Tuesday, September 24, 2019

On (the Game of) Writing Adventures

A few weeks back Dave and Dan had another good episode discussing the "role" of the Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons...what are the responsibilities of the DM, what are the expectations placed on the DM, and why they themselves enjoy running games. While I don't think their dialogue does much to put the topic to bed, the conversation raises some interesting "thinking points" for consideration.

One concept they reach, that I don't think unreasonable, is that while there clearly seems to be a number of responsibilities (hats worn) by a DM, many DMs (including themselves) have particular responsibilities they prefer more than others. To me, this is not unlike a player saying that the thrill of combat, or the solving of puzzles, or the interaction with NPCs is their preferred portion of exploring the imaginary environment of a campaign. Clearly, the majority of us play D&D because we enjoy what it offers, but some aspects of it offer more "juice" than others.

For me, MY particular preference is for designing and running adventures. Campaign or world building is actually a bit of a slog for me...it's a means to an end, that end being the parameters for a particular adventure. And yet, I would guess I am far away from the current norm of adventure design: I have little concern for plot or story arc or the design and writing of "interesting characters" (NPCs). I enjoy creating situations and scenarios for exploration and I do so in a formulaic fashion designed around the D&D system...based on whichever edition I happen to be using at the time. 

I outlined my basic design formula waaaay back in 2015 (about four years ago). It's the method I continue to use, more or less, and the method I am currently using to repurpose the 5E adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak. It's a system based mainly on treasure allocation compared to the expected level of player characters participating in the adventure, mixed in the proper proportions of monster-obstacle-rest that I have found fully functional for pacing in actual play.

Has anyone here ever taken a screenwriting class? For those who haven't (but who are interested in the process), I'd recommend Syd Field's Screenplay as the non-nonsense instructional work on how to write a solid film script. Films we watch may have more (or less) interesting stories than others, they may have more (or less) developed characters, they may have better (or worse) dialogue, but nearly all of them follow the exact same formula when it comes to writing them. Good, bad, or meh. There are reasons films tend to be the same length (120 minutes, or 90 for those aimed at younger audiences with shorter attention spans). The plot points, their pacing, are all based on standards established over the many decades of the film industry. 

For me, the fun and enjoyment of adventure design is found working within the formula that I choose to use (as outlined, in the main, by Tom Moldvay). The adventure in D&D is, after all, only a means to an end itself:

- It delivers the experience of D&D to the players.
- It provides the method (through reward) by which players advance, opening additional opportunities (i.e. content) for play.

Dragon of Icespire Peak, despite some interesting and creative ideas, is an extremely simplistic and (for my money) poor design hindered by the 5E's variant system of advancement...in this case, the "milestone" system of simply awarding a level of advancement upon successful quest completion.

[fun side note: I developed an alternate system of level advancement also using the term "milestones" long before 5E was published. This was back in 2010 and was inspired in part by Saga Star Wars's "destiny points" to represent a more streamlined bonus. Since my "B/X Star Wars" game (later re-named "Kloane War Knights") has yet to be published, its original format has not yet seen the light of day (other than this blog), but you can see the same application in my Five Ancient Kingdoms, copyright 2013...a year before 5E was published. Pay me, WotC!]

[yes, 4E had a "milestone" rule procedure; it was not related to the awarding of experience/levels]

ANYway...Dragon of Icespire Peak divides its various adventure scenarios (called "quests") into the following types: starting quests, follow-up quests (divided into two tiers), and the main dragon quest/fight. Characters are awarded one level for each starter quest up until 3rd level, one level for every two follow-up quests (presumably up to 6th), and then one more level for defeating the dragon. The adventure states that characters "should be 6th level" by the end of the adventure (and indeed, the box says it is designed to take characters from levels one to six), but a group of completist players are going to end up being 7th level by the letter of the milestone rules...and I'm not sure I'd buy that.

Here's the treasure yields I'm considering, using the B/X fighter level chart as a baseline (yes, AD&D fighters need more XP starting at level 5, but if you subtract the 10% experience bonus most such PCs would expect to have, it amounts to the same numbers or less):

Starter Quests: 10,000 g.p. each
Follow-Up Quests (tier 1): 10,000 g.p. each
Follow-Up Quests (tier 2): 20,000 g.p. each
Dragon (main) Quest: 80,000 g.p.

