Thursday, May 30, 2024


So many times these days, my blog posts feel like deja vu: that I am simply harping on the same issues, or trying to find different tacks to explain the same concepts that I've already written about ad nauseum. Of course, sometimes it's probably appropriate and useful to explain hard-to-grasp concepts multiple times in different, variant fashions.  

Heck, The Bible uses four Gospels to get the same point across, right?

ANYway, it probably doesn't help I pen my thoughts on discord channels, forums, and other folks' blog comments...sometimes I forget what I've written here versus what I've scribbled elsewhere. I'm not quite the internet rash I was ten years ago, but I'm still spread around a bit.

Here's a recent one from the CAG ("Classic Adventure Gaming") discord: a guy (let's call him "Joe") penned this the other day:
I'm, of course, breaking one of the great taboos by giving my 1E AD&D players XP just for showing up and making an effort, but after 30 sessions they still don't seem to grasp that the motherload is when they engage in combat and get loot. A session of exploration typically nets them 500XP, but the week they beat up the tomb guardian and nabbed its goodies, they must have come out at nearly 1500. After they cleared the tomb I dropped HEAY hints that there was more to explore in the immediate area, but they scurried back to base without so much as a backward glance. Leaving all that sweet, sweet gold (and XP) behind.
To which I replied (in part):
...I totally understand the frustration of slow advancement, but you don't want to train players that they're going to be rewarded for "showing up." 

...if (as I infer) you're running a long-form campaign, don't the PCs run out of money due to their lack of treasure acquisition? Are they constantly starving, running out of resources, etc.? How do they pay for mounts, henchfolk, mercs, arrows, expenses, etc.? Are they not incentivized to pull themselves out of poverty?
Because, you know, treasure...the acquisition of wealth..should be THE incentive in any AD&D game. Here was Joe's response:
Money not been an issue so far. They scraped by in the first adventure, then as a reward for resolving the situation the Paladin's PC was asked to continue to follow the clues they had uncovered and given a bag of gold by his Church superiors to buy him and his associates mounts and enough food to get to the next site. As they get into so little combat the attrition on their gear is minimal and I allowed the Ranger to craft more arrows in downtime. TBH, as only one of them had played AD&D before I wanted to keep the bean counting to a manageable level in case it put them off. I am tracking time (loosely, so I know where we are on the campaign calendar and generally have been reinforcing that if they want to fine-tooth-comb any place then any spells will have worn off by the time they are finished) but no training costs, their only henchman willingly joined them because they'd saved and taken care of the rest of his gang, and I also assume that when travelling across country (which I'm not doing as a hexcrawl) then the Ranger and Druid between them can keep them in game, roots, berries and water. Handwaving a few other things, but I am enforcing consumables for the wizard, and the cost of ink to write new spells (as well as the time it takes so they're having to make decisions about how long they can afford to sit around while he does it).

SO...this post is not intended to 'throw Joe under the bus' (for the record,  I feel I tried to give some helpful, compassionate advice on the discord channel), but I want to use this post to illustrate some bad DMing habits, and how they wreck your game.  Joe's not the only DM out there who has gone all loosey-goosey when running his/her campaign, worrying that "bean counting" is going to ruin the fun and enjoyment of the game. It's a common occurrence. And it ends up causing all sorts of issues as the DM has to patch one leak and then another and then another until the campaign is finally sunk.

Here's "absolute truth #1:" AD&D runs on treasure. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Treasure acquisition drives the game; it is the objective goal that focuses the players, encourages cooperation, rewards ingenuity, and makes for exciting game play. It is the main road to advancement, which results in greater character effectiveness, which opens more content for exploration. It is objective and concrete: a solid, non-arbitrary, non-subjective goal. It starts and spurs action.

Your players should ALWAYS be interested in, and looking for, treasure.

If they're not, then there is something wrong with your campaign setting, pal. There is a distinct lack of attention being paid to the world building. Different players have different amounts of ambition; different players have different amounts of caution. Relative ambition and relative caution are the two "dials" that determine how fast advancement occurs...the drive to pursue treasure. But the desire for treasure should be a constant imperative of AD&D game play. If it's NOT, then some examination is probably necessary.

