Monday, June 19, 2023

Con Games

Hope those who celebrated yesterday had a wonderful and happy Father's Day. Mine was pretty good. The fam is generally pretty great about catering to my every want (for a change), though when no one besides myself is up before 11am, you do feel a little "short-changed."
; )

Still and all, it was great because the main thing I wanted to do was play some Dungeons & Dragons. Or, as I put it to my family when they asked, eight hours of D&D played in two four-block sessions with a break in between. Because I had some pretty specific play-testing I wanted to do.

As I mentioned a while back, I'm going to Cauldron, "the OSR EuroCon," in October and my plan, as of now, is to run three sessions with three different scenarios. As of now, I have two of the scenarios written  (more-or-less) but I feel it's important to test them and fine-tune them...I don't want to just show up and run a bunch of off-the-cuff stuff and crap the bed. Best to have an idea how things are going to unfold, see where problem issues are, etc.  I'm paying too much money for those plane tickets not to give a solid effort.

Unfortunately, what with the lateness of our start yesterday (the kids are on summer break already, which means late nights and sleeping in), we were only able to get through the first session. And that was okay! Because not only did the play-test go well (which was important), the kids were enthused enough about it that they are quite excited to to part 2 at the earliest opportunity. Or (as my kids put it):

Diego: I didn't really think this was going to be fun but it turned out to be really good!
Sofia: Yeah, Paps, I thought it was going to suck dog poop but it didn't!

The adventures are set in the classic David "Zeb" Cook module I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City. The first scenario is cribbed from the original tournament scenario, but tweaked and tuned for my purposes. Designed for five to seven PCs of 5th - 7th level, it is a fairly linear affair consisting of a dozen or so numbered encounters...which is about all you can expect to get through in four hours of focused play.

For our play-test, the kids broke out their 6th level PCs "Salamander" (elven assassin) and "Potter" (half-elf fighter). Neither of these characters had been used since last August (!!) because, while they had shown themselves to been fairly successful adventurers (knocking over both N1 and I6 and having last absconded with about 10,000 g.p. in owlbear eggs from an abandoned wizard tower), the kids had decided they wanted to create NEW characters that would not be subject to level caps...because of their particular class-race combinations, neither character expects to progress beyond 10th level.

[I *do* use Gygax's updated rule from Dragon #95 allowing single-class demi-humans a +2 increase to their natural level cap, though ONLY in the case of a class that could normally be multi-classed (like fighters). That's why Potter can expect to reach 10th level, and why Salamander canNOT expect to reach 12th level]

SO...since it's been 10 months since we used those characters, I updated their records with upkeep costs (10 game months passing when no active play otherwise occurring) along with their age records, etc. Before whisking the PCs down to the Oregon jungles, which is where the Forbidden City exists in my campaign world. Just what had been occurring to them while the rest of our campaign had been passing made very little difference...probably lost in a drunken haze of debauchery that is commonplace for adventurers after a successful score (see Conan the Barbarian for examples).

For the convention I am (of course) bringing pre-gen characters, taken directly from the list in the back of the original module. Since we only had two players in our game (Kieran, Maceo, and Winston presumably occupied with their own Father's Day festivities), I allowed the players to choose four of the six pre-gens to accompany them as NPCs. They chose Nasaldromus (5th level magic-user), Bruti (6th level dwarf fighter), Daniel (6th level cleric), and good ol' Olaf Peacock (a 1st level bard with 6th level fighting and 5th level thief abilities).

Timer on the clock was set and 20 additional minutes was granted for additional outfitting: swapping gear or purchasing additional equipment. The PCs had an extra suit of (dwarf-sized) Chain +2 that they gave Bruti to better his AC, and extra gear/weapons was procured and noted. I allowed the players a day to cast continual light on a pair of torches the day before starting on their adventure. 

[first "pro note" for the convention: we actually ended up running about 25 minutes over-time, so it's probably a good idea to have ALL pre-gens functionally equipped. That way minimal time will be lost in playing the session]

Nasaldromus was killed in the 2nd encounter area, which was kind of awesome (I mean dead-dead-dead). But it did leave the party without a magic-user for the rest of the session, which made several encounters MUCH harder/longer. That's good to know.

However, it brings up an important question: what do you do with players who get killed straight away? For us, it wasn't terribly important (Nasal was an NPC we'd only just met, after all) but at a convention this might be the character of a player who'd paid good money to sit down at the table. Is he/she just supposed to sit there for the next 3.5 hours watching?

[second "pro note:" have areas where new 'back-up' PCs can be introduced, seeded throughout the scenario]

There are at least three, fairly complicated fights in the adventure, consisting of multiple groups of opponents with varying abilities and tactics. Several of these include a vertical element to them, which adds further complication. In general, I've never been a DM to use miniatures or map grids in my AD&D games, instead making quick sketches when necessary or (with the kids) using Lego minifigs to show relative facing and placement of opponents, but this was pretty rough to run in actual play due to the time crunch. If we hadn't been pressed (pacing was brisk, for the most part), I would have preferred to calculate ranges (especially for missiles and movement) with more specificity, using right triangles, etc.

[third "pro note:" draw out area maps ahead of time; have scales and ranges pre-calculated and determine speed of climbing for all PCs based on armor and/or encumbrance. "Winging it" worked fine for our table, but at a con you never know what kind of stickler players you might to be prepared]

The cleric was downed at the two-thirds mark...knocked down to -2 hit points, he nearly bled out (only being aided at -9). This meant no more healing for the rest of the scenario. Fortunately, the party members that remained had very good ACs (ranging from 1 to -1) and high hit points (40s+). But it was a close thing: the four remaining PCs were at 11, 12, 16, and 39 by the end of the penultimate encounter, and things might have ended very differently if the one of the quartet had blown his save vs. spells. 

