Tuesday, November 30, 2010

B/X Predator (Redux)

I am soooo silly…I completely forgot Cook and Marsh ALREADY include the Predator alien in their Expert set! I’ll re-print it here for comparison with my prior post.

[NOTE: This version of the Predator monster is A LOT deadlier due to the requirement of magical weapons needed to hit. I would allow the high-tech weapons (including the alien’s own weapons) to damage the creature; low-tech D&D characters will need to get creative…i.e. like Schwarzenegger…if they don’t have enchanted weapons]

Why do things have to be overly complicated? Jeez, JB!


Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 8*
Move: 120’ (40’)
Attacks: 1
Damage: 4-16
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Save As: Fighter 8
Morale: 12
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Neutral

Huntsmen from another planet or dimension, these creatures specialize in tracking and killing the most dangerous game they can, as a method of proving their worth and acquiring prestige among their own kind. Prey can be large monsters or PC adventurers, but there must be some element of danger for the predator for the hunt to be worth their while. Unarmed opponents are considered poor sport unless having already proven themselves dangerous to the predator.

Invisible stalkers are large and strong, yet quick and acrobatic; they may climb or move through trees and rooftop environments at their normal movement rate. They are faultless trackers. They can surprise any creature that cannot detect invisible creatures on a 1D6 roll of 1-5.

All stalkers do the listed damage, either in melee or at range (240’). They are obsessed with taking trophies from their prey. Although they prefer to hunt individually, they will rarely be encountered in groups of up to three.

[all right, all right…it’s not EXACTLY the same thing, but it’s pretty close, right? And it’s kind of cool that magic-users can summon the Predator at 11th level…I guess that’s about the time they figure out how to design a sub-space radio, huh?]

: )

B/X Predator


Armor Class: -1
Hit Dice: 10**
Move: 150’ (50’)
Attacks: 1
Damage: Special (see below)
No. Appearing: 1-3 (1-6)
Save As: Fighter 10
Morale: 12
Treasure Type: G
Alignment: Chaotic

Huntsmen from another planet or dimension, these creatures specialize in tracking and killing the most dangerous game they can, as a method of proving their worth and acquiring prestige among their own kind. Prey can be large monsters or sentient combatants, but there must be some element of danger for the predator for the hunt to be worth their while. Unarmed opponents are considered poor sport unless having already proven themselves dangerous to the predator.

Alien predators are large (generally over 7’) and immensely strong, yet quick and acrobatic; they may climb or move through trees and rooftop environments at their normal movement rate. They wear high-tech armor that, coupled with their speed, provides an excellent armor class. This armor also has a light-bending device that allows them to become invisible at will, though immersion in water or excessive damage (more than 50% of hit points) will render it inoperable. Predators have a 5 in 6 chance of achieving surprise when camouflage system is functioning.

The monsters carry a variety of weapons for their hunt, choosing the one they feel most suitable depending on their prey. All predators have a pair of large, retractable blades built into the right forearm of their armor, allowing them to do 2D8 damage in melee combat. They also carry a shoulder-mounted plasma caster that can do 3D10 damage at a range of 300’; its laser tracking system removes all penalties for range.

In addition, each predator will carry 1D4 of the following weapons (roll D6 to determine which):
  1. Razor-wire net (range 120’): prevents movement and does 1D6 damage per round until freed (usually by cutting with a magical or hi-tech weapon).
  2. Edged projectile (range 240’): damage 1D10; stealthier than plasma caster
  3. Slay-Spear: damage 2D6; telescoping (1’ to 12’); can be thrown or set versus charge
  4. Saw-disk (range 50’, thrown): damage 3D6; returns when thrown, may be used in melee
  5. Throwing blades (range 40’; thrown): damage 1D6 each (may three up to 3 per round)
  6. Normal D&D weapon: damage +3 due to great (18) strength

A predator alien does 1D10 damage in unarmed combat.

Predator aliens have excellent infravision but are unable to see in the normal visible light spectrum. Their armor allows them the rough equivalent of human sight (due to filters that help distinguish heat differential) but extreme heat or masking of body heat can render their foes effectively invisible in combat (-4 to the predator’s attack rolls). The predator armor has the ability to record, synthesize, and project voices (as a ventriloquism spell). They are fire resistant, taking only half damage from all normal or magical fire. Their armor also has a self-destruct mechanism with a three-round time delay which they will activate if captured or reduced to less than 10 hit points; the resulting explosion does 10D10 damage to all within 60’ and 5D10 to all within 120’ (save versus dragon breath for half damage).

All predators are obsessed with taking trophies from their prey. This will generally be the creature’s skull and/or hide, but often weapons from an especially honored foe will be kept. Magic items in the monsters’ treasure hoard will ONLY be of the magical weapon variety. In addition, all predators aliens carry the equivalent of a double-strength potion of healing, which they will use if severely damaged during safari.

Alien Stalkers

So last night I had the chance to watch the latest “Predator” movie, Predators…a welcome distraction from Monday Night Football (and the halftime “low lights” of Sunday’s Seahawks game), and something I’d been wanting to watch for awhile.

It was pretty good, which is to say, ‘I enjoyed it,’ even though reviewing it this morning I can’t help but think a lot of it is fairly silly/ridiculous…like the premise, or the samurai swordfight, or Adrian “Action Hero” Brody accomplishing something the Governator couldn’t do in his prime (namely, taking a predator down in hand-to-hand combat…yeah, right). But Monday night is not a night for heavy mental lifting (hell, professional sports are pretty silly when you think about ‘em, too) so it was fine.

[and by the way…why do I give a silly movie like Predators a pass as “entertainment” and not the recent bullshit Clash of the Titans? Because Predators is its OWN mythology and CotT is NOT. No kid is going to go to class and think the “sorcerer alien tree-people” are part of Greek mythology…or any classic/ancient folklore…after watching Predators, because it is its own story. There are plenty of other things wrong with CotT that I could rant about (again), but I’ll leave it at that]

Anyway, I like the Predator films...all of ‘em. For whatever reason, they just strike the right chord of sci-fi, violence, and action for me…such a simple idea, really. “Alien hunter hunts most dangerous game – man – who shows he can be fairly ingenious when put to the test.” The predator alien I find completely badass (which I imagine is true for a lot of the films’ target demographic, hence the ability of the franchise to make money off suckers like me), and a great example of how CGI is no replacement for some old school FX (rubber costumes, animatronic puppetry, etc.). The thing is so visceral, ya’ know?

I’ve done write-ups for the Predator and/or its weapons in a variety of different RPGs over the years…though notably NOT in B/X (maybe later today…). Generally, the system such an antagonist feels most comfortable in is Palladium, itself a system lent towards over-the-top cheesy action/scifi/violence. In fact, I was struck once again (last night) with how readily the Revised Recon system could be used for a one-off Predator game…if only I could find a way to merge Heroes Unlimited or Rifts with R.R. withOUT losing the simplified, streamlined Recon system. Definitely, Revised Recon has the best (in my opinion) system for any mercenary-themed game, unlike other RPGs with soldier/merc elements (Twilight 2000, Albedo, BattleTech, Rifts Mercenaries, Cyberpunk, ShadowRun, Traveller, etc.).

On the other hand, Predator is much more low scale (or what superhero RPGs call “mean streets” level) than what would use for your average sci-fi RPG. Sure, you can rig up a pretty fair copy of the predator alien for a game like Star Frontiers or Traveller, but it just doesn’t carry the same weight of menace. In a game where PCs have access to high-powered weaponry and spacecraft, a big monster with a cloaking device “ain’t no big thang.” You might as well have a normal human with some commando skills, a stealth suit, and a big-ass knife…THAT would be just as scary/threatening, if not more so, than the standard premise of the films.

As for my space opera RPG? There is no “Predator-esque” monster planned for inclusion. Why not? Because there’s nothing “space opera” about Predator! Sure, there are a few pieces of high technology that function in mysterious (read “unexplained by real world physics/logic”) fashion. And, yes, the alien is a humanoid of the rubber suit variety, which is a staple of much space opera fiction.

However, in space opera there’s generally some communication/interaction with the alien species, and generally as peers or intellectual equals (regardless of whether there is egotism and prejudice/racism between species). At least with regard to the treatment of HUMANS, I can’t think of a space opera film, book, etc. where one sentient life-form considers another sentient life-form nothing more than sport to be hunted. In terms of the space opera genre, the original predator alien would be the equivalent of a serial killer…and as the subsequent sequels have established the predators as a species to have the same predilection/values (i.e. they are all “hunters”)…well, such a species is a little too anti-social to fit into the normal intergalactic society found in space opera.

Do you grok my meaning? There may be hated rivalries in the space opera universe (say, between traldaran slavers and wookies or between vulcans and romulans)…hatreds so intense that these species will attack each other on sight with intent to kill. But stalking and hunting another sentient as if they were deer? Going on “safari” into another species’ city? That type of behavior AS A SPECIES in not acceptable in the “galactic community” of space opera. An planet that tried THAT kind of thing would get exterminated faster than you could say “Alderaan.”

