Tuesday, June 30, 2009

B/X Beowulf - A Single (Double) Encounter Adventure

I love Beowulf…I don’t know why, other than that I’m weird. I’ve read several different translations of the story and seen most films about him and arch-nemesis Grendel including that crazy-ass version with Christopher Lambert.

Actually, about the only film version I have NOT seen is the latest animated one with Angelina Jolie…I’m sure I’ll get around to it eventually (though my loyalty is to the Beowulf mythos, not any particular desire to see AJ).

While the epic poem Beowulf is of English origin, the protagonist is a Swede (a Geat) adventuring in Denmark. This means he falls into to my Viking fetish and is thus excellent fodder for my B/X Norse campaign.

Except, of course, I’m not going to bother writing up Beowulf. I mean, what is he after all…a fighter with an 18 strength. Easy enough…probably has a high Constitution (he can hold his breath a looong while) and Wisdom as well. Not that great a Charisma (his henchmen all run away when he’s facing down that last dragon…not much of morale bonus, 'Wulfie).

Anyway, Big B is relatively simple to “stat up;” so much so that he’s easily replaced in any Norse campaign by any other PC fighter with muscle, compassion, and balls the size of grapefruit. No, what’s more interesting (to me) is bringing in the Beowulf legend as an example Single Encounter Adventure scenario.

Previously, I noted that the Norse troll is more akin to the B/X bugbear…specifically, they are large, hairy, and sneaky, though not giant…they don’t regenerate but some are intelligent enough to communicate (in the Common tongue) or learn skills. They also turn to stone when exposed to sunlight.

Depending on which translation/version of Beowulf you’re reading/watching, Grendel appears to be a simple (if especially tough) Norse troll. Which would be a big Bugbear basically. Which is perfectly fine. In other versions, the guy is more like a dragon-kin…scaly armored, clawed, and ravenous. Which is certainly nastier. Grendel’s mother is just a bigger, meaner version of Grendel…or something even more horrific and supernatural.

Each DM will need to decide which version of Grendel and his Dam to use depending on the level of the characters. Here’s how I'd run it:

START: Hrothgar was once a great Lord of Daneland, but of late his dominion has fallen upon hard times. The once merry hall of his stronghold Heorot (Hay-oh-roht) is now a dark and dismal place; its gilded arches are now dingy and a pall hangs over the people he rules. Rumor has it that a great evil stalks his land, and Hrothgar has made it known that he will shower gold on any heroes that can take the scourge from his land.

WHAT IS HAPPENING: Hrothgar is being stalked and taunted by an abominable creature called Grendel. Grendel nightly stalks Heorot with impunity, killing Hrothgar’s guardsmen from stealth and causing great lamentation amongst the surviving wives, mothers, and children. Hrothgar’s people are dying by inches, and the old lord and his favored henchman Unferth have been unable to stop Grendel.

Hrothgar (AC 5, F10, HPS 30, MV 90, #AT 1 weapon (-2 to hit), D 1D8, Save F10 (-1) , ML 9, AL N). Once hale and hearty, Hrothgar has not aged well (Str & Con both 8) and the additional stress and strain of Grendel’s attacks causes him to suffer a -1 penalty on all to hit, damage, and save rolls, as well as his AC. He wields a +3 sword named Naegling (“Nailer”) which is as much a symbol of his lordship as his pride. If the adventurers defeat both Grendel and his mother, Hrothgar will bestow Naegling on the party as well as two chests of gold. However, until such time as the creatures are defeated he retains the sword to defend his people..it appears to be one of the few things Grendel fears.

Unferth (AC 4, F5, HPS 22, MV 90, #AT 1 weapon (+1 to hit), D 1D8+1, Save F5, ML 7, AL N). Unferth is Hrothgar’s guard captain, but he has been completely un-manned by Grendel and his inability to stop the creature’s rampage. He wields a sword +1 named Hrunting (“Thrusting”). He doesn’t trust the adventurers competence to defeat Grendel and will deride them privately, possibly publicly depending on his morale and Reaction to them. If the party defeats Grendel, he will present them with Hrunting and retire his post in shame.

Grendel, version 1 (AC 4, HD 4+2**, HPS 26, MV 120, #AT 1, D 1D8+2, Save F4 (special), ML 10, AL C). Grendel is both large and stealthy and attacks with surprise 1-3 on a D6. In general, he will attempt to kill one or two lone guardsmen every night (Hrothgar only has a dozen or so fighting men left, each equal to a 1st or 2nd level fighter). Grendel’s special hide makes him immune to weapons of less than +2 enchantment, reduces spell damage by half, and makes him immune to sleep, charm, and hold spells. Grendel takes normal damage from both unarmed attacks and fire (normal or magical).

Grendel’s Mother, version 1 (AC 3, HD 5+2**, HPS 32, MV 120, #AT 2, D1D8+2, Save F5 (special), ML 11, AL C). Grendel’s mother is simply a larger, fiercer version of Grendel, with the same surprise chance and immunities. She will only be encountered if Grendel is tracked back to his lair in the fens, or if Grendel is slain (in which case she will stalk Hrothgar’s halls for vengeance on those that destroyed her child). In her lair (an underwater grotto) lies the ruins of several adventurers that went searching for Grendel and an ancient two-handed sword +2 that is capable of piercing her hide or that of Grendel.

This version of Grendel and his mother are based on the bugbear (i.e. Norse troll) statistics for a sub-chief and chief; it is suitable for an adventuring party of levels 1-3. It is suggested that Grendel and his mother represent the last of a matriarchal troll clan, hunted to near-extinction by Hrothgar and his men; this is the reason Grendel seeks revenge against the warriors of Heorot Hall. How the creatures gained their special immunities is left up to the DM to decide (perhaps the ability is inherent in the ruling line of the clan, perhaps Grendel made a pact with a Northen witch). The DM can also remove the special ability if deemed too tough for the party.

Grendel, version 2 (AC 3, HD 11****, HPS 66, MV 120, #AT 2 Claws, 1 Bite, D 1D10+2/1D10+2/2D6, Save D10, ML 10, AL C). Grendel bears an enchantment that makes him invulnerable to all weapons made by man (including magical weapons) as well as sleep, charm, and hold spells. He takes half damage from other spells or normal fire, but takes normal damage from unarmed attacks. He always gains surprise on a 1-5 on a D6…he is practically invisible until he strikes. He is large, scaly, and has savage claws and teeth…if he kills a warrior is 80% likely to simply abscond with the body to devour at his leisure.

Gendel’s Mother, version 2 (AC 0, HD 14*****, HPS 84, MV 120, # AT 2 Claws or special, D 1D10+3/1D10+3, Save D12, ML 11, AL C). Grendel’s mother is a material demon that is immune to mortal-manufactured weapons (including magical weapons), as well as fire (normal or magical), sleep, charm, and hold spells. She takes only half damage from other spells, and has the ability to polymorph self, turn invisible, charm person, or dispel magic each 1/day. In her underwater lair there is a huge two-handed sword (twice normal encumbrance), forged for the titans by some long-forgotten god; it requires a Strength of 18, gauntlets of ogre power, or girdle of giant strength to wield but is the equivalent of a +3 weapon and has the ability to harm both Grendel and his mother.

In this version of Grendel is the illegitimate child of Hrothgar himself, who was seduced by the demoness. The monster inflicts suffering on Hrothgar for failure to acknowledge him as his child and heir (something that would cause the Lord's people to rise up and cast him down). Grendel stalks Heorot Hall at the behest of his mother, a wicked creature that delights in causing mischief and misery and whom plots to cause the insanity of Hrothgar and the fall of his dominion for pure spite. PCs should be at least Name level and bring their “A game” to face-off against this version of the scourge.

Single Encounter Adventures

One thing I remember as I review my old gaming records is how often I used to create whole adventures around a single encounter. Whether through laziness (got tired of stocking dungeons), thriftiness (I had no money for modules), or practicality (the short attention spans of young players) some days the only adventure would be one Big Bad…or Big Bad Fight.

I guess the term for this in 21st century parlance would be a “set-piece” encounter, or perhaps a “Boss Fight.” Except I might not even have non-Boss monsters (save perhaps as a warm up encounter). Generally, these One Encounter scenarios were of the scourge variety, something like “the Tarrasque has awakened from centuries long slumber and is ravaging the countryside…what are you going to do?”

The scourge monster doesn’t exist in a dungeon…hell, they may not even have a lair, or treasure of which to speak (though reward was possible from a grateful lord/ruler). XP-wise, I’d generally award a blanket amount of experience depending on the scourge…generally enough that every PC could gain a level from the encounter.

Perhaps an example or two would serve.

When I was youngling, some of my first exposures to fantasy was the animated Rankin/Bass films The Hobbit and The Return of the King. I drew heavily from both for adventures (micro- and otherwise)…the latter, for example, provided me a scourge encounter with a Witch-King figure that duplicates the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (that’s for another post on the perils of being a self-taught DM).

