Friday, June 22, 2018

Cage, Baby

I started writing a very loooong post about superhero media that I've been watching lately: everything from the new Avengers flick (seen Wednesday) to Black Panther (seen a couple months back) to Thor: Ragnarok to Black Lightning. But things were busy today and I haven't got around to finishing or posting the thing. And it's 10 minutes after midnight, the kids are finally asleep (summertime, folks) and the new season of Luke Cage just dropped. And I'm all in.

Bring it on, baby.

I'm sure I'll have a few things to say in the near future, but right now I'm going to bask in the (hopefully) glorious punch-fest that is Luke Cage & Co.

Please, please, PLEASE...let there be appearances from both Iron Fist and the Daughters of the Dragon.

JB out.

[damn...I haven't even bothered to watch the trailer yet and I am sooooo excited]

About to stream on my laptop.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Oh, Boy

Hope everyone had a good (or passable) Father's Day yesterday. Condolences if not. My own was quite nice, and any complaints I might have were overshadowed by the rest of the weekend.

Hell, I even forgot about Free RPG Day on Saturday, being busy with World Cup action, Mariners games, movies, old friends visiting, etc. However, I was kindly reminded about it by the neighborhood bicycle dealer, and managed to make my way down to the Mox in Ballard to grab a handful of swag prior to it all being gone. Some good stuff this year, especially the DCC and T&T quick starts. is officially summer now, as my kids are out of school, and because I'm the only child care they have, I'm expecting to be pretty busy over the next couple weeks. Lot of soccer going on...not just World Cup, but premier league stuff for my boy and "Lil Kickers" practice for my daughter. Then there's the jamborees and the family travel plans (including a possible trip back to Paraguay). All in all, it's shaping up to be an extremely full schedule.

I will try to keep up with blog, but...well, we'll have to see how it goes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Hey, people...I have a very, very serious question for y'all.

I'd like some feedback on 5E's advantage-disadvantage game mechanic. Do people like it? Do people hate it? It's easily adaptable to earlier editions of D&D (and the usual bunch of retro-clones). How many folks are using it and loving it? And how many people have tried it and kicked it to the curb?

Here's why I ask: I'm putting the finishing touches on a little B/X supplement of mine, and originally I had included a section that added a straight adaptation of advantage-disadvantage to the rules (though I feel my write-up of the mechanic is a bit more succinct...*ahem*). I did this for a couple reasons:

  1. I think it's a neat little system/shortcut.
  2. It allowed me to add a bunch of bits and pieces that rely on the mechanic. Examples include: new maneuvers/options in combat, cleaned up B/X mechanics, and certain treasure items and magical/spell effects.

HOWEVER, as said this is going to be a supplement designed for use with B/X...and I have heard from a person or two that they are not fans of advantage/disadvantage. Right now, I'm looking for some feedback, in order to make a product that's more palatable to my readers (i.e. the folks most likely to buy the thing). SO...assuming the supplement ends up sounding like a product you're interested in:

Do you want to see advantage-disadvantage?

Or would you prefer 5E mechanics were left on the cutting room floor?

I realize that, for many folks, it's not a big deal...that people can modify these books as they see fit and that some are more than happy to edit things out that doesn't work for them. I get that. I'm trying to find out what y'all would LIKE to see in the book, AND what you feel about the mechanic in general. Because the fact is, I haven't had much experience with 5E or advantage/disadvantage and maybe I'm throwing a Big Fat Flaw into an otherwise sharp little product.

So PLEASE: any feedback folks can provide is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Cleaned Out

Well, it appears I just sold my last print copy of my B/X Companion over the weekend (I might have another one squirreled away somewhere, but it's a long shot). Rest assured, I'm in the process of ordering a new print run...a bigger one that should (hopefully) last a couple years.

I'm a little surprised that the book continues to sell as well as it does, both in print and electronic form; I'd have figured I'd already reached the point of saturation in our niche-niche market a while back. Apparently not.

What's even more surprising is sales of Five Ancient Kingdoms has picked up recently...I've sold as many copies of it in the last six months as in the twelve months prior. Weird. No idea who's playing it (perhaps folks are just mining it for ideas?) of these days I'll have the "Running Beagle Games" web site up-and-working and maybe I'll get some forum discussion going on the game.

Anyway, still recovering a bit from a weekend-long soccer jamboree and finishing up the last week of school. I hope to keep the blog posting going through the summer...we'll see how that goes.
; )

Saturday, June 9, 2018

JB Holding Forth

Last month I mentioned Alexis (over at Tao of D&D) is doing a series of podcasts called "Authentic Roleplaying" in which he interviews various Dungeon Masters about their experiences and perspectives on the job. Welp,  my interview is up now for anyone interested in hearing what JB sounds like when given the chance to blather on in the (internet) flesh.

Hint: I tend to be as long-winded in person as I am when it comes to writing Ye Old Blog.

Still, figured I'd mention it. The series as a whole is quite good, and I'm sorry it's only going to be eight episodes (originally, Alexis intended it to be a dozen or so). If you haven't checked it out, there's a lot of insight to take a way from ALL the folks that got interviewed...ideas you can add to your game and/or apply to your campaigns. I recommend it.

Anyway, here's me (podcast #7).

Oh...and here's Fuzzy Skinner (#6) writer of the blog Fuzzy's Dicecapades (just in case you missed that one); Fuzzy's episode hadn't yet been released when I wrote my original blog post.

Have a great weekend, people!
: )

Friday, June 8, 2018

Pendragon Armor in B/X

So I was watching Vikings again last night (and, again, staying up waaaay too late), because of its fascinating portrayal of European cultures in the 8th century. As a product of the History Channel, I expect it to be at least somewhat historically accurate, even if the drama is created purposes. But things like the clothes, armor, artwork, village life, religion, politics, law...these are the things I'm interested in and the reason the show draws me.

Well, that and Norsemen hitting people with axes. I love that.

Anyway, the episodes I streamed last night (from the second season) raised some interesting thoughts about the medieval economy...not just monetary economy, but the economy of raiding (ships and men and armies). But in thinking about it, it brought me back to some recent thoughts I'd had...specifically an interest in having a B/X campaign set in the EARLY "middle ages," circa 6th century or 7th century.

[there's a bit more fantasy in this time period (think the film Dragonslayer or the Northern and Southern dynasties of China...the period of the historic Mulan hero), while still having recognizable fighters of the traditional D&D stamp. Hell, even some cities large enough to support thieves of the adventuring type, and characters that would pass for D&D clerics are performing miraculous deeds as well. Even if the setting isn't historic Earth, it's not a bad time period to emulate]

And as those little wheels started turning in my head, including the sticky wicket of economy that I've discussed before (and before that...jeez, another recurring topic), it hit me that I have at least some (again, presumably somewhat researched) economic information from that time period (at least with regard costs): Chaosium's Pendragon, and it's tasty supplement Knights Adventurous.

So it was that between 1ish and 3am last night (well, 2:45, really) I found myself with a bee-in-the-proverbial-bonnet, doing my usual song-and-dance crazy trying to reconcile internet-researched records of historic price lists with game product written by History majors in their spare time.

No need to remind me of the futility in such an exercise; I know the drill. Here's the part that MIGHT interest you: once I eventually circled around to giving up, I spent a good chunk of time converting the 6th century armor types of Pendragon to the B/X system. For your enjoyment (and for future posterity; i.e. so I don't have to do it again), I'll go ahead and post it here. Synchs up pretty well, actually.

[prices will be given as per Pendragon, where one pound (L) = 20 shillings (s) = 240 pennies (d). A campaign set in 6th century Camelot would probably want to change the "gold standard" of B/X to the silver shilling, and so prices will be listed using a shilling base]

Suit of Armor (without padding or helmet)
Leather: 1s, 3d
Cuir bouilli (boiled leather): 5s
"Norman" mail: 15s
Reinforced mail: 80s
Plate and mail: 200s

Open helm: 3s, 4d
Great helm: 8s, 4d
Visored helm: 12s, 6d

Padding ("dublet")
Normal: 7d
Fancy: 2s, 1d
Silk, 3 colors: 20s

Armor value (AV) is subtracted from base AC 9 to arrive at the character's armor class.

