Thursday, February 28, 2019

Mix N Match

I've (probably) mentioned this in the past, but I really enjoy watching the reality show Top Chef. Personally, I'm not much of a cook, and while I'm not adverse to learning how to cook, cooking good food generally takes a loooong time...more time than I like to spend preparing my fuel. Sure this is yet another personal flaw...I don't grow my veggies or slaughter my own meat either...but while I may not have a "full appreciation" of my food, I can honestly say I have a great respect for people who do. Also, I like to eat at their restaurants whenever I can afford it.

Anyway, the thing about Top Chef is that (in addition to the sheer expression of creativity on display), is that it's fun to watch the various challenges, which usually involve a specific ingredient (or ingredients), a particular theme, or both. Top Chef's main imitator (which I don't like as much but do occasionally watch) is a show called Chopped which has pared the premise down to a specific format: cook three courses (starter, entree, and dessert) over three rounds, each round containing three specific ingredients that must be used in the dish. Each round, one of the four contestants is "chopped" till there's only one left.

[Chopped is really more of a poor man's Iron Chef. The original, mind you...I have never been able to sit through the American version and Bobby Flay is such a fraud]

I was thinking just how much fantasy these days, and especially fantasy in, of, and for role-playing games tends to echo this formula: authors and designers are taking the same "fantasy ingredients" and attempt to produce a "winning dish" (i.e. something that sells well) by "cooking" them up in different ways. Which elements exactly? Something like fighters, wizards, elves, dwarves, hobbits, monsters, treasure, good, and evil. Often thieves and cleric-ish types, too.

Now, I loves me my Tolkien: his work is inspiring, his writing often beautiful, and his world (and language) building pretty off-the-chart. But while his stuff is mythic in scope and I enjoy reading it, I can't say it's my favorite fantasy. Middle Earth isn't even the kind of fantasy world I'd want to play in or a base a campaign off.

Still, some authors dig Tolkien enough to throw their own "spin" at his epic (Brooks, Donaldson, Jordon...I'm looking at you) and there's no doubt his world has left an impression that's hard to escape. But Tolkien emulators aside, is there a point we reach when we stop liking the taste of the ingredients, no matter how well or original the manner in which they're cooked?

Maybe it's a silly question. For the author or game designer, there's something about the challenge of working with familiar elements that gets our juices flowing. And there's been some great art created from these elements: I look at Wendy Pini's "space elves," or Bakshi's Wizards, or even David Chandler's Ancient Blades trilogy (which, to my eyes is clearly inspired by B/X Dungeons & Dragons). Even the television show Game of Thrones is a ton of fun and offers yet another take on elves and monsters and gold acquisition (I find Martin's books to be a bit less fun).

But, silly question or not, I think it's worth asking: is it sustainable? Giving the fantasy critters guns and bionic implants worked for Shadowrun. Blowing up the fantasy world and making the hobbits cannibals and the dwarves into gladiators worked (somewhat) for Dark Sun. But there are more than a few games and game settings that the fantasy ingredients didn't work for. I'd be interested in seeing the financials for Al-Qadim...there's been no release of AQ material (as far as I know) since it was published with 2nd edition AD&D, and there was quite a bit of material written for it in the TSR days (material that could easily be swiped and re-purposed, as WotC likes to do).

Still without elves
...or audience!
On the other hand fantasy games that don't include these familiar ingredients simply haven't found the same level of popularity. Tekumel and Talislanta have their niche market, but it's a small niche; I would guess that the folks currently running an "old school" D&D campaign probably outnumber the total number of players who have ever run a game in M.A.R. Barker's world, but what I know is that it's really hard to find ANY blogs about Talislanta on Ye Old Internet. People may be playing fantasy with "no elves," but they sure aren't talking much about it.

Yes, yes...I realize there are more kinds of "fantasy" than just the sword-swinging type. I've been reading a lot of Scooby Apocalypse lately (more on that later), and awesome fantasy that it is, there's nary a sword to be seen. But what I'm most interested in, gaming-wise (which is kind of the point of this post...and this blog) is the sword-swinging brand of fantasy...and you just don't see all that much of that kind of thing without some sort of pointy eared, elfin-types running around.

[yes, Shadowrun has swords, too...magic swords even]

I guess I'm just wondering this morning (as I scratch around for something to write about besides tieflings...again), does the inclusion of Tolkien elements automatically make something "knockoff fantasy?" If it's a game that includes these elements is it basically just a re-imagined form of D&D (and thus, a form of fantasy heartbreaker)? And does it matter? Should it matter?

Maybe it doesn't; maybe there are more important things to be concerned about. I was wandering around the internet today (looking for ANY kind of Talislanta stuff), and I accidentally fell down the "Alt-Right rabbit hole" of blogging, SciFi, and gaming. Wow, So much fucking awful. I'd rather spend any amount of time with tiefling/dragonborn-loving players then spend an hour in a room with those folks. Box of stupid indeed! I know atheists who are doing God's will on this planet better than these "Christians" (making a kinder, gentler, more compassionate world). What a pile of anger and hatred...a steaming, stinking pile.  Fuck...that...noise.


ANYhoo, my daughter has a playdate with her friend today (the daughter of my son's First Communion teacher), so I've got some vacuuming and straightening up to do; their plan is to play "pirates" ...we don't have any Barbie stuff in my house...and I need to make sure they've got all their cutlasses and costumes ready to go. I'll try to write something more useful later today, though I can't guarantee it won't be about tieflings.
; )

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Tiefling Sorcerer: New B/X Class

[funny story; I had every intention of writing a post about the Drow -- don't ask -- and instead I ended up reading up on the whole damn tiefling species. To be blunt, the idea of a devil-blooded line of humanity only makes sense in an astral plane-hopping setting, and one that doesn't take itself too seriously (something akin to the late Robert Asprin's humorous MythAdventures fantasy series, for example). Looking back at the origin of the tieflings, I do see that they first appeared as part of the Planescape campaign setting, and that jives, but they take themselves O SO SERIOUS in a way that tries to copy the pseudo-edginess of early 90's World of Darkness. And why would they not? Planescape was published in 1994, and probably wanted to cash in on some of that angsty role-playing vibe.