However, from The Hobbit the dragon Smaug makes a great single encounter adventure. I was never too comfortable with placing dragons in dungeons (though I know I did so often enough). I mean, I just pictured dragons as so BIG…how did you get them down those 10’ corridors?

Far better to put the dragon in a big cave at the top of a lonely mountain and have him terrorizing the kingdom, waiting for a group of adventurers to come a-slaying. Sure, the adventurers may encounter a group of, say, trolls or giant spiders on the way to old Smaug’s lair, but there was no additional dungeon that needed to be traversed. Just getting up to the dragon’s mountain lair and figuring out a way to defeat him was “trap and trick” enough. Not to mention the inherent deadliness of an Ancient Red Dragon. Why needlessly complicate or obscure the encounter with a bunch of little, minor encounters. The scourge is a suitable encounter for a party at full strength.

Single Encounter Adventures (SEAs) were some of my favorites back in the day. As long as the encounter was fierce enough, there was plenty with which to occupy a party of adventurers for several hours (real time)…talking, strategizing, planning, encountering, and (if lucky) dividing the loot afterwards.

Not every SEA need be a scourge; any properly scaled antagonist can work for this type of day-long session. Examples: an oppressive Lord/tyrant lives in this castle with his soldiers and maybe a pet wizard or beastie…what are you going to do about it? An evil cleric operates out of this shrine...how are you going to handle him and his acolytes?

A mega-dungeon can require a serious amount of time and commitment from the party wishing to plumb its depths, whereas a one-off encounter with a memorable opponent can be handled in an afternoon. Plus, players can later say, “Hey, remember when we took out Argle-Shmargle the Mighty? Joe and Fred got smoked, but the rest of us came out hella’ rich! That was cool!” Maybe I AM lazy, but we seemed to have a blast with these kind of sessions.

Monday, June 29, 2009

B/X Two Weapon Combat

So much to blog and so little time...at least today. Had three or four things lined up for my day off, but then ended up running errands most of the day.  Well, did some reading, too, but mostly of the political satire variety, and nothing to post on a RPG blog.

(well, I could, but I may very well offend some readers with my rather strong opinions...perhaps another time)

Anyway, I wanted to get SOMETHING down, as I think I've managed to get at least one post a day since starting this blog, and I don't want to blow my streak.  So here's a little something-something: 

Dual weapon fighting (i.e. fighting with a weapon in each hand) is a fairly common staple of fantasy literature and gaming.  Honestly, I don't remember what first inspired me to love the whole "two-fisted" fighter thing...all I know is that my oldest and earliest AD&D character was never without a weapon in his off-hand.

Since I didn't read Lieber or Moorcock (Mouser and Moonglum respectively) until years later, I don't think there was a particular character of literature that got me into this.  If I had to guess, I would imagine it came about from playing a bard character (no shield use, remember) coupled with reading the DMG (I was the main DM of my gaming group for years) and reading the rules on two weapon fighting. Like, "oh, you mean I CAN fight with two weapons? Well, I wasn't doing anything with my off-hand anyway."

Once I started doing it, several other players began sporting characters with two weapons (apparently, few people were into shields...I guess our Armor Classes were plenty tough). But definitely no one was in the campaign was as munchkiny as myself...no, I never owned Blackrazor, but at one point I was wielding a hammer of thunderbolts with a vorpal short sword in my off-hand.  Though, this was many, many levels after I'd started with a long sword and maine gauche.

In the 2nd edition, my one character, "Ball Sack," only ever used a battle axe.  I'm not sure his testosterone level would have allowed him to use a case of rapiers. 

But he was just about the last character to NOT use two weapons.  In DND3 I had a bard with two weapon fighting, a dwarven duelist (fighter/thief) that used a rapier and dagger, a wood elf (barbarian? ranger? one of the two) that used two hand axes, and a halfling knife-fighter that used...you guessed it...two knives (his name was "Sticker").

B/X never addresses two weapon fighting, of course, and when we were kids none of us ever considered two weapons an option (as I said, no role-models in this regard).  BECMI does address it in the Thyatian gazeteer; basically it states anyone can use a weapon in his or her off-hand, but still only gets one attack per round unless allowed to make multiple attacks.

Honestly, I think that's pretty fair (admittedly I've come a fair ways from my munchkin days).  As already explained elsewhere, the abstract nature of D&D combat means that a single attack roll determines whether or not a character does damage in a given round...whether slashing open an opponent's belly, bashing him with a shield, or kicking him in the groin.  The initiative roll simply determines whose damage gets applied first...not necessarily who swings first. A guy with two swords, may be parrying and cutting with one (say, on a successful roll for 3 or 4 points of damage), or stabbing with both (say, on a successful roll for 8 points of damage).

However, it would be nice to model some sort of benefit for using two weapons...after all, you ARE giving up the use of a shield or more powerful two-handed weapon.

Previously, I posted my variable damage rules for B/X as dependent on class.  To summarize, I suggested dividing melee weapons into Small, One-Handed, and Two-Handed categories with categories generally varying by one size of dice (so a cleric does D4/D6/D8, a fighter does D6/D8/D10, and a magic-user does D4/D4/D6).  Here's how I would model two-weapon fighting in D&D.

1)  To use two weapons effectively in combat, a character must have a minimum Dexterity of 13.  A character may wield two weapons without the Dexterity but gains no special benefit for doing so (though the character has an extra weapon in case something happens to his primary one).

2) Unless a character has a Strength of 13 or better, he may only fight effectively with a Small weapon in his "off-hand."  Strong characters may use One-Handed weapons in their off-hand.

3) On a successful attack roll, the player may roll damage dice for both weapons, and choose the best result of the two.  For example, a fighter using a sword and dagger may roll a D8 and a D6 on a successful hit, and use the better of the two dice rolls for his damage. 

4) If a character has a damage bonus from a high strength, the damage is added to whichever dice is chosen (i.e. it doesn't matter whether or not the character is using an off-hand weapon to inflict damage, the strength bonus in melee is due to the character's might allowing for better muscling/maneuvering in addition to a stronger blow).

All, right, now THAT'S out of the way, I can go to bed.  Tomorrow, I'll try to post an adventure idea I had....

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Evening Musings (mostly about Aliens)

I've been relaxing all day, today...meaning napping, watching TV, going for walks, humorous off-line reading...basically enjoying a lazy Sunday.  

I am a man of eclectic tastes. I was driving around yesterday evening, picking up Thai food and listening to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde on the radio, then coming home to check out the Mutant Chronicles movie on the SciFi channel to see if it was in any way true to the RPG. 

Right now, I am watching the classic film Aliens (this time on AMC), thinking about how to adapt it to Traveller.  

Is there an RPG that effectively mixes Action-Horror with Military-SciFi?  Not that I'm aware of...the Mutant Chronicles RPG tried, but eventually gave it up for a miniatures-skirmish game they now bears its name.

The thing is, its difficult to emphasize the action-horror aspect without introducing a hefty dose of mortality into the game.  But in RPGs, players are supposed to be the protagonists of the story...which means they shouldn't be dying in droves.  That's why board games like Space Hulk provide the player with multiple soldier-pieces.

[visited teardown today...still trying to work out their legal issues with THQ, dammit]

Albedo actually uses a similar approach with it's multiple PC squads (each PC has a commanding officer PC and 4-5 follower PCs...like henchmen or grogs controlled by the player).  As I haven't had a chance to play it, I can't tell how the system would work in practice.  I think it sounds like a cool idea, but then I picture 3 players each controlling 15 characters and it seems like a lot to juggle.

3:16 is a cool SciFi war RPG...a razor sharp satire of WH40k warmongering (actually, more similar to the original Rogue Trade rules, which I found to be semi-satirical anyway).  But the role-playing of the game is more concerned with the larger issues of "the War" rather than the terror of war. Inspired by films like Aliens and Starship Troopers, the game itself feels more like John Steakley's book Armor in play...which is not really what I'm looking for.

What I want is something like old school D&D, truth be told...basically an on-going campaign of bug hunts from planet to planet centering missions ("adventures") on a small party of soldier-mercenaries ("adventurers").  Some may die on campaign, and be replaced by younger guys, some may retire (or get promoted).

I just can't imagine that there's enough there for an extended saga.  While there's fun to be had, there's no sense of discovery as there is in D&D. Magic items? New monsters? Traps and tricks?

Even Gamma World, with fewer "character options" then D&D has more exploration inherent in the game system...ancient ruins and sealed installations? Technological artifacts? Crazy-ass mutant monsters? Weird societies?  That's D&D, though in a "non-magical" setting.

I think that exploration component is what keeps folks coming back to certain games.  So even though I like the idea of playing a "space marine" facing near insurmountable odds with tremendous firepower, I can't see how that type of game would have lasting appeal...for myself or others.  This is always a consideration of game design.