The final encounter (only played after our time limit had expired) ended up being a cakewalk, though mainly because of streaky dice...Sofia rolled something like four 19s in a row and everyone was hitting for max damage, while my dice had run ice cold with nary a hit dispensed (and all damage rolls 1s and 2s). The players thought it was too easy, but mathematically it should have been very tight, especially given the shambling state of the remaining party members. Luck, which you can't really count on, had a huge impact.

While my initial thought was that an extra party member might be helpful in offsetting any streaks of "bad luck," on further reflection, I think that being able to 'sub in' new characters for downed PCs [see pro note #2, above] would accomplish the same end. All of those encounters get much easier with one or two extra bodies absorbing punishment.

All in all, a very good time. As I said, the players were very enthused...they'd said they'd like to continue playing I1 as a campaign game (i.e. open exploration) rather than in snippet scenarios designed for convention play. And I don't blame them: I1 is one of my all-time favorites of the classic TSR modules. 

But testing is important. I learned a lot of useful info from yesterday's play-test...stuff that will important when operating under the time constraints and more rigorous conditions of a con game. It's not that I'm worried a bunch of cranky Germans are going to leave me beaten and lying in a ditch. But I do want to make a good showing of myself...I care about my craft!

Anyway: it's been a while since I sat down for such a long session outside a convention. For the curious (and for my own memory), I make the following notes:
  • Two PCs, four NPCs, average levels 6th (the bard counts as a 7th)
  • 30 minutes prep (character selection, equipment purchase), 90 minutes play, 5-10 minute bathroom break, 110-115 minutes play. Game was "called" at that mark, one encounter short of the end. After (roughly) a couple hours break, we finished up the scenario in about 20-25 minutes.
  • Total monsters slain (by hit dice): 44 (1 x22, 2 x8, 3 x3, 4 x1, 6 x6, 8 x3, 9 x1). Six combat encounters. Number of bugbears appearing: zero.
  • Total treasure recovered: 42,400 g.p. (not counting enchanted items). 
  • One NPC death; one NPC forced to retire prior to completion.
Not bad. Not bad at all, considering. Hopefully we'll get a chance to run Part 2 this week.

Friday, June 16, 2023

AD&D Training

Another "Friday fun post" extravaganza...that I have about 50 minutes to write before I need to pick up my kids (last day of school). 

*sigh* Why do I get myself into these things?

[actually, I know the reason. Playing, running, thinking about, and discussing Dungeons & Dragons is about the only thing that keeps me somewhat sane these days]

Over at the Pedantic Gaming discord server, there was a little bit of a 'back-and-forth' over a statement or two made by moi regarding AD&D training costs in which I wrote (in part):
I do not fault a person using the training costs...they function fine. They become less necessary (or easier to fine tune) with strong world building. Doing away with them completely withOUT the world building, however, can lead to collapse...which is one of the reasons Basic games (B/X, RC, BECMI, etc.) are not suitable for long-term campaign play without extensive modification/addition.
This as an addendum to the fact that I don't use training costs in my game these days.

Naturally this led to some pushback from some and (amusingly) others coming to my defense from inference that I was using Gygax's stipilation (p. 86 of the DMG) that "training must be conducted under the tutelage of a character of the same class and profession...the tutor might possibly accept some combination of gold and service for his tutelage, at the DM's option" to justify that Little Ol' Me was still playing By The Book, RAW, and simply tying players into NPC factions/organizations through "service."

Nope. I just don't require training for characters to advance in level. When they earn enough x.p. they get the new level, new abilities, new hit points...just automatically.

As this will no doubt cause consternation to some, I thought maybe I should take a moment to elaborate on the WHY of my excising this (fairly fundamental) part of the Advanced D&D game.

A while back (August of last year) there was a lively discussion at Princes blog about the various "upkeep" costs foisted on AD&D players; at the time I wrote the following, specifically with regard to training:
Anthony Huso is as big a proponent of Rules As Written as anyone on the internet, and even he has modified training costs…he uses the same rate, but in SILVER pieces, rather than gold. For me, I’ve tried running training As Written, I’ve tried using it with (Huso’s) silver mod, I’ve tried running it with ONLY for characters wanting to learn new spells or special abilities, and (at this point) I’ve dispensed with training costs completely. 
Here’s the thing about AD&D training: it’s not really about sucking $$ out of the players’ coffers. Let me repeat that: TRAINING IS NOT A MECHANIC FOR SUCKING MONEY OUT OF THE PLAYERS. Especially as characters progress in level, training costs become MINUSCULE compared to the amount of treasure coming into the party. 

Training costs exist to SLOW THE PROGRESS OF THE CAMPAIGN. Advanced D&D is designed for the “long haul” campaign. Training draws out game play by 1) extending the length of time PCs explore/experience low levels (as they have to acquire enough treasure to level up), and 2) by forcing PCs to experience periods of inaction (i.e. taking them out of active play for weeks while training).

Why do we want to enforce periods of inactivity? Because it is assumed the game will still continue AND SO the player with the missing PC will have to CREATE A NEW PC FOR ACTIVE PLAY. Why is this desirable? Because it keeps the game “fresh” for the player! Playing a cleric for some dozen+ levels is likely to get tiring…but when the cleric has to train that allows the player to break out his/her halfling thief or elven fighter-mage! As the campaign goes on, MOST players will develop a stable of different characters…some favorites and foundational pieces of the campaign, some just to be played for a lark now and then. AD&D is designed to be played in the LONG FORM…and training rules are one of the things that help this go.