Read Joe's response again, and let's take this point by point:
  • Paladins aren't getting gold from their Church; they are GIVING gold to their Church. The tenets of the paladin class are pretty clear: they are required to donate the bulk of their wealth to charitable institutions. These characters are MONEY-MAKERS for their religion; certainly, the Church will send them on missions, but with the expectation that they will be returning with vast amounts of loot to fill the clergy's coffers. Hell, they should be positively TASKED with this expectation.
  • Crafting arrows (or any kind of weapon or armor) is not the purview of a character class; unless a character possesses a secondary skill of bowyer/fletcher the making of arrows should be far more mysterious than the using of said arrows. And making arrows isn't as simple as whittling some tree branches...arrows suitable for penetrating armor (whether that of orcs or bandits or dragonhide) are going to need metal tipped heads, specially forged. And where is the ranger getting feathers for fletching? And are they taking the time to steam and straighten and lacquer the shafts? Have they paid for the equipment they need to craft the arrows? Unlikely, since they don't have the money to purchase a quiver themselves.
  • I don't do "training costs" myself, but I DO charge monthly character expenses (DMG p.25) to take into account (in an abstract fashion) all those other sundry costs that come from BEING A LIVE FUNCTIONING PERSON. And henchfolk need those 'cost of living' expenses met, too! Sure, the player characters can choose to be unbathed, unshaved, dressed in filthy, patched rags, and sleep in the dirt outside of town...but after a month or two of that, even the most grateful "found" henchperson is going to walk away. Who wants to live like that? After braving hardship and danger, risking life and limb, you can't even get a bath or a change of clothes? Are you kidding me? Those henchmen are going to walk!
  • Leaving aside how difficult "foraging" enough food for a half dozen people might be, leaving aside how time intensive hunting can be (i.e. how many days it might take to even locate game), just how much energy is a group of adventurers going to need for hiking through the wilderness and battling monsters? After a couple weeks of subsisting on "roots and berries" are they going to be in any condition to fight?  ALSO, working animals (horses, mules, etc.) do not subsist on "game, roots, and berries." Nor do they simply "graze." They need animal feed...and lots of it!...especially if they are carrying burdens or riders. Any steeds are going to die of starvation and overwork if chained to an impoverished adventuring party.
Players these days seem not to grasp the logistics of "adventure" these days. It's not their fault, of course: they've been weened on really sub-par fantasy literature, video games, and films that focus on spectacle over substance. Sign of the times. I was somewhat the same as a youth, though at least I'd done SOME camping as a Boy Scout, and could extrapolate a bit. But reading good adventure fiction also helps immensely. I've been doing some of that lately...checking out old Tarzan novels, H. Rider Haggard, Harold Lamb, etc. Books that deal with provisioning, overland travel, and exploration. The COST of expeditions in these books make it clear to the undertakers that they must have success in their ventures (i.e. they must reap some sort of monetary/financial reward). It is an absolute imperative...otherwise, they might as well not bother trying to get back to civilization.

This is The Way of adventure gaming: adventure gaming of the sort AD&D provides can sustain long-term, engaging play when run in this fashion. "Oh, how boring. Where's the story?" cry some. Look: I enjoy a good escapist novel or popcorn film as much as anyone...but the thing about such stories is 1) they tell the story, and then 2) they're done. Move on to the next distraction. Adventure gaming provides long-term, sustained doesn't end. There's no "beginning, middle, climax" of a story. We are playing (imaginary) people's LIVES. We are creating/exploring a fantastical (imaginary) WORLD. It is the highest form of imaginary gameplay...why would you want to shrink it to a simple "story?"

So you need costs. Because you need incentives. Because that is the gameplay loop that gets you to adventure gaming. The fewer the costs, the less incentive. And, thus, the less adventure.

My players are currently running through my rewrite of I3. It's not has different maps, different encounters, different background. It's actually pretty much nothing like I3, except that it features a pyramid in a desert wasteland. Oh, and there's an exterior temple with some fanatics. Yeah, that's about where the similarities end (except that there will be two additional sections of "desert wasteland," featuring a shifty "nomad town" and a "lost wizard tomb" a la I4 and I5). 