Hope your weekend was a good one!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Saturday Morning Philosophy

Well, I had a large post planned out for this morning, but after picking up coffees I realized I forgot all about the Greenwood Car Show...I may have to cut this one short.  It's a beautiful, sunny Seattle day, and the beagles smell something in the air.  That's 'classic car,' fur balls.  Yes, you guys get to go for a walk.

Anyway, after reading over my half-baked level post of yesterday afternoon, I really believe there's something to it, but it needs to be fleshed out a bit, with a little research.  I'm not nearly the RPG historian Mr. Maliszewski is...all I've got is the copyright dates on my own games.

Sooo I am going to draw a line in the sand...a line between the end of the Age of Old School RPG creation and the beginning of the "New School."  That line is 1983, and it sees the birth of the first honest to goodness New School game:

James Bond 007

The James Bond RPG represents quite a few things that will become staples of New School game design.  Certainly some of this stuff was showing up (briefly) in the transitioning games that are published between 1979 and 1982 (as RPGs pushed away from their wargaming roots), but these things culminate in James Bond.  I remember being, frankly, blown away when my DM introduced this game to me...and not just because I was a huge James Bond fan at the time.  Let me see if I can list all the points:

  • Licensed intellectual property.  Yes, other, earlier games borrowed heavily from outside IP (Stormbringer  and CoC were both published in 1981), however no prior game had used an IP type that was so popular and recognizable to the mainstream to draw in fans of the IP, not just role-players (another friend of mine had this game and all its supplements because his non-gamer father collected James Bond memorabilia).  It also put out adventure modules and such based directly on the films. Note: not all New School games take this approach (referred to as "high concept simulation"at the Forge) but NO Old School game does.
  • Point buy character creation.  Players have more ownership of their character (and thus more investment and attachment) than games where characters are created randomly.  Randomly created characters MAY grow to be loved by a player or gaming group, depending on actions that happen or occur in actual play.  Characters that are tailor-made by a player carry with them an expectation of "specialness" that can be disruptive to actual play depending on how the play works out.  Except in retro-clone games, all games published these days have some sort of "character customization" present in the generation process.  Old School games, players were lucky if they could choose their Class AND Alignment.
  • Skills, Skills, Skills.  I don't think I've posted on this particular topic yet, but I've grown to loathe skills in most (if not all RPGs).  All they do is define and pigeon-hole what your character can do, instead of allowing the referee to make judgments based on circumstances and common sense appropriate to the game world/type.  Older games had skills (even AD&D's "secondary skills" and Top Secret's "areas of knowledge"), but were never as integral to game play.  Rune Quest in 1978 had skill use that moved to a "unified game mechanic" but if it's anything like Chaosium's Stormbringer (I've never run or owned RuneQuest) the selection of skills is NOT as readily handed over to the player.  "Pigeon Hole yourself," says James Bond.  This feeds into character ownership listed above.
  • Fewer Resources To Manage. Just what it says. You could still be counting bullets, depending on how cinematic your GM, but other things are starting to go away...hit points for example.  New School gaming moves away from the board game/war game aspects of the Old School...that's just how it is.
  • Presence of Metagame Rules and Resources. Hero Points aren't a new concept (see Fortune in Top Secret) but they are moving away from Old School gaming where "you die, you make a new character."  In Top Secret, these "extra lives" feel like an Old School resource concept that allows a mission to continue.  In James Bond, they feel like a resource that allows a player to keep a beloved, investment-laded character alive.  Also, unlike TS Fame and Fortune which have finite limits, Hero Points are awarded by the GM.
  • Subjective Experience Points awarded based on Game Play.  The method of character advancement is determined subjectively by the GM based on how players "perform." This is a huge move away from Old School gaming where bonuses or penalties might be assessed, but you would still advance if you performed the specified tasks (finding treasure in D&D, turning in artifacts in Gamma World, using skills in Stormbringer, training in Dragon Quest). 1982's Star Frontiers, a transition game, is the first place I see this mechanic, and it was always a downer.  It specifically sets the groundwork for the use of "force" (or "railroading") in RPGs.  Which lastly leads us to...
  • Emphasis on Plot Over Play.  Old School games do not mandate the fate of the free world hinges on whether or not your players succeed...certainly you can write that into the game, but it's not necessary.  Most Old School games allow players to wander about, handling (or failing to handle) missions/adventures as they please.  Even the introduction to Top Secret (Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle) is a spy's sandbox town. New School play does not have this freedom of play.  Characters, after all, have to mean something in New School play...they have to MATTER.  To my mind, this is where the idea of "it's just a game" starts to break down.
Old School gaming can be defined...and maybe I'll try listing that in my next post.  But now the wife AND the beagles are anxious to go for a walk, so I'm signing off!

Friday, June 26, 2009

What Level Are YOU?

Nothing says Old School to me like a level-based advancement system. For me, I just can't separate one from the other. Which is why in my mind, Palladium games will always be "Old School" no matter how many editions of Rifts they publish, and the oldest versions of Stormbringer from Chaosium still feels “new.”

I agree with James over at Grognardia…I think that Old School gaming could stand to have some more concrete definitions (it’s NOT just about attitude) and Level systems are part of it.

What do I mean by “levels” anyway? 4th edition D&D has levels, is it Old School? No…levels are only PART OF Old School play, not the whole enchilada.

When I’m talking about “Levels” I am talking about games that have tables that scale character effectiveness based on points earned in the game. That’s it…pure and simple. Many original TSR games fell into this pile: D&D, Gamma World (rank), Boot Hill (number of gun fights), Top Secret (level). Marvel Superheroes is where TSR starts stepping away from the level paradigm (but as Ron Edwards has pointed out, MSH is one of the first RPGs that has the ability to facilitate a Narrativist creative agenda. It is interesting for a lot of reasons besides its color-bar Action Table).

These games offer something very specific…a method of keeping score (points) PLUS a set and scaled type of effectiveness. A 7th level fighter is different from a 1st level fighter in the following ways: hit dice, attack effectiveness, saving throws. A 7th level cleric is different from a 1st level cleric in these ways: hit dice, attack effectiveness, saving throws, number of spells, turning effectiveness.

They have the same basic abilities whether they’re 1st level or 7th (they can attack, they can absorb damage, they can save versus effects, some can cast spells). But you know what to expect from the character…you are playing an archetype that simply becomes a better version of its archetype. Character is only a vehicle to explore the game.

Boot Hill, Gamma World, and Top Secret are even OLDER school in that there is so little that distinguishes one character from another. A 3rd level Investigator versus a 3rd level Confiscator? A rank 4 humanoid versus a rank 3 humanoid?

Don’t let the random trappings fool you into thinking something else “distinguishes” characters. Randomness is randomness. I could roll a human fighter with an 18/58 strength or a human magic-user with 18/58 strength. I could roll a humanoid mutant with Life Leech or a mutant animal with Life Leech. I could find a +3 sword in a treasure pile whether I was 3rd level or 10th level or regardless of class…these trappings are at the whims of fate (whether “fate” means the dice, or who you happen to have as a DM placing treasure).

Old School levels represent something left over from wargaming…the prominence of certain playing pieces compared to others. Are you a General or a Captain? A flunky or a hero?

How many gunfights have you had? (Boot Hill)
What level are you in the agency? (Top Secret)
What’s your status in the community (Gamma World)

This is why a game like Heroes Unlimited or TMNT is very Old School. Are you a 5th level superhero or a 1st level one?

This is also one of the reasons D20 is NOT Old School. In D20, Level can represent increased effectiveness and status…or not. Advancing in Level in D20 means giving your character more OPTIONS, more choices. Do you want to add a 2nd (or 5th or 12th) class? Go ahead. Do you want to keep improving the ranks in the skills you have? Or do you want to spread your points around new, non-class skills? Do you want to follow a particular Feat path or not?

New School play is about customizing a persona…any “Point Buy” system of character creation, whether its Champions, Vampire the Masquerade, or D20 Star Wars is about this. Anything where CHOICE in character development…making YOUR GUY...is New School, not Old School.

(and I believe it is precisely because of this that “personalization” = “attachment to MY GUY” = “no character death” in RPGs, which I personally don't like)

Even a game like 1st edition Stormbringer has more customization inherent in it…after all, you get to pick which skills you use (thereby determining which skills get better, thereby customizing your character)…but the high mortality rate keeps players from getting too attached in a true New School way.

Old School play is about the play itself, not about the character. Are you enjoying the challenge of play? Are you gaining points? Character becomes an afterthought (and achieves prominence) depending on results within play.

Games like Traveler and Marvel Superheroes, I believe, are effectively hybrid games…not quite Old School, but not yet New School. Chronologically and design-wise, they define a stepping stone in between…I guess you could call it “Middle School.”
: )

Chew on that!

Anyone Know the Name of This Place...?