Why don’t I use “training costs” in my own game? Because I don’t need to at this point in time. My players are young enough that EVERYTHING about the AD&D game is interesting (and difficult) enough to keep them enthused. They’re also dying a lot and thus creating new PC types so they’re getting lots of chances to play different things…but generally, 6 months SEEMS like a super-long time for a kid of 11 years, unlike a 30/40-some year old adult. At this point, I’m not interested in “slowing down” the game play…I’m making up for lost time (the years when I didn’t have an AD&D campaign going).
And this remains my stance. However, I'd like to elucidate even further:

My campaign is just that: an on-going campaign. While I seed my game world with various "dungeons" cribbed from published adventure modules, I'm not running the thing in truly episodic fashion (i.e. you go to a dungeon, 'complete' the adventure, then go to the next dungeon). Instead, my players live in the campaign world. There is "adventure" between every dungeon, within every town and village, on the road, etc. just as a matter of existing in the imaginary environment. My game is always "on;" it doesn't focus on the highlights of a delve, players are under no (out-of-game) geas to participate in an adventure, and they can leave adventure sites at any time. Likewise, the PCs are free to podunk around in a town or wilderness section as much as they want, exploring the world...though, as a DM, it is my job to offer hooks and incentives that are enticing enough they don't linger over-long.  And fortunately, players being players, they tend to bite at ANY adventure hook...because, in an Advanced game world, PCs are always short of money and looking for the next "big score."

Consequently, PCs are often 'on safari' and nowhere near a place where one might find a tutor, training hall, "adventuring guild," or whatever when they come to a point of leveling up. If I'm running I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City and the players have bivouacked in a ruined building while exploring the place, who is going to train them? If they are in the middle of the Desert of Desolation when they hit their level cap are they forced to remain at 4th or 5th level when the dungeons still remaining to be plumbed are increasing in deadliness all around them?

For my game (YOU don't have to do this), I have the take that experience points earned represent just that: experience. And when a character hits a breakpoint, their level has been longer is the character the farmboy getting pwned by a lone sand-orc (Luke Skywalker) but now a more capable character with a bit better fighting ability a few more hit points, the ability to cast stronger enchantments...whatever. Advancement always involves a period of rest and reflection (i.e. at the end of a game session), but I don't force the PCs to return to town to engage in weeks of training. As I wrote: training is a method of regulating the pace of the campaign. And, at this point, I want my campaign to continue moving along at a steady clip.

Besides which, my players have enough money issues as is...I don't need to suck their purses dry.

As a precedent for my take, I refer to Gygax himself in module S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, in which he wrote:
During the course of several games sessions, players may accumulate enough experience points to qualify for an increase in level. Because the caverns are so far from anyplace where characters can train, the DM may allow player characters to advance without prior training, provided that the quality of play has been very high...if you choose to allow player characters to advance in level without training, it should be because of their playing skill, and the special circumstance of this module. Advancement without training should be regarded as a reward for excellence, rather than as a normal part of the campaign.
Keeping in mind that S4 is no more "special" than say other extended adventure module (Gygax's own GD series, for example or I1 or I3-15), and that "quality of play" and "excellence" are wholly subjective measurements on the part of the DM (and, thus, arbitrary), I could take this as Gygax's implicit blessing to discard training altogether, regardless of his protestation that doing so shouldn't be a "normal" part of campaign play.

That is, I could take it that way...if I considered EGG's words sacrosanct. Which, really, I don't anymore (though I respect the hell out of him and [much of] his work). 

I run a fairly 'hard' least, by the standards of the last 30 years or so. No fudging. Characters die regularly (sometimes in droves). Adventures are not "toned down;" big rewards mean big dangers (and vice versa) and players are pushed to risk themselves if they want big scores. SURVIVING, in my game, is evidence of "excellence" and "high quality of play." And even when a modicum of luck is involved...well, for the most part my experience has been that players make their own luck. And welcome to it...the bad luck always comes around, eventually! I don't require player characters in my AD&D game to train. All "training" occurred long before the characters set off on their first adventure, when they were learning the skills that made them 1st level adventurers. "Levels" earned by PCs are a measure of how experienced they are in their profession. The characters aren't learning new skills...they're simply getting better at the skills they've already learned.

All right. Happy Friday, folks.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Not D&D

So I've now managed to watch the new D&D film twice; it's available for free on one of the many streaming services my cable company gives me.

[oh horrors! People cry...JB you have so little time for ANYthing, why would you waste it watching the same movie TWICE, let alone THAT one? Well, folks, the fact is my family watches too much television as it is...usually starting around "dinner time" and then only ending at "bedtime;" because of our daily schedule of activities it amounts to about 2+ hours every week night. So for me to throw on the film in the background while cooking is no big deal (TV's going to be on anyway) so long as no one complains about what I'm watching (and they didn' this case)]

I am going to pen my thoughts on the thing. There will (probably) be SPOILERS.

You may think, from the title of my post, that I didn't like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. That would be incorrect. It isn't stellar, mind-blowing cinema, but it's likable enough: breezy, lightly entertaining fantasy fare. A good, on-the-couch-with-popcorn movie (which is how I viewed it the first evening). My family, including my wife, enjoyed it quite a bit.

Despite liking it, however, I'm rather astounded at the reviews the thing has received. 93% popcorn rating? 90% Rotten Tomatoes?! Wha-wha-what? Really? I mean, it's about on par with one of those Ant-Man films and none of those have cracked the high 80s. Heck, it wasn't much of a cut above the latest Shazam! film, and that thing was under 50%.

Thing is, despite better (and more likable) actors, tighter directing, updated special effects, and delightful music score, I found a lot of the film quite similar to the original (rightly panned) D&D movie. A lot of parallels. That's not an attempted 'put down;' I just find it...interesting.

