Thursday, December 30, 2010

Retractions and Resolutions

First, I would like to apologize to Sacrosanct Games for my comments regarding the artwork in my review of Something Unholy Stirs.  While it does not change my overall opinion of the product, I was not aware of Larry Elmore's stock art policy.  I have edited that part out of my blog review and my review on Drive Thru RPG.

Because of that, and because of my slip up with the EGG quote in my last blog, my New Years Resolution (when it comes to the blog) is to be far more thorough with my research in 2011.

Have a Happy New Year, Blogosphere.  See you next week.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

4e Rules with an OSR vibe: Is It Possible?

Since I'm going to be playing in a 4e game in a week or two and (hopefully) running a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game in the not too distant future, I'm looking at my current D&D life and wondering, "Are they TRULY incompatible?"

If there is something that seems to unify 99% of the OSR community, it's the thought that the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is an abomination.  I certainly didn't like it when my brother shared it with me a few years ago.  It was way too video-gamy for my liking.  What caused me to give it a whirl was the simple fact that if I wanted any kind of regular game, I'd need to start joining the Colorado Springs Living Forgotten Realms games.  As I played, I gained an appreciation for the difference the edition brought.  It's not my D&D, but it's what's out there.

Reading a lot of the OSR blogs out there really helped reconnect me to what I loved about gaming back in the 80s when I started playing.  One thing that I don't share with many of my 20+ year gamers is a complete loathing for 4th Edition.  I do recognize, though, that they are vastly different games.

How incompatible ARE they?

In a GameSpy interview, Gary Gygax has this to say about 4e:
The new D&D is too rule intensive. It’s relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It’s done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good.
Edit: Okay, I edited that out.  When I saw the quote, it was attributed to his opinions on 4e, not 3.5, and in my haste, I didn't look close enough at the original source interview to see that it was done about four years before 4e was released.  My bad on that one. Thanks BryanD for fact-checking where I didn't!

I picked up Matthew Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, which seems to be a pretty good handbook for what OSR seems to be.   Looking at the four "zen moments" which define Old School D&D you've got:
  • Rulings, Not Rules
  • Player Skill, not Character Abilities
  • Heroic, not Superhero
  • Forget "Game Balance"
Understandably, Gygax and Finch park their car in the same garage.  I'm looking at the details in Finch's Primer and my 4th Edition Rulebooks and am now convinced that you can play Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition in an Old School manner.  You just won't be able to use any adventures I've seen published for 4e.  This isn't a big deal for me.  I could be wrong, but I don't think I started using modules heavily until 2nd Edition.

I am going to posit that you CAN run 4th Edition in a manner befitting Old School D&D.

How?  Well, I'm going to address each of Matthew Finch's points and explain how you can run 4e differently (but without changing the game) and capture more of an OSR feel.

Rulings, not Rules: Okay, there is no denying that 4e is rules heavy.  I touched upon it a few months ago, and I agree that 4e is a "statute law" game where OD&D is "common law."  There are certain things in 4e which are codified in the rules that used to be the purview of the DM.  Jumping across chasms, for example.  The 1st Edition Player's Handbook doesn't have any rules that I could find about how far a normal character can jump.  4th Edition covers it under the Athletics skill.  Does this mean that the rules are more important than the DM's ruling?  Not just no, but hell no.  It just means that the DM will have to make a call for less circumstances.  In fact, the architecture of the rules makes it easier for a creative DM and a creative player to do things a little different.

Again, it comes down to negotiation, JUST LIKE OLD SCHOOL D&D.  Let's look at "The Ninja Jump" example from the Primer.  Here's how it would have gone down at my table.

GM: "You're up on the ten-foot high ledge, and down below, the goblin is about to attack Frank the Cleric."
John the Roguish: "I grasp my sword, blade downward, and leap off the edge, driving the sword blade deep into the goblin's back using the weight of my body and the fall to cause tons of extra damage."
GM: "Okay, you aren't in melee contact with the goblin, so your normal powers don't apply here.  I'd actually call this a charge, since you are moving in a straight line with an attack after it.  Of course, you are also falling 10 feet.  And the goblin will have to make an Athletics check to remain standing.  Sound good?"
John: "Here we go!"
GM: "First, we resolve the attack.  Take your charge attack."
John: "Wow.  That was an epically bad roll.  Even with my bonuses an 11 vs. AC"
GM: "Not good enough.  The goblin manages to avoid your blade, but there is still the matter of 170 pounds of rogue crashing into him.  And... I rolled as awesome as you did.  He's prone.  Let's see what happens with that fall.  Okay, you fall ten feet, so you take... 4 points of damage and are prone.  Make your acrobatics check.
John: "14.  No damage."
It's all fun & games until a Goblin ninja jumps YOUR ass.
GM: "Okay, you're in the same square as the goblin, so move yourself out.  You and the goblin are prone.  Frank, you're up."

It's not the horror story that some people make it out to be.  The difference between OSR and 4e is simple: OSR requires DMs to make up rules, while 4e requires DMs to interpret them.  If a GM can't interpret the rules to allow players to do cool stuff, then he needs to learn the rules better or learn how to think outside the box.  If a PC feels hemmed in by the rules, then he needs to open up his imagination.  Don't blame the system, blame the players.

Player Skill, not Character Abilities:  If a puzzle becomes a bunch of die rolls, it's not really a puzzle.  It's a bunch of dice rolls.  Let's look at the Spot check debate.  It's really easy for a lazy DM to say that players can just roll Perception and find everything.  The 4e Player's Handbook describes searching as something that occurs within the squares around the PC.  So, to search a room, the players are going to have to move around and describe their searches, coupled with some Skill checks.  The ten foot pole?  An item bonus on Perception checks in certain circumstances.

Heroic, not Superhero:  Okay, sure, 1st-level characters in 4e are far more survivable than OSR 1st-levels.  I still don't quite consider them superhuman, though.  The Warlord I made for my upcoming 4e campaign is a half-elf who basically has a knack for inspiring his fellow adventurers through his battlefield vision and sheer arrogance.  Standing behind them in battle, he targets enemies with his longbow, helping his friends fighting in melee bring down the opponents while exhorting them on to greatness.  There is nothing superheroic about anything a 1st-level character can do in 4e.  Sure, he's no farmer with a pitchfork, but that's kind of the point of the game, isn't it?

