Wednesday, August 31, 2011

So I'm Heading Out to the Highway...

...actually, the skyway, as I shall be boarding a plane from SeaTac Friday evening. The fam is making our annual pilgrimage to Montana for the Labor Day holiday, and as we're not sure the baby will survive the 9 hour drive (or that we will survive the drive with the baby!) we've decided to fly. Which means a couple things:

A) I will either be getting a lot of reading done or (hopefully) a lot of writing done. No road trip means, I have a chance to unwind while someone else does the, flying.

B) I will be out of internet contact for a looooong while: they don't have free wifi at SeaTac and it's pretty tough to find it in the middle of The Big MT ("the big empty"). Don't expect much in the way of blog posts or email checking. Grandma lives in a cabin on Flathead Lake and she's never even learned how to turn her computer on (she has one, off in the corner, with a dust cover and about five years of dust last I saw it). Hey, I'm just glad she has electricity for powering the laptop.

I'm blowing off the Mox this Thursday (boo! hiss!), to do some packing and errands and such so you won't see anymore DCC breakdowns either...unless I get around to penning this piece on the magic system as observed. Hmmm...

All right I've got to go. Talk to y'all in a bit.
; )

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I should really be...

...either writing or sleeping. Instead I'm futzing around with GM Merit Badges.

You know, I was a Boy Scout back in the day (still know a marching song or two) and I had the damnedest time earning merit badges. Everything else I could do but those stupid badges...ugh!

I've always been a slacker, I guess.

The Secret of the Keep on the Borderlands

For those who missed it, James Raggi is a genius.

In his latest greatest post over at LotFP, Raggi does a brief analysis of the old TSR adventure module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, including what he feels it does right and what it does NOT. His post includes a comparison between the treasure found in the Caves of Chaos (the local dungeon) and the treasure found in the Keep, with a startling realization: the Keep yields the bigger payday (in terms of magic items and outright treasure) than the Caves…by a wide mile.

Which reminded ME of something I realized years ago (or at least sniffed around) but subsequently forgot in my 20+ year hiatus from Dungeons & Dragons:

The Keep IS the target objective of the adventure.

That is to say, pillaging the keep should be the main goal of any adventuring party.

This becomes immediately apparent with a little scrutiny for any player that grew up pre-Mentzer, pre-2nd edition. After all, the Moldvay generation wasn’t taught PCs were supposed to be “heroic adventurers.” Instead, we were told that you should cannibalize your dead party member’s pack for treasure, and the only reason to take the “high road” is to keep on the good side of the party’s Lawful cleric. To folks like me, “rogue” isn’t a class…it’s the Tao of Adventuring.

Let’s talk about it.

Exhibit A: The title of the module.

Early TSR adventure modules don’t beat around the bush: the title inevitable tells you the TARGET OBJECTIVE of the adventure. The Tomb of Horrors. The Lost Shrine of Tamoachan. White Plume Mountain. The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. Aerie of the Slave Lords. If a PLACE is named in the module title, that place is the site the PCs are expected to explore, invade, and loot.

B2’s title is NOT “The Caves of Chaos.” It is THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS. Obviously, the Keep IS the target.

This explains the detailed key of the Keep, front and center to the module. The main “dungeon” is the Keep, a well-detailed, site-based adventure. Everything else is an afterthought. What’s the next section to the module after the Keep?

Adventure Outside the Keep

Indeed. Once you’re finished looting the Keep, then you can participate in other adventures outside. But the implication is one must first have an adventure or two within the Keep.

Exhibit B: The Key to the Keep

Every single man-at-arms and soldier is detailed in the Keep. Each tower, its contingent of men, info on their shifts, info on their supplies and armaments, is detailed…information that can only be useful in the case of an invasion. And yet no part of the module involves any incursion from the Caves, or the outlying monster communities (the lizard folk keep to their swamps and the bandits rob folks traveling the road). In fact, the implication is that while the Chaotic temple at the Caves has an interest in keeping tabs on the Keep, the humanoid tribes are too disorganized to launch an actual assault on the Keep.

This latter has been my primary motivation for adventuring parties I’ve run through B2: the threat that the humanoids might unite, and the need to exterminate them while they are still divided. Reasonable enough…but if that’s what the module is about, then why do we need to know how many soldiers staff the south tower and the number of crossbow bolts they carry?

Why indeed.

Why bother to describe the treasure in each location…the bank, the trader, the private apartments, the castellan’s fortress. Sure, one might want to know the magic items possessed by the Keep’s denizens in case a party needs a “reward” of some sort…by what the need to detail the coinage and treasure? Unless it is designed to be stolen. And if an NPC were to steal a jeweled set of writing implements (or whatever) why would the actual gp value of such an item be important to know?

It only becomes important for PCs who want to steal it and pawn it.

The Keep IS the objective.

Exhibit C: The Detailed Personalities of the Keep

While one can play D&D in the simple fashion of “kick in door, fight monster, steal treasure” (i.e. the dumb-dumb way), as an RPG the game shines when it highlights the features of an RPG: creative problem solving, negotiation and social interaction, outside-the-box thinking for overcoming challenges. The D&D game comes alive when players are forced to think as if they were present in their characters’ shoes.

The Keep offers far more opportunities for these “shiny moments” than the Caves of Chaos do.

The Caves, for the most part, are simple monster dens. The Keep has hooks and colorful personalities…from the easily seduced gate guard to the unscrupulous trader to the rivalry between the Keep’s curate and the visiting itinerant priest to the officers of the watch regularly found boozing it up in the tavern (implication: drunks).

The political implications of the Inner Bailey (invitation only) is especially interesting: in all the years I’ve run B2, no party has ever visited the inner bailey or the castellan’s fortress. Not only is it the seat of power for the dungeon/Keep, it is the lair of the baddest monster in the module (the castellan!) and the main treasure hole.

When you consider the Keep as a dungeon, the outer bailey is “Level 1” and the inner bailey is “Level 2.” And with that perspective, the Caves of Chaos (and the other minor adventures outside the Keep) become a means to an end…they are the “key” to gaining entry to the Inner Bailey. Only those who can “prove themselves” can get in to the IB (without mounting a suicidal frontal assault), and doing the Caves’ “sidequest” is the ticket to getting a spy or scout into the castellan’s sanctuary.

But you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity. You’ve got to think outside-the-box. You have to approach the adventure as “GIVEN that the Keep is the objective, what’s the best way to crack this nut?”

Exhibit D: Floor Plans of the Keep

At the end of the module, the reader is instructed to draw up floor plans for individual buildings of the Keep. Not the dungeon…the Keep! Examples are given of the inn and maybe one other building (I don’t have my module in front of me at the moment).

Why would one need to draw floor plans of Keep structure? Because Gygax is trying to teach 10 year olds how to be decorators/designers/architects?

OR is it because it might be tactically useful to know the lay-out of the battleground when you’re fighting man-at-arms house to house?

I think the latter.

Now in all seriousness, it’s quite possible Gygax did NOT write B2 with the conscious idea that players should choose to assault the Keep. But even if it wasn’t conscious, he provided all the tools and information one needs to do so. Perhaps he felt that such should be an option (after all, the choices in an RPG are only limited by one’s imagination) but decided that stating so implicitly would be “sending the wrong message” (i.e. that over-throwing the one bastion of civilization in the area would be both good and desirable).

In fact, there ARE some inherent dangers in sacking the Keep, and not just dying at the end of a pole-arm. If the Keep SHOULD fall, there is a strong suggestion that it will open the way for humanoids to invade the civilized lands. Treasure taken from the Keep will still need to be pawned/changed somewhere (the nearby monsters aren’t likely to pay for it), which means finding a suitable fence, possibly requiring a dangerous over-land journey burdened by the loot of the Keep.

Of course, such a journey might be made easier if the PCs can wipe out the bandits prior to sacking the Keep (perhaps as part of a bid for that inner bailey invitation?)…or if the PCs co-opt and join the bandits for mutual profit (in the sacking of the Keep).

Oh, I dig it. So many more possibilities when you stop looking at the Keep on the Borderlands as a “home base” and start seeing it for what it REALLY is: a fat prize ready to be plucked by a band of ambitious cut-throat adventurers.

You know, a sleep spell knocks out a lot of men-at-arms.
; )

Sunday, August 28, 2011

At least now I know... to pronounce Raggi's name. Previously, I figured it sounded like Scooby-Doo's way of saying "Shaggy."