Okay, let me list a few of the things I quite liked about the film:
  • The actors, their approach to the film, and the chemistry was all quite good.
  • Some fun little "D&Disms" were nice to see: all the traditional PC races (minus...elves?) make an appearance. Seeing black dragons, intellect devourers, and owlbears in a live-action  film is fun. Some iconic spell use (Bigby's hand spells, Evard's black tentacles, timestop, etc.) is neat and showcases some of the unique aspects of D&D versus the usual fantasy drama.
  • Immensely enjoyed some of the traditional class portrayals. The paladin was great (love the idea that he "smells" evil). The half-elf sorcerer was quite a good example of a low-level magic-user. Dug the bard flashbacks when he was wearing some sort of plate armor (perhaps in his days as a fighter?). And the fighter lady (Holga? I really can't remember any of their names) was highly reminiscent of my friend's long-running character, except she used a talking sword and preferred her potatoes mashed. Oh, and she didn't have a thing for halflings.
  • I quite liked the tiefling character! At least, I didn't hate it. But I'm sure many 5E aficionados will say "that's not a tiefling!" and perhaps that's why it appealed to me. The small horns, prehensile tail, and shapeshifting druid thing all gave the character a very fairy tale fey vibe that I quite liked (as opposed to the edgy half-demon warlock with fire abilities and sexy high charisma). No, she was cute and bumpkin-y ("guileless") and a good stand-in for the 'Tolkien elf' which I'm, frankly, quite sick of.
  • Even though I'm not a fan of the Forgotten Realms, I quite liked that the film was set in an actual D&D campaign setting with recognizable names, places, and lore. It may be a stupid setting (sorry to the folks who love FR), but at least it's a nod to the extensive IP of the game.
Aaaand,,,that's about it. But I assure you that's a LOT of what made the thing enjoyable (or interesting) for me to watch. Oh and, sure, it also had some funny bits.

Here's what I disliked:

Despite the use of D&D tropes and recognizable game elements, the movie was very much NOT D&D. So much not D&D. It actually fought against itself in this regard (are these treasure seeking rogues or altruistic heroes?) which, for me, made the whole thing a bit of a muddle writing/story-wise. 

But the world doesn't even FUNCTION like a D&D world:
  • Where the hell are the clerics? They are mentioned once in the beginning (wrt their inability to heal the bard's dead wife) and then never make an appearance. There's no healing magic at all (not that it's needed; see below), but boy you'd think some undead turning ability would be pretty handy fighting all the undead foes. No clerical ANYthing, even from the "divine" character types that DO appear (druid, paladin).
  • This is not how magic works. Or maybe it does in 5E. No spell books? No memorization? No interruption of spell-casting? Because that battle with the red wizard at the end should have been pretty one-sided with all the shucking and jiving she was required to do. And the bard magic? Even in 5E, that's not a thing.
  • This is not what combat looks like in D&D. Now, I LIKED that the fighter girl could smack five or six dudes for every one attack of the bard (which is clearly something different than the 1E version, despite what I wrote above). But the way the group tended to stand back and let one character have their spotlight melee moment is NOT D&D (the paladin versus the assassin clan was probably the most egregious example). Points for avoiding and running away from some fights (like with the dragon), but generally there wasn't enough slaying and slaughter for a typical D&D game. Oh, except for castle soldiers: boy, for a group who prided themselves on not harming (killing) anyone in their heists, they sure beat the living shit out of a bunch of Neverwinter guardsmen who were just kind of doing their job. Oh, and the slingshot? I hate the slingshot.
  • What's with the inter-species romance? I guess that's just played for laughs, but there's a lot of iffy-ness in the human-halfling thing. Like, I can buy that Holga and her ex- fell in love and that it was a unique situation...but now he's with another human? And in a later scene Holga is eyeing up another halfling? While I understand that people have their kinks, that's an awkward fetish thang to throw into the film. The tiefling/half-elf is far more believable (especially with the tiefling standing in for a wood elf), considering that there's at least a nod to the different cultural backgrounds (urban versus fey). Ah, well. 
  • I hate 5E. There's a lot of 5Eisms..."attuning" magic items, for example...that just sets my teeth on edge. And is that how druid shapeshifting works in 5E? Just change at will, as often as you like, into any creature including fantastical ones (like owlbears)? Why not shift into a dragon and burn the place down? Sorcerers and "wild magic?" Oh sweet Baby Jesus. Do bards not carry weapons? Do "Harpers" not learn how to play a harp. *sigh*
All right, enough with the negativity. I said (a long time ago, maybe on someone else's blog) that the way to make a "successful D&D film" would be to create a GOOD FILM that had aspects relatable to D&D in it. I also opined that it would be pretty damn impossible to make a film that truly replicates gameplay because what makes the game great is NOT (generally speaking) anything that translates to a cinematic, story-telling art form. Judging by its success (there is talk of a spin-off series), this may be the best movie makers can do with such a tricky subject. I confess that I'm honestly surprised at how favorable and effective the formula worked...but I suppose it's the same formula that worked for Marvel.

Finally: it was a lot of fun to see the OG D&D gang (from the cartoon) make an appearance in the otherwise stupid labyrinth much so that I found myself wishing the movie was about them, rather than the story at hand. And as the rest of the film unwound its reel, this was a persistent thought that wouldn't quite dislodge itself from my brain: what a missed opportunity! What a fantastic idea!

Because if you do just want to make a light-weight fantasy movie, with magic and wonder and the tropes of D&D, you could do a lot worse than drawing inspiration from that cartoon. Heck, what's a D&D movie without a Dungeon Master? What could more firmly stamp a film with a D&D moniker than to have the appearance of a DM? Besides which Venger is a deeper, more interesting and nuanced antagonist than ANY of the "bad guys" in the existing D&D films. Yes, that includes Hugh Grant's character...fight me on that if you will. Plus, you still get hand-wringing sentimentality, self-doubt, impassioned speeches, humorous pratfalls...basically all the same stuff that (I guess) makes Honor Among Thieves a hit movie.

And it would be far more similar to D&D.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

My Magic (Part 3)

Not much time to blog today (plus, I'd like to get to some other the new Dungeons & Dragons film). But, for the sake of completeness, I wanted to add one more installment to this series. I'll keep it short.

Druids. Illusionists. Bards.

The last time a player ran an illusionist in one of my campaigns, I was (maybe) 14 years old. Maybe. I can't even recall any gnome multi-class types. Just a single illusionist...a pre-gen created specifically to try running D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth.

I have never had a player character druid in any campaign I've run. Ever.