Amongst the many “adventure” maps, I have drawn over the years…dungeons, temples, cave complexes, an assassins guild, a keep…there’s one type of map you won’t find: the “town” map.

I don’t do towns.

Nor do I map out cities or villages or any other thriving urban center that may be present in a campaign. I am amazed at the folks that actually do.

Sure it’s possible that I’m just lazy and prone to “winging” stuff in the campaign world (or at least I was back when I HAD a regular campaign going). But from a practical point of view, it’s an immense burden for me to worry about where the general store or blacksmith is, which houses are vacant, or how many blocks the temple is from the docks.

I don’t expect players to map a town. When they enter a town, I ask “where are you going?” Bam, they’re there. Heck, they can get info from any passerby if they need a point in the right direction (no Gather Info skill check required…sheesh!).

Keeping towns abstract and anonymous (most villages don’t even have names) allows me to focus my attention on other things…continuing plot development with NPCs, for example.

Even modules that have towns can be burdensome…I don’t like keeping track of where everyone lives in Hommelet or Nulb; heck, even the Keep on the Borderlands has too many numbered “village” entries for my taste. Giant town maps is what turned me off of running some Boot Hill adventures (Ballots and Bullets, I’m looking at you!).

A few names and NPC stats, a few points of interest, MAYBE a name for the place…that’s the extent of my needs for a D&D town.

Well...you’ve also got to have a name for the local tavern, but back in the day my players and I created random tables to generate taverns…everything from the sign above the door, to the quality of rooms, to the daily special, to the drinks (and drugs!) available behind the bar. Wish I still had those tables. I might have to try my hand at re-creating them…though I don’t feel nearly as “bubbling with creativity” as in my youth.

I think it's safe for me to say there's only one "town map" I've ever met, that I liked...that would be I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City. 'Course, if memory serves, it didn't have a name either.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why The Long Face?

Okay...it's been a fairly sad day...for fans of Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and those of us delving into our childhood memories...

So, even though I should probably just go to bed and let my blog sit and stew for 20 hours or so (what is this...a crock pot??), I say, "F that shit."  I am going to bed on a positive note, and even though I've killed most of a bottle of wine, I'm also thinking 


Which is to say, let's end the evening with the brain on a happy note.

SO...one thing I found, oh, about two days ago (before my mad paper diving that ended in the prior melancholy post) was THE MAP.  That is, the first map I ever drew as an (aspiring) Dungeon Master.  This is the map that started it all!

Perhaps I'll post it, if I ever figure out how to make this scanner work.

Anyway, I shall now relate the tale of my first Dungeon Mastering experience:

I was in the 3rd grade.  I had received the Moldvay Basic set for my 8th birthday...this was November of 1981.  Reagan was president already (ugh!  and I had doorbelled for Jimmy Carter the prior summer!).  I had read the whole book, cover to cover at least once (the examples...like the history of poor Black Dougal the thief...I had read at least 2-3 times).

I had now created my first dungeon map (I have no idea where I got the graph paper from).  For many, many years this map...in a plastic, hole-punched cover...was mounted in a three-ring, red plastic binder along with my (hole-punched) Basic and Expert set.  I don't know whatever happened to that binder (or the plastic cover) but I still have the map.  I should probably seal it up for posterity.

As with nearly all the maps of my youth, there is no key.  I don't know what the f--- I was doing back then, but I'm guessing I must have pretty much winged encounters or something. I don't know.  ANYWAY...this map is NOT a dungeon (surprise!) but is instead a CASTLE, mostly a walled fortress.  The key marks things like "archer" or "spearman"...basically, any place there were men-at-arms.

The "adventure" (based on the map, it must have been inspired by the included module B1:the Keep on the Borderlands) was simply this: lay siege to the castle.  That's it.  I don't remember there being a reason for attacking it other than "you're at war." There were no special monsters or "bosses" (this was 1981 for God's sake! "Boss monsters" and video games hadn't been invented!).  Why I bothered to even draw a map rather than run B1 is beyond me...probably I had not finished reading the module, or felt it was too complicated (I was only 8 at the time).

So I ran "the siege."  There was only one player...my younger brother.  I have no idea what kind of character he rolled up (maybe an elf), but I know it died in a hail of arrows.  He rolled up another character and this one died, too. He was on his 2nd or 3rd character when Jocelyn arrived.

Jocelyn was the daughter of my mom's friend, Joyce. My parents were involved in local politics (party organizers) as was Jocelyn's mother. The night we were gaming was "caucus night" and the First District Democrats were meeting in my living room (did I mention door-belling for Carter?).  Jocelyn had been brought along by her mom and was ushered upstairs to play with my brother and I. 

She was only a year older than me (9 at the time), and I promptly sat her down and gave her an "NPC" to play...a halfling (B/X, remember?).  While my brother's character was again dying in some frontal assault, she figured out a way to climb the wall, aided by the distraction of my brother's messy demise, and was making her way to the castle armory as stealthily as possible when her mother called her to go...I remember thinking, hey, she's pretty smart (I don't remember if the halfling died or not).

That was the first time I met Jocelyn. She would be the foundation rock of my gaming group for the next six or seven years. She would also be a good friend during that time (my best friend for most of it) and we did a lot of things besides playing D&D.  Many of the positive memories from my childhood involved her.

And on THAT note, it is time I retired for the evening.
: )

Now I See Why I Called This Blog "Blackrazor"

...it's flaying me to the soul.

Nostalgia can lead to happy, rose-colored feelings.  It can also lead to depression.

The other day I was posting about Alejandro and was feeling depressed I couldn't find an old character sheet for the guy.  Tonight, I took the time to look through old boxes of RPG stuff that I haven't inspected in years.  I found copies of "Alejandro." Hell, I found stuff going back to 1981 or '82.  

Tons of stuff.

Character sheets upon character sheets upon character sheets. Several maps of dungeons.  Almost no notes on what the dungeons held...unless for non-D&D adventures (like Dragon Quest, where I had to "convert" D&D tropes to DQ).

And mixed into it all, the documents of my life.  I found notebooks for math, for science, for history.  Journals. Information on colleges and universities.  Information on scholarships.  All with RPG crap written all over it or in the margins.  Did I ever focus on anything besides gaming?

Apparently not.  I'm a fairly smart guy and I got pretty good grades through my many, many years of schooling.  But it is readily apparent that I wasted a lot of time.  Focusing on escapist fantasies when I could have been doing so much more.  

Shit. Now I see why I haven't looked at this stuff in years. 

I have a pretty good life, so I suppose things have worked out for me in the end...I mean I have a solid job that pays moderate, has great benefits, and a government-backed retirement plan.  I have a beautiful, intelligent, and talented wife that is adventurous and makes twice the money I do.  I have a fantastic new house in my favorite neighborhood of Seattle. I have two beagles that are fairly well-trained and so cute they literally stop traffic. I've traveled to Europe and Asia and Central America and I've learned more German and Spanish in the last few years than all the French I studied in college. Plus, I'm still young enough and fit enough that if I put my mind to it, I could probably lose the extra weight I've put on around the middle over the last ten years with little struggle.

But it's depressing. I realize I have a touch of the obsessive-compulsive, and a predisposition towards escapism, but wow.  What wasted potential.  Not that I'd be out curing cancer, or even involved in politics (well, maybe speech-writing, probably not running for office).  But, f---.  If I was going to spend so much of my life on gaming, you'd think I might have done something with THAT. Like actually trying to publish something besides a blog....

I have spent many a conversation with peers, older folks, and "young whippersnappers" expounding on how the youth today doesn't learn shit in school, and are squandering their potential.  And here I see I did the same goddamn thing in MY youth.  Maybe I didn't have the internet or cell phones or texting or f'ing "twitter" but I did the same damn thing. Hell, I could have been saving the world, protesting a war, feeding the hungry or SOMEthing.  Instead I spent time gaming, thinking about gaming, blah, blah, blah gaming.

[truth be told, I also spent a lot of time dating girls and/or pining after girls, but that's for a different blog from this one]

Now I have a mortgage, and a spouse and beagles to feed...I've got obligations to attend to, and gaming is just a nice little hobby on the side.  But this stroll down "memory lane" has made me feel a bit o shame...that's the God's Honest Truth.  And that's even without thinking about the shit that actually went down while or because of gaming...plenty of skeletons in those closets!

I'm not looking for hugs, or consolation. But while posting the past on this blog, I've been trying to give an honest accounting and not too rosy a view.  And now I see that the past has even a little more ugliness than I remembered.  It's like looking back on the landfill of your life and seeing there's a lot of stuff you could have recycled or reused rather than polluting the earth.  Yeah, maybe it's not all that bad but Scorpios like myself sometimes wax negative (and exaggerate or exacerbate) with our perceptions.  Just like Virgos can sometimes be hyper-critical (you know who you are!).