Just finished listening to the Save or Die podcast interview with LotFP's founder, and my first impression is "he doesn't sound so tough...I could probably take him a fair fight." Obviously, though, I would have to contend with all the weird sorcery he has at his beck-and-call.
; )

In all seriousness, the interview offers some fairly interesting insights into JER's origins, motivations and raison d'etre for doing that thing he does, including his reasons (business and otherwise) for doing his own version of the Adult Fantasy Role-Playing Game. I'd already heard or known a lot of what he talks about just from reading his blog the last couple years, so most of it wasn't too surprising...Raggi in person is not saying anything different from Raggi the writer, though perhaps in more polite tones.

I had NOT realized he was introduced to the game through Mentzer's red box this the (conscious or not) inspiration for his Lamentation RPG's particular format? Possibly.

Anyway, I know a lot of folks find podcast's like this to be boring. For those who don't, SoD's latest ain't too bad.
: )

Friday, August 26, 2011

Old School? Really?

Another good time at the Mox last night. It’s always a good night when you don’t get fragged by your fellow player characters (well, truth be told, it’s often a pretty good night when you ARE fragged by your fellows…so long as you get in on some of the fragging yourself!).

However, good time or not, I am starting to get disenchanted with DCC.

I think Luke (our game master) is doing a good job of moderating/ref’ing the game, but it’s just not wowing me as a game. And I can point to a couple reasons why (gripes I don’t think I’ve aired till now):

1. Too many random tables.

Not only does the sheer bulk of tables cut down on the search & handling time of the game (i.e. it makes game play slower), it feels so, well, random at times. Now understand there are benefits to random tables, and I can think of several good reasons for a designer to include them:
  • It prevents “boring” same-old-same-old game play by changing up the possible result of any given action.
  • It provides the impartiality of a random roll, as opposed to leaving the craziness of low rolls or “fumbles” up to GM fiat (the latter of which might lead to hurt feelings).
  • It provides real surprises (both good and bad).
  • It showcases the designers’ creativity.
But it’s still too much random for my taste. Everything in moderation, right?

There are very few random tables I use in my own games. Um…like none really (really? Yeah, I guess not). Even the placement of treasure and monsters is done “by hand;” I suppose I do use tables for wandering monsters on occasion (it’s rare that I use wandering monsters at all, actually), but that’s about it. My random dice rolls are left for the frenzy of combat, the resolution of negotiation, and the riskiness of saving throws.

Everything else is pretty un-random in my games.

Sure, character generation has its random elements, and I’ve made my own random tables to aid in quick-building characters (random hats and peer associations for example). However, character creation is (generally speaking) PRE-play activity; once we call Game On, there won’t be a random roll until we need to check surprise.

With DCC, you roll randomly every time you cast a spell, or fumble, or crit, or invoke a clerical ability. Hell, we had to roll randomly for how well we CAROUSED last night…apparently, some of the characters party better than others.

Even if it wasn’t distracting looking up tables in the rules, I think “random” still gets tired pretty quickly.

2. Too much fiddly.

At what point does a game go from being Old School with D20 sensibilities to simply “D20 Light?” Is DCC supposed to be Old School just because it has some random tables and dwarf is a class instead of a race?

Maybe it’s supposed to be Old School because it has the terms “Dungeon Crawl” and “Classic” in the title?

I don’t know, man. But here’s what the blurb at Goodman Games says:
"Blah-blah-blah…your character is a treasure hunting rogue, etc...THEN:

Return to the glory days of fantasy with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Adventure as 1974 intended you to, with modern rules grounded in the origins of sword & sorcery. Fast play, cryptic secrets, and a mysterious past await you: turn the page…"

Okay, let’s take that 2nd paragraph apart a piece at a time.

“Return to the glory days of fantasy…”

Not sure which glory days Goodman is referencing, but I note that it says glory days of fantasy, not glory days of fantasy role-playing. That’s a fairly important difference.

“Adventure as 1974 intended you to…”

Again, what does this mean? When I first glossed over it in my reading I thought, “oh, it’s some kind of return to OD&D, right?” But maybe what they are really referring to is fantasy in the year 1974 and not fantasy role-playing.

Why? Because I can’t for the life of me how they figure OD&D intended people to adventure like THIS.

I’ve been rereading my Little Brown Books a bit lately…they’re a solid reference for anyone designing fantasy heartbreaker…and they look a LOT different from DCC. They are incredibly abstract, often incomplete, certainly open-ended. If they “intend” anything, it would seem they intend people to design and adventure in their own fantasy world with little to guide them but the roughest of rule outlines.

DCC is full of specific fiddly bits as well as specific systems for doing things…even if those systems are nothing more than “roll on this random table.” I mean, wow, it took a long ass time for the guy next to me to write up his 1st level elf (even with me helping) just because there are so many BITS. Action dice, attack dice, crit range, crit table, crit dice, initiative modifier, ability modifiers, saving throws, luck modifiers, luck type, luck dice, spells known, spells manifestation, mercurial magic, blah, blah, blah.

In 1974 you would have rolled six ability scores, picked a class, rolled gold and chose equipment, and then given your dude a name and alignment. I don’t think anyone could claim the game designers in 1974 intended the chargen (or game play) to be this specific.

“…with modern rules grounded in the origins of sword & sorcery.”

I think THIS may be the key part of the blurb. Modern rules (read “D20” or post-WotC certainly) coupled with the dark, weird, pulpy fantasy of the original literature: Smith, Leiber, Howard, Lovecraft. The choice of literary background/flavor is great and very different from the usual heroic inspirations: Dragonlance, Eberon, Forgotten Realms, whatever. And maybe it is this inspirational source material that requires the extensive use of randomness (in order to mimic the psychedelic craziness of old school S&S).

Then again, didn’t Raggi manage a “weird” version of D&D while still using a true Old School chassis for his game?

“Fast play, cryptic secrets, and a mysterious past await you…”

I really, really don’t know what this is supposed to mean. I mean, is it totally disingenuous or what? Play is fastER than D20, capable of handling 7-8 players without slowing to a glacial pace. But I certainly wouldn’t call it “fast.” We spent a long hour (plus) on our single combat encounter last night, and the battle included both area effect spells and truly weak-sauce opponents (scrap-metal automatons).

“Cryptic secrets?” The only real secret is how XP is supposed to be doled out…well, that and what the actual page count for spells will be in the final version (the Beta uses a single page for each spell…it spends 33 pages and only covers 1st level spells. Could the full book have 150+ pages for 5 levels of spells?!).

“Mysterious past?” My character last week was a pig herder. Any mystery was added by Yours Truly. This week’s character was a former indentured servant-turned-warrior. I suppose it’s mysterious how he became skilled with all weapons just a couple days after being barely proficient with a cudgel.

“Turn the page…”

I assume this means the reader is supposed to close the chapter on other games (like Pathfinder and 4th Edition D&D) and start a new one with DCC? Personally, I don’t mind the pretention and DCC isn’t terrible…especially when compared to the fiddlyness of PF and 4E.

But, man, after three weeks of play-testing, I am pretty sure DCC won’t be replacing B/X for me. It feels like it wants to be fun in a beer & pretzels kind of way, but just like HackMaster it’s a little too mentally intensive to allow that kind of play. Even cutting down the number of characters-to-players (none of us brought more than one this week), even having a couple-three weeks of practice with the rules (four weeks for some players), even with each of us having our own copy of the Beta rules right at hand (many having it on their eBooks)…even with ALL that AND a GM who was completely sober, even then


I guess I just have mixed feelings. We (*I*) did have a lot of fun, BUT a lot of that was the company and the chemistry and, let’s face it, the constant flow of the liquid libation. And when you’re having fun, you can have a lot of patience for the failings of a game.

Until you run out of patience, I guess.

"Hey...Bon Jovi was a cleric, TOO!"

"Lay your hands on me...lay your hands on me...lay your hands on me..."

This from one of last night's players who reads my blog (yes, he was drinking).

Have a great Friday folks!
: )

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Hard Mode"

AKA "Revisiting the Value of Character Death"

Just bear with me for a moment.

In writing a fantasy heartbreaker, or ANY old school style RPG for a combat heavy genre (Space Opera, Magic-Punk, Cyber-Western, etc.) I find myself approaching certain systems with design ideas based on my own experiences in gaming, and my exposure to other games and design theory.

One of the theory things I'm always trying to get at is "design the game so it does what you want it to do." God, that can be hard sometimes. You don't WANT the game to be tweaked or fudged in-play...for example, my Shadowrun-esque game fell down on its face for being TOO close to 1st edition SR, specifically with regard to the initiative/extra action rules, which allowed some cyber-roided (and physical adept characters) outshine all the non-wired kids in the party.

End result? A lot of disgruntlement and comments like, "my next character is going to make sure to have X, Y, and Z implants"...regardless of the player's character concept.

See, that's MY failing as a designer. If you build the game in a certain way, that confers certain advantages, then make those advantages necessary as par survival (due to a heavy combat style to the game)...well, of course, your game is going to devolve into a min-max twink-fest. Which is NOT what I was aiming for, by the way.