Forget "Game Balance":  That's easy.  Throw out the modules.  Most OSR DMs do that anyway.  Sure, the rules have these carefully balanced formulas which determine what kind of monsters you should fight at whatever level.  I can't say I ever followed the 1e monster stocking tables, either.

It's funny.  I grew up immersed in two things: D&D and Punk Rock.  You here people talk about the new bands and how much they suck compared to the old school.  What people don't realize is that there was JUST AS MUCH CRAP back in the 70s and 80s as there is today.

It isn't hard to run 4th Edition with an old-school edge.  It isn't hard to write a 4e sandbox.  All you have to do is think for yourself and move beyond a hard and fast adherence to every word written in a rulebook.  You take the framework of a system and inject YOUR vision into it.  Creative players and a creative DM will be able to make magic happen regardless of what version of a game you are playing.

I issue this challenge to anyone who feels that they can't have an old-school game using the 4th Edition rules:  Work out a time where I can run you through a game.  I can even take an old module and adapt it.  After we are done, you still might not like the game (No matter what anyone says, it's a new game with an old name), but I am certain you will realize that the biggest problem with 4th Edition isn't 4th Edition, it's crappy people and crappy adventures.  When good people surround themselves with good people, a good game will result.  Don't let "them" tell you how to play 4th Edition.  Play it your way!

After all, isn't that what punk rock is all about?

Monday, December 27, 2010

What It Is: D&D 4e Red Box

Hope everyone had a happy holiday.  I can't report any gaming finds, but my fiancee DID get me a beer making kit.  In about a month (I have a few more things to pick up before I can begin), I should be trying out my first stout.  I'm very excited.

My biggest complaint? No Bargle or Aleena.
One of the things I got for Mrs. Higgipedia this year was the new D&D 4e Red Box.  While I am realizing my heart is with the older versions of D&D, I do enjoy aspects of 4th Edition.  I've found that it is a more balanced and egalitarian system than previous editions.  All races and classes can generally contribute in equal amounts at all levels.  Still, the home game I am trying to organize (if you are in the Stroudsburg, PA area and interested, drop me a line.  You can reach me by email or through the Facebook page on the right column of the page.) is going to be based on Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with some house rules.  I don't hate 4e the way a lot of OSR aficionados do,

That said, a mutual friend of the future missus and I is starting up a game next month and we're using 4th Edition.  Mrs. Higgipedia hadn't played D&D since 2nd Edition so I knew I had to give her an idea of the differences between the editions.  Looking around the internet, it seemed that Wizards' new Red Box would be a great fit for my needs.  So, it was one of her presents.

We were in a hotel on Long Island over the holidays and we broke out the box and gave it a whirl.  We played through the tutorial once, with Mrs. Higgipedia making for herself a nifty little Human Rogue.  We decided we'd run through the tutorial a few other times, so she could see what other characters she can make (most of my books are still in storage) and get a better idea of the gameplay.  There is a lot to unlearn and relearn when you are making the jump from 2e to 4e after fifteen years of not playing.

The box itself is a great homage to the set that got a lot of us into the hobby.  If you go back to my very first post, you'll see why I love the game so much.  When you open it, there is a lot similar and a lot dissimilar.  The Player's Book, the DM's Book, and dice are what I remember from my old Red Box.  The new one comes with cards, tokens, and maps (all reflections of the much more map-oriented version of the game as it exists now).  One of the things I don't like about the new game is the filler piece that keeps the books at a slightly more aesthetically pleasing angle, but takes up a lot of room.  I'd prefer a smaller box than filler.  It makes me feel like I am getting ripped off.

For the most part, the tutorial in the Player's book gives you the very basic tools you need to understand the game, adding concepts as needed (Just like the Moldvay Red Box).  It's a very simple two part adventure which illustrates the concepts you'll need to understand.  You get to create a human/elf/dwarf/halfling fighter/cleric/rogue/wizard and go to town on some goblins.  Very basic, very simple.  It then encourages you to gather some friends and have them try the tutorial and start a game.  With this, I am convinced that despite Hasbro and WOTC being these large corporate entities, there are still those in the industry on their end who remember what it was like to grab some friends and play a new game in one of the basements.  The Red Box is a throwback to that.

When all is said and done, your opinions of the Red Box are your opinions of the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  If you hate 4e, you'll hate the Red Box.  If you like it, you will appreciate that it is one of the few games out there that is written with the customer who has no preexisting context for table top roleplaying in mind.  The only other game I've bought in a long time that does more than a cursory job at this is Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

I am glad I bought the Red Box for Mrs. Higgipedia and she seems to be glad as well.  As always, I welcome your thoughts on the product.  Just please be a little more constructive than "Fourth Edition Sucks."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What It Is: Something Unholy Stirs

What's unholy is that I paid money for this crap.
I was bumming around on DriveThruRPG, looking for some cheap adventures to help populate my sandbox.  I came across the OSRIC-compatible Something Unholy Stirs, by Sancrosanct Games.  It looked interesting and had a decently old school cover.  The premise is kind of interesting.  The typos and poor editing are painful.  I went to the Sacrosanct Games website to see of maybe they are a foreign company and English is their second language, but it doesn't appear to be the case.  The title page reads "individual artits[sp] may retain copywrite[sp]".  Dude.  When even your CYA statements are spelled wrong, you need some help.

The plot of the module sounded good at first.  A necromancer was using a village's prime location as a stop along a booming trade route as cover for her nefarious activities.  The players stumble upon said activities and attempt to put a stop to it.  Well, this necromancer is about as subtle as a rhinoceros running wild through a crowded marketplace.  Any players older than 12 will probably see through to the plot and go straight for the fairly straightforward dungeon delve.  In fact, that's what this adventure reminds me of: something I would have come up with when I was 12 writing my own adventures for the rest of my middle school friends.