Considering that even a white dragon has treasure type H (average yield: 50,000 g.p.) this should be pretty doable. Icespire Hold has 24 encounter areas total (counting the two H22 areas as "A" and "B"), which works nicely with my formulaic approach:

8 monsters areas (4 have treasure)
4 trap/hazard areas (1 has treasure)
4 "special" areas (1 has treasure)
9 empty areas (1 has treasure)
With perhaps 1 "extra" treasure area. 

Rough treasure yields for the main quest will thus be:

40,000 g.p.
20,000 g.p. 
10,000 g.p.
5,000 g.p.
2,500 g.p.
1,250 g.p.
1,250 g.p. (or 625 g.p. x2)

These are parameters I'm happy to work with; more, I'm excited to work with them. Even using a formulaic system, I find it a cool challenge to see what I can come up with, working within self-imposed design limitations. I'm not concerned with the XP yield of monsters, as combat/killing monsters isn't a requirement of the D&D editions I run. That XP is incidental, and will (hopefully) make up the difference for treasure the party misses; I never expect PCs to find every last scrap of loot in an adventure site. As I'll be taking the same approach with every "quest" in the book, there will be more than enough potential XP (found treasure) to advance the PCs...assuming they play well enough to survive and find said treasure. 

I can understand if this seems like a "soulless" approach to adventure design, but I find it to be the opposite. In practice, I've discovered that taking care of the mechanical aspect of the award system up front provides me the freedom to run adventures to the best of my ability, managing the minutia, playing the NPC adversaries (and allies), creating the experience (through pacing and narration) in the players' minds that allows them to enjoy playing D&D. Involved story arcs and fancy plot devices are paltry in comparison.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Willow the WTF?!

It was a hard weekend for the Seattle sports fan...at least for one like me, who doesn't pull for the Huskies. Saturday starting with my 3rd graders soccer team being stood up by our opponent. Then my kindergartener's team got blown out by about 20-1. The boy's premier team could only manage a 1-1 tie with my kid missing on a direct kick by inches. Stayed up till midnight watching the Cougars blow a 32 point lead, despite a QB throwing nine touchdown passes. Then sat in the pouring rain watching the Seahawks throw up all over themselves against Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints while all three of our division teams (Rams, Cards, Niners) won their games. Oh, yeah...and the Sounders lost 2-0 against DC United and old man Rooney. Come on, man.

[yes, the Mariners lost, too, but they've been doing that since May...well, really since 1977. I wouldn't have even known there was an M's game Sunday if I hadn't looked it up]

So I'm a little tired and hoarse and cranky today. Mostly dried out at this point (save, perhaps, for my liver) but still a little salty.

Which is what leads me to say, WTF Gygax? Will-o-the-wisps? Are you kidding me?!

It's been a long time since I played AD&D, and I don't ever remember using will-o-wisps as a monster. I didn't include them in my B/X Companion because I consider them more of a trap/trick (little bobbing/floating lights that lead adventurers to their death) than a monster to be faced and beaten. It's been a long time (decades) since I've bothered reading the description in the MM, but one of Icespire Peak's adventures features three will-o-wisps as the main (only) encounter/danger...an adventure that is fairly lucrative from a loot perspective. And so I was checking the original stat block to see what kind of challenge this really was.

Holy crap. Negative eight (-8) armor class. Nine (!) hit dice. 2d8 damage per attack. Immunity to most magic spells. 18" movement rate.

These will kill you
dead...and eat your soul.
Forget the white dragon. A young adult white dragon has 24 hit points in AD&D...just one will-o-wisp would have no problem taking down a dragon, let alone three.

What the heck is this supposed to model, exactly? Even in their original appearance (the Greyhawk supplement), they were this beefy...I can understand giving them a high armor class OR a high number of hit dice, but not both. The thing has an AC equal to Demogorgon (or, as written in Greyhawk, plate +5 and shield +5), and hit dice nearly equalling a balrog. With a speed far exceeding any human adventurer, the ability to alter its shape or turn invisible at will, and its huge AC, why would it ever be cornered? Considering its immunity to spells, how can one ever expect to reduced in hit points to the point that it will give up its treasure?