[and which is why that particular game needs a lot of work before being publishable]

Now I look at a game like Stars Without Number, which is a fine and dandy piece of work. For me, I can see it being used to play a particular style of space opera...something akin to B/X Warhammer 40,000. Why? Because the way the game is written player mortality is going to be exceptionally high. Character starting out with single digit hit points are going to get splattered by the weapons involved in the game. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is A thing...a thing that should be noted.

And yet, folks (including the designer) feel that with the right "massaging" the game can be used for most genres of space opera. I disagree...but then I prefer to play with rules as written, without tweaking or fudging or "drifting" to get the desired effect.

That's why I try to be ultra-specific in my game design.

SO...back to the original reason for my post: revisiting character death in RPGs. I find myself lately adding all sorts of "take backs" and metagame mechanics into my designs which will increase PC survivability. Something that irritates me to no end about myself. For a guy that totes "character death" as a FEATURE of the B/X game system, why would I get all wishy-washy with my own fantasy heartbreaker, adding things like "luck points" to the game.


Because not everyone wants to die.

I enjoy the challenge of a game where my PC might's like playing imaginary Russian Roulette (at least I get to walk away from the table, even if my character doesn't). But the truth of the matter is, I spend much more time running games than playing 'em, and not everyone shares my weirdness.

In fact (news flash!) some people like to play fantasy adventure games because they like to imagine themselves as some sort of heroic fantasy character! Wow, you never would have guessed that, right? These people want to play a fantasy RPG, AND they want a simple fantasy RPG (like B/X or similar) AND they would prefer NOT to die.

Really. Really, really, really.

[I am repeating this for myself, folks, so I can wrap my head around it]

Role-playing is a type of entertainment, it's a method of social interaction, it's a form of escapism that allows us to shrug off the shackles of our mundane life for a few hours and pretend we're someone doing amazing things in incredible environments. And, no, the threat of death does NOT have to be present for players to get a charge out of it.

[...really, really, really...]

Now having acknowledged that, and acknowledged that some people might enjoy playing this game for nickels instead of going all-in with the family mortgage payment, shouldn't the ones willing to risk more get something greater in return?

Shouldn't we reward the folks with the balls to step into the death match?

In video games (a comparison to RPGs I hate to make but oh, well, there it is) you often see different game settings, like Easy, Medium, Hard, Suicidal, etc. Kind of like different degrees of spiciness at a Thai restaurant. How much heat can you take?

What about including a "Hard Mode" in role-playing games?

In my current fantasy heartbreaker project (up to page 8...I'll try to keep it under 64 pages), there are classes and levels (max 5, right?) and experience points awarded to track those levels. What if the XP awarded was determined by whether or not players were playing on Easy or Hard mode? What if level maximums were capped based on a player's chosen style of play?

I'm just throwing the idea out there...I haven't included anything in the book, yet (hell, I can always delete the wimpy "save your bacon" points if I decide to go "all hard"). But this is me tossing a bone to people who want to play fantasy characters in a fantasy world without getting bitten in half by a purple worm when they least expect (or want!) it to happen.

Here's what I'm considering:
  • Default Easy: Players who choose to play on Hard Mode (no luck points, critical damage tables, instant death on failed saves, no re-rolls) earn DOUBLE the normal XP.
  • Default Hard: Players who choose to play on Easy Mode (taking all the bennies listed above) earn only ONE-HALF the normal XP.
  • Max Level: Players who choose to play on Easy Mode have their max level capped...possibly as low as 2nd or 3rd level. Without real risk, why do they need increased effectiveness?

What do y'all think? Am I talking crazy (again)?
: )

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Completely Forgot to Mention...

Faoladh commented:
The only qualm I'd have is if you still included level drain effects. Fear would have to be generated in some other way.
Yeah, um, forgot to mention:

There will be no level drain in the game.

Level a threat, consequence, danger, B/X or any other "old school" edition of D&D is just fine and dandy by me, as I've written many times before. Why? Because it's just one more way of attacking a certain aspect of player characters, and it's a penalty from which recovery is relatively easy (just earn some more XP, dude). And anyway, in a world where character levels go from 1-36 (or 1-20 or 1-infinity-and-beyond) a lost level or two isn't going to make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things.

Yes, I know many people have differing opinions.

But for MY fantasy heartbreaker, there will be no level drain. For a number of reasons (none of which pertain to the statement "level drain sucks!"). Here's why I'm leaving it out:

  • While the idea of "negative energy" undead was kind of cool in the original game, it was used inconsistently (i.e. not every "negative energy" undead creature drained levels).
  • If you're not going to be consistent with a concept (ghouls and mummies don't drain levels) than it seems a bit lazy not to come up with unique dangers/threats from each individual undead.
  • Fantasy heartbreakers give designers the chance to "clean up" the imperfections they find in the original (D&D) game...and I plan on taking advantage and doing the same. This ain't no retroclone, it's a fantasy heartbreaker yo! One thing I can do is look at the source material and change it to be more in line with MY take on traditional monster mythology. And I intend to do so.
  • Finally, with only five total levels in the game (less for demihumans) the issue of "keeping PCs power in check" becomes much less about reigning in levels. There are plenty more ways to cripple PCs (and more permanently!) than using level drain.
So level drain. There WILL be undead in the game (even though this is its own game, I plan on using stat blocks for monsters eerily similar to the B/X game...just in case anyone wants to convert with ease). The creatures of the night that I intend to use include the following:

Wights (renamed Draugr)

In other words, the same basic undead found in both OD&D and B/X.

By the way...did I mention there is no "cleric" class in the new game?
; )

Hey, Did Anyone Else Notice... B/X terms, Aragorn is a cleric?

I mean, he turns undead (the wraiths on Weathertop), he heals people, removes level drain, has fanatically loyal followers, displays a lot of wisdom, etc.

See, there ARE rangers in B/X...they're called clerics!
; )


So...shit, do I even want to write this?

Ah, well.

Tell me true, gentle readers: would it kill you (or your players) if the whole of D&D game play was compressed into less than half-a-dozen levels of experience?

Let me explain EXACTLY what I mean, just to make sure my question is clear. In B/X, the whole of player character experience has a maximum potential career of 36 levels (for human character classes); less if one chooses to ignore levels beyond 14 (the final levels detailed in the original Cook/Marsh expert set). In D20 characters were capped at 20 levels of experience, which is considered the "effective max" in 2nd edition also, if I'm not mistaken (and excluding supplemental "epic play"). In AD&D and OD&D most classes had no maximum level, unless one chose to play a demihuman character, but even those could reach 8th or 10th or higher levels depending on class and ability scores.

Lots of levels. Lots and lots of levels. And "high level" generally not considered until PCs reach the double digits, at which point truly cool adventuring can be expected to occur: the GDQ modules, not to mention endgame scenarios like building castles, conquering territory, and exploring paths to immortality.

Okay, so...given that THIS is what D&D is kind of all about, in its current (myriad) incarnations, how do y'all feel about the idea of compressing that entire career into, say, 3-5 levels? Or more specifically, 5 levels for human characters and fewer (than 5) levels for demihumans?

I only ask, 'cause that's what I'm doing.

[I've also compressed the class list down to 3 (total) with a potential "bonus type" (about the same as rolling psionics...except not psionics). And no, there are no "skills" at this point, nor any plans for the inclusion of skills]

Now understand this isn't terribly original...the idea comes from DCC (whose level titles are compressed down to 5 levels) and Holmes Basic (and the idea of playing HB "straight"...with 3rd level being the maximum level in a world that still has trolls and vampires and purple worms). I have some ideas for putting a twist or two on the concept, but the end result still remains: player characters' progression in an adventuring career is limited to no more than 5 levels.

Anyone have a problem with that?

I mean is there a particular reason characters need to go to level 10 or 14? If you want "drawn out" play, you can make the XP gaps between levels larger (or the XP awards for monsters and treasure smaller). Why make attack and save progression every 3 or 4 levels when you can make it every single level? Heck, you could have PCs roll 3 dice for hit points every "level up" instead of one die if you wanted to keep pace with the original D&D design (I am NOT doing that, though I have other thoughts on increasing character durability).

Granular spell progress? I'm already changing the magic system based on player wants; it probably won't resemble the Vancian system (or DCC, for that matter).

Granular thief skills? Leaving aside whether or not there will be a "thief" class at all, I find this one of the weakest aspects of the Old School D&D anyway.

