and picking her way through her book looking for the right spell...this is not the wizard who simply stuffs his brain with magical formulae. The wizard is the Mentat of the D&D spell-casters. The witch is something altogether different.

And that's how I wanted it.

Other than her magic...which sets the witch apart considerably from the other spell-casting classes...she is a non-combatant, non-adventurer type and thus uses the magic-user saves and attack matrices, and only rolls D4 for hit points. Despite access to potent magic (especially when working in a group) witches are vulnerable to the sword and axe, just like any other non-fighter. She is not an "all powerful" character....and the diligent witch-hunter will do what he can to root out her coven before it can complete its ritual.

Lots of good adventure potential with the witch class...both as a PC and as an NPC. One could construct a whole campaign around a small coven of witches (if the players were so inclined to all play the same class), and the cost of spell components for high level spells would still offset the "combined might" of the player characters.

Well, unless they can somehow bring down a Bane Lord. Properly rendered, such a greater demon would yield a great deal of magical material to conjure by.
; )

The B/X Witch

So those of you who actually listened to my recent interview with Save or Die have already heard the name of my new supplement, which I wasn’t really quite ready to divulge (they backed me into a corner). For those who haven’t listened to the podcast, here it is:

The Complete B/X Adventurer

Ambitious, right?

The book will compile a few of the goodies I’ve posted to my blog over the last couple years (streamlined and edited, of course), as well as several new classes in the style of the old Bard Games supplements The Compleat Adventurer and The Compleat Spell-Caster. Of course, my classes will be specific to B/X and I’ve decided to spell “Complete” with the usual American spelling.

The witch is one of the new spell-casting classes presented in the book, the others being the gnome, mystic, and summoner. My recent poll of “which one do you want to read about broke down like this:

Gnome 14%
Mystic 12%
Summoner 24%
Witch 40%
None of the above 8%

…with 107 people total voting.

So with an overwhelming majority choosing “witch,” well…here it is:

The first download is a 1 page .pdf with the witch class itself, the second is a 2 page .pdf from the “spells” chapter of the book. I haven’t included the spell descriptions themselves (sorry), but the complete list of spells is presented to get you salivating over the possibilities.
; )

Hopefully, Matthew S. will be getting me his excellent illustration in the near future (*hint*hint*) but for now you’ll have to be satisfied with plain old text. Let me know what you think.

Oh, yeah, By The Way: as with all the spell-casters in The Complete B/X Adventurer, you will find that witch magic works fairly different from magic-users and clerics…I don’t believe all “arcane magic” has to function one way and all “divine magic” another; I prefer each spell-casting class have their own unique way of learning/casting spells. Witch magic is based on a combination of popular witch fiction and known folklore, not to mention some of my own thoughts on the Craft. Hope I don’t piss off too many Wiccans!

Blessed be!
: )

The Bonus Situation

Last night was another pretty good game, though none of the PCs died and that always makes me fell like kind of a wuss.

On the other hand, Greg's 1st level cleric DID manage to survive (and the party helped him do it!), which is cool because Greg's a nice guy and killing him two or three times a night was getting a little old.
; )

Anyway, as I said last week, I am enjoying running my own dungeon quite a bit, without worrying about the politics/weirdness of the campaign (see Goblin Wars)...building my own has allowed me to stock it as God and Moldvay intended with plenty of treasure to compensate for the dangers the characters are facing. We even got 1 character to 4th level after last week's session (granted he started as a 3rd level thief with 2500XP and is one of only three PCs to manage to survive every single session so far...but still, 4th level!). It looks like even the magic-user might be going up in level after last night's session (he also has been around since the beginning)...which is fitting as he got to use BOTH his spells, and even the Charm Person worked (which is only the 3rd time in my history of coming to Baranof that the DM has failed a saving throw against this spell...Steve-O charmed Witherdrool the Gnoll who outlasted the entire party, and Luke charmed a bugbear during the Goblin Wars campaign that was eaten shortly thereafter by a white dragon).

Anyway, yeah...fun, fun. So to add to the fun, I decided to institute a house rule whereby the DM gets to award a Fat XP Bonus once per excursion, an "excursion" being defined as an outing away from town that results in significant adventure and gathering of treasure.

Yes, yes, totally lame on my part...but F it. I like to be entertained, too, and I figure if I dangle a juicy enough carrot, the players will step up and dance for my amusement. Here's the rules of the bonus:

- only one bonus can be awarded per excursion
- DM can opt not to award bonus if he chooses
- no bonuses will be awarded to the same PC twice in succession
- bonus is equal to 10% of the XP needed to achieve the next level
- no bonus XP (say, for a Prime Requisite) is added to the bonus
- only a PC that survives the excursion is eligible for the bonus
- bonus is awarded completely by DM fiat and players must abide by that; reasons for award may be doing something cool, or something funny, or something clever, or something courageous. The only stipulation is I must be entertained by it.

Finally, I required complete consensus before any bonuses were awarded...if any of the players objected to me showing partiality, than I would NOT be handing out any bonuses.

However, since there seemed to be no "downside," all the players agreed to institute "the bonus situation." Game on!

I awarded bonuses for past excursions retroactively (I track all campaign XP on an Excel spreadsheet over time to see how players/characters are doing anyway, so this is no sweat)...none of which would have resulted in anyone "leveling up" sooner than they already had. However, it was nice for the players to hear what actions in the past had added to their point totals (and give them an idea about what I was looking for). For posterity, I'll provide the list here:

Excursion #1 (goblin cluster-f**k): I would have loved to award the bonus to Steve-O, but he died and thus rendered himself ineligible. Instead bonus went to Stanley the thief for being one of only two survivors of the massacre (Luke bugged out early that night and missed the slaughter) AND for felling the ogre with a well-placed arrow.

Excursion #2: Awarded to Fletch Sr. (archer) for recovering the remains of his dead son from the goblin warren and avenging his son's death.

Excursion #3: Awarded to Muerte (summoner/necromancer) for negotiating with the lizard men in their own language and offering to trade them a hireling (as food!) for their magic potions.

Excursion #4 (Tomb of Horrors "dream sequence adventure"): Awarded to Thane the barbarian for getting himself fried by the altar, and also having the balls to follow his hireling into the mist (and the cleverness/luck to get out of the oubliette). Unfortunately, Thane died in the next session, so his bonus was lost...

Excursion #5 (kobold/giant rat cluster-f**k): Awarded to the Violet Seer (magic-user) for his quick thinking of dashing his lantern to the ground and making a barrier of flame, allowing most of the party to escape being gnawed to death by a horde of rats.

Excursion #6: Awarded to Neckbeard the dwarf, not only for being the only PC to survive the Mad Hermit and his pet mountain lion, but also for finding the hermit's treasure and hiding it from the NPCs (i.e. keeping it all for himself).

Excursion #7: Awarded to Muerte for using the magic cauldron to bring the dead halfling back from the dead (as a zombie) all in the name of his necromantic curiosity. And then shooting said zombie with a harquebus.

Last night would be Excursion #8 for the party and I'm still debating who I plan on awarding the bonus. I've got it narrowed down to two (or three) possible candidates, and I even considered splitting the bonus...but that goes against my own rules (One Excursion, One Bonus). A lot of the PCs were more effective than usual last night, and while that by itself might be grounds for an award, the main purpose is gifting someone who entertains me. And that's a whole different question.

See, this is the reason I don't usually provide any kind of "role-playing XP awards" in Dungeons & Dragons...reward mechanics drive behavior and I want players to know what it is that gets them leveling up (i.e. defeating monsters and...mainly...acquiring treasure). I generally HATE DM fiat when it comes to giving out any kinds of "rewards;" those stupid White Wolf games for years had me wracking my brain to see how I could award "good role-playing" or "learning something" without looking like I was playing favorites with certain players. In the end, you ARE playing favorites...you are giving out XP based on what YOU think (in your subjective mind) is "good" role-playing or whatever.