So…no predator. That’s a different game.

Not that the whole “Predator-thing” is particularly conducive to an RPG scenario anyway (most players are not interested in having their PCs hunted down and killed one-by-one, right?). Maybe in a Call of Cthulhu game with a “modern day” setting…think of all the insanity points lost for finding skinned bodies and decapitation trophies!

; )

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Damn...Procrastination is a Bitch...

Back in August (on the 19th to be exact), I posted that I was starting a couple new projects, including a B/X reinterpretation of the old Bard Games' The Compleat Adventurer. Along with the Land of Ash campaign setting for B/X, I figured this would be a relatively simple writing project, seeing as how most of it would collecting various essays, random charts, and "new" B/X class write-ups (my "personal favorites" as commentator DHBoggs astutely noted) that have already been posted to the blog over the last year or so.

And it STILL looks like it would be a simple writing project (especially when I'm figuring it will only come in at 40 pages or so)...I just haven't gotten around to doing it.

Fact of the matter is, "real life" has been plenty crazy the last four months, and free time for writing has been astoundingly limited, often relegated to an even lower priority due to "research" considerations.

What the hell is "research?" Oh, you know...scouring used bookstores for old novels (and reading them), comic book stores for inspiring graphic novels, game shops for various games to review their design aspects, and re-watching films I've already seen a dozen times...not to mention combing blogs, web forums, and such for additional ideas.

The last two days for example, I spent quite a bit of time reviewing the old Forge articles on Narrativism and Simulationism, specifically with regard to game design principles (not so much for creative agenda stuff). Ugh...slow going to say the least; even having read the Forge essays multiple times in the past, it can be hard to wrap one's mind around specific semantics if you haven't been involved in the conversation for awhile (for example, if you've been playing and blogging about old school D&D for the last year and a half).

But it's good to read this stuff again...already it makes me reconsider a lot of the basic design choices I had for my space opera game. For example, how much do I want it to be a game of rip-roaring adventure (a la Flash Gordon or the original Star Wars) and how much do I want it to be able to address Star Wars-esque moral premises like

- Is the life of one's friends worth more than the cause for which those friends fight? (The Empire Strikes Back)

- Does love and marriage override one's loyalty to a political cause? (Revenge of the Sith)

And here's the thing: I can see multiple ways to design a space opera game (either as a rip-roarer or a premise-addresser), but trying to design a game that does both is a sure way to invite design incoherence. Why half-ass it two ways when you can go whole hog towards one?

And then, while I'm having that silly, internal debate (does anyone care besides you, JB?) the real bitch of procrastination rears its ugly head...namely, I'm being out-paced by folks with similar projects that are more focused than myself.

For example, my "simple B/X supplement" project seems to have been preempted somewhat by Joseph's (of Greyhawk Grognard) Adventures Dark & Deep project. Of course, Joseph's is a LOT more ambitious than my proposed stunt...four volumes, a re-imagined Gygax-influenced AD&D 2E...but he is including a lot of the same TCA/TCSC classes that were to be the core of my book. Similar to Goblinoid Games' Advanced Edition Companion (published shortly before my B/X Companion)...it just sometimes feels like I'm "diluting the gene pool" so to speak. Everyone has their own way of playing BX/LL and who am I to stick my nose in others' cash flow?

But aside from that (as I said, GG's project and mine are exceptionally dissimilar in scope), I see JM over at Grognardia is starting to get the mental wheels turning on the idea of a class-based space opera RPG. Again, I realize this probably sounds like me whining (um...because I am?) but I'm certainly not looking to compete with anyone, especially someone with substantially wider experience and "publishing chops" than Yours Truly.

[by the way, funny how minds think alike...I came up with a fairly similar archetypal list of space opera classes, as well as the same number, though I DID leave out the thief-type "rogue/scoundrel" on JM's list...that's just a throwback to WotC's take on West End Game's pastiche interpretation of Han Solo, one that I disagree with in general]

I suppose all I can really do is stop sharpening my axe and start whittling on the tree. Not that I haven't been... I've got 20 pages written in multiple chapters, and substantial notes for the other sections. Since I don't intend this to be more than 64 pages in length, I'm close to a third of the way there.

Ugh...then comes the artwork part. Oh, boy.

I suppose in the end I have the exact same decision to make as when I was in the middle of finishing the B/X Companion and realized Barrataria's reimagined Companion had already been published: either suck it up and finish what I'd started, or pack it up and find a different project. I decided to press on and am proud of the end result.

Huh...when I consider my prior decision, I guess I already know what I'm gonna' do.
; )

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Snowed In

Old Man Winter hit Seattle a bit last night and I had a helluva' time getting out of downtown...mainly due to my bus changing its route and not telling me. Consequently I didn't get home till after 8 and when I did, I looked like a refugee from the Hoth system.

After trudging up 85th with biting snow crystals whipping my face and choking my throat (and watching three cars slide into each other and on the sidewalk), I've decided to take a "personal day" and stay the hell home from work.

Well...from the work that pays the bills anyway.

I AM going to be writing (not blogging I'm afraid) over the next couple days. In fact, that's what I've been doing the last couple. It's amazing how slow things go when you're used to doing the stream-o-consciousness thing and you're suddenly trying to write-up rules and procedures in some semblance of coherent order.

Ah, well...who am I to complain? The wind has died down this morning which means the beagles are finally ready and willing to get out in the yard and "frolic" and the cable's totally knocked out so there's no 600 channels to distract me (my wife, on the other hand, is a little more bummed...I have the Star Wars movies on DVD at least). Hope everyone's doing well and that any holiday preparation is devoid of stress for y'all!
: )

Friday, November 19, 2010

Okay, We Set our Campaign...

...and decided we'd be doing the Goblin Wars idea.

The players decided they liked the idea, we rolled up some characters, and we discussed some ideas for the direction of the campaign. Since it will be two weeks before we meet again (we're taking next Thursday off for the Thanksgiving holiday) that gives me a little time to put together an adventure or two for the players.

I'll write more about this later, and introduce the characters as well. No random headgear this time...though I did add helmets to the equipment menu. Remember there's no "plate mail" in this particular campaign? Helmets help make up the difference a bit:

Helmet, cost 15gp, AC (-1)

Wearing a helmet makes it impossible to hear quiet noises through doors.

There are no class restrictions on wearing a helm, so even the magic-user has one, which I think is very cool.
: )

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Campaign Ideas

Tuesdays and Wednesdays have turned into some of my loooongest “work days” for a variety of reasons…mainly that there are other commitments that I have AFTER work that keeps me busy all the way up till bedtime.

I say this simply to preface the following: I’m a bit un-prepared for tonight.

Tonight my Baranof group will be meeting for the first time since completing White Plume Mountain, and I know folks are going to be looking forward to starting SOMEthing. The idea is a decent campaign (or rather, “creating characters with the possibility of some long term serial play”). But I’ve got no idea what kind of campaign I want to run.

Fortunately, there was an “all staff” meeting for two hours at the office to discuss “combating stress” in the workplace. Since I’m a pretty stress-free guy, I was able to do a little notebook brainstorming for some possible campaign options. The only reason I’m posting ‘em now is to give my players (probably reading the blog) something to think about before we meet this evening.

None of this is set in stone. These are not listed in any particular order of preference.

Option #1: After the Goblin Wars. Already discussed in recent posts.

Option #2: Adventuring in the world of Krull. See the much earlier posts.

Option #3: Mythic Norse adventures. Harkening back to VERY early posts inspired by Elizabeth Boyer and Viking lore. Classes available to PCs include:

Fighter, Magic-User, Thief – as per B/X
Dwarves – as per B/X but able to craft magic items as a magic-user
Fighting Wizards – as per B/X elf class, withOUT the infravision/languages
No Clerics or Halflings
Skalds – as per the B/X Companion “Bard” optional class

Special Rules
“Binding Wounds:” characters can bandage themselves, healing D6 hit points, once per day. This can only be used immediately following a fight during a restful period of at least one turn.
“Broken blades:” non-magic weapons break on a roll of a “1.” Better carry a back-up axe!
“No plate mail:” sorry.
"Human or Elf:" aka "Scipling or Alfar;" they're the same thing.

Option #4: Bronze Age Heroes. Again, going back to my earlier musings on the “Bronze Age” nature of the D&D universe (monsters of ancient Greek and Roman myth, etc.). Characters will be the equivalent of a small party of Roman Legionnaire adventurers, exploring the ancient kingdoms of North Africa…desert, jungle, mountains, and pyramids. Classes available to PC include:

Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Thief – as per B/X
Dwarf – “throwback man” (Neanderthal-like, no weapon restrictions, but no infravision…a member of a northern culture enslaved by these mythic Romans and adopted into the army).
Halfling – “miniature savage” (like a mythic pygmy or Pictish warrior; same story as the “neanderthal” but class is EXACTLY the same as Halfling).