AV 1: leather, padding, open helm
AV 2: cuir bouilli, closed helm (great or visored)
AV 3: mail with padding
AV 4: plate-and-mail with padding
AV 6: full plate with padding

Typical "Norman" Mail
Norman mail without padding has an AV of 1; both reinforced mail and plate-and-mail have an AV of 2 without padding. Padding is not worn with leather or cuir bouilli. All armors are generally worn with an open helm except reinforced mail and plate-and-mail which are usually worn with a closed (great or visored) helm. Full plate is always worn with a closed helm and padding.

ACStandard Armor Worn
8Leather, dublet, or open helm (only)
7Leather + helm, cuir bouilli
6Cuir boilli + helm, mail
5Mail + helm (Norman style), plate-and-mail
4Mail + closed helm
3Plate-and-mail + closed helm
1Full plate armor

Plate-and-Mail; AC 3
These would be typical AC values (based on usual type of padding/helmet worn). A shield would, of course, subtract 1 from the listed AC, providing a range of 9 to 0. Please note that no cost is given for "full plate armor" (the typical Milanese variety and similar) because it's not widely available prior to the 15th century; however, in a fantasy world it might be something created by some genius wizard or mad dwarf inventor. As with the author of Pendragon, I provide it here for the sake of "completeness."
: )

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Well, What Do Ya' Know?

Yesterday, I got this comment from porphyre77 on my latest clerical post:
Before 3rd edition came with spell domains, AD&D2 had spheres; pretty good to tighten the overprolific clerical list of AD&D (especially post-UA).
Reminding me of something I'd managed to forget (yes, when I was "spending a lot of time going through editions" I completely neglected a review of 2E. My bad).

Thing is, I haven't had all that much experience with 2E, and (so far as I can recall) just about ZERO experience using clerics in 2E. I did run a 2E game for some friends once or twice, but none of them were of the cleric class (paladin, thief, and some sort of elven multi class, if I recall), and the time or two I played I was working the fighter or weak-sauce bard. The clerical "spheres" were something I just kind of glazed over. Much like wizard specializations, I always figured (when I was interested in 2E) that it was something that I'd need when and if it ever came up.

Reading through my 2E PHB (yes, I currently own a copy...I've only bought the thing 3 or 4 times, and this time I am really, really going to keep it for research/archival purposes) *ahem* ...reading through my PHB, I find I really like what I'm seeing. The system is simple, easy to customize, and does quite a nice job of "tightening" the cleric into specific "themes" as one might require for their setting (as well as cutting down the "over prolific" list of 1E, as Porph points out). Very, very nice.

Of course, I also see why I never used it. There's really no guidelines or examples of the sphere system provided (neither in the PHB nor the DMG) least as far as I can find. Folks can correct me if I'm mistaken. Neither does there appear to be any 2E version of Deities & Demigods/Legends & Lore that might have multi-faith pantheons already worked out and ready for play (I'm guessing any DDG concepts were dropped as "too offensive" around the same time as half-orcs, assassins, and demons were cut). Maybe there are spheres in specific 2E setting products (was Greyhawk released for 2nd edition?), or perhaps there are examples in The Complete Cleric handbook (which I don't own). But there's nothing just "out-o-the-box" ready for play in the core books. For old 1st ed dudes like my friends and I, I can see why we simply chose to ignore the spheres and "default" to our usual, all inclusive style. I imagine plenty o others did the same.

As such, it's a little less useful to me (at least, as is). I have some quibbles with the sphere selections (do you really need an "astral" sphere containing two spells? What god is going to give "major access" to such an area? Why not just include them in the "general" category?) and would probably want to devise my own, especially if I was using it for B/X. Then, of course, since there're no example war gods, sky gods, sea gods, etc. I'd have to devise my own for my campaign setting in order to see which spheres were granted. And then by then, I might as well be coming up with my own spell lists for each patron deity of my campaign...which I suggested doing in my last post.


So, okay, kind of neat, but less than helpful. I suppose the sphere thing gives me some ideas for categories. And I like the list of possible weapon permissions based on deity (THERE they have some examples...yay). Not sure about the "granted powers" (didn't much like them in BECMI's Wrath of the Immortals set, either), but maybe they are something to take a second look at (perhaps as a replacement for "turning ability?").

Hmm...why is "cleric" listed AFTER "warrior" and "wizard?" Even 1E had its list in alphabetical order by class (if not subclass). Jeez, 2nd edition...I try to like you, and you keep stomping on yourself.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Holy Rolling (B/X Cleric Spells)

Ugh. Clerics? Again? This is literally my 40th post that will have the tagline "cleric" in it...and I'll probably have 50+ before I'm done with this blog.

Sorry, I don't why the subject keeps coming up, I've just been thinking about them since last night (probably has something to do with going to evening Mass yesterday...hey, at least I'm not regaling y'all with "the many layers of the Eucharist," even though I think that's pretty interesting...).

[of course, I'm sure that some of my readers would prefer that to reading about how Post Malone makes ol' JB feel like a middle age grump...*ahem*]

And WHAT I've been thinking about is this: I've written about the cleric class a lot over the years, most of it, pretty positive. Especially for B/X, I dig the class and how it scales over time (save for the XP needed to advance...that's too low and should have been increased to 150K after "name" level in much the same was as thieves had theirs increased to 120K). Heck, I can even get by with the slight idiosyncratic spell acquisition (carried over from what I'm pretty sure was a typographic error in the OD&D volume Men & Magic). About the only change I've ever made to the class, in actual play, is to allow the character to choose their spells at the moment of casting, rather than forcing them to "memorize spells" during their morning meditations...after all, what is a clerical spell but a prayer, a fervent supplication for divine aid?

But that's all old ground, culled from various old posts (39 of them...and a lot of the writing is, frankly, quite awful). No, what I haven't written about, and what I want to discuss is the actual B/X spell list available to clerics.

I kind of hate it.

Really. There's a lot of dross in there...certainly a lack of unified theme. Yes, the various "Get-Out-O-Jail-Free" cards, but then stuff like snake charm, growth of animal, and...well, we'll go through it all in a moment. Point is, I don't dig the way it's set up. It's no wonder that, played RAW, B/X clerics tend to sport cure light wounds x3 and hold person x2.

Mind you, it's not just B/X. I spent a lot o time last night (too much, really...past midnight with the rest of my family snoozing) going through various editions and checking out the clerical spell lists. 3E, bless its heart, actually does a bit of a nice job with domains, though it's still too clunky and prone to "gaming the system" for my taste. AD&D has a giant selection (natch), greatly in need of editing, but par for the course with its "kitchen sink" approach to advanced gaming. OD&D is decent, being somewhat unified as a Christian-Jewish (Old and New Testament) thing...but far, far too limited with only 26 spells total. Considering I like the scaling of B/X spell acquisition (up to 25 spells per day at level 14), that's just too few.

[oh, and FYI: we're not even going to talk about MY additional cleric spells in the B/X Companion. We've got enough to worry about with just fourteen levels]

In all honesty, my favorite edition for clerical spells isn't even D&D at all, but rather my own Five Ancient Kingdoms. Reading over it, I was struck by my own elegance (yes, yes...feel free to take me to task for my ginormous ego) and design work in crafting a tightly unified, slickly executed system of divine supplication. It is unfortunate that 5AK is not a system I'm terribly interested in running...I want something a bit more gonzo S&S (like Elric, Lankhmar, etc.) and less "fantasy monotheism with shamans on the side." Plus, I'm terribly UN-satisfied with a lot of the magic rules in 5AK; it's functional for it's specific setting and system, but not terribly portable.

Here's what I like (in B/X): clerics receiving a spell a single spell upon reaching 2nd level and a scale that goes to 25 at level fourteen. I even like the 6-5-5-5-4 breakdown, and I like that clerical spells don't top a magnitude of 5th level. I like that raise dead is a spell. that it's 5th level, and still fairly accessible (also that it has some side effects...I actually feel it should have more, like reducing constitution and/or a random ability or prime requisite).