That's why I'm just going to call this one what it is: a bonus for making the DM chuckle or applaud. Period. One award per excursion, and only one player can get it. No player character can get it twice in succession.

Ah, well, I know I'll probably end up hurting someone's feelings at some point...them's the breaks. That's why I insisted on total group buy-off...if they decide in the future they don't want it , we can always 86 the idea.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wild Talents

Just picked up a copy of Wild Talents the other day and have been devouring it in my free minutes (not that I have all that many). Man, what a great read!

Not that it's necessarily a great game...I mean, I don't know if it is or isn't as I haven't read page one of the game system. No, instead I've been reading the fantastic chapter on building and modeling a superheroic world. I read somewhere on-line that this section was penned/developed by Kenneth Hite...regardless, its fanatastic and lives up to all the hype that made me want to buy the book in the first place.

I mean, I already own many, many superhero game systems...including Godlike, the precursor to Wild Talents, and the first game by Cubicle Seven featuring the "one roll engine" system. Eh...it's not really my thing to play "limited" superheroes or use a crunchy (if elegant) system as a springboard for "storytelling." But Godlike sure is a great resource if you're into alternate history WWII (does GURPS have a WWII book? Frankly, this is the best I've seen in a game system, ever).

Wild Talents, though, is much more open in scope than Godlike...you can set the damn game anywhere you want, create any type of "comic book" setting you could want or even think of...from Silver Age Marvel/DC to Wild Cards or The Watchmen. And it tells you how to do it, building from the ground up.

That's pretty sweet.

And anyway, that's why I've been coveting the game for so long...honestly, I have plenty of superhero RPGs, most of which I find lacking for one reason or another. I figure the only way I'll ever play another supers RPG is if I design/write it myself (and no, THAT type of project is a loooooong way off). But I had heard about the essays and "campaign construction" and alt history stuff and I've been wanting to read it for awhile. I just couldn't quite bring myself to shell out the full price for the book (and I wasn't about to pay even $10 for the "essential rules" when what I really wanted was the "fluff").

But I found it used and half-price at Gary's.

Don't worry, folks. I'm still playing D&D tonight (and for the foreseeable future). But I wanted to share my excitement over a VERY cool book.

: )

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Social Status (Redux)

Remember this posting from back in April?

[yes, yes...I realize some folks took the month off from reading my blog due to the whole A-Z bandwagon thing...your loss]

Well, I took my own words to heart and worked up a list of starting gear based on character class and Social Status (that super-cool 7th ability score we used to call "starting gold"). Last week, I had the chance to try it out and it made chargen even faster and simpler than normal. And so I've got it up as a downloadable .pdf for anyone that wants to use it:

Get It Here

Here's how it works:

1. Roll 3D6 in order (or arranged to taste, I don't care!) for each of seven attributes:
- Strength
- Intelligence
- Wisdom
- Dexterity
- Constitution
- Charisma
- Social Status

2. Choose a class; adjust Prime Requisite to taste. As with Constitution and Charisma, Social Status cannot be adjusted upwards or down!

3. Cross-reference your character class with your Social Status to find your starting gear at 1st level. Demi-humans should use the fighter table, but elves add "spell book."

4. Pick a name and alignment, roll for hit points, and go!

How easy is that? Come on!
: )

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Right Character - Final Thoughts

As I said at the beginning of these posts, this is something I've been thinking about for awhile. In a way, I've been thinking about it since I was 14 and my Dungeon Master told me I had to play a fighter, since that's how I insisted on using my characters...and I was left wondering why it was I couldn't just get my act together and play like I was "supposed to."

The thing is, I didn't think much of the fighter as a class when I was a kid...as far as I was concerned, it was the most boring class in the game...any edition of the game! I made characters for pretty much every class: cleric, druid, assassin, illusionist, bard, monk, but never a single straight fighter. Not even as an NPC in a game I was DM'ing! I just thought they were, well, blah. I didn't make my first fighter until I was playing a one-off second edition game, some time around 1997.

But even when I made a magic-user...for a 3rd edition game no less...he was fairly martial in temperament. Hell, I modeled him after Gandalf the Grey, right down to giving him "martial weapon proficiency" with the long sword. The first encounter of the DM's dungeon required the use of a fly spell, which of course I didn't have. The DM was aghast: "How could your character be 8th level and not have a fly spell?!" Gandalf doesn't fly douchebag...but he can speak giant eagle.

The chump DM was so disgusted that he folded the game, rather then figure out a way our party could proceed without the suitable spells...if we had continued, though, I'm sure "Gandalf" would have found a way to go toe-to-toe with some big baddie, probably meeting a gruesome, non-wizardly kind of demise.

The point of this series of posts was not to say, "don't play what you want to play." Of course you should play whatever your heart desires. But I want you to play a character that gets you fired up, that fires your creative juices and makes you want to engage in the game, not just "participate." And some character classes are better at playing particular adventuring "roles" than others...if your individual style is not conducive to the role of your class, you might find the play of the game disappointing. And nothing kills engagement like disappointing play.

Sure, some people may find it challenging to play "against type" and enjoy/thrive on the challenge. Those aren't the people to whom I'm directing these posts. If you are stoked by the concept of Dungeons & Dragons and want to enjoy it, but find the actual play to be unsatisfying, consider that you may be playing the wrong type of class for your personality. And if you've tried ALL the classes and STILL find play disappointing, consider that D&D may not be the right role-playing game for you. There ARE other fantasy RPGs out there, after all.

All right, I think I've said about all I have to say on the subject, with perhaps one final thought: if you are a DM currently running a game and think that some of your players are not fully enjoying their characters because the class doesn't suit their personality/style of play, consider allowing them a one-time "re-classification." Allow them to retain all their earned XP and treasure, give them the opportunity to switch their ability scores to different positions, and let them choose a new class. They will have to re-roll their hit points of course, and may need to sell/trade-in certain items of equipment to match their new class. But give 'em the chance to do so. I mean, we all want our players to be happy, right?

Think of it as the fantasy equivalent of a "mid-life crisis."
; )

Save or Die Podcast Interview

So the podcast of my interview with the Save or Die folks is available over at their web site. You can listen to it over here. If you've ever wondered whether or not I ramble as tangentially in real life as I do in my blog, the answer is: you bet.

Thanks to the SoD people for the opportunity to talk about my book and for editing the interview so I don't sound like a complete blathering fool (only a semi-blathering fool). My final thoughts on my recent series will be posted sometime today, and I'll be getting out the Social Class lists and the Witch .pdf sometime in the very near future.

: )

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Right Character for the Job - P. 4

[continued from here...sorry for the delay in posting; I've been unavailable all day]

Final question:

Do you feel your character contributes greatly to the success of the party's endeavors?

[just by the way...when I originally posted these questions, they were intended simply as starting points for reflection...nothing more than that. I'm only elaborating on them to explain what I was thinking when I wrote them because, well, they may seem kind of cryptic without any explanation]

I'll try to keep this one short and sweet. What I'm getting at here is: do you feel like your character makes a difference...or do you feel the adventure probably would have proceeded the same without him or her.

The question is not one of accomplishment, the question is one of engagement. Remember, I'm talking about your subjective feelings. If you were recounting tales of your party's foray into some dungeon a few days after the fact, how prominently would your character's own exploits fare in the telling? If you feel engaged during play, then your perspective is likely to be colored by this, regardless of what your character actually "got done."

For me, as a DM, that's really the most important part. Some may say, "the whole point is to have a Good Time;" I'm just being a bit more specific in what I define as a "good time." When players feel engaged, when they feel a part of the game, when they can lose themselves even briefly in the joy of being an imaginary fantasy character...THAT is "having a good time."

If you spend the whole session saying, "damn, my character can't do ANYthing" and being miserable about it, then maybe the character you're playing is not the right one for you...because when it is, you find ways to get involved in the game.