No, I'm pretty sure I can make stuff work with 5 levels. To give you an idea, the degree of character effectiveness roughly maps like this:

1st level = 1st through 3rd (Basic level play)
2nd level = 4th through 6th
3rd level = 7th through 9th (Expert level play)
4th level = 10th through 12th (Name level)
5th level = 13th through 15th (Companion level play)

The main question I have is: do people hate that they can't have an 8th level or 19th level or 42nd level character? I mean, World of Warcraft has 80 or 90 levels of play, and people really seem to dig on that. I want to make the game less like a video game, but still with a method of "measuring power." But I know Americans like high scoring games (basketball, football) more than low scoring ones (soccer)...they like the feel of constant "progress" and accolades and awards. Maybe they prefer multiple, less effective levels.

Mmm...actually, I don't care if they do. My game, my rules. I guess the REAL question is not "do you hate the idea," but:

A) How much do you hate the idea? and
B) Are there other reasons for including a multitude of levels that I am not considering?

Thanks for your input.

[now, back to jury duty...]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jury Duty (Better GM Techniques)

Yep, down at Ye Old Municipal Court for the 2nd time in 5 days, but this time I'm sitting in a big room waiting to be called as a juror (which is a damn sight better than fighting traffic citations).

I brought a bunch of stuff to work on, but due to the free wi-fi, I've been surfing the blogs instead (duh). Wow, I missed this whole Building a Better GM Challenge thing. What a nifty little idea.

Um...didn't I already spend the whole April A-Z thing writing up GM techniques?

Ah, well. The truth of the matter is I have no idea whether or not I'm qualified to offer advice on how to be a "better GM." Truly. Call me self-deprecating if you will, but I always kind of thought I spent so much time in the GM chair because "no one else wants to do it." Or possibly "because I yell the loudest."

In my experience, it's the dude (or dudette) with the best grasp of the rules that invariably gets to run the show. I mean, to a certain point (at a table filled with competent DMs/GMs the game might be run by "whoever wrote up an adventure that week"). When I've sat down to games like Spirit of the Century or Risus it's not me that runs the game...I can play and ham and react to what the GM is pitching, but I don't have the knowledge to run the game.

And when I've attempted to run games in which I'm not particularly practiced/proficient, they generally fry up and blow away after only one or two sessions.

That being said, I do (generally) like how I run my games (when I run them well), and people do tend to return to my games over time (which I take to mean they're enjoyed by the players). Can I sum up three techniques to help keep your players interested in the game? Maybe. I can at least talk about what I like in a DM (and thus, what I try to provide to my players).

[caveat: since all I've been running for the last couple years has been B/X Dungeons & Dragons, your mileage may vary in applying these techniques to other games]

Three "Best Practices"

1. Know the Rules
2. Encourage Role-Playing
3. Balance Hard and Soft

I'm not sure I can provide specific nuts-and-bolts technique for each of these, but I'll talk about each and how I attempt to do it. As with any art form, practice helps.

Know the Rules: For a traditional RPG like Dungeons & Dragons, the GM is God, Jesus, and Umpire all in one. It doesn't help anyone do anything if you don't know how to play the damn game. Players want to sit down and play...their level of interest in knowing the nuts-and-bolts of the game mechanics will vary; some will want the knowledge to "game the system" (optimize in-game effectiveness), some will just want to know what dice to roll when (and some won't even care to know that much). Regardless of player knowledge, YOU as GM must know how the game runs, backwards and forwards. If there are tables and obscure rules and such that you can't be bothered to memorize, you should still be able to find this info quickly in the book and have a good basic grasp of the game play. If you're lost, you can't run an enjoyable game; it doesn't matter how creative you are!

"GAME" is the operative word in that last can still run a collaborative story-telling session, or narrate players down your particular linear ego-trip. But if you want an interactive game, then you have to have rules, and the GM is final referee and arbiter of these rules.

Knowing the rules of the game allow you to be an effective judge and referee; it allows you to be an effective teacher of the game and mentor to the players. It allows you to be consistent in your presentation of the game which, in the final analysis, is the closest thing we ever get to "fairness" and "game balance."

Finally, knowing the rules, being a subject matter expert on the game, gives you the freedom to move onto other #2 (Encourage Role-Playing) and #3 (Balance Hard & Soft) listed above.

Encourage Role-Playing: I'll be blunt here: if you're running a role-playing game, you have a responsibility to encourage ifs, ands, or buts about it. Real role-playing (imagining yourself in the role of your character, making your character's interests your own) is the main thing RPGs have that other games (including computer "RPGs") do not. Those of us who have the privilege of running a game have the responsibility to the hobby to showcase this side of the game whenever possible.

Why? Because it's the thing these games have that others don't; it's the draw that brings people to the game. It's the thing that can keep the hobby going...a hobby that encourages imagination, social interaction, community building, and critical thinking. A hobby I'd like to see last beyond my own limited time on this planet.

Encouraging role-playing means giving the players the chance to think as their characters and not making the game too mechanical. Even when it IS mechanical, one should be able to provide the rational to explain things in terms of character for the players.

Why can't my cleric use a sword? Because the spark of divinity within all creatures rests in the blood, and it is a sacred thing to the Gods, not to be spilled except in very specific rituals at the proper moment of sacrifice; the very creation of a blade used for the injuring of others is antithesis to the tenets of your faith.

I want to throw dust in the eyes of my opponent and then hamstring him with my dagger? Make your attack roll (watches); okay, your roll failed. You scoop up dirt and throw it in your opponent's face, but it appears he's no stranger to this tactic...he sneezes but still anticipates the blow, blocking it with a downward parry.

Can we negotiate our way out of this? Yes, but unless you speak lizard man it may be difficult, though perhaps one of the creatures knows a bit of the Common tongue.

Role-playing comes about when players begin to thing in terms of their character's desires, and this happens the more they can place themselves in the imaginary world of the game. "Shutting them down" and telling players they can't do something because it's not in the rules puts the focus of their game squarely ON the rules; which in turn de-emphasizes the identification with character. It's difficult enough to experience suspension of disbelief at a gaming table when one has to occasionally break the 4th wall to call for an initiative roll or saving throw. Encouraging players to try different things or "think outside the box" not only makes the game more fun and less boring/rote, but will help the imagined world to live and breathe for the players. Do it as much as possible.

Looking players in the eye and practicing active listening is more important to role-playing than speaking in funny voices.

Balance Hard and Soft: The trickiest of all three practices, and definitely one that's fairly specific to the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons; I'm speaking specifically to fairly balance risk and reward for players in-game.

Gygax (and Moldvay and Mentzer and everyone else) has written about the need to find balance in the rewarding of characters in-game; that pendulum swing between "too stingy" and "Monty Haul" type campaigns. For me, the treasure/XP factor is secondary to finding balance in the challenge that's handed out to the players. And by "challenge" I mean "threat to (imaginary) life-and-limb" not just "solve the puzzle."

I like the games I run to be deadly. I want there to be a real feeling of threat in the minds of my players when I sit down at the table. I want them to believe that they are risking their character's lives every time they step into the dungeon, that it's possible they'll get energy drained, or poisoned, or smashed in a cave-in, or over-run by goblins and speared to death. I don't want them to think that there's some safety net/dice-fudging thing that's going to happen and save their bacon if they press their luck or blunder into the wrong corridor or fail to screw up through ignorance or possibly bad luck.

Why not? Because, to me, that's what D&D is about. It's not about coming up against Great Old Ones and being driven insane. It's not about Antediluvian vampires that can kill you with a glance and have no need for game stats. It IS a game about heroic individuals undertaking perilous adventure for both gold and glory.

"Perilous" means deadly. But that doesn't mean characters don't get saving throws...player characters ARE heroic, after all. Both purple worms and greater demons can be fought and killed by Joe Human in the D&D game, and sure Joe will probably bite the dust, but it's not guaranteed. Sometimes dumb luck can be an ally in the game...just as it is in real life.

However, with that threat of deadliness (or poison or petrifaction or energy drain) ready to pop out at any time, and the consistency of the DM with enforcement (the "Hard") you create a more visceral experience for your players. Assuming you're following #2 (encouraging role-playing), players can feel real adrenaline and racing heartbeats when the shit hits the fan.

[otherwise, they may just think you're an asshole]

However, the trick (as I wrote) is balancing the Hard with "the Soft" and that means knowing when to give on something, allowing the PCs to survive or overcome an obstacle in a manner or method not otherwise anticipated by the DM. A PC is poisoned and the players use a potion of gaseous form to dump the foreign substance from his body. PCs rig up an elaborate method of getting a treasure item without setting off a found trap (rather than attempting to disarm said trap). Allowing PCs to negotiate with monsters or find "outside-the-box" methods of overcoming obstacles and environmental hazards (White Plume Mountain is a good adventure to practice this kind of DM/PC training). Allowing escape. Allowing capture for ransom. Allowing unusual methods of recovery as rewards for certain benny side-quests.

