Monday, June 30, 2014

Dungeon Markets and Other Neutral Spaces

Guillermo Del Toro's 2008 film Hellboy II: The Golden Army has a wonderful sequence where the heroes have to go into a hidden "troll market," filled with all kinds of weird creatures, as part of their investigation. This is a long scene full of wonderful visuals; Del Toro is a genius and he clearly gets to let his imagination run wild here. It's also an idea I quite like, and I find a good analogue in the Plaza of Dark Delights from Fritz Leiber's "The Bazaar of the Bizarre."

Michael Curtis's Stonehell megadungeon has a small kobold market on level 1, but it doesn't really have the same kind of flair that the Troll Market did. The 13th issue of Fight On! does have a neat table for the "Goblin Market" that I think hints at the kind of wonder that Del Toro managed to create.

The central idea that I like here is that there are spaces in the dungeon where a sort of "armed peace" is maintained, however tenuously. The idea of the market or bazaar implies a particular sacrosanct character, where people and creatures are generally not killing each other and taking their stuff. Of course, this can be broken for a wide variety of reasons, but overall the character of the market is one of neutrality.

What I think is important is that such a thing is not in any way a "magic mart." The things for sale should be strange and wondrous, and not always available for something so mundane as money. There is ample precedent for such markets to be covered in webs of illusion and full of wondrous things, as well as dross posing as the same. Dangerous bargains and barters should be possible, from selling one's soul to requiring unusual items or dangerous favors in return for a good or service. And of course the issue of slavery is always a possibility here.

It's a natural place for NPCs to be found and get more information on the dungeon; this is likely to be a rare and precious commodity. Witches, representatives of dungeon factions, and all the other elements of intrigue in a faction dungeon are possible within the market. Indeed, it's simply brimming with possibilities for bargains and backstabbing.

Neutral ground, by its necessity, will be governed by some rules that keep it from being a free-for-all of murder. Maybe it is under the protection of one faction, or maybe governed by a truce between two or three factions. In either situation, there is likely to be some enforcement of a "don't kill everyone" rule. Given the morality of the dungeon dwellers, it may not be too heavily punished; there may be a tax like a weregild on murder, or permanent exile from the market, or worse. Of course, this sets up an obvious giant chaotic scene where the neutrality of the market is violated and everything goes to Hell in a handbasket.

The other reason I like the market in particular is that it's not necessarily permanent. Access may be limited in time; there may only be a market day on Saturdays, or only for a week at a time, leaving the space open to other uses in the interim. There may also be a special access to the market, such that PCs wouldn't normally be able to access it, and getting in may be itself a reward. Having things like this makes time meaningful and gives the dungeon the feeling of being alive.

Different sorts of neutral spaces may be present as well. For instance, it's conceivable that there is an arena in the dungeon with gladiatorial combat, or one faction may control an area and allow others to use it for certain purposes. These can also vary with how strongly they are neutral for the PCs as opposed to for other factions, depending on how PCs relate to various groups within the dungeon.

I'd love to hear of any experiences with markets or other neutral places that readers have used or seen in dungeons.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Actual Play: Gygax, You Magnificent Bastard

Several sessions after I thought my players were done with the Caves of Chaos, a number of low-level PCs added to last night's session brought them to a long-neglected mission into the Shrine of Evil Chaos.

The party composition is pretty mixed; there are two fourth-level fighters, but only one was present last night. There were also a second level cleric and hobbit, and a first level cleric and elf. Figuring that they'd handle the Caves more readily, they went out to Cave K.

Defiling the altar in the Shrine turned out to be a bad idea, and caused the alarm bell in the Temple to sound. Then the PCs ran and locked themselves in the passage to the east - down the stairs.

Exploring for an exit, the party instead promptly found the Medusa, and saving throws combined with lots of running they kept her in the cell room. The hobbit showed a lot of bravery by throwing his shield against the door opening when she slid it open to try and stone the PCs outside. More wandering led to the room with the wight, and a quick flight from there. The PCs wound up going back up and trading blows with the acolytes above. The second level cleric failed his save against cause fear and ran back down below, but the elf Charmed one of the other acolytes.

The fleeing PC wound up in the storage room, blocked in by the gelatinous cube. He used his superior speed and winning initiative to maneuver the cube into the storage room and then outrun it out of the room. Probably the cleverest bit of outright running I've ever seen in a D&D game, and it got him out alive.

