Monday, March 31, 2008

invisible, figmentary, and dead: that damn turtle

Without a doubt, the greatest fumble result in gaming is tripping over the unseen imaginary deceased turtle. Below, under the last result for 2-handed fumbles, is the oldest version of it I have in my game collection, from the earliest combined edition of Arms Law & Claw Law, which I'm pretty sure is the second ed of both books.

(Click image for a bigger version.)

I love those handwritten charts! They make the later RM charts seem cold and clinical by comparison. Note that under these rules fully five percent of all 2-handed weapon fumbles involve tripping over the non-existent turtle. With a morningstar's 8% fumble range that means you'd hit this result every 250 attacks or so. That's more often than you'd hit any sort of fumble under the Arduin Grimoire, at least if I'm interpreting Hargrave's rules correctly.

Personally, I love the MERP version of this fumble even more. Check out the last result on this list.
(Click image for a bigger version.)

That "You are very confused." cracks me up every time.

a double dose of medieval awesome

So I just finished reading Margaret Wade Labarge's A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century and I gotta share two bits from it or else I'll explode. First up, we have a throwaway mention of something that would make a cool-as-hell artifact for a modern weirdness campaign:
No English [chess] set was quite as rare as the one sent to St. Louis at Acre by the Old Man of the Mountain, chief of the Assassins of Syria; it was of crystal and amber with filigree of gold.
A chess set presented by the Grandfather of Assassins as a gift to a Saint-King. How can you not love that?

The other passage that I'm in love with describes a fad that developed among wealthy clerics of keeping pet monkeys and apes.
One of the northern chronicles, alluding to a bishop of Durhan's practice of keeping monkeys, described it as being "the custom of modern prelates for occasionally dispelling their anxieties."
Much of the time I can take or leave the cleric class, but I'd love a chance to play a clerical ape-keeper!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Clatto Verata Necktie!

I subscribe to Paizo's newsletter, though I must admit that I rarely read it. But the most recent issue's subject line caught my eye with the words Critical Fumble Deck. Now I know that a lot of gamers hate fumbles, but for me they are a cornerstone of Retro Stupid play. A lot of fun can be had tripping over imaginary deceased unseen turtles and accidentally mangling your friends and whatnot.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Wigs? Tea?

So thanks largely to Doc Rotwang's cheerleading for the random tables in it, I finally got myself a copy of Castle Zagyg vol. I, Yggsburgh, the setting book for Uncle Gary's Castles & Crusades-powered attempt to finally get Castle Greyhawk into print. (As a note to local readers, I ordered my copy through Armored Gopher Games. Special orders with them are fast and hassle free.) I'm really digging this book. The old Gygax charm is there in spades. And the random tables are as awesome as reported. There's a set of charts where not only can you roll up a random encounter with a bear, but you can then determine that the bear is wounded and angry. How can I not love that? And there are all sorts of nice little touches, like giving the heraldry of all the great knights of the realm and even going to the trouble to explain some of the trickier coats of arms in plain English. And the big pull-out map? One word says it all: Darlene. In my experience no other game cartographer combines form and function so flawlessly. If only the hexes were numbered, the map would be perfect.

But one thing is kinda freaking me out about this book. The general period of history being riffed on is way later than I usually dig in my D&D. Believe me, I'm no stickler for medieval accuracy at all. At the game table I tend to mix and match bronze age Conanery and faux-medieval Athuriana with whatever else happens to float my boat. But tea with breakfast? Nobles wearing wigs? That's just a little too renny for me. Not that I loathe renfaires, but rather that sort of late period game reminds me too much of the art and adventures of the sanitized, homogenized, and generally vanilla 2nd edition AD&D era. No doubt I'm extra sensitive to this concern right now because I'm also reading Margaret Wade Labarge's A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century. The 13th century comes off as positively barbaric compared to a world of perrukes and earl gray.

Still, the book is great. And ignoring the two pages devoted to fashion isn't going to break my brain. And on the other hand, I could maybe see trying for a more renaissance-inspired look in a Hackmaster game. Refusing the PCs an audience with a lord because they aren't properly dandified sounds like the sort of thing that could happen in Hackmaster.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Font in the Stone

Gameblog reader GrayPumpkin asked if I ever found this font:

Yes, I did find it. One of the users at What the Font identified it almost immediately as Herkules. Big thanks to Some guy named Sam for sending me to them!