I have an (adult) friend, who really wants to join my game, and wants to play a druid. Unfortunately, he resides on Camano Island and isn't exactly mobile, which means the only way we'd be able to play is via the Zoom or something...which I am loathe to do for a number of reasons. Still, there remains the possibility that I'll see a 1st level druid in my campaign at some point in the near future.

But I have had time to think about it, and my gut reaction is to simply leave druids exactly as written in the PHB. Yes, they must memorize (or "pray for") spells at the beginning of the day, unlike my clerics; however, this "memorization" represents the druid preparing their mistletoe and whatnot (via shamanic/ritual magic) in anticipation of the coming day's events. 

Besides which: I've never seen a druid in my game (didn't I just say that?). So why should I go about "fixing" something that may work perfectly fine?

Illusionists are a...slightly...different matter. I've written extensively about my love for the illusionist class as both a concept AND as originally imagined/designed for the OD&D game by Peter Aronson. As reworked by Gygax for the AD&D system, the spell list for the class is...poor (see prior blog posts here and here, and specific discussions on color spray and phantasmal force). The class, unfortunately, needs a lot of "clean-up."

But how can I say that, when I haven't actually seen a player run and develop an illusionist character over a long-term campaign? How do I know that the printed in the PHB...wasn't reworked specifically due to extensive play-testing and is, in fact, the perfect representation of the class?

How indeed.

I would love to play an illusionist character...if I were playing in the campaign of a DM that I respect and trust. Say, someone like me. I have played illusionists before...on two occasions with different DMs. Both times they were using the Advanced Labyrinth Lord rules (which just means B/X with some AD&D adaptations). Neither game lasted more than a single session, and the character had little opportunity to "stretch its legs." But, then, neither of those games was what I'd call "open worlds;" just dungeons that we were stuck in. You know...typical Basic level play.

[I'm so tired of basic play]

SO...illusionists. Don't really know HOW I'd run them now, because no one wants to play them in my campaign. I do have extensive spell list revisions stored somewhere on my laptop...I'd be tempted to break those out. But probably, I'd just start with the standard rules (if someone wanted to play an illusionist). Probably tack on the same house rules I use for magic-users. Probably. There's a part of me that likes the idea of an illusionist creating more than one phantasmal image in a long as it's not the same image. 

The testing is all in the playing.

And as for bards: welp, since I started my new campaign I haven't seen any of those yet, either...although Diego keeps saying he'd like to play one; he just keeps missing on the ability scores needed. 

Oh, right, forgot to mention: I scrapped the whole single-class bard idea, I posted a while back. The fact is, I've played and run MANY 1st edition bards over the years (eight that I can think of off the top of my head, and not counting pre-gens like Olaf Peacock in Dwellers of the Forbidden City) and, in my experience, the class works fine as written. Would I prefer their magic is a little more "bardic" in nature, rather than druidic? Sure. And perhaps I'll do something about that one day. Like, the next time a PC actually acquires a 1st level bard in my campaign (after first progressing through fighter and thief classes). Until then, I'm not terribly worried about it.

Which, by the by, is also my attitude towards high level rangers and paladins (both of whom receive some spell-casting ability). I've seen a lot of high level fighters over the years; I can't recall ever seeing a ranger over 7th level or a paladin over 3rd. SO...unless and until I do, I'll just run these characters By The Book. 

That's all folks.
: )

Sunday, June 4, 2023

My Magic (Part 2)

Magic-users are, of course, a completely different story.

If you read over Ye Old blog, you'll find numerous examples of bitching and moaning about MUs not being "magical enough" or designed well enough or balanced enough or (even) viable for play as written. Hogwash...absolute hogwash, all of it. Despite all my complaints and proposed fixes, house rules, etc.the magic-user AS WRITTEN is a fine and viable and plenty playable.

I've both run AND played magic-users in MOST editions of D&D: OD&D, B/X, Holmes, RC/BECMI, 1E, and 3E. In the days of my youth, I never played magic-users, but I saw some pretty good ones (generally played by my friend Scott) get up to some pretty high levels. In my teenage years, I ran an NPC magic-user as a companion/henchman to a small (three player) campaign that would peter out sometime around G3 (Hall of the Fire Giant King)...that guy went from 1st to 12th level or so over the span of his career. When I first acquired the OD&D books (back in the late-80s/early-90s) I did some solo gaming to test them, running a magic-user named Barack the Half-Handed (based on a character from an old Lythande story). 

[ me at any rate...that I would recycle that name and character concept for two separate Ars Magica campaigns (one PC, one NPC) that I would play/run in my 20s]

In recent years, however, I've had the opportunity to play low-level MUs as a player in other DMs' campaigns. This is unusual, for a couple reasons. First off, unless we're playing a game like Ars Magica (where being a wizard is kind of "the thing"), my tendency is to gravitate towards fighter characters (or MAYBE a beefy cleric). I'm the type of dude that prefers to lead...and probably charge...confronting threats in direct, head-on fashion. Oh, I can be sneaky and cautious at times, but that's not my default setting...consequently I like a character that's a bit sturdier than your standard magic-user. Better survivability with my preferred play style.

Which leads me to the OTHER reason it's unusual for me to play magic-users: I don't trust other DMs. You can call me paranoid or elitist or whatever, but I simply prefer to be the guy in the driver seat when playing RPGs because, well, I trust my ability to be fair and scrupulously honest. With other DMs, you never know what you're going to get. Which is admittedly ridiculous stance to have (I've experienced MAYBE one or two "bad apple" GMs over 40 years and dozens of different gaming tables)...but I'm a ridiculous guy that has some "control issues." And playing a magic-user with no armor, 3-4 hit points, and a single spell makes me feel a little too vulnerable.

Fortunately, I've relaxed a bit the last decade or so, and been able to kick off my shoes (and armor) and put on the pointy hat. The first By The Book magic-user I played was a Holmesian one at a convention. The game was a blast, and I enjoyed myself immensely...there's a bit of a thrill living on the edge with only a couple hit points, and the game forces you to be both creative and a "team player." That's neat!