Meanwhile the other PCs had run out of the cave. The cleric managed to turn a bunch of skeletons and get out without dying. No treasure, and only a few opponents killed, made this a bust for experience.

Despite that it was proof of the principle that sometimes PCs have to run. There were multiple occasions where I was wondering if there was going to be a TPK; despite the dice landing where they may, they got out of each jam. Nobody leveled, and I had to adjust XP downward for 4th level characters fighting much lower level NPCs. I also noticed that I need good B/X reference sheets; I found myself flipping between the Basic and Expert books a bit too often.

I came out with more appreciation of Gygax. Making a much harder level when you go down stairs is a great switch from most of KotB where, as one player noted, lower is easier. But that medusa was simply a magnificent moment of bastardry.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Weird and Remote Tribes

Ancient historians and chroniclers were fascinated by stories about weird tribes. The two world-spanning histories that come down to us from antiquity, Herodotus's Histories and Pliny the Elder's Natural History, are replete with tales of bizarre tribes that were similar to humanity but not quite the same. These are all great material for weird and somewhat savage characters in roleplaying games. I've included some images of these types from the Nuremburg Chronicle.

I've written before about the dog-headed cynocephali but they are hardly the only ancient tribe that was generally like humanity, but with a small twist or two. The Arimaspoi pictured to the left, for instance, are human-sized but have only one eye; one has to imagine that their skill with missiles is not significant. In Herodotus, they were the enemies of gold-hoarding gryphons, and lived outside of the idyllic Hypberborea. They make a great substitute for cavemen or similar tribes in mountains or caves.

Blemmyes are a tad bit harder to understand. We know they didn't have heads — Herodotus called them akephaloi and located their eyes in their chests, while Pliny said they were in the shoulders. Our artist, following Pliny, gave them a nose and mouth in their chests, which may seem awkward but does make sense; the nose is closer to the lungs, and the mouth to the stomach, than in a human.

What is strange is whether or not the headless men are supposed to be intelligent; the name may literally mean "brainless," implying a frightful savage type.

The Chronicler also drew a great picture of the sciapods — literally meaning "shadow foot," a mythic type described by the great comic playwright Aristophanes and our Pliny. They had a single gigantic foot that they would use to shade themselves. They leap surprisingly well for all that. Not much else is known of them, but there are reports of their existence from India and Ethiopia throughout the whole of history when traveler's tales and rumor were the only hints anyone had of the world beyond a very narrow boundary.

Then there are the diminutive pygmies, who were skilled with slings, rode on goats, and were engaged in continuous warfare with cranes. Yes, the birds. The cranes were supposed to have stones in their gullets that could be used to test for gold, a tremendously useful sort of thing. And I just have to love the Chronicle's picture of a well-dressed pygmy fighting birds with a big club and a proper buckler shield, a true study in contrasts. If you don't like Tolkienesque hobbits, a semi-savage race of bird-fighters might be a good substitute.

Each of these tribes, and several other types (troglodytae who went from cave-dwelling humans to inhuman monsters, myrmidons who were supposed to have sprung from ants, amazons and others) were always off in the furthest known stretches of land - north of the barbarian tribes you knew in Europe, south of Ethiopia or east of India. They are probably based on innuendo, rumor and ignorance, and grew in the imaginations of travelers.

I like these tribes because they can fill a lot of different roles in a game, much like humans, but give it a feel that is a bit more fantastical than your vanilla people. The Nuremberg Chronicle's art hints at the critical ambiguity where you just aren't sure which side a people stands on. The cynocephali and arimaspoi are wearing robes that might imply civilization, while the naked hair-covered woman (a member of the tribe known as the gorgades) or the blemmyes speak of savagery through and through. You just don't get that with the cursus honorum of humanoids; goblins and orcs are for killing, and not much more.

Once expectations have been upset, of course, the door is also open for NPC members of these tribes to advance in various classes and levels. A one-eyed sorcerer or a fierce headless warrior can be a fascinating foe or ally — obviously depending on circumstances and alignment. Some can also have various types of shamans, witch-doctors and the like, as tribal types are inclined to.