This is a really weird (or really poor) monster design, in my opinion. And it irritates me. And it irritates me to have such a creature in an adventure, any adventure.

But then, maybe I'm just irritable this morning.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Forgetting the Realms

I don't know jack about the Forgotten Realms.

Because I'm me, I write this with a bit of puffed up pride, as in "I'm too good for that goofy property." But the fact of the matter is, I simply missed the whole FR experience. The original boxed set detailing the Forgotten Realms was published in 1987, a year after the last new AD&D book I would purchase (the Dungeoneers Survival Guide). By that time, I wasn’t even running a game, having surrendered all DM authority to my friend, Jocelyn. I would give up the hobby entirely circa 1988, only briefly returning (a couple-four years later) to DM my brother and his buddies in a turgid, short-lived AD&D campaign. My interest in the D&D during the 90s was roughly equal to the Seahawks playoff hopes during that same period (translation for non-Seattle residents: slim-to-none).

Here’s what I know about the Forgotten Realms: it was the home campaign setting of Ed Greenwood whose “Ecology Of...” articles (as voices by Elminster the Sage) I would occasionally read in Dragon magazine Back In The Day. When I was bored. After I’d already peruses any new classes, monsters, magic items, or Marvel-Philes that might be present in the mag.

I know Elminster is a prominent figure/NPC in FR. There were some video games based on the setting (Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, etc.) that I never played. I've never read or owned an FR novel, though I understand there's quite a few of them, some of which feature a Drow ranger named Drz'zt (or whatever).

Um...that’s about it.

Of the various D&D campaign settings that were put out over the years, the ones in most familiar with are Krynn, Mystara, and Oerth ("Greyhawk")...in that order. Krynn I know because I read the first seven or eight novels (multiple times for some of them), not because I ever owned or played any of the game publications. Mystara I know from reading (and using) the Gazetteers (during my BECMI days) or from more recent research. Greyhawk was a large part of our old AD&D campaign, although we never did use more of it than the map and the names of cities/regions...I couldn’t tell you anything about the “Suel” or Iuz or the Horned Society, etc. to save my arse.

[I did read Gygax’s first two Gord novels, though. Still own them, too]

And that’s it. I picked up a used (and incomplete) copy of 2E’s Dark Suns campaign setting decades later, but I’ve never done anything with it. Oh, and does SpellJammer count as a campaign setting? Steve-O game me a copy of that back in college, though we never did use that either.

Really that is pretty much the extent of my knowledge of the “official” D&D campaign settings. I don’t know anything about Birthright or Planescape (besides the fact that tieflings originated there), or Eberron, or anything else. And I know absolutely nothing about the Forgotten Realms (besides the Greenwood thing) except for the fact that everyone loves it and it continues to be a standard setting for the current edition of D&D.

Okay, okay, not everyone loves it, but quite a few people do.

More or less how I
picture Prince Gwydion.
So when I examine D&D Essentials and see this map of the “Sword Coast,” I really have no context or sense of scale or ANYTHING as it relates to the Realms. The illo on the original box cover felt reminiscent of a scene out of a Lloyd Alexander book, but I have no idea if the setting is heavily influenced by Tolkien or Wales or, well, anything. I suppose I could look up what Wikipedia says on the subject. Here, hold on a moment...


Okay, that didn't give me much...though, wow, there have been a TON of FR-themed vid games released. I had no idea.

Dragon of Icespire Peak does provide a page briefly describing this particular section of FR ("The Sword Coast"). Regarding the Realms in general it states:

"The world of the Forgotten Realms is one of high fantasy, populated by elves, dwarves, halflings, humans, and other folk. In the Realms, knights dare the crypts of the fallen dwarf kings of Delzoun, seeking glory and treasure. Rogues prowl the dark alleyways of teeming cities such as Neverwinter and Baldur's Gate. Clerics in the service of gods wield mace and spell, questing against the terrifying powers that threaten the land. Wizards plunder the ruins of the fallen Netherese empire, delving into secrets too dark for the light of day. Bards sing of kings, queens, heroes, and tyrants who died long ago."

