Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Battle of Tharizdun

I'm doing something a little different this week.  First off, I'm posting a game report mid-week; I usually put them up Friday or Saturday, right before the next game.  But this one is loaded with pictures, as I want to give the players time to study the final disposition of the battle before Saturday so they formulate strategy.  They're in a tight spot.

Here's the situation.  Last game session, the party scouted a location they were calling the Black Temple.  It's actually the site of WG4 THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE OF THARIZDUN.  Tharizdun is another storied Gygaxian location in Greyhawk, and the designer notes indicate it was used in Gary's campaign as an adjunct to S4 THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH.  Gygax's creations are known for intense tactical combat, and Tharizdun has the potential for a fierce pitched battle right near the entrance.

The Black Temple exterior is a step pyramid up on a mountain top, with a large ramp leading into the side of the top tier.  A yawning passage leads into the side of the pyaramid.

The group sent an invisible thief up ahead to scout, who came back with a fairly detailed description of the interior, and the disposition of the various monster guards.  When he returned, they set about to battle planning.  This took a lot of time, but it was one of those situations where the planning was the important part of the game.

Initial monster set up after scouting

The party used a combination of invisibility effects and silence 15' spells to get their elf fighter magic user surreptitiously into the entranceway to open hostilities, while the rest of the group hung back to wait for his signal.  He tossed away the rock carrying the Silence spell, and opened hostilities with a Sleep spell.  That picture above is how things looked right before the elf threw the first Sleep spell. Groups of norkers and gnoll archers milled about on guard duty.

Cast of characters
You can see in this one, the group has thrown some sleep spells and moved in to engage.  The pennies indicate sleeping monsters.  I've mentioned that the movement rates in AD&D are really high compared to classic D&D, three times as fast, so characters can move super far.  One player described it like being able teleport around the map.  For example, a fighter in classic D&D can move 4 squares on a 5' grid each round; in AD&D the same fighter can move 12 squares.  Unarmored guys move 24!  That's like walking in from the next town over.  So they were able to send the fighters to the flanks and the thieves straight ahead to start knifing sleeping monsters.

Unfortunately, things were about to take an ugly turn for the players.

The battle changes as the net falls
When the players first sent the thief up to search the entry way, two things went wrong:  the thief missed a find traps roll, and when he described his search procedure, he completely omitted looking up or checking the ceiling; he missed seeing the large weighted net clinging up there, 30' up in the shadows.  There were also some monsters hiding behind the entrance wall, controlling the net, that they missed on that first scouting trip.

The norkers hiding behind the entrance walls dropped the net, catching the clerics and magic users underneath a tarry mess, with weights and hooks.  Because the characters all ended up near the edges, they had the chance to crawl their way out, but it would still take a few rounds, and they were getting pummeled by monsters with clubs in the meantime.

Mister Moore was right in the middle of the net, but his brownie familar, Packer, used Dimension Door to get him to the other side of the hall.  Once he was recovered from the jaunt, he lined up a wicked lightining bolt (pictured) and this helped quite a bit.  He would later snap off a fireball close by, as monsters swarmed him from the other side of the hall.

Unfortunately, the fighters were penned in by combatants, and they kept missing attack rolls.  The druid and his bear companion had stayed back, avoiding the net, and giving the druid a chance to use Speak with Animals to get the bear ready for some fighting.  Here's how things looked after the bear mauled its way through some norkers and moving closer to the front:

Druid to the rescue
The fighters are still pinned and surrounded.  The two thieves, Grumble the Halfling and Digit the Elf Thief (the miniature with a sack over his shoulder) have been taking a beating since they were acting like front line fighters.  Both of them now have hit points down to the teens.  The clerics and magic users just escaped the netting and haven't had a chance to start engaging.

Board layout after Round 5
We use a battlemat about half the time, depending on how complicated is the situation.  Since this one started with 40-50 monsters and characters, the miniatures and little wooden blocks really help keep it straight.  I snapped the pictures to document the battle for the guys that missed, and also so we can set the board again next weekend.  We game in an upstairs study that's not usually ransacked by the kiddos, but you can't be too sure with a 5 year old on the loose.

I'm curious to hear if other folks have played THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE OF THARIZDUN, but try to stay away from too many spoilers in the comments, since my players will read the game report to study the tactical situation for next week's game.  They've got two injured thieves holding down the front line, their 7th level magic user is all alone at the front of the hall, their clerics took a beating getting out of the net, and their three tough fighters are engaged on the flanks - they've got plenty to think about.  And is that the sound of reinforcements coming up the stairs?

Next week should be interesting.  Let me know if the picture-by-picture display is worth it, maybe we'll do it again next week to finish off this battle.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Questions, Questions, Questions

The theme of the weekend gaming blogosphere was QUESTIONS.  Brendan posted a survey on DMing rules styles, and then I was tagged by the Evil DM.

This is a classic case of "do as I say, not as I do..."  We're currently playing AD&D, and trying to play as by-the-book as possible, and that means stepping outside my comfort zone and seeing things from a different perspective.  I'll answer these questions assuming I didn't currently have a social experiment in 1979-style AD&D running in my regular game slot.

Ability scores generation method?
3d6 in order

How are death and dying handled?
Zero hit points, d-e-a-d

What about raising the dead?
Definitely, at the local church.  For money. Unless I'm going for a gritty, horror-themed D&D game, my default approach supports Raise Dead.

How are replacement PCs handled?
A level below the lowest character in the group.

Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
I prefer Individual initiative, but Group initiative works best for large groups and kids (which usually describes my groups).

Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
I prefer Crits as max damage, not double damage.  (But players sure love that double damage).

Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
It's an assumed part of the armor class.  If a player ditches their helmet, their head is AC 9.

Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?

Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
Be prepared to run.

Level-draining monsters: yes or no?

Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
Yes, that comes with the territory.

How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
Too strictly for the player's taste.  Systems like LOTFP or ACKS that simplify encumbrance calculation really help split the difference.

What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
Return to town or any civilized spot for rest and recovery to gain levels.  Low level magic users need to be near their teacher, but by mid-levels they get their own spells through research and scrolls.

What do I get experience for?
Treasure and monsters.  I tend to give small, occasional ad hoc awards to the kids gaming with us when they exercise ingenuity and good problem solving skills.

How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
Proper description will allow anyone to find traps, but dice rolling can also work if the thief searches the right area.

Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
Retainers are necessary for survival, and morale is checked as required.

How do I identify magic items?
Experimentation and use

Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
It's not common, but definitely possible at the right market

Can I create magic items? When and how?
Both my preferred clone rules (LOTFP and ACKS) have excellent magic item creation rules

What about splitting the party?
Not recommended, but allowed

How is alignment used?*
Alignment reflects cosmic allegiance, and is not a straitjacket on behavior.

Are demi-human level limits enforced?*

*Those last two questions I added, but they seem to be common fault lines in OSR games.

What made you decide to write a blog?
I became a regular reader of some blogs and decided it looked like tons of fun.  Huge Ruined Pile was one my favorites back then, until it went MIA.  Once I actually became a blogger, I discovered there are a ton of great blogs out there.

What would you say has been the highlight of your blogging career to date?
Most of the folks who read my blog are fellow gamers, and enjoy either D&D or Call of Cthulhu, so I tend to think we have a ton in common.  Far and away the best thing about blogging is seeing ideas bounce around amongst the blogs, and picking up new ones from the rest of the gaming community.

Name your favourite animal.
My dog.  She licks the side of my face sometimes and is always happy to see me.

What has been the best thing to ever happen to you?
My dad brought home a copy of the 1981 Moldvay boxed set for basic Dungeons & Dragons on the way home from work because he thought I'd like it.  How awesome is that?  He's a great guy; one time he got me tickets for Die Walküre for Lincoln Center because I love opera, even though it bored him to tears and he dozed through the last act.  I've been able to see Siegfried at the Met as well, but I haven't seen live performances of Das Rheingold or Götterdämmerung yet.

These days, my wife and family are the bringers of great joy.  But I would't be the same person without developing that deep love for fantasy, games, and literature, back in 1981.

You are in a lift with a Nun, a middle-aged business man, a Karl Marx look-alike, a twenty-something female charity worker and Stephen Hawking. The lift shudders to a stop, the lights go out. There is a high-pitched scream followed by a thud. The lights come on and the Nun is lying dead on the floor with a knife in her chest. Who did it and why?