[mmm...I now recall that my FIRST player character MU was actually a wizard in 3E campaign that lasted all of one session...but that dude was one of those very few "bad" GMs I've had the misfortune of meeting...]

Most recently, I've been playing a magic-user in my son's AD&D (1E) campaign. The character ("Barnaby") has worked his way up to 5th or 6th level at this point...I can't recall because it's been several months since our last game. Diego is running a very By The Book campaign with a couple exceptions: he runs clerical magic the same as I do, and he doesn't charge training costs. But everything else (as much as a smart 12 year old can remember/manage) is BTB. 

And...I've found the class a bit boring. Most of my PC's experience came from plumbing the Caves of Chaos in B2 (modified for AD&D) and while THAT was actually a pretty fun series of adventures (it's very tactically interesting if you choose NOT to work the faction angle), the BTB magic-user made the whole thing...a little too easy?

It helped that I got some good spells from my random roll (find familiar is a godsend for any low level sorcerer-in-training). But the ability to stockpile spells in one's spell book (giving you a wide range to draw from) and the ability to memorize multiples of the same spell (sleep, for example) lends to tactical play that can feel very same-same.

Which is why that...for the last 3-4 years (even since BEFORE I was playing AD&D again), I stopped running magic-users BTB. I know, I know...shame on me.

Here is how I run magic-users at my table:
  1. Read magic isn't a thing. Magic-users can read magic-user scrolls just like clerics can read clerical scrolls. Magic-users automatically speak/read the "magical language" as part of their class training.
  2. No stockpiling spells. The number of spells you can cast is the number of spells you have in your spell book. You don't get to (nor have to) find and add new spells to your book. This is, by the way, the same as RAW B/X (BECMI/RC differs however).
  3. No multiple spell memorization. Each spell may be used once per day. This is adapted from OD&D (Book 1), and while others may quibble over my interpretation of the wording in the first paragraph of page 19, in practice I find it works very well.
  4. Each first level magic-user begins with three spells, rolled randomly from the tables in the DMG (p. 39). Yes, this means that MUs in my campaign can cast three spells at 1st level, instead of one. I really like the one offense,  one defense, and one miscellaneous spell paradigm, and I don't force the player to choose which of the three to memorize. Later on, as they progress in level, they can choose whether to specialize in offense or utility or first level, they are armed with the spells their master gave them. 
  5. Upon advancement, the magic-user chooses additional spells up to the amount that they're able to cast for the day. Chance to Know (based on INT) is checked as normal. 1st level spells known are read as the number +2 (because of the additional spells learned at 1st level, of course). Minimum/Maximum Known (based on INT) remains the same.
AND...that's pretty much it. The magic-user is otherwise as written, though some spells have been modified in my game. 

Please understand: the character class as designed (at least, in OD&D, Holmes, B/X, and 1E) works JUST FINE using the rules as written. I've run BTB magic-users over the years and have played the class (By The Book) in multiple systems/games and managed to both survive and thrive. You can run a MU using RAW in any of those pre-1989 works (probably 2E as well) and NOT be hamstrung despite the slight variations and idiosyncrasies in each edition...they all work.

Well then, JB (I hear the hard-liners asking), if the game WORKS why would you bother to change it? The mantra should be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," right?

Yeah. That's right. But I have reasons.
  • Removal of read magic resolves a lot of problematic questions arising from that spell like: Why can other spell casters read scrolls without such magic? Why can thieves read scrolls without using a spell? How does the spell interact with the writings in a spell book? Etc. It also helps foil Gygax's attempt at DMv.PC antagonism (I ignore most of the EGG's rules with regard to "fading" scrolls, etc. pressures designed to PUSH players into hasty decisions in order to trigger curses). F that noise. I'm not trying to "trip up" players (they make plenty of mistakes all on their own), and I don't want every scroll tube found to become an exercise in following a 5-point, best practice plan avoiding risk. No. MU spell scrolls are simply specially prepared, one-shot magic items useable only by magic-users (and some higher level thieves and illusionists).
  • Spells being limited to what can be cast (e.g. I can cast three 2nd level spells, and I only know three 2nd level spells) cuts down on dithering on what to choose and whether or not to end a delve early (because the PCs need to retreat to memorize different spells, etc.) and allows a group to simply get on with the game. The fighter on an expedition doesn't worry about his weapon load-out every morning: he straps it on one time and then chooses the right tool for the job as the need arises. Same for the MU and his/her spells. With a set battery of dweomers, the mage starts to understand and develop tactics (and, from there, creative tactics) based on experience and usage...which I like.
  • Similarly, the prohibition on memorizing multiple spells of the same type creates more variety of tactics and prompts the PC to make interesting choices: do I use my magic missile spell now (since I don't have it memorized thrice?)? When is the best time to cast shield? Etc. For me, this makes the magician character more interesting and models much of the pulp fiction that inspired D&D in the first place (seldom does one see a sorcerer use the same spell twice in fiction). 
  • The three random spells is BTB AD&D (minus the read magic spell that would be part of every 1st level magic-user's inventory), but it functions EXTREMELY well in tandem with the "spells known = spells cast" house rule. As a result of the combo of house rules, I have seen creative and effective use of those 'oft overlooked spells' that would otherwise be left off the daily memorization schedule. Spells like ventriloquism, jump, push, mending, message, and spider climb have all seen great use as part of the regular rotation, and some spells (feather fall and jump) have been real life savers. Spider climb is just a damn useful spell by the way, aiding my BTB wizard immensely in cleaning out the Caves of Chaos. 
  • Allowing 1st level magic-users to use three magic spells per day from the get-go also seems to be the "sweet spot" of making the class seem more magical. I was doing something similar towards the end of my B/X gaming (giving MUs +1 spell for INT 15 and +2 spells for INT 17), but having three spells just"magical." I know not everyone will agree and, as I wrote, I've played MUs with a single spell and (in tandem with companion party members) survived just fine. But I enjoy seeing how my players will use their three spells in early's always entertaining!
Finally, with regard to the automatic acquisition of spells...well, this needs a bit of elaboration.