[Ha! That would be a kicker! The magic-user that comes back from the dead a little forgetful (a la Gandalf in LotR), or the fighter who's a little weaker...and thus advance at a lesser rate with lower XP bonuses from their PR. Something to think about...]

Here's what I don't like (in B/X): classic Judeo-Christian miracles outside a monotheistic world setting. Some of the spells that have been added since OD&D (snake charm and growth of animals specifically). Spells that duplicate magic-user spells (detect magic, light/darkness, protection from evil, hold person, continual light/darkness, locate object, remove curse/curse, protection from evil 10' radius). Reversible spells. "Snake" spells absent some sort of snake cult campaign setting. Overall lack of variety/options...even without my house rules, B/X magic-users have 3-4 times as many spell options as they have available spell slots! I'd like to see clerics have at least 10 or so (different) spells per spell level.

When I've played a cleric using the B/X system, when I've had players who were clerics, these complaints never came up. That's because the clerics who were high enough level to cast spells simply stuffed their quiver with cure light wounds and hold persons, knowing they could always pray for a remove curse or continual light (great for lighting lanterns), during their "down time" between expeditions. There should be more utility here...more reasons to take (or use or pray for) different spells while out on safari. The high (5th level) spells are all good and useful but most of the mid-range are close to worthless. Striking? Clerics of 6th level (and higher) are usually carrying some sort of magic weapon, making this a non-starter. Know alignment? I suppose it might be more useful in an OD&D world where ALL magic swords had alignment (quick! what alignment is the bugbear? how about the troll?) and fighters were in danger of being wounded every time they tried to wield one. Protection from evil 10' radius? Come on...that just gets in the way of a cure serious wounds!

Ideally, a fantasy setting that featured a polytheistic cosmology (of the type found in ancient societies and sword & sorcery books) would have separate spell lists for each pantheon...either because each cult possesses its own lore and mystery teachings OR because each deity has its own suite of miracles to bestow on its followers. That's not a terrible amount of work for a DM (i.e. "me") to do, assuming I'm "world building" a campaign anyway. But I think it's a necessary step to take to have the right type of...I don't know, call it "depth" one's setting.

Plus I'm just tired of seeing silence 15' radius on spell lists. That spell was only invented so that "evil high priests" could fuck with PC magic-users.

Anyhoo, that's what's been on my mind. Perhaps I'll write up some specific examples concepts in a future post. Later, gators.


Okay. I have something D&Dish to write about today...but first:

Most of the time, I don't feel old. I really don't. I "joke" about being an "old man" (especially with my kids) and my brother has referred to me as "grandpa" for at least the last ten years. And there's a certain amount of pride I take in being a curmudgeon about my tastes in various "stuffs" (RPGs, rock music, etc.). But despite the thinning hair, the (slight) gut, and post-40 year old wrinkles around the eyes (oh, and a couple-four minor aches and pains that were absent in my 20s), I really don't feel much different than I ever have.  Usually, my perspective is one of everyone else getting younger, rather than me getting older.

Then, today, I heard something on the radio about the #1 radio song the day of your 14th birthday being some sort of profound statement about your life...which is bullshit, of course, but me being me, I had to hop on the internet and check it out (Tiffany's remake of the Beatles' I Think We're Alone Now just in case anyone's wondering). And since I had found this handy-dandy web site that could search #1 songs by date (in categories of US, UK, dance, and "alt rock") and being in a time-wasting mood, I started just checking the various songs that had hit #1 on my birthday over the years. And I found, at a certain point that I simply had no idea who many of the artists were. Like, I might as well have dropped out of the culture sometime in the 2000s. Some artist names (Rhianna or Adele, for example) are certainly familiar...others were a complete f'ing mystery. And most of the "top music" of the last many years I can't remember ever hearing.

Not that this is terribly surprising. I've never been one to listen to pop music radio stations (not since I was 12 or 13 anyway), and not knowing the latest Kanye West song makes me feel the same as not knowing the latest Mariah Carey song made me feel a quarter-century ago: it had zero effect on me. 'Who cares,' in other words. Sometimes a pop tune will catch my attention (I like a few of Lady Gaga's songs), and can bob my head appreciatively if it comes on when my wife is controlling the radio dial in the car. Most of the time, I just tolerate it (like Imagine Dragons' song "Thunder") waiting till the damn thing is over so I can flip back to my classic rock station without the kids complaining in the back seat. I was the same way long before I had children, or before the music of my youth had become "classic rock."

But THEN I finally got to the #1 song from last year's birthday (2017) and got to the song rockstar but Post Malone. Who the fuck was this guy? It wasn't the video that grabbed was the dude and his music that piqued my curiosity.

So I spent some time researching him. Ended up watching half a dozen of his videos. I'm not much of a hip hop fan (probably NWA's Straight Outa Compton was the last album I owned in the genre...and that was on cassette), and I find much (most?) of it disconcerting, if not downright offensive most of the time. But this cat's music, his whole vibe...somehow it intrigued me to dig at who is this guy? I mean, damn, he's only 22 years old?

And then I watched a couple interviews he gave, expecting to find...I don't know. An asshole, I guess. And instead, here's this man, not a kid, who just comes off as sweet, and nice, and down-to-earth, and humble, and appreciative, and mature...despite his youth, despite his rocket-rise to fame and (presumably...who knows these days) fortune. And he's just making music, really beautiful music (even if the hip hop lyrics are still problematic), and working with bonafide stars of the industry and just having fun, and enjoying being a "rockstar," but still just wanting to make music...

I couldn't have done it. I would have been a total asshole. A poser or something...I would have hid behind a facade of my own construction, at the least. That's what I did at that age. Took me years of work to try to break my own ego down to something manageable. Hell, I'm still working on it.


And then it hit me. It's not really "everyone else" getting younger. It's me getting older. There are plenty of young men and women who are mature adults, who are literally half my age, and yet have already developed into constructive members of society. Mr. Austin Post (his real name) is just an illustrative example, one from a particular business which (too often) we judge based on its hype.

I've spent a lot of time...maybe too much...with people who are older than me, members of the elite, the "rich and powerful" of society. Some are good, some are...not, some are trying to do right but going about it in really dumb or shitty ways that aren't helping. Regardless, I've often felt like I was the "coming generation," part of the wave that would be eventually taking the reins, helping to steer the world for the "kids" who were coming after me.

The kids are already here. I am the system. I am the institutions. I am the establishment. The torch of the revolutionaries has already been passed, and it's passed me by (or I failed to take it)...I just never really saw that till now.

Dude. Lame. *sigh*

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Huh. Weird.

For some reason, I am no longer getting comment notification emails from blogger (neither my own or any other commentators). If you made a comment...especially on an older doesn't necessarily mean I ignored you; I simply haven't been notified of your comment.

On the other hand, it's possible I ignored you...
; )

Anyhoo, I'll try to check for new comments on the design page as often as I remember to do so. Hopefully, things'll be back to normal in a couple days.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Demihuman Clerics in B/X

Originally, I was intending to write something about weapon proficiencies; however, this came up on Ye Old G+ the other day, and I actually liked my stream o consciousness response, so I figured I'd turn it into a blog post. I'm an opportunist that way.

[or scatterbrained]

I've written before (in various locations) my reasons for enjoying the "race as class" rules of early edition Dungeons & Dragons. Here's the main one, from back in 2010, but I've left plenty of additional thoughts scattered throughout the blog since then (I especially liked this one on xenophobia). For the most part, I stand by what I've posted...I prefer not having non-human species function as human occupations. A dwarf is a dwarf, an elf is an elf, etc.

But what if you postulate a world of multiple deities, like the usual D&D default (or the Moorcock books D&D emulates). Let's say you agree with me that the various demihumans ARE alien, inhuman, sentient beings...but ones that were created by, and have their own worshipful devotion for, extra-dimensional divine beings? Shouldn't they have a clerical class? And shouldn't such characters be playable as player characters (as they have been since 1985 with the release of Unearthed Arcana?)?