I saw that exact movie.  Stephen Hawking did it, because he's secretly the devil, and when the lights go out again, someone else is going to be killed.  All the people on the elevator have dark, hidden crimes, and their souls are being collected to pay for their awfulness.  For instance, the female charity worker once cheated on a test.  Stephen Hawking has no mercy for cheaters, especially when its a math or science test.

Name your favourite colour.
Orange.  It's the color of Broncos jerseys and pumpkins.  I have a ton of orange shirts.

What has been the scariest thing to ever happen to you?

I had eye cancer and needed to have a major operation.  I still have the eye, but the vision in that one eye isn't great.  All hope of me playing professional baseball was gone (not that I had any to start).  The cancer was totally gone, but that was pretty scary stuff.  Luckily it was a long time ago!

You are about to break the world record for the tallest house of cards in front of a crowded room of onlookers and world press. All of a sudden, some idiot parent allows their errant child to charge over, knocking into your table, sending your world record beating attempt crashing around you. What do you do next?

I wake up in a cold sweat, and tell my wife we should never have kids.  Then she tells me, it's too late, we have three of them.  I can't stop screaming after that.

If you had to spend a month on a tropical island, what four luxury items do you take with you?

Notebooks, graph paper, and and a package of mechanical pencils.  I'd finally get the Black City done.  For the last item, I was considering some weights to stay in shape, but maybe that's not such a problem on a tropical island.  Instead, I'm now thinking the last thing would be a book -either The Worm Ouroboros or The Chronicles of Amber.  Both are hefty reads that are on my list to read again.

Once on your tropical island you are allowed to have one person of your choice to stay with you. Now this can be anyone famous, living or dead, fictional and from any period of time/history - loved ones are not allowed - who do you choose and why?

Dejah Thoris.  Because she's a famous pulp fantasy adventurer and would help with campaign inspiration.  She'd be along for her mind, you perverts.

What has been the worst impulse purchase of a totally useless item (one you convinced yourself into believing you needed, but didn't)? What was it, and do you still have it?

4th Edition.  Luckily, I ebayed all the 4E stuff well before the WOTC announcements.  Honorable mentions still in my gaming closet include a huge box full of these little plastic Pirates of the Spanish Main plastic cards/models, or maybe the Heroclix Watchmen collector set, which we've never actually used in a Heroclix game.  Total impulse buy.  But most of the time I ruthlessly divest gaming stuff that I no longer intend to use.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Cthulhu Campaign Elements

So far in the Lovecraftian sandbox, I've focused on the kind of campaign structure and investigations that support player choice and agency; I'm ready to wrap the series up next week with a sample campaign.  This week we'll look at a bunch of elements that frequently show up in Cthulhu games.  I'm putting this list together to make sure I "check off the right boxes" as I compile notes for the setting.

This one is pretty obvious, most investigations involve a (human) villain or cult, and usually some kind of Cthulhoid horror.  If you're starting your scenario design with the awful truth and working backwards, you've had to figure this out already.  I find some of the most interesting villains are those that end up using Mythos magic as a means and not an end, and don't consider themselves insane worshippers of an outer god.  It always goes horribly wrong for them, like the guy that built Jurassic Park.   Munch munch.

I don't recall too many recurring organizations in Lovecraft's actual stories, but they're excellent devices in a campaign.  An individual antagonist can be removed, but the organization endures and continues to plot against the player characters (or the world).  Well-known examples in some of the published campaigns include The Masters of the Silver Twilight, or the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh.  I really like some of the organizations in the Delta Green book, like the Karotechia (undead nazi sorcerors) or The Fate (mythos wizards running an organized crime network).  One of the closest examples in Lovecraft's work would be the Cthulhu Cult, as we catch glimpses of a world-spanning conspiracy in the eponymous story.

Eldritch Places and Ominous Locales
Investigations will already feature interesting and ominous locations; when I think of this as a campaign element, it means putting in a recurring location that will have an impact beyond a single investigation.  It could be a mundane location with occult overtones like The Fate's Club Apocalypse, or something completely beyond the mortal realm, like The Great Library of Celaneo (an alien library orbiting a distant star, only reachable via magic).  Resources and sources of knowledge are ideal for this role.

My view of the Lovecraft campaign structure involves the players belonging to an organization that allows the campaign to survive frequent character death; the first set of NPCs will be other folks in the organization, peers and patrons.  In the Armitage campaign idea, this would mean students and other professors.  Recurring (mundane) locations should have NPCs associated with them, and as we learn more about the player characters, some personal attachments can be added, too.

I tend to be on the fence about how much time to require players to put into background notes up front; ideas like pillars of sanity and sources of stability from Trail provide some convenient mechanics for at least jotting down quick notes without too much depth, so that's probably the approach I'd use for campaign play.

It might seem obvious, but one of the best uses for bystanders is vicarious horror.  Inflicting horrible things on bystanders foreshadows what might happen to the player characters, and builds tension before the player characters become directly exposed to the awful truth.

Tomes and Artifacts
A number of Lovecraft stories directly involve eldritch tomes or artifacts, so this is another element that will probably end up in some investigations already.  Two quick examples the reader will recall would be the Necronomicon itself, and the Shining Trapezohedron from Haunter in the Dark.  I like eldritch tomes in the campaign, because they present real dilemmas for players to decide how much to read them because of the associated sanity loss.  The other suggestion here is to consider multipart artifacts, so that the artifact's significance extends longer into the campaign.  One that jumps to mind are the many pieces of the R'lyeh Disc, which show up in Shadows of Yog Sothoth as a scavenger hunt theme.

That's it for this week; I'll pull it all together next week and put up a sample Lovecraft sandbox.  Well, I'm calling it a "sample", but it could easily be the one I use this spring when we start some episodic Cthulhu games.

--On the image above: Anyone remember Chaosium's old Mythos TCG card game from the 90's?  I must have a thousand of those in a card box in the attic - I might have to bust them out sometime for a retrospective.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Troll Fight Deconstructed - Gothic Greyhawk Game 55

Earlier this week, I made a post identifying all the things that stood out for us as "different" in AD&D combat (Playing AD&D Combat Like it's 1979) versus the classic editions we've played the most.  What motivated those observations is the fight described below.  Instead of the normal approach to a game report, I'm changing it up to include a round by round account of how this particular AD&D fight developed.

The party had camped for the night and deployed their standard watches; during one of the shifts, Moore (MU), Mordecai (Cleric), Shy (Fighter), and Digit (Thief), were sharing the watch.  The party typically can't be surprised when Moore is up and active, because his brownie familiar prevents surprise.  The watch men became aware of some monsters at encounter range, when a stench drifted into the camp and they heard the sound of claws clambering on rocks out in the dark.

The group won initiative, and adjusted their placement slightly; the fighter moved to the edge of the camp and "held his combat action", but the casters had no one to target yet and declared no spells; you can’t "attack the darkness".  The elf thief also passed.  They called out for everyone else to wake up; a handful of people started to stir (based on rolls).

One thing I mentioned in the combat post is that movement rates in AD&D are really big.  When the monster's turn came, they had enough movement to close to melee range from out of the darkness (and in AD&D, you can close slowly without giving the other side a swing).  As the monsters entered the firelight, the party saw it was a pair of trolls.

In round 2, Moore declared a fireball, and Mordecai declared a prayer spell.  The party won initiative, and Digit the thief moved off to the flank and ducked out of the light, attempting move/hide rolls.  Shy swung and tagged a troll.  The fireball was aimed so that it would roast the back of the trolls but not the character in melee with them - I make the player make a roll when attempting such finely aimed placement, and use grenade rules to determine the shift, so it's possible to catch your own guy in the blast.  But after reading how AD&D favors catching friendly characters in missile fire (because of the assumed movement during a round) I'm probably being too generous!

Meanwhile, characters that were still in their tents and under blankets started to clamber out and get to their feet in round 2.

On the troll's turn, Shy was targeted by both trolls doing their claw\claw\bite routines, and he took like 30+ damage.

For round 3, more casters were up, and all the arcane casters switched to magic missiles.  The rolled initiative was simultaneous, so spells would be delayed by casting times.  Previously, I said we'd use weapon speed to break ties in simultaneous combat, and the trolls had natural weapons, so their attacks would happen first.  Rolling multiple double damage crits, the trolls did enough damage to put the fighter well below -10 in a single round, killing Shy.  Whether Shy would have gotten a swing was immaterial to the result, but the group got upset that each monster's entire attack routine (like claw/claw/bite) all happens on the same initiative and doesn't get staggered down the segments like player multiple attacks.  Thus, I encouraged everyone to pour over pages 61-71 of the 1E DMG to get a handle on AD&D's combat system (and compare/contrast with how OSRIC streamlined things).