Think of it this way: if you actually were a fantasy adventurer undertaking dangerous excursions into the unknown, what would you be doing? Well, that would depend on your skill set, right? What YOU bring to the table with regard to your character "classification?"

I'm not saying you need to be extremely proactive, A-type personality, all the time. I'm not saying your fighter character should be looking to pick a fight with every individual encountered in the dungeon. I'm suggesting that you should take a moment to think like your character class, though...and by doing so you should be able to find a way to contribute to the adventure at hand.

Especially because you'll know the strengths and weaknesses of your class.

If you can't do that, or it's not "fun" to do that, consider that this particular class may not be the one best suited for your personality and temperament. Class optimization is choosing a class of character that will allow you to optimize your fun and engagement in the game, by allowing you to express what you want to express in a role-playing game.

What follows is a brief thumb-nail of the seven classes of B/X, the usual roles they fill, and some of the personality markers that might designate the class as "optimal" for a particular person:

Cleric (personality aspect: Discretion)
Primary Roles: Second-Line Fighter, Specialist, Support

Clerics generally lack the hit points and damage output to be front-line fighters, though a high STR and CON score can change that at the low-mid levels. In general, the cleric player must understand discretion, holding back and waiting for the right time and place to act. Of all the character classes the cleric is the most "reactive"...the cleric's main duty to the party is to stay alive and well for when he/she is needed most (healing, turning undead, etc.). If you are not a "hang back and wait" kind of person, you may enjoy playing a different class.

Dwarf (main personality aspect: Ballsy)
Primary Roles: Front-Line Fighter, Mechanic
Secondary Roles: Scout

Dwarves are front-line fighters; their high hit points, good armor class, and prime requisite (STR) means they should be in the thick of any combat, leading the charge. They also have special abilities that make them good scouts in the dungeon environment. Dwarves are idea for walking "point" due to their infravision, ability to spot traps and shifty stone-work, and need to charge the enemy. If you don't like leading from the front, you may enjoy playing a different class.

Elf (personality aspect: Discerning)
Primary Roles: Second-Line Fighter, Mechanic, Support
Secondary Roles: Scout, Specialist (ghouls)

Elves are 2nd-line fighters. They do not have the staying power (hit points) of fighters and dwarves, and they also have mechanic/support abilities (spells) that need to be preserved for their best use. Though their infravision and secret door detection gives them some potential for scouting, they generally are too slow and have no concealment ability unless offset by spells. Elves ability to be both fighters and magic-users makes them a liability unless played by someone able to discern the best time to assume either role. If you don't feel you can make those judgments, you may find it more enjoyable to play a simpler character.

Fighter (main personality aspect: Fearless)
Primary Roles: Front-Line Fighter

The fighter is built for nothing less than front-line fighting. If your fighter cannot afford decent armor...well, you probably should be playing something other than a fighter. When the time comes to fight, you MUST be ready to step forward and do so, it is the only way your character "earns his keep." If you are the type that hems and haws when it's time for battle to be joined, you may enjoy playing a different class more than the fighter.

Halfling (personality aspect: Bold)
Primary Roles: Second-Line Fighter, Scout
Secondary Roles: Specialist (giants)

The halfling generally has the best armor class and saving throws of any of the classes, and often has moderate to good hit points, depending on Constitution score. However, their high dexterity and proficiency with missile weapons makes them a decided asset to the 2nd-line fighting role. It is important for the halfling player to understand that they are the "first line" of the "last line of defense." In outdoor settings, halflings are the ideal scout thanks to their concealment ability, and even underground they can squirm and fit places no other character can. If you're not ready or willing to take exploratory risks, you might enjoy playing another class more than the halfling.

Magic-User (main personality aspect: Ingenious)
Primary Roles: Mechanic, Support
Secondary Roles: Scout, Specialist

The role of the magic-user in a party will depend on two things: the spell selection of the character and the ingenuity of the player. More than any other class, the magic-user must be proactive in his approach to adventuring; he is never allowed the leisure of being reactive...even his selection of spells is done at the beginning of the day before he even sets foot in the dungeon. What's more, with his limited selection of spells the magic-user must find a way to be of use to the party outside of combat (which the wizard isn't really built for); holding light sources, directing hirelings, examining dungeon features for concealed levers and ancient writing. If you're not willing to be proactive, a magic-user is going to spend a lot of time sitting on his hands; you might enjoy a different character class more.

Thief (personality aspect: Adaptability)
Primary Roles: Mechanic, Scout
Secondary Roles: Specialist

The thief has many skills, none of which are useful for straight combat. Even the famed "backstabbing" ability will most often be used to "soften" a target...and without a supporting cast of fighter-types, a would-be assassin will usually be quickly mowed down. Thieves need to be ready to change tact depending on circumstance: infiltrating places others cannot, gathering intel when magical means of doing so are not possible, disarming/opening mechanical locks and traps, and getting to the back of the group when the real fighting starts. Thieves are probably the most tactical of the character classes, and need to be quick thinkers because of the situations they encounter. If you tend to have some inertia to your thought process, you may enjoy another class more than the thief.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Right Character for the Job - P. 3

[continued from here]

All right, next question:

Do you feel your personality and play choices (i.e. choice of in-game actions) facilitate the role your character is called on to play for the adventuring party?

Now when I say "role," I don't mean anything akin to role-playing (the end result of playing an RPG...hopefully). Nor am I talking about the role of the player within a group of people...there are plenty of hats we wear at the gaming table (the Caller, the Mapper, the Guy Who Buys Pizza, the Joker, the Know-It-All, the Devils' Advocate, etc.). Hell, I'm not even talking about the kind of positions we find in other round table groups (group leader, group facilitator, note taker, etc.).

I'm talking about the imaginary role your character plays within a group of imaginary adventurers. If your adventuring party was a platoon of soldiers, this would be akin to each person's specialty and field use.

Before I list the six "adventuring roles" that I've identified, it's important to make a few notes.

Note #1: NO single role is specific to ONE single class. In fact, many of the party members will do double or triple duty (that is they will perform more than one role in the party). When I discuss the classes later, I will discuss both best potential roles and why certain temperaments are suited to them.

Note #2: Roles played in an adventuring party are determined by whim of the player. I may decide I would prefer a particular role in the group or would "like to try out something different tonight." None of these are set in stone and role is not based on "temperament" (though some people will be drawn to the same role over and over again...for a variety of reasons) and is based on individual desire. Furthermore, individual desire will TRUMP even the whim of the group. If the group tells me they want my character to perform a certain role, there is NOTHING that prevents me from telling them to "take a hike" or dithering about until they forget what role I was assigned. See Brian the Halfling for an example of the former.

Note #3: Roles identified are mostly pertinent to B/X play. Which means they also apply to BECMI and OD&D and somewhat to AD&D. However, for the rest of this post I'll mainly be addressing B/X style of play.

All right, so...the six roles available to characters in an adventuring party (in alphabetical order):

Front-Line Fighter: when a combat situation arises, those in this role are responsible for taking the fight to the enemy and getting "stuck in." To perform this role they need both good armor class and high hit points in order to provide staying power. However, the purpose of the staying power is NOT to "give other characters a chance to finish the opponent." Front-line fighters ARE the starters AND finishers. In B/X, morale will break monster mobs faster than most parties can kill them to a man...and a broken mob is likely to surrender, saving valuable resources of the party. As PCs never "break" the job of the front-line fighter is to kill the enemy to the point of capitulation...and do so while keeping the enemy away from the party. A prestige position? Certainly, but one with a high mortality rate and often given to hireling "meat shields" (who are generally terrible at it due to their poor equipment and ability).