Special Rules
“Roman deities:” clerics worship the ancient Roman pantheon (pre-Christ) and may need to make occasional sacrifice. Mithras is a good sponsor for the excursion.
“Lorica Segmentata:” there IS plate mail. However, the slave classes (“Dwarf” and “Halfling”) are not allowed to wear it; only human fighters and clerics.
“Far from Rome:” most plunder found will be sent back to the Empire (via ox cart or whatnot) rather than hauled around; XP is gained for all treasure found, despite these donations of tribute.

Option #5: Warhammer Europe. As per WHFRP using the B/X rules. Chaos is encroaching from the north. The orks take the place of the Huns. Much of the continent has been developed by kingdoms that war with each other. Skaven lurk in the sewers. The usual…plus black powder weapons. Classes available to PCs include:

All standard B/X classes. Might modify them somewhat using my random B/X class mods.

Special Rules
“15TH Century Technology:” All gunpowder rules apply.
“Mordheim as a Mega-Dungeon:” You better believe it.
“WHFRP Critical Hits?:” Might be added to my own Random Death table.

Option #6: Run something other than B/X.

Here are some other games I’d be interested in running that I think would work with this particular group. In no particular order:

- Trail of Cthulhu: GUMSHOE is sooo much cooler than Chaosium for this kind of thing

- Boot Hill: because Boot Hill is the BEST; might also be interested in running my steampunk version, Clockwork (still un-published…could sure use some play-testing!

- Hollow Earth Expedition: I might need to modify the system A LOT, or at least boost starting characters somewhat, but hunting dinosaur with an elephant gun in the lost ruins of Atlantis is just so damn awesome…ugh, chalk up another much needed B/X adaptation to the growing list!

- Pendragon: A Chaosium game where I don’t mind the system (for whatever reason). I only own the 3rd edition, but I’d love to play this game with a group of 6-8 and see how their different characters develop over time.

The following games I would be interested in running “someday” in the far, faaaar future…though my players MIGHT be able to talk me into it now:

- Some Supers game (Superworld, Heroes Unlimited, TSR’s Marvel, or Godlike/Wild Talents). MAYBE…but only just maybe (I don’t feel like making a comic book campaign world that has any semblance of “sense” right now).

- Some Rifts-based game (specific interests: Mexico, Atlantis, Russia, or Wormwood…MAYBE, maybe Pac NW or Canada; everything else, setting-wise tends to be a lot of dog-shit). I would be more likely to adapt a Rifts setting (if the players were interested) to a B/X-based campaign. Yeah, it’s not as hard as it sounds (Palladium already heavily rips off Gygax and Arneson). Of course, anything I did in THAT arena would go un-posted on the blog…can’t have Siembieda suing me,right?

- Star Wars/Space Opera: Still working on my own game (that’s what I’ve been doing with my free time this week!) and it’s not ready to play. But I MIGHT be tempted to playtest it. MAYBE.

All right…that should give everyone plenty to think about. We’ll see what they want to get up to tonight (see y’all at 8pm!).

; )

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Regarding “Story Now”

A few people have commented (and emailed me) that they have enjoyed my “session reports” and adventure write-ups, especially the recent White Plume Mountain game at the Baranof. My players have sometimes noted that the telling of the story is more interesting than the actual playing, as some of the challenges (like the ziggurat and the mud cave) have required a fairly boring amount of brain-storming on the parts of the players developing a strategy for circumvention.

Personally, I don’t see any sort of hypocrisy or “false advertising” …hell, any kind of disconnect at all!...between the actual playing and the later “story telling.” That’s how role-playing games are.

NOT that I feel RPGs are a vehicle for “telling stories.” I don’t really agree with this sentiment (or at least, I don’t support the idea that story telling is the main or prime objective of playing an RPG). Stories CAN come out of imaginary play, but the point of play is…let’s face it…PLAY. Play in an imaginary world, imagining yourself as a grim wizard or stalwart cleric of brawny fighter…or for that matter, pretending you’re a Jedi Knight or star-sailing smuggler.

Certainly, some players (including myself) have at least some nominal story-telling objective; a “narratavist creative agenda” to use the jargon of the Forge, and role-playing games can be designed with this objective in mind. But D&D is NOT a game that facilitates addressing a premise in play…at least not without a LOT of house rules and some fairly extreme tweaks.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t get something of a story from playing. No, it’s not Tolstoy; hell, it’s not even Howard usually (though it might be Lovecraft). The story you get is the same kind you bring back from a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ll explain what I mean by that.

When I was a kid, I was both a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout (I was also a Catholic altar boy…and somehow I was never molested in all the years of my youth…go figure). As a Scout with an active/involved father, we went on a lot of Scout-sponsored camping trips. This would generally involve driving out into the middle of the wilds, hiking as a troop even farther into the wilds, setting up tents, and then toughing it out through icy, pouring rain for two or three days before hiking out again. Call me a sissy, “city boy,” but camping in the Northwest sucks. It is cold, it is wet, and it is miserable. Miserable! We’d have to sing these damn songs and try to find as much humor as we could while freezing our joints off and getting muddy as hell. I suppose it was designed to “build character,” but what it really did was give me an appreciation for my soft city life…kind of like being forced to eat Top Ramen for a couple years gives you an appreciation for having a job that puts real food on your table.

Anyway, while we certainly had some laughs (usually at the expense of our fellow scouts’ equal or worse suffering), I don’t think any of us would have said we had a “good time.” I know I would never have claimed that…and I enjoyed luke-warm beef stew cooked on a tiny propane stove. Even after we got home, we would not have claimed to have enjoyed ourselves…BUT, we always had a helluva’ good time telling the stories of our suffering!

Complaining and talking about how awful an experience was can be a lot of fun…much more so than the experience itself. What’s more, it can be downright entertaining to others when described with the proper attitude and (occasional) poetic exaggeration.
; )

I hope folks don’t take this to mean that a boring day at the gaming table should be considered entertainment because you can bitch about it later…that’s not the point. The point is, the kind of stories that get told are “war stories” about what happened in the game: “We went into White Plume Mountain, and Joe and Bob died, but at least we got this big pile of treasure, and look at this nasty scar from the giant crab, man, after we finished him off we were dipping his remains in butter…”

Regarding, “the telling being better than the playing:” that’s really not how I see it. Actual play takes time away from “what’s going on” in-game for referencing rules, kibitzing, and out-o-character strategizing. That’s the nature of the beast…and it happens in Story Now games as well (rules referencing, kibitzing, and strategizing or negotiating the story). The difference between D&D and a Story Now game is not that one tells stories and the other doesn’t. The difference is that one (D&D) tells pulpy, weird, serial adventure stories and the other (Story Now) has the ability (or potential) to tell more “meaningful” or “emotionally impactful” stories.

Not that they do, necessarily. InSpecters, for instance, has fantastic potential at facilitating the narrativist creative agenda (due to its shared narration and wide-open interpretation of dice rolls). In practice, any stories told are more loopy than anything that occurred in White Plume Mountain. That’s what it inspires: silliness. And it’s no more or less interesting than the stories that get told about a particular “dungeon delve.”

Now as I said, I don’t think “collaborative story telling” is the prime reason to play RPGs (even though it IS an objective of play for certain RPGs). Likewise (as I said), I personally have an interest in some story coming out of play…even if that story is simply a hair-raising tale of adventure and death. In fact, I find the serial adventure (i.e. the “long-term campaign”) to be the MOST rewarding because it gives you a chance to “fall in love with the characters” just like your favorite serial TV show or comic book or novel or movie trilogy.

[and I think that this love of the “on-going character” is as much the reason people want to play D&D as the ability to “pretend to be an elf or barbarian or spell-slinging sorcerer”]

Because of this (my own creative agenda), I have fairly specific design criteria for role-playing games. Not “rules light” necessarily, but “rules abstract.” And certainly NOT “rules heavy” (sorry Pathfinder/D20…you go too far in the wrong direction for my taste). B/X is just about perfect, aside from minor gripes (like the excessive treasure/XP thing). It gives the rules needed to set parameters of play (what is and is not possible and/or appropriate), but leaves a LOT to the imagination, giving ample space for creativity.

If my write-ups of White Plume Mountain were fun/interesting, it’s because the GAME was fun/interesting…at least from my perspective. No, no, we weren’t creating any chest-beating drama (that’s a different RPG, folks) but we were having a rip-roaring adventure with minimum fuss.

For a Thursday night social event over beer, that’s most of what I’m looking for anyway.
: )

Final Thoughts on White Plume Mountain

I have written more than once that S2:White Plume Mountain is one of my favorite adventure modules of all time, not to mention one of the best examples a “true” D&D adventure/dungeon. There’s almost no “plot” to the adventure, save what a DM might want to give it…really, it’s little more than an adventure scenario: go find some missing artifacts and bring ‘em back for a reward.

The small scale of adventure – 27 numbered encounters, a wandering monster table with 6 entries (and the dead ones stay dead), plus an optional “final encounter” – make it one that can be completed in a single looong weekend, or over just two to three evenings. Ours took longer (5 sessions) as we had many players that were new to the game (not to mention I was challenged to wrangle so many players). But a short adventure like this means a LOT less prep work for the DM.