Digit had skirted the trolls and made a sneak roll to come up behind them; by now, other fighters like Leonidas and Kobra, who had clambered to their feet last round, charged the trolls on their turn.  Magic missiles went off a segment later, and the trolls were pounded by 3-4 magic missiles per caster (Forlorn, Moore and Konstantine all unleashed spells).

The fight ended on Round 4, with the party winning initiative and destroying the last troll.  They had plenty of wooden brands to thrust into the fire and cauterize the troll corpses.  Mordecai had been carrying a scroll with Raise Dead, and they decided to Raise Dead on the spot.  This generated a ruling; Raise Dead implies that a character needs a day of bed rest for each day they were dead; what if they were dead only a few minutes?

After seeing what a mess the AD&D weapon speed rules are (at least as presented in the 1E DMG), I'm fairly sure we'll be dropping them, and just using weapon lengths during a charge movement as a differentiator.  But the comments from the other day had some good suggestions, and I'm going to see how 2E suggested using weapon speeds and initiative.

One critique I have for the group's play is how they use the clerics.  We started this campaign using LOTFP (the original version) a long time ago; when the group got to the mid-levels and we agreed to work in all sorts of classic AD&D modules, we converted to Advanced Edition Companion (and now AD&D 1E) because AD&D's classic modules are combat-heavy and AD&D clerics fight as well as fighters - a big change from LOTFP's approach, where clerics never improve at fighting ability.  The group needs to keep that in mind; if the plate-armored cleric had supported the front line with Shy, it's likely they wouldn't have had to waste their Raise Dead.

I have a few quick questions for readers.  I remember Raise Dead caused a 1 point loss in Constitution, but I couldn't find that in either the PHB or DMG; is that only a 2E and later rule?

The AD&D Monster Manual has curious phrasing about trolls and regeneration.  Classic D&D specifically says trolls don't regenerate from being burned with fire or acid; AD&D phrases it differently.  Trolls regenerate (no exclusion for damage types), but the only way to permanently kill them is applying fire or acid.  I read that to mean trolls regenerate from everything, but when they're at zero hit points, that's when burning keeps them dead.  Maybe I'm reading it too closely; maybe you can't read anything in AD&D that closely.

For folks that follow these game reports for the story side of things, here's how the group got to this point:  they had apologized to the gnomes, and through diplomacy, brokered a deal where they would tackle the Black Temple and the monstrous forces that were harassing the gnome vale, while the gnomes would patrol the lost caverns in the interim.  The two groups would use caged pigeons and speak with animals to keep these disparate forces in communication, since they'd be many days apart across mountainous terrain.  The troll encounter happened after days of travel, when the group camped not far from the Black Temple.  They're planning a scouting mission for the following day.

Here was one significant thing:  one of the meatshield rangers earned a name!   The party was tracking the monstrous raiders from the gnome vale across various mountain valleys, but on the third day, a drizzle started around 3am, and by sunrise, the tracks had taken a couple of hours of rain.  The chance to track was down to 5% and dwindling hourly.

Meatshield 1 took the lead and the player attempted a tracking roll - and made it with a 03%!  The group cheered, since they were actually near the Black Temple and found it that morning.  They gave him an immediate promotion to a fully named henchman member of BK Inc.

Meatshield's new adventuring name is "Bing McQuest"; he can find anything for which they're searching.  They debated calling him Yahoo or Google, but figure they can save those for future rangers.

Friday, February 24, 2012

War Versus Sport... and A Game of Thrones

Bronn has just killed Ser Vardis Egen in a duel, and thrown him out of the Moon Door.  The Lady of the castle, Lysa Arryn, is furious.
Lysa Arryn: You don't fight with honor!
Bronn turns to face Lysa, smiling mockingly
Bronn: No...
Bronn points to the open Moon Door
Bronn: ...he did.

There was an idea that spread through the blogs a few weeks ago; a useful way to differentiate new school from old school play styles is to use a metaphor of War versus Sport.  (The idea started on an Enworld thread here:  Combat as sport vs Combat as war).

There is no such thing as a fair fight.  Melee fighting is a last resort, and when it happens, players are expected to use every way possible to get an advantage and stack the odds in their favor.  The DM is under no obligation to provide balanced encounters, so survival is contingent on the players sizing up threats and responding accordingly, including running.  In game terms, Save or Die effects and level drains emphasize the dangers of casual combat.

Later editions create the expectation that fights are essentially fair.  Elements like the challenge rating, encounter level, or encounter experience budget allow and encourage the DM to build combat encounters at or slightly above the group's power level, and the underlying game systems assume opponents are evenly matched.  Players can engage in combat with more confidence of victory, and more time is spent working through intricate tactics within the scope of a tactical combat, instead of figuring out ways outside of the combat to skew the results, as in the "War" approach.

Wow!  Every time I think about the difference between those two approaches to combat, I think of Bronn and last season's A Game of Thrones on HBO.  Bronn is a low-born, scrappy mercenary, who survives in a world of powerful, armored knights, through wits and strategy.

In the scene from above, he sees an opportunity for profit by agreeing to fight Sir Vardis in a trial by combat.  The loser will be thrown out of the Moon Door, an open hole over a yawning abyss; the castle is perched on a mountainside.  Ser Vardis expects a straight up duel, a fair fight; Bronn runs away, throwing obstacles in the knight's path like torches and candelabras, he makes the knight chase him up and down some stairs, even using the crowd as a barrier.  As Ser Vardis tires out, Bronn hits him in the hamstring from behind, limiting his mobility even further.  Then it's all over.

Bronn is OLD SCHOOL.

Season 2, chronicling the events of A Clash of Kings, should be right around the corner - I think it starts April 1st here in the US.  Rock on.  If you missed Season 1, it's worth catching online or on-demand... I read the books years ago, but found the TV series an enjoyable romp.  It provides a game master lots of inspiration for power politics in a fantasy game.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How Do You Read Blogs?

I find that I am split between identities - I've been blogging as "Beedo", an old avatar name from time spent on discussion boards in distant years.  But G+ uses my regular name.  It seems that when you link your blog to your G+ account, the accounts merge and your blogger profile disappears.  Must Beedo die for my G+ account to fully live?

Here's a more serious question - how do you keep up with your favorite blogs these days?  The common options seem to be using Google reader or a similar feed reader- either by subscribing or following a blog; watching your G+ stream for posts; going to the blogroll of one of your favorite bloggers and clicking on blogroll links; bookmarking your favorites; doing a Google search when you feel like checking up on a place.

Before I push the shiny red button and explode Beedo into a cloud of electrons, it seemed like a good time for a poll - let me know how you keep up with your favorite blogs.  Thanks!

Oh - as for me, I tend to use Google Reader.  I urge folks that use blogger to go into their settings under feeds and allow full feeds; many times I can't click through to your place if I'm at the office, but I can still stay in touch with the feed.  Why limit your ability to be read and enjoyed?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Playing AD&D Combat Like It's 1979

It seemed like such a good idea a few weeks ago.  "Hey, you know what fellas?  AD&D is being reprinted!  We're already playing Labyrinth Lord with the Advanced Edition Companion - it's practically AD&D now, so why don't we just convert all the way?"

Let me tell how you that's working out.

First, the good news.  I still have a group of players, and the game hasn't blown up, but then again, I haven't sent out invites for next weekend's game.  (We'll see who shows up).  After a few days of pouring over pages 61-71 of the DMG this weekend, the general consensus from the guys seemed to be, "WTF, Gygax?"

I consider EGG a creative genius; I love his adventure modules, especially those classic high level AD&D romps from the 70's, with their blend of exploration and intricate, tactical combat.  But his gift was not the art of clear and understandable rules.

Here are our observations on how AD&D by-the-book differs from the beloved editions.

There's a requirement of calculating how much the surprised side lost the roll, because they get punched in the face over and over again for that many segments - just bam, bam, bam, straight rights, to the kisser.  Luckily, I don't foresee this happening often; the group has 2 ranger meat shields and a Brownie familiar named Packer, so they usually can't be surprised, and since they clomp around in plate mail holding continual  light spells, the only monsters they can surprise are already deaf and blind.