Mechanic: the mechanic is the "problem solver" when it comes to obstacles. This includes locks, traps, magical wards, interpreting unknown languages, finding secret doors out of dead ends, scaling cliffs and letting down ropes to other party members, etc. In general, the mechanic provides their service in non-combat situations.

Scout: the scout is the party member that scouts ahead (duh) and brings back useful intelligence to the party (for accelerated survival rates). Ideally, characters should be quick (both for penetration and retreat), hard to spot, and able to comprehend what they find...or at least deliver the intel accurately so other members of the party can correctly identify it.

Second-Line Fighter: the second line fighter also fights, but generally as a "last line of defense." In practice, all PCs end up playing the role of 2nd-line fighter should the front-line fighters go down, but some characters are more suited to it than others. The 2nd-line fighter tends to have a weakness that prevents them from being a front-liner: usually poor-moderate hit points OR poor armor class, either one of which prevents them from having "staying power" once they get stuck in. However, 2nd-liners are still better at fighting than those with low hit points AND poor armor class and should be the ones to "hold the line" against combatants that penetrate the front-line. Their job is to stay with party, and thus they make ideal characters for "rear guard;" it's also useful for them to have missile fire weapons, so that they can wear down opponents before and as they close with the party.

Specialist: the specialist is a type of fighter whose skills are only useful against a particular type of foe. Unless facing that foe, the specialist generally does poorly as a front-line fighter...and may be poor as a second-liner also. Examples of "specialists" include clerics versus undead, thieves against unaware opponents, magic-users against certain foes (depending on spell selection), and halflings against giants. In some cases (like the halfling) the specialty can change a solid second-liner into a pretty decent front-liner! It's important that specialists are preserved for when they are best used...it is the job of the front- and 2nd-line fighters to do the preserving.

Support: characters in a support role lend their abilities in support of other characters; generally through the use of magic. This can include healing and "buffing" spells as well as anti-opponent spells in some instances (though many of these latter fall more appropriately into the "specialist" category). There are no non-magical ways to "support" characters in the typical B/X game, with the exception of lending money to another player to help them purchase better gear. In this regard, characters with a lot of ready cash or useful hirelings may provide a support role to the rest of the party (as would any character owning a stronghold for rest and recuperation), though in general support is meant to be "while on an adventure" NOT "back in town."

If these roles seem similar to the "archetype roles" of a World of Warcraft raiding party, that should be no surprise as WoW borrows heavily from the tropes of D&D. However, there are two main differences: all WoW (and similar CRPG) roles are "combat-based" due to the limited nature of a computer game. The SECOND (and more important difference) is that in D&D no particular role is necessary for survival.

You can have a party with no front-line fighters or no healing support or no "specialists" because D&D is not limited to combat. At least B/X isn't. If you are missing a particular role in your group, you will need to find clever ways to circumvent some obstacles. In a party with no "fighter types" for example, you would need to resort to negotiation, stealth, and trickery to overcome "combat threats." It can be done (and is a rewarding way to play), once you get your mind around the fact that not every encounter need be met with brute force.

Also in D&D there is very little "niche protection" and equipment will often determine role as well as class ability. If my thief has bracers of defense armor class zero, a displacer cloak, and a vorpal sword, you better believe my character can play the role of "front-line fighter." If I have a bandolier of healing potions at the ready, I can play a support role regardless of class! Cloaks of elvenkind and ropes of climbing can turn other adventurers into scouts and mechanics respectively.

Now back to the original question: as I said, nothing forces you to play a particular adventuring role, but A) certain character classes are better at certain roles, and B) there IS understood "pressure" from most gaming groups to fulfill the expectations of one's class and equipment inventory. Most of us feel it's fair to at least "give it a shot," right?

If you don't feel comfortable in the usual or expected role of your chosen class or feel your performance in that role was unsatisfying (to you! We're talking about your feelings), then it is possible that this particular class is not the right one for you.

Let me reiterate: I'm not saying, "Don't play something you suck at!" By all means, do so! If you like the role and the class, you will have fun and that's the Most Important thing...it's what keeps you coming back to the table and raving about the game to your friends. And you SHOULD experiment with different classes and different roles...you never know when you might find one that's The Perfect Fit and really gets your juices flowing.

But it IS something to consider. If you hate playing clerics because you're not in the mood to "support" anyone and you're unwilling to play the "second-line fighter" role while waiting for undead to show up so you can unleash Holy Hell...then DON'T PLAY A CLERIC. Even if the rest of your group says, "we need a cleric." Even if you roll an 18 Wisdom! Sell it down to raise that STR or INT or DEX or something...or leave it as is and be a wise fighter or magic-user or thief.

All right...that's enough for this post. I'll address the 3rd question (and talk about specific qualifications for specific classes) in Part 4 of this series.

The Right Character for the Job - P. 2

[continued from here]

Now, what I'm talking about is player-character optimization, though NOT the same type of "optimization" discussed in 4E. There are no "character builds" in B/X and earlier editions...your choice is Class A, Class B, or Class C...now play!

4th edition (and 3rd edition and Pathfinder and AD&D 2E when using some texts like the Players Options book) is about optimizing character effectiveness...creating a character that has a high probability of success in particular fields of endeavor by tinkering with the mechanics of system and tweaking to a particular style. While that's a fun little sub-game in and of itself ("character builds") it's not role-playing and it's not what I give a shit about right now.

When I say, "optimization," I mean creating a character that helps answer those previous three questions with a resounding, YES:
  • Do you feel you are getting the most out of your game with the class you are playing?
  • Do you feel your personality and play choices facilitate the role your are called on to play in the adventuring party?
  • Do you feel your character contributes greatly to the success of the party's endeavors?
The operative phrase here is, "do you feel;" I'm not talking about what anyone else thinks about your character or play style I'm talking about YOU specifically. Did you have FUN playing that particular character class?

NOT...did your group accomplish its goal?
NOT...did you have fun hanging out with your friends?
NOT...did your character get kudos from the DM or other players?

Frankly, that stuff is just icing to me. We could be pitching horseshoes and drinking beer in the back yard and get that kind of "juice" (accolades and camaraderie). Role-playing is a different animal, friends. Hanging out with one's buddies and looking good and achieving objectives (nailing the bullseye in darts, winning the pick-up basketball game, tearing up the dance floor like a champ, etc.) is all good, but role-playing is something special. As I said, I can't think of any other pastime quite like it.

And it's not for everyone. Sure some people feel intimidated by the whole concept (both the rules and the intimacy involved in "pretending" in front of other people), and some people who've never tried it and know nothing about it think it's a "waste of time" or a "tool of satan." But there are others who HAVE tried it and found it's not for them...it's just not something they want to invest the mental and emotional energy in.

And that's fine...I don't want to invest the physical and mental energy in training for a 5K or local triathalon or learning to cook French cuisine. Different strokes for different folks.

For those of us who DO like role-playing (like myself), I feel it's important to make the experience as fun and powerful as possible. When I talk "optimization" in character creation, I'm talking about choosing the optimal class for your personality so that you can get the maximum amount of fun.

[by the way...does all this passion for an imaginary game make me weird? Yes...but YOU're the one reading it so maybe you can relate to my weirdness]

Let's go through those questions one-by-one so I can explain what I mean:

As a player, do you feel you are getting the most out of your game with the class you are playing?

What we're looking for here is, do you LIKE the class you are playing? Assuming you are familiar with Old School Dungeons & Dragons and how it works (that's the only class-based game I'm talking about in this post), assuming you are familiar with the rules, is playing your particular character class feeling fun? OR does it feel like an exercise in frustration and futility? If the latter, it may be that the class is not for you.

"But I want to play a magic-user/bard/monk/whatever?" Why exactly? What is it that draws you to that particular class? The ability scores you rolled? The potential for cool powers? It reminds you of a favorite character from a book or film?