Ah, well...there's still good that comes from playing face-to-face RPGs.  In the future I will strive to emphasize the positive and will do my best not to allow my fantasy world to interfere with tangible here-and-now.

'Course, that may mean curtailing the blog, as well....

“Chaos and Evil are his Liquor and Smokes…”

Whether you call him the Death Dealer, Warduke, or Thargrim the Dark Lord (that’s Dungeon Quest, folks), the Chaotic Warrior is as recognizable a staple of fantasy games and literature as pointy-ears on elves and dour expressions on dwarves.

Got badass armor? Check.
Got big ass weapon? Check.
Got glowing red eyes? Check.

The strong, silent type with a mysterious origin, their biggest flaw is their complete lack of a sense of humor. Sure they may be diabolically good-looking under that full helm (for all we know), but how’s the hair? No idea. The chaos warrior doesn’t get a whole lot of dates (does the term “foetid breath” mean anything to you?). Let’s call it 0 Charisma.

Which is fine, really, since they tend to work alone. They may inspire fear, but not much loyalty. Kind of a “Darth Vader” syndrome (ol’ DV fits our Chaos Warrior check boxes, too). In the Realms of Chaos, only the strongest survive (not that The Strong’s life expectancy is very high), and the weak follow the stronger out of worshipful awe and mortal fear. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, you know?

Deep in the Borderlands, the Prismatic DM has been adapting the old WFRP minions of Chaos to S&W. I love this. I think WFRP stuff translates great into OD&D, probably because they are both so close to their wargaming roots. Unfortunately, I don’t think Warhammer’s Chaos translates as good to B/X.

Granted, this is just my opinion, and I’m not saying I’m incapable of coming up with B/X stats for Chaos Champions and Spawn. I’m just not sure the B/X game does justice to the Chaos Warrior. Let me try to explain.

In OD&D/S&W play, gaming is…well, “cheaper” is what I want to say but what I mean is “looser” and “more abstract.” This is a game where a 10HD Balrog is extremely badass, even with a simple attack and a little added flame damage. In the S&W game, you can make a simple, abstract Chaos Warrior (again, check out the Borderlands) and still strike fear in PCs and conjure an air of eldritch expectation at the gaming table.

AD&D/Osric/HackMaster is the way to go if you want to adapt the Realms of Chaos (Slaves to Darkness/Lost and the Damned) wholesale into your game. The specificity of the mutations, Chaotic magic items, the motivations of the Chaos powers…hell, the whole Chaos flow chart for PCs who want to “play on the Dark Side.” All of this is fertile soil to be tilled in an AD&D game. It fits with AD&D’s random tables and arcane rule systems.

B/X (and LL and BECMI) is somewhere between these two. It’s simple enough to play that it’s practically a board game…but in my opinion, it doesn’t leave room for these murkier aspects of game play. One really has to start nailing down what it means to be “Chaotic” in a world where the Realms of Chaos are encroaching. Is every Chaotic fighter a “Chaos Warrior?” Are Chaos Warriors the same as human fighters? Do they need their own Race-Class? Do they need a separate one for each power (since some minions have access to spells and some don’t)? What about demi-humans…can they fall to Chaos?

Making a Chaos Warrior into a 2HD monster is treating them like gnolls or hobgoblins…and B/X already has gnolls and hobgoblins! What’s going to distinguish a Chaos Warrior in B/X from an orc wearing heavy armor and carrying a two-handed sword? Not much…glowing red eyes, I guess.

No, unlike AD&D and OD&D, B/X is not made for wholesale rule additions (in my opinion). It’s made for slight “variation to taste,” but it’s designed to be whole and encompassing. Characters all have maximum levels and maximum capabilities. Classes can be re-defined/distinguished (fighters as Norsemen or Horsemen, elves as Hearty Wizards, whatever) but not completely re-tooled.

And BECMI is even worse…with a Chaotic “Avenger” class, what does THAT mean for a Warrior of Chaos. Again, alignments…and what they mean…need to be completely re-worked in one wants a WFRP-like Chaos to make sense.

Which is too bad, in my opinion, as I really like the WFRP setting. OD&D expects players and DMs to add to the rules (it provides a skeleton only) and AD&D has room for many supplements and campaign worlds (as it has already proven with Greyhawk, Krynn, Faerun, etc.). B/X really is a “basic” game, much as I hate to admit it. Players who enjoy it want to be able to pick up a module of the “B” or “X” series and be able to run it quickly with no fuss, no muss. New monsters or magic items are easy enough to add…but wholesale rules on mutations? New classes and rules on mixing classes? Re-defining basic premises of play? Nah…that doesn’t fly.

I won’t add Chaos Warriors as piss-ant (or puissant) monster encounters, nor as optional player classes. I didn’t like how BECMI did that with Monks and Headsmen…I thought the Headsman particularly was a disservice to both the Assassin and to the spirit of B/X…and this would be worse. WFRP’s Realms of Chaos has such a rich tradition that I certainly wouldn’t want to “dumb it down” to Basic play. And B/X is such a sweet little game that I prefer to make my game world fit, rather than add pages of house rules to enable a particular game setting. As I said, too bad.

But I guess I should feel encouraged that I have good reason to break out the OD&D books! Because I LOVES me my glowing-eyed warriors of Chaos.

The King (of Pop) Is Dead...Long Live the King!

The first album I got my parents to buy for me was Kiss’s Destroyer. The second was Kiss’s Rock N’ Roll Over.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller was either my 3rd or 4th vinyl record album. Unlike its predecessors, it came with a lyric sheet and within a couple weeks, I knew the lyrics to pretty much every song by heart. I’ve still been known to do a mean Billie Jean at karaoke nights.

My first and last pop album. So long, man…you were great and you’ll be missed.

Forty Whacks With An Axe

It would be fairly easy for me to fill pages and pages of this blog with posts about Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer character and axes in general…but then I should’ve called this the Lizzie Borden blog or some such. Maybe next week’s “theme” will be “Axe Week;” ‘course folks might mistake my blog for a History Channel ad….

Sorry for the tangents; perhaps I can relate all this to the topic at hand (i.e. RPGs).

James R. Silk (no idea if this is a pen name or not) penned a series of novels based on the Death Dealer character, first created by Frazetta in 1973 (the year I was born…hmmm…). Although Frazetta has created six Death Dealer paintings, I am only aware of four novels by Mr. Silk (each is based on one of the six paintings). I’ve read three of the books even though I’m not a great fan of Silk’s writing (he has an extreme tendency to over-using the simile and metaphor as tools of prose…it gets annoying). They are S&S Nouveau, 3rd generation Swords and Sorcery pastiche. Which is not terrible (hey, I bought the books!), just not terribly original.

What is original is Frazetta’s primal character. Called Gath of Baal in these novels, the “prisoner of the horned helmet” is an Ice Age barbarian of the forest, who gets his head stuck in an unholy artifact (said helmet) and is transformed into the embodiment of the god of Death. He gets a lot of titles (the Dark One, the Forest Lord, the Death Dealer, etc.) and he kills a lot of people (mainly with an axe) when his soul is not being saved by his fair lady (Ahh…how cute). The character is very different from the recent comic book series (which needs a post of its own), as the Death Dealer is a possessed mortal, rather than an animated corpse.

I’ve modeled stats for ol’ Gath in D20 in the past (that was fun), and even tried to craft his horned helmet under the BECMI artifact rules (a bit frustrating). I may or may not post these sometime in the future. However, the FIRST time I used the Death Dealer as D&D inspiration was the first and only time I played 2nd Edition AD&D.

This would have been around 1997…just before I met my wife but probably 7 or 8 years after my last high school D&D game. My co-worker, James, offered to run a game for me, I lassoed a couple other buddies, and we ran in his (I think) Forgotten Realms pocket campaign.

My then-roommate, Mike, played his usual (I found out later) ranger-archer character, “Keldern.” Kris ran his standard Thief (are they called “rogues” in AD&D2? I don’t remember); I belief he was named “Zandramas” but Zand may have been a later, different thief. I was thinking of playing a fighter (since AD&D2 bards suck), but it was strongly suggested that I play some sort of clerical-type. So I came up with my own version of the Death Dealer.

"Baalzac" (I believe that was his name, because we later referred to him as “Ball Sack”) was ostensibly a “cleric,” but a peculiar type of cleric. As I explained to my fellow players, Baalzac was a priest of the mad God of Carnage in War, Tarjan (yes, stole the “mad god” from Bard’s Tale). Tarjan’s priests were required to fight in combat with the god’s chosen weapon (three guesses, folks) and was granted higher hit dice and fighting ability than a normal cleric. However, as a trade-off to this, Tarjan granted no spells, nor did his priests have the ability to “turn undead.”

In other words: a fighter. But Baalzac specifically referred to himself as a cleric/priest, and had both code and doctrine that he was required to uphold. James was nice enough to let me run with this idea. "Keldern" did not appreciate the joke.