The high roll wins initiative, but then you calculate the number of segments between the two rolls to determine when the other side gets to go.  So when the party rolls a 5, and the monsters roll a 2, the party actually goes on 1, and the monsters actually go on 4.  Perfectly clear.

My house rule is that the winner is the low roll, and the sides act on the segment showing on the die; in the example of a 2 and a 5, the 2 wins initiative and acts on segment 2, the other side starts on 5.  It keeps the spirit of the rule without the awesome math.

One of the characters was getting double teamed by a pair of trolls last game, and wasn't happy that all 6 attacks were happening at the same time.  Of course, I knew there was a rule calling out "attack routines" like claw\claw\bite as a single attack sequence (and not the AD&D definition of multiple attacks, which happen staggered later in the round), but of course I couldn't find it mid-game.  (It's here in the section on initiative).

Random Missile and Melee Targets
When firing into a melee, you randomly determine the target - including friends.  It turns out you randomly determine the opponent for  a melee swing, too.  No more tactics around "let's whittle down the wounded monster".  Random, I say!

Closing to Striking Range
In classic D&D, every combatant can move 1/3 of their speed each combat round and still make an attack; the typical plate-wearing fighter can move 20' and swing.  Players get used to being able to move and attack.

AD&D handles things… differently.  First off, you can move your entire movement (60' - or should I say - 6") and then neither side gets a swing for the rest of that round.  Monsters that move 12" can cover a gigantic chunk of terrain - that's like the next zip code.  Then they move in carefully the last few feet and ensure neither side gets in an attack.  One of the guys likes this, from the perspective that winning initiative is no longer a penalty - you can saunter up and tie down the front liners.  Everyone else, not so much.

If you really want to move and attack, it's got to be a charge - you lose your AC dexterity bonus, run like mad, but you get a +2 to the swing.  However, the guy with the longer weapon gets the first attack when the charger enters melee distance, and you better hope they don't have spears or pole arms.

I don't mind the AD&D approach to closing to striking range, but the players hate it.  Most of the time, monsters are coming out of the dark, and the party doesn't even see them until they enter the lighted up zone, and then the monsters tie down the front line because they "closed to striking range".  Roll a new initiative.  Muhaha.

Weapon Speed Factors
Weapon speed factors are not very coherent.    I was using speed factors to break the tie in simultaneous combat, but after a closer reading of that section, I saw that it actually says you only use speed factors when both guys are using weapons!  So a natural weapon wouldn’t count, and you wouldn't break out weapon speed factors when fighting monsters armed with claws.  But then the very next sentence goes on to point out that fist/punch (a natural weapon that uses a weapon speed of 1) would strike before a dagger, at speed 2, if there was a tie, and I was back to being thoroughly confused.

I won't even go into the next series of paragraphs, which speak to how one combatant with a really fast weapon might get a bunch of swings before the other guy gets a single swing, all in the same round.  I have no idea how that's meant to interact with multiple attacks, attack routines, and who knows what else.  Everyone should be swinging daggers!

Luckily, there's this quote over on Dragonsfoot where Gary, in later years, had this to say about weapon speeds:

"Aargh!  Forget weapons speed factors. I must have been under the effect of a hex when I included them in the bloody rules."

When the boss says a rule is bunk, I'm glad to drop-kick it.  Hey, what are the odds that WOTC takes a Sharpie to the weapon speed factor section of their reprints and puts Gary's quote in the margins?

OSRIC to the Rescue
Let's say you want to jump on the AD&D bandwagon, like us.  The new books are coming out, and in a euphoria of gamer attention deficit disorder, you too retcon your campaign.  Don't end up with edition beer goggles!  There's no need to wake up in the morning, your hand draped over the 1E DMG, reaching for aspirin and alkaselzer and wondering if you went to one of those Elvis chapels to get permanently hitched to that efreet cover.

OSRIC dumps the weapon speed factors (per the boss's quote up there) and restates the AD&D combat rules simply and clearly.  You get all the perks of running AD&D combat without having to cross-index the text, like a Biblical scholar, and deal with the obfuscation.  Plus, the OSRIC pdf is well-hyperlinked and tablet friendly; you can get your own copy here:  OSRIC.  I can truly appreciate the awesome job those guys did!

The 1E DMG is a great read, but it's not the best reference for use while actually running a game.  I'm reminded how I started with Moldvay BX, and all those years playing "AD&D" back in the 80's meant that we were really just using the BX combat system with the player's handbook and monster manual.  Judging by my player's reactions, they're encountering the AD&D combat system for the first time as well.  Wish us luck as we continue to play (mostly by the book) as if the Moldvay BX edition was never printed in 1980.

I do think the players are *really* enjoying spell components and casting times in melee.  I've got a nose for these things.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Build Your Own Investigation

This week's blogthulhu is looking at different approaches to constructing investigations.  The goal of the series has been to outline a step-by-step approach to building a Cthulhu campaign that can be run as an investigative sandbox; previous columns are here:  Blogthulhu.  Let's look at the advice the core books have provided on structuring investigations.

Call of Cthulhu
The core book presents the classic overview of how a scenario unfolds:
  1. A mystery or crisis is posed
  2. The investigators become linked to the problem.
  3. The investigators attempt to define the mystery.
  4. The investigators use the clues and evidence to confront the danger.
  5. They mystery or problem is solved.
The key step in the classic view is step 3, defining the mystery.  Clues are gathered, NPC's are questioned, and the problem solving happens.  However, there's not a whole lot of method in the old COC book, just some sample investigations.  The other thing I've always remembered from COC is its use of an onion metaphor; each phase of the adventure is like the layer of an onion - once the players penetrate the first layer, they realize there's another layer underneath, and so on.

Trail of Cthulhu
Trail challenges the Keeper to develop three pieces of information - what is the plot hook that engages the characters, what is the horrible truth behind the scenario, and what is the trail of clues that leads from the initial plot hook to the horrible truth?

It seems like common sense to start with the end of the scenario (the horrible truth) and work backwards; start with the center of the onion and cover it with layers, working outwards to the last peel, so to speak.  One thing to be wary of with the Trail approach is this reliance on a breadcrumb trail of clues leading from point A to point B to point C; they call it "the spine", and if the idea is taken too literally, the investigation will seem linear.  In practice, though, it's fairly easy to make sure the path meanders, and to ensure there are events that ratchet the tension or sidetrack the action as the players probe the mystery - Trail calls them "confrontational scenes", and they're a way to introduce reactions by the other side.  Finally, there's this idea of "floating clues", which I'm not terribly fond of, unless I'm using a lot of improvisation in the scenario.  Floating clues are a tool to get an investigation back on track.

Last week's post mapped the flowchart of "The Haunting" as a dungeon, and it can be analyzed using the Trail approach fairly easily.  The horrible truth is that a previous owner of the house, now interred as an undead monster in a secret chamber in the cellar, exerts a baleful influence throughout the house.  There are two trails of clues to follow, a research path that goes through various library, newspaper, and court records, or a physical path that involves careful searching of the basement.  Finally, the plot hook involves being hired by the landlord, after the last set of renters ended up in the asylum.  Simple!  Phrased thusly, you could write an investigation like that, couldn't you?

There are many scenarios that don't use a linear breadcrumb trail of clues to meander along a path, but rather a "cloud" of clues surrounding the subject matter.  I rather think of them more like Call of Cthulhu's "onion peel".  There's a layer or two of obfuscation that conceals the truth, not single path.  I was taking a look at "Edge of Darkness", a popular introductory scenario for COC, and recently read another popular scenario, "Mister Corbett" (from Mansions of Madness), and both scenarios follow a similar structure:  they start with a simple, awful situation.  The players learn enough up front to head right to the site of the scenario, guns blazing (metaphorically, at least), or they can choose to take a circumspect approach and do non-linear research.   For that matter, both "The Haunting" and "The Kingsbury Horror" from last week are really close to this structure as well; while a few of the clues in both scenarios have prerequisites, creating a slight breadcrumb trail, the group is otherwise free to choose between following a research path or kicking down doors.

There are some high profile Cthulhu campaigns that involve lots of directive action by NPC's; the group of players is a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, popping in to observe a key scene when they're sent for, or sent to, a certain locale, and the whole thing involves a lot of puppetry by the game master.  Blech.  A few bad apples have created this reputation that "horror game means rail road".  This is false.  As I review more Cthulhu scenarios, I'll call out the ones that require Keeper puppetry to move the investigation along; there are plenty of well-done alternatives.