This is seriously the most poorly written and edited RPG product I have ever paid money for.  Do not go anywhere near Something Unholy Stirs.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What It Is: Swords & Wizardry Complete Rules (Part Two)

All right, last week I reviewed the Player's Section of the new Complete Rules for Swords and Wizardry.  Today, I'll be finishing it up with the Referee's Section.

Let's Get Started
The introduction is good for explaining what it means to be an OSR referee compared to some of the new school games, rules interpretation in particular.  It sets the tone for a referee to act outside the rules and modify them as needed.  Compared to later editions of the game, which seem to have rules for everything and endless errata, it's a refreshing change.

Some of the symbols from p. 78.
The section jumps right into adventure design, reminding referees about their most important duty: providing a setting to give the rest of the players some form of challenge and entertainment.  The cross-sections and the maps are all hand-drawn, encouraging referees to go it their own.  There are plenty of "Dungeon Map Symbols" to give fledgling referees ideas for things to add to their dungeons.  I like this a lot because those huge lists of map symbols (I believe in the inside of the cover of the DM's book of the original Red Box) actually exposed me to new words like dais and portcullis.  I was 9 years old and had no clue what those were.  I bet if I asked around the coffee shop I'm writing this in, I'd find more people NOT knowing what those words mean than those who do know.  The key example is pretty simple and illustrates that all you really need as a referee is a brief description, stat blocks, treasure, and some space for notes.  While I look for a lot more than that from adventures I purchase, when I'm writing something up, I am usually good with the basics.

When it comes to stocking the dungeon, S&W deviates from the original sources, going for a later "Challenge Level" concept.  Starting with the "sublevels" of Challenge Levels A&B (for the weakest threats like kobolds and goblins) and going up from Challenge Level 1 (Orc) to Challenge Level 17 (Orcus, the Demon Prince).

I like ambush POV shots like this one from p.82
The random generation tables are the usual mixed bag.  The rules are quick to point out they are just guidelines, but it just seems a bit nuts to have the players run into a horde of 250 kobolds on the fifth level of a dungeon.  Two things can happen there:  Either the sheer volume of the monsters will overwhelm the players or they will be powerful enough to shrug off all of the attacks.  Either way, it's absurd.  I know large numbers of low-level monsters is something very traditional to the game, but I'd like to see someone finally start putting some common sense into it.  What's the point of rehashing these rules if you don't fix some of the things that are clearly absurd or broken?

The addition of mass combat rules in the game are a nice touch.  They look pretty simple, and I'll have to give them a whirl sometime. The siege rules are interesting that they almost admit that it's better to find a supplemental set of rules for it.  They are a bit meager for my taste, but I guess are there because the old rules had them.  The aerial and naval combat rules look pretty simple to use.

Things to Kill
Now, the section I have been waiting for.  The monster section.  154 monsters over 24 pages means that the stat blocks are succinct and the descriptions and flavor text are slim, to the point of sparse.  There aren't as many pictures as I'd expect and the ones that are there aren't always clearly linked to the monster in question.  All said, there is enough to work with here if you are a full blown member of the OSR, with an understanding of the context of the more obscure monsters. I'm thinking that some of the more obscure monsters (Carrion Creeper, Ceiling Lurkers, Trapper Beasts...) might be difficult for someone new to the game to use properly.

What's missing from this p. 119 picture?  A duck swimming in it.
One thing I really like about the monster section is that they clearly define Challenge Levels.  Well, as clearly defined as that concept can be.  Still, this is good for referees who may not be experienced enough to properly scale monsters to have an idea of how deadly their creations might be.

Ooooh!  Shiny!
The treasure system in many ways resembles the classic tables many of us grew up with.  What I like about how the Swords and Wizardry handles things is that instead of an arbitrary "treasure type," you have a gp value based upon the total experience points of the monsters.  It's a concept that a lot of later editions of the game embraced and is very nice to see here.  They have several "tradeouts" which allow you to include gems, jewelry, and magic items in lieu of cash.  So, after fighting my CL 7 Ogre Mage, I have a 2400gp treasure horde to work with.  I have one 100gp tradeout to work with (a bit low, statistically).  So the treasure ends up being 2300gp in coins and a 4gp gem.  Wow.  Let's try it again and see what happens the second time.  This time we get THREE 100gp tradeouts and one 1000gp tradeout.  This time we get a 49gp gem, a 5gp pendant, a magic sword which is cursed to force the bearer to run away from combat, a +2 staff, and 1100gp.  Not a bad system.  The magic items are your typical OSR fare.  They are clearly described and there are a lot of options stuffed into a small area.

Overall impressions
Swords & Wizardry's Complete Rules captures that moment in history where the original D&D rules were becoming Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  It's clear and, instead of having to look in a number of supplements for all of your options, gives you everything you need to play the "complete" version of the original rules in one place.  It's a sharp looking book and very clearly organized and written.

If the Complete Rules existed in a bubble, I'd say jump on it in a second.  Unfortunately, I'm hesitant to give it a glowing review because they are catching OD&D when it was almost AD&D.  It's the bridge between OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry's White Box or Core Rules.  If you are already using OSRIC or have a bunch of 1st Edition books, I'm not sure this will bring anything new to the table.  I say "unfortunate" because I really want to like the Complete Rules more than I do.  It's just not jumping away from the pack in any way for me.

Buy this if you more options than the bulk of the OD&D clones (S&W's White Box or Labyrinth Lord) but aren't heavily invested in OSRIC or AD&D 1e.
Don't buy this if you already have an early AD&D clone you are happy with.

You can buy Swords & Wizardry's Complete Rules here, at the Frog God Games website.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What It Is: Swords & Wizardry Complete Rules (Part One)

The Old School Renaissance/Revolution is wonderful in a lot of ways.  I don't hate D&D's later editions (I played an awful lot of 4e in Colorado Springs), but I read the blogs of a lot of these OSR guys and I remember so much of what I loved about games back when all I had was the original Red Box and the Orange Spine 1e books.  Unfortunately, one of the trickier parts of navigating the OSR is finding WHICH set of rules to play.  You've got Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and many more.  They each offer something different and you have to really look around to see which one is the right fit for your game.