[however, the "morph" that occurs between 3rd and 4th edition, making the tiefling a part of the Core character classes, is Not Good and I can only see it as having been directly influenced by the World of Warcraft, a popular MMORPG whose influence is all over 4E. Even the new look of the tiefling species in 4E (since carried over to 5E) directly apes the draenei character race of WoW, while keeping the blood elf character template's wardrobe and style sense. Is this any wonder when both the draenei and blood elf were released as a WoW expansion pack in January 2007 (WotC first announced the development of 4th edition D&D in August of that same year)? Is their any chance that the 4E brain trust looked at financial returns from the uber-successful WoW and said, hey, we need to put something like THAT in the new edition? Maybe? Regardless, the race has been part of the "core races" ever since, and has gone from a character who might have a single infernal stigmata (or even NONE!) to an obviously inhuman creature with fucking horns and flexible tail and pupil-less eyes. 

[oh, yeah...and so in writing this up for folks who want tieflings in their B/X game, I have to admit I really don't know how you'd use it. I mean, the idea that there are just small pockets of infernal-descended creatures hanging out in human towns (on the Prime Plane) is just so utterly ridiculous. It's a box of stupid. I can only imagine it working in some sort of gothic-horror fantasy world, where vampires, werewolves, and necromancers are accepted parts of society. Something like planet Nostramo (home of Primarch Batman) in WH40K, or some other world where "it's always twilight and/or foggy" (Ravenloft?). Still, I'm sure someone will figure out a way to do it. I mean, why not, right?]



Tieflings are demihumans whose distant ancestors consorted with demons, devils, or similar creatures from the nether planes. Though they appear outwardly human, all tieflings bear some physical mark of their infernal ancestry: small horns, a vestigial tail, a cloven hoof, or oddly colored eyes, perhaps. Lawful creatures feel uncomfortable in their presence. Tieflings tend to be sneaky and underhanded; the world never gave them a fair shake so why should they return the favor? They are innately magical although their sorcery (described below) is different from that of a magic-user or elf. A tiefling's prime requisite is Intelligence; they earn a +5% bonus to experience points if their Intelligence is 13-15, and a +10% bonus if it is 16 or better.

RESTRICTIONS: Tieflings use four-sided dice (d4) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 13th level of experience. Tieflings may wear leather armor, but do not use shields. Because of their slight build, they may wield only one-handed melee weapon and cannot use long bows. Tieflings use the same attack and saving throw tables as a thief of the same level. A tiefling character must have a minimum Charisma score of 9.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Because of their infernal nature, tieflings have fire resistance (like the magic ring). Lawful characters are distinctly uneasy around tieflings, and reaction rolls with lawful NPCs are always made with a -2 penalty. They have infravision like elves and dwarves, allowing them to see 60 feet in the dark.

All tieflings are innately magical, automatically learning spells as shown on their advancement chart; these spells are chosen from the same list as magic-users. Unlike magic-users, tieflings need not memorize their spells; they draw their power from their own infernal nature and their sorcery is limited only by what their life-force allows, as determined by their level of experience. For example: a 5th level tiefling knows only seven spells, but may cast up to ten spells per day (a maximum of four 1st level spells, four 2nd level spells, and two 3rd level spells). Tiefling sorcery is powerful, but they lack the versatility of a magic-user.

Tieflings are solitary wanderers by nature. They never build strongholds or establish dominions, and they do not have clans like other demihuman characters.

Spells Cast Per Day
LevelExp. PointsHit DiceSpells Known123456
* Constitution adjustments no longer apply.

***EDIT: Had to change the table color because it wasn't showing up on the mobile device.***

Monday, February 25, 2019

Converting 5E to B/X

[this one is for Lord Gwydion]

Back in December, I wrote a post about introducing B/X (or older edition play in general) to new players. The thoughts I expressed were with an eye towards starting a new B/X campaign. One thing I hadn't considered at the time is that folks might be looking to convert an existing, late-edition campaign, not just their players, to a better (easier) rule system.

That's exactly what Mr. Laffey (Lord Gwyd) had in mind: converting his existing 5E game to Labyrinth Lord (a well-known retroclone of B/X). Only now, he's having some "second thoughts" on the matter.

Man. Where to start?

I've run many editions of D&D...six in all (I think) not counting retroclones. But I'm not sure I've ever converted campaigns between systems. Characters, sure...I converted my original (B/X) characters to AD&D, and I converted some "historic" AD&D characters to both BECMI and 3rd Edition to act as NPCs. Hell, I once ran a Marvel Superheroes campaign that converted a couple AD&D characters (that was pretty wild...) and I did have another group of characters that had a brief stint in Boot Hill (courtesy of the conversion rules in my old DMG and a plane-jumping artifact).

But I've never taken a long-running campaign and said, "hey, let's keep this thing going...just using a different, wildly dissimilar system." At least, not that I remember (it's possible I've forgotten something in the last 35 years). Usually, when we decided to run a new system, we'd create a new campaign to go with it; that was always part of the enticement of a new system, after all: exploring the bells and whistles. Seeing what kind of new characters we could make with the new, interesting system. If we were converting favorite characters, seeing just how they'd look, or how they might be modeled.

In those situations, however (converting existing characters), it was always a matter of converting forward, i.e. converting characters to a later, revised edition. And often (if not always) that meant converting to a game with MORE complications, more rules...not less.

'What do you mean, JB? BECMI isn't "more complex" than AD&D!' AD&D is plenty fiddly, but early 1E doesn't have nearly as many character options as RC/ least, not if you're using weapon mastery and "general skills" found in the Rules Cyclopedia and Gazeteers. Not if you're converting high level characters and fiddling with the "proto-prestige classes" found in Mentzer's Companion set. With regard to character customization, BECMI has a lot more to offer a player than straight, unmodified AD&D. Later AD&D books (the Dungeoneer and Wilderness Survival Guides, for example) offered their own no-weapon proficiencies, but AD&D weapon mastery never reached the level of granularity found in Mentzer. I saw 5th and 6th level BECMI characters sporting tremendous attack bonuses and special effects with their chosen weapons.