These aren't reasons to play a character. I mean, they're reasons, but they're not great ones...and if the play of the character is frustrating to you, it's probably not a class that's conducive to long-term play. And long-term play is the goal here...wanting to come back to the table, wanting to have the character develop (not just level up, but become a living-breathing character in one's imagination) over time. THAT is the potential of the RPG, the thing it does that nothing else does, and the main thing that will, over time, keep the D&D hobby alive if properly nurtured.

[you might dispute that latter statement...that's a debate for a different post, though]

Let me put it a different way...if you LIKE your character class, it won't matter (much) to you if he/she lacks effectiveness, especially at low levels. Period.

I wrote before that I tend to "play like a fighter." I have a tendency to fall into that pattern REGARDLESS of what class I play. Just because I'm a thief with a weenie strength score and leather armor doesn't stop me from getting into the thick of things...even though it's NOT what my character is most effective at. I may try to wheedle my DM on how my "tactics" should give me a bonus or something, but in the end, that's just going to be how I play. I don't care if I miss a lot or get hit a lot or whatever...I like to FIGHT.

Many players, especially new players (or those new to a particular table) will make a fighter character because they "want something simple that has a high survival rating." And then they get annoyed when they miss a lot or they get killed. Sorry, that's part of the game...at least, it's part of the fighter game. There are other classes for "skulking" (and, no, I do NOT mean magic-users).

If you like the class, you'll feel like your play experience is worthwhile even when your character lacks in-game effectiveness. That's a powerful incentive for role-playing.

The Right Character for the Job - P. 1

Introductory Notes: role-playing games, as a hobby, are different from any other game in the world. Good or bad, nerdy or not, they are a powerful tool of the imagination...and one with an intensity (or potential intensity...) greater than any card, board, or computer game. When I sit down to the table and unload my books and dice and pour my beer and greet my fellow players, it is the equivalent of suiting up for the fencing strip, saluting the ref and my opponent, and getting ready to get it on.

But unlike fencing (or another sporting competition) role-playing is a completely mental and emotional. The dice rolling (when chance becomes a part of the game) is only there to facilitate the mental decisions made. It is not a physical action needed to resolve one's choice. Hell, for some all you need is the push of a button (or these days, an IPhone app).

There's really nothing to compare it to. Definitely not acting or music, though perhaps improv or jazz share some similarities. But a long-term multi-session improvisation using the same character (or riff?)? No that's weird. On the part of the player, there's a certain dedication or commitment to escapism that's needed. So that every time you sit down to the gaming table you become Bork the Barbarian, even if your real life persona is completely different.

I have observed (and written more than once) that long-time players often display a tendency to gravitate towards specific character types. In the games of my childhood, one player always played wizard types and another player almost always had a cleric/healer type. I've known dudes who ALWAYS (their word) play paladins or thieves...not variations, not multi-classes just thieves. My thought on this phenomenon is that for many, the freedom to "pretend" gives rise to some sort of wish fulfillment in some folks. "Oh, I've always wanted to use magic," for example. For others, it's simply their own personality showing up in a 'heroic' fashion..."If I was an adventurer, I'd definitely be a ranger." And, of course, there are some who are just drawn to a particular archetype because they like it (for whatever reason) or "optimal" for the group they're with (like the guy who always plays a cleric because "well, someone has to and no one else wants the gig.").

But lately (and I mean over the last year or so) I've started thinking that not every character type is suited for every player...that not every archetype presents a viable option for long-term play. From what I've been observing lately, in-game, some players just seem to struggle with certain character types, due to temperament or unease or just a misunderstanding of what the character is.

I first started to think about this when I observed my own role-playing behavior as a player in various games. When I first got to be a player in another DM's game I created a bard...in part because I couldn't really decide what I wanted to play (all the classes looked great!) and the 1st edition bard gave me a chance to sample a smattering of different ones. Over time, though, it became clear that my character was no "roguish musician;" instead I kept picking fights, taunting opponents bigger than me, and wading into battle two-fisted. When we destroyed and re-started our campaign, my DM informed me that I would not be allowed to play a bard, "because I only play the character like a fighter, so you should just be a fighter."

At the time I was irritated to say the least...but writing about my more recent adventures on the blog has given me more time to reflect, and I seem to do this with EVERY character I play. I rolled up a cleric for a game and acted like a fighter...until I got killed acting like a fighter. I rolled up a thief and once again started charging into combat and acting like a fighter. This is all non-conscious stuff...it's only on reading back over "what happened" and the actions/choices I took that I realize, hey, I kind of do this EVERY TIME I PLAY REGARDLESS OF CHARACTER CLASS. This realization led me to create a fighter for an on-line game, despite having less than optimal ability scores for such a class.

I like fighters. I like to be the first one to mix things up. I like to talk big and boastful and wave my sword and shake my fist and swear silly oaths and die with wounds on my chest. That's just how I roll when it comes to the RPG table. Even in computer RPGs, I tend to create characters that are rather blunt instruments of one type or another.

Not everyone is like me.

However, there are quite a few folks that seem to fall into the same category of "don't realize a different class/archetype would be better suited to their temperament and/or style of play."

Is that bad? I mean, it's still fun to play and not everyone wants to be pigeonholed when it's just a silly game, right? Sure. And yet (as I wrote above):

...role-playing games, as a hobby, are different from any other game in the world. Good or bad, nerdy or not, they are a powerful tool of the imagination...and one with an intensity (or potential intensity...) greater than any card, board, or computer game...

Here are some things to think about:
  • As a player, do you feel you are getting the most out of your game with the class you are playing?
  • Do you feel your personality and play choices (i.e. choice of in-game actions) facilitate the role your character is called on to play for the adventuring party?
  • Do you feel your character contributes greatly to the success of the party's endeavors?

If you answer "no" to any of these questions, I suggest that the class you have chosen may not be the most optimal one for you.

[to be continued]

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Morning After...

So much to write, so little time...

Today, I'm at work for the first time in months...um, that is to say, my first time working a Friday in many months. And after yet another late Thursday night gaming session, I have to ask:

How the hell do my players do it?

I suppose they all drink less than I do (well, maybe I'M just a light-weight). But while five hours of sleep is something I can usually get over, even multiple nights in a row, I'm struggling a bit with the "five hours PLUS two pitcher" recovery...it probably doesn't help I was drinking wine with dinner, too!

Ugh. My own damn vault, I know. Anyway, I'm having a bit of trouble focusing at the job and fatigue is definitely part of it, but the other part was that the game went fairly good...good enough that I've been thinking about it most of the morning. It's been awhile since I've really taken the time to write-up an adventure, and this one turned out just fine. Well, so far, anyway...I don't know what future sessions hold, but I was fairly pleased with the results, as I wrote last night.

I won't bore folks with the details but maybe list a few of the highlights/thoughts I had:

- I realize (or at least presume) that the undead-themed adventure is probably a well-worn trope of the D&D game, but it's new ground for me. Mostly, I just find the odd/random zombie, mummy, or vampire floating around the dungeon site...I'm not sure I cna think of any hard-corp necropolis-type settings like my adventure (at least not in the B/X, 1st Edition era of adventure modules). Even as a kid I stayed away from too many undead, as we only had one player who used any kind of "clerical" character (and ZERO paladins, as I've written before). Last night's party was also light on clerical support (um...none, in fact), but we fortunately had a couple of "turners" that could work in a pinch (a necromancer and a witch-hunter).

I found the whole theme (in writing the adventure) a lot of fun and a cool project...having my enthusiasm fired certainly helped in the "tedious" parts of the design process (i.e. map drawing).

- I realize I'm none too fond of "helpful" NPCs. The witch-hunter I made for the adventure was the "motivator" to get the PCs to the dungeon site and is a fairly cool character...one I wouldn't mind playing myself. However, I am having a terrible time using him as an NPC...I want the players to "do their own thing" without guidance from me, which has turned the "zealot" into a "hangs-around-the-back-indecisive-milquetoast" which is NOT what I had originally intended. I find myself thinking of ways to kill him off (might he accidentally slip over the edge of the cliff one misty morning? Perhaps), but his turning ability might be needed by the party. On the other hand, Greg just rolled up a cleric...on the OTHER hand, Greg has a tendency to die rather frequently (the reason he was rolling up a new character)...hmmm...