One final note; the past two weeks have focused on structure, and identifying structures that support the kind of agency we enjoy in old school games, like the dungeon crawl.  Structure does not equal content.  I'm considering what is to be said about making a good mystery, how much information is too much, and how to create an elegant puzzle that challenges the players.  Another thing to look at is the other elements I like to put in a campaign.  I've got a week to decide which one comes next...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Review of Barrowmaze

I had the chance to read Greg Gillespie's* Barrowmaze this week.  Barrowmaze is a large dungeon beneath a barrow-ridden moorland.   It's not explicitly stated, but my sense is that characters would reach 5th level or so by the time they exhausted Barrowmaze's opportunities - that's a lot of adventuring.  The PDF is 87 pages and you can get it at the usual suspects (Barrowmaze at RPGnow); it's a great value for $6.66.  The statistics are officially for Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion.

The atmosphere of the dungeon makes an immediate impression.  Imagine a haunted moor outside of the nearby village, small hillocks shrouded in mist, hiding barrow mounds, or rings of standing stones, on the crests of the hills.  It's hard not to be reminded of the village of Bree and the famous barrow downs from Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, and it made me realize - it's about time we've seen a cool published adventure that placed a large, sprawling dungeon beneath a haunted moor!

Continuing the theme, the dungeons under the moors are creepy, quiet, and strewn with undead.  A dark power has defiled many of the crypts, transforming the interred remains into hungry monsters.  But the treasures and magic belonged to an ancient culture, and the only thing standing between the adventurers, and great wealth, is whether they have the requisite courage.

Barrowmaze breaks the mold of the traditional vertical dungeon, extending horizontally, instead - the further one travels from the entrance, the more difficult it becomes.  It's loosely divided into four different sections of difficulty -the antechambers, the haunted tombs, deserted dormitories, and finally, the death vault.

The author has used some interesting techniques to reinforce the theme of plundering long sealed tombs.  There are frequent calls for excavation, or smashing through bricked up walls, to reach the hidden room beyond; much of the treasure is interred in burial catacombs (niches) carved into the walls, which require careful searching.  Time is always a factor.  There are 30+ new monsters, although 10 or so of them are conversions, bringing monsters to Labyrinth Lord that you may remember from the Fiend Folio or Monster Manual 2, like the Huecuva or Coffer Corpse.

Fun in the Barrowmaze!
The writing in Barrowmaze is informal; the design notes and introduction read like one gamer speaking to another gamer.  This tone, along with the many pieces of art by Stefan Poag, portraying parties of adventurers in various stages of combat or exploration, gives the adventure a strong hobbyist vibe.  Greg claims that Barrowmaze was the backbone of his home campaign, and it feels like a piece that started as a well-cared for home brew that has been elaborated and developed into a published work, ready for market.

I love the atmosphere of the sprawling labyrinth of crypts and ruins beneath a field of haunted barrow mounds, and I think this would be fun for any old school group to experience.  There are enough factions and mysteries beneath the hills to provide drama, and give a party actual enemies to plot against, besides the many undead horrors.  I guess the best praise is this:  I'm already thinking this one will go to the top of the queue when the weather warms up, and I start another weekend kid's game with my son and his neighborhood friends.  Barrowmaze would slot nicely into The Grand Duchy of Karameikos on the haunted moorlands beyond the town of Kelvin.

Hope you enjoyed the review!

*Greg's alter ego is Kiltedyaksman, over at the Discourse and Dragons blog.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Gothic Greyhawk Game 54 - One Mouthy Mage

Meeting the gnome king from Tsojcanth*

Player Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-7: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf F/MU 5/5: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6:  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-5:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-7:  Z
Konstantine, Magic User-5: Smitty

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf Fighter-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling Thief-7
Donavich, Cleric-5
Boris, Druid-4
Meatshield 1, Ranger-1
Meatshield 2, Ranger-1
Ireena, a Fighter - 5
Vlad the Inhaler, Magic User-1
Meatshield 3, Cleric-1
*Italicized characters are back in Barovia

Since there hasn't been a lot of dungeon crawling lately, I'm endeavoring to keep these game reports brief.

The day after defeating the trio of hill giant brothers, our intrepid adventurers looted their cave, then sojourned through the southern passes towards the gnomish vale.  Mountain highlanders were encountered and befriended, in part due to the party's own clansmen, Meatshield 1 and Meatshield 2, and within a few days, they were escorted to the bucolic gnomish vale; the highlanders were vassals of the gnomish king.  (I have skipped copious roleplaying and blah blah blah).

I know the typical reader couldn't possibly remember the details of what's important in our weekly game sessions, or why the group is obsessed with finding an entire vale full of talking lawn decorations, so here are reminders why the group believes the gnomes are important:  1. They're convinced Tosjcanth is near the gnome vale.  Their target is still THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH, after all.  2.  Leonidas had a vision of a sword in a stone in the gnome vale, and is convinced Zeus granted him a vision of a holy sword he's meant to recover.

During a feast with the gnome king, they learned how the vale was under attack by minions of "the Black Temple", an evil place south and west of the vale.  A long winding tale was told by the DM (back story monologue…. ZZzzzzzzz) about the Elder Elemental God, the awful priests that sought to wake it, and a mighty patriarch and the Knight Valorous that broke the strength of the cult 150 years ago.  The knight died, his sword was sunk in a stone, and the surviving priests of the Black Temple looted the place and went elsewhere.  Now a new power seems to have claimed those ruins, a furious mountain giant, who seems to be building an army of gnome-hating minions.  The vale has been attacked repeatedly, and the stone that held the golden sword was carried off as booty.  Muhaha.  The DM chortles.

Now the group has a dilemma.  The mission they chose for themselves is to find THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH and recover the Demonomicon before their enemies find the book.  Their enemies, all seeking the Demonomicon for themselves, include: a Witch with her army of orcs; a vampire with his army of ghouls; an evil wizard they had once trapped and mortared in a brick cell; the Red Duke (whoever he is); the Prince of Lost Dreams (whoever that is); and the Demon Prince Orcus - because Forlorn read Orcus's Book of Unspeakable Shame and now has godly wisdom for it.  Drawing really poorly from The Deck of Many Things (twice) might have something to do with Orcus's hatred, too.

On the other hand, the group really like the gnomes for some reason, and feel bad for the little guys.  One of the gnome guards even said, "I used to be an adventurer like you, until I took an arrow to the knee", in a wee Scottish accent.  So cute.

Intense meta game thinking ensued.  "The DM clearly has two dungeons in mind.  Surely one is harder than the other, and that will determine the proper sequence.  Quick - everyone watch his face for a tell-tale sign."  Blink blink blink.

"Your move, players."

The gnomish king wouldn't actually tell them where THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH could be found.  "State secret, need to know basis, very hush hush".  The gnomes promised to send out patrols looking for the miscreant trespassers the party complained about (the witch, the wizard, the vampire, and so forth).  The gnomes promised to keep the entrance to the caverns hidden and safe.

"Oh yeah, you little buggers'll keep it safe all right", slurred the magic user Konstantine, standing up and interrupting the gnome king;  Konstantine is frequently role played by Smitty as a vodka-swilling lush.  "You little cone heads can't even protect yourselves!  A bunch of monsters stomped all over your vale and carried off the magic sword!"

Funny how all that hard work by the diplomats in the group can go 'poof' once the drunken loud mouth with the 8 charisma spouts off to the king.  There was no immediate reprisal - the gnomes know by reputation how capable is the group, they defeated Strahd after all - but the angry king, all 3' of him, stomped out in a huff, and various gnomes dropped insults and f-bombs towards Konstantine on their way out of the hall.

In the interests of making an apology and restoring goodwill, it seems the group will end the threat of "the Black Temple" and help the gnomes out, after all.  Good job, Smitty, the check is in the mail.

*I think this one is by Jim Holloway, from S4 THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH

The Popularity of Cthulhu Gaming

I made a decision coming into this year to do more Cthulhu blogging - I've long been an admirer of Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, I try to run some one-shots each year or so, and there really doesn't seem to be a lot of blogging about those games - it's a fraction of the coverage that D&D gets.

I ran a poll a month or so back, "What kind of experience do you have with Cthulhu gaming?", and here were the results:

  • 17% actively play
  • 40% play from time to time and still like the game
  • 32% are interested
  • 9% either didn't like it or aren't interested

That's quite a bit of overlap in the readership between the two types of games!  91% either play, have played, or are at least interested in the horror gaming; I'll just assume you 9%ers aren't interested YET.  I tend to agree there's a lot of overlap; many of the adventure ideas are directly portable from horror gaming into fantasy, and if you go for Weird Fantasy (especially LOTFP style), the horror gaming is like a close cousin.