ANYway...converting backwards isn't something I've had much opportunity to do. None, really. And considering some of my characters (my 3rd edition duelist, my wild elf "fighter-barbarian" with his two-fisted hand axes of death), I can't see how I could get nearly the same "oomph" in a system that had less character customization. Not without adding whole swaths of house rules.

But if a player in an existing campaign is really married to the kewl powers that come with their customizable character, are they really going to be satisfied with stepping into a simpler game? I suppose it depends on the player but, man, I don't know.

Here are my thoughts: converting an existing campaign from 5E to B/X (or its equivalent) is a pretty easy step for a DM. Heck, most of the nuts-n-bolts of the system are a snap, yet you still have plenty of stuff that's recognizable from your 5E game, mainly because the bulk of 5E "content" (monsters, treasure, magic spells) has been converted directly from earlier editions. The only real problem is one of converting existing player characters (unless you have super-special-snowflake NPCs you want to convert), and that's all dependent on the attitude of the player. In my opinion, you've got four categories in this regard:

#1 Old School Enthusiast: this is the player who WANTS to play something like B/X or LL or OD&D, for whatever reason. This girl (or guy) is ready to saw off all the feats and skill checks and has no problem ditching their dragonborn warlock-battlemage-whatever for a "dwarf" or "thief." issues, just give 'em the closest equivalent.

#2 I Hate Old School: this is the person who has experience with older editions and is playing 5E precisely because she (or he) wants the stuff 5E has that B/X (or whatever) can't provide. You can't please all the people all the time. If you, the DM, really wants to convert your campaign/system, you're going to have to resign yourself to the loss of these folks.

#3 No Great Loss: this is a player who's so new to the game, that "starting over" isn't all that big a deal. Their character is first or second level, and there's no deep attachment that's been formed. So long as they have no deep-seated resentment or preexisting dislike, conversion to a simpler system should be fairly painless.

#4 Can I Keep My Feats?: lastly, you've got the player who's not dead-set against the conversion, but who has played for a while in the "new school" and gotten used to a certain level of effectiveness in granularity in their character and doesn't want to lose that. They're willing to play a different system; heck, they might be wanting to play a different system. But they also want assurances that the conversion won't cost them much...and they've got more than a little to lose.

It's only players of the fourth type that require much work on the part of the DM (always assuming you're willing to compromise your conversion tastes to retain those players). Here's how it goes down:

First, explain that the system isn't just changing for the's changing for the world/NPCs as well. A character's AC, hit points, or attack bonus might be reduced from what the player's used to, but so are the combat stats of the monsters.

Second, explain it's a slightly different type of game. Magic is somewhat scarcer (wizards don't just throw "lasers at will," for example). The challenges players face will be somewhat different and there will be a period of adjustment. DMs will need to be on their game (i.e work doubly hard), especially for the first few sessions as they "break in" the players to the new way of gaming. Done right, you can convert the player from a #4 to a #1. Done wrong, the player will end up a #2 looking for someone else's table.

Finally, the house rules. Create and implement only as much as you need to give the player the equivalent of what they had in their 5E existence. Don't go overboard, but don't skimp, and never worry about all the things they didn't have (i.e. abilities that would have been gained at higher levels in the original system). For example:

A) One of Dennis's players has a 5th level elven fighter-battlemaster-archer. Mechanically (which is all I give a shit about) elves are nothing fancy; everything here is modeled fine with the elf class of B/X. The crazy-ass fighter class is a little trickier: first an "elf" in B/X (or straight Labyrinth Lord) is a fighter/magic-user...which this character isn't. Second, the "archer" designation gives the character a +2 bonus to attack rolls with any ranged weapon (hello, Ultimate Hawkeye). Third, the "battle master" designation (gained at 3rd level) makes her a kind of zen master of combat...mostly color, but she gets four "superiority dice" that can be expended to use any one of three special "maneuvers" she knows. Maneuvers are basically just fighter spells: she knows three and learns more at higher levels; she can cast four per day and learns more at higher levels.

[these are kind of stupid, in my opinion. If a fighter knows how to "disarm and opponent" or "feint" or "lunge," why is she limited in the number of times per day she can perform the action. This is the kind of bullshit this is left over from 4th edition and its "at will/encounter/daily" video game garbage. Even 3E wasn't so stingy with feats]

A 5th level elf gets five spells per day. The easy fix here is ask the character to make a straight elf and give her spells the equivalent of her maneuvers. B/X elves can, of course, engage in spell research at any time, so it's not an issue of her "learning weird spells." Regarding the bow thing: allow her to keep the +2 attack bonus (as a zen archer or whatever) but require the use of her bow as a focus for her magic (i.e. she can't cast her "spells" without it). The player gets to keep her mechanical bonuses AND her special archery color/style, and the re-skin isn't too far astray. I would NOT give the character any type of magic item that mimics the ability of the 5E character, as such a thing can be passed on, picked up by another character, etc. and the whole magic archer deal is this character's thing. It only works for her (or a similar archer).

B) Another character in Dennis's campaign is a 5th level human "war priest," a concept that I love (I've played a "war priest" in B/X's called a cleric with a high strength). This cleric uses a flaming sword (a bonus of his war "domain").

Clerics in 5E are all screwed up, having carried over all sorts of bullshit from back in the Defenders of the Faith splatbook days. They are also packing serious spell power: a 5th level cleric in B/X has four spells compared to 13 in 5th edition (including access to such spells as animate dead, create food and water, and revivify...a lightweight raise dead). But they only get to turn undead once per day (?!) unless they want to "channel their divinity" into a +10 attack (war priests only).

Here's a situation where the DM and the player have to have a sit-down talk about personal expectations in comparison to the cosmology of the campaign world. What is it the player wants? What's the priority here and where is the compromise? I hear "war priest" and I think "player who wants to kick ass and throw a couple spells around (in support of kicking ass)."