Spell acquisition is an interesting subject. In B/X it's one of the few true "money sinks," since PCs over a certain level are left with no alternative than to conduct spell research to learn their new spells (although, without other associated upkeep costs, the time component isn't as harsh as it could be). But in AD&D, the BTB acquisition of spells is quite draconian: the "gain 1 spell per level" is so stingy that wizards (beginning at mid-levels) are left with little recourse than to beg, borrow, and steal spells, especially given the costs of conducting spell research along with all the additional expenses heaped upon the heads of advanced PCs.

The overall effect...which I have observed in multiple long-term something I refer to as "the Raistlin Effect." Any of you out there familiar with the Dragonlance novels? Read the first trilogy with an eye focused on the actions of the Raistlin character and you will get a glimpse of the typical 1E wizard's path. The guy will go to any lengths to find a scroll, or an old spell book, or a library of ancient tomes...lying, cheating, betraying his friends, changing his alignment, whatever it takes. In some ways, the quest for more magic is good adventure fodder: you need a scroll with stone to flesh or mass charm? Check out the abandoned Tower of So-and-So or the ancient Tomb of Whatshisname. 

But it''not great' when the campaign starts to be influenced by one (or more) player's drive to acquire power. And yet, if that drive is stifled (by the DM or the other players at the table)...well, that can have negative repercussions, too. Resentments and recriminations...yeah, I've seen 'em. Both ways. Nobody wants one player character to become the focus of the campaign. 

And, sure, a good DM can prevent this by placing plenty of scrolls and spell books and whatnot in the party's path (or an "appropriate amount," whatever that means). But my house rule neatly sidesteps the entire issue and allows the PCs to get down to what it is they came here for: exploring the campaign world. No side-quests (to get the mage-types their spells) needed. Better, in my opinion, to have the party focused, together, on the task at hand, whatever that might be (plumbing a dungeon, defeating an antagonist, embarking on a money-making venture, looking for trouble...whatever). I prefer that the advantages that come with level advancement...better thief percentages, special war horses, more weapon proficiencies, simply come automatically

And for magic-users, that includes spell acquisition. 

Because, really, the magi's role is challenging enough, isn't it? No armor, few weapons, poor attack capability, low hit points. And their best spells, even when acquired (always have to make that INT check!), often have expensive spell component costs or severe penalties (like aging or possible insanity). The magic-using profession is hard, and rightly so (a fair trade-off considering the amazing marvels they can work). Best to let them simply get to it, rather than forcing them to jump through more hoops.

Friday, June 2, 2023

My Magic (Part 1)

Oh, wow. Finally, a chance to blog (I'm waiting at the car dealership...again). Yeah, it's a Friday when no one reads blog posts. At least there'll be something for folks to scan over the weekend. 

I thought I might write a bit how I run magic spells in my campaign. This is due in part to Noism's post the other day regarding "underutilized spells" in which commenter Theo Thaconatos wrote:
I seems there are plenty of old schoolers who (gasp) let Clerics cast spells on-demand (well, on-imploration) as a kind of miraculous ask.
I run my clerics that way myself...and have for years. However, I couldn't seem to find an example in my 50+ posts on "clerics" that did more than (briefly) mention this fact. Since it's one of the very few house rules I've used for decades, I thought that might be something to write about.

[also, please note that this is "part 1" in a plan is to discuss ALL the various spell-user types found in my campaign]

Over the many years of writing this blog, I think most folks would find me a strong advocate for the Rules As Written camp of game play. Game designers design games in particular ways for particular reasons. It is not a great idea to change existing rules (especially not willy-nilly or without trying and testing them)...additional rules can always be ADDED (if/when necessary) to fill in the "blank spaces" not addressed by the game designer.  

Much as I've bitched and moaned over the years regarding specific design choices, this is generally my default stance when it comes to playing and running role-playing games. And even when I have added a house rule or five (and I have done so...many, many times) more often than not, I simply end up defaulting back to the rules as written during game play. In general it's just EASIER to do so...and well-designed games (like B/X or 1E) tend to play both smoothly and efficiently when run 'by the book.' Truly.

But, of course, I am also a gigantic hypocrite. Because I haven't run clerics RAW since ever.

As has been related before (here and elsewhere, many times): I cut my teeth with B/X circa 1982 before moving into AD&D sometime circa '84. The first cleric I ever encountered was Sister Rebecca in Moldvay's basic rules. The first PLAYER cleric I ever saw in game was a high (9th) level one I created for my buddy Matt to test out the Expert set rules (specifically regarding men-at-arms and wilderness travel). The first ACTUAL PC cleric I saw was in my hybrid B/X-Monster Manual days (i.e. before I discovered AD&D was a separate entity), when a guest player (Brian) showed up to play and brought his high level AD&D cleric to our table (complete with mace of disruption). Later, over several years of running straight AD&D campaigns, we'd see MANY clerics and cleric multi-classes. And, of course, since getting back into D&D (in the early 2000s) I've run a TON of 3E, BECMI, B/X, OD&D, and (of course) 1E.  My son's new 1st level character is, in fact, a cleric.