[to be clear, there were demihuman clerics prior to the UA being published, but they were specifically closed to players, only being available as non-player characters. Half-elves and half-orcas, being "semi-humans," were an exception to this stricture]

In such a campaign setting I can certainly see the sense in having a "priestly caste" for such creatures,  but even allowing for their existence does NOT mean A) they need emulate in any way, shape, or form the cleric adventuring class, nor B) that they must be made available as player characters.

However, assuming you do want to make such a character available as PCs (adding a little spice to the boring 'same old same old'), I certainly wouldn't go the route of making them the same type of divine agents as human clerics. For one thing, doing so goes back to the problem of using species ("race") as a stand-in for ethnic/racial stereotype (because they're just humans with rubber ears). For another, it misses an opportunity to play up the alienness of the demihumans that comes with creating one's own strange, species-specific cult and practice of worship. Rather than considering such characters as a race + class, I'd take the tack of calling them by the same classification (dwarf, elf, or halfling), but one with an overlay of "priest" (similar to my previous beastmaster and barbarian overlays).

Here are some examples of how it might work:

Priest of the Forge God (dwarf overlay): character is expected to be first in battle, especially against goblins, their hated enemy. Add +1 to attack rolls versus goblins; may not use missile weapons (in addition to normal weapon restrictions for dwarves). Priests who reach 9th level (Master Smith) may not build strongholds; however, they gain the ability to create magical items as a wizard. At 11th level, the priest may establish a Forge Shrine and will attract D6 dwarf acolytes of levels 1-3 to aid in her work. All other abilities and restrictions (including maximum level and experience needed) are as per the dwarf class.

Making a mighty weapon.

Priest of the Song Eternal (elf overlay): wisdom replaces intelligence as the character's second prime requisite, and the character is restricted to Lawful or Neutral alignment. Spells learned are chosen from the clerical spell list instead of those of the magic-user, and the character uses (and creates) magic-items as a cleric, rather than as a magic-user. All other abilities and restrictions (including maximum level, attack and save tables, number of spells learned, etc.) are as per the standard elf class.

Capital-E Evil.
Priest of the Demon Queen (elf overlay): wisdom replaces intelligence as the character's second prime requisite, and the character is restricted to Chaotic alignment. Spells learned are chosen from the clerical spell list instead of those of the magic-user, and the character uses (and creates) magic-items as a cleric, rather than as a magic-user. Priests who reach 9th level (High Priest/Priestess) may build a dark fortress in an out-of-the-way location; usually some dark forest, swampy bog, or subterranean cave complex. Because of the priest's foul depredations, normal animals within 5 miles of the fortress will leave the area; upon completion of the fortress, they will be replaced by monsters and evil humanoids seeking to serve and worship the fey's evil patron. These creatures will offer aid and tribute in exchange for protection and leadership, and some may even become monstrous retainers of the high priest. All other abilities and restrictions (including maximum level, attack and save tables, number of spells learned, etc.) are as per the standard elf class.

[please note, spells for priests of the demon queen will generally be of the reversed variety as per the rules for chaotic clerics (page X11). Whimsical folks might consider altering some of the spells to a more "demonic" variety, like stones to spiders in place of the standard sticks to snakes]

Hello, Vicar!
Priest of the Helpful Shepherd (halfling overlay): wisdom replaces strength as the character's second prime requisite, and the character is restricted to Lawful or Neutral alignment. The character has the exact same turning and spell abilities of a lawful cleric of equal level; however, the character is expected to abide by the weapon restrictions of both clerics and halflings. All other abilities and restrictions (including maximum level and experience needed to advance) are as per the halfling class.

FINAL NOTES: for all these overlays, level titles should be as per the cleric table given on page X5, save that the species type is added (for example: dwarf acolyte, halfling vicar, elf bishop). While priests of the Song Eternal have the same "name level" (Patriarch/Matriarch) as a 9th level cleric, this is not the case for the other sects (Dwarf Master Smith and Elf High Priest/Priestess). The level title for an 8th level halfling priest is Kahuna, not Sheriff.

Hmm...looking these over, I kind of like these. Might have to try them out the next time I run B/ least as NPCs.  
; )

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Questing for Tanelorn

For [reasons] I've spent much of the last couple days reading through Michael Moorcock's old Elric stories (I happen to own a couple gigantic omnibuses)...mainly the latter ones (The Vanishing Tower and Stormbringer), but digging about here and there. It's been a while since I really sat down and gave them a straight read; probably pre-marriage, in fact (circa 1998...twenty years ago!), so long before I ever started this blog or giving a good, hard look at the Dungeons & Dragons game. It's amazing what a debt the game's design owes to Moorcock's stories.

Which, sure, is "common" knowledge: Gygax has mentioned Moorcock in interviews, and he's listed as inspirational reading material both in Tom Moldvay's Basic book and the fabled Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

[this was not meant to be any kind of Appendix N post or research, just by the way...I wasn't re-reading these stories for anything gaming or blog-related (strangely enough). However, it IS interesting that the only Elric books named in the DMG are the 1963 Stealer of Souls and the 1965 Stormbringer novel. The former is a collection of five stories: The Dreaming City, While the Gods Laugh, The Stealer of Souls, Kings in Darkness, and Flamebringers (later renamed The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams). While these short stories are very much in the wandering adventurer, amoral sword-and-sorcery style that is the bread-and-butter of Old School play, I'm more interested in Moorcock's works' influence on the design of the game...and for that, you need to look at Stormbringer]

(*ahem*) YES, it is common knowledge that Moorcock provided an influence, but other than the whole Law-versus-Chaos alignment axis, I hadn't considered it too much, till now. As far as game (design) concepts go, I'd probably rank Moorcock's work as the prime influence on the game...certainly more so than Tolkien (whose main contribution are some fairytale races and monsters with the LotR serial numbers filed off), and probably more than Howard's Conan stories (which are, in the main, stories about a single, super heroic protagonist...hardly the model for an adventuring party). Only Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Mouser stories seem on par with Moorcock's contributions, and then mainly in tone (prior to the addition of the thief class).

However, much of the "accepted" cosmology of D&D can be cribbed straight from the world of Moorcock's Young Kingdoms. The struggle between Law and Chaos (with Neutrality in the middle) and what that all means is very well explained, and is prominent. The existence of past civilizations (and ruins ready for plundering) as well as the general search (or acquisition) of huge amounts of wealth. Motley groups of scurvy treasure hunters joining up together for mutual (mis)adventure. An abundance of magic, including potions, scrolls, items, and weapons. Intelligent magic items (possessing of purpose). Magic-users being readily available (if not entirely common, outside certain locales). The "Higher Planes," those who dwell there and how one arrives (via the "astral plane"). Elemental planes (and their inhabitants). Monsters of various sorts fit for fighting (unlike, say, Lovecraft's creatures), many of whom are NOT of standard myth and folklore but demonic combinations of various animal types, often with strange powers and resistances (like magic resistance). Different nations of peoples, different languages that can be learned. Planar/world hopping. Small scale combat. Large scale combat. Naval battles feature prominently (especially catapult-laden galleys) in many of the stories. Riding on the backs of flying creatures (dragons, demons, giant mechanical birds, etc.). Hunting out magical artifacts and the existence of ancient tomes of magic.

Humor...generally of the darker also present, as is failure, tragedy, and death.

Even Elric's own ancient people, the Melniboneans, seems the model for OD&D's elves. Long lived, inhuman, and fey, they freely mix magic and warfare...and the description of Elric:
"A tall man, broad-shouldered, slender at hip, a man with slanting brows, pointed, lobeless ears, high cheekbones..."
Could easily describe a D&D elf (especially as they've been pictured in later editions.