Give the player this: you can use edged weapons (like your flaming sword), but you can't turn undead. That's the price you pay for following the god of war. Be honest: you weren't going to use your one "channel divinity" per day to turn undead were going to thump someone with it. Well, there's no spell equivalent of guided strike in B/X, but there is the 3rd level spell striking, which gives you an extra D6 damage (double damage for a cleric) for ten minutes (rather than a single attack)...and if you use Labyrinth Lord (instead of B/X), you can get that spell as a 5th level (as well as another 5-9 spells depending on your Wisdom score). And in LL, the number of striking spells you have access to will be much higher than the number of guided strikes in 5E. Just saying.

C) The final problem character is a tiefling sorcerer. Technically, he's a type #2 who preferred Pathfinder to 5E. For him, it's not about an accurate re-skin...he prefers a more complex system. But let's pretend (for the sake of this exercise) that he doesn't and it's really just about his character.

For me, rather than tweaking a spell list (as with example A) or a class (as with example B) I'd go ahead and create a whole new class...assuming I could stand to have such a species in my campaign. I'll make no bones about it: I'm not a fan of the tiefling. As a matter of fact, I'm not a fan of the sorcerer class either. So I'd create a single, unique class ("the tiefling sorcerer") that would be available for this single player. Oh, it wouldn't be that hard: sorcerers only use arcane (magic-user) spells after all. Fire resistance and some dumbshit magic...okay. Maybe a reaction penalty when dealing with lawful-types (because of the character's "infernal" origins). Give the character a couple more spells per day than a magic-user of the same level, but limit the total number known (duh). Apply 5E metamagic already learned in class specific fashion (with no new metamagic on the horizon). I would probably allow the character to use any weapon he'd already used (crossbows and such), but no more. I'd also probably drop hit dice to D4s and put 'em equivalent to magic-users. Probably.

This would be the only character of this type allowed into my "grandfathered in" to preserve continuity. If (when?) the character die "the final death" I wouldn't necessarily allow another one to be created: maybe the gateway to the infernal realm has been closed, maybe Satan (or his fantasy equivalent) has come calling for the (souls? life-force?) of all mortal infernals and they're only present as NPCs...whatever. It was a one-time, one-shot deal...unless, of course, I found the character to be sufficiently wonderful that I wanted to keep seeing them show up in my game world.

[I've done this in the past, just by the way: gave into a player's request for some nutty addition to the game. Had a player who wanted a (male) Drow magic-user/assassin with non-standard psionics, specifically pyrokinesis powers. Actually, come to think of it, he might have simply been a Drow assassin that masqueraded as a magic-user using his pyrokinetic abilities as a cover (i.e. pretending to cast spells). It wasn't a bad ride: we figured out a way to "level up" his abilities over time, and it wasn't a gross travesty considering the campaign at the time and the fact that the character was usually used in side (solo) adventures. But it was a one-shot deal that was never repeated. I don't even have any written rules or records of the character in my old files (as far as I know)]

Of course, there are inherent dangers here, though "accidentally allowing a game-breaking class" isn't really one of them (DMs have many ways to remove problematic characters...and players!). But D&D as a game is written in a particular's designed to function with a particular array of class options. And the main danger is: once you allow one unique character into your campaign world, you run the risk of MORE being requested, both by the player who originally craved such a character and other players at the table.

In my own games, this never became an issue. Usually only one of these "unique" characters would show up at a time, and no player ever ran more than one. The guy with the pyrokinetic? His other characters were a bog-standard magic-user and an elven thief (not even multiclassed), with a couple dips into other standards (an illusionist, for example). I played a 1E bard, so my character was already weird enough...I never felt the need to have a lizard man shaman or centaur mountebank or whatever. But I digress...the point is, you (the DM) can lay down rules and limits for this kind of thing, while still allowing PCs to have their "weirdness for a day." It just depends on how much work you're willing to do.

Fortunately, with a game like B/X (or Labyrinth Lord), most of the work is pretty easy.
; )

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Turning the Page

Upon a second (or third) re-reading, I'm not really happy with yesterday's post on class. It's just not very constructive (IMO) to spend a bunch of time writing (close to 3000 words!) only to come to the conclusion, "yeah different people like a different number of classes." Judging from the comments (both on the post and elsewhere) that seems to be the main takeaway.

Not especially helpful (though it was fun to reminisce about my old AD&D campaigns).

Why did I start blogging about classes anyway? Oh, yeah...superhero games. Well, it sure as shit doesn't help that cause: I'm definitely NOT going to be writing up 40 (or even 20) different supers archetypes...hell, I'm hard-pressed to even think of 7 to 10. Okay, maybe not "hard-pressed," I said, not a helpful exercise. More meandering mental masturbation.

Let's turn the page, shall we?

Here's a mental palette cleanser (apropos of nothing): has anyone considered...or run a Scooby-Doo style mystery game using the Call of Cthulhu rules? I think it would be pretty darn easy to do with very little modification. Stuff that initially jumps out at me are things like being able to regain sanity by eating Scooby Snax and eliminating actual death from the game (probably eliminate "hit points" altogether and just use the Sanity pool for both mental wellbeing and physical endurance...tired/injured characters are more likely to faint, breakdown, or run scared). If I have the time later,  I might type up a one-sheet rules mod for download (it would be for use with 5th edition CoC, since that's the only version I own at the moment). I dig on old Lovecraft stories, but I've never thought they made great grist for an RPG (I prefer my horror investigations to look more like BTS). A Scooby-style Cthulhu game (similar to the Mystery Incorporated series) sounds more fun.

Eat hot lead, star spawn!
[I'm not knocking or mocking standard CoC play, just by the way...I know plenty of people dig sitting around scaring themselves in shadowy rooms with mood-induced play. These days, though, I'm often thinking of games my kids would like and my youngest gets scared just watching Goosebumps. Bringing a little "wa-hoo" to the table provides more player agency than Cthulhu's tentacles usually allow]

All right...palette cleansed?