You can see all of the Nuremburg Chronicle's odd people at Wikimedia Commons, and there is a terrific resource for Greco-Roman mythological tribes over at the Theoi Greek Mythology site. And drop me a line if you use these types in your game.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Empire of the Petal Throne style damage

I've been taking a look at M. A. R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne specifically for what rules content it contributes to the original Dungeons & Dragons game. EPT was such an early variant, and deeply tied up in the Wisconsin and Minneapolis scenes and early TSR, and as such the ways its rules expand upon OD&D are interesting even for campaigns not set on Tékumel.

Probably the best known of EPT's rule changes is the idea that players re-roll hit dice each time they gain a level. This makes sense of the OD&D progressions, which have bonuses that appear and disappear over a PC's career. Re-roll, and your HP total can't go down. Simple and a fairly popular choice in OD&D.

Less discussed is EPT's damage, which until recently I hadn't looked deeply into. There are two simple changes. First, two-handed weapons do 1d6+1, and two-handed swords specifically do 1d6+2. This is a good alternative to the popular "roll 2d6 and take the higher result," though both are perfectly usable. The second damage rule is that a natural 20 (using those words) does double damage, with the possibility of an automatic kill if the character rolls a second d20 and gets a 19 or 20. This is a 1-in-200 chance; not exactly devastating. It's the first recorded instance of the simple critical hit rule of double damage.

The one I think gets the least love, though, is the damage by level versus enemy hit dice. Basically, at 4th level PCs get 2 damage dice versus 1 HD creatures. This increases at subsequent levels. This is the whole chart:

This seems quite odd; after all, how can a 1 HD creature take 5 dice of damage unless the first four are 1s? But in EPT, excess damage goes onto the next opponent, in a sort of prototype of the "cleave" maneuver. So a 10th-level fighter might take out five or six 1 HD opponents with that 5d6 damage.

In the OD&D FAQ, there is a basically similar rule implied: fighters get one attack per level against creatures of 1 HD or less. But that doesn't scale well to opponents that you'd fight at higher levels; unless you are literally taking on hordes of orcs or bandits, mowing them down in the mighty-thewed barbarian style, it's not half as useful as the EPT system. It's a more interesting interpretation, and it has the benefit of greater simplicity: there is only one to-hit and one damage roll.

The EPT damage system has another factor in its favor: one attack might be different from the next. If 5d6 come up right around their average of 18, it could kill three 1 HD creatures with 6 HP each, or nine with 2 HP each. This is more interesting than having to sit through 10 to-hit rolls, 10 damage rolls and the resolution of whether or not the lord has slain all the orcs yet.

If you don't have it, you should pick up the PDF of Empire of the Petal Throne over at RPGNow, and if you're really an enthusiast the Green Cover original manuscript that contains the version Barker put in limited circulation back in 1974.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Unique Monsters: A Challenge to the Imagination

This is a long response to Erik Tenkar's recent question about unique monsters.

Gary Gygax had a letter in the second issue of Alarums & Excursions. There is a version of it online at the Acaeum forums. I definitely have to recommend reading the whole thing, but I just want to put an extract on monsters that I think is very relevant.
Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in D&D. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. D&D is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson's campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to "survive".
I have long had mixed feelings about this. I love monsters. You can't long have read this blog without noticing that. And I love bestiaries — whether it's the extremely "light" format of the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book, or the thoroughness of the AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium and its many appendices and annuals. I could go to my shelves and populate a very large dungeon without repetition of a single monster.

My experience has been that unique enemies work best as contrast. This also corresponds to the "weirdness level" of the individual monsters: something that's familiar-ish but odd can then alternate with something really out-there. For instance, various types of beast-men are good substitutes for humanoids if you're bored of orcs, goblins and bandits. If you have a group of goat-men, then they provide a decent backdrop against which something full-bore odd, like a chimeric creature from Geoffrey McKinney's work, can stand out.

Lacking this element of contrast, monsters tend to become more or less similar. If everything is equally weird, nothing is really weird. Lamentations of the Flame Princess has an interesting solution to this dilemma: remove everything except for one big monster (which is really strange and unique), and make everything else humans or animals. But the "monster of the week" is a hyper-focused format, and doesn't fit if you want to do a megadungeon or hexcrawl full of interesting and diverse factions.