At the same time, the players were plenty challenged by the encounters presented. The frictionless room, heat induction plates, ziggurat/aquarium, boiling bubble, and mud cavern all proved to be exceptional challenges for the players…not just their characters. And there were several encounters they missed completely…the floating river, the spinning corridor, and the riddle of the globes…all of which would have produced additional consternation I’m sure.

The “S” series of modules (Tomb of Horrors, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth) carry the designation of S for “Special” and they certainly are…all four modules are filled with unusual challenges and non-standard monsters. S1 and S2 are two of the shortest modules ever published by TSR, and yet there is plenty in each to make even the most experienced players pause for a moment.

Not that experienced players don’t have a leg up…the eight guys sitting at my table had a fairly easy-breezy time with some challenges; for example, all the riddles got knocked down quickly. Several times, one player found him idea stymied by the module, but a second player would offer an alternate idea that worked just fine. There was a lot of “brain power” at the table, and that made it possible for the PCs to do quite well over-all (well, except for that final challenge).

If anything, the characters’ own ability scores got in the way of their ideas. My inclination…or crutch, really…is to use ability scores (strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc.) as the equivalent of “skills” for adventurers. There’s no “grab the swinging chain” skill, so make a Dex roll. There’s no “underground direction sense” skill, so make an Int roll to see if you recognize this stretch of corridor.

Actually, I suppose I’m not THAT bad…generally, I allow any hare-brained scheme to work if it makes sense (the weird, rope pulley thing just took awhile for me to grasp). And anyway, the abilities are there to represent SOMEthing (the characters’ abilities…duh!).

However, players sometimes looked annoyed when I’d ask “what’s your strength” to try something and they only had an “8.” I suppose it’s tough to get in the mind of your Halfling character sometimes…especially when you yourself are 6’+ tall.

[interesting that I’ve also found the opposite to be true…my petite wife often had difficulty getting into the mindset of a hardy fighting man]

Regarding the challenges (and the monsters) in the adventure…I was constantly amazed at how different encounter strengths turned out to be the exact opposite of how I anticipated them. Partly this is probably due to memories of prior “runs” through White Plume Mountain. For example, I’ve always considered the Whelm section to be a pushover part of the dungeon, and here it resulted in a TPK (ok, technically there were “survivors,” but if we hadn’t been out of time the remaining three would never have made it past the mud room…).

But having no magical means of bypassing the mud cavern…no fly, levitate, dimension door/teleport, winged boots, etc…made the chamber a near-complete stumper for the party. The explosive geysers do a ton of damage (based on proximity) with no “to hit” roll or saving throw needed. There just weren’t enough resist fire spells to go around! In the past, parties have always circumvented this far easier than the frictionless room or the heat induction corridor.

And then Ctenmiir…wow! I have never seen him (or any vampire) kick so much ass. Of course, I’ve never seen any party stand toe-to-toe with him; in general, they would Turn the vampire, get the treasure, and leave. Our clerics both had the opportunity to Turn the creature, but neither tried (I’m not sure why…maybe they felt their chances weren’t good enough). Raise dead was actually an excellent spell to use, though looking back I’m sure Luke would have preferred to use Dispel Evil (it also destroys undead but singular targets receive a saving throw penalty). There was certainly some bad luck involved (Ctenmiir hitting Alster’s incredible armor class and dropping him to 5th level put a stop to the cleric as a threat, and his hypnotizing of Sexy Kevin sealed off any help from their “back-up cleric”). Without a cleric, vampires are dead-hard monsters in D&D…they WILL eventually hit you and that (ultra-fast in B/X) regeneration makes them a recurring nightmare.

[tell you what: I2:Tomb of the Lizard King looks a LOT harder than its “mid-level” range would indicate. If I were going to convert it to B/X play, I think I’d have to make it 14th or 15th level!]

Even fleeing immediately, the characters would never have made it across the mud cave before the flying, regenerated Ctenmiir arrived and cut their little rope line. Those guys were goners.

Anyway, contrast HIM with the giant crab. Sure, there was a timer-based “auto-kill” effect in play, but I figured the crab itself would kill at least one character (15 hit dice monsters tear through plate armor like tissue…and those claws averaged 10.5 damage each!). However, such was not the case…the monster didn’t hit all that much and didn’t do all that much damage (damn random rolls). I suppose in that situation the party had a little “good luck.”

Personally, I figured that Quentin and Blackrazor would be the real “party killer” of the three guardians, but he really wasn’t “all that.” Perhaps, if I had NOT allowed the scarab of protection to save Sweet Tito’s soul (and thus added the elf’s hit points and level to Quentin)…or perhaps if I’d allowed the extra levels to mean multiple attacks for Halfling (as they would have meant to an AD&D fighter)…maybe then the Halfling would have finished off the entire party. But that sure would have cut the adventure short! As it was, I was quite pleased with how that particular encounter resolved itself.

Boy, those halflings sure did prove to be resilient little cusses, huh? Like cockroaches…fairly impossible to stomp. The combination of good armor class and good hit points made them Tiny Tanks…and unlike the big fighters, they were far less often targeted in combat. The elves and clerics often suffered from a lack of hit points…there’s no minimum Constitution requirement for these classes (unlike Halflings) and several of those PCs were scarce in the HP total because of it.

And the thieves…whoa, poor little guys. Once again proving that they are NOT lightly-clad fighters. They are THIEVES…and hand-to-hand melee was a very bad idea for these chaps. Magic-users would have been even worse, of course…but none of the players played a magic-user so it’s hard to tell how THEY would have fared.

All in all, I have to say I was quite pleased with the over-all adventure, and quite happy that I had a chance to run it again with a new set of players. Even considering it a “fun house” adventure I think the module has a nice set of teeth, and certainly provided the group with mucho entertainment value. I don’t know the next time (if ever) that I’ll get a chance to run White Plume Mountain again…perhaps for my own children someday. But this was a lot of fun for a “one-off” adventure, and it sparked a ton of ideas…on the use of monsters, challenges, and intelligent artifact weapons…that I’m sure I can adapt to later adventures.

Hell, some of the stuff found in White Plume Mountain – Wave, Blackrazor, Ctenmiir, “Quentin” – would be entertaining things to have “pop-up” in other campaigns. Certainly, I could build an entire campaign setting around ANY one of the three magic weapons…if I’d had the chance, I think I would have given Whelm a cranky, dwarven personality.

Hmmm…many ideas to consider.
; )

White Plume Mountain – The Final Chapter (Part 3)