[in other words, it's just D&D]

"On the roads and rivers of the Realms travel minstrels and peddlers, merchants and guards, soldiers and sailors. Steel-hearted adventurers from backcountry farmsteads and sleepy villages follow tales of strange, glorious, faraway places. Good maps and clear trails can take even an inexperienced youth with dreams of glory far across the world, but these paths are never safe. Fell magic and deadly monsters are the perils one faces when traveling in the Realms. Even farms and freeholds within a day's walk of a city can fall prey to monsters, and no place is safe from the sudden wrath of a dragon."

Okay, that's mostly just an overview of the D&D game's premise. However, there are some clues in this text (besides the proper names provided) as to the make-up of the setting. I don't usually think of "steel-hearted adventurers" coming from "backcountry farmsteads and sleepy villages." But when "no place is safe" and "farms and freeholds within a day's walk of a city can fall prey to monsters" that says something about the make-up of the setting: namely that there isn't any sort of serious government or military presence and that the landscape is a frightened no man's land where death is no more than a stone's throw away.

A hellscape, really...and that's something I can work with. Those "teeming cities" are probably nothing more than huddled masses of refugees from the countryside. These fallen empires and long-dead kings, etc. (not to mention "terrifying powers that threaten the land") speak to a vanilla fantasy world that's had all the idyllic/pastoral bits squeezed out of it. This isn't the Shire...it's Mordor. There's even an active volcano less than 35 miles from the area's major city (Neverwinter). The closest large town to Mount St. Helens is probably Kelso (about 60 miles away)...and it's only the 80th large town in Washington State as ranked by population. One might think it strange that the people of Neverwinter would hang out "rebuilding" after the most recent eruption (50 years before the campaign start) "badly damaged" the city. I can only assume that other areas of the region are so dangerous and monster infested that moving wasn't a real option.

Phandalin, the "home base" for the adventure is pretty much described the same as it is in Lost Mine of Phandelver (I think GusL's comments on the village are appropriate). While there are some callbacks to the idyllic ("you see children playing on the town green") I don't think it can't be rectified by playing up the mud, squalor, and horse shit of your typical medieval village (especially a slap-dash mining town as Phandelvin is). This should be something closer to HBO's Deadwood, not Downton Abbey's little village, especially one under constant menace of orc raiders and dragons.

"I've got a f*!%ing
quest for you."
Clearly then, much of this requires the makeover treatment. The town master (and "quest giver") Harbin Wester should be much more Al Swearengen and much less the cowardly Master of Lake Town (as portrayed by Stephen Fry in the film). Wester is trying to hold his little kingdom together, and he should be manipulating the hell out of any courageous dupes (i.e. the player characters) in order to make that happen.

[actually, I suppose if you really wanted to re-skin Phandelvin as Deadwood, you'd keep Harbin as is and make Toblen Stonehill, the real "Swearengen" character. Then you could set up Linene Graywind (by way of Patience from Firefly) as a competing, slightly less underhanded town faction]

Will probably kill
you anyway.
Point is, Phandelin should be more Nulb than Hommlet. And I think there's enough textual material in the adventure to support this view. Which is important to me for getting my mind right as I try to twist this bugger into something a little more playable.

The rest of the Forgotten Realms? Meh. Not all that important at this point.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Race, Racism, Alignment, and Evil

Apologies in advance: I should probably break this down into a number of separate posts. But I'd rather just lance the whole topic in one shot rather than prolonging the suffering.

Let's start with the basics: I'm about 10 seconds away from cutting alignment out of my D&D game. Yes, this is something that some folks (like the much esteemed Alexis Smolensk) has been advocating for years...blogging about it as recently as last week. But it's not Alexis who finally broke my back on the subject (even if he did lay a lot of the initial groundwork); rather, it was G.A. Barber's recent posts on decolonization, integration, and racist tropes in D&D.

And orcs. Thinking about orcs. Really just...orcs.