I was also fairly insistent that I wanted a “magic horned helmet.” I’m not sure what exactly I was thinking at the time (both Kris and I had decided to get a serious “buzz on” before sitting down to the table), and I’m sure James didn’t either (he was a military history buff, nor a Frazetta fan), but he gave me a "+2 helmet” that acted pretty much like a ring of protection…that is, it contributed +2 to my character’s AC and provided no other bonuses. God bless him, it was perfect.

The adventure was pretty random…go somewhere, do something, all that is forgotten now…but my character was a hoot to play. The highlight was definitely an encounter with an NPC noble-fighter and his retinue, during which “Ball Sack” took offense to the snubbing of his deity by the lord's high priest. I got to make a big speech and challenged the priest to a holmgang, “acting as proxies for our deities.” Of course, in a straight up melee my “cleric” slaughtered the high priest and Tarjan was “vindicated” as the mightier demigod.

Talk about an anti-paladin

As a one-off game, AD&D2 wasn’t bad…of course, there are more rules than what are really needed for a one-off game (the “kits” James made us choose seemed fairly redundant). But as a “get-drunk-and-f-around-game” it was fun. “Keldern” the ranger was a total wanker, though. Really wish I’d had a chance to introduce him to the business end of my hatchet….
: )

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Talk To The Axe..."

I love Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer...as I know I've posted earlier, I am a HUGE fan of the axe as a weapon, and the wearer of the Horned Helmet is definitely the epitome of the axe-slinging barbarian.

Heck, I've even read James Silk's novels (based on Frazetta's art)...and of course I've seen Fire and Ice (nice in its own way).  

I always liked how the body and head seem to be floating away from each other.... 

This One Goes Out to Demogorgon

See the Temple's post to know what I'm talking about.

I went to see Land of the Lost on Monday (my day off).  Hey, I donated blood...I'm entitled to a little cheap entertainment while sipping on canned apple juice.

When this movie was first announced, I was SO disappointed.  I actually found out about it because I was thinking about drafting my own LotL screenplay (I do this to myself sometimes) and first checked IMDB to find out if anyone had already beat me to it.  Of course someone had.

Anyway...I LOVE the Land of the Lost, and I actually find Mr. Ferrell quite amusing (like him, inappropriate things make me chuckle).  So I figured I'd see what it was all about.

Have to say it's a bit schitzo...I mean, it had some funny parts that actually made me laugh out loud (dinosaurs feeding on the ice cream truck was one of 'em), and you can see where all that big money went...it was definitely a big budget film.  I thought the pylons were super-cool, and the idea of a "time warp" parallel plane rather than a straight-up "lost world" was a nice update.  

And the dinosaurs were fantastic...I mean every movie that's come out just makes better and better use of CGI with respect to the T-Rex these days...hell, he's almost like his own name brand star ("Will Ferrell and T-Rex in Land of the Lost"). The characterization is so good, that watching a succession of films...say, Jurassic Park, King Kong, Night at the Museum, and LotL...is like watching the career of Arnold Schwartzenegger.  Sure, in the first couple he doesn't say much and he spends a lot of time posing, but by the end he's totally hamming it up and thoroughly enjoying his role, not taking himself too seriously.

And the sound track? Hell, they got Dave Mustaine to play guitars for the sound track?! Holy shit!

As far as the talent (i.e. the actors) goes, it was a bit of a mixed bag. Strangely, I felt Danny McBride really captured the character of Will Marshall.  That probably sounds insane, but it's as if they hired the original actor to reprise his role 20 years later with mustache, mullet, and beer gut...but with basically the same characterization and motivations.  Ferrell was hit and miss (as usual).  Holly was...um, British? What the f---?

Chaka was also f'ing amazing.  Whoever the hell Jorma Taconne is, he deserves a supporting actor nod (from the Golden Globes maybe) for his performance.  In fact, he made Holly a bit more bearable since she was translating for him through most of the movie.  How she did it with a straight face is anyone's guess.  Even though I'm not one for "low brow" humor, he was so earnest with his humping antics, I couldn't help grin.  Plus for me, he embodied the essence of the original Chaka much as McBride did for Will.

Ferrell on the other hand, had little of Marshall to him...instead he was Will Ferrell, providing a semi-klutzy "everyman" eye-view through the perspective of a Friends' Ross-like archetype.  It got old fairly quick.  Where was John C. Reilly?

Anyway, I wouldn't force my wife to watch it, and I'd rather my kids watch the original series.  I will note that I was the ONLY PERSON IN THE THEATER the whole time.  I can't remember ever being the only person watching a film.  Not even the ushers came in to watch. Wow.

Bomb City, folks.

Arcana Unearthed

I know that various pet game systems, settings, or supplements are much maligned in the OS blogs; I myself have a personal loathing for 2nd Edition AD&D and the Forgotten Realms setting. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel I must admit my own not-so-proud Achilles Heel: I absolutely LOVED Unearthed Arcana.

I’ve speculated before that I might be a bit of a closet munchkin, though in all honesty that’s not why I and my players were so enamored of the book. Three-quarters of my gaming group owned a copy of UA, even though few even had their own Monster Manual, DMG, or PHB. Here’s the skinny:

Reason #1: After years of playing B/X and AD&D, there was finally a new game supplement…not just a new cover or a new monster manual. This had spells, and classes, and magic items, etc..

Reason #2: It was a TRUE AD&D supplement…and by that, I mean it had the Gygax name stamped right on the cover.

Once my group started playing AD&D, we played ONLY AD&D (with some additional pieces from the Mentzer Companion rules). We didn’t run Judge’s Guild adventures or use supplements that were non-TSR. Dragon magazine and official supplements were our only tools for the game…after that, we could create our own adventures or random tables. TSR in general and Gygax in particular, were our final authorities in gaming.

So Gary’s Unearthed Arcana was a godsend (so to speak) for us. New OFFICIAL rules? You bet!

We also found it incredibly useful…I never played a game without it. We used pretty much every rule in the book: Comeliness? Check…in fact the half-orc became an extinct species after the advent of UA. New races? Check…grey elves, drow, mountain dwarves (only one…see Comeliness), and I’m guessing even a svirfneblin was created (though never played). New classes? Check, check, check…no one in our gaming group ever used a cavalier (we never liked goody-two-shoes paladins anyway, and we weren’t that impressed with the cavalier’s armor), but everyone had a thief-acrobat at some point, there was a hierophant druid that was a major NPC of our game, and my brother rolled up several barbarians.

New weapons and equipment…we used it all: whips, lassos, blow guns. One girl who was an occasional player insisted on getting a man-catcher for her fighter…”I’m gonna’ catch me a man!” she’d say, when she wasn’t swinging a two-handed sword. Heck, we even started using pole arms now that the UA showed us what the hell they looked like (ranseurs and spetums were particularly popular).

Most of the magic items got used at some point…Heward’s Handy Haversack and extendable magic quarterstaffs (see Thief-Acrobat) were BIG hits, as were Iron Bands of Bilaro/Robilar and the Prison of Zagyg (an artifact from S4?!). A lot of the new clerical spells were used, and teleport without error and chain lightning became mainstays of our magic-user’s arsenal.

We used Table VI to create new characters…finally, no need to fudge rolls if you wanted to play a Ranger or Monk! Everyone knew their character’s social status, birth order, and legitimacy of birth…all of which led to good natured, in-character (and out-of!) ribbing.

Of course, the unarmed combat rules were a lot less messy than the ones presented in the DMG. We actually started using brawls and grappling in our games with the UA system. Previously, all enemies had been put to the sword.

Yeah…we used it all. The DMs of our group certainly did when designing adventures. I’d go so far as to say it was more useful than both the Find Folio and the Monster Manual II put together. I mean, how many times did YOU put a Grel into a dungeon? Or a Modron? Though the threat of a Tarrasque was ever present, I’m not sure the players ever encountered one.

No, the Unearthed Arcana was great. The increases to level maxiumums provided “topped out” demi-human characters with a new reason for adventuring, and the new rules and goodies provided all of us with a fresh set of tools to make our game play fun. God bless it!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tales of the Greeks

Just finished watching Jason and the Argonauts.  Since I appear to be the only insomniac blogging about D&D on the West Coast, figured I'd post a quick one while the rest o y'all were sleeping. Don't worry...I still have to get up around 6am tomorrow.

Pretty cool movie, not sure if I've seen it before (if so, it was a looooong time ago).  I love the Greeks and their mythology, though I'm more up on my gods and goddesses than all the various heroes (oh, I know the basics, but I get some of the stories confused...for example, Jason and Odysseus).

Anyway, I'm pretty sure it was Heracles that killed the hydra, and not with a stab to the heart. Cinematic license, I guess.