[continued from here]
Beyond the mud cavern was another corridor ending in another door, though this one seemed a bit more intricate. Gathering themselves and readying their weapons, Farnsworth once again raised a mighty foot and kicked in the portal. Darkness. Black, impenetrable darkness. The darkness seemed to smother the light from the fighter’s sword…his flame was all that was visible. Alster pushed forward with his shield (he had previously cast continual light on the thing), giving some slight illumination to the darkened chamber. [Alster rolled for surprise…success! Finally] A pale face loomed from the darkness grinning down at the party. “Does it look like a vampire?” asked Luke/Alster. Ridiculous. “Yeah, sure, it does.” “Does it sparkle like Edward?” asked AB/Farnsworth. “No.” The party rolled for initiative, got it. Alster cast Raise Dead on the creature. The vampire made his saving throw with a 17. Kevin, Bryan, and Dampwick started pulling garlic cloves out of their backpack. Baring his fangs, Ctenmiir the vampire, guardian of Whelm, hugged the cleric to his chest drinking deep of his lifeblood and draining him to 5th level. Farnsworth with Blaarthislaarv (“you know, Blackrazor would be handy in this situation,” comments AB for the 2nd or 5th time), Sexy Kevin with Wave, and Brian with a sword +1 (*ahem*) all attacked the vampire. Dampwick and Sly Jr. hung back, wishing they owned magic weapons. Ctenmiir stared deep into Farnsworth’s eyes, “You long to serve me…I am your master.” Farnsworth passed his saving throw and clubbed the monster for minimal damage while Kevin stabbed Wave deep into the creature’s back. Rounding on the cleric, the vampire tried the same tactic…and Sexy Kevin succumbed under the vampire’s control. Meanwhile, the others continued to pound the creature as best they could. Kevin turned his trident on Alster, even as the cleric fended off the vampire’s attack. “Get the trident out of his hands!” A cleric with a 13 strength and a +3 trident is a fierce opponent, but Sly and Dampwick rushed him and somehow managed to restrain their charmed friend… […somehow being “with the B/X Companion rules for grappling”] …meanwhile, Bryan, Farnsworth, and Alster were doing their best to mangle the vampire, stabbing and smashing it repeatedly, even as it (I believe) drained the heroic halfling down to 5th level. The creature was finally struck a telling blow and the creature vaporized…vanishing into mist as if it had never been. Sexy Kevin was hog-tied and left on the floor. “Master! Master!” “How long till that wears off?” “Who knows…” Alster immediately began searching the room, looking for a coffin or sarcophagus, which he found. Pushing back the lid he was somewhat surprised to find the thing completely empty…no Whelm, no treasure, and no vampire. He began searching the interior. Brian was carefully toeing Wave into the bag of holding, re-claimed from Alster (forgot to mention: the cleric confiscated the bag when the Halfling was initially trying his rope-a-batics); meanwhile Sly and Dampwick watched the door, Sly still badly hurt from his earlier fall and bashing despite being healed by the clerics. “Ho-hum…wonder what we’re watching for,” said Sly to the diminutive Dampwick. “Me,” replied the fully healed Ctenmiir, who fell on the thief ripping his throat out. The lifeless form dropped to the floor. [I blame Kevin Siembieda and Rifts: Vampire Kingdoms for the total smack-down on the players…I never realized how VICIOUS vampires were before reading up on vamp tactics. I suppose that, as a kid, I simply didn’t play vampires…when they infrequently appeared…as “all that smart.” Truth be told, I considered the Ctenmiir encounter the weakest “guardian” of the three in White Plume Mountain…however, once the clerics were eliminated, it was pretty much all over for the party. Especially considering that the creature could fully regenerate in less than two minutes…13 ten second rounds…it really was grossly unfair] Dampwick ran around panicked (I actually don’t remember what he was doing), as the Vampire flew at Alster, reducing the cleric to a lifeless husk. Farnsworth gave a roar and laid into the vampire with his flaming sword, while Brian tried to hamstring the creature. Now that I think about it, I believe Dampwick actually had Alster’s mace +2 at this point, the cleric having give it to the halfling upon finding the Lawful Whelm. The huge hammer (along with many bags of treasure) had just been found on a shelf BENEATH the sarcophagus prior to the vampire’s reappearance. Not that he ever had a chance to swing it. The characters were once more in a fight for their lives. Ctenmiir was all over Farnsworth, the vampire draining the fighter, and then draining him again despite his tremendous armor class. I openly cackled (I couldn’t help myself…sorry) as I realized how close to toast the once-badass fighter was…however, a 3rd level fighter with 18 strength and a flaming sword is still nothing to trifle with, and the remaining party members were able to drive Ctenmiir off once again, the vampire voluntarily transforming into mist. They wasted no time: Wave and Whelm were gathered into the bag of holding and everything else…including their friends’ bodies and the still-struggling Kevin…they left behind as they fled the dungeon with all speed. Two halflings and a 3rd level fighter clambered their way across the mud chamber (we “hand-waved” the spouting geysers and Strength/Dex rolls), wondering briefly what had happened to Boner (black pudding fodder), before charging down the hallway at top speed, thankful, at least, that they had removed the one-way turnstile when they had the chance. Through the bone golem room (still no attacks), hand-waving wandering monster rolls, not worried about pursuit from the flying, regenerating vampire, most definitely in full pursuit of the party…until finally, finally arriving at the three-pronged intersection, the place of the sphinx, the tunnel out of White Plume Mountain. And finding it blocked by an invisible force field. Here’s the text of the final encounter of White Plume Mountain:
A voice speaks to them from out of the air: “Not thinking of leaving are you? You’ve been so very entertaining, I just couldn’t think of letting you go, especially with those little collector’s items of mine. And since you’ve eliminated all of their guardians, why, you’ll simply have to stay…to take their places. I’ll have to ask you to leave all of your ridiculous weapons behind and let Nix and Nox escort you to the Indoctrination Center. I’ll be most disappointed if you cause me any trouble, and Nix and Nox will have to eliminate you. Don’t worry – you’ll like it here.” The force wall disappears but coming up the south passage are Nix and Nox, two efreet [stats omitted]. If the party can get past them, they’re home free!
Matt/Bryan says: “Well, I can use Wave’s invulnerability power right?” It only works once per day and Kevin used it. “But now I’m the new owner/wielder, right? So I can use it for today?” Um… Since it was already past Midnight and we all wanted to wrap up, we decided, sure, Wave can use its sphere ability (again) the two Halflings cling to the big (3rd level) fighter, and the party “hamster-balled” past the efreet. [Besides, the module says you can skip the final encounter if you feel the party is “too badly damaged.” Personally, I don’t think there’s such a thing in D&D…but that’s my opinion. Some DMs hold off on even killing folks, and where’s the fun in that?] Half-hearted “yays” and “we wins,” were (briefly) heard around the table…yeah, right. It’s just as well we decided we’d start a new campaign with our next session, as this group was pretty well demolished. Final thoughts will be in a follow-up post.

White Plume Mountain – The Final Chapter (Part 2)

[continued from here]
“Does anyone have a fly spell? Scroll? Potion of levitation? Anything?!” The answer was uniformly no…not one of the party members had a magical means of traversing the cavern. As they stood on the ledge, wondering and contemplating what they were going to do, a geyser of steaming mud exploded from the lake near the far side of the cavern. The force of the geyser was enough to knock the disks swinging wildly, and shower the party with scalding hot mud. Fortunately, they were far enough away that the splatter did minimal (1D4) damage…but it was enough to get them to retreat back from the ledge and into the corridor. They were still discussing this latest turn of events when the second, nearer geyser blew two minutes later. Being under cover, they received no damage…but to say they were a bit disconcerted would be (I think) an understatement. What followed would be the longest, and most worked and re-worked, brain storm of the entire adventure. [the players spent a loooong-ass time trying to figure out a way to conquer this particular challenge…yet another descriptive room with “not-a-lot-o-guidance.” Schick provides the dimensions of the cavern and the disk. He provides the timing of the geysers (the far one blows every 3 minutes, the near one every 5), the damage sustained from erupting geysers (based on proximity to the gusher), as well as the % chance of “hanging on” to a chain when a geyser erupts…again, based on proximity. There’s no discussion of how one might cross, what mechanics a DM might use for leaping from disk-to-disk, no information on damage should one fall into the lake of boiling mud…instant kill?...nor how long it might take to try to cross the disks. All this is left to the DM to “referee” which, while a pain in the ass, is actually pretty cool for two reasons: 1) It provides the DM with leeway to make the crossing as easy/hard, slow/fast as necessary (or appropriate) depending on the needs of a “good adventure.” 2) It prevents the DM from giving the players any “clues” as to how the chasm might be crossed. I mean, sure, it’s all well and good to say, “you can jump from disk to disk,” but landing on said disk is going to cause the platform to tilt and the chain to carom wildly. Also, how does one jump from one to the next with little to no leverage against which to push off? You’re really left just trying to grab the chain…each chain being approximately 9’ from the next, and slick with moisture and slime. With the amount of damage being dished out by the geysers, the lack of magical flying ability made the cavern a HUGE undertaking for the party!] The party made sure time out the geysers, roughly figuring that one was blowing every five minutes while the other was blowing every three minutes. I say, roughly, because folks were hitting the beer pretty hard and there were more than a few cocktails consumed (including several “rum and root beers” – don’t ask) and the counting and calculations weren’t as solid as one might’ve figured. However, they did eventually realize (perhaps because I told them) that the geysers would blow simultaneously every 15 minutes or so, and from this they devised Plan A. Plan A (my name, not theirs), consisted of casting resist fire on the thief, tying a rope around his waist, and having him try to leapfrog across the disks as best he could. I’m not sure what exactly he was supposed to do once he got to the other side, but that would become a moot point. I decided to have him make a straight Dexterity check to jump, land correctly, and catch hold of the chain for each disk. He failed on the second one. However, he only missed the roll by one so allowed him a second roll to catch the edge of the platform with his gauntlets of ogre power. This he did, and with a grip of iron, managed to claw his way up to the chain. Making it (I believe that was a Strength roll?) he continued his leaping. I believe it was the fourth or fifth disk where he missed both the first Dex roll and the second “saving” Dex roll. Having fed him only enough rope to have slack for his jumps, the length of rope between the party and Sly Jr. was only 30-some feet in length. Falling he swung nearly half the length of the cavern, before crashing into the cave wall thirty feet below the ledge on which stood his friends. Down to four hit points and with a definite sprain or two, Sly refused to try Plan A again. [actually, Sly was more like Plan B…Plan A was to see if Boner could make it across the cavern, but the party discarded that idea before giving it a shot. Boner just didn’t look like he had it in him…] The party now considered several different possible options: - Have the thief “climb walls” around the circumference of the cavern (yeah, right). - Sexy Kevin didn’t like the idea but thought maybe he could use Wave’s “sphere of invulnerability somehow to get across the boiling mud. - Fire an arrow to try to rig up some sort of “zip line” or shoot an arrow through one of the chain links on the far side, “threading the needle” (call that the “William Tell” maneuver). In the end, it was Bryan the Halfling who once again stepped up and volunteered his services; Bryan was so happy that there was another Halfling in the party they could “send down the holes” that he was feeling fairly generous with his life. Well, no not really…it’s just that Matt came up with some weird, convoluted rope insanity plan that he was totally stoked and enthused about. I say “convoluted” because it took him something like 40 minutes to explain it to me till I understood it, and most of the party STILL didn’t quite get it (though they were all amenable to Bryan braving the cavern). Remember…copious amounts of beer? The general gist (if I’m remembering correctly) is: - Bryan tied a rope around his waist that was 100’ long, then used a rope and grappling iron to hook and pull disks, still leaping from each to each. The cleric cast resist fire on him and he had his ring of water (mud) walking. - Sometimes he fell (probably two or three times) but because of the grapple, he was able to climb straight up to the disk from which he’d just dropped. He was thus able to continue making progress across the chasm without taking much damage (though shinnying up the rope cost valuable time off the resist fire duration). - Once across the cavern (on the opposite ledge), he had the other party members tie the REST of the rope…200’ worth!...onto the end of his rope, which he then pulled across, looped, and allowed them to pull back. The result: three lines crossing the cavern, one of which was taut, the other pair on a kind of “pulley system,” that allowed for swift transport of PCs. Which was great, because they NEEDED swift transpo. The spell wore off and Bryan started taking damage from geysers, even as Farnsworth hurried across the rope line. The big fighter knocked down the door on the other side and then the two were able to shelter in the corridor beyond, while still helping to “pulley” the characters across. I was, of course, rolling wandering monsters during this entire time period. The “Predator” monster showed up again [note to players…this was an Invisible Stalker, Keraptis’s main messenger and gopher guy, providing him on updates of the PCs’ progress] …but having faced violence from the creature, decided to leave it alone…and it left them alone, again. [I did make a Reaction roll for the Stalker, but it was a positive “9”] However, the next monster wasn’t quite so friendly…I believe Sly Jr. was the next across the rope bridge, followed by Alster (who first used his final resist fire spell on himself). Sexy Kevin was still pulling the rope pulley from his end while Dampwick watched their backtrail for wandering monsters. Somehow, the huge (10 HD) black pudding that cleans the dungeon managed to sneak up on them (surprise) and the two were in a fight for their lives! Dampwick attempted to shatter his lantern on the thing, but missed with a “1;” Kevin smote the slime with Wave, simply dividing it into two! Looking with disgust at Boner (who did nothing, having been left on the ledge with zero instruction from Farnsworth), they decided discretion was the better part of valor. “Hop on my back!” the cleric told the Halfling…then, activating Wave’s “force sphere” ability, the two hopped off the ledge, bouncing lightly along the surface of the mud, before “hamster-balling” across to the other side. From there, the rest of the party was able to haul the pair up via ropes (??)… [now that I think about it, they were pretty much out of rope at this point…hmmm] …and thus gathered together, continued on in search of Whelm. Having deciphered the cavern as the place of “water spouts double” from Keraptis’s riddle, they were sure the hammer must be close by!