I picked up Swords & Wizardry: Complete Rules last week in PDF form.  I have the softcover on the way, and I'll comment on that when it arrives.  For now, I'll go cover to cover on the Complete Rules PDF.  Hopefully, you'll get an idea of what makes it tick and if it's the right fit for your game.

Basic Info:
The PDF weighs in at 135 pages.  I'm thinking that's a decent size.  I'm convinced that anything over 256 is bloated (I'm talking to YOU, Pathfinder), and 128 is probably the best size to have a thorough, concise rule set.  So, on that superficial level, Complete Rules looks good.

That's just a damn sharp cover.
The beautiful cover shows a party down in the depths of somewhere, near an eerie settlement built into/on top of a mesa at the bottom of what looks to be a deep chasm.  In the foreground (I can't quite tell if the party is going to or coming from the foreground), an eel-like creature rises from the muck.  A great old-school painting which sets the tone for a classic dungeon adventure in an alien setting.  What I like about it is that all of the individual components of the cover wouldn't be eerie in and of themselves, but combine for one of the better covers I've seen in a long time.

The internal art is incredibly varied, running the spectrum from line work to greyscale, detailed and realistic to highly stylized.  There seems to be a lot more art in the Player's Section than the Referee's Section.  I'm not sure if it was a conscious decision, but it does make sense when you think about it.  A player's section (or even a player's guide) is going to be what grabs the player and gives him inspiration for his character.  The ref just needs to get down to business.
Anyway, the art inside is decent.  While nothing really jumped out as amazingly awesome, there also aren't any pieces I'd consider bad at all.  I'd say it's on the higher end of average.

I recognize a few of the names in the credits from the blogosphere and from my childhood.  It's great to see that the people who were part of the Old School when it was the New School stuck around.  Tim Kask, the original editor of The Dragon, writes a short foreward and the primary author, Matt Finch, writes the introduction.  Combined, they take up about a third of a page.  It's nice because they let you know the overall vibe of the Old School way of thinking and let the reader know that experimentation is not just allowed, but encouraged.

The table of contents fits on one page, as does a list of tables.  Listing the tables in a book is a lost art, and I am thankful that they have it.  It really speeds up the search for an important bit of information.  The overall presentation is solid.  It's dense enough to pack a lot of information inside, but not so dense it gives you a headache when you are trying to read it.  There are no frills in the layout, which is a plus for me.  I've seen too many game designers get all crazy with the desktop publisher and not realize that simpler is better.

Character Creation
I know I'm not the only one who loves to jump right into character creation without even skimming the whole rulebook.  The Complete Rules allow you to do so, so that's good.

The Assassin from page 9.  Clearly bad ass.
You start with your attributes, with a 3d6 in order, which is pretty typical of the old-school.  Swords & Wizardry (both the Core Rules and Complete Rules) only makes slight modifications to the Original D&D attribute ranges.  With some attributes, such as Dexterity and Constitution, there is a very minimalist approach to bonuses and penalties.  For examply, you basically have three classes of Constitution, low (3-8), medium (9-12), and high (13-18), which give you a -1/0/+1 modifier to your hit points, and either 50/75/100 percent chance to survive resurrection.   For the most part, this isn't THAT much of a departure, but an 18 Con in OD&D gave you +3 hit points and still only a 99% chance of surviving a major system shock.  However, the 13 gave you no hit points and an 85%.  Compared to later editions, this low-key approach may shock people who have more experience with higher attribute bonuses for higher attributes.  What it serves to do is minimize the desire for higher scores.  If a 13 and an 18 give you the same benefit, you aren't as bummed if your highest score is a 13 or a 14, which is a very real possibility when you make characters with the straight 3d6 method.

You choose your character class next.  The options here are: Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Magic-User, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, and Thief.  This makes the Complete Rules more of an early AD&D analogue than an OD&D one with regard to classes.   The classes don't stray far from their roots, to include differing mechanics for thief skills (some are percentile, some use a d6) and lack of spells for 1st-level Clerics.  There are no attribute minimums for the classes, like AD&D, but each class does have it's prime requisites to gain the 5% bonus to experience points.  Some only require one attribute to be 13, others as many as three.  From a text box in the Complete Rules, I understand that a lot of these are strict interpretations of what is found in a lot of the OD&D Supplements.  I confess I don't have anywhere near the working knowledge of those rules as I do AD&D 1e.  I'll take the author's word for it.

At least page 26's Halfling brought some suds!
The next step is to choose your race.  You can choose human and be done with it, or you can be an Elf,  Half-Elf, Dwarf, or Halfling.  A lot of your sub-classes are not available to your demi-humans, meaning you can't play an Elf Ranger according to the rules as written, and level caps are in effect.  It's all very much the old-school standard. 

There are some pretty extensive notes on multi-classing towards the end of the race section, which clears it up much better than a lot of editions of these rules did.  They offer some different perspectives on multi-classing (brought on by the vagueness of earlier editions) and players and referees both can figure things out much easier.

True to its roots, the Alignment section is set up for the linear Law-Chaos model, compared to AD&D's 3x3 cube.  Law represents civilization, Chaos represents anarchy, and Neutrality is poorly defined as always.  My issues with D&D's alignment models are deep, and better suited for another post.

The equipment section takes up three pages.  Not too many games are this light on gear.  What's listed are the basics.  The general equipment doesn't include weights for the objects, which is a curious decision for a game that operates on pounds as the basis for their encumbrance system.  In the Weight & Movement section, it assumes that your gear weighs ten pounds on top of your money, arms and armor.  I get that encumbrance is a pain in the ass and is frequently ignored by a good number of players.  Lamentation of the Flame Princess did a good job of abstracting encumbrance, while the old game made encumbrance require a calculator.  Maybe some of the OD&D experts can chime in and let me know if that's how it was done in the white box days.

Playing the Game
The first thing discussed after you've made your character is experience.  It explains their decision to have Prime Requisite bonuses for all character classes (since it apparently was very disjointed and vague in the original rules), and bases experience on monsters killed and treasure accumulated.  Again, pure old school.
One of the greater departures S&W takes from the source material is the one saving throw compared to many different classes of saves.  It's not quite the same as the 4e single saving throw, starting high and getting lower as the character advances in level, but it does make the paperwork a lot easier.  Much like 4e, different combinations of race and class give you situational bonuses to your save, which is nice.