Cthulhu gaming can be a bit bleak, so maybe it's an acquired taste playing ordinary or mundane folks trying to stop occult horrors, when compared to the accessible power fantasy gaming experienced in the beloved D&D.  On the other hand, pulp fantasists like Clark Ashton Smith and RE Howard put Lovecraftian horrors in plenty of their fantasy stories, too, so the chocolate and peanut butter gets mixed up in the source literature.

That raises an important question - how do you like to use the Cthulhu Mythos in your games? As monsters in a fantasy setting, or alien terrors in a horror game?  I have added a new poll to catalog the results of this important question!  The world must know.

I'll keep up with the weekly Cthulhu posts and occasional reviews, mixing chocolate in the peanut butter and vice versa.  It keeps things interesting for me.  Bon appétit!

*Image is from the cover of Call of Cthulhu's 5th Edition

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Barbarians are Big and Strong (But Don't Call Them Dumb)

I've seen a number of folks discussing the faults of differentiating ability score ranges between male and female characters in role playing games this week.  A much more interesting question to me is whether we should consider creating distinctions between culture groups in a human centric world.  AD&D, for instance, has no problem applying ability score adjustments to the demi human races when compared to humans.

Consider that one of the most common themes in Swords & Sorcery literature is the strong but primitive barbarian juxtaposed against the decadent cultures of the large cities.  The barbarian character is invariably more physically capable and resolute than his civilized antagonists.  You see this motif in the RE Howard stories of Conan, the character of Fafhrd in the Lankhmar stories, and countless other stories featuring rugged, sword-wielding barbarians.

Consider also this historical excerpt from Tacitus's Germania, speaking of the many tribal inhabitants across the Rhine:

Hence the physical type, if one may generalize at all about so vast a population, is everywhere the same wild, blue eyes, reddish hair and huge frames that excel only in violent effort. They have no corresponding power to endure hard work and exertion, and have little capacity to bear thirst and heat; but their climate and soil have taught them to bear cold and hunger.
--Tacitus, Germania

My intent isn't to start a real world furor over Tactitus's text; it's been abused by plenty of folks already (koff, Nazis, koff) in other contexts.  But when you're making a game world that features humans from different cultural groups, does it make sense to have racial or cultural abilities that differentiate those groups mechanically in game terms?

My son is playing a lot of the Skyrim game, and he tells me "Nords", the Skyrim analog of the northern barbarians, are tough and resistant to cold.  That sounds a bit like Tacitus's description of the barbarians in Germania.  Video game designers apparently don't have any problems making humans from different areas different from each other based on culture or race.

Let's look at these big blonde northerners again.  According to Tacitus, they're all pretty much big and strong.  The fantasy stereotype of the barbarian is also strength; what's the argument against giving characters from barbarian lands a +1 to the strength score?

But how about a -1 to the intelligence?  You know, to balance it out.  The way I read the intelligence tables in D&D, intelligence gives you literacy, knowledge of extra languages, and the ability to learn spells - all capabilities that are the result of education and not primarily aptitude.  There shouldn't be a problem declaring that characters living out in the untamed wilderness, as an insular tribal unit, haven't had the same education as the decadent urbanites - but the moment you tack a -1 intelligence onto a cultural group, you step onto a pretty slippery slope my friend.  Even if it is a fantasy culture.  Would Conan put up with a -1 to *his* Intelligence score?  You don't tug on Superman's cape, or call a Cimmerian uneducated or stupid.  The Romans may have looked down on the barbarians, but who had the last laugh?  (Alaric did).

I'm only familiar with one official D&D supplement that tackled human racial and cultural differences - it was the Hollow World boxed set for classic D&D / Mystara.  The Hollow World gave humans from different ethnic groups pseudo skills and proficiencies to differentiate their culture backgrounds.  Antalians (the Viking analog) could climb like thieves; Milenians (ancient Greeks) all had extra bonuses with spears.  Some of them were more extreme; Tanagoro tribes people (analogs for African cultures) could all move at  150' base movement.  Azcans (the Aztec knock offs) were ridiculously tough and got an entire extra hit die at level 1!

What's my point?  In today's day and age, humans are uncomfortable declaring another group diminished in any capacity.  Maybe games have no place classifying differences between groups of people (or the sexes) in this way.  But there's a cynical side of me that sees a really simple way around the problem.  Just flip it around and highlight a positive benefit, and cultural differentiation becomes much less controversial (and judgmental).  "Scythians and Parthians don't get minuses when firing from horseback!", that kind of thing.  Make people feel good about the in-game differences.

Hey, look at what I just did?  I managed to justify giving all those barbarian tribesman a +1 to their strength scores after all.  I feel better already.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Mystaran Shout Out for a New Blogger

Bighara over at Echoes from the Geek Cave has been making posts reviewing signature monsters from the old BX and Mentzer classic D&D sets; I've enjoyed all the usage suggestions.  Seeing as it's a newish blog and the word hasn't gotten out, go check it out!  The monster stuff is here:  random monster assessments.

Bighara is also the guy behind Faster Monkey Games; I reviewed FMG's Lesserton & Mor last year.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

ACKS Player's Companion Preview

Just last week I reviewed the ACKS core book, and Lo, the guys over there had already announced a Kickstarter for their next supplement, the ACKS Player's Companion.  How could I resist?  So here's some first impressions on the play test version that's been posted to the project backers.  (You back the project, you get sneak peeks, and a chance to play test and make suggestions.  It's great marketing.)

The Player's Companion extends the core rules by adding a series of new classes, the dwarven machinist and spelunker, the elven ranger, and some human classes - mystic (monk), shaman (druid), and priestess.

I'll come out and say it though, the thing that got me fired up with the book-love was the extensive list of templates.  (I think they claim there are 144 of them).  An ACKS template is basically some pre-selected options that speeds up character generation and gives the character a bit of early flavor.  ACKS supports the old school roll-and-go - it's got basic 3d6 in order for abilities and simple classes, like classic D&D.  The templates take it the rest of the way, by adding a preconfigured set of starting equipment, starting money, and suggested proficiency selections.

For instance, your 1st level fighter could be flavored like a Norse ravager, a knight, a Roman legionnaire, a mercenary, a gladiator, or perhaps a pirate.  I love the support this provides for roll-and-go, and heartily approve of archetypical fast-packs of equipment.  Maybe it's just me, but nothing drives me nuts quite like the guy that shows up late, then wants to roll up a character, and then has to wade through the equipment list - while everyone's waiting.  "You mean now I get to pick some spells and a proficiency or two, as well?"  GAH.  Just put my head in a vise already.  So I love fast packs and random equipment generators; that stuff's like gold.  There's also plenty of inspiration for depictions of the classes, just by browsing the templates.

I'm beginning to see how race-as-class is evolving in ACKS.  Remember that classic D&D used Dwarf or Elf as a class, effectively making all dwarves as fighters and all elves as fighter/magic users.  AD&D separated race and class, allowing things like dwarven clerics and elven thieves.  It's clear the ACKS approach is to give each race a selection of classes that are similar to the human versions, but different enough to maintain racial distinctiveness, and costing the racial benefits into the experience curve.  Thus, a dwarf player can be a dwarven vaultguard (for a fighter flavor), a craftpriest (for cleric), or a spelunker (for a taste of thief).  The new one is the dwarf machinist, which is totally new, and provides the ability to create automatons and clockwork creatures - assuming that fits into your campaign's vision of dwarves.

There's some extra stuff in there too, such as extended spell lists for the new caster classes, and a section on creating custom classes.  This idea of expanding class coverage horizontally is very much in line with how Mentzer/Mystara evolved.

Okay, here's an interesting bit about this particular Kickstarter.  It met the goal in what, 3 days?  I've  had questions whether the announcement of 5E, coming out presumably sometime next year, would dampen people's enthusiasm for backing OSR projects in 2012.  Apparently that's not a problem.  I can't say that anything I've seen from the 5E discussions has lit my world on fire yet.  I also don't see the new game catering to the crowd that wants to see economics and domains in their campaigns.  Games like ACKS will be able to keep on trucking.

ps:  Haven't had the chance to sign up for the LOTFP indiegogo yet, I want to see how it differs from Kickstarter first.  Who's in that one?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mapping the Investigation like a Dungeon

This week's offering of blogthulhu starts with a simple premise:  the traditional D&D dungeon is a type of workflow.  It offers nodes and processes and decision points, and the players navigate these decision points to reach their final destination - the boss fight, the big treasure, the answer to the quest - whatever goal that inspired them to choose this dungeon in the first place.  The dungeon as an adventure setting is such an enduring fixture because it provides a great degree of choice and agency for the players, within a limited structure that even a new DM or game master can handle well.