Monday, November 15, 2010

White Plume Mountain – The Final Chapter (Part 1)

Here’s how it all went down, folks…including our “expedited” ending. Let me know what you think. Our Baranof group was reduced to only six players last Thursday as Matthew (aka “Gustav,” aka “Cod Sandwich”) had a family commitment and Heron (aka “Weasleteats”) had a dinner party. Only six intrepid adventurers were thus on-hand to brave the depths of White Plume Mountain, in search of the fabulous dwarven hammer Whelm…the actual weapon the party had been initially hired to procure. The group consisted of: Farnsworth (my brother, AB) – level 7 fighter with 18 strength, AC -1, and a flaming sword. Bryan Leftfoot (Matthew #1) – level 7 halfling with a bag of holding carrying the entirety of the party’s loot (including both Blackrazor and Wave). Alster (Luke) – level 7 cleric, Lawful. Sexy Kevin (Randy) – level 6 cleric (replacement for Sweet Tito) Sly Junior (Vince) – level 6 thief, wearing his father’s much coveted gauntlets of ogre power Dampwick (Josh) – level 6 halfling (replacement for Borgnine the Dwarf) Before we began the expedition proper, there was the slight matter of Wave to deal with. Although Wave had happily saved Bryan (a ready worshipper of Poseidon), the trident was now in complete control of the Halfling (the character’s Will score being determined by the sum of his Strength and Wisdom, both of which were a whopping “8”). Wave was ready to have Bryan use the party’s wealth to construct a shrine/temple to the Sea King, complete with a coral and ivory statue, 20’ high. Conveniently, it was discovered that Sexy Kevin was a cleric of Poseidon, and took Wave off the hands of the less-than-worthy Halfling. Having a Strength of 13 and a Wisdom of 16, the cleric was just willful enough to trump the weapon’s ego and retained full command of the item for the rest of his life (see below). With the matter of Wave settled (and Blackrazor still in the bag of holding), the PCs were ready to begin. The party got off to a “fantastic” start as they were unable to remember which of the three corridors had been left unexplored (they knew they’d been down two already). “We need to go down the left one; we always go left!” “But didn’t we go down the left one first?” “No we went down the center.” “Wait, wasn’t that the way we went last time?” In the end, they decided to take the left-hand corridor, figuring it was the most likely way they hadn’t discovered. …and discovered that it was in fact the first corridor they had explored (with the water mostly drained from the dungeon, they encountered the first pit…now just a big swimming pool…along with the holes where they had previously pounded iron pitons for crossing). After more heated discussion, they back-tracked to the initial crossroads and took the as-yet-unexplored right-hand path. After walking for 20 minutes or so, the party members all began to feel a “burning” sensation in their feet. Looking down they were horrified to discover they were covered in green slime up to their ankles…the creature had already burned through their boots and was now working on their feet! [this was yet another encounter with less-than-helpful guidance in the encounter description. A huge patch…8 hit dice worth…it remains “undetected” unless actively searched for, until the party has already passed through it and it’s started working on their toes. Should one “roll for surprise?” Make “to hit” rolls? How long does it take for them to realize the creature is on them? How much does it reduce their armor class when they’re bare foot?] Fortunately (for everyone…including the DM), Luke acted quickly to cast cure disease, wiping out the entire patch (can the thing only attack one player? If it is on multiple players is it now considered multiple creatures? Jeez!). I ruled that cure disease wiped out all slime within 30’ (the range of the spell), conveniently putting to rest all the fuzzy questions surrounding the encounter. “Don’t we even take damage?” asked Josh. Sure, I said rolling a six-sided. You each take…six points of damage. The rest of the players were none-too-happy with Josh. The next obstacle the party came to was yet another decision; the corridor branched left or continued straight ahead. Fortunately, this was an easy one and citing their “always go left” mantra, the party decide to turn up the new passage. The passage ended in a door that Farnsworth was happy to kick in. Beyond was a room, against whose far wall stood five golems made from the polished bones of a number of a multitude of creatures. [there are no “flesh golems” in B/X but there are bone golems of the same (8) hit dice. However, I did make them two-armed, rather than four-armed] The PCs stood outside the chamber, again heatedly discussing how to proceed. Eventually, Farnsworth decided he would simply “deal with them himself,” and entered the room. One bone golem stood forward, holding up his hand and commanding the fighter to “halt.” Speaking, it told Farns that if he could guess its riddle it would serve him and the golems would let his party pass. I used a riddle from the recent Green Devil Face that I thought was pretty tricky. Unfortunately, the party guessed it in (roughly) 5 seconds or so. Ugh. Not as tricky as I thought. Now accompanied by a walking behemoth (which the party, of course, named “Boner”) the party continued on…up a flight of stairs, around a bend and then face-to face with an old fashioned turnstile that, when tested, was found to only allow one-way passage. “Can Boner rip this thing out of the wall?” He could…and did upon the party’s command. Players were high spirits as they pressed onward, Boner leading the way. The next door opened up into a vast natural cavern…easily the largest “chamber” the party had yet encountered in White Plume Mountain, they found themselves on a man-made ledge built into the cavern wall. Fifty feet above them glistened a rough and natural cave roof, semi-shrouded in darkness…fifty feet below them was a lake of boiling mud. The slimy mud had a natural phosphorescent sheen that clung to and illuminated the whole of the cavern, and the air was oppressively hot and humid. On the opposite side of the cavern appeared to be a similar ledge to the one on which stood the party, as well as what appeared to be a doorway of egress. Between the two ledges hung a series of wooden disks…nine round, and slime-slick platforms, each suspended from the ceiling by a massive chain, anchored in the center with an iron staple. Each disk was about four feet in diameter with roughly three to four feet of distance between each. The platforms appeared to be the only way across the lake. You folks ever see the TV show, “Wipe Out?”
; )

Why NOT Just Play D6 Star Wars

Despite a decided lack of posts the last few days, there’s a subject that’s been on my mind quite a bit. Enough that I’ve ended up having conversations about it (or at least mentioned it) with 3 to 4 people. Yes, it’s all about Star Wars, my usual obsession. Those uninterested in the subject matter…sorry. I’ll be blogging more about White Plume Mountain later.