[interesting that the earliest illustration of an elf in OD&D shows the being sporting a full beard, unlike the later depicted, hairless race. While Elric is always illustrated as clean-shaven, it is explicit in several parts of the text that he shaves, while others of his species sport facial hair in various styles]

Also, stylistically, the world of Elric is all over the place. Yes, there is ridiculously extravagant headgear. Yes, there is the medieval side-by-side with the Renaissance with the fantastical in terms of architecture and culture/society. Yes, there is religion (fantasy religion) and gods (fantasy types on different sides, fighting against each other through proxies) and adventuring priests...though none of these seem restricted in weapon type. Yes, there's plenty of necromancy and undead abominations. Yes, there are magical traps and riddles that need to be deciphered and navigated by our bands of intrepid adventurers as they explore the ancient strongholds of long-dead wizards or perished civilizations.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to see the extremely strong connections between the Elric setting and Dungeons & Dragons, but I'm a little surprised at how I've glossed over these connections (or outright ignored them) in the past. Part of it, I think, is that the Elric stories are (to me) mainly about the exploration of a miserable individual's mental grappling with his own place in the universe (made palatable by the fantasy adventure genre in which the character is immersed). If you detach yourself from that part of the story (Elric, as a character, develops little throughout the works, and remains tortured and bitchy till the end...certainly in part due to Moorcock writing the LAST chronological story of the abino very early in the series), then you can see all the D&D tropes in which the protagonists find themselves.

Minus the Vancian style magic, of course.

[also nothing in the Moorcock novels explain "alignment language" as far as I can tell]

I've written before about my love for Chaosium's Stormbringer RPG (at least the early editions) and its suitability to running a game in the style of an Elric tale. I continue to stand by those statements. However, as I prepare a B/X campaign for an upcoming "summer project," I can't help but think that Moorcock's Young Kingdoms setting would make an excellent backdrop for Old School adventuring...a good base on which to lay a campaign foundation.

Not that I want to create something cynical and nihilistic, mind you (if I did, I'd just play Stormbringer!). Nope, nothing so destructive as a world on the edge of extinction. But there are plenty of ideas to mine from Moorcock's work...especially with regard to cosmology and its interaction with play mechanics...and I kind of feel like exploiting those ideas. I mean, why not?

Looks like Elric and Moonglum to me...

Monday, May 21, 2018

Childish Things

Saturday night I managed to lose my wallet, which is at least as embarrassing as it is inconvenient. There's little in it that couldn't be replaced (aside from the punch cards for my local bierhaus), but's a pain in the ass.

One of the major ways it's a pain is the hindrance to my ability to drive. Oh, I could still drive (one needs a vehicle to drive, after all, not a license), but I just replaced one tail light bulb and I know it's only a matter of time before the other needs a similar treatment...and do I really want to risk getting pulled over for something silly and getting a giant ticket for not having a license on me?

No. I have better ways to spend my money.

Unfortunately, Department of Licensing offices are few and far between these days (government cutbacks), and they're closed on Sundays. And also, apparently, on Mondays (did I mention government cutbacks?). You can get a temporary license on-line (and print it at home)...but you need a bank card to do so. And my bank card was in my wallet.


So, I'm on bicycle, at least till tomorrow. Which is fine, probably good for me (I have a trailer to haul my kids to and from school, so no worries there). I've been biking a LOT lately, something I haven't really done since high school. The wife was in town the last three weeks and her office was doing some sort of "bike month" contest, which (because she's my wife) she was ultra-competitive about winning. We ended up riding nearly 16 miles yesterday before she hopped on a plane for South America.

My "car" this week.
Like I said, it's probably good for me. My muscle tone's been coming back, though that's at least in part due to changes I've made to my diet. Well, not today...this morning I'm down at the Baranof eating biscuits and gravy and hash browns and eggs and bacon (hey, I'll be biking later!). But MOSTLY I've been trying to eat more grains and raw vegetables and less of the crap that I usually do.

[still drinking too much, though. Exhibit A: misplaced wallet]

Spending a lot of time on my bike means firing up old muscle memories and, of course, that means waxing nostalgic about gaming, especially Dungeons & Dragons. Back when I used my bike as my main mode of transportation, the places I was going were (usually) gaming related: I was going to my friends' houses (to game) or we were riding to and from school (talking about our games) or we were riding to some book store or other (to buy games and game-related product). And just humming along at a leisurely pace, my mind drifts into imaginative brainstorming, thinking about things I'd like to do in-game...

But even if that wasn't enough to (naturally) get me thinking about D&D, it doesn't hurt that the dude who owns the local bike shop (where we picked up some fittings for our bikes) is a big ol' D&D player/DM and hangs out with other D&D DMs (at the shop) shooting the breeze about the hobby. This is all news to me, though totally unsurprising. The D&D hobby seems to enjoy a healthy following in the Greenwood 'hood, even though I've never before made the acquaintance of any of these people. I am either incredibly anti-social or incredibly self-involved. Probably both.

Anyway, had a decent conversation with these folks in passing though (as usual) I spent more time simply asking questions and listening and zero time expounding on my thoughts on the game (don't like to scare people). Interesting tidbits: these guys have played for looooong periods of time. They run separate games (they're not all in the same group). They have kids the same age (or a little older) than mine and have recently been introducing youngsters to the game (at the request of others). For this, they're using 5E, though with heavy edits ("cuts") due to accessibility/teaching issues.

[asked about older editions, one guy said his preferred edition was "3.5" but felt that was waaaay out of reach for most kids...or adults. The other guy joked he'd wanted to make his kids play through every edition of D&D in chronological order, starting at 0E. I'm not sure that's a terrible idea, actually...]

These things, these thoughts, have made me wonder what ever happened to the gaming companions of my youth. I mean, I know where they are (Facebook, yeah?) and a bit about their lives: spouses, kids, jobs, etc. But have they really quit gaming? Have they found other creative outlets for their imaginations? Or has that part of themselves really just withered and died over the last several decades?

It hasn't for me, though Lord knows why not. Even when I'm not gaming, I'm thinking about gaming (or how things relate...or how they could gaming). I think my parents assumed I'd "grow out of it" (my father probably thinks I did...). My non-gamer wife hoped I'd give it up sometime, though I think she's resigned herself to my hobby at this point.

[gaming is my "porn"...sneaking old editions into the house or looking at PDFs when she's not around or using my book profits as a "slush fund" for buying game product without leaving a paper trail in our bank records. Sorry, sweetie. I'm not dishonest with my wife, but Scorpios have secrets (as she well knows, being one herself)]

'Course it might just be that I've had too easy a life. My old buddy Kris ("the Doctor" or "Doc," as I like to call him) has returned to Seattle after living down in Oregon for nearly two decades. Visited him the other day, and man, he is doing awful. Looks to be in his mid-70s despite being only a couple years older than me. Has a hard time talking because his dentures are all broken; has a hard time moving because his back is all screwed up. He's been on Social Security Disability for the last 25 years and the pills he takes for his bi-polar disorder have him all fucked up...can't use his hands anymore to paint or play guitar (and he used to be badass at both). His parents are dead, he has no one who can look after him, he was homeless in Oregon for a couple years and he's now living with MY fucked up brother in a house owned by our mutual friend who's fallen back into his heroin addiction. Just a f'd up mess. And he hates it. Hates it. But what can he do? You can't find a place to rent in Seattle for the $500 month he has in housing allowance.

Another old gaming buddy of mine (this one from high school) has just decided to move east of the mountains, where the cost of living is 40% of Seattle. That's understandable enough...except that the guy was born and raised in the heart of this town and has lived here his whole life (with the exception of his time at University of Chicago). But despite being untethered to a family or mortgage, he just can't make it here (i.e. survive) as an artist...and art is his raison d'ĂȘtre.

Maybe if I lived in a "survival mode" of scrambling just to feed and shelter myself I'd have zero time for gaming. Maybe...though I suspect I'd need the solace of escapism that gaming provides even more than I already do. Maybe I'm just an asshole.

All right...this is a weird, wandering post that doesn't seem to have much point, so I think I'm going to cut it off. I've got a couple half-finished drafts on the old blogger that'll probably make more sense; I'll try to get them finished and posted over the next couple days. When I'm not busy biking and whatnot.