I don't often write about other designers and one guy I've completely failed to mention over my years of blogging is a dude by the name of Aaron Allston (1960-2014), mainly because I didn't associate his name with any particular product (good or bad, I'm just not one of those people that follow particular designers any more than I follow particular artists or writers when selecting comic books for purchase). A couple-three months back I picked up a PDF of Allston's Strike Force based on a number of positive reviews I'd read. Although Strike Force is written specifically for Champions (a game I don't play) several people touted the book as having good advice applicable to ANY supers game. As my particular supers game of choice (Heroes Unlimited) is a little light on "good advice," I figured the PDF couldn't be a terrible investment.

[and it's not]

Skip forward to a couple-four weeks ago when I was getting back to finishing up a couple writing projects in the hope of (maybe, finally) publishing a "for money" book (my last was in 2013!). Anyway, one of these...a B/X supplement first started back in Paraguay (I think)...would really like to have an example "setting" to go with it. And me being the lazy guy that I am, I thought I might file off the serial numbers of the original B/X setting: Karameikos. Imagine my surprise and amazement when I dusted off my very old copy of GAZ1 and found Allston's name on the cover! The guy was writing for BECMI?! I thought he was a Champions writer!

Oh, my.

Turns out, I'm an idiot. Not only did Allston pen several of the old Gazeteers (especially some I loved, like Thyatis/Alphatia), he is credited with putting together both the Rules Cyclopedia and the Wrath of Immortals "re-write" of Mentzer's Immortal rules...two volumes that I made great use of back in the early 2000s ('round about the time I chucked 3E to the curb). Wow. I feel pretty darn stupid for not paying more attention to a guy who was responsible for a large chunk of my (adult) gaming life. Ugh...I should know this stuff!

Notice: Allston's name
is NOT on the cover.
But I I was reading through my old Gazeteers and waxing nostalgic (ah, I love and hate thee at the same time...) I started doing a deep dive into Karameikos. And I found myself thinking there're the makings for a fairly good campaign setting here. Not as written, mind you: it's far too sanitized and cloying in only the way BECMI can be (even 2nd Edition wasn't this wholesome and "family friendly"). But there's the skeleton of something here that could be easily re-purposed to MY purposes...B/X purposes, baby!

SO, I conceived of a possible post (or series of posts) about how I'd like to revisit and reimagine the Grand Duchy of Karameikos for my own amusement. Even went so far as to starting a draft post which, per blogger, was around the 18th...of January. Since then I've had birthdays and illnesses and snow days and a whole lot of busy-busy going on. But I'm ready now, baby...ready to get back to it. That's my plan for the upcoming few days as I try to shake the dust from this "class" dust-up off my train.

Well, right after I finish my Call of Scoobthulu write-up.
; )

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Class Proliferation

Just continuing from where we left off...

First off, let me say that, aside from the reasons I noted in my previous post, there's no special reason you need to have a "class system" in your role-playing game. Traveller doesn't need a class system. Neither does Pendragon or original Gamma World. There are some systems like Vampire the Masquerade that actually confuse their own design purposes by including a class system (see "clan"), though VtM does demonstrate yet another reason class systems are expedient: they limit what might otherwise be a baffling number of choices/options to a manageable number.

[I hear some folks might saying, HEY! Gamma World has classes: humanoids, mutant animals, and pure strain humans! To be clear, original GW only offers two choices: a PC with mutations or a PC without. If you choose the latter, you get some bennies when it comes to interacting with ancient technology. I don't see a "class" distinction when there's no real, mechanical difference between choices]

I'm not a stupid man (usually), but I just don't have the patience to wade through some of the character creation systems out there. I've played FATE games on multiple occasions (at conventions) and had a good time using "lite" streamlined chargen (once) or pregen characters. I own a couple-three FATE games. But I haven't run them...haven't even finished reading the rules. My eyes just start to glaze over when I start skimming the aspects and stunts and skill lists (skills! why are there always skills!). I have a much easier time managing a "light" class-less system (say Over The Edge) than something so robust...I don't want to "build" a game with a toolbox, I want to PLAY.

It may simply be that Dungeons & Dragons spoiled me a long time ago. The expedience of its class system with its distinct, recognizable archetypes just proves to be such a useful working template for fantasy adventure games that it's hard to get away from it...whenever I pick up an RPG that has  "quick-start" characters or archetypes (like Hollow Earth Expedition or Shadowrun or Deadlands), I always find myself asking 'Why didn't they just make this a class-based system? Wouldn't that have been easier?'

However, it's not always wine and roses in the world of classes. Class proliferation, the expansion of the choice list to fill an ever greater number of niche interests, can eventually lead to wrecking the joint...especially in games where the classes cease to be recognizable and/or the distinctions get muddied or outright buried. Palladium's RIFTS is probably "Exhibit A" for class proliferation leading to a loss of expedience due to proliferation: the original core book contains 28 distinct classes (or more if you count each "dragon RCC" separately) and each supplemental "World" or "Dimension"  sourcebook (more than 50 of which exist) add another half-dozen...or more! classes to the mix, many of which are no more than slight variations of others. Do you really need to include six variations of the juicer? For that matter, do you really need juicers and crazies and borgs? Aren't they all just enhanced/altered fighters with different downsides?

In the world of Dungeons & Dragons, class proliferation isn't nearly as extreme, but it IS present, and has been for decades. The original Little Brown Books had only three classes in 1974, increasing to five with the release of Greyhawk (1975), seven with Blackmoor (later in 1975), and nine (including the psionic variation which "drained" existing class abilities in exchange for psionic ones) with Eldritch Wizardry in 1976. That's nine classes if you're not counting each multi-class or race-class combo separately. By 1978 the AD&D Players Handbook had eleven classes available to players, with a character's race providing only slight variation (though many-many multi-class options).

While this was only officially increased to fourteen with the advent of Unearthed Arcana in 1985, the time between 1978 and 1985 saw the appearance of a number of classes in Dragon magazine, many of which were used in peoples' home campaigns (we used at least two or three, and I'm sure we would have included anti-paladins, if we'd had that copy of Dragon).

So how many classes do you really need? How many classes are "too many?"

It's pretty clear that most folks feel you need more than three (unless the capabilities of those three are so minimal in distinction that a race variation can make one feel "heavily modified;" see OD&D). But is 4th edition's 22 (spread across three PHBs), each possessing four "paragon" options (4E's equivalent of "prestige classes") that become accessible at 11th level, too many? I would certainly say, "yes," but it's possible I'm in the minority.