An alternate solution that I've been playing with works more or less like this:
  1. Strip back the bog standard monsters to the very basics: humans and animals (including, at most, some varieties of giant animal).
  2. Create new creatures similar to the default monsters for the intended level. Change appearances and special abilities, but keep HD / AC ranges similar.
  3. Make a few "big impact" monsters that are totally unique.
  4. Give the players ways to find out about the impact monsters' characteristics and abilities.
I really can't stress the importance of (4) enough. The players aren't likely to care any more about goat-men than they are about pig-nosed orcs, unless they do something game-meaningful. But for the big guys, the creatures you're replacing the "Monsters of Myth" and so forth with, it's critical that players can figure things out one way or another. Otherwise, they are just bags of hit points with some random deaths thrown into the mix, and not a challenge to the imagination as Gygax mentions.

I'll have more tweaking on this method as I get to see more of its results in practice, but I'm liking the results so far.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Witches, Lovers and Pigs

In addition the charisma score is usable to decide things such as whether a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover.
This is an interesting allusion. Gygax is clearly referencing Homer's Odyssey, where the enchantress Circe uses her magic to turn the companions of Odysseus into pigs and then keeps Odysseus as her lover. He stays on her island for a year, then finally frees himself and sails home to Ithaca. Holmes changed this to a frog, perhaps thinking that The Frog Prince would be more familiar to the young audience of his Basic Set than The Odyssey.

Lately I've been thinking about the idea of various sorts of magic-using types in D&D. Generally, these prompt the objection that a single Sleep spell can beat an entire party of low-level PCs. And while this is very true, they remain a standard part of the encounter tables, and in my opinion provide rich encounter potential. It helps to think of the Sleep spell as similar to the NPC having a powerful weapon and requiring negotiation instead of being dealt with in the "standard" way.

One particular role I like for magic-users is that of a dungeon "neutral." I think these are generally underused: creatures and personalities of the dungeon that aren't necessarily harmful, nor helpful; depending upon the PCs' actions, they can be taken in either direction. Magic-users are great for this, in a whole variety of ways. In the early levels of a dungeon, they can be conduits for spells and items that PCs won't necessarily have access to; a 5th level magic-user in the second dungeon level, for instance, can do all variety of divination that the PCs don't have access to yet. And the referee can make the cost of such assistance whatever they like, allowing them to set up all sorts of missions into the dungeon.

The second role is that of a nemesis. An enemy witch or magic-user is a great foe, in no small part because of the threat of polymorph and charm spells. While I am generally leery of the "boss fight" concept from video games, they do make good leaders of dungeon factions. The built-in fragility of magic-using types in D&D means that they will not be there for long drag-out fights, but rather short, desperate struggles as the PCs try to disable them. In the mean time, their abilities make the PCs' lives very interesting, since their comings and goings might be monitored, illusions cast, or many other magical tricks used to deter them.

The third concept is something I've mentioned before: giving NPC magic-users totally sui generis abilities. Circe, after all, was somewhere between a witch and a minor goddess, depending on what interpretation you choose. They can be the source of magic abilities unseen in the books, or even magical items that are unique without being artifact-level objects. (I'm thinking here of the magic sword forged by a witch from lightning bolts in The King of Elfland's Daughter.)

At heart, this dilemma — lover or pig — is an interesting one to place PCs into. It requires care that it doesn't become a railroading tool, but embracing both possibilities opens wide the options for magic-using NPCs as a major force for the kind of emergent dungeon roleplaying that I find really fascinating.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Sighting Robots in 1976

Jon Petersen, in his Playing at the World, spends a bit of time with Alarums & Excursions. The zine's early years focused heavily on actual play reports. Because Lee Gold sent me the copies that I have with the understanding that they were still copyright their original authors, I am generally loath to do too much in terms of extensive quoting from them. But I want to give a paragraph from issue #9 (March 1976), which fit in nicely with some points I've made recently about robots. Note that this isn't the 6th issue pictured, but I needed a pic of a contemporary issue of A&E.

The below is from the section "Fornholt's Mockturtle Quest" by Hilda C. Hannifen.