Later, Gators.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

D&D - The Cartoon (Part 3: Old School Combat)

I'm going to give myself about 45 minutes to blog. We'll see how much I get through.

Close to four years back (!!) I started a series of blog posts (or, rather, intended to start a series) about the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. For various reasons and distractions, not the least of which being my life in Paraguay, this trailed off rather abruptly (you can see my prior posts here and here). Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the series again, mainly due to my daughter's love and fascination with the show (my, not so much). Enough so that I thought I'd get back to it.

Why not?

My first thought, interestingly enough, is how well I think the show actually models the game. All right, all right (I hear your snorts of derision)...NOT with regard to theme (the "quest for home" isn't anything like the standard quest for treasure and prestige), but in modeling game play. Much more so than what I used to think; however, you have to read between some of the lines with regard to censorship of a children's Saturday Morning Cartoon.

For example, no one was ever going to show characters (even adult ones) butchering orcs and spilling the blood of bullywugs on screen. That kind of animated violence (even in decades past) was reserved for the cinema, if at all. The original Johnny Quest (created in the 1960s) featured a lot of shooting, explosions, and killing of "bad guys" but no blood was ever shown (certainly no results of bloody hand-to-hand fighting) and, besides, JQ was created for an older audience and originally broadcast in a Prime Time time slot. So no "D&D show" made for kids was ever going to feature a dude disemboweling some opponent with a battle-axe.

Even so, remember the abstract nature of D&D combat. PC makes an attack roll. If successful, make a damage roll. Deduct damage from "hit points." If HPs reach 0, opponent is defeated.

All of these things are open for interpretation. What a successful attack looks like...and what a defeated opponents looks like...doesn't have to be gore-splashed bloodletting affairs. We might like them to be (I know I do), but recognize that the narrative color applied to the role-playing is almost entirely an arbitrary choice, and generally of the DM. I can be lazy and say, "You swing and hit the guy; he looks badly hurt." I can instead say, "Your feint leaves him wide open allowing you to bash his blade towards the ground and drive the point of your sword into his thigh; blood gushes from the wound as it appears you've nicked an artery."

But I could also say, "Your magic club strikes the ground in front of your opponent, throwing up rocks and dirt as he's knocked to the ground. He looks at you with fear...looks like he's had it."

Recognize the television show...defeated creatures (driven away, sealed in caves by rockfalls, or whatever) almost never return to trouble the protagonists. No, there are no corpses left strewn about the scenery, but they're as good as dead for all the trouble they cause later.

"But the cavalier doesn't even use a weapon!" Look, here's the thing I've come to think (as I re-watch these old shows): the Dungeons & Dragon cartoon is based on the oldest editions of D&D (even if it is pulling a lot of creatures from the then-newly-released Fiend Folio), if not B/X. Regardless of the character's "titles" (which, as far as I can tell is nothing but the name a player might scribble at the top of their character sheet), here's how I'd break down their classes:

Hank (plays "Ranger"): Fighter
Bobby (plays "Barbarian"): Fighter
Eric (plays "Cavalier"): Fighter
Sheila (plays "Thief"): Thief
Diana (plays "Acrobat"): Fighter
Presto (plays "Magician"): Magic-User (we'll get to him in a separate post)

In both OD&D and B/X, the default damage for any type of attack is D6...doesn't matter if you're using a two-handed sword or a dagger. Or a magic quarterstaff or "lightning bow" or bashing with a shield. Now, I do tend to look at the game through an OD&D (0E) lens because of the fighters multiple attacks against creatures of 1 hit die or fewer (Hank, Bobby, and Diana tend to do this a lot), but I can easily see this as a house rule 'ported into a B/X game, along with the various AD&D monsters. The B/X morale and reaction rules would seem a large part of the show.

All right, that's all my time at the moment. Perhaps more later.

We all do D6 damage.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"This is the Greatest Show!"

I've been "Hulu'ing" a lot lately, 100% due to my wife and I wanting to watch their original series The Handmaid's Tale or (as I like to call it) "the Factory of Sadness."

[all apologies to the Cleveland Browns for infringing on their trademark]

Harder to watch than the Cleveland Browns.
The show is especially depressing when you consider how many women around the world this moment...are being kept in a similar states of bondage. I am not one of the folks who worry about the possibility of my country devolving into some Gilead-like society (I think it would take a biological disaster of Children-of-Men-proportion for such a thing to happen), but there is still plenty of oppression at large in the world. Hell, much of the show could be an allegory for victims of domestic violence (forced to stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of one's child/children)...the story works (and is depressing) on a multitude of levels. I think it's especially interesting to consider the story in contrast to the conclusion of Frank Herbert's 1982 novel The White Plague: by the end, the female protagonist appears excited by the new world order that's starting to set-up (with fertile women at the top of the food chain). In some ways, I can see Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel as a direct response and rebuttal to Herbert.

[similarly, one might presume Paraguay's War of the Triple Alliance...which killed 90% of the country's male population, leaving the women "in charge"...would have produced a more egalitarian society. In fact, the opposite occurred and the country is perhaps the most machismo, male-centric state in South America. That's one of the main reasons we didn't want to raise our children in their culture]

But I digress. I didn't actually want to talk about The Handmaid's Tale or even Hulu (other than to say I can now catch up on the last three seasons of Vikings, which I missed). I really only bring it up to state the need to counterbalance this sadness has required me to go hard at some media, including multiple viewings The Greatest Showman, the Hugh Jackman film now in regular rotation on my DVD player.

Don't get me wrong...I'm a longtime fan of musical theater anyway, and The Greatest Showman is a BIG step up from Bye-Bye Birdie, both in terms of quality and message. Even without the need to inject some joy and melodrama and music into my couch-sitting life, I'd have been able to enjoy and hum along with my kids (they love-love-LOVE the film, especially my daughter, who's memorized most of the songs). BUT the most interesting thing about this quasi-biography of the early life of P. T. Barnum isn't (for me) the musical extravaganza, impressive as it is. Rather it's what I've come to think of as the secret message the film is whispering in my ear:

Dungeon Masters are the new ringmasters. Or, at least, they should be.

So much better than Wolverine.
I can't remember the last time I went to the circus. I have been to a circus or two (Ringling Brothers, probably, or maybe Circus Vargas) but not for 30+ years. From what info I can find on-line, it looks like Ringling Bros. stopped traveling around 1990 and shut down completely last year, so that's probably about right. It's possible that I haven't been to a circus since I was 7 or 8 years old (around 1980) which would mean I was last at the circus before acquiring my first RPG. I can say for sure that I don't remember anything about it except tigers jumping through flaming hoops, and even that is hazy.

[shows like Teatro Zinzanni and its lesser ilk I consider more to be "dinner theater," or perhaps cabaret...definitely not the grand spectacle of the Big Top traveling circuses of yesteryear]

There was a time when people went to such shows to experience spectacle, engagement, and escapist fantasy...all at the same time. The ability to wander about, ooo-and-ah, interact with live performers, all while being regaled with preposterous claims and fanciful tales. That kind of entertainment isn't really available these days, at least not in my neck of the woods.

[admittedly, I haven't taken the opportunity to see Cirque du Soleil the few times it's made it to Seattle, so I may be speaking out of my ass]

However, something similar IS possible with fantasy role-playing. The spectacle, for the most part, must be imagined by the participants, but the DM (acting as ringmaster) has the potential to embellish the narrative, providing color and context to lift the players' flights of fancy to epic-level escapism. The experience of role-playing can be the spectacular participatory entertainment that transported Barnum's devotees for so many years...and all without harming a single animal or acrobat.

Of course, getting bogged down in too many rules and minutia can spoil the experience, breaking the suspension of disbelief and fantastical transportation. But it's up to each DM to determine (with time, trial, and error) to determine what constitutes "too many" for their game...learning how much you can handle while still managing to keep your ringmaster hat is one of the major challenges of being a DM.

Because you must keep it together.  Your duties as ringmaster are essential, and trying to run your circus in a half-assed manner is likely to get you bitten by a damn tiger.

*ahem* Anyway...