And definitely allowing REWARD to match the risk. If the PCs overcome a huge threat, give 'em a huge payday. I gave PCs a 4000+ gp piece of jewelry for overcoming a single gargoyle...but they were 2nd level with only a couple magic weapons between 'em and gargoyles can only be harmed by enchanted weapons. On another adventure a PC landed himself in jail for asking around town for a controlled substance (poison) and blowing a reaction roll. He was allowed to escape (with a healthy bribe to a guard); later, when the party overcame a giant snake, he was able to milk the thing's poison sacs for a couple doses.

When players are innovative and creative, reward them. When danger comes a-calling don't coddle them. Give them the hard and the soft with a lot less "lukewarm." These make for a better player experience. And if you can deliver that, then you are on your way to becoming a better GM.

All right, for more ideas on specific topics you might want to look at my April postings. Some folks found these ideas interesting and/or helpful.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Terribly Distracted

Sorry for the lack of's just been awfully busy around my neck o the woods and my mind's been elsewhere (well, other than the nagging worry that I should be throwing something up on my blog...). That being said, posting will still probably be minimal over the next week or two as I work on some other stuff.

HA. "Work?" I'll be honest: I've just been enjoying the summertime weather. And vegging out with Seattle sports on TV when I'm not out enjoying the sunshine. The Sounders are playing well, the Seahawks are playing like crap (but O So many interesting storylines there), and the Mariners, while completely out of any playoff hunt months ago, have at least found some offense so they're fun to watch. Especially while enjoying a beer at the pub with the doors open to let in the sunshine, etc.

But my own (real life) job has been a bear of late, and I just haven't gotten around to buying any lottery tickets so it looks like it will be awhile before I can quite and just blog/game full-time. The downtime (and long walks) have been exceptionally necessary to recharge my batteries and keep me sane and mellow. Besides, with Luke handling the GMing on Thursday nights the pressure has been "eased off" for the constant creativity on my end.

Not that I haven't had time to do some stuff "off-stage"...

But I'll blog about that more later. I DO want to get down some thoughts from last week's DCC session while I have the opportunity (currently hanging outside a local coffee shop with my infant asleep in the stroller next to me). Let's see, where to start:

As I mentioned before, Luke's using the Anomalous Subsurface Environment megadungeon as our adventure. This is one I don't own and with which I am completely unfamiliar save for a review or two I've read. Still, it's plenty cool and I'm digging it.

Though it seems a bit of a waste to use it with DCC. Admittedly, this is a personal gripe: I would like to PLAY B/X not just run it, and ASE was designed for use with the B/X retro-clone Labyrinth Lord. What an opportunity! For me (I mean)! But Luke has said often enough that there are many parts of the BX/LL system he does not enjoy and that he prefers some of the more fiddly bits of D20...for him, DCC is a nice little hybrid of the two and I don't fault him for wanting to use it.

And as I said in my last post on the subject, there are a LOT of very cool things about DCC.

This session, we went into the game with newly advanced PCs; those that survived the first outing were advanced to 1st level. Since I only had one survivor, I chose to bring along my 4th 0-level character ("Derrick the Blue") as a henchman/servant of my dwarf, Yorin the Young, now re-Christened Yorin Steeltoe. We made our way to the adventure site, fought a couple/three bears (black and degenerated by radiation sickness, they weren't much of a fight), found some secret doors, broke up some aggressive robots...the usual, ya' know?

ANYway, as 1st level characters, we got to experience some of the frills of the system. As a dwarf, this meant trying out "Mighty Deeds" (a semi-narrative game mechanic attached to the random attack roll)...not to mention sniffing for precious gold, seeing in the dark (much improved "infravision"), and generally acting as a tough guy with my 12 hit points. For other characters, it meant seeing spells and corruption in action, as well as "thief skills."


So thief skills first ('cause it's the shortest): the thief didn't use any skills. As with standard D&D, assigning low percentages to actually accomplishing anything makes it ill-advised to act as a thief. Fortunately, Itchy Blackburn started his career as a 0-level minstrel, and he was able to play us a jaunty marching tune on his banjo while we were exploring.

Now magic: hmmm.

I mentioned before that I've been bit with the bug to design a fantasy heartbreaker of my own. This still holds true, and I've been jotting down notes on the game for the last few days. But I've come to a serious roadblock in the design process: designing magic systems is TOUGH. I mean, if you are trying to do something non-derivative. Not just "non-Vancian" but non-Stormbringer, non-Ars Magica, non-"Spell Points." It's tough.

The boys playing spell-casters in DCC found a lot that they liked. Which is a GOOD thing.

There was also more than a couple brushes with serious corruption (open lesions/sores, and manifestations of certain spells that made them more-or-less un-castable). The final analysis: plusses and minuses both.

But I'll have to write more specifically about that later. As I said, I've been terribly distracted as of late, and right now I've got some errands to run (specifically, a wife to pick up from work and a son who's awake and in need of holding). I'll write more later, folks.

; )

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Breaking My F***ing Heart

I was originally going to write up a post entitled "Three RPGs That Suck," but my brain has been preempted today by thought that has taken root and has given me no peace a'tall: designing my own fantasty heartbreaker.

No, not a retroclone. I've already considered writing up my own retro-version of B/X for mass production (something to go hand-in-hand with The B/X Companion) and discarded the idea due to A) the sheer amount of (well done) B/X clones already floating around, and B) laziness. Nope I'm talking a real-live fantasy heartbreaker of the variety described by Ron Edwards.

Just to get it out of my system.

Why now? What's prompted this? Well, truthfully the whole DCC is waaay inspiring in a way that other D&D deritives (like C&C, Palladium, and HackMaster Basic) are totally NOT. I'm mainly just curious if I can work it out right now to where it would fun. I don't know that I'd ever publish it.

Now, just so everyone knows: this is completely a hush-hush side project that needs to be kept on the DL. My wife has already laid down the law that I'm not supposed to be starting any more projects until I've finished my current ones (*sigh*) AND I need to focus on only one at a time (*double sigh*). It seems I've been stretching myself too thin lately, and until Baby D learns to sleep through the night it's important that at least one of us gets some snoozing done at night.

HOWEVER, this is just a little something I'll be tinkering with in my "doodle time" know, during work meetings and afternoon breaks when I've got little better to do than fool around with stuff. Besides, I don't even have a numerologically superior name for this one...can't publish without a good name!

Okay that's it...this was just a quick "check-in" post. Tomorrow, I'll write about the three disappointing RPGs.

: )

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

More Thoughts on DCC

The more I read through the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (beta), the more things I see that I like.

I’m not talking about artwork…God no!...presentation is a secondary consideration IF THAT. There are plenty of games with great artwork, inspiring artwork, that are complete duds as far as I’m concerned. And there are other games (Boot Hill for example) that are well designed (both from a game standpoint and practical layout) that may have less-than-stellar graphic presentation.

And everything in between, of course. However, I’ve seen more than one review that praised DCC on its artistic merits and that’s probably the LAST thing on my mind right now.

[for what it’s worth, I find the illustrations in the pdf to be a mixed bag]

No, when I say I’m seeing things I like, I’m talking about in-depth rules delving. There are more than a few things that I’m really digging.

Not that the game is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Of course not…it’s still in the playtesting stage! And the game is, at its foundation, a fantasy heartbreaker,” much as was HackMaster Basic, and that is just a no-go.

Or is it? I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Maybe I should talk about what I LIKE first…you know, start on a positive note? It’s just so hard when there are so many things that irritate me. Hmm…better get THOSE out of the way, first:

D20 Sensibilities: Look, I know a lot of people like Pathfinder/D20. That’s fine and dandy. Doing a variation of it…even a “slimmed down” version…is making a heartbreaker of a heartbreaker. To me, DCC misses an opportunity by using D20isms (like initiative, skill checks, and ascending AC).

Over-Use of Random Tables: Um…that’s it.

Over-Complicated Combat: See the first two along with the addition of crits and fumbles (especially varying by class-level-equipment).

Minor Issues with Character Creation: Discussed in a prior post.

ALSO: Certain class-related issues, specifically specificity of character background based on intersection of class and alignment, certain skills (notably thieves), certain conceits (dwarves’ “sword and board”) and certain holdovers from old school editions (like infravision). I haven’t read through the spell caster stuff yet, so I can’t speak to my feelings on clerics and wizards or the magic system.

[by the way, there are some aspects of DCC I can’t discuss due to their absence from the pdf…notably advancement systems, awarding of XP, GM information/direction, etc.]

So, yeah, you’re probably asking what does JB like considering all of the above?

Quite a few things actually:


This is by far the biggest food-for-thought area in DCC. I consider my own (not-yet-published) “B/X knockoff” games to be fairly innovative in this regard, but DCC does an excellent job even within the confines of the usual OS dungeon crawl model of “collect XP, level up.”