Classes (and class-race combos) are certainly something that can be tailored for each individual's campaign; in fact, in some games (like Rifts) I'm not sure a campaign can really function without a strong editing hand. But what a particular gaming group can stand with regard to class quantity is up for debate.

Back in D&D's "primordial ooze" days, new classes (and class options) were added in dribs and drabs until a saturation point was reached round about 1979. My evidence for this? The very unscientific fact that TSR was happy to stand pat with its "official" class list till 1985. While I realize that other things were keeping the company's main designers busy (lawsuits and finding new ways to spend their wealth), I have to think that if there'd been a real clamoring for new classes, the company would have found some way to put out a new or updated or modified PHB; heck, just a "revised edition" that included a handful of extra pages.

[by the way, this falls into the "more evidence" drawer when it comes to my idea that subsequent editions are written MAINLY for returning, experienced players. Once you've added a bunch of classes over time, veteran players come to a new edition with an EXPECTATION of being able to play with their favorite shiny bauble. It's why there's so little "pruning" that occurs between editions, despite the fact that a dozen plus classes is probably excessive for a new player]

So what, JB? Having classes is fun! Having more classes just means more options which means more fun! You just said that groups are going to vary in opinion over "how many is too many."

That's right; I did say that. I said that limits are going to vary depending on groups...but there reaches a point, with ALL campaigns, when the proliferation of classes is going to be too many. When the number of class options is so many that game play is no longer expedited. That number may vary from table to table, but each table has a number. And I think that knowing that number...or, rather, finding that number...can be useful.

I've delved into this a little bit in the past when I was reminiscing over the gaming group of my youth. While it lasted only seven or eight years, it represented a substantial investment of time (in hours spent) back before my friends and I had much in the way of responsibilities or distractions. I would estimate that we spent at least three times as much time on Dungeons & Dragons as on ANY year I've spent regularly playing as an adult, the equivalent of a 20+ year (adult) campaign. Which is about right for the power level we were often playing at.

[to be clear, we ran...roughly...three full campaigns during this time period, taking characters from 1st level up to (what would be) a retirement-worthy high level]

Most of this was played with 1st edition AD&D; our group disbanded shortly before 2nd edition was released. Including the Unearthed Arcana (we never used Oriental Adventures), here's our breakdown of classes:

Cavalier (subclass: Paladin): never used. Never ever ever. It wasn't that they weren't cool, or that we couldn't roll up characters with high enough ability scores. No one wanted to be strait-jacketed by their codes and alignment restrictions. Plus, what good is a horse in a dungeon?

Cleric (subclass: Druid): we saw several clerics over the years, though the first PC cleric did not appear until we picked up the Expert set (circa 1982) and the followers that came with high levels outweighed the lack of "oomph" at low levels. My friend Matt's longest running PC was a cleric of Athena. A visiting player brought his high level cleric to one of our game sessions (another cleric of Athena? Maybe). There were also two Drow clerics of Lloth at later points (one male, one female, both played by different players at different times); one of these (female) was multi-classed. We never had a PC druid (I rolled one up, a female half-elf with the oh-so-original name "Galadriel;" she never saw play time). One half-elf "converted" (mechanically and religiously) to a cleric of Artemis. There was also one "healer" PC, based on the NPC class published in Dragon magazine; "Fr. Cornelius" was Chaotic Evil and insane and lasted all of one session before being castrated and left for dead by his fellow party members.

Fighter (subclass: Ranger, Barbarian): my co-DM (Jocelyn) 's second oldest PC was a straight B/X fighter, and probably the most badass character to ever roam our campaign; she deserves her own post. My brother played a dwarf fighter/thief; another player (Crystal) played a 6'3" female human fighter fighter who sported about 50 weapons including a man-catcher ("to catch me a man") and exceptional (%) strength. My brother played a barbarian also ("Bork") who was killed at least once in an intra-party feud. There were a couple 1E bards who started in the ranger class (one was mine) but we never had any dedicated rangers. One of the earliest character sheets I still have stashed is a level one elf (B/X) named "Silver Fox;" no idea whose it was. Jocelyn's oldest character was a 1st level (B/X) halfling that I gave her when she randomly showed up to the first adventure I ever ran and needed a is the only "halfling fighter" I remember anyone ever playing back in the day. Matt also ran a half-elf "archer," though I can't remember if this was taken from Bard Games' The Compleat Adventurer, a Dragon magazine, or was some kit-bashed combination.

Magic-User (subclass: Illusionist): quite a few of these, though most were played by one guy (Scott); his longest running PC was a straight MU named "Lucky Drake" (later "Lucius Draco"). He also ran an illusionist (who adventured through D1: Descent to the Depths of the Earth), and a (male) Drow magic-user/assassin with house-ruled pyrokinetic (psionic) ability. Also seen: a half-elven fighter/magic-user and a female (wild?) elven magic-user with red hair and a penchant for fire/arson. Now that I think of it, fire and arson were fairly common proclivities of magic-users in our games. Not Lucky, though...he was a strict lightning bolt type of mage.

Thief (subclass: Acrobat, Assassin): quite a few of ALL of these. Jason's longest running PC was a thief, grandfathered into AD&D from B/X. Matt had an assassin. Scott had the aforementioned magic-user/assassin. After the UA's release, most thieves (at least three, maybe four) chose to become thief-acrobats upon reaching 6th level (two bards did). In one campaign, my bard took assassin as his second class (instead of, this was not the guy who started as a ranger). My brother's halfling thief-acrobat was the kind of douchebag only an annoying younger brother can run. A couple of (prominent) halfling thief henchmen/NPCs. Scott ran a female half-elf thief who was brutalized and killed by a tribe of bullywugs (I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City) in what may have been the lowest point of our many year campaign...a campaign that had MANY low points (see Matt's healer character above).