Why are the players heading out into the rugged wasteland that is southern Idaho? Because they've heard of this pyramid that might have left over loot in it. This is pretty crazy for 1st level characters (the adventure is geared to levels 3rd - 5th) but they are a determined, ambitious (crazy) bunch. Still, they had to use all their coin just to buy a mule and provisions for a three day journey from the last civilized outpost (Rattlesnake Station), choosing the roughest, most direct route to their destination to save on expenses. They have to succeed in finding treasure...failure is no longer an option. They have pushed all their chips into the pile: they'll either come away with fabulous wealth, or they'll be rolling up six new PCs. 

When you run a campaign that has adequate costs, "hooking" players into action becomes very, very easy. Treasure becomes the primary motivator, the number one incentive, and all the DM must do is dangle the idea of a payday in front of the players. They'll travel to ancient and hostile cities, deliver freight by ship through pirate & monster infested waters, brave scorching deserts, frozen tundras, primeval forests filled with inhuman faery creatures. No one in their right mind goes into some fortified tomb riddled with slimes, undead, and death traps...unless there's the opportunity for a huge score. But that huge score is only enticing if and when the players have needs

You, DM, must provide those needs.

I don't run my game in a strict 1:1 time fashion, except between adventures (i.e. outside the dungeon). I charge expenses every game month that passes, even if the PCs are "out on safari" (in the wilderness, in the dungeon) 20 days out of the is presumed, they'll have even more costs, once they finally reach the safety of town/civilization. Those expenses eat wealth at a high rate, even without training costs. If my players' 6th level parties go 4 months between adventures (because we can't get together, or because they're focusing on other characters), they'll each need to hand over 2,400 g.p. when we pull those characters out again, plus the costs for their henchfolk. That could easily add up to a bill of more than 10K. Even if they invest some of their loot in money-making ventures (a wise choice), I'm going to charge their liquid assets...and with a long enough period of inactivity, they may be left with nothing more than the income from their dry goods store (or whatever). And if that is how they want to live out their (imaginary) lives perhaps it's time to simply retire the character from play.  

Old TSR modules are littered with retired adventures running taverns and inns and shops. 

AD&D runs on treasure. It is the only incentive you really need, although players (when engaged with a campaign) always seem to find other motivations for action (revenge and charity are the two I most often see). But treasure should ALWAYS be there, as an incentive...for engagement, for action. And it always will be long as you, DM provide them with reasons to need the money.

; )

Wednesday, May 29, 2024


Hope folks had an enjoyable Memorial Day weekend. Mine was chock-full (as long weekends tend to be with wife and kids) much so that I spent most of yesterday just "catching up" on things.

As such, I haven't taken the time to mention my meeting with Alexis Smolensk last Friday...and darn it, he beat me to the punch, despite having to drive back across the country!


It's funny, this day and age we live in. I've "known" Alexis...emailed with him, done podcasts with him, blogged about him, even (briefly) participated in his on-line game...for close to fifteen years. Longer than my children have been alive. And, yet, this is the first time I've had the chance to meet the man, the myth, the legend (I'm sure he would laugh at that appellation). He and his partner were out on the west coast, and so (flattering, this is) took the time to drive down from Vancouver. Just to shake my hand and buy me a beer.  

Touching...though I'm sure I'd have done the same if (for God knows what reason) I was driving through the frozen wilderness of Alberta.

[I mean, I suppose I could cut up there from Montana, one of these summers but there's a DAMN GLACIER between Kalispell and the Canadian border. Jeez...]

I digress. It was fun. He had wanted to meet my family, and I arranged dinner reservations for the six of us, but in the eleventh hour we (mutually) decided our time would be better spent just hanging out and "talking shop." Which we did, whiling away a perfectly grey and drizzly Seattle afternoon in a run-down, nautically-themed dive bar in the heart of Lynnwood's strip mall sprawl. 