We're going to bring this around to the Icespire Peak thing in a second (that's a factor), but let's start with the orc thing first. I wrote a rather long comment/response on Barber's post that was either eaten by the internet or hasn't been approved. Doesn't matter either way because it was kind of dumb. But here's the summarized thought (refined a tad):

- While I understand the tropeyness of monocultures (an "elf nation," "orc nation," etc.) is both banal and uncomfortably similar to racist stereotypes (e.g. "all African nations are the same"), it's tough to separate from this when I want non-humans to represent a small segment of the world's sentient population (in comparison to humans, who are prolific and diverse). I'm more inclined to handle these monocultures as Gygax does the Drow in module D3: have a variety of internal factions, conflicting political/religious groups, and rogue independents within the monoculture. Another example might be the dwarves of Krynn as presented in the novel War of the Twins.

- That being said, there's an additional challenge: I like my tropey evil species. I like dragons that are greedy. I like goblins that are sneaky gits. And I like orcs to be scourges on the civilized species, whether because of some genetic curse or their innate subservience to some Dark Lord (Sauron, etc.). I understand this is a callback to European views of the Mongols or Huns (did Eastern nations view Alexander in the same fashion? Maybe) and, admittedly, lazy as far as world building. But what's the alternative? Feeling bad about killing orcs and taking their stuff? When we could be building bridges with and finding empathy for another sentient, misunderstood species?

[this is still D&D we're playing, right? A certain type of escapist fantasy that allows us to expediently resolve conflict with swords and spells, unlike the real world. Superhero fantasy (where conflicts are resolved with mighty fists instead of thoughtful dialogue) is similarly lazy and escapist, but sometimes we want that, right? Or not?]

- But even saying I go partway here towards "understanding orcs" (at least understanding that they are a group of homocidal, unreasoning inhuman humanoids), we can start to say HEY there's really no such thing as "evil races" and "good races" only SELF-INTERESTED peoples. Just like real life nations. Dwarves (or elves or orcs or whoever) might appear stand-offish to outsiders, but if your interests align with theirs, they're happy to become helpful, friendly allies. On the other hand, when your interests and theirs conflict, they're similarly likely to become enemies at the gate. And unfortunately for the orcs, the ethics and values of their particular "society" (such as it is) is quite likely to be at odds with those of (most) human communities.

[side note: I think it was the 2nd or 3rd edition of Warhammer 40,000 that suggested or implied that orcs were a plant-like species: the green skin/blood being related to chlorophyll, their seeming indifference to pain or lost limbs, their driving motivation to compete and expand like a hostile plant being introduced into an unprepared ecosystem. I do kind of like this idea, but D&D already has vegepygmies]

[hmmm...are vegepygmies kind of racist?]

Moving on from Barber's post (and my comments), this idea of "self-interest" echoes back to my thoughts on the nature of capital-E EVIL in D&D (advanced or otherwise). I wrote about this waaaaay back in 2010, when I realized there really shouldn't be a separate "holy" and "unholy" version of spells, water, and symbols. To the priest of Satan (or whoever), her symbols, spells, and special ointments are all "holy," and the implements of different faiths/religions are "unholy" or "blasphemous." Our perceptions are colored by our own values and self-interests, especially as ingrained in us by our parents/family/elders/teachers/society.

That doesn't mean everyone is a SELFISH BASTARD! There are still people in the fantasy world that are taking actions that enlightened 21st century (and, in my case, Christian) folks would consider "good" or "altruistic." Self-interest doesn't preclude acts of charity and kindness, if those things are of value to the particular fantasy being in question. Orcs, however, may not have those values by definition of their "particular society." A few outliers aside (as always).

Back to the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure: the adventure background concerns a white dragon moving into the territory and setting up shop. This sets in motion a number of events, including the forcing of orcs (the dragon's convenient prey) out of their usual territory, forcing them into conflict with the nearby human settlers. Again, I will say this isn't a terrible premise for an adventure...it is in fact, a very reasonable, realistic scenario. In a fantasy world of monsters eating and enslaving other monsters, it's only natural that such a chain of events would occur (the dragon in the adventure is youngish and was forced out of its territory by other, more powerful dragons...similar to a young lion being forced from the pride by the alpha male). The problematic part of the adventure is the execution of the scenario: kill encroaching monsters (orcs or otherwise), level up, kill dragon, yay...all for little or no reward.