Monk: I created a monk character with the name "Soft Treader" (because I suck, okay?) who wore a cape with a hood that looked a bit like Moon Knight (not really an inspiration) and, as far as I remember never used his hand-to-hand attacks; had a crossbow and "jo sticks" instead and made it to about 2nd level before being abandoned (or killed...I honestly don't remember). Pretty sure he was Lawful Neutral, which didn't fit in all that great with the (usually Chaotic) party we were running.

Bard: three of these, though one (mine) really had three iterations across the years: first as a fighter-thief-bard, then as a ranger-acrobat-bard, and finally as a fighter-assassin-bard. The other two were both female; one (another half-elf ranger-acrobat) was a prominent NPC. The other was a crazy-ass mix of storm giant/human/elf that (I think) was of the "standard" fighter-thief variety...albeit one with a bunch of crazy air elemental type powers (this was NOT my character; another long post).

A few years after this group disbanded, I did have the opportunity to run a short (maybe three month?) AD&D campaign for my brother and some friends. They were in high school at the time and were tired of me maiming their PCs with Chaosium game systems (ElfQuest, Stormbringer, etc.). The group consisted of a fighter, a couple clerics, and an evil magic-user or two. Oh, and another (1E) bard who was sacrificed pretty early on in order to power The Machine of Lum the Mad. Since that time, I've really only run/played BECMI or B/ least as far as anything resembling a "campaign."

So what's the breakdown? How many different classes are we talking? Well, that's really only about EIGHT classes, plus multi-class combos and racial variation. I mean, the monk? I can hardly call a class played in one or two sessions by a single player (probably one just "trying out" the new rules) as really viable class. Other than the thief, most single-class characters were a "main" class: fighter, cleric, or magic-user. Subclasses were something to be shoehorned into a multi-class character (or bard) or left for NPCs. The thief subclasses were the exception for us, and I'd guess this was due mostly to them all being "thief PLUS" type classes: they had all the abilities of a thief, plus extra abilities. And UN-like other subclasses (paladins, rangers, barbarians, etc.) there were no behavioral restrictions mandated by their class. Any rule that restricted us with regard to who we could loot and what we could carry (treasure-wise) was enough to render classes undesirable and untouchable.

Getting crowded in here...
If we had played without behavior restrictions, would we have made use of more classes? Possibly. Certainly the cavalier's "boost ability score over time" looks like the kind of tasty exploit we would have lapped up. But it's hard to say: the original four B/X classes (fighter, magic-user, cleric, and thief) were so straightforward in how they worked. A class like illusionist seemed pretty easy to add, because it was (mainly) just about swapping out the spell list. And you can do a LOT with four classes, a handful of races, and an ability to combine the two (or more) elements.

Which, unfortunately, doesn't really answer my question.

I just want to add a couple-three more thoughts (as I wrap up an already-too-long post): one is that my remembering of my old campaigns' classes is probably not accounting how much of our enthusiasm or affinity for a particular class was due to level restrictions. No one played dwarves (for example) because they max level was capped in all but the thief class (and who wanted to play a dwarf thief? He can't even climb walls!). This was a major consideration for us "back in the day."

Secondly, regarding 3rd edition (and 3.5 and, by extension, Pathfinder): I've played this brand of D&D and despite it only having only 11 "core classes" (we won't count the later "Complete" line of 3.5 that added at least 12 additional "core classes" to the mix), it was TOO MANY for my taste, simply because of the lack of restriction in combination. I suppose there's nothing "wrong" with a gnome or half-orc some ways, that's a nice option to have, an example of "outside-the-box" thinking, casting against type, etc. But there IS something about allowing (for example) ANY race to become a paladin, or a monk, or whatever that makes a class that once felt special and privileged to be "less special." And the open-ended multi-classing? That defeats the whole purpose (and advantages) of having a class-based system; instead you're doing a class-less system, just not one as robust as other "point-buy" RPGs (like GURPS).

In the original AD&D PHB, there were a total of 56 race-class combinations available to player characters (58 in games that allowed the human and half-elf bard options). 22 of these were specific, demihuman multi-classes, almost all of which were composed of primary classes (not subclasses). 50 is probably more than one will see in a long-running game (mine used less than half this number, and we enjoyed trying out new things and tinkering)...but I can see wanting to have 150% to 200% more available than what one would expect to find over the life of a campaign. For me, based on my past experience, 40 would feel like a pretty safe maximum.

Besides, I could always add more if some player really REALLY wanted to have something unusual (a half-giant pyrokinetic archer, for example).
; )

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Fall of Gondolin

I have three fat hardcovers sitting on my nightstand ("bedside table") at the moment: The New Urban Crisis (by Richard Florida), Crude Volatility (by Robert McNally), and The Fall of Gondolin (Tolkien, compiled and edited by his son Chris). Two of these were procured from my public library, the third was purchased new from the local Barnes and Noble.

Guess which one I chose to own.

I've been wanting to write a post for a while about fallen "lost kingdoms" in the fantasy setting...not only the ubiquitousness of the trope (going all the way back to Plato's Atlantis), but the absolute usefulness of such for your fantasy adventure game (or literature, for that matter). Having an Atlantis (or Lemuria or Numenor or Valeria or whatever) can be used to EXPLAIN so many things in your, where did these weird monsters come from, who invented magic, why are there dungeons dotting the wilderness, etc. Not only that, but with enough time having passed between the fall of the ancient empire and the "present day," there's plenty of excuse for a DM to change meanings/explanations with "new revelations," as warranted by situation and circumstance.

[plus, I have to say that I love...and am happy to steal...certain concepts that come out of these fallen empire tales. I think Martin's "Valerian steel" makes a great justification for a +2 magic blades, for example (+1 blades being of the "castle-forged" variety) and I once did a whole magic system based on MZB's Fall of Atlantis book]

But Gondolin is a little different.

I've long been fascinated with Gondolin. Really. I purchased my copy of The Silmarillion probably in the early 2000s (before I started this blog, but not long before) mainly to read about this place (Gondolin) that I'd only heard Tolkien's more famous novels (though wasn't I glad to find all the other juicy fantasy goodness therein!). I'm almost positive my first exposure to "Gondolin" as a concept was during my reading of The Hobbit (sometime in elementary school) when Elrond informs the protagonists that their swords were made in Gondolin for "the Goblin Wars" and that Glamdring had once been worn by the king of Gondolin.