No, this was not The Baranoff...we were at the far more creatively named "Pub 44." Um...let's see if I can get a good screen shot:

Not pictured: dark, cramped interior, pool tables,
rotting dinghy hanging from ceiling.

Pretty much perfect, in other words.

Alexis and I spent the better part of 4ish hours, hanging and talking. A lot of talk about writing, publishing, and blogging. Stuff about D&D. Patreon. Some stuff about generational divides. Some personal stuff. 

Mainly, though, we just spent the time getting to know each other...these two people who have never met or interacted in a physical space together. Trying to gauge the differences between our "on-line personas" and who these real human beings are. Sizing each other up, conscious of being judged by the other, and yet trying to be as authentic as comfortable, out of the mutual respect we share for each other.

It was odd. But fortunately, it's a dance we've both been through...mine most recently at last year's Cauldron convention, when I had the chance to meet and interact with folks like Prince and Melan and Settembrini and Raggi. People who have put so much of their soul's out over the ether-webs...both in writings and podcasts. Does the "real person" bear any resemblance to the "virtual person?" One can only tell by actually encountering the human behind the screen.

So...probably should write my impressions of Alexis the man (as opposed to "Alexis the writer" or "Alexis the DM"). I'm sure he, at least, is curious of my thoughts after our meeting.

I think that...some...folks would be surprised. For a guy 10 years my senior (I'm 50, folks) who'd just spent several days on the road (and just got into town a couple hours before we me), Alexis comes across as a vibrant, energetic man of middle years. "Animated" isn't the correct word to describe implies (for me, at least) "hyperactive" and there wasn't anything "hyper" about him, though he does gesture more than I do. The word I want to use is "galvanized"...the man has an inner fire and verve (?) to him. Even relaxing in a booth, drinking beer, talking in leisurely fashion, he gives the impression of being fully engaged

Bright eyes. There is an intelligence behind them that is neither lazy nor slothful.

Alexis is very, very observant. Extremely so, scarily so. There were times (once or twice) when I could tell, based on what he said, that he had been carefully observing me...not just my words, but my non-verbal cues. Like a parlor trick that gives the illusion of reading someone's mind. It seemed obvious (to me) that he wasn't doing this purposefully, to disconcert me and was, in fact, holding back...not drawing attention to what he was order to not disconcert me. I appreciated (and still appreciate) that. But I did notice...just as I noticed we were both somewhat selective in what we chose to discuss with each other. "Safe" subjects (or subjects we assumed were safe). As you do, with someone you just met.

Even someone with whom you feel a great affinity.

Physically, Alexis is about my height, perhaps a smidge taller, but very thick, in comparison. Trim enough, for a man his age (he's been exercising lately, for health reasons). Grey hair, medium-long, pulled back in a (small) ponytail. Clean-shaven (note to self: if the hair goes grey, you look a lot younger without a Gandalf beard). Glasses that don't hide those intelligent eyes.

But not an intimidating man. He is warm, not fiery. Friendly. He is a grandfather, a teddy bear.. Admits to being a hugger; he is tender and considerate of his partner. He is self-effacing. He talks about being old...but only as a point of fact, not as a nostalgic, "get off my lawn" curmudgeon. Alexis is a progressive; he is a futurist (at least, in comparison to me) or, more accurately, a realist. He embraces the usefulness of technology. He seems to despise only uselessness and ignorance, though he has little time or patience for institutions that have (in his opinion) reached obsolescence. 

He loves D&D. He is an unabashed, unashamed, unafraid D&D nerd. From long habit, I tend to hide my nerdiness under a veneer of "normalcy," unless and until the subject is brought up. Alexis does not. Telling the bartender or barista he's a DM that teaches people how to play D&D comes as readily to his banter as saying he's just visiting from Canada. He is what he is. And he loves it. He lives it.

[second note to self: you can grow up without growing old. Better than the other way 'round]

It was a good time. We both, I believe, got something of the measure of each other. We were able to connect on a level that was personal, not just electronic. And because of that, I think our respect for each other has deepened. I know mine has. It was a good meeting. I'm glad we were able to do it.