The subject I want to expound on is “D6 Star Wars – Why I Hate Thee.” Of course, I don’t actually hate D6 Star Wars…it’s hard to hate the thing that revitalized an entire franchise and touched off the commercial explosion of books, film, comics, etc. What, you don’t believe me? You must not have been around back in the pre-Prequel, pre-Timothy Zahn, pre-Dark Horse days. D6 Star Wars was the biggest collection of Star Wars “codification” and “canonization” on the market, and helped fuel and inspire all the rest. Yes, at base we all have Lucas to thank for Star Wars (and for what it’s worth, criticizing GL is kind of like criticizing Gygax for any number of imagined slights…fact is, we wouldn’t have Star Wars at all without Lucas, or D&D without EGG, and what a much sadder world this would be). But West End Games helped rebuild and rekindle interest in the franchise…or at least, they kept the flame of interest alive until Lucas got back in the Star Wars game and opened it up into its next commercial phase, the “expanded universe.”

At least, that’s how I see it…and as a guy who pretended to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo on the playground loooong before I ever picked up a D&D book, I can say West End Games did a more than admirable job converting the films to an RPG using their D6 system.

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have real and severe issues that preclude me from ever playing D6 Star Wars.

And no, I’m not just talking about cheesy pastiche, scripted dialogue, or a skill system that makes me exceptionally cranky. Yes, D6 has all those barriers in the way to me liking it, but I might be willing to look past those…or at least work around them…if the game (both the 1st and 2nd editions) didn’t have the same unforgivable flaw: an advancement system that’s inconsistent with the films.

Now briefly, let me explain my position on “advancement systems” in role-playing games. I do NOT think it is necessary to include advancement mechanics in ALL role-playing games. An advancement system (whereby a character develops into a more effective vehicle for player interaction with the game world) is NOT a requirement of having a fun/enjoyable role-playing experience. A lot of RPG game designers get stuck in this idea that character development needs to be a large or central part of game design…because otherwise, without measurable “achievement,” players are just spinning their imaginary wheels, “playing pretend.”

What utter bullshit. All we are doing is “playing pretend” when we sit down to play an RPG. We are having the same kind of fun we did as kids at recess, albeit with a few more rules. I’ve said it before: playing RPGs is NOT curing cancer, or fighting poverty, or getting more socially conscious politicians elected to office. YES, playing RPGs has VALUE: exercising the mind, stimulating the imagination, promoting social interaction with others. But caring whether your character is 14th level or raising your skill percentage in “sword attack/parry” is an EMPTY goal in the long run.

But JB, you’ve said that there is exceptional value to playing long-term D&D campaigns! If getting one’s character to 5th or 15th or 25th level is an “empty goal” [because, for example, one can always create or pre-gen high level characters for both campaigns and one-off adventures…like we did with White Plume Mountain], then why do you expound on the “goodness” of playing long-term? Why would you bother to put out something like the “B/X Companion” if you didn’t want people to play B/X up to level 30?

Ah…I see my point about long-term play may have been unclear in the past. The “goodness” of long-term play isn’t the advancement/increase of a character’s power, or the opening of “new content” (and by the way, much of the reason for the writing of the B/X Companion was to provide new content for a specific form of play; i.e. “high level type”). The GOODNESS of long-term play comes in seeing the development of characters over time in the imaginary game world…the relationships they build (with each other and the campaign’s NPCs), the impact they have, the legends they write. In other words, the stories (or “yarns” as R.E. Howard might have said) that come about from the on-going adventures of a heroic persona in a fantasy world.

You don’t need to start at level 1 and go to 36 (or 14 or 20 or whatever the maximum “achievement” level is). And if all you’re interested in doing is collecting XP/gold, or check marks next to your skills, maybe you should be playing a different game. Like the stock market.

Having said all that…and just to reiterate, my point is simply that ADVANCEMENT SYSTEMS ARE NOT OBLIGATORY TO AN RPG (there are plenty of other “reward systems” that can be used to make a game enjoyable)…having said THAT, let me now say that in SOME genres or types of RPG, an advancement system, while not necessary, is certainly desirable AND true to the genre the game represents.

[and let me just note, I’m using the word “genre” as an expedient term; I understand it is a poor word and may end up causing some confusion]

Star Wars is one game that cries out for an advancement system and a method of character development.

Why? Because that’s what the movies are about! The protagonist starts out as a shmuck and grows up to be a badass (if still kind of a shmuck). Whether you’re looking at the original trilogy or the prequels, the Jedi (at least) are constantly comparing themselves to each other and looking at their own relative power levels, which grow and develop over time with experience.

Though even non-Jedi grow and develop during the films…certainly in the “extended universe” (see Princess Leia becoming a Jedi, as well as Amidala and, yes, Jar Jar Binks). If any RPG based on a specific IP is begging for game mechanics that model “advancement,” Star Wars is it. Compared to other serial fiction (for example, Firefly/Serenity or Michael Moorcock’s Elric) SW is probably the BEST example of heroic development over time.

Which is why D6 Star Wars is soooooo Goddamn frustrating: its development system is terrible and glacially slow…in direct contrast to its own cinematic example! If one looks at Luke Skywalker’s stat blocks between episodes…or even from the beginning of Episode IV to the climactic battle at the end…one can see the character advancing/developing a LOT faster than player characters in the game. And the game designer’s justification for that? Well, YOU aren’t Luke Skywalker.

POW. That’s me, punching the game designer in the mouth.

Why the hell do you think I’m playing a Star Wars RPG in the first place? Because I WANT to be Luke Skywalker. Or Han Solo. Or Princess Leia. Or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Or whoever! Don’t tell me I don’t get to be The Hero of the Rebellion…or of the Clone Wars for that matter. Why do I (or my players if I am the GM) have to play 2nd fiddle to the movie characters? To preserve the films’ integrity?

Or was the designer just too lazy to design an advancement scheme consistent with the rate of advancement displayed in the films?

Regardless, it chaps my hide.

So THAT (plus the excessive skill system) is the major reason why I find the D6 system completely un-satisfactory for my purposes (my “purpose” being “a Star Wars RPG that allows me to recreate the films and the types of adventure/development found in the films”). D6 can go fish up a tree.

Not that WotC and D20 is any better, of course (I hate D20 as a Star Wars vehicle…even the exemplary Saga edition…even more than D6), but it is at least a BIT more consistent with the films. Just excessively complicated and non-cinematic.

Recently, I picked up MERP, a game with a level-based advancement scheme that peaked at level 10 and it got me thinking: how many levels does one really need in a game, anyway? After all, there are other ways to instill granularity besides having dozens of levels. Why does Yoda need to be level 20? Why not level 8 or 9?

Anway, some folks may be getting tired of this conversation (or the subject matter in general), but it’s something I keep getting drawn back into…I’m about 99% sure my B/X-based space opera game will be the next project completed by Yours Truly. Why? Because I see similar patterns with my first book, the B/X Companion:

1) Obsession-compulsion for the subject matter (such that I keep returning to it).
2) Complete dissatisfaction with others’ prior attempts at the material.

I tend to be stubborn and egotistical (ask my wife), but I also tend to be lazy (again…ask my wife). If there’s anything that can keep me motivated to finish a project, it’s the two things I list here.

Okay, end Star Wars discussion (for today, anyway).
; )

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me - Again!

Just in case anyone's wondering...I'm taking a lazy weekend for myself. Mostly, anyway. If I blog at all, expect it to be half-assed, as my mind is elsewhere. I'm feeling self-indulgent.
: )

And speaking of self-indulgence, as I snack on tasty marzipan purchased O So Long Ago in Spain, I am reminded that I never did put up any photos from my trip. Here's a photo of me with my sword and the sword-maker, Mariano Zamorano:

[I'm the taller one]

And for those who are more into the "sweet side" of life than the sharp side, here's what else you can find in Toledo:

All right, that's it for now. Hope everyone's having a good Saturday!

Friday, November 12, 2010

B/X Advancement Problems (Redux)

Got quite a bit of feedback on my last post in a very short time, and I can already see that people are not quite grokking my beef. let me just elaborate a little bit (and thank you for your indulgence):

RE: Slow Advancement = Normal Advancement

I understand that Holmes D&D is very specific in terms of loooong advancement times (i.e. many sessions between advancing). B/X does not specify a "fairly slow rate of advancement" and (I would say) implies a shorter time between levels...in design if not in outright text (see page B61). Part of B/X play (the "X" part) is definitely geared towards adventuring outside the dungeon and taking your games to other realms of adventure (including establishment of strongholds)...three years to reach Name level is waaay outside of my "acceptable limits" for advancement. Three years to get to the additional content? That's just crazy.

RE: Awarding XP for Hours Played

This is the absolute LAST thing I want to do. Reward systems shape behavior...I want players playing smarter, not just "showing up" to the game. I don't ever want to get in the habit of rewarding someone for sitting down at the table...folks have to do something!