It's important to know that the characters at this point were circumventing a "hot" room which had some "Godholm" material (and radiation), and one of the PCs, Tedron, had turned into Efreet form temporarily to withstand the heat. They have just walked into a room with a cabinet that has 6 doors, and a door that should see them clear of the radiation area.
As we advanced into the room which had the cabinet, the last in line noticed a sign on the outside of the door light up: "Game in Progress." The door swung to of itself and refused to open. 3 Doors n the cabinet opened and out of the cubbyholes came 3 robots with weapons and a target-painted shield. Each had 24 lights: none glowing. We found no matter what the weapon +s or strength, the "damage" was only the weapon's basic damage as if non-magical; damage was reflected by the number of lights lit on the robot. Certain hits lit double the ordinary number of lights. Owen rolling hot (a 17 was needed to hit) was able to get Turan's robot out of the way quickly (Turan had only 18 HP so he had to be quick) and Bruciver finished his shortly thereafter. Tedron didn't do so well with his since it did not want to get too close to his "hot" armor. Instead he maneuvered it towards the corner which was slagged where its positronic brain malfunctioned. Each of the 3 fighters had to fight a robot and got a 5000 GP piece of jewelry as a result. These were dueling dummies they had fought.
This immediately precedes a troll encounter. I get the feeling that it wouldn't have been out of place in the parts of Greyhawk that inspired the Machine Level and so on: an encounter that is quite serious, but at the same time is whimsical enough to have a "Game in Progress" sign light up. The California dungeons were different but the spirit is less far off than people think.

A few fun things come out of this. First, an idea that robots are somehow immune to the bonuses for magical weapons and the effects of high Strength. It's a neat twist in the rules, and the kind of thing that can freak out players who are quite confident in their high-level PCs. Second, the way Tedron beats his dueling robot. Maneuver like this is something that's natural in old school D&D, or at least should be; the combat system is simple but it's really meant to be run with positioning as a "natural" part of it.

Of course the robots had positronic brains; that simply seems natural for a '70s robot. (One suspects that, being in a dungeon, these "dueling dummies" may not have obeyed the Three Laws of Robotics.) But those 5000 GP pieces of jewelry - I wonder where they came from? Maybe out of a compartment in the robot, or out of the cabinet. It puts me in mind of a dungeon version of a boardwalk arcade game.

This is all very "funhouse," but to me it's a wonderful example of the kind of weirdness that permeated the early years of D&D.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Thinking about Dungeon Factions

I'm quietly doing some work on a megadungeon and one of my main concerns as I design it is the factions. While I'm not yet at the point where I want to tell you exactly what the factions are, I do want to go through some ideas on broad types of factions that will exist.

The factions in B2 Keep on the Borderlands are primarily classifiable as tribes: kinship groups of humanoids organized around a single leader. The tribe is a basic, fundamental unit and can be used to describe basically any monocultural society with a strong leader, whether it's hobgoblins, berserkers, cavemen or hill giants. Typically they are not humans of the prevailing civilization. These are a solid form of organization and work well, although they shouldn't be the only type of faction.

A second type of common faction is the voluntary group. A cult, a group of bandits, or rival party, often made up of human or demihuman characters. There are two interesting factors about voluntary groups. One is that the characters in it will frequently speak Common, and therefore be able to negotiate, bargain and discuss with PCs. The other is that membership is an open question. You can do fun things like having a henchman or PC get Charmed by the evil cult and used to betray the PCs' cause. It's also possible to ally with or even join the voluntary group.

Related to voluntary groups are alliances. These are not as formal, and may actually be partly made up of a tribe or voluntary group – for instance, a tribe of goblins may have "pet" giant rats, or be enslaved by an ogre. These are not generally groups that are being recruited, and may form on more tentative lines than other factions. Player intrigue might be able to turn an alliance into two or three separate factions, while others may form in the face of PCs raiding the dungeon.

The specific form of the faction might also differ. These are a few ideas for how leadership is decided, each of which I'm sure has some variants.

Frequently leaders are assumed to be despots, absolute leaders who rule through violence or fear of violence. That can be plenty of fun, particularly if the faction uses "Klingon promotion" where a new leader rises by killing the previous one. There are several potential player hooks there – particularly if, in the style of A Princess of Mars, PCs actually find themselves as leaders within the faction.