Anyway. I would be remiss if I didn't say at least something about my admiration for Alexis. How much I appreciate the impact he's had on my gaming hobby. It was nice to meet someone for whom you have admiration and come away NOT being disappointed. That doesn't always happen. It was also ESPECIALLY nice that he had some kind words to say about my writing...I had really not expected that. 

And that's about all I want to say. Except this: I scratched on the eight ball in our FIRST game of pool, and I left you with four balls on the table in our second. Come on, Old Man, your memory starts slipping after two beers? Jeez!
; )

Friday, May 24, 2024

Illusionary Post

I am at the point now where I think I have probably spent more time working through the illusionist class than Gary Gygax ever did.

[oh, hello! What's this? Well, it's NOT the thing(s) I've been working on the last couple weeks. Sometimes, when you hit a wall writing...which I need to step sideways to get back on track. Another D&D post for the fun of it]

Once upon a time, I spent a whole LOT o' time writing about the, here and here and here. Good stuff (there's also this bit about color spray and gnomes...for the interested)). Worth a read, I suppose. But that was all waaay back before I took up the AD&D sword again; I was still futzing around with OD&D in those days, rather than simply playing the game. Tinkering. The silly mental exercises we do rather than, you know, doing the real work (i.e. world building and running). 

Here's a choice quote from my most recently blogged thoughts on the illusionist (post-return to AD&D):
As reworked by Gygax for the AD&D system, the spell list for the class is...poor. ...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?

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)....
In other words, I punted on the matter.  What I have found...over and over that with regard to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there is very little that needs to be changed to improve the game's overall effectiveness. It functions, and functions well, within the parameters of the rule system as designed.  We argue and critique and hypothesize and debate but when played with the intention of, you know, "playing D&D"...when played intentionally the game works just fine. Most of the adjustments I've made...or proposed...over the years either ended up falling away (i.e. I moved back to the Rules As Written), the case of B/X and OD&D games...were simply moving the system towards 1E. And now I play 1E. That's half the battle right there.

So then, why am I poking at the illusionist?  Because the class IS still a bit of a mess. 'But JB! You just said...' Yeah, yeah, I know what I just said. Give me a minute.

The most recent CAG podcast focused squarely on the 1st edition illusionist class: a very good discussion, and I found myself in agreement with nearly all of it. Oh, some of my stronger quibbles have to do with the phantasmal forces spell, and the implication that nerfing it (for example, not allowing it to do real, actual damage) is akin to restricting the fighter to only doing subdual damage...but regardless of which side you land upon that particular debate, the major point (we do not want to include a class no one wants to play) is valid, and is one requiring some examination.

So: let's talk about it. Is the illusionist a class worth having in the game? Is is a class worth playing?

As a concept, I think the class is fine...more than fine, actually. It fills a very interesting niche, much the same way that the druid fills a niche. The cleric is the high priest archetype (well, at the higher levels, of course. To start, the cleric is quite a bit farther down the food chain of the church hierarchy). But whether your cleric is modeled on the medieval Christian church or the ancient temples priests of Rome, regardless this is the pomp and ritual and institutionalized religion with all its sacred trappings, bells, and, candles. 

And the druid is not of that: they represent the more earthy, shamanic traditions, communing with Mother Earth, the animals, the base elements of nature. That is a great niche...with a great suite of special abilities!...that is somewhat like a cleric (hey, there's 'worship' going on!) but is very, very different. A nice change of pace.

The illusionist is to the magic-user what the druid is to the cleric...a very different type of spell-caster, one who has taken a different road when it comes to weaving magic. While the magic-user seeks to alter and change reality, bending it to his/her will, the illusionist says "to hell with reality! I can just bend the mind and the perception of what reality is."  Which is awesome. It's a different approach to using magic...but one that requires a certain type of player ingenuity to make function. It is a far more subtle type of character to play: yes, a player does have to think in terms of trickery to use their magic with effective results, because the illusionist doesn't have the same direct powers as the MU does with spells like burning hands or knock

Mostly, that is. As EOTB points out in the aforementioned podcast, one can play an illusionist as just a pocket magic-user, with a selection of simple, direct magics: spells like color spray, wall of fog, invisibility, blindness, etc. don't require any heavy mental lifting to use, no negotiation with the DM regarding an opponent's "disbelief" and possible saving throw. Unlike the various phantasm spells, these are simple, direct applications that...if a player chooses to stick to 'em...result in a character that appears (mostly) like any other magic-user, albeit one with a different bag of tricks.