Anyway...we need a little more ringmaster at the gaming table, a little more circus mastery. Damn, but there's a part of me that feels like this is what's missing from the game (or one of the things). Too many staid and sedate game masters sitting behind their screens, trying to keep impassive expressions, waiting for players to engage in the fantasy...and waiting...and waiting...when the DM should (instead) be stepping up and inviting them in and dazzling them with their verve and passion, if not their wit and charm (which, come on, not everyone has in spades, okay?).

Damn. Imagine walking into a convention room and seeing wildly gesticulating DMs at each and every table, players leaned forward on the edge of their seats, eyes alight, hanging on every word...instead of checking their phones or doodling on their character sheets or stacking dice in an apathetic fashion.

It's enough to make you root for a TPK. Anything to wake folks up.

19th Century Gaming Con
Anyhoo, more on that later (perhaps). Suffice is to say I found the film inspiring for my gaming in a way I hadn't expected (hmm...maybe I should have just led with that). To paraphrase Jackman's character: "What does it matter if the show is fake? The smiles are real." We are playing a game of pretend over here, not curing cancer or fighting (real world) injustice. If we're going to spend our time doing it, we ought to play it hard. Tart it up. Fire it up. Make it matter to our players. Put on a show...that's what I'm feeling anyway.

Man, I want a top hat.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Tao of Podcasts

I've been remiss about not mentioning this before; please allow me to rectify the situation.

Alexis Smolensk over at The Tao of D&D has (for the last several weeks now) been posting a series of podcast interviews he calls "Authentic Role-Playing." Each episode consists of a one-on-one interview in which Alexis discusses the challenges (and approaches to those challenges) of running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a different guest.

They're pretty fantastic. Alexis has plucked his interviewees from all sorts of gaming backgrounds and each brings a different perspective (and different personal history) to the table. For me, I've really enjoyed listening to them, and I've gotten a lot out of each. If you like podcasts (I know not everyone does) I think you'll find 'em a good listen: it's a great chance to hear from a variety of Dungeon Masters, each of whom has something useful to say about the game we enjoy:

Sterling Blake (podcast #1): a veteran DM who's been running games (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th edition) for 36 years, nearly entirely with the same gaming group.

Tristan Johnson (#2): a brand new DM (just started a year ago) who uses his knowledge of history (he's the creator of the Step Back History channel on YouTube) to develop his campaign.

Erich Schmidt (#3): an adventure writer and DM of more than 38 years experience, who talks about the challenge of engaging players, the manner in which he structures his campaign, and mentoring experiences.

Carl Olson (#4): author of the Crossing the 'Verse blog, 25 year veteran of multiple RPGs, who has quite a bit to say about DMing as relates to his military and managerial experience (as relates to D&D).

Becky Hamilton (#5): a complete newbie to role-playing and a departure from the normal podcast format as Alexis explains to her what role-playing is and how it's done.

These are the first five Alexis has posted (I believe he has thirteen in total planned for his "first season"). Each is edited to about 45 minutes in length; his intention is to release a new one each Sunday for the next couple months.

I will admit that Alexis had me as one of his "guests;" I have no idea where I fall in the order of the series, though I believe it's towards the end due to scheduling conflicts we had. However, I can't say I'm looking forward to hearing my own interview: compared to the episodes he's already released, I'm not sure I offered a whole lot that was helpful to listeners (maybe I'm mis-remembering our conversation). These folks who've talked about their own experiences...Blake, Johnson, Schmidt, Olson, and (yes) even Becky...well, I've found them to be positively inspiring. They really, really make me want to run a game again, incorporating tips and techniques that's been brought up in each of these dialogues, and addressing their challenges and concerns as well.

Anyway...I've been meaning to mention this in my blog for a few weeks (sorry...been busy), and figured I better say something before the next episode drops (hopefully sometime today). Give it a shot when you have some free time.

OH...and Happy Mother's Day to one and all!
: )

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Magical Three

Just continuing on with the post I started a few days back, I want to get to the second character class that has a less than stellar degree of low level effectiveness: the magic-user. Reading back over my blog, I can see that the MU is a subject I've griped about incessantly over the years, suggesting all sorts of "fixes" that would make the class more desirable/workable...everything from magical skills, to additional cantrips, to age-based magic, to more Vancian magic, to exceptional traits, to a variation of "spell points" linked to hit points, to a few other ideas that I won't bother finding links for. After reading through all of these proposals over the years, I find one major thing they have in common:

They're all crap. Really.

About the only post about magic-users I find worth keeping is this one that basically nerfs the B/X magic-user by restricting the classes which can engage in missile combat with thrown weapons (hint: magic-users aren't one of them). As I've written before, the concept of the wizard with the bandolier of throwing knives was interesting the first time we saw it in a game ('round about middle school) and has since become a trite, laughable image. And not very magical to boot.

What is magical? Dudes with gold skin and hourglass eyes? Albino sorcerers that need drugs to survive? Half-demons that age backwards? Wizards with blue star tattoos and secret taboos?

Nah...all that is interesting color, but no more interesting really than a guy with a curly horns on his skull cap or a robe sewn with images of stars and planets. No, the real thing that makes magic-users magical is their spells (duh), and when you get down to it, spells are really the only thing that matters. And the consistent gripe over on this old blog has always been one about spells...specifically how they scale.

Now, folks might not realize this, but of ALL the various editions of D&D, B/X is the absolute stingiest with regard to spell acquisition. Not only is there the "issue" of spell knowledge (a magic-user's spell book may contain no more spells than the maximum number that may be cast in a day), but the absolute number of spells that may be cast is fewer than every other published least between levels 4 and 14. While this actually helps scale at the higher levels (in my opinion), it is still a fairly intolerable rate of acquisition...especially at the low levels. A first level character, starting with a single spell, is simply not a recipe for effectiveness. Even Gygax's house rules (which purportedly started PCs at 3rd level) provided a bonus 1st level spell to wizards with an INT of 15+.

So what to do?

Well, after careful well as side-by-side comparison between OD&D, AD&D, B/X, etc....I've come up with the following three house rules that I can live with. For me, they give just the minimal effectiveness needed, they still feel both magical and "Vancian," and they jibe with my B/X sensibilities. Here goes:

  1. Magic-users begin the game with one extra 1st level spell. So two first level spells known to start, increasing to three at 2nd level. When the magic-user hits 7th level (the experience level at which they would normally learn a third first level spell), she does not receive a fourth spell; instead, normal B/X progression resumes (so 3-2-2-1, just as in the book). The additional spell is simply in aid of increased effectiveness at low levels.
  2. Magic-users with a high intelligence receive a number of bonus spells in much the same way that fighters receive a bonus to melee combat for strength or thieves receive (per my house rules) a bonus to thief skills for dexterity. An intelligence of 13+ provides a bonus 1st level spell, an intelligence of 16+ yields a bonus 2nd level spell (once the magic-user has reached sufficient level to cast 2nd level spells), and an intelligence of 18 gives a bonus 3rd level spell (again, only upon reaching a high enough level to cast spells of that magnitude). Note that even with these bonus spells, the B/X magic-user will have fewer spells available at high levels than both the AD&D and OD&D wizard.
  3. Finally (and I realize some may hate this), I will not allow magic-users to memorize more than one copy of any spells known (no doubling up on sleep or magic-missile, for instance). I really prefer players to find ways to utilize their entire repertoire of magical knowledge, not simply stacking combat spells. Not only does this ape the feeling of Vance's Dying Earth (as well as other S&S stories), but it provides additional incentive for magic-users to create magic items (scrolls and wands, etc.) both for extra firepower and for trade with other wizards ("I'll give you a potion of water breathing for a scroll with web and continual light."). I want magic to be a scarce and potent resource and magic-users to collect any bits of magical gear they can to bolster their own abilities. I want to encourage PCs to specialize in different styles (fire magic or illusions, for example) rather than accumulating pages and pages of spells that they seldom, if ever, find an excuse to memorize.