And I'm sure that I probably confused Gondor with Gondolin the first time I started reading The Lord of the Rings (around middle school)...though by the time I finished the trilogy (late in high school) I managed to figure out these were two VERY different things in Middle Earth, in terms of both place and history.

The Fall of Gondolin book is new, a compilation of all the tales written of Tuor (a human transplant to the elven stronghold) and the final days of the city-state, plus commentary and history provided by Chris Tolkien. It is not a single tale, but a record of the many times Tolkien sat down and rewrote the thing. After all, it was the first of his (written) stories of "Middle Earth." For those who haven't read it, I'll provide am all-too-brief synopsis:

Tuor a pseudo-neanderthal hobo wanders the wild coastline for many years, wishing he had a boat. One day a god rises from the sea and gives him a message to deliver to Gondolin, along with an elven Sancho Panza sidekick to show him the secret entrance to the city, which is hidden inside this circle of mountains. The message: the elves of Gondolin need to stop sitting on their duffs and take the fight to Melko (later Morgoth, AKA Satan) or their city will fall. High King Turgon likes the young man but has zero intention of marching to war when he's spent centuries building up his arsenal behind the most siege-resistant city that ever existed. Tuor quickly gives up his task, partly because he prefers civilization but mostly because he's smitten with Idril, the king's daughter. Once he's shaved and groomed, she likes him, too, and they get married.

Unfortunately, there's another elf, Maeglin (cf. Iago) who's not thrilled with Tuor's arrival, and doubly irritated with his marriage into the royal family (something he hoped for himself). While wandering in the mountains, he's captured by Melko's minions and turns coat, agreeing to aid in taking the city. Melko starts kitting out his army in plans for a sneak attack.

Meanwhile, Idril has a premonition/dream that things are about to fall apart and tells Tuor that he needs to gather some loyal henchmen, dig a secret escape tunnel out of the wine cellar, and  don't tell Maeglin anything. Fortunately, Tuor is like most of us and has an easier time following directions when they come from his wife than when they come from God. When the sneak attack arrives during a city-wide holiday party he's not totally unprepared and is able to muster the city's defenses (as much as can be managed against a combined force of balrogs, metal-plated fire-wyrms, and more orcs than the world has ever seen). It's a lost cause and a lot of heroes die heroically, but Tuor is able to escape the final sack of the city...along with his wife, child, and a few hundred followers...and make it back to the safety of the wilderness. The End.

[Maeglin, in case anyone was wondering, gets thrown off a building (by Sancho, I think)]

It's a nifty little tale, both vivid and gripping, and I find it fascinating that Tolkien wrote it in 1917 while recovering from trench fever during the Great War (i.e. World War I). It was the first story he wrote of his Middle Earth "mythos," long before his children were born and he started telling them hobbit stories at bedtime. It was based in large part on his experience with a mind-shattering war, and it is the foundational piece around which he had to fit all his other later stories (the Simarils, the War of the Ring, etc.). He attempted re-writes of the thing multiple times over the course of his life, but only his first draft was ever completed...though for me, despite its flaws, it reads with the kind of mythic majesty that one only finds in the fiery inspiration that first births such creations.

[I'm not really trying to be "poetic" with that last sentence...I'm trying to sum up my feeling on the subject in a single thought. I've had similar experiences with my own writing (at times); I've known other artists who had similar experiences with their works of art...not just writing, but visual, or musical. Sometimes some raw creativity gets lost in later attempts at refinement. Perhaps that's one of the reasons that we tend to hold the works of young artistic geniuses in high esteem, as over time the fire dims and one's accomplishment shifts to longevity and quantity of output from actual, creative quality. Maybe...but I digress]

Anyway, for a D&D setting, such an event can serve some of the same purposes as any other "fallen kingdom" story. It can explain why a people (elves, in this case) are scattered and few and don't build cities or particularly large communities. It can explain why certain magic artifacts have been scattered about (looting, refugees). It can provide a large adventure-site for exploration (if you can find one of the secret ways that lead to its ruins) somewhat easier to get to than a sunken island.

For me, I also look at the tale as one with a lesson to be learned regarding good and evil. Well, maybe more of a reminder than a "lesson." It's a reminder that when there's evil in world, evil that we're aware of, we need to find the courage to confront it, rather than sit in our comfortable, protected strongholds...especially if you have the power to do so. Turgon was given a great gift in Gondolin: a place to build his city in peace and security, a place to grow his people, a place with the time and resources to equip them with the tools needed to wage war against a real force of evil in the world (Melko). And then he sat on them. And did nothing. And a god sent a messenger to tell him to get it in gear. And he still sat, comfortable and complacent and secure.

And while he did that, evil bided its time, and found a way to destroy everything Turgon had created.

Maeglin was a bad actor who helped bring down Gondolin, but there are always bad actors. Appease one...or exile him or make him a "non-person"...and another one will probably, eventually show up to spoil your applecart. Even if Maeglin had not been tempted by evil left unchecked, someone would have. That is what evil does: it sways us to its side and corrupts us, makes us forget our better, higher purpose. Tolkien's allegory is often blunt in this regard (orcs being corrupted elves, balrogs being corrupted angels, etc.), but Maeglin is a far more subtle one...and just as true.

We live in an imperfect world, and we are imperfect people. It makes for a good testing ground for us, a place to develop our also (to use Tolkien's creation allegory) makes for a rather amazing symphony of divine music, when one can see it from a "higher perspective," filled with dazzling notes of touching beauty. But that development of our souls requires struggle...painful struggle at times. No, we can't ever achieve "total victory" over capital-E evil, no more than we can ever file off all the flaws that lurk in the shadows of our own hearts. But then, "victory over evil" isn't really the is the struggle, the fact that you have the courage to try, and the conviction to endure the strive against that which we know is wrong IS the point. The striving is what matters.

Failing to stand against evil may buy you some time, but it always, eventually leads to ruin.

Nothing lasts forever.