I absolutely LOVE the “start as Normal Human” requirement of the game. I’ve written before that 1st level characters should be respected individuals in the game world, but forcing characters to start at 0-level REALLY drives this point home. I’ve got a 1st level character that doesn’t have a single ability over 11, and let me tell YOU he could wipe the floor with half-a-dozen 0-level characters (at least!). It is so damn inspiring to see your hit points rocket up from 2 to 12 (not to mention, picking up armor and a two-handed sword), that you don’t care some other guy rolled a 17 strength for his 0-level farmer. Yeah, try to hit me with your cudgel, buddy!

I even went out and bought a new miniature for my (otherwise fairly pathetic) character.

When I played Rifts, my absolute favorite OCC (after the doomed/tragic Juicer) was the Vagabond…the Palladium equivalent of the 0-level nobody, complete with trucker cap and maybe a knife for defense. I always saw so much potential in this class…after all, it’s not like he can’t later “borg-up” or get kidnapped by spluggortha and tattooed with magic powers. I even forced my brother to play a vagabond in my original Rifts game, and he DID end up with a bionic leg…after I burned off his flesh one with a Wilke’s laser pistol.

Point is, there is something very satisfying in the idea of the “normal dude becoming heroic” model. It may be why I dig Harlan Ellison’s writings (recently watched Dreams with Sharp Teeth, and one of Ellison’s critics talks about his knack for showing the dignity of the everyday person by throwing said person into the cauldron). DCC does this in a very simple, very practical way.

AND unlike, say, a White Wolf game, this is done IN PLAY. What do I mean? Well, let’s look at WW…say Aberrant (superhero game) or Vampire (Goth superhero game): in either one, part of the chargen process involves doing a “prologue;” figuring out what your character was BEFORE he acquired “great powers” in hopes that background will give you some grist to grind in-play (angst or backstory or whatever). DCC has the Normal Humans go through their prologue in-play (the first session), which instills in the player’s mind what their urchin or pig-farmer really was like before he became badass.

[side note to DCC designers: I recommend making the “level 1” after session 1 a hard-and-fast rule. It jibes with B/X (“normal humans that gain ANY experience points become 1st level characters”), AND it allows players to get to the badassery in the 2nd session]

So, yeah…Normal Humans. That might not even be a bad house rule for B/X (making players start at 0-level). I’m not 100% there on the way chargen is handled, and I think the number of PCs each player has should be based on the number of players in the group. But it’s an excellent start.

And that’s not the end of what I like in character development. The max level 5 thing is excellent. I don’t know if the final version of DCC will have more (or unlimited) levels but I think a practical limit of 5 or 6 isn’t a bad thing at all. Do fighters need three-four attacks per round when they can do Mighty Deeds of Arms? I don’t think so. Do PCs need dozens or scores of hit points? Probably not. As I said, my 1st level dwarf is sooo head and shoulders above the Normal Human it’s sick…but I’d suspect a dragon would take him down in a chomp or two regardless (and that should apply even up to 3rd level). I’ve been enamored of the “low max level” thing ever since someone suggested using the Holmes Basic Edition as a complete game by itself (where characters only go to 3rd level).

I dislike most of the level titles they’ve come up with, but I applaud the fact they use level titles at all. If made non-alignment-specific it would cut down the number to an easily remembered number, making class descriptions useful forms of identifying badass individuals by title.


You can see the B/X roots in DCC’s inclusion of “The Great Seven” classes, though this in itself isn’t worthy of praise. I mean, it’s already been done…if my only concern is fewer archetypal classifications and “race-as-class,” I can still play B/X (or Labyrinth Lord), right?

What IS of note is the distinctions between the classes. Wow.

Each class gets a handful of unique abilities specific to their class, giving each class a very different play-style. Sure there is some over-lap, but not enough to make, say, dwarves feel like “short fighters with infravision.”

If I was to try my hand at a fantasy heartbreaker, THIS is definitely something I’d want to look at doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly do enjoy the simplicity of B/X character classes. But there is a lot of holdover from OD&D in B/X and Moldvay demihumans are, for the most part, simply fighting men with a couple bennies and a level restriction. DCC is better.

And it’s a HUGE improvement over D20 where classes are simply varied combinations of the same formula: X number of skills, Y number of bonus feats, Z hit dice…along with A base attack bonus and B saving throw bonuses. Aside from the different combinations of variables, there are very few class abilities that really distinguish PCs from each other in D20…especially once they start multi-classing.

Now REGARDING the specific class distinctions in DCC there is certainly room for improvement. However, some of them are spot-on. Adding level to warrior’s initiative (a la the Solo from Cyberpunk)? Genius (and only workable with D20 initiative, so that’s +1 for them). Advancing attack die for warriors and dwarves? VERY EXCELLENT…and makes “strength bonus” a truly secondary consideration in melee (while still being a contributing factor). Luck bonuses for thieves? Very cool AND appropriate…and same with those furry footed Halflings who (as described by Tolkien) always seem to possess such an inordinate amount.

And I really like linking so many of the class abilities (including thief skills) to ALIGNMENT. Again, here’s something I’ve done in my B/X-based games: linking alignment more mechanically to the game system to make it more of a factor. But by linking it directly to CLASS ABILITIES (as DCC does), it essentially provides multiple character archetypes where only a handful previously existed…that is NOT something I ever thought about, as I still associate “alignment” with “role-playing.”

DCC still associates alignment with role-playing, but more literally…choice of alignment determines what ROLE your character will play in the game!


That’s it for now. As I said, I’ve only just skimmed the cleric/wizard sections so I can’t make a judgment yet on whether or not I like their particular rules. However, I will be returning to DCC (and my thoughts on it) over the week, especially as my group play-tests further.

Oh, yeah…almost forgot:

This Rob Kuntz interview…along with Oddyssey’s recent musings have been bubbling in my brain along with James Raggi’s statement:
The answer to "Is there room for another...?" is always yes, as long as it's good enough
There are several billion people in the world. Even if I were to limit myself to just the literate, English-speaking folks I’m sure I’d make a ton of money if I could sell .001% of ‘em on a great fantasy game. The trick to it is two-fold:

- Make the game accessible
- Make the game fun to PLAY

It might offend some folks to say, but I think these are the two ingredients missing from the vast majority of RPGs. While B/X may well have met these criteria back in 1981, the simple fact that it is out-of-print greatly limits its accessibility. And many, many “in-print” (i.e. current RPGs) are inaccessible to the average Joe based on their presentation (huge books, RPG assumptions, poor layout interspersed with prose/fiction) say nothing of their actual (fun) playability.

DCC isn’t a complete game. It isn’t “finished” yet. I have no idea if it will be a runaway hit or a passing novelty people pick up for a week or two before turning back to their AD&D and retro-clones.

But I’m starting to feel that it’s fine to TRY. It’s not just tilting at windmills to take a swing at a fantasy heartbreaker. If you make a good enough game, people WILL buy it. Really.

Monday, August 15, 2011

This is how I picture dwarves...

Maybe "Lobo" isn't exactly right, or maybe I didn't quite grok what Luke was describing regarding the appearance of demihumans in the Land of a Thousand Towers, but sue me...sometimes my imagination puts together a pastiche of various pop culture references. In fact, now that Yorin is 1st level, I'm imagining him to appear a bit more like Mr. Sinister.

But that's just me.

; )

Pretty Good Game Last Thursday

No, I’m not talking about the Seahawks game which, despite the win, saw offensive tackle Russle Okung injured yet again, Tavaris Jackson get sacked half a dozen times, and Kelly Jennings being run over, run through, and generally being beaten like a red-headed step child every play.

No, THAT game showed me the ‘Hawks have a lot o work to get through over the next three weeks.

[as a side note, how about them Tennessee Titans? Matt Hasselbeck looking pretty sharp, huh? And how ‘bout that Jake Locker kid?]

No, I’m talking about our Thursday night game in which we played the Dungeon Crawl Classics beta.

Not bad.

Very, VERY minor complaints so far, and some of these might simply be a matter of “style preference.” DCC is a strange juxtaposition of several things:

- A B/X foundation (including styling and recycled artwork from the Moldvay book)
- House rules ‘ported straight from D20 (and later) editions
- Random tables a la what might be found in the OSR blog-o-sphere and on-line publications
- Indie-style narrative tools coupled with alternative random number generation

The end result feels a bit schizophrenic to me…at least when reading it.