Combat.  The heart of the game.  One thing that is unique about Swords & Wizardry is that the rules offer both ascending and descending Armor Class charts.  I get that with different OSR products out there all with different opinions about whether AC should go up or down, you've got a million different systems.  It's still a bit distracting to have two numbers out there.  The combat is pretty much your standard old-school D&D combat rules.  A nice touch is the frequent use of alternate rules text boxes, with different interpretations from different versions of the game.

The examples of play are nice, handling many different situations that new referees and players might run into before they really get a handle on the rules.  The sections on high level adventuring, strongholds, and hirelings are brief.  They leave a lot to interpretation, which is good for the majority of OSR players who are comfortable with coming up with systems that work within their campaign's particular framework.  Players who have come from less improvisational backgrounds might find it wanting.

The magic rules are pretty simple, not straying too far from the source.   Magical research is left to the referee to decide the details, which falls in like with the hirelings and strongholds rules above.  After a quick scan of the spells, there doesn't seem to be anything about them that jumps out.  If you are familiar with a lot of old D&D spells, you won't be in for any shocks here.

So that's it for the first half of the review.  On Monday I'll share my thoughts on the Referee's section and give my overall review of the product.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hitting the Folk Festival Circuit

The dark ages were rife with looters and jam bands.
So, I plan on borrowing heavily from existing adventures for my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign, to include using Peter Spahn's Blood Moon Rising and Raggi's own No Dignity in Death: Three Brides.  Folk Festivals feature prominently in both adventures and I reckon I'll be using both of these fairly early in the campaign.  What I like about adventures during festivals is that they are a wonderful backdrop and provide additional opportunities for competition/roleplaying that normal day-to-day operations do not.

As I reflect on my gaming experience, I think about cool dungeons and other modules, but the ones that were the most visceral were the adventures that took place during festivals.  Anyone remember B6 - The Veiled Society?  The adventure itself isn't all that awesome but it has some really interesting imagery, not the least of which is the players being introduced to the main factions of the town by virtue of a street brawl that breaks out during the Festival of Lucor ("Bald-headed fool!  Do you Torenescu think you own the street?").  When I look back at the modules I loved, B6 always comes back, even though I look at it as a very linear and predictable adventure.  It's amazing how powerful some marketing (Oh, come on, those purple cowls looked AWESOME back in 1985) and a dramatic opening can make you forget the mediocrity of the plot.  Good lord, I just realized how much I sound like Jerry Bruckheimer there.  *facepalm*

Fire!  Entertainment AND Punishment!
The classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure Shadows over Bogenhafen also worked a festival into play.  This festival was a bit better for the players, because it has a lot of little side encounters.  When I went through it as both a player and a GM, someone from the party entered the archery contest as well as the wrestling bout (Come to think of it, I think we ADDED the archery contest...).  It gave the players a feeling that the festival was alive and not just a plot device.  What's nice about festivals is that you can truly find something for all of the players.  Your fighter types can take part in wrestling matches or stylized fighting tournaments, your nimbly sneaky types can take part in the games of chance and skill, and anyone can participate in these events.  I've introduced NPCs as fellow competitors, who evolved into patrons or antagonists.

Even if you have the players as spectators to a festival (as in the second part of Three Brides), it's important to give them some kind of investment.  Side bets, anyone?  Or maybe they know one of the participants and are there for moral support.  Maybe they can just make a buck, through legitimate minstrel work (barding? minstrelry?) or illegal thievery.  The size of the festival matters here--the Festival of Lucor in Specularum would provide much more cover for illicit action than Pembrooketonshire's Great Games.

So, you can have plot hooks, competition, and money-earning potential at festivals.  What else is there?
I don't even know why I bothered to put a caption here.
SUBPLOTS!  Exactly what I was thinking.  If you have crunchier players who are more interested in swordplay and the like, you don't need to worry too much about sub-plots.  However, if you have players who want their characters to be balanced personalities, the festival is a great place to advance the subplot.  Your character has amorous intentions toward a lovely lass?  Well, ask her to the Frolic in the Fall Foliage dance!  Does someone else have identical intentions towards said lovely lass?  Challenge that rambunctious rake to an honor duel!  Why am I alliterating so much?  I blame Havoc and Chaos.

Of course, not all festivals require a nefarious backdrop (all four I mentioned trigger a much more insidious plot).  Sometimes a festival is just a festival.  Pendragon uses tournaments extensively in the Great Pendragon Campaign (which, I cannot lie, intimidates the hell out me, but you can't deny it's an amazing monstrosity of campaign goodness), which just serve to promote your character's social standing.

Festivals are a great tool.  Even if you've only seen the video for "The Safety Dance" or been to a Renaissance Faire once, you can picture what's going on.  It's a bit easier to relate to than delving into a slimy moldy dungeon.  The opportunities are varied and exciting.  I'd love to hear how you've used festivals in your games.  Until then, cheers!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chaos Magic: An Alternate Form of Spell Casting for Magic-Users and Elves

I'm going to have a bunch of house rules for my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, which will hopefully be starting in the new year.  I discussed the thought of an Insanity system last week, but my first published house rule isn't that.  It's my alternate take on Magic-Users and Elves.  They have to be chaotic, thanks to their connection with Arcane Magic.  The definition of the Chaotic alignment (From the LotFP Rules book) is such:

The howling maelstrom beyond the veil of shadows and existence is the
source of all magic. It bends and tears the fabric of the universe; it destroys
all that seeks to be permanent. It allows great miracles as reality alters at
the whim of those that can call the eldritch forces, and it causes great
catastrophe as beings we call demons and elementals (and far, far worse)
rip into our reality and lay waste to all. Everything that is made will be
unmade. Nothing exists, and nothing can ever exist, not in a way that the
cosmos can ever recognize. Those who are Chaotic in alignment are
touched by magic, and consider the world in terms of ebbing and flowing
energy, of eternal tides washing away the sand castles that great kings
and mighty gods build for themselves. Many mortals who are so aligned
desperately wish they were not.
With this, it doesn't make sense to me that Magic Users and Clerics would follow the same rules for casting spells.  I looked to my more recent "favorite" fantasy game, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and how they handled magic with Tzeentch's Curse.  I also looked back to the AD&D 2nd Edition Wild Mage from Tome of Magic and looked at what that class had to offer.  What I came up with is strongly influenced by those sources.  Bear in mind, this has not been tested.  There will no doubt be many tweaks over the next year as I use this.  I am posting it to get some feedback.  Let me know what you think.