You could step back from a dungeon and map it out like a flow chart, and realize it looks an awful lot like an investigative scenario.  To drive the point home, I went ahead and mapped out a few signature investigative scenarios as dungeons!    Sit back and enjoy as we send our adventurers into The Haunting and The Kingsbury Horror.  The Haunting has appeared in just about every edition of Call of Cthulhu as a sample investigation, and The Kingsbury Horror appears in Trail of Cthulhu.  Spoilers abound - you are warned!

The Haunting

In The Haunting, the players are hired by a landlord to look into problems at a rental property - seems like the last tenants ended up in the nuthouse!  The place indeed has a sordid history, as a quick jaunt to the library or newspaper records will reveal, and if the group follows up these threads all the way through, they may even discover an old cultist's hangout at the abandoned Chapel of Contemplation and find their first Mythos tome.

Note how a group might choose to go right to the house (the right path), move from exploring the first floor, to the cellar, and find the secret chamber leading to the resolution of the scenario.  I've seen folks decry that the players can "solve" the investigation without going through each and every potential research point in a linear fashion.  Bah!

Before critiquing The Haunting, let's take a brief look at The Kingsbury Horror.

The Kingsbury Horror

The Kingsbury Horror is the sample scenario in The Trail of Cthulhu book.  It involves the investigators acting as consultants to the sheriff, helping to find a serial killer during an election cycle.  But this is Cthulhu gaming, so naturally the serial killer is a cultist!  Much fun ensues.

Like The Haunting, there's an investigative path on the right side of the "dungeon" that can lead to the resolution fairly quickly; once again, that's a feature, not a bug!  However, The Kingsbury Horror adds an important element to the mix that The Haunting is missing - "wandering monsters".

Wandering monsters, you say?  In 1930's Cleveland?  There are a number of floating events, such as a nosy detective, breaking news around additional killings, or "time slips" as the weirdness mounts, that can sidetrack the investigation, or increase tension as the players realize they're running out of time.  I'm just being a bit cheeky in calling them wandering monsters, but the effect is similar.  It's a simple element to add, but these events transform the investigation into a much more dynamic environment.

Folks frequently ask how to make The Haunting into a better adventure, and that's the first thing I'd suggest - add in some variable encounters that bring the surrounding area to life.  It could be suspicious gangsters or street thugs, nervous about the investigators casing the neighborhood; it could be a hobo or squatter trying to camp out in the abandoned house and yard; it could be a beat cop asking a lot of questions and checking the investigator's references.  One of my favorite ideas is to have the landlord find new renters, and press the players to cut their investigation and quickly give the house the all clear so he can move a lovely young family in there… while they know something is still very, very wrong there!

I enjoy both of these scenarios because they offer multiple paths to navigate the scenes and reach a resolution - I recommend both of them highly.  The Kingsbury Horror gets that extra edge due to the pacing and sense of building menace the Keeper can achieve by interspersing variable events.  Good stuff.

We’re not done looking at investigation design;  there are suggestions on designing your own in both the Call of Cthulhu and Trail books, and next week's blogthulhu will hold that advice up to the light.  But today's post gives you a flavor on what I value in an investigation, and how these match up with old school priorities:

  • A non-linear path through the adventure
  • Multiple roads to victory
  • No indispensable NPCs pushing the Keeper's story - it must be player driven
  • Some variable events that keep the situation dynamic

I'm reading a Cthulhu campaign book right now that has lots of "this NPC is too important to die, don't let the players kill him/her", and "the players need to trust and like this other NPC for the adventure to continue", and that kind of stuff , and it makes me reach for the heartburn medicine.  Don't do that, people, don't make Beedo nuts.  Games can feature powerful NPCs giving directives; that's how life works.  What is not okay is mandating that the players need to act or feel a certain way towards an NPC because of a preconceived story the Keeper wants to implement.

Next week we'll look at the design advice offered in the main rule books.  This series of articles started as a top-down approach to setting up a Cthulhu campaign - but one that can be managed like an investigative sandbox - so it seems only fitting to top it off with an original campaign framework at the end.  That's in the works, and it'll become my default go-to setting for both Cthulhu one-shots and campaign play (at least with my regular group).  I'll wrap up this series with that setting in a few more weeks.  See you next time!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gothic Greyhawk Game 53 - 3 Dead Giants

The first of many

Player Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-7: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf F/MU 5/5: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6:  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-5:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-7:  Z
Konstantine, Magic User-5: Smitty

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf Fighter-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling Thief-7
Donavich, Cleric-5
Boris, Druid-4
Meatshield 1, Ranger-1
Meatshield 2, Ranger-1
Ireena, a Fighter - 5
Vlad the Inhaler, Magic User-1
Meatshield 3, Cleric-1
*Italicized characters are back in Barovia

The party continued their sojourn through the valleys and passes of the Crystalmist mountains, seeking THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH*.

After a long day of travel westward, they discovered an open valley in the mountains with four distinct mountain passes leading out of it.  Three of the passes were on the old map they had gotten from the gypsies, but the pass leading north and east was new.  Their own heading on the morrow would be southwest, towards the Gnome Vale.  But first, they made a camp in a stand of sheltered pines.

The major action of the evening kicked off when the party's first watch was alerted to a large figure pushing it's way through the trees - a giant.  They could hear its breathing just beyond their campfire light, the group in a circle around the fire, waiting with weapons drawn.  Then it crashed off into the night panting.

You know what players are thinking, right?  "Holy crap, look at the size of those tracks", as the rangers stand over a footprint in the damp soil.  "We're going to get to kill a giant!"  And they promptly went about plotting, scheming, and planning various traps and ambushes.

The druid ended up casting a fire trap on one of Konstantine's empty bottles of vodka, and then planted it in the woods next to a coin with a continual light spell on it.  I guess they were thinking, giants are dumb, and what self-respecting giant would pass up a chance to snag a free bottle of vodka?  You just can't fault that kind of player logic.

The other trap involved string trip lines across the most obvious approaches to the camp and tying some metal pots and pans to them, to make noise if disturbed.

All these preparations took a good half hour of time during the watch, so I went ahead to figure out what the giant was doing in the meantime.  Bubba, so named because all Hill Giants are going to be a bit like amiable rednecks with a hankering to eat people, ran back to the cave where Roscoe and Ewolt were sitting around a meager fire and grumbling.

"Butter my butt, and call me a biscuit, there's humans in the valley!  With tasty horses and mules!"  Roscoe, the Hill Giant leader, responds, "If you doubled your brains, you'd still be a halfwit.  There ain't no humans in the valley, you blockhead."  "No, really, and they had tasty mules and horses!  Stoke up the fire, we're eating right good tonight!"  A random dice roll revealed to me the giants took their time arguing and building up their cooking fire before piling out of the cave to investigate the truth of Bubba's find.

Ewolt snuck off to one side of the woods to do some mule raiding, while Roscoe and Bubba went towards the bright light in the forest.  "Don't go touching that bottle, Bubba, you're a few grains short of a full silo.  We've got to make a distraction so Ewolt can steal the mules.  Keep your eyes on the prize!"  They plunged forward and promptly fell over the trip line, creating a ruckus in the woods.  That alerted the guards, who woke up everyone else in the camp.

The fight was pretty simple; Ewolt snuck in the back way, but couldn't resist the urge to chuck rocks at the back of the party.  Bubba and Roscoe went with the full frontal assault, swinging giant-sized clubs.  The MVP of the melee side of the battle was Grumble the Smug, who used the ring of invisibility and halfling sneakiness to get in position for a backstab; 7th level thieves do triple damage!  Between the front line fighters, prayers, chants and similar buffs, and a barrage of magic missiles, the attacking giants died pretty quickly.

Meanwhile, they struggled with Ewolt, who stood off in the dark tree line, well outside their firelight, and chucked rocks at the party for 2-16hp per shot.  Mister Moore asked his faithful brownie familiar, Packer, to light up the area with a continual light spell, and they were able to blast Ewolt with a lightning bolt shortly thereafter.