And through it all, since the beginning, I have run clerics different from the rules as written. Moldvay is quite clear on the specifics:
Since clerical spells are divinely given, they do not have to be studied; the cleric need only rest and then pray for them. As a result, the cleric has the choice of any spells of the same level for each adventure. Once a spell is selected, however, it cannot be changed during the course of that adventure (or day).
[emphasis added by Yours Truly; please note this synchs up quite readily with the first sentence of the second paragraph in the SPELLS section: "Spells must be memorized before an adventure begins." Earlier on, an 'adventure' is defined as a single game session]

And why would it not be clear? Gygax is equally as specific in the PHB (page 40):
Spells of any sort must therefore be selected prior to setting out on an adventure, for memorization requires considerable time.
[this following the discussion on clerics need to pray (and magic-users need to study) in order to stock spells in their brains]

But, as said, I've never run clerics like this. I have always, always allowed clerics (PC or otherwise) to cast any unrestricted (by level) spell, without prior memorization, up to the limit of their maximum number of spells per day. 

Always with the POSSIBLE exception of C1: Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan...because I've used that module with the pre-gen (tournament) characters, and the cleric's spell selection (including slow poison) is specifically designed for the challenges of that module. However, I've also run C1 without the pre-gens, and (in those cases) my standard house rule...regarding cleric spells...applied as usual.

I have multiple reasons for running clerics this way:

1) Philosophically, it matches/models my perception of "divine" magic. Clerics spells are miracles send from heaven (or hell or Olympus or wherever). They are the granting of divine aid to the passioned plea and prayer of the god's agent. Clerics call on their deity when their need is greatest (i.e. at the moment the spell is wanted)...and if the cleric has been faithful, and the request is deemed to be just and necessary, the boon is granted. In the Bible (the text of my personal religion) and the various legends/stories of saints, prophets, and miracle workers THIS is how the divine power of God works. It is not stocked up and stored in the is called on when the champion is tested. And God will either answer his/her prayers...or not.

2) Aesthetically, it helps distinguish divine (clerical) magic from arcane (magic-user) magic. The clerics of my game world are (and always have been) something other than "wizards of another order." By stripping off this part of the Vancian paradigm (i.e. memorization and mental storage of spells), the magic of the class becomes fully distinct from that of the scientist/academic/occultist that is the sorcerous magic-user. Clerical magic is granted from "on high," subject to the whims of their patron; it does not operate under the same rules and laws of wizardry.

3) Practically, the freedom to choose spells "on-the-fly" prevents the cleric from being relegated to the role of designated medic.  This freedom, in practice allows player clerics to make meaningful choices in play: they know how many spells they can cast per day, and what their options are, and they must decide how they husband that resource to make the best use for their party. Timely use of one of the cleric's (many) utility spells can prevent party members from sustaining damage or damaging effects, thereby mitigating the need to stock ONLY healing spells.

4) For the DM (me) it saves me the trouble of playacting an omniscient being. If following the DMG as written, clerical spells above the 3rd level are petitioned of and granted by the character's deity (i.e. from the DM) either directly or via the deity's "minions." This allows the DM to vet the player's spell selection, possibly saying "no" (or "yes") depending on the the behavior of the cleric and/or the determined needs as seen by the deity (i.e. the DM). 

Some DMs see this as an advantage...a chance not only to curb 'inappropriate behavior' (whatever that might mean) or a means to grant hints and help to the otherwise clueless player (who doesn't know, for example that a dispel magic or remove curse spell is going to be exceptionally necessary in the scheduled adventure/session). However, I dislike this practice on a number of fronts. For one thing, I think the deity should be determining whether or not to grant the spell at the time the petition is made (i.e. at the time of need)...and while some BTB DMs will say "of course!" (in addition to examining the cleric's behavior at morning's prayers), this 'double jeopardy' is not to my liking. For a second thing, there are already SPELLS (augury, divination, commune) that a cleric may cast for divine guidance. For a third thing, the DM restriction on spells (for the good or bad) negates the whole act of player choice, thus curtailing player agency....something I dislike immensely. Allow the PCs to sink (or swim) based on their own choices of action...but choices made within play.

"Within play"...that's key when it comes to the magic available to clerics. Clerical spells are, for the most part, designed to mitigate penalties and problems that arise and that inflict lasting harm on the party. Curing damage, yes, of course. But also removing fear and paralysis and blindness, revealing traps and locating paths, neutralizing poison, disease, curses (like lycanthrope), energy drain and death. They have other powers, too...offensive ones even (command, hold person, flame strike, holy word, etc.) but the CHOICE to use these (very effective) spells must be weighed against the need for other spells that aid...the blessings and prayers and divinations...or the need to save a fallen comrade.

In our last session, our newly minted 1st level characters found themselves in dire straits right from the get go: the DCC adventure I repurposed ("Madhouse Meet") has the party awaken in chains in a locked prison cell, with all their armor and weapons missing. Fortunately, escaping their manacles proved easy enough, as two PCs were able to pass a bend bars roll to pull their chains from the wall, while a third (the elven assassin) was able to pick the lock on his own shackles. When it came time to ambush the jailor...a huge brute some 7' in height and built like a bugbear...the fighter grappled him from behind while the assassin used a pick pockets roll to swipe the club from the guard's belt. The cleric, however, rather than engage in the unarmed melee chose to cast cause light wounds, figuring his deity would aid him in smiting his captor.

And, of course, he was right. 

Now, generally, one wouldn't see much use for such a's more the purview of the evil-cleric-masquerading-as-helpful-healer trope (see B2 for ready example). Most players wouldn't think to memorize it at the outset of an adventure, figuring the need to HEAL party members would be O So Much greater. Bur in this case, it was the PERFECT spell to cast...the perfect "miracle" to ask of a loving God that wanted to protect Its child from the depredations of evil men. 

ANYWAY. The four reasons listed above are all the justifications I give for why I handle clerical spells the way I do. However, none of them are the main reason I've continued to run the game in this way (since 1982...'82!). No, the MAIN reason I continue to run clerics this way is simply because: it works. It functions well. It speeds play. It doesn't "break" the game, neither destroying "balance" between character types, nor making the game "too easy." 

It's worked in my games for 40 years. The whole "player agency" and chance to use non-cure spells are really secondary considerations to that. And I've seen no reason to change it, even though it means I've never TRULY played D&D "by the book" as written.

Next post will be about magic-users.