The astute reader will notice that the average first level magic-user with an above average intelligence (13+) will thus begin their career knowing a total of three magical spells, all of the first order of magnitude, each of which can be used a single time during the adventure (game session). Personally, I feel this is sufficient for a beginning character: it provides multiple options but is still limited, requiring the young adventurer to make clever use of her resources, but not hamstringing her completely. As previously said, I can live with that.

And anyway, I'm really not a fan of cantrips.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Surprise and Surrender (Thief Incentives P. 2)

[continued from here]

I think it's rather telling that several of the thief skill percentages (open locks, find/remove traps, and pick pockets) were increased in AD&D to that of an OD&D/B/X thief of the 3rd level, even before adding racial bonuses or adjustments for ability scores and lack of armor (see the Unearthed Arcana).  That right there provides me with a justification for adding bonuses based on dexterity, as postulated in my prior post.

Still, though, let's talk about giving the 1st level thieves reasons for using those skills.

Open locks is rather straightforward, and doesn't really carry much risk. Assuming the thief can afford her tools, there's no reason NOT to try opening locks that are found. You'll be saving your wizard the use of a knock spell, and giving your party a chance to preserve treasure chests (for carting coins), and moving stealthily (rather than chopping down locked doors). Upping the percentage chance via a dexterity bonus just ensures an increased level of effectiveness (i.e. the locks will open more often than they would otherwise).

Climbing sheer surfaces, which I take to mean "free climbing" (without rope or equipment), carries a fairly sizable risk: death. It is explicit in the text that a failed roll results in a fall from the halfway point of the climb (checked once every 100'), and multiple D6s of damage is generally going to splatter a low-level thief all over the flagstone. That's pretty rough. On the other hand, the thief's chance of success is 87% even without a possible dexterity adjustment (and here I'd only add +1% per ability "pip," rather than +5%) meaning there's very little possibility of failure even at 1st level. Cautious thieves making extensive climbs (requiring multiple checks) might make use of spikes and ropes to prevent falls once the first successful roll has been made (tying off at the 100' mark).

Hearing noise and finding traps has the same success chance for the 1st level thief as most other player characters (they hear like a demihuman and should never have less than the 1 in 6 chance of discovering a trap that any non-dwarf PC has); as such, performing those skills aren't any more "risky" than any other character (the only risk is in potentially failing to spot a trap or hear an opponent). Removing traps is another issue, and should always receive the suggested dexterity bonus. However, it's important to note that NO WHERE in the (B/X) text does it state a failure at trap removal results in springing the trap. The example of Black Dougal dying from a poison needle comes not from missing a disarm check but, rather, from failing to detect the trap on the chest, and then proceeding to open the chest anyway. It is likewise important to notice that Dougal still receives a saving throw (just as any other PC would) and at low levels requires a 13+ to avoid the traps effects. That's a bit like saying the character had an additional 40% chance of "deactivating" the trap (assuming that the trap is only capable of delivering its damage once) and that, I think, is a reasonable risk to take to save the entire party a bit of heartache.

[the 20% chance to remove (assuming DEX16+) + 40% chance to save results in an overall success rate of 52%...better than the chance to hit armor class 8 at as a 1st level character]

Hiding in shadows and moving silently are those skills that allow thieves to stealth around like ninjas, and have a low chance of success even with a dexterity adjustment. However, both interact powerfully with the surprise rules in B/X. Hiding in shadows allows the thief to become invisible in even the slightest darkness, though it is clear from the AD&D text that creatures with infravision will still detect a thief unless there is a nearby torch or heat source (like the kind that might cast shadows...*ahem*). B/X plainly states that infravision is useless even with in "magical light" (page B21), meaning thieves can feel fairly confident of remaining hidden in any situation where they themselves can see their opponents (i.e. due to the presence of illumination). In a fantasy setting like D&D, such an effect can seem semi-magical (a sudden vanishing into darkness), similar to the supernatural portrayal of the assassin's disguise skill in the television series Game of Thrones. There is no stipulation that the thief need be unobserved to perform the skill; a simple skill check allows the character to fade from sight instantly...and as well should provide complete cover (as per page B26). In a normal combat situation (with party members relying on light sources), a successful hide in shadows should allow the discreet thief to completely avoid injury except of the collateral variety (errant fireballs and whatnot). A hidden thief should be able to attempt a surprise roll (possibly at a bonus) with no possibility of being surprised herself, save by invisible creatures.

[creatures with powerful olfactory senses might be a different story, however]

Moving silently allows thieves to sneak up on (or past) guards and creatures, facilitating a better than usual surprise chance. Bugbears "move very quietly" and achieve surprise on a 1-3 "due to their stealth" and the thief who succeeds at her skill roll should receive a similar (and probably better) bonus. After all, the thief is moving silently, not just quietly; for me, I'd probably allow a successful roll to indicate automatic surprise for the thief (an opponent fails to notice the thief until she is already lunging for the attack). However, even on a failed roll, the thief should still receive the normal surprise chance of any other character (2 in 6 chance); thus, similarly to the "remove traps" skill, the chance of the thief to achieve her aim (surprise) is actually greater than the skill percentage would indicate: about 53% for a 1st level thief (assuming the +10% bonus of a 16 dexterity).

And a thief that obtains surprise should always be allowed her "backstab" bonus.

Finally, we have the somewhat problematic pick pockets skill. Problematic as the book's example shows the thief stealing from an NPC member of the thief's own party; even the basic class description contains the text:
As their name indicates, however, they do steal -- sometimes from members of their own party.
...which sets a fairly bad precedent, considering we want players to be working together, cooperatively. Fostering inter-party conflict is NOT conducive to long-term sustainability!

I know some folks use the skill as a catchall for any sleight-of-hand a thief might want to perform, but really, how many times do you need a stage magician in a dungeon setting? Not many.

No, let's look at the typical Oliver/Fagin-esque ability. Unlike AD&D with it's "dice for random item" method of determining what's been pilfered, no such stipulation is made in B/X; my assumption is that the thief can choose what she's going to lift on a successful check. And while I would NOT recommend stealing from one's fellow party members (NPC or not) there is, I think, an oft overlooked way the pickpocket skill is underutilized: as a means of escaping capture.

"Capture? I thought DMs were supposed to avoid imprisoning PCs because such de-protagonization sucks, JB." Be that as it may, PCs can still choose to voluntarily surrender...and why shouldn't they, especially when faced with overwhelming odds? Most intelligent opponents will accept surrender, rather than risk more bloodshed to their own people. Lawful species (dwarves, elves, etc.) can be expected to treat such prisoners humanely, and humans of any ilk will likewise prefer captives, either to prosecute under their society's laws, to attempt to secure ransom, or to impress their prisoners into labor (bandits and pirates might offer captives a chance to "join up"). Even cannibalistic humanoids are unlikely to butcher PCs that surrender, instead keeping captives alive for later consumption; killing them all at once would lead to "food spoilage," after all (and besides, by the time surrender comes, there might already be casualties fit for stew pots).

Here's the thing: being captured probably won't make PCs as vulnerable as one might suspect. It's not like they're going to be slapped in stainless steel handcuffs or leg shackles. They probably won't even be bound (being surrounded by armed warriors after divesting themselves of weapons being considered sufficient precaution). The characters will be marched off to whatever passes for a "holding cell" and thieves will have plenty of opportunity to pilfer the key to the cell, or a knife to cut cords, or some other useful item. Once secluded, the party will have ample opportunity to escape by whatever means the thief has managed to secure.

[or course, the thief may very well have her lock picks anyway. Unless the PC has some humongous reputation, she's unlikely to be recognized as a "thief" but rather a lower class (i.e. "poor") fighter...besides which medieval jailers are unlikely to do serious "pat-downs" for anything smaller than a hand weapon. Regardless, a successful pocket picking can allow the thief to purloin a key (removing the need for an open locks check) or a small knife (as a means of defense and backstabbing once escape has been obtained)]

The point being that the inclusion of a thief...even a first level apprentice...provides a party with additional options, not simply limited to fight and flight.

Thoughts? Are these ideas enough incentive?