Chaos Magic

The traditional Vancian system which governs magic in the most classic of fantasy role-playing games is very structured.  You prepare ahead of time what spells you can cast, based upon an orderly progression.  This seemed a little antithetical to the concept of magic being inherently chaotic.  What I am proposing is an alternate set of rules to govern spell casting for Magic Users and Elves.  Chaotic Magic is all about choice and free-will with a lack of control.  As a spell caster gains power, less powerful spells will be easier to control, but the newer, more powerful spells the caster learns will not always work the way the casters intend.
"What did you DO, Ray?"

Spell Points - The Basis of Choice

Spell casters will draw power from a pool of Spell Points.  Spells cost a number of spell points equal to their spell level--1st-level spells cost one point, 2nd-level cost two, etc.  The number of Spell Points available to the character are based upon what they would normally be allowed to cast according to the rules as written.  A 1st-level Magic User would have 1 Spell Point to cast his one 1st-level spell and a 10th-level Elf would have 39 to power the 4/4/3/2/2 column they've got.

Spell casters learn spells by copying from other spell books or scrolls.  At the Referee’s option, spell casters can also learn spells from exposure to the vast infinity of the cosmos, be it madness or extraplanar contact or whatever he decides.  1st-level spells can be learned by 1st-level characters, 2nd-level spells by 3rd-level characters, 3rd-level spells by 5th-level characters, 4th-level spells by 7th-level characters, 5th-level spells by 9th-level characters, 6th-level spells by 11th-level characters, 7th-level spells by 13th-level characters, 8th-level spells by 15th-level characters, and 9th-level spells by 17th-level characters.  A spell caster can cast any spell from his repertoire, provided he is high enough level to learn the spell and has the required amount of spell points.  The referee can rule that some spells require components and ritual which may prohibit the regular and repeated casting of certain spells.

When a spell is cast, there is a 50% chance that the spell will not function as it was intended.  This chance is decreased by 5% for every level above the minimum to cast that spell.  A 3rd-level elf has a 40% chance of losing control of a 1st-level spell, while a 11th-level magic user can cast such spells without worry.  If the spell goes out of control, roll 1d6 per level of the spell cast and consult the following table:

Table 1: Spell Control Failure Table (1d6/level of spell cast)
1-3 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is one higher on an odd roll, one lower on an even roll.
4-6 Roll once on the Minor Chaos Effects Table
7-9 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is two higher on an odd roll, two lower on an even roll.
10-12 Roll once on the Minor Chaos Effects Table
13-15 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is three higher on an odd roll, three lower on an even roll.
16-18 Roll once on the Minor Chaos Effects Table
19-21 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is four higher on an odd roll, four lower on an even roll.
22-24 Roll once on the Major Chaos Effects Table
25-27 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is five higher on an odd roll, five lower on an even roll.
28-30 Roll once on the Major Chaos Effects Table
31-33 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is six higher on an odd roll, six lower on an even roll.
34-36 Roll once on the Major Chaos Effects Table
37-39 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is seven higher on an odd roll, seven lower on an even roll.
40-42 Roll once on the Extreme Chaos Effects Table
43-45 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is eight higher on an odd roll, eight lower on an even roll.
46-47 Roll once on the Extreme Chaos Effects Table
48-49 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is nine higher on an odd roll, nine lower on an even roll.
50-51 Roll once on the Extreme Chaos Effects Table
52-53 If the spell has variable effects by level, roll 1d6.  The effective level of the spell is ten higher on an odd roll, ten lower on an even roll.
54 Roll once on the Extreme Chaos Effects Table

Table 2: Minor Chaos Effects Table (1d10)
1 Any food or drink within 10 feet of you spoils (milk curdles, fruit sours, meat begins to go bad, bread becomes stale)
2 You are illuminated by a faint glow for a number of minutes equal to 1d6 per level of the spell cast.  This does not cast light more than a few inches, but will make you highly visible in dim and dark environments.
3 Take one point of damage as the forces of chaos coarse through you to power the spell with a bit of your own life force.
4 In a brief moment of awareness for what you are doing, your bowels and bladder empty, ruining your clothing.  Depending on the environment you are in, this can have social effects as well.
5 The voices of the souls who have become one with the winds of chaos scream out, their unnatural lamentations filling the air with considerable volume.
6 You begin to bleed from your nose, eyes, and ears.  This causes no damage, but lasts until you make a successful Constitution check and could have effects on your clothing, as well as other social effects.
7 You suffer from a horrible case of pins and needles, giving you a -1 on all checks for the next 1d6 minutes per level of the spell cast.
8 Roll 1d6.  Your eyes (1-2), ears (3-4), or mouth (5-6) seal shut with a strange film for 1d6 minutes per level of the spell cast.  If your mouth is sealed, you cannot speak, eat, or drink.  The other results give you a -2 penalty to checks that use the appropriate sense.
9 The referee can choose an effect from this list or make an equivalent effect up themselves.
10 Roll on this table one more time and apply the result to the family member geographically closest to you.