To the main issue: it's not the concept that's the problem, it's the spells on the illusionist's list that fail to "punch their weight," especially as the illusionist climbs higher in level. Sure, it's nice to get phantasmal forces as a 1st level spell and maze as a 5th level, but other spells are simply lame in comparison to the magic's gained by an MU of similar x.p. total. And do I want every illusionist in the game to be pocketing the exact same selection of "most effective" spells? No, I do not.

SO, in order for the class to be viable for one's game...something VERY desirable to me, given the delightful way the class fills its particular niche...the illusionist must be viable over the long-term, i.e. not just for the first five or six levels of play. And that means correcting Gygax's corrections to the original (Pete Aronson) spell list.

[by the way: in preparation for this task, I did take the opportunity to review all the "new" illusionist spells presented in the Unearthed Arcana. In general, I hate them all with (perhaps) a single exception (phantom steed). To me, all these new spells are FILLER, most more-or-less duplicating other spell effects (both illusionist and otherwise) in a slightly more specific fashion. These could be good ideas for illusionists wanting to pursue magical research, but I certainly wouldn't make any of them "standard"]

Here, then, is how I'd curate the illusionist spells; adjustments have been made by comparing relative x.p. values at which a spell is gained compared to the spells granted to spell-users of the same x.p. total in other classes, with some caveats (illusions are, for example, easier to master). In many cases, defaulting back to the original Aronson spell lists were appropriate. I've also added one or two new spells of my own:

1st Level (14): audible glamer, change self, color spray, dancing lights, darkness, detect illusion, detect invisible, gaze reflection, hypnotism, light, mirror image, phantasmal image, ventriloquism, wall of fog

2nd Level (12): blindness, blur, deafness, detect magic, dispel illusion, fog, hypnotic pattern, improved phantasm, invisibility, magic mouth, misdirection, rope trick

3rd Level (12): color bomb*, continual darkness, continual light, dispel exhaustion, fear, hallucinatory terrain, illusionary script, invisibility 10' radius, non-detection, paralyzation, spectral force, suggestion

4th Level (10): confusion, dreams*, emotion, improved invisibility, massmorph, minor creation, phantasmal killer, phantom steed**, shadow door, shadow monsters

5th Level (10): chaos, demi-shadow monsters, major creation, phantoms*, programmed illusion, projected image, shadow jump***, shadow magic, summon shadows, veil

6th Level (8): conjure animals, demi-shadow magic, mass suggestion, maze, permanent illusion, prismatic spray, shades, true sight

7th Level (6): alter reality, astral spell, phantom prison****, prismatic wall, spectral life****, vision

*  Spell description can be found in Aronson's original manuscript
** As per Unearthed Arcana (I feel so dirty)
*** As transport via plants (druid spell) but with shadows.
**** Spells of my own design: the former is adapted from my (Holmes) spell mind warp, the latter is adapted from Aronson's create specters (the original version, not the version appearing in The Strategic Review)

In my campaign, illusionists begin with three spells, randomly determined, each of which may be cast once per day (so all illusionists know/cast a number of spells as listed in the PHB plus two first level spells). To determine starting spells, roll 1d12; however, an illusionist will only be taught audible glamer OR ventriloquism (not both) and will only be taught light OR darkness (not both) before starting their career. 

There are no reversible illusionist spells. Illusionists automatically read illusionist magic.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024


The blog is going to go silent for a bit. I have several projects I'm working on, and I want to be a bit more focused in my writing. My apologies to the regular readers.

[okay, maybe the blog won't be COMPLETELY "silent," but I am not going to stress about getting out weekly posts...especially posts with tremendously useful content]

But...I'm still alive and well. Just busy.
; )