But we didn’t use most of the rules…Thursday we were still in the “funnel” stage. Eight players sat down to the table with a total of 22 PCs between the bunch of us…the DM also provided us with a couple of NPCs to round out the party to an even two dozen. Of the bunch, I believe all but four of us were 0-level (two of the players had played in the prior DCC try-out when I was out of Mexico) but as it was, there were too many PCs for me to get an accurate gauge of who or what everyone was (fortunately, I didn't have to GM).

Not that there’s any real difference between the characters at 0 level. Personally, I found it great to play “normal humans.” I’ve always felt that the simpler the system, the more the game becomes about your character actions and interactions. And playing the equivalent of B/X “Normal Men” still offered great opportunity for characterization…though it didn’t go quite the way I’d initially expected.

Luke, our GM, came back from GenCon with a copy of Patrick Wetmore’s Anomalous Subsurface Environment, and he’s adapted DCC to the Land of One Thousand Towers. Which put MY initial assumptions about my characters a little “off.”

For example, when I originally rolled up my two dwarf pig herders (“Old Orin” and “Young Yorin”) I figured they were a fairly peaceful pair of father-son farmers, not hardened adventurers. I mean an occupation like “dwarf herder” sounds like something they’ve done for awhile, right? If they were hardened ex-mercs they’d be a little tougher.

But that was before I learned about the goth-zombie demihumans, coupled with DCC’s own description of what the dwarf background is all about. When I first created the characters, I never bothered reviewing the classes so stopped at 0-level character creation + “Neutral alignment” (which made them feel like nature-worshipping, druidish types). Now I’m like Oh, they’re short Drow with beards, exiled to the surface world and forced to raise pigs for humans.

These guys are SPITEFUL.

My third character, Bow-Legged Bill, was originally conceived as a Lawful caravan guard…an outrider, born to the saddle (literally, based on his luck). A protector of travelers in a strange land.

Then we got introduced to our NPCs…fellow caravan guards, buddies of Bill’s, who told the story of a caravan being recently wiped out and a good load of gold being available to loot because of it. Opportunists looking for a score at the expense of the very folk they were hired to protect.

These are my character’s buddies?

They were also, inexplicably, armed and armored much better than myself with splint mail, shields and flails (as a zero level flunky, I had a short sword and a couple dozen copper pieces). As we set out on our excursion to liberate the cash of the fallen from the raiders that took it (the unfortunately named “Mock-Tards,” some kind of gnoll-like monster), I realized my initial assumptions about my characters had been way off. Bow-legged Bill was like a dirty cop…and a rookie one at that, only starting to learn how to get in on the take.

It wasn’t too long before we had our first combat encounter…a pack of hungry wild dogs. The DM tried to make us feel bad about killing DOGS but I wasn’t having any of that (I’ve been menaced by wild dogs before…in the woods in Mexico…and they’re not cool). Especially considering my characters were unarmored and only had 1 hit point apiece.

Afterwards, we found that our caravan buddies had been hiding out in their splint mail while the rest of us were fighting for our lives and decided that they weren’t deserving of their high priced gear, and it would be of more use to other party members.

So I mugged ‘em.

Well, maybe I should be a little more specific: my emo dwarves and bad seed security guard lured one of the dudes behind a copse of trees and then brutally murdered him. After that we intimidated his buddy into giving over his armor and weapon and making him walk point for the party.

This, unfortunately, did not sit well with some of my other 20 party members and payback would come later in the evening.

Let’s see, how did that go down again? Oh, yeah…we found the mock-tards’ lair and proceeded to explore it in a huge pile of people. There was some early suggestion of using my pig-sows for setting off traps, but we already had the naked caravan guard up front so I was able to put ‘em off (my pig farmers were rather attached to their pets). There was a trap door that went off at a crossroads and then a couple mock-tards and a wolf came out of the shadows and attacked. A bunch of chaos ensued due to the incredible amount of people and the D20-style initiative rules. All my characters had agility scores under 9 (short-legged dwarves and bow-legged human), so I was generally among the last to act. People died. One guy was trying to keep the trap door open rather than just writing off the guys inside and getting into the fight…I think I tried to kill him, but I was at the “back of the pack” and the GM ruled I couldn’t get up there.

The melee eventually thinned out. Old Orin charged one of the mock-tards and bull-rushed it into the pit, landing his full weight on it and driving it onto the spear of one of the peons climbing out. Unfortunately, Old Orin only had 1 hit point (Stamina/CON of 3) and broke his neck in the attempt.

Bow-legged Bill used a flail on another mock-tard and brained the shit out of it, killing it. The splint mail seemed to fit just fine.

Randy’s characters decided to kill Bow-Legged Bill because he seemed a murderous loose cannon. His first character's assassination attempt resulted in fumbling and stabbing himself in the brain with his own knife. His second assassination attempt…um…I think he missed. However, his third guy, Stiles, was able to hit, and Bill was felled by foul play (he only had one hit point, too).

By this time, all the mock-tards were dead and the party was probably down to half its original size. We found a big ol’ box of treasure and some radioactive rock (identified by Young Yorin the dwarf) which we stashed in a lead box we found. For some reason, Yorin was spared from the bloody purge that claimed Bill, perhaps due to his youth and the thought that he’d been “led astray.” Sure.

Having completed our first outing, the survivors were advanced to 1st level and everyone got to pick a class. Well, everyone but the demihumans (my character’s class is Dwarf…go figure). We found enough treasure to purchase anything “up to scale mail.” Damage in DCC is variable by weapon, so it only makes gamist sense to pick up a long sword and shield. My character has gone from “assistant pig-keeper” to ShadowFell-ish Badass, in a single session…yeah, that’s kind of a weird transition, but that’s the game.

I’ll be interested to see how things go this week, and I am looking forward to another session (this time with more than 1 hit point). We'll see whether I can put paid to the trecherous Stiles or not.

“Spiteful.” That’s the word of the week.

: )

Thursday, August 11, 2011

If you think...

...I have much more on my mind than tonight's preseason game of the Seattle Seahawks in San Diego, I'm afraid you're much mistaken. Sorry...geeking out over football is just "one of my thanks;" I do hope to form some some thoughts/reflections of DCC after tonight's game. But otherwise, I just can't get up any gaming posts.

Too much excitement to see which O-linemen get injured and how bad Tavaris Jackson sucks!
; )

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thick with Thieves

It seems like I’ve discussed thieves a lot over the life of this blog…and so why should I stop from posting something more.

I’ve never been one to play a thief. When I played D20, I had a dwarf who multi-classed as a fighter-thief in order to meet the duelist (prestige class) pre requisites. In my youth, my main character (over several years) was a 1st edition bard, who was more of a fighter than anything else. In Pat Armstrong’s on-line B/X game, I had the opportunity to play a thief for a single session.

That’s about it.

I’m writing this to explain I have no great love for the thief class…nothing particularly compels me to make it better or cooler or more effective. However, it IS a class I’m interested in keeping around, and it is important for me to emphasize what the thief class is.

Thieves are thieves.

I don’t see them as “rogues;” to my mind all B/X characters are roguish to some degree. I don’t consider them lightly armored fighters…a lightly armored fighter is a fighter with leather armor. I don’t even see them particularly as a “scout” for the party (though the thief in our group often gets used as one). Any character that requires a light source to “see” in the dungeon is going to have a damn hard time sneaking up on anyone.

Thieves are thieves. They are adventurers (just like all the other PCs), with a particular set of class abilities…what we call “thief skills.” Using the Rules As Written makes this class ability REALLY ineffective. SO ineffective, that he probably won't use any of them…with the exception of climb walls (a high chance of success) and backstabbing (automatically successful, assuming you hit the target).

What do you call a guy that climbs walls and backstabs folks? Especially considering his normal trappings (leather armor and some type of throwing/missile weapon to take advantage of a high DEX)? I don’t know…not a thief, though. Maybe a monkey commando or something.

So, I allow thief skills to automatically succeed in my game. I encourage thief characters to do more than climb walls and backstab. Many sessions we won’t even see backstabbing or wall climbing.

But we DO see the use of thief skills. Searching for traps, picking locks, moving silently. Our party thief gets to act like a thief and doesn’t face epic failure time and time again due to low percentile scores. It’s pretty neat.

Is there a downside to it? Not really. Let’s talk about it in practice:

Picking pockets: our thief player has only picked two or three pockets, generally NPCs in town. This has allowed him to pick up a treasure map that he could have otherwise purchased (without spending money) and take back some coins that he had previously used to bribe someone for information. He hasn’t made any fantastic hauls using the skill, but he has been able to add characterization to the way his character handles himself…without worrying about the chance of failure (and thus side-tracking the party with some sort of arrest scenario).