- There are ways to make 1st level adventures withOUT resorting to stocks of goblins and kobolds. Last night, the players fought a a flock of "harpy-bitches," a half dozen skeletons, and an animated gargoyle. Only one PC (and two men-at-arms) were killed, and the party made off with a nice piece of loot. Quite a decent haul in XP/treasure value and not a humanoid monster in sight. That was neat.

- Miniatures helped PCs visualize their own characters, making them more real in their minds. I think. At least, it helped ME to visualize the characters better. Finding minis that matched their character's description was a bit hard at times, but it was neat to see how the group looked together on the mat. We're playing B/X so the movement and such is still fairly "non-specific" and piece-work, but having the characters' locations plotted on the map certainly helped me when deciding which character was "next in line to get killed" (by trap and by monster). And there was still plenty of decent gaming that went on OFF the mat, if ya' know what I mean.

This is similar to how my friends and I used miniatures when I was a kid: we simply tried to find models that matched our characters' descriptions so that we could look at them and show 'em off. It wasn't about representing anything on a map or battlefield, and it certainly wasn't about 5' steps and attacks of opportunity. Mainly, you just wanted a figurine to mark your place at the table.

However, as I said, I think the minis DID help with the combat/exploration stuff. I don't remember anyone complaining about positioning last night, which was a welcome change.

Well, except for Josh and the harpy attack...what a cry-baby!
; )

- Last night had seven players at the table (besides myself) and the number was just about perfect. I'm still not going to turn anyone away, but if I HAD to choose a cut-off point, seven might be the place to do it. There was no need to use a Caller, and there was a good mix of various adventuring types without ME getting bogged down by "too many voices." On the other hand, they DID need those extra bodies (including the WH)...in a perfect world, I guess, there would have been a couple PC-controlled henchmen, but no one seems interested in that type of relationship (the NPCs are all just "meat shields" to the players).

- I'm looking forward to next week quite a bit, despite knowing how rough the morning after might be (ugh). Having already established the location and "base" and having made a couple forays into the dungeon, I am hopeful that next week will see even more "stuff" accomplished. Here's hoping!

: )

[by the way, I did NOT come up with any pre-gens for the game...instead I have a table of equipment lists based on class and Social Status. This worked great as far as speeding the chargen process, while still allowing player creativity and input...I'll post the tables later or make them available as a download]

Tonight was a good game...

...and using miniatures wasn't half bad.

I'll write more later; unfortunately, I have to work tomorrow for the first time in many moons. And I probably drank too much beer (*sigh*). But the game went off pretty sweet...the player characters got some much needed treasure/XP, all the PCs had their moment to shine (perhaps with the exception of the magic-user...sorry, Luke!), and I still got to kill a few "heroes" (though only one PC).

It was a good night. We'll see if they want to do it again next week.

+++EDIT: Oh, yeah...the "bag o zombies" worked GREAT!+++

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cheap-Ass Miniatures

I stopped into Gary's Games today to see if I could pick up some "cheap-ass miniatures" for my Thursday night game. They pointed me to the perfect purchase:

For $10, it sure beats the hell out of using those glass beads one picks up from Pier One by the jarful. Now the only question is: Will 100 zombies be enough?

Hmm...I just remembered the party cleric was killed by a mountain lion during the last session (dang claw-claw-bite attack). That could pose a bit of a dilemma. Hmm....

Must remember to check characters' movement rates next session.

[currently flattening battle mat...wasn't sure if a hot iron would melt it; thought best not to even try...]

Maps Ready

So, I've got a tasty little multi-level dungeon ready to go for Thursday. No, I didn't bother ripping off any one else...made my own maps.

Once again, Moldvay and B/X really came through for me. Using the great Laws of Three (or D6, rather), I was able to get the proper proportions of monsters, traps, specials, and empties all working together. After I figured out how many total encounters I wanted (again, using factors of 3), I was able to figure out how many areas had treasure (one-third in case you're wondering) and then place everything in a logical fashion based on rooms and what they're for.

The maps frigging draw themselves.

As for treasure, I went a bit off book...well, I went a bit "off book" with everything else, too, so whatever. Depending on how the party does, there should be enough XP and loot to level them a couple times over multiple sessions. Unless they all die, of course.

We'll just have to see...hopefully, they won't be dying in any more 10' wide corridors (I've limited the opportunities in that regard). Doo-dee-doo...

More later, for shizzle...
; )

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Yet Another Reason I Prefer B/X

Here's the description of the spell Animate Dead, from the Cook/Marsh Expert set:

This spell allows the caster to make animated skeletons or zombies from normal skeletons or dead bodies within the range of the spell. These animated dead will obey the caster until they are destroyed or dispelled by a cleric or dispel magic.

The spell animates 1 hit dice of skeletons or zombies for every level the caster has. Thus a 12th level magic-user could animate 12 human skeletons or 6 human zombies. Skeletons have AC 7 and the same hit dice as the original creature. Zombies have AC 8 and one more hit die than the living creature had. Character levels are not counted when a character is animated, thus a first level magic-user animated as a zombie will have 2d8 hit points. Animated creatures do not have any spells or special abilities.

SO much simpler than confusing things with Animate Dead Monsters. Just let the necromancer do their thang, man.
; )

Monday, May 16, 2011

How 'Bout A New Poll?

So, Saturday I had my interview with the Save or Die podcast people. Fortunately, it was not "live" and they will be editing it prior to broadcast in a couple weeks. UNfortunately, I still managed to stick my foot in my mouth and/or ramble on more than was quite necessary on several questions. Hopefully their editing will make me sound like less of a simpering idiot/arrogant bastard...but I'm not too hopeful.

ANYway, one area in which I wish I'd stayed a little more tight-lipped was on my upcoming, as yet unnamed (here anyway), B/X supplement. Well, unnamed till the interview...they backed me into a corner! Ugh! Well, we'll just have to talk more about it on the blog in the next week or so. Brian, I hope that cover art is almost done!
; )

I suppose it's time to give folks a little taste of what they'll be finding in the book, so as a "bone" for my readers, I'll offer one of the spell-casting classes for perusal as a downloadable .pdf (the spell lists make them too long to just throw up as a blog post). There's a new poll posted to the blog (over on the right) for people to vote on which class they want to see. You've got a few days to consider and vote.

Oh, yeah...you can still purchase the B/X Companion. The PayPal button has just been moved down under the poll.
: )

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hey, Jackass!

So I realize that some of my players' ire vented at me on Friday's post was not so much a reaction to the game as a reaction to the post itself, in which I appear to be saying the players are lazy, stupid, cowardly, incompetent, or some combination of these things.

Um...yeah, I don't really think that.

My players are very bright, often brave, and generally extremely patient with me and MY particular "style of play" (whatever that means). Let me just for the record say that any failing of PCs going after a "big score" is due to ME not presenting them with one. My anger was for my own lack of giving them bigger fish to fry...if I implied that it was their fault, well, I was simply projecting my own failings onto them.

The players can only take what the DM gives them after all.

I don't want my characters to resort to becoming mustard farmers to level up to from 1 to 2. That's a pretty ridiculous way to play D&D in my not-so-humble opinion (besides, isn't there still Farmville on Facebook for that kind of action?).

So here's The Real Problem:

I've been lazy.

That's what it boils down to, really. I want to play a game where the monsters play for keeps, the spears and traps are deadly, and mortality doesn't get fudged or "shields-get-splintered." That's a fact.

At the same time, I want my players to be richly rewarded for entering my particular circle of Role-Playing Hell. If they are going to fight and die in MY arena for MY amusement, they should at least get paid something for the trouble.

