Wednesday, August 28, 2019

System Shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Wednesday, folks.
: )

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Going (Not Growing) Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 22, 2019


Rain, meet parade.

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

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

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

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

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

I had fun. I did...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, gators.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Forget the Supers

At least, for right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the break.

Saturday, August 3, 2019


That's the title of the post I started to write back around mid-July, as I went through all the various super powers found in Palladium's Heroes Unlimited products over the years.

Yes, Kevin Siembieda has nothing on me: I've purchased pretty much every HU product ever-penned by the man over the years...sometimes more than once!...all those "Powers Unlimited" books, GM and Galaxy Guides, etc. I've got a whole shelf filled with Palladium product and a good chunk is Heroes Unlimited related (the bulk, of course, is the prolific Rifts line...). And doing a "deep dive" of the evolution of the game...and the every-expanding list of powers down the years...simply leads me to the conclusion that nearly all of it after the original, unrevised first edition is crap. Just...crap. By which I mean "useless drivel," unnecessary filler and fiddly wanking that's

In my opinion (of course). Your mileage may vary (of course).

So for those wondering what I've been up to the last couple weeks (other than winding down Ye Old Summer Fun Stuff, etc.), it's this: I'm back on the design train, designing my own superhero game. Again (*sigh*). No, I haven't been writing, other than writing notes. No, it hasn't been play-tested yet (though it's ready to start...going to be doing that with the kids this week, God willing). But, at the seems like I have a pretty solid start to a nice little system. A gritty little system that has absolutely no "point buy" and is EXTREMELY "non-abstract."

In other words, the kind of supers game I want to play.

If it ends up developing into anything, well, I will of course blog more about it (as I find the time to do so). However, just want folks to know I'm working on something game-related and not just blowing the blog-o-sphere off for no good reason.

Carry on, good people. My advice to folks suffering under excessive hotness (ah, yes...climate change) is to stay in a shady indoor area and play table-top RPGs as much as possible. With gusto.
: )