Do I want to take out the orc fights? No, not necessarily. Do I want the PCs to peaceably "integrate" the orcs into their society? No. Even if they were re-skinned as "barbarous hillmen" (or something) I want to retain the cultural differences and conflict. I do not want my Dothraki walking around and enjoying the culture of King's Landing in some fantasy version of Renaissance Venice, okay? Keep that shit to the final episode...er, session of the campaign when you're done with "adventuring."

But do you see where I'm going with this line of thought? There's no need for alignments...especially monster/species designated alignment...in a campaign world based on thoughtful self-interest and reasonable motivations. THAT is why I'm finally, finally willing to take a hard look at axing alignment from my game, after years of resisting the idea. In B/X this isn't difficult: "evil" (for purposes of detect evil, protection from evil, etc.) is only limited to supernatural evil of the undead or demonic variety, with "evil" being defined as "contrary to the natural order of the world." Here are the only other considerations, as far as I can recall:

Alignment language: I don't use it anyway.
Intelligent magic weapons: even without alignment, such items have an ego and an agenda, and will attempt to control a character. I see little reason to do the "gotcha" damage from picking up a weapon of different alignment; being mind controlled by an intelligent sword is "gotcha" enough.
Alignment changing magic items: there are better, more interesting cursed items to include in a campaign world.
"Good" alignment play for adjusting XP acquisition: No.
Alignment restrictions based on class: I'd address this on a case-by-case basis.
- Assassins: originally required alignment was "neutral." Evil is as evil does: no restrictions.
- Bards: requiring "some sort of neutral" is the same as no requirements. Duh.
- Cavaliers: PHB only, please.
- Clerics and Druids: see the bit about holy symbols above. Priestly types are expected to follow the tenets of their particular faith in order to produce magical effects. Failure to do so might result in loss of abilities.
- Monks: have you not seen Iron Monkey? Look at the main villain.
- Rangers: I'm not running a Middle Earth campaign. These are outdoorsy hunter dudes, and that doesn't require a "good" alignment. Other restrictions certainly apply!
- Thieves: plenty of examples in fiction of "heart-o-gold" thieves; see Grey Mouser. Not sure why there was ever such a restriction (I think, back in the day, we house ruled this to "non lawful" instead of non-good).
- Paladins: the most problematic of the bunch, and my main impetus for years for keeping alignment (even when not playing AD&D!). I know that I still want "behavioral restrictions," but I don't want to tie them to DM fiat of what is or isn't being "true" to the lawful good alignment. Are the paladin's abilities supernatural? Yes. So then, as with other spell-casters, they are tied to their beliefs as self-imposed strictures (like a wizard's taboos against weapons). As such, I'd probably set a number of tenets/laws (similar to the cavalier's "code of conduct" in the UA) that such a character would not be able to transgress without the loss of her abilities.

All right. I think that's about all I want to say on the subject. Next post will be shorter (I think) and address the "vanilla fantasy" setting that is the Forgotten Realms.

Not all orcs are alike.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Essential Repurposing (Part 1)

AKA "Fixing Stuff For Fun And Profit"

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

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

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

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

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

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

- A nice set of (eleven) dice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favorite white dragon pic.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Vanilla DM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just so folks know.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Building An Advanced Combat System

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

Ah, yes...September.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's pretty awesome.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

My DragonFlight Adventures

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

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

DM: Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DM: Travis

My Character: a female "acrobat" (thief)

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

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

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

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

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

DM: Andy

My Character: a first level magic-user

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DM: Scott (again)

My Character: a cleric of Odin

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 1, 2019

O Canada

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

System Shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Wednesday, folks.
: )

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Going (Not Growing) Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 22, 2019


Rain, meet parade.