Opening locks: when there are locks to be picked, the thief gets his chance to open them. Without a thief, the party would have to resort to other methods (finding keys, using knock spells, bashing open chests with an axe, etc.). Allowing the thief to open locks gives the character a chance to shine, gives the party a chance to conserve resources (like knock spells), and allows the game to continue at a brisk pace as the players select the right tool (in this case, the thief) to overcome a minor obstacle. It doesn’t help against magic locks or puzzles, and so there are still ways for me (as the DM) to stymie PC progress, should I so choose. It creates incentive for the PCs to keep the thief alive.

Climbing walls: there are plenty of ways for a thief to fall and hurt himself without worrying about making climb rolls (our thief has fallen into a pit or two). Again, this makes the thief a useful tool of the party to save on other resources (levitation and fly spells), and provides the players with a method for negotiating some obstacles (like cliffs and such) without worrying about the thief dying. I DO require a roll for a hurried or “rapid ascent” (for example, when the thief was attempting to escape the grasp of a wraith in our last session).

Finding (and removing) “small mechanical traps:” probably the main item on the list that would make DMs hesitate with removing skill rolls. However, one must consider the limitations of the skill:

1) PCs must actually search an area for a trap to have a chance to find it.
2) The trap must be of the “mechanical device” variety for the thief to find it.
3) It takes time (1 turn) to search for traps…time for torches to burn out, or lantern oil to be used up, or wandering monsters to come around.

Having the ability to find traps doesn’t mean the thief will necessarily find anything…and it speeds up play. Let me give a couple of “actual play” examples:

- The party comes to a dead end. Some party members want to search for secret doors, the thief searches for traps. No traps are found (there aren’t any). The thief gives the “all clear,” based on his knowledge as a subject matter expert. The party can breathe a sigh of relief as they look for secret doors.
- The party comes to a door. After listening and hearing nothing, the thief kicks in the door. The door opens smoothly and the thief plunges through and down an 80 foot pit (the dungeon garbage chute, well-used by the resident denizens). There was no “trap” to find, but the thief still takes a spill.
- Examining a ruined bedroom with a collapsed ceiling, the party finds skeleton still in the bed, a large boulder having apparently crushed the victim’s skull and upper torso. The thief levers the rock from the remains and sees a silver and sapphire necklace beneath amongst the crushed bone fragments. Excitedly grabbing for it, a fist-sized spider scurries from beneath the bed covers and bites his warm flesh, filling the thief’s veins with poison. Another party member bludgeons the creature but the thief writhes on the floor in agony.

Just because thieves automatically find traps, doesn’t mean caution can be thrown to the wind. Trip wires, floor plates, poisoned needles, and covered pits are all readily found by the searching thief. Magical traps, crumbling stonework, and live animals are NOT so easily discovered…and even when they are (by a detect magic spell, dwarf, or careful prodding with a 10’ pole) they cannot simply be disarmed by the thief.

Does allowing thieves to “automatically” find mechanical traps make the dungeon non-hazardous? No. But is it useful to have a thief in your party? Absolutely. No one wants to deal with a poisoned needle if they don’t have to!

Hiding in Shadows/Moving Silently: While I haven’t been a stickler for it, my baseline consideration for moving silently is that the thief not be heavily encumbered with jingling treasure. However, even if the thief “sneaks ahead,” he still has to roll for surprise himself with any creatures encountered. So long as he’s not (and he’s not carrying his own light, giving himself away), he should be able to creep upon monsters unnoticed and leave, reporting back valuable intelligence to the party. He cannot simply “take on” enemies by himself, as they’ll probably surround him and kill him. Allowing move silently gives him a way to contribute to the party and again, conserve resources (like clairvoyance and wizard eye).

I can’t recall any instances of hiding in shadows to date. Usually, the players are “on the move” and by the time the thief finds himself in a situation where he’d LIKE to hide (i.e. when the party is spotted by monsters), he is unable to hide (having already been spotted). The party does not set-up a lot of traps or ambushes for monsters.

Hear noise: If there is noise loud enough to be heard, it is heard. If it’s not, it’s not. I’m not sure why this needs to be a special skill. Demihumans hear better than humans.

All right, I think that’s about it. Likewise, for dwarves I allow their “stone knowledge” skill to work automatically (if there’s something to discover, they discover it…so long as they’re looking). I also allow PCs automatic insights into certain aspects of a dungeon/adventure based on their class…for instance, clerics know religious items when they see them or have an idea what might be a profane act within a given holy place, dwarves and elves recognize items that were crafted by members of their own species, etc.

So far, none of these things have been a problem in the game…I am completely satisfied that the danger/risk level is still high in the game, and pleased that thieves are more effective at their main class feature, i.e. their skills. For me, it makes the game feel a little more tactical and a little less of a “crap shoot.” PCs are in charge of deciding what action they want to take, and the thief isn’t playing Russian Roulette every time he tries to use a basic ability of his class.

Let’s face it: no other class faces gross bodily harm for failing to use a class ability. If a cleric blows a turning check, they don’t have to make a save versus level drain (for example) the way a thief needs to save versus poison for missing a disarm/find traps roll.

Let me contrast this system with EARLIER games; here’s what I saw:

- Thieves skulking around the back of the party, shooting arrows or looking for a good opportunity to backstab in the midst of an encounter.
- Thieves hoping they wouldn’t be called on to use any of their thief skills.
- Players complaining when they were called on; especially if they then failed (and risked death because of it).
- The only “risk-taking” thieves were newbie players, ignorant of possible consequences (last seen with Vince in White Plume Mountain). Fortunately for Vince, his character started at mid-level (6th or 7th) for the adventure AND he was extremely lucky on more than one occasion with his skill rolls.

Don't know if Matt is reading this, but he can feel free to comment if he likes the "skill-less system" or not. Do you feel that I have taken the challenge out of the game for you by allowing your skills to all succeed?
; )

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


I've mentioned before that long before I got back into D&D, I spent a lot of time swimming the waters of the indie-gaming scene, especially with regard to thoughtful design theory. In fact, it's the kind of thing one really can't "turn off" once you've started doing just end up getting a much more narrow (dare I say, "elitist") perspective on this RPG hobby.

For example, I look at D&D through the same design lens with which I view any new game I pick up, purchase, or play. The reason I'm so hip on the B/X Dungeons & Dragons is that I find this particular edition to be an incredibly excellent game. No, it does not do some of the things indie games do, but it does everything D&D does (at least, everything I want it to do) very well. Like 9 stars out of 10 for me.

This is why, after playing it nearly non-stop for nearly a year (more?) and trying various house rules and tinkerings, my current game is almost completely "straight B/X." The only deviations from the original Red & Blue books?

- Clerics don't have to memorize spells in the morning (cast on demand)
- Thief skills (and dwarf, halfling abilities) automatically work, no roll

That's it. My "weapon variations?" Dropped. Firearms? Phased out. Magic-user studies/spell learning? Exactly as written. New classes? Well, we still have one guy playing a "scout," but for the most part he works just like any other character...I mean, it's such a basic concept you can't really distinguish him from a leather clad fighter (one that can read tracks).

Anyway, it's a great game, something I don't need to harp on (again) to my readers, I'm sure. But what about that whole indie community with which I used to spend so much time prior to (allegedly) joining the OSR?

The last few days I've been buzzing around those sites again, mainly The Forge (which has gotten considerably more streamlined in the last year...yow!). I just wanted to see what I was missing, you know? If anything.

What I found in the "Actual Play" forum (the place I used to go to learn about and read about and get excited about new indie games) is: 4th Edition D&D.

What the F*CK?

Certainly, it's not ALL 4E, but enough of it...5 posts on the first page, 10 on the 2nd, with pages and pages of discussion thread. To me, this is so...gross. I mean, it's like going to your neighborhood farmer's market and seeing a Walmart has set up a stand. If you read the "about" page of The Forge you'll find the following:
This site is dedicated to the promotion, creation, and review of independent role-playing games. What is an independent role-playing game? Our main criterion is that the game is owned by its author, or creator-owned.'s strange enough to see ANY discussion of D&D on the site (not that it's not a touch-stone subject for most of us who "grew up in the hobby;" but so much of the indie-theory is about alternate approaches to game design). But isn't Hasbro's latest-greatest kind of the antithesis of independent, creator-owned games? Aren't these the folks that killed (or cut the legs off) the OGL, making their product even more faceless and corporate and soulless than it already was?

I guess I've become an elitist's elitist. Man, I am such a jerk!

I can't even bring myself to engage in these on-line discussions. Ideas and questions about how to tinker with 4E and "make it better" just makes me want to ask, "why the hell even bother?" But even that is a losing discussion...I mean, why would I want to waste time - any amount of time - discussing how to "tinker" 4E on a site that purports to be devoted to the promotion and creation of indie RPGs?

I mean, what could such a discussion possibly be in aid of?

Sorry for yet another mini-rant. I guess I've just been in a bad mood today.