But there are other methods. Maybe bandits will use a pirate democracy, where a leader is elected, and can be recalled (violently) if needed. Or there may be a cult of personality; I'm interested in the idea of having a charismatic leader in a dungeon who leads a sort of motley coalition by sheer charisma. Others might be a protection relationship, where a powerful creature or NPC leads weaker followers because it offers physical or magical defense. Some enemies will undoubtedly use slaves, which present a bit of moral dilemma.

As my own dungeon keeps growing, I'm going to develop several of these types of factions. A dungeon with sufficient factions, IMO, is rife for more roleplaying than even many city-based adventures. And it reinforces that my favorite type of roleplaying is the kind with the threat of violence behind it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Weird Encounters from the Dawn of D&D

I have started going through some of my old Alarums & Excursions zines again (I have a collection of issues 1-20 courtesy of Lee Gold herself). In issue #2, Lee had her own encounter table. I can't reproduce it here, sadly, due to copyright; but I do want to give an idea of what was in her dungeons, just for flavor.

Early levels are pretty normal, save that they have "Hawkmen, etc. 30-120" and "Miscellaneous" as entries. I'll get back to Miscellaneous in a minute. At 5th level we see Melniboneans added to the list. 6th level has the Yeti, which may or may not have already appeared in The Strategic Review #3 (dated August 1975 while A&E #2 is dated July 1975). 8th level adds Huorns to the listing for Ents, a logical extrapolation. And 13th lists Frankenstein Monster, which Gold identifies as being a D&D Golem.

But the real charm is that Miscellaneous entry, which reads as follows:
Miscellaneous = conmen, pollsters, petition passers, peddlers. stores, minstrels, revival meetings, beggars, Punch & Judy shows, etc.
It's a fun bit of '70s California anachronism in the midst of a dungeon; it also emphasizes the fact that early dungeons weren't always dead serious, and a lot of the time the players were taking the piss. In Playing at the World, we find that the Golds would later do another dungeon with less anachronism than Neocarn, but it's useful to remember that the dungeons were frequently taking the piss and throwing in-jokes and modern references at the players.

One of Lee Gold's encounter descriptions involves short black-skinned humanoids that say "GNAP!" and bite at people; they bite one of the party fighters in the process, and he turns black-skinned and begins saying "GNAP!" and biting as well, until a blue-skinned humanoid decked out in red comes in and sprays tuberose on the others, and they all turn blue and regain their senses. He introduces himself as the Grand Schtroumpf (spelled schtroumph by Gold), but any child of the '80s would recognize him as Papa Smurf. This encounter is taken directly from the Belgian bande desinée Les Schtroumpfs Noirs – the first story of what would later be adapted as the Smurfs.

I don't want to recite the whole recap, just to give a flavor; there were other weirdnesses, such as a young woman who pretended to be charmed only to make off with the mule, or the mule itself which was temporarily turned into a giant spider, or the fact that the party was accompanied by a proper Rabbi's golem. I think you get the gist.

The unashamed oddness of it all, willing to have puppet shows or then-obscure references to Belgian comics, is one of the things that decades of self-serious fantasy have drilled out of most of the game. I don't think D&D should be goofy all the time, but neither should it be so dour and serious that all sense of fun is lost.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Following the Dice

Some days you just roll the dice and let them lead you.

Last night wound up being a game where the B/X rules specifically came into play a good deal. The player characters were en route to a ruin they had previously made a brief foray into, when a wilderness wandering encounter turned up on the die. A bit of rolling and soon the PCs were in a stereotypical ambush situation - one bandit pretending his horse had thrown a shoe and he needed help, others lurking in the woods about the road.

The party's hobbit had some heroics using a pony to charge and a spear as a lance, and one of the fighters managed to hit a bandit so hard (natural 20, maximum damage, magical weapon) that I simply had his head go missing. The other two bandits decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and retreated along an old "deer path" into the woods.

At this point, the PCs could've gone on a further adventure, but these players had a hobbit who could track them virtually invisibly in the woods. Seriously, halflings are really excellent at this, and so I rolled up a bandit camp – a full bandit encounter several miles into the woods. This involved 14 bandits, compared to 4 PCs, which normally wouldn't be a very fair encounter, but hobbits are really excellent at being invisible and silent in the woods.

The bandits went to sleep with two guards posted, one on either side of the camp. The PCs decided to make a night attack on them, and three PCs managed to blow their rolls on shooting the guard on their side of the bandit camp. The hobbit hit his with a sling, but he was so well covered that the guard still didn't see him!