And yet (here's the lazy bit) I continue to use B2: The Keep on the Borderlands as the adventure of choice...oh, except when I send them through the Tomb of Horrors, of course.

Here's the thing about B2...it's a TRAINING ground for new players. It's an 11 level dungeon designed to be explored at leisure over a long-series of sessions. It's designed for new players of the game to "learn the ropes" of dungeon-delving...a copy of the module was included as an introductory adventure with each version of the Basic set: Holmes, Moldvay, and (I assume) Mentzer.

B2 does not adhere to Moldvay's admonishment, "If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure."

[remember that, per Moldvay, one "adventure" equals one "game session"]

Instead, B2 is set-up almost as a random dungeon. The number of monsters in each cave complex is within the average for a "lair" for each particular type of monster, as is the treasure found in the lair. Goblins, for example have number appearing (per the Basic book) of 6-60 in lair and Treasure Type C (average hoard value of 1,000gp, per B/X). The goblin warren in B2?

Total number of (fighting) goblins: 38. Total treasure value: 1060gp.

[I'm not counting the pocket change or the sack of gold that gets tossed to the ogre...that's part of the ogre's hoard]

Per B/X, kobolds' number appearing "in lair" is also 6-60, but their treasure type is J (average hoard value: 25gp in assorted silver and copper). They also share the warren with 18 giant rats (3-30 average, Treasure Type C as goblins) and a trap ot . The kobold warren in B2?

Total number of (fighting) kobolds: 63 (double average). Total treasure value: 1819gp (including stuff with the rats).

Per its introduction, B2 is intended for six to nine players of 1st level. Now on average, B/X player characters require 2200xp to get to 2nd level. That means an average sized party in B2 would need about 16,500xp total (7.5 x 2200) to level up. Assuming B2 uses Moldvay's maximum rate of 4 adventures (i.e. sessions) that would mean the PCs would need to acquire 4125 experience points per session to meet the timeframe specified by Moldvay.

The goblin caves and kobold warrens added together produce about 3579 total. That's including XP for all monsters being defeated (with chieftains and such counting for more). It took two sessions just to clear ONE of those warrens.

Totally unacceptable. Perhaps B2 suffers from being originally written for inclusion with the Holmes edition of Basic, but it just doesn't stand up to the Moldvay standard for rate of advancement. I think my players have learned just about all they can from B2 (i.e. how to die in a dark, stinking tunnel for a handful of silver pieces). It's time that I stopped being lazy and wrote up a REAL B/X adventure for them.

Ugh. I hate drawing maps.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's in a name?

Heron, the Iron Goat, has a knack for humorous character names.

It’s not that they’re patently ridiculous or stupid…that prize goes to my brother, I think, for names like “Lando Calrissean,” and “Clownman.” But there’s always something about Heron’s names…generally something slightly unsavory. Like really subtle (or high brow) double entendre or something.

I don’t know…it’s just the way his mind works. As he told me Thursday, he thinks ‘em up and saves them, treasuring them for the right character to christen with it. The name of “Neckbeard” (a dwarf) was originally intended for a Savage Worlds pirate game…until he ended up with a decidedly un-piratelike character (a small Blue Boy mystic or something…I don’t know, SW settings are a little weird).

Anyway, that’s Heron. Not my particular sense of humor (though I laughed and laughed at “Bobby Peru”), but I’m used to it, and I don’t give him grief over it.

Why not? Doesn’t it take away from the “serious tone” of the game to have characters with names like “Weasleteats” and “Choad?”

No, I don’t think so.

Does it take away from the gravity of a wartime platoon where soldiers have nicknames like “Tex” and “Slim” and “Tiny” and “Princess?”

People call each other weird things that aren’t always their given name. I’d imagine that Randy Johnson’s family probably calls him something other than “The Big Unit,” but that’s how he’s known to baseball fans.

When we were kids, we often thought up dumb names for D&D characters…things like “Silver Fox” and “Bladehawk” and “Sneakshadow.” It’s like they all came straight out of an ElfQuest book or something. Likewise, we’d rip off Tolkien (“Bombur” was a popular dwarf name) or B-Movies (“Conan” and “Dirty Harry” both put in appearances). MY long time character had a name that came straight out of a TSR Endless Quest book, though I didn’t realize that's where I’d first heard it till years later.

After TSR started publishing books, like Dragon Lance, we tried to create more “fantasy sounding” names, but the best ones were still based on real world names. “Orianna LaFayette” (what? Is she Norwegian or French?) comes to mind, though I have no idea if the name of her twin brother, “Jolith,” is based on an actual name as I’ve never heard it used.

These days? I don’t really care, though I’d hope you can come up with something better than “Master Chief” or “Cleric #2.” I figure that if your name sounds ludicrous to our ears, it’s either a nickname or a poor translation or both.

Neckbeard the Dwarf, for example. Sure he has a big beard, but it’s perfectly likely that “Neckbeard” is the nearest translation of his family name in the Common tongue. None of the other PCs speak dwarvish, so why should he not introduce himself as Neckbeard, rather than “Borshminden” or something?

This holds true for human names, too, by the way. There are plenty of examples of names that sound strange, silly, or funny, even in “perfectly normal” English. Doesn’t mean people with those names aren’t justifiably proud of those names. I can only imagine that somewhere out in this wonderful world of ours, a kid is being picked on for having the last name “Peabody.” And yet there are plenty of folks in the world of broadcast journalism that would love to win one of those awards named for George Foster Peabody and presented for excellence in their field.

As with most things in the RPG world, what you get out of the name has a lot to do with what you put into it. A name like “Wildfire” may sound like a silly name…but if that character is a magic-user with a penchant for fire magic, and an unseemly attraction to fire bordering on arson, well that becomes a memorable character. I certainly remember her, and she only appeared in two or three sessions back in 1985 or ’86. On the other hand, by buddy’s Drow chick with the “suitable fantasy name?” No recollection of her handle whatsoever.

Now, of course, name alone is (generally) not going to be enough to remember a character…”Brian the Halfling” isn’t anything memorable, and yet it is so engrained in my head from Matt’s antics in White Plume Mountain that I sometimes mistakenly refer to Matt as “Brian.” My POINT is that it’s not necessarily enough to torpedo a character either. My brother once chose the name “Alejandro” because he thought it was a “funny” name and he knew a rather ridiculous looking /acting real person by that name…and Al turned out to be his most badass character of all time.

Anyway, I understand that for several of my players, their choice of name DOES have something to do with how they feel about their character. They feel that if they take their character “less seriously” they’ll be less attached or less invested in it should something dreadful (i.e. “death”) happen. And, yes, some feel that coming up with a “cool” or “fitting” or “appropriate” name requires investment of energy…and why should they bother spending the time for a character that they dislike anyway.

To me, that’s a little weird…but maybe I haven’t played enough (and died enough) to get fed up or jaded or whatever. I’ve rolled up characters I didn’t think much of, but I try to find something I like or that stokes my imagination about it. Plus, I just like making characters and naming is one of the fun parts of character creation. And my M.O. hasn’t changed much…I still steal names from books and movies (and Shakespeare…I like his names a lot). Or I make up weird “fantasy sounding” names spliced with some descriptive, like Shoon Grinblade or Hark the Huntress.

But I certainly don’t fault terrible names (except when AB deliberately attempts to get my goat…it’s been 35 years that I’m still learning to ignore his poking). Look at some of the character names from some of the Oldest School players:

Fred 9802 (Dave Cook), Knock Grafton (Helen Cook), Harry Furryfoot (Jeff Leason), Elron Hubbard (Lawrence Schick), Bigby/Rigby/Digby (Gary Gygax), Ceatitle Trodar Northman (Jean Wells), Arrarat (Tim Jiardini), “Erac’s Cousin” (Ernie Gygax), Valerius (Erol Otus).