Table 3: Major Chaos Effects Table (1d10)
1 The chaotic energy you use to power this spell is particularly virulent, causing 1d4 points of damage per level of the spell cast to you.
2 The chaos powering your spell moves directly through your brain, infusing it with insight to the unnatural and alien nature of reality itself.  Gain one Insanity point.  Make an Intelligence check as well.  If you are successful, the referee will add one randomly chosen spell of a level equal to or lower than the spell you just cast to your repertoire.
3 Your stomach cannot handle the energies you are dabbling with.  You begin to vomit uncontrollably for 1d6 rounds per level of the spell you have cast.  In this time, you vomit far more than you could have held in your body and are unable to do anything while you are vomiting.
4 Chaotic sprits pick you up, shake you around like a rag doll and throw you 5 feet per level of the spell cast, damaging you appropriately.
5 Roll 1d6.  Either your hair (1-2), finger and toenails (3-4), or teeth (5-6) immediately blacken and fall out.  If you have already lost your hair, nails, and teeth, then roll again on this table.
6 An entity from beyond possesses you for a number of rounds equal to the level of the spell you’ve cast.  The referee will control your character and act in accordance with the entity he sees fit.
7 The chaotic energy powering your spell is such that your clothing ignites in flames.
8 Roll once on Table 2: Minor Chaos Effects Table and apply that result to every creature within 25 feet of you.
9 The referee can choose an effect from this list or make an equivalent effect up themselves.
10 Roll on this table one more time and apply the result to the family member geographically closest to you.

Table 4: Extreme Chaos Effects Table (1d10)
1 You are attacked by a group of lesser creatures of chaos (referee’s choice) equal to the level of the spell cast.  They appear within 25 feet and move to immediately attack you.
2 Every creature (including yourself) within 25 feet is struck by the powers of chaos, resulting in 1d6 damage per level of the spell cast.
3 In thanks for unleashing a spell of this magnitude on the world, the Powers of Chaos offer you a group of servants.  A number of lesser creatures of chaos equal to the level of the spell cast arrive to do your bidding for a number of rounds equal to the level of the spell cast.
4 Roll 1d6.  As the powers of chaos rip through you, your skin is either (1-2) bleached, (3-4) blackened, or (5-6) made very alien (DM’s choice of the consistency).
5 Roll 1d6.  The powers of chaos break your (1-2) body (Constitution), (3-4) mind (Intelligence), or (5-6) soul (Wisdom).  Reduce that attribute by 1d6 for 1d6 hours.
6 The chaos powering your spell moves directly through your brain, infusing it with insight to the unnatural and alien nature of reality itself.  Gain 1d6 Insanity Points.  Make an Intelligence check as well.  If you are successful, the referee will add one randomly chosen spell of a level equal to or lower than the spell you just cast to your repertoire.
7 A great maw opens up beneath you, drawing you into the Realm of Chaos.  If the referee is lenient, you are merely prisoner there.  Until your allies come to find you, however, you will need to roll up a new character.  If the referee is a bastard, roll up a new character (maybe this one can be a Fighter). 
8 Roll once on Table 3: Major Chaos Effects Table and apply that result to every creature within 25 feet of you.
They just don't make metal like they used to.
9 The referee can choose an effect from this list or make an equivalent effect up themselves.
10 Roll on this table one more time and apply the result to the family member geographically closest to you.

Let me know how these look.  I know it's a dramatic re-write of the game, we've all been playing for quite some time.  I'm looking for constructive feedback on the mechanics of what I've written here.  Oh, and when I was looking for art for the blog, I found these guys:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Psychology in Role Playing Games

Initially, I was thinking of writing about psychological trauma and how it could be reflected accurately in a game.  The natural progression of thoughts led me to think about psychological issues in RPGs overall.  Since insanity is a fundamental part of Call of Cthulhu, I think it exists outside the scope of this writing.  Thinking about fantasy games in particular, there are a couple different things I can say about psychological realism in Fantasy Roleplaying Games:
  • The only time I've ever had characters suffer long-term psychological effects as a result of adventuring was when I ran  Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.  I don't remember the details of the 1e game I played in Arizona, but the 2e game I ran in California resulted in a Dwarven Shieldbreaker taking the Slayer Oath (technically not insanity per the rules, but come on!), one character suffering from crippling PTSD (Knives of Memory) and another driven to drink by it (Unquenchable Thirst (?)).
  • I couldn't find insanity rules in any of my 1st Edition AD&D books or my 2nd Edition RuneQuest books.  In fact, the only games where I can find any kind of player mental instability rules are Warhammer and games with edges and hindrances where you can get points for mental health issues.  Few of those games include rules for gaining instability.  It appears that you are perfectly capable of a lengthy career of violence and mayhem without any consequence to the character's long-term psyche.
  • Most fantasy RPGs make it very plain that the PCs are "not like everyone else."  Be it very blatant racism faced by non-human characters or even the simple fact that most citizens of a fantasy world live and die within a few miles of the place they were born, there is something that sets the characters apart from the rest of the world.  In games where it's epic destiny, you've got a simple explanation.  In a paradigm where there isn't a universal force controlling what we do, there must be something psychological that sends a character into a dark hole filled with green monsters.  No "normal" person would do that.
  • There tends to be a certain level of psychopathy within a majority of gaming groups.  How many gaming groups take prisoners?  How many groups would take prisoners in the FIRST room of the dungeon?
In response to the first, second, and fourth points, mental trauma and semi-realistic psychology rules should not be applied to every game.  A very positive, sunshiny game would not be well-served with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  There are also certain player groups that it should not be applied to.  If you are more into a crunchier hack-it-up game, why worry about the psychological state of your killing machine?  I know Ravenloft introduced Fear, Horror, Madness, and the Dark Powers checks to reflect the madness inherent in the Demiplane of Dread, but these rules rarely made it anywhere else in the system.

In the (soon-to-be) late and great Twilight: 2013 rules, they talk about about the fine line referees need to walk when it comes down to psychological issues.  Here's what Keith and Co. say about it:

We feel it only fair to warn the GM that morale rules
can be decidedly unpopular with some players. The most
common problem that players have with these rules is that
they deprotagonize PCs. In other words, players feel that their
characters are the stars of the story, and therefore should never
be subject to outside forces that dictate how they feel or react.
This is a fair complaint. We’ve included these rules for the sake
of drama and realism, but some players may not want this much
verisimilitude in their post-apocalyptic escapism.
This is a very important thing to keep in mind, since players play for different reasons and some of them don't deal with PC failure well.  The WFRP player who ended up with the Knives of Memory would get just as salty when the PTSD kicked in as he would when he would miss with an attack.  He was the kid who wanted to always succeed at every single thing he did.  The guy playing the Slayer and the guy with the drinking problem embraced the psychological damage that came hand-in-hand with letting all sorts of chaotic threats loose across the Empire (they failed miserably at Shadows over Bogenhafen and kept making all kinds of goof-ups during Death on the Reik).  They played a mix of self-loathing and unbridled desire to make things right that gave them a really insecure fanaticism that made for some really fun games.  That's because those guys EMBRACED the character madness, whereas the Knives guy did NOT enjoy his character being weakened in ANY way.  Different strokes for different folks.