I rolled each turn to see how many bandits came out of the camp, and within two turns there were three PCs taking on three bandits each, with more coming. Running was a consideration, as PCs were taking damage and may not have lasted too long. Then each of them killed one of their bandits, and following the Moldvay morale rules, the bandits broke. This turned into a complete rout between initiative and free hits for withdrawing from combat.

Now, if you know Moldvay, bandits are pretty worthless for individual treasure, but a lair of bandits are treasure type A. And the dice turned up good for the PCs on thousands of gold (2) and thousands of platinum (2). That made it a very large treasure, and actually got each PC a level. Two of the fighters are at 4th level (Hero) while the hobbit and the new fighter easily made level 2. This despite having a pronounced lack of magic-users or clerics in the party.

The rest of the session was spent in the Keep on the Borderlands, getting magic items identified and paying a Sage to get some information on the palace they had been seeking. This was another place where we spent a lot of time with the Expert rules; I had given arbitrary percentages for each type of specialist to be present in the Keep, and the Sage was the one that came up. It let me give a bit of background on the ruin, which was nice, without doing too huge of an infodump.

It was a fun derail, with a real element of danger. The recon the PCs did was the main reason they were able to defeat the bandits, and become big damn heroes at the Keep in the process. I found running with the results the dice were giving me created an interesting, if totally unexpected, result.

(For the curious, the dice pictured above are 4 sets of 7 GameScience poly dice, one set of 6 Diamond Dice from Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and two GameScience d20+ labelled 0-9 and 1+, 2+, 3+, ..., 0+ so you can use them as d10s or d20s, with the + indicating an add 10.)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Pit Trap Generator

It's become a thing to have generators on your blog. This is one for pit traps. Click the button below and it'll generate a fresh pit trap for the next time your PCs need something to fall into.

(This is based on my article from Fight On! 14.)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Talking Blue Book D&D: Ability Scores

I haven't talked for a while about Blue Book D&D, my name for a fusion of Holmes Basic D&D with Cook/Marsh Expert. But lately it's been on my mind, and I've thought more about cleaning it up and solidifying it for my own future games.

Specifically I've been thinking a lot lately about tweaks to ability scores. Holmes is minimal with bonuses, copying OD&D's Dexterity and Constitution bonuses, but increasing the Constitution bonuses to hit points at 17 and 18. Moldvay, meanwhile, sets out with the standardized thresholds: 13-15 for +1, 16-17 for +2, and 18 for +3, with corresponding penalties on the low side.

But Moldvay's attribute curve is misleading. One +1 is not the same as another, if the first bonus is on 1d6 and the second bonus is on 1d20. +1 to 1d6 is 16.67%, while +1 to 1d20 is only 5%. This has a distorting effect, particularly with Strength where damage bonuses go as high as +25% (for daggers and such that deal 1d4 damage).

OD&D has a schema hidden within it. Constitution gives -1 hit point per die (d6) at 6, and +1 at 15. These are the same distance, 3 units, from the median range of 9-12. Dexterity gives -1 to hit with missile weapons (d20) at 8, and +1 at 13. Again, these are equidistant from the median range. This is an interesting rule of thumb, and I think it's a good one for Blue Book.

So, Wisdom can give a bonus to save versus spells, just as in Moldvay, but it only gives +1 at 13 and -1 at 8. This gives Wisdom some role mechanically that it lacks in Holmes.

Strength is a thornier matter. If we have it give bonuses to hit and damage, the logical places are for a bonus to-hit at 13, a bonus to damage at 15, and penalties at 8 and 6, respectively. The difference is that 13 Constitution doesn't already grant a bonus, and 8 Constitution gives no penalty, so it seems fairer to move the second bonus 1 unit further away: +1 damage at 16 Strength, and -1 at 5.

This happens to dovetail nicely with Supplement I: Greyhawk, up to 16 anyway. But Greyhawk goes nuts and gives +2/+2 at 17 and +2/+3 at 18 - with a chance that the 18 Strength fighter's bonuses can go even higher. I don't like that so much. I'd rather follow a slower pattern, and give +2 to hit at 17, and +2 to damage at 18. That's idiosyncratic, but I think it works better for me.