So I was at DragonCon 40 this past weekend, the first gaming convention I've been to in SIX YEARS (I didn't even realize how long it'd been until I went back through my archived blog posts this morning...wow). My approach...and my experience...was very different from my prior two ventures into con territory. For one thing, I arrived Friday and stayed overnight at the hotel (sans family...they gave me the weekend off). For another, I went there with absolutely zero intention of running a game or hawking some product. For a third thing, I staked out most of my events ahead of time, and unlike prior years I spent almost no time with the "indie gamers" and invested all my attention in D&D...old school D&D. I was able to get into four games...three B/X, one Holmes basic...for a grand total of sixteen hours of gaming over two days (I didn't attend Sunday). Which is about thirteen hours more than I've played for at least a couple years.

And as I sat in my hotel room Friday night, I found myself thinking: Maybe I am too old for this. Maybe it is time to stop playing this damn game. Maybe I have outgrown it after all. 

Such was the ennui that had gripped me by the end of the day.

But the feeling didn't last. I was fine by Saturday and had a very enjoyable day. And despite some negative thoughts that continue to percolate (aren't there always negative thoughts 'round these parts?), I'm not quite ready to chuck the hobby out the door.  Not quite.

Still, it may be useful to consider what exactly led me to that particular mental space. The DMs were all competent in their running of the game. I may have had quibbles with their particular style or procedures (based on my own expectations of game play), but they weren't terrible...not even bad, really; "serviceable" is, I think, the best term I could use to describe them. The folks sitting around the table (many of whom appeared, with me, in multiple games) were all nice, experienced, and engaged participants. The adventures were fine...some were better than others, being more to MY particular tastes, but there was fun to be had. I had fun.

I had fun. I did...

I don't know what it is. Even now, at this moment, I feel the ennui lurking around the edges of my consciousness, like something just out of sight of my peripheral vision. It's not a palpable feeling, the  way it was Friday night...that was something that just hit me like...I don't know what. Like some heavy blanket of "I-just-don't-give-a-blank-anymore" dropping over my whole world view. That pressing feeling has receded way, way back into the background now, perhaps drowned out by other pressures and concerns occupying my attention.

But it worries me. I mean, what the hell was that?

This is what I do. This is what I want. D&D gaming is what I write about, what I read about, what I research shit in aid of. Playing the game is something I've been sorely lacking in the last few years, and here I finally had the chance to play, not just once but multiple times...and suddenly I felt ready to shit-can it? What the heck is wrong with me?

A couple days ago, I started reading the most recent post over at the Tao, and my head started swimming half a dozen paragraphs in. I had to break away from it because it was giving me something akin to a panic attack. Later, calmer, I went back and re-read the whole thing...I've since read it three or four times. I'm not sure these paragraphs completely describes me, but they sure hit awfully close to the mark:
How many of us, as we get into our 30s and 40s, are beginning to wish we'd never encountered the game? ...look around. You can find hundreds of D&D bloggers coughing up their last post, expressing their helpless lack of interest, the cold reality that they're just getting too old to play the game any more. And a horde of others who still "want to play" but can't quite bring themselves - after an absence of years - to get back into it. 
This isn't the reaction that an endlessly fun activity produces. I won't find fanatical skiers talking about not skiing or foodies deciding to purge themselves of cookbooks; car fanatics don't quit going to car shows "because the crowds are different now." The crowds aren't different. We're different. It's not the same game for us anymore...because we aren't 17 anymore... 
Once upon a time I was fairly "fanatical" about fencing. I even entertained some delusions about competing at a high level. But certain life events got in the way, and I ended up not putting in the necessary work or making the necessary adjustments I needed to make. And at some point I said, jeez, this is frustrating as hell, and I'm just not that young anymore, and my knees are shot-to-shit, and so I quit. That was probably close to fifteen years ago and I still miss it...so much so that just in the last few months I've found myself looking for a fencing salle that I can join, trying to figure out a way that I could "make it work" with my schedule/finances. Not because I have any more delusions about what I might accomplish...just because I want to do it.