At least those are some of the various names found in the old Rogues Gallery and DMs Adventure Log.

Really, what’s in a name?

Friday, May 13, 2011

There Will Be Blood

Yes I, too, was affected by the recent blogger craziness (though the only post I lost was one about Dragonsfoot pod casts and selling out to the man). Mainly it just prevented me from posting about last night's game session down at the Baranof.

Nope, we did not play War of the Mecha or any variation thereof. Yes, I brought by mecha stuff, but I was all hot and bothered to play good 'ol D&D after a two week break, and my players were rarin' to face death again. We even had yet another new player (this one named Ben...don't ask) who was anxious to have his character cut down in the prime of his life. I was only too happy to oblige him.

It was a pretty good night in general. Not that I'm trying to play favorites or anything, but I can definitely see an improved life expectancy rate with the players that have been coming to the games longer. Luke's magic-user survived despite being reduced to 1 or 2 hit points in multiple encounters, as did Randy's necromancer, Josh's archer, and Neckbeard the Dwarf (played by Heron).

For the newer guys, the Keep on the Borderlands continues to be a bloodbath. Dave and Ben both got killed once and Greg lost three characters in one night, which may be a record even at my table.

The sad part is, the group got precious little XP for the whole outing. I haven't added up the figures yet, but the unfortunate truth is that running from rats and koboids and occasionally picking up a silver piece or two might keep your character alive, but it doesn't advance you very quickly. "Fortune favors the bold," as they say but sometimes I wonder what's keeping the players from looking for "the big score."

I mean, I do offer some hints. Orc snipers. Rumors of a mad hermit. A mysterious stranger asks them to find her sister in the temple of Chaos and offering platinum pieces. I suppose it could appear I'm just throwing random shit out there to "spice things up" (and certainly "spicing" is part of it), but they aren't taking the hint.

Instead it's "let's hit the kobold caves," even though I've blogged before (and they read my blog!) that the damn kobold caves are a frigging death trap.

I don't care that they're "little creatures" with 2 and 3 hit points...stop thinking this is a video game designed to scale ("oh, you have to fight the little guys first to earn XP to fight the medium guys...."). D&D doesn't work like that! Old school RPGs aren't video games...they're like life, i.e. they aren't simple and easy and linear.

At least, the good ones aren't.

Let's look at the damn kobolds for a second shall we? Let's take a look in depth at this bunch of little dog men.

Less than 1 hit dice. D4 damage with their crappy weapons. Weak armor class.

So how are they surviving in the Caves of Chaos anyway? Why aren't they simply the local delicacy of the bugbear tribe or something? Heck, why haven't they moved away from the caves and looked for an easier ecosystem in which to make their lair?

Two words: Cleverness and Numbers.

And it's these two things that make the kobold warren such a death trap. At mid- to high levels, PCs aren't troubled much by the occasional dead fall or pit trap. At low levels (when saves are weak), these things can take PCs out quick...or weaken them to the point where they're easily killed by a single lucky blow.

And high numbers of monsters means the chances of that lucky blow landing just got ramped up. Would you rather face four orcs or eight kobolds? Well, let's see....an orc needs a 17 or better to hit plate and shield. And a kobold...needs a 17 or better to hit plate and shield.

So you face eight monsters that have a 20% chance of hitting your frontline fighters or four monsters that have the same chance. Plus with multiple foes, the likelihood is that they'll be able to surround you, engage your "squishier" party members, cut-off your retreat, bear you to the ground...you get the point, right?

Also, there's that great equalizer we call "Morale." Monsters check morale after suffering their first casualty and after 50% of their force is gone. Unlike, say, monsters in the World of Warcraft, not every creature is interested in "fighting to the death," which can give adventuring parties a well-needed breather (and a chance to escape the dungeon when resources are getting low).

However, if the monster mob being faced can pass the morale check for that 1st casualty, the large mob of small monsters can absorb many more casualties prior to facing a second morale check. And that means subjecting party members to additional rounds of multiple attacks.

Randy has this to say about goblins: "I hate these guys." And he has good reason to...they've killed more PCs with their half-dozen-sized platoons of spear carriers than the big monsters (minotaurs and owlbears and such) ever have. Because they seem easy; they seem weak...3 hit points each, weak armor class, sure. But they travel in six packs...and if you let one escape they're bringing another 6-pack of reinforcements in short order.

The kobolds? They travel in eight packs. And their females fight, too. Like the males, females have less than 1 hit dice, do only D4 points of damage, and while they only have 2 hit points (as opposed to the males' 3 apiece) who cares, you're already dead because you've been hit multiple times by a bunch of D4 javelins and the little dog men are feasting on your bones.

Now here's the worst part...in addition to the traps and the cultivated packs of disease-carrying rats (also only 2 hit points, but there are 18 of 'em and they all have the same chance to hit as an orc)...HERE's the WORST PART:

They've got bupkiss for treasure.

Being low down on the CoC pecking order, they're carrying copper and silver, having been strong-armed over time by their larger humanoid neighbors; to a TRIBE of kobolds a TRIBE of bugbears is an intimidating threat, and one to which they're willing to pay tribute rather than start a war that will end in genocide.

But to a small adventuring party? Facing a horde of sharp points for a handful of silver is a complete waste of a good character sheet.

Here...y'all want to know how much experience the party pulled out of the kobold warren last night (which killed three PCs)?

107 XP. That's the total party take...including the XP from the 70 or so silver coins they pocketed.

When you divide that amongst the 6 survivors, it sure ain't much to write home about. 17 or so apiece? Maybe 18 or 19 with that bonus for a high Prime Requisite.

Fortune favors the bold. I'm not saying this to be an asshole or call my players chumps. Or rather, maybe I AM an asshole, but I'm tired of them scrabbling around in the dark for chump change. If you want to use your superior technology (plate mail and musket fire) to kill the spear-chucking natives, then do it the Napoleonic way and hire/equip some troops. If you want to be treasure hunters, then go get some treasure...go after the big score!

"Oh, the monsters are too big and dangerous."

What a crock of shit. I mean, fine I didn't think you were heroes anyway, but why does everything have to be a goddamn frontal assault? You've got two or three fighters...out of party of eight or nine. How about thinking like something other than a fighter. Stealth. Negotiation. Trickery. Missile fire and tactics.

Your magic-user can bring down anything up to an ogre in size. Your archer seems to be able to hit fairly regularly at distance (without being hit himself). Your thieves have yet to demonstrate their bushwhacking and backstabbing...and last night you weren't even using the thief to scout ahead (despite still allowing "auto-success" with thief abilities)...how about a little basic recon?

Yes, when Steve's character turned invisible and shot arrows at a crowd of goblins, THAT was dumb and bad and bad things happened (including Steve getting the death he so richly deserved)...that doesn't mean such tactics might not work in the future (or that you might learn from his errors of judgment).

Look, maybe I'm to blame. Every session I ask for a marching order, and my players dutifully line up and parade into whatever hell hole they've chosen to die in this particular evening. The REASON I ask for the marching order is so that I...as a DM that doesn't use miniatures but orients spatially based on these notes and my adventure module map...the REASON is so that I can picture who is standing where when shit hits the fan.

But it is totally okay to break formation!

No need to march off to slaughter, time and time again. You can start in a march and send individuals ahead (or behind for that matter). You can even send a couple of PCs to scout if you're worried a lone dude ain't going to make it back with any intel.

Okay, okay...I feel like I'm berating my players and I don't really want to do that. They had fun (so they tell me) and I had fun (I really did) and it was a good session and everyone (I think) wants to come back again next week. And many PCs ARE surviving these sessions, which is a good thing and a step in the right direction.

But do you want to risk death itself for a handful of silver? Do you want your character's final fate to be the cook pot of a pack of miniature dog men? Come on, people!