Dealing with the third point, a world that is more fantastic than fantastic (I'm talking about YOU, Eberron) would probably have less in the way of PCs being "strange" for being adventurers.  Adventurers might be looked at more as the kids who got out of town with that really cool job that the rest of us envy.  Even something as mundane as my enlistment into the U.S. Army and heading off to Iraq and Afghanistan would get regular responses along the lines of "That's amazing, there's no way I can do that."  In a high-fantasy world like Eberron or Talislanta, I can see adventurers getting this kind of response.  In an adventurer-heavy part of the world, like most military towns in the real world, you would get even less special treatment.

In a lower fantasy world, you'll see a much harsher reaction to adventuring.  As much as Uncle Owen didn't want Luke Skywalker to go to the Academy with Biggs, most parents aren't going to want to have their kids head off into the big unknown.  Even something as mundane as being conscripted into the local liege's militia would be met with some degree of fear and reservation, let alone embarking on some damn fool quest into the Underdark.  In many of the old-school editions of RPGs, it was very easy to die at low level, so you'd realize that even as a 1st level character (compared to the 0-level masses) your chances of coming home are fairly slim.

What does this mean for my games?  Well, if I am playing an Eberron game using D&D 4th Edition, I don't think it means much of anything.  However, when I run my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, I might introduce a few things.  I'll work on the system, but here are the concepts I'd like it to have:
  • There will be some kind of a reason the character left home.  I'll need to make a table to reflect this.  There can be positive reasons to adventure (an earnest selflessness, a dedication to a deity, etc.) and negative reasons (psychological trauma, loss of everything, etc.) and each will have some kind of minor in-game effect.
  • There will be some way to reflect the psychological damage that comes with exposure to the deep dark secrets of the world, be they the horror of what humanity can do to itself or the cosmic horror of what the universe can do to humanity.
  • I'm seeing Clerical Magic and Arcane Magic as being polar opposites, in both alignment and nature.  Raggi has already placed Magic-Users and Elves firmly in the Chaos camp, so I think it's a natural extension to make Clerical magic inherently Lawful.  What I want to avoid here is a Law v. Chaos conflict that is all-encompassing.  I think I'd like the alignment rules as they are evolving for me to reflect your understanding of the world--the chaotic beliefs of the cosmic magicians, the lawful beliefs of the dogmatic religions, or a more "non-committal" neutrality.
So, I think before I do anything with my campaign, I need to come up with the worldview.  The Sanity rules I come up with will all be relative to the worldview and how events can either challenge or shatter your worldview.

As always, I want to hear your thoughts.

Edit:  As you can see, Jeff Rients (from Jeff's Game Blog) corrected me.  There are insanity rules in AD&D's 1e DMG.   Still, it's pretty clear that it's incredibly rare that a player suffers from insanity outside of magical/psionic/mental attack.  One thing of note is that the DM is told to take over the character when the madness strikes, as "most players will not be willing to go so far."  I've only introduced madness into one of my games, but two out of three players embraced it wholeheartedly.

Monday, December 6, 2010

It's Been a While

First off, I'd like to apologize to the three people who regularly read my blog for not updating in over a month.  I'm now 100% done with the U.S. Army, Honorable Discharge in hand.  For now, I just collect unemployment and wait for college to begin.  You'd think I'd have been blogging my ass off, but there have been so many distractions.  Between streaming Netflix and a pretty robust cable TV package, I've been watching a lot of TV shows (How did I not hear about Torchwood?  Great show!) and catching up with the friends I haven't gotten to spend the proper amount of time with since I left to go to war nine years ago.

I actually HAVE been working on some gaming product over the last few months.  I was debating working on a near-future setting, approximately the same tech level and scope of 2300AD, just much less dated.  While I like the idea of a realistic near future setting, I found myself with a bit of a dilemma.  A realistic progression of technology gives you a very Transhuman Space style setting, which is much different than the nationalistic and virtually stunted technology of 2300AD.  When you break it down, 2300AD is NOT that much more advanced than we are today, with the exception of workable energy weapons and FTL capability.  Did I want to go realistic or did I want to go stylized?  I thought more about it and realized that unless I had a group to play with, it'd be hard to put anything together anyway.

So, that project is on hold for now until I can find some people who would be willing to help me develop and play in a sci-fi setting.  I'm thinking it would end up closer to a Transhuman Space vibe than 2300AD, but that's because I have seen the pace technology is going and Transhuman Space just makes more sense to me.

That said, I have a lot less time suspending my disbelief for a Space Opera game like Traveller.  When there is no connection to the world we know (Yes, Terra exists in the OTU, but if you are playing in the Spinward Marches, it exists only as a concept), there is a lot less resistance to the facts we know.

I'll likely be getting involved in a home game with some friends come the new year.  It'll be D&D 4e, which I don't mind so much, but I'm not feeling it the way I'm feeling some of the old-school rules and clones.  I've really enjoyed the quirkiness of Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess (Which is having a GREAT sale on PDFs right now) and am thinking it might be good to work on something for that game.  A full-blown sandbox might be a bit more work than I want to do (particularly when I start school in a little more than a month), but it might be fun.  I picked up the Pembrooketonshire books from LotFP's sale (as well as Death Doom Frost and Hammers of the God) and might work on just figuring out how to allow them all into one sandboxish environment.

One thing is for certain.  I will figure out how to make the Arcane Magic system in LotFP more chaotic and less Vancian.  If Magic is intrinsically chaotic, it needs to reflect that.  Maybe I'll look to Warhammer and the Wild Mage rules for AD&D for inspiration.  I think I'll leave the orderliness of the clerics as is.  Maybe tweak spell lists by religion, but nothing major.

Anyway, I'm back.  I'll post more substance over the next couple weeks.