That's pretty much it.  There was some looting and scouting and other stuff I'm glossing over, but that's dull to relate.  See you next time!

It's funny to imagine some random slob in the future, coming across that abandoned bottle of Vodka with the lingering fire trap on it.  "This must be my lucky day.  Someone left a bottle of booze!"  He'll be standing there with a blackened face, white eyes blinking, like Yosemite Sam after Bugs Bunny gave him an exploding cigar.  These are the things for which D&D excels.

*If you missed last week's game report, I have to ask, why?  Don't you realize these game reports are made of awesome and topped off with a frosting of pure win?  On a less serious note, let me tell you why THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH will always be capitalized now.

Gygax  always capitalized product names in the AD&D books.  In order to interject a much needed dose of Gygaxian swagger into these reports, henceforth shall products be equally capitalized, making them totally Gygaxian.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Share some War Stories

Hey folks, consider this a small experiment.  I'm going to pick just a few modules from the hobby's past, and I'd be grateful if you could drop a quick comment here, or on G+, with a quick war story from any one of these legendary modules.

B2 Keep on the Borderlands
B4 The Lost City
X2 Castle Amber

Okay, I'll start:

B2 Keep on the Borderlands
Our group of salacious 13 year olds all got turned to stone by the Medusa after she flashed some leg from around the corner.  There's a life lesson for you!

B4 The Lost City
The party dwarfs hummed the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark while trying to outrun the boulder, while wearing plate armor.  They were flattened.

X2 Castle Amber
Our party got mauled by Killer Trees in the indoor forest, and the party magic user was torn into pieces.  The thief was carrying the spellbooks, potions, and scrolls, and got turned to stone by an animated statue.  We were able to get a raise dead for the magic user shortly, but he was very sad not to have his stuff.

You've played them, you loved the adventures, now share a tale or two!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review of Adventurer Conqueror King (ACKS)

So did Conan return the wayward daughter of King Osric to her home. And having no further concern, he and his companions sought adventure in the West. Many wars and feuds did Conan fight. Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand…

It's no surprise that I'm predisposed to liking Adventurer Conqueror King.  I've often mused here on the blog that the goal of adventuring in the traditional versions of Dungeons & Dragons is to become a king by one's own hand.  It's right there in AD&D, you can gain a stronghold and followers, clear the wilderness, then build out a domain.  But there weren't any systems back then to facilitate that facet of the game.

To understand how a late comer like ACKS fits into the crowded mix of retro clones and neo clones, this is where I like to start, with the idea that a D&D campaign isn't limited to endless dungeon crawling.  The real objective in the game is the acquisition of power:  personal power, power through wealth and magic, and ultimately, political power and conquest.

The campaign system in ACKS is a major competitive advantage.  It gives groups that want to extend play beyond the dungeon the means to run a coherent campaign in that space.  ACKS starts by outlining how the core classes develop followers and a power base in the campaign world while striving to reach name level and gain wide renown.  Fighters and clerics are primarily interested in growing their followers and building political realms, but clerics can also develop the faith and gain divine favor towards crafting items.  There are systems for magic users to create laboratories; gather apprentices; create constructs, magic items, and monstrous cross breeds;  even build and seed their own dungeons.  Thieves get an interesting treatment, creating hideouts with gangs of lesser thieves that can perform hijinks such as spying, assassinations, robbery, smuggling, rumor-gathering, and discovering leads to fantastic treasures.

In order to rationally support domain level play, a considerable effort went into ensuring the numbers square top to bottom in the ACKS economic system.  Domain revenue and peasant earnings align with the price of mercenaries, and the prices on the equipment chart.  Even if you don't use the domain rules anytime soon, it's valuable knowing the underlying assumptions make sense.  This logic extends to other aspects of the campaign world, as well.  For instance, how many fifth level fighters should exist in a kingdom?  Using the demographics by level chart, a game master can quickly determine the relative levels of power in the wider world.

If I had to use one term to describe this overarching philosophy in ACKS, it would be Fantasy Realism.  ACKS presents a set of game rules for a functioning fantasy world that makes sense economically, but also explains why the areas beyond the borderlands are littered with dungeons, why adventurers looting vast treasures makes sense in the context of both the fantasy world and real world history, and why legitimate rulers should always be high level characters.

I've appreciated the idea behind the game since the Kickstarter was announced.  Although I haven't played pure Mentzer D&D in quite a few years, I've long had appreciation for the vision of Mentzer, and how he extended the D&D experience horizontally from dungeons to the wilderness to domain rulership.  ACKS is a true spiritual successor to Mentzer.  The similarity extends beyond treading into domain rulership; ACKS uses a similar class list, race-as-class, 3d6 in order for ability scores, a similar spell list, and a similar monster list to Mentzer.  Except for the Skittering Maw, the shark-headed, poisonous, giant, centipede, monstrosity that has become the unofficial poster monster for ACKS...

There are some differences between ACKS and the classic versions of Dungeons & Dragons that will be readily apparent.  Various dice rolls (throws) are expressed in ascending difficulty, mirroring modern design sensibilities in the d20 world.  A modular proficiency system is included, giving a flavor of 3rd edition's feats and supporting a bit of character customization, such as distinct fighting styles.  Many abilities from classic D&D classes are included in the proficiency system, supporting the emulation of advanced favorites like the paladin or ranger.

A recent post here on Mentzer, Metnzer Madness, bemoaned the 36 level grind in the Mentzer system; I feel like the D&D sweet spot for wrapping up a campaign is somewhere between levels 10 and 14.  Classic BX only went to level 14, and ACKS also tops out at level 14.  (It's like they read my mind).  A ritual spell system has been added to allow the cleric and magic user classes limited access to the higher level spells that showed up in AD&D or BECMI past level 14.

One of the more interesting chapters is the guide on setting creation.  It presents a comprehensive top-down approach to generating and stocking a large campaign area with wilderness and dungeons, and just reading it makes my campaign creation OCD bubble into a rapid boil.  If ACKS were published 20 years ago, it's likely I wouldn't have finished college.  As it is, I have a fairly clear idea on what my ACKS campaign world is going to look like; now I just need to clear a handful of other projects and I'll get right to it.  But you know, that next campaign is only a TPK away…  muhaha.  My players love it when I kid around like that, really.  They say it's motivating.

This discussion of the game book is waxing long, so let's start to wrap things up.  My group has had some history with the system, so this isn't a blind review; a few of my players attended the play test with the designers while we were at Gencon last year, and  a few of us also made it up to New York one weekend for a game day with Tavis.  ACKS plays like D&D, and you can play it like a straight update of BX or Mentzer, and never even crack the chapters on campaigns or setting design.  (Fair warning:  Those chapters are a bit table heavy; ACKS is crying out for someone to put together a good macro-driven spreadsheet).  But if you want to play a game where all that stuff makes sense, ACKS leads the way.  We've been playing other games while the guys finished their ACKS Kickstarter, but I've been using ACKS assumptions in the background of my campaign for quite a few months with our play test copies of the rules, so I'm already adjudicating my group's current domain building efforts with ACKS.  Having witnessed many of the great discussions on the development forum, I can vouch for the thorough testing of the systems.

The physical hardcover book isn't out yet, but the PDF is nicely hyper linked and is well indexed; I enjoy being able to jump from the table of contents, or one of the indexes, to quickly get to the right section or table.  I like this new trend of hyperlinked PDFs that are both tablet and table friendly!  For you folks that love artwork, there are plenty of excellent full page black and white pictures that show classic adventuring situations, or capture some of the new campaign mechanics, like hijinks, in action.

Would I recommend ACKS?  Sometime ago, I pointed out how there's an evolution in what people want from a campaign: Beedo's Hierarchy of Campaign Needs.  Many folks are totally satisfied with a game that revolves around characters, monsters, and dungeons.  As you climb the pyramid, different priorities emerge, like the desire to leave a legacy on the campaign world, to build castles, to conquer lands, to exert some power.  ACKS is the first new generation game that climbs that pyramid, and for that I give it a hearty recommendation.  A version of their mass combat system should be on the way soon (though real life has prevented me from trying the play test versions) and they have some interesting products in the pipeline, like their Auran Empire Gazetteer.  With a heavy nod towards BX, Mentzer, and the various Known World Gazetteers, ACKS is a sturdy bridge across nearly 30 years of gaming.  If D&D 5E doesn't work out for those Seattle guys, I've got my long term campaign game right here.