My rationale behind this is the observation that Holmes fighters are way underpowered compared to Moldvay fighters, due mainly to strength, but I don't care for either the Moldvay or Greyhawk strength charts. Mine is simpler, and fits right in the sweet spot for me.

One of my least favorite additions is Greyhawk's modification of Armor Class by Dexterity score. It actually was supposed to represent an active parry, and only apply versus one opponent per round. But this addition wound up changing the definition of Dexterity; it stopped being a measure of hand-eye coordination and nimbleness of fingers, and became a measure of general agility. That doesn't really make sense, though; the two aspects are not firmly linked, and it's not a coincidence that Caltech's Warlock rules added Agility as a separate ability score. D&D never followed suit. But I'm not for using Dex to modify AC.

(This is one of the reasons I like Blue Book conceptually; it's easier to add than to subtract, and since Blue Book assumes Holmes, I can get rid of Dexterity bonus to armor class just by not adding it in the first place.)

Which leaves Charisma. Holmes says that Charisma is supposed to modify the reaction roll. OK, great! But how? He doesn't say. Moldvay actually breaks from his standard here and gives an OD&D-like +1 for 13-17 and +2 for 18, with corresponding -2 for 3 and -1 for 4-8. This is the one place where Moldvay ability scores actually go along well with the dice roll type, since +2 on 2d6 is a very significant boost.

Now, that's a lot of thought to give a few ability score bonuses. But I really think it's worth figuring it all out. As I've run a good bit of older D&D, I feel like Blue Book D&D is really very close to what my sweet spot is for the game rules, and it's really a question of tuning all the elements so the game works just like I want it to.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Special Abilities Tables

California in 1975-79 is an interesting place in the early history of the roleplaying game. It brought us Alarums & Excursions, Warlock, Arduin and Runequest – and as a result, the biggest and best documented locus of non-Gygaxo-Arnesonian gaming from our hobby's dawn. It was a place where pre-RPG entertainments had laid fertile soil for gaming, as documented in Playing at the World; Coventry and SCA and different life experience all added up to a scene which was totally different from that in the upper Midwest.

One of the things that we can look at historically from this period is the idea of a special ability table: a chart where dice are rolled to give each PC some distinctive characteristic. It's not exactly revolutionary, but it was one of the earliest common house rules.

The Arduin Grimoire features such a table in its early pages, or rather, one for "warrior" types, one for "magical" types, a third for "religious" sorts and a fourth for "secret" types. Each has a percentile dice roll, and options that follow from it. Many are bonus/penalty combinations, such as a warrior's "+1 with norningstars, whips, bolos and slings, -2 with all swords." Others are pure negative, like a magical type's "-1 on all character abilities, -3 versus all spells or magic." (Hargrave always underlined the word "all".) Some are all positive, like "Taught by a true weaponsmaster, get +2 with all western weapons." And some are just odd, like the magical sort's "Flesh tastes so bad to monsters they spit you out 95% of the time."

Arduin's chart is just plain odd, but it's a good illustration of something that was popular at the time. Most of Hargrave's abilities are just pluses or minuses, with some minor bit of rhyme or reason behind them, but others are backgrounds. These are sometimes imbalanced (a religious type can get "Mountain man. plus 2 to strength, agility and dexterity. Climb as a thief.") but nevertheless add a bit of appeal to the characters.

The AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide has a "Secondary Skills Table" that is used to determine background skills for player characters; the difference is that it doesn't really add much to the characters other than to say that they have an unspecified skill. It does seem to be in a similar vein to the California tables, though nowhere near as wild and wooly as they were. 18% of results give no skill at all.

What I like about the idea, if not the execution, of the old tables was the idea of leaving characters up to chance. Much like 3d6 rolled in order, a bonus ability that isn't known in advance is a good method of generating characters who will make you think a little outside the box to define who they are.

The potential I see for them is that, if you generate a really high quality list of minor modifiers (say, for instance, bonuses and penalties within the D&D system – saving throws, all those checks rolled on 1d6, etc – you can create an interesting incentive to be a human: just declare that only humans get a roll on this chart. Demihumans have the special abilities allotted by the system in the first place.

Just a little something that's been percolating. I think it has potential, and I think it could be disastrous, or gonzo fun – all depending on the execution.