I loved the portrayal of the Greek deities in the film...even moreso than in Clash of the Titans (which I also recently watched). Ray Harryhausen's films endow these mythic beings with such...I don't know...humanity while still retaining their regal divinity.  

I thought Hera's  character in Jason was especially well-done; so often she is portrayed as one cold-hearted bitch.  Here she was playful, loving, and motherly as well as a soul-mate-spouse of Zeus.  Usually she's shown as a nagging shrew, or a vengeful "wronged woman" (which she often is); but it was nice to be reminded why she's still Zeus's queen.

Awhile back I wrote a series of articles for Vault of Pandius detailing the use of Greek Olympians and Elder Titans in a BECMI campaign.  I was feeling a little miffed that the Greeks (my favorite pantheon of gods) had been so snubbed by the Wrath of the Immortals set.  Perhaps I'll make them available here...at least they have some stats for Grecian Immortals (as well as how to use them in a Mystarran campaign).

BTW: for those who are unaware of Pandius, it is the top resource for non-product BECMI stuff on the Net.  Lots of good stuff there for folks who like Mystarra and the Known World, including a bunch of (bleah!) conversions to 3E. I strongly recommend all B/X players check it out if they haven't already!

Alejandro (Part 2)

Decided it was time to write more tales of the black sword…enough with these Elf and Northman posts!

By the black sword, I am speaking of Blackrazor of course, not Kas’s wretched short sword, nor Elric’s infamous rune blade.

“Big Al,” my brother’s fighter character Alejandro, was the only player that ever wielded Blackrazor on a long term basis. Why no one else chose to retain the blade after winning it from White Plume Mountain, I can only guess. Certainly, not all characters could meet the alignment restriction. Some perhaps wanted the reward money for turning it in. Others already possessed weapons they considered “better;” I’m just not sure any realized the potential power of the weapon.

Let us recall what Blackrazor does…it sucks souls and transfers life force from its victims to its wielder (I won’t say “its master,” as with an infinitely increasing ego, no mortal could ever truly master Blackrazor). This transferred life force comes in two forms: increased hit points, and temporary bonus levels “to fighting ability.”

Back in the day, fighters shared many of the same responsibilities that a tank/warrior in the World of Warcraft has…namely: absorb damage and draw “aggro.” Of course, drawing aggro in the Old School is accomplished a little differently…instead of having special skills or talents that “taunt an opponent” you simply do the old fashion thing: hit him as hard and as often as possible so that he refuses to ignore you.

Blackrazor’s special powers turn the AD&D fighter into the ultimate tank. Increasing hit points make the fighter a huge “meat shield” even without clerical support. Increasing combat ability means more attacks per round + more chance to hit which = more damage output. Coupled with the threat of soul-sucking, a wielder of Blackrazor is going to draw a LOT of “aggro.” And that’s even before adding the haste ability.

If memory serves, Blackrazor was the last weapon found by Alejandro and Co. in their conquest of White Plume Mountain. Whelm was discovered first, though for the life of me I can’t remember how they dealt with Ctenmiir…I am guessing Isaiah got a lucky “turn” roll and they looted the hammer before he returned. Wave was next, and while they got “blown out the top” (as is wont to happen in that encounter), they returned shortly thereafter for the Blackrazor.

No one ever believes the “doughty hobbit warrior” is anything other than a disguised monster and a trap. Never. Whether this is due to the Venger-Halfling switcheroo in an early episode of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, or just the sheer un-likelihood of encountering a friendly henchman-type in the middle of a volcano/dungeon…who knows? The point is, everyone draws down and attacks this lil’ guy at first opportunity. He’s neither a great surprise, nor a great challenge.

Anyway, pulling Blackrazor last, many adventuring parties may never actually get the chance to use it in battle and see what its capable of…perhaps this is why they have no qualms parting with it after the adventure. In the case of Al’s party, they decided to accompany Nix and Nox to the Indoctrination Center before leaving (I'm guessing my brother and his friend had no idea the meaning of the word “indoctrination” or its shady implications). Once they realized things were no good (I had to make up a mage Keraptis on the fly), they fought their way out…and here Blackrazor first demonstrated its power.

Alejandro must have already been around 8th to 10th level when the party began their siege on WPM. I’m pretty sure he was in the 9-10 range as the party had recently completed the Desert of Desolation series (I3-I5) withOUT the aid of Blackrazor. Can you imagine my brother’s surprise as he downed one of the Efreeti? Suddenly Alejandro rocketed to 19th or 20th level fighting ability (an efreet having 10 hit dice) plus an extra 40-50 hit points. Even if Alejandro had gained an ACTUAL ten levels, he would have only gained 30 hit points (3 per level after 9th). A fighter’s fighting ability maxes out at level 17 with two attacks per round and the best “to hit” rank in AD&D. Activating Blackrazor’s haste function at this point simply turned him into a one-man killing machine (4 attacks per round!).

Once Blackrazor had “fed” on a single opponent, the contest was over. Keraptis may have killed one or two henchmen before Al downed his first efreet, but the fighter was unstoppable thereafter. Big Al exited the Mountain with an effective level around 35 or so and probably double his normal max hit points.

There was no way Alejandro would relinquish Blackrazor after this first taste of power. A new legend had been born.

Light Summer Reading

Just finished my Boyer book at lunch, and decided to pick up a few more "soft" novels for break time reading (I've been trying to take the bus more to cram more reading time, but lately I've been having to carpool (and drive) leaving me little time for heavy texts). I saw these in the picture window of Eliott Bay Books, and picked 'em up for about $2.95 apiece:

  • The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle)...it's been a long while since I've read this one, but it's a classic fantasy tale, and quite depressing (as was the film). Great reading for summers in Montana on Flathead Lake, where my wife and I will be going in late August.
  • The Elves and the Otterskin (Elizabeth Boyer)...what a find! More tales of the Alfar, and this is one I haven't read. I hope it's as good as The Wizard and the Warlord.
  • The Time of the Dark (Barbara Hambly)...I have no idea what this one is about, but it shares the same cover art as the old Role Aids AD&D Module Fez III: Angry Wizard. I wonder if they're related? I always did like that illustration....
  • The Sword and the Sorcerer (Norman Winski)..."now a major motion picture!" Yes, THAT Sword & Sorcerer. I don't know if the book came first or if it's an adaptation of the film, but I felt it was my duty to find out, seeing as how I've watched the movie at least a dozen times. Now that I have the book, I'll never need to watch it again!

Ha! Wait till I do the B/X version of Talon's triple-bladed monstrosity. I actually already had plans for that post (Magic Swords I Have Known #10), but as my original timeline of posts have already been de-railed, I may need to move it up in the order.

: )

B/X Norse

While I may not have got much blogging done over the weekend, I was able to get a fair bit of reading done…so much so that I’m nearly done with The Wizard and the Warlord; I’m either on the last or the second to last chapter. Which means I’ll be able to get back to Asimov’s Foundation series soon (which I am reading for the FIRST time). Loads o inspiration there for a Traveler campaign.

Anyway, reading the tales of the Alfar with an eye to incorporating the setting into B/X has been mui useful. Here’s the Norse treatment of magic and elves (Alfar) according to Boyer (a scholar of Scandinavian folklore):

  • Alfar (elves) exist in a faerie realm parallel to the mundane.
  • Elves are inherently magical (can do cantrip-type magic), but need training to pull off spectacular effects.
  • Wizards are simply well trained in the use of magic, though magical training does not preclude them from fighting with arms and armor.
  • Aside from their inherent magical nature, elves have the same foibles and weaknesses of human folk.
  • Elves have neither “infravision” nor particularly keen senses, and they don’t speak a plethora of languages (presumably they speak Old Germanic).

The alfar are divided into two types: the ljosalfar (light elves) and the dokkalfar (dark elves). The dokkalfar cannot stand the light of day, although dokkalfar still require torches and fire for light and warmth, and there are dokkalfar farmers who (presumably) must toil a bit in daylight to grow crops(?). This latter may simply be an inconsistency in the author's writing, as elsewhere the dokkalfar are depicted as living in underground caves/ruins/forts. In at least one section, it states the dokkalfar are slain instantly by sunlight, being turned to stone as with trolls, though this never occurs in the book and may simply be a rumor.

The ljosalfar have no such weakness to darkness, they simply prefer the sun. Because of their war with the dark elves, they often patrol at night hunting trolls and dokkalfar.

Anyway, one thing that this book has gotten me thinking about, even more than “another way to perceive elves,” is the Magic-User class in general. Wizards in Boyer's book are one of three types:

- The young apprentice learning the trade.
- The mature wizard, powerful and arrogant.
- The wizened old man, knowledgeable but weakened with age.

These first two are portrayed as hale and hearty individuals…often relying on spells, but certainly capable of wielding swords in their defense (and presumably able to wear armor…little description of armor other than an occasional helm is ever given in the book anyway). To me, these “hale and hearty” wizards are much more like the Elf class of B/X D&D. It takes them longer to train in combat than a fighting man (because of their studies) but they are perfectly capable of learning spells like a magic-user AND fighting like a fighter.