RE: Awarding XP for "Mission Objectives"

Similar to the last note, I want to reward creativity...and mission objectives tend to put players on directional courses (i.e. they have the ability to railroad player behavior, even without railroading player action). For this reason, I don't like "mission objectives." I don't mind handing out the occasional XP bonuses for good play, but I want players to know up front what actions accumulate XP (for example, defeating monsters and acquiring loot), and then give them their own method of accomplishing those generic tasks. It's easy for mission objectives to become too specific.

RE: Re-Vamping the System

Re-doing the XP tables for monsters, changing D&D to a "silver standard" instead of gold...all this is, frankly, more work than I want to do. And re-calibrating the economy to make it more "medieval realistic" is definitely out of the question...I don't care that plate mail in B/X costs 60gp and leather armor costs 20gp...a rich adventurer (like any PC above 2nd level or so) should be able to afford whatever personal equipment he/she wants! My main concern is with requiring PCs to figure out ways to haul TONS and TONS of treasure.

I don't think Moldvay's Castle Amber is an aberration of adventure design...I think he stocks his adventure with the proper amount of treasure for a group of adventurers of the suggested numbers (6-10) or the suggested levels (3rd to 6th). He is working with the rules, and it won't take more than six or eight medium length sessions to get through the entire module...and the lower level characters will gain MULTIPLE levels during their stint in Castle Amber (I know, having run this module before). Higher level characters (6th) should still get one, or close to one, full level for completing it...and with weekly sessions, that still leaves at least 44 weeks of the year left over. Enough for 5 or 6 more (similar length) adventures with similar level advancement (i.e. 5 or 6 levels per year).

The PROBLEM with this is that he does it, by stocking the dungeon with a quarter million gold coins worth of treasure. Sometimes this is a single expensive piece of jewelry, sometimes it's 10,000 copper pieces (equal to 1,000 gp in value, but not in bulk/weight). Yes, for converting White Plume Mountain to B/X, I should have upped the treasure amount 5 or 6 times...but how the hell are PCs going to carry that much treasure out of the dungeon? Yes, that IS an interesting "challenge to the intellect;" but it is NOT the kind of challenge I'm interested in throwing at my players...compared to the frictionless room, the heat induction plates, the inverted ziggurat, the boiling bubble, or the mud cavern. The latter challenges are much more interesting, but the way the B/X game is written, the "treasure haul" challenge is going to be a large part of any adventure for characters of 5th level or higher...and it is a challenge that will be happening over and over again!

Reducing the amount of XP needed to advance seems the easiest solution to the dilemma, and the one I will probably end up taking. This is a subject I've found myself returning to (in my head anyway) repeatedly the last few months as I've considered level/advancement design for new role-playing games I'm considering.

B/X D&D - A Flaw of Design

Last night we finished our White Plume Mountain game. Despite anything I may have implied otherwise (when I was writing at 1am, after more than a couple beers), we all had a grand old time. Laughter (mine and others) was plentiful at the table, and that is always a good sign that people are having fun.

After cleaning up, we discussed next week's game: a new campaign, starting with all new 1st level characters. Whether we start with B2:Keep on the Borderlands or something new (like my Goblin Wars idea) remains to be seen...I plan on thinking about it over coming days and probably giving the players a choice/vote.

However, after playing B/X Dungeons & Dragons exclusively the last three months, I've discovered something that (at least to me) appears to be a serious flaw of game design in the system.

Which is tough to admit after having expounded on the virtues of this particular edition for so long. Personally, I prefer to play games "as written" rather than laying down extensive "house rules." But in this case, I may need to make an exception.

Because I like "long-term campaign play." And the particular issue I have directly relates to long-term campaign play.

The advancement system in B/X isn't good.

As written, characters advance in level through the acquisition of experience points (XP). XP is awarded for two things: defeat of monsters (based on monsters' Hit Dice plus the occasional 'exceptional ability" bonus) and the acquisition of treasure (1 XP per 1 GP value). The bulk of XP is awarded through treasure acquisition.

And it takes an extraordinary amount of treasure to advance even mid-level characters in level.

The absolute total amount of treasure available in S2: White Plume Mountain amounts to a total value of 65,100 gold pieces. That's for recovering every last scrap of treasure present in the module. For a party of seven PCs, that amounts to a little more than 9,000 XP worth of treasure per player. Characters of 7th level (the average level of adventure for whom S2 is designed) requires five to seven times that amount to advance.

Five to seven. And it took us five weeks to complete a module the size of White Plume Mountain. By extrapolation, it could take up to 35 weeks to advance 7th level characters to level 8?

Moldvay's own rules suggest three to four adventures (and "adventure" is defined as "single game session" in the Moldvay rules) to advance in level. He suggests upping the treasure level if the characters are taking too long to advance...but six times the treasure level of S2 would be close to half a million GP in value! That's a ton of gold!

Actually it's MORE than a ton, literally. If one uses the Encumbrance rules in the Basic set, 10 coins weighs one pound...and 400,000 gold pieces would weigh 40,000 pounds...or 20 tons. It would take 40 bags of holding to carry that much treasure...which would still weigh more than a ton when all full (each bag weighs 600 coins - 60 pounds when full, meaning 40 such sacks would weigh 2400 pounds...more than a ton by themselves!).

And that's just to get seven players to 8th level. The amount of treasure DOUBLES to get to 9th level...another 40 tons of gold, in other words.

After Name (9th) level, the XP needed to go up in level plateaus for all character classes...but that still means thousands and thousands of pounds of treasure need to be accumulated to advance! Holy crap!

And yet this seems to be the way the game is designed. Looking at Moldvay's own module X2:Castle Amber, the total treasure take is 252,560 (on average...there's a little variation for the final reward based on the number of surviving characters). A quarter-million gold piece worth of treasure...most of it coinage. And X2 is designed for 6-10 players of levels 3-6. For an average sized party (8 player characters) each character will earns close to 32,000...enough that even a 6th level character (the high end) will advance a whole level by the end of the module.

But how are eight characters supposed to carry a hundred tons of treasure? Ignore the encumbrance rules completely, I guess (which makes items like "bags of holding" completely unnecessary).

Even without discussing how such an influx of treasure would utterly destroy the "fantasy economy" of the game world (which would happen with even the least attention paid to such things) this appears to be sheer insanity. If X2 could be completed in 7 or 8 sessions (fairly easily, I'd imagine, despite its 70 encounter length...the challenges aren't nearly as "tricky" as White Plume Mountain), that leaves enough space to run eight such adventure modules over the course of a "real world" year...PCs would gain eight levels, and pull multiple millions of gold coins...enough to build several extensive castles even before reaching "Companion" levels (i.e. level 15+).


Why did I never realize this before? Well, first off, it's been nearly 30 years since I've played B/X this extensively. As a kid, you don't think about this kind of thing...but then, you're lucky if you can just keep track of all the rules. But back in primordial ooze of those early days, we didn't have extensive campaigns anyway...by the time we DID, we were playing AD&D.

White Plume Mountain is, of course, and AD&D module which probably accounts for the distinct lack of treasure compared to the (lower level) Castle Amber. AD&D includes the "Great Correction" of the XP system by adding two very important factors:

- XP for magic items (including SALE of magic items), and
- XP for monster hit points

Though AD&D advancement is roughly similar to B/X, by and large character classes require MORE XP in AD&D to advance. However, monsters and treasure troves are worth much more in overall XP than in B/X. A young sphinx in White Plume Mountain with HD 8** and 38 hit points is worth 1750 XP in B/X. The same monster in AD&D is worth 1930.

Larger monsters, and creatures with less exceptional abilities, however, have more discrepancy. The giant crab in White Plume Mountain, for example, is only worth 1350 in B/X...in AD&D it's worth 6450!

But magic items provide a ton of XP in AD&D. The B/X rules are very clear: experience points are not gained for magical treasure. In AD&D, each magical item provides an XP value for its acquisition...and selling the magical items provide even more XP based on its gold piece value (often 5-10 times as much as the XP gained from keeping the item). Giving XP for magical items cuts down drastically on the "over-flowing chests of coins" needed to advance PCs.

A bugbear with average hit points in B/X is worth 50, while in AD&D such a creature is worth 191, nearly four times as much. A goblin worth 5 in B/X is worth 14; three times as much. Considering that the basic classes of both B/X and AD&D (clerics, fighters, magic-users, and thieves) need the EXACT SAME number of XP to advance to level 2 that means the AD&D characters advance 3 to 4 times as fast...though probably faster.

When I was a kid playing long-term campaigns, we played AD&D. Characters advanced over time, growing in level and power and opening up more opportunities (more "content") based on their experience level...withOUT being burdened by millions of coins and tons of treasure. Without an adjustment to the rules as written, I don't see B/X can be played long term. Unless your dragons bleed molten gold or something. Perhaps this was a determining factor in early "Monty Haul" campaigns?

I don't know...all I do know is, I don't like it. I prefer characters to have regular advancement, and a level every 4 to 6 weeks of play isn't a bad rate of advancement in my opinion. Personally, I'm considering slashing all XP totals needed by a factor of 5 or 10 for B/X campaign play. As I gear up for next week's game, I'll be running some numbers to try to find a happy medium I can live with.
; )