Sometimes...much more rarely...I feel that way about other things that I've given up on: acting or singing, for example. Being a middle aged guy, I've tried out and discarded many things over the years, had many hobbies and interests, most of which have fallen by the wayside. Just part of getting older, right? But being a gaming fanatic has been my identity for so long...so long!...that I honestly can't believe I'd ever entertain the possibility of chucking it. Of getting rid of the books I've held onto for decades, across multiple moves, across different countries and different continents.

Hell, I brought my original copies of B/X to DragonCon this year...the same ones I've owned since 1982. The same ones I had with me in Paraguay for years. At this point, they're like some sort of relic or talisman; they'll disintegrate long before I ever give them up.

And yet, I think something has changed for me. Maybe it's the same thing I was blogging about back in May, that desire I have to elevate or evolve my game to something more mature, more "advanced." Maybe I'm still hungry for gaming, but straight B/X gaming does little to satisfy that hunger any more.

Or maybe I'm just not satisfied in the role of player...maybe I just miss being the Dungeon Master. Maybe.

Anyway, that's about the only angst I experienced at this year's DragonCon (thank goodness!). I'd like to write more specifics on the games themselves, but that'll have to wait for another post; tomorrow, perhaps. I just had to get this one out of my brain first.

Later, gators.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Forget the Supers

At least, for right now.

Never did get to the play-test I wrote about in the last blog post. See, the plan was to run a modified-for-my-game version of Mall of Terror (Heroes Unlimited Revised), and then a real life maniac gunned down several dozen people in a Walmart. Yeah. Less than 24 hours before a shooter in Dayton, Ohio killed nine and wounded 14 in less than 30 seconds...about three melee rounds in B/X terms.

Hard to model that type of destruction in game terms. Hard to balance that with "super powers." Even if I wanted to. Which I don't have the stomach for, not at the moment.

But even if I did, such events merely serve to remind how insipid the whole superhero genre is, as far as "fantasy adventure" in a contemporary setting. You can tell structured stories (in media, for example) or you can use giant invasions of creatures (aliens, zombies, whatever) that are immune to conventional armaments as a source of constant conflict...but for a game the latter gets old pretty fast, and the former isn't suitable for the style/type of game I want to run.

Hero Worship
On a related note, as a means of burning off the ennui that was brought on by this chain of events/thoughts, I took the time to stream the entirety of the rather brilliant series The Boys last week (on Amazon Prime). Yes, I realize it's adapted from a comic series. Yes, I realize there are some substantial changes from the original medium. It's still brilliant, and I like the changes that were made for the new medium. It's probably the best series of "godlike" (Avengers/JLA) supers ever written...clever, touching, funny, and (at times) even surprising, which isn't a word I'd usually when talking about the genre.

It's also incredibly cynical (though, as I understand it, not nearly as much as the original comics were created by a guy rumored to absolutely hate superheroes as a genre). Which is fine. I dig on cynical super movies: I've owned The Watchmen since before it was produced as a film, and I enjoyed both Super and The Mystery Men to watch them multiple times. But The Boys take things to an all new level. It's basically the world of White Wolf's Aberrant RPG, except that instead of having M-R nodes activated by a fallen space satellite, the world's superhumans have been created through an old Nazi chemical compound injected (clandestinely) into babies all over the country. If I wasn't so enamored with non-mutant heroes (like Iron Man or Green Arrow), it would make a great basis for ANY super-themed world setting. But then, you already have that in Aberrant (replace Project Utopia with Vought and Team Tomorrow with The Seven).
Caestus Pax...the Team Tomorrow
version of Homelander.

Yeah, the more I think about it, The Boys is really just a Hunters Hunted version of Aberrant.

Anyway. I'm going to be taking a break from the supers thing for a while. I like where the game is at (even thought up some new mechanics this morning that I need to implement), but I just don't feel like playing it right now. Instead, I need some real escape from reality. I'll be at the Dragonflight Convention next weekend, and I've already penciled out a schedule including ALL the B/X games at the con. I'm not going to run anything, just lose myself in fantasy bloodshed and mayhem.

Or maybe I'll cut out the bloodshed. Maybe I'll try playing some non-fightery types for a change...wizards sporting all utility spells, cowardly thieves, or pacifist clerics. Something with a different approach to treasure gathering. Maybe.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the break.