The Magic-User class on the other hand represents the wizened old wizard or witch…the reason he can’t use armor or weapons has nothing to do with his class and everything to do with his AGE. His staff he leans on for support, his dagger is for cutting his meat or occasionally of use in ritual magic. He is too old to march long distances wearing armor…or even carrying a heavy backpack! And yet the aged wizard often has more magical might due to his time spent studying and poring over old tomes and scrolls.

There was a line in one of Robert Aspirin’s early Myth books that I always found noteworthy…Aahz is telling Skeeve (his apprentice) that the reason humans don’t study both magic AND fighting is that their life spans are so short, they rarely have time to master one, let alone both.

Certainly, this would be true of anyone “working the Elf class;” a race with a long life span (say, an actual elf) could accumulate more XP over hundreds of years than the average human adventuring as an “Elf.”

In a game world that mimicked the Norse mythology of Boyer’s books, one could make the following adjustments:

  • Limit classes to Cleric, Dwarf, Fighter, Thief, Wizard (Elf), Aged Wizard (Magic-User). Non-dwarves may be mundane (scipling), ljosalfar, or dokkalfar.
  • No class may progress past level 14.
  • Only dwarves and dokkalfar have infravision; dokkalfar are precluded from using fire/light magic and suffer -1 to all rolls when in sunlight.
  • Languages are determined by Intelligence only, not race (though dwarves will always speak both Common and Dwarvish); there is no “elvish” language; reading runes is a separate language.
  • Norse Trolls = Bugbears (use bugbear stats rather than troll stats) and are rather plentiful. They die in sunlight (turned to stone).
  • Magic items are rare and often have "strings attached" (curses or conditions).
  • Limited armor (no such thing as plate mail).

After going through this exercise, I actually feel less incentive to change the Elf class in normal B/X play. I still like the “heroic elf” character; something between Tolkien's vision and the Alfar for a straight D&D campaign, but the above adjustments are good for a true Northern Reaches campaign of the Norse variety. While Boyer doesn't get into religious differences, the Norse gods are definitely present (dwarves, for example, consider themselves the "chosen priests of Thor") and I feel no qualms in including clerics of Odin (Law) or Loki (Chaos) or any of the other Aesir and Vanir.

This is pretty cool, actually...perhaps I'll do a similar treatment of Tolkien for B/X.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Elven Role-Models (One More Rant)

Out of both the Modvay and Cook rule sets, out of all the BECMI rule books, and out of all the pages of Rules Cyclopedia, there is exactly one decent picture that represents (for me) the Elf class...it's the elf in the center of the Willingham illustration on page B1 of the Moldvay Basic Set.

Yep...that's her. That's it. Nada mas worth mentioning out of 11 rule books and one rules compilation. Pretty crappy, if you ask me.

See, the thing is with these RPG things is that the game world is all imaginary.  There's no board to the game, there are no illustrated cards, there's certainly no animated computer images.  Everything is in your mind.

And because everything comes from one's imagination, the artwork and illustrations in the game books are immensely important.  They are what inspire and fire the imagination.

I am sure that one of the reasons D20 and later editions of D&D have sold as well as they have, despite being such shoddy products play-wise, is the beautiful illustrations in the game books.  3rd edition was great...hell, the half-elf bard was cool enough to make me want to revisit the bard class, 2nd fiddle character though it was. The 4th edition has art that's even better.  The slick production values allow the artists' visions to jump off the page and into the minds of players and DMs alike.

So why O why isn't there more than one decent picture of an Elf in the whole of the "Basic D&D" line?

C'mon...sell me on playing one of these chumps!  What's the matter?  Is it that the illustrators couldn't think of how to make the Elf lord...well, "lordly?"  Certainly they couldn't in the MCI rule sets...and they couldn't do it in the Rules Cyclopedia either.  Where's the Elf in full plate with a two-handed sword?  Nope...they're all scantily clad and wielding bows.

The image I've posted is the only one that does justice to the elf class.  Here we see an obviously low level elf, only fitting as the illustration is the title page for the Basic set.  She's probably wearing the best armor she can afford...chain mail, perhaps magical.  She's armed with both a shield and a sword; no bow in sight. 

Even if she hasn't already used her handful of spells for the day, she knows better than to try them against a red dragon...sleep and magic missile will do little, and shield won't protect her any better than her armor and saving throw versus dragon breath. Quite possibly she is the leader of the party, seeing as how she is in the forefront of the engagement.  She is not hanging in the back casting spells or shooting arrows, but rather taking the brunt of the dragon's fire while the rest of the party supports her

Yes, her goose is probably cooked...but at least she'll go down swinging.

Similar to the halfling illustrations in the Cook Expert set, this Elf looks both courageous and determined. She's not backing down, she's not running for cover, she's not holding back.  The dragon is unfortunately awake, not surprised, and has rolled a nasty Reaction roll.  The whole party's quite possibly dead (their magic-user's got nothing better in the tank then throwing fireball at a red dragon?).  But the Elf is going to uphold her honor.  Of the bunch, she's probably the first one that'll deserve to be raised by the local healers.  

I'd like to see more of her type in the game world.

In Praise of Mentzer's Expert Set

This is a particular post I've been wanting to add for awhile.  Of course, I needed to upload the image so folks would know what I'm talking about, which means waiting till I had access to my own computer.

I think Mentzer's Expert set is great.  Quite frankly, I believe I actually enjoy it more than the Companion rules, which were fairly indispensable to my original gaming group (though we were using them with AD&D...hey, it's not our fault AD&D blew off dominion and mass combat rules!).

As already stated in earlier posts, my first exposure to D&D was through the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert sets, subsequently followed by AD&D, subsequently followed by a decade+ hiatus from D&D in any form.  However, I did go out of my way to collect all the BECMI books somewhere down the road...around my mid-20's actually. I did this for a specific reason: I wanted to complete the promise that was begun in Moldvay/Cook's B/X rules. 

So I purchased the Companion set, I got my hands on the Master set, and eventually I found the Immortal rules.  I figured I didn't need the Red and Blue boxes, 'cause I already had B/X, right?


Mentzer's Expert rules is pretty much the exact same as Cook's Expert set with only a few exceptions.  One of those exceptions are more clerical spells (up through 6th level, I believe where the Cook set only goes through 5th).  The additional spells presented in the Mentzer Expert set are present nowhere else (well, except the Rules Cyclopedia, of course).  Once I discovered this, I made the decision to acquire both Mentzer's blue set and red set.  Heck, I even got a second copy of the Expert book (total of two) as back-up.

I've never been disappointed.

Mentzer's Expert set is only 64 pages long, the same length as the original, and nicely layed out.  Threshold and its sample adventures are greatly appreciated, and I can say (from a player's point of view) that it makes an excellent base of operations for a starting adventuring party...my old AD&D DM made plenty of use of Threshold, and I never realized she was getting it from her Expert set.  

In 64 pages, Mentzer manages to include everything from the Cook edition (with the exception of the crowbar...dammit, why not, Frank?) plus adds extras like Threshhold and the additional spells.

It also has killer artwork.  I like Elmore's artwork anyway (I was a big fan of SnarfQuest), but it can be grating and cheesy at times, especially the some of the stuff in the Red box set (a little too Dragon Lance if you ask me).  The stuff in the Expert set, though, is pure gold in my opinion.  The cover is my favorite of the BECMI series (possibly tied with the Companion cover).  The character classes (especially the cleric pictures) look like "experts," not novices, and not high level master-types.  For me, they really capture the mid-level adventurer...and make me want to play any of the classes.

Well, with one caveat...the pictures of the demi-humans. There really aren't any, at least none that are prominent.  The one visible elf in the entire book is the girl on page 58...and she's not wearing armor?  Excuse me, this is D&D, not AD&D...elves (especially mid-level ones) are going to be wearing at least leather or chain mail, don't you think?  Why else are they splitting half their XP?  What's with the Peter Pan outfit, missy?  The dwarves are a little better, while the only halfling I could find (in the crowd on page 37) is...well, he doesn't inspire ME to play a halfling!

I don't know if the decision to concentrate the illustrations on "cool pictures of humans" was deliberate or not, but if the intention was to draw focus to the humans (for the high level play described in the Companion and Master sets), then mission accomplished.  By the time I get to the fat midgets and leafy tights of the Companion set, I'm probably NOT going to be playing a demi-human.  Thanks, guys.

But back to the praise...with regard to everything EXCEPT the demi-human artwork and the missing crowbar (and some blatant typos...yes, I'm looking at you page 23), I find Mentzer to be at least equal to the Cook set.  Erol Otis and those other OS artists rock, but Mentzer's Expert book is the one I use as my "working" rule book when I'm playing B/X these days.  It's great.