The Art of Imperfection?

Earlier this month over at theRPGsite we had a thread about OD&D. As is often the case, the old complaint about non-variable weapon damage resurfaced. In case this is new to you, allow me to sum up: Before the release of Supplement I: Greyhawk all weapons did d6 damage. This annoys a lot of people used to each weapon getting its own damage range based upon how kill-rific it is supposed to be. "Why would you ever wield a two-handed sword if it was just as deadly as a dagger?" is the inevitable question. Any OD&D ref using the weapon-versus-armor chart and weapon speed rules in Chainmail can handily answer that question, but it appears to me that the games that actually used Chainmail with OD&D have always been in the minority. Here's how I fielded the issue on the thread in question.
For my next OD&D outing I plan on using the following scheme for damage:

Fighter Types

Light weapons (club, dagger): roll 1d6
Most weapons: roll 2d6, take better roll
Two-handed weapons, lance: roll 3d6, take best roll

Clerics, Normal Men, and most Humanoids

Light Weapons: roll 2d6, take lower roll
Most weapons: roll 1d6
Two-handed weapons, lance: roll 2d6, take better roll

Magic-Users, Kobolds, and other wimps

Most Weapons: roll 2d6, take lower roll
Two-handed weapons: roll 1d6

The basic goal here is to keep damage ranges in the 1 to 6 zone of the original rules, but to allow for variation based upon both weapon employed and relative bloodthirstiness of the wielder.

The OD&D ref community spins out things like this all the time. I can't really claim this schema as my own. I'm basically riffing off Philotomy's awesome house rules combined with an idea from a dude over at Knights & Knaves and leavened with a bit from an old thread in the Dragonsfoot Classic D&D subforum, all of which came to a bubble over at the Original D&D Discussion Forum, or as I like to call it Odd74.

Indie dude Levi Kornelsen has been talking this sort of thing over at his livejournal, particularly here and here. He observes two features that can make an RPG system really juicy: having something cool to do between sessions (fiddling with houserules, making new monsters, laying out subsectors, tweaking your PC build) and having a game that's imperfect and incomplete in inspiring ways. The combo of fun things to do plus either critical gaps or unnecessary elaboration is why I keep plugging away at games like Encounter Critical and the older, crappier versions of D&D.

In my opinion 2nd edition AD&D was mechanically superior to 1st edition in many ways. Stripping out the succubi and half-orc assassins made the game a lot less cool, but the system ran pretty dang smoothly. Similarly, the Rules Cyclopedia is probably the single best incarnation of the game ever published. But I rarely open my copy of the RC, much less play it. And I don't even own all the 2nd edition corebooks. Why? I'm starting to think it's because those games are literally too good for me.

Clearly no one needs a mechanically perfect game to have fun playing RPGs, or we'd have all quit a long time ago. But thinking about why I like the games I like, especially in light of Levi's comments, and now I'm wondering if maybe I don't want a mechancally perfect game. The tinkerer in me is better served by an engine that isn't already purring like a kitten. And at the table a broken game only encourages me to operate more by the seat of my pants, which is when my GMing is at its best.

I'm not arguing that More Broken equals Better, by any means. Game designers, please keep working and playtesting and all that stuff! I'm just offering a counterpoint here to the "System Does Matter" and "Design is Law" types out there. Yes, your game system is important, but sometimes maybe the hardcore of the hobby fetishize the perfect system when a lot of that energy can go towards just making up some shit and running with it.

Am I making any sense here? I feel like I'm kinda all over the map in this post. To start the posty by showing off my shiny new OD&D houserule and to end it with arguing that system matters less seems pretty dang stupid.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

This saves me some typing.

Not a gorilla slayer, just an alternative.
Today I planned on writing a bit about Pathfinder, the newly announced 3.5 successor game from Paizo. But it turns out that Trollsmyth has already said everything I had to say, so go check out his blog for my opinion. Funny how that works out.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I like Heromachine

Jeff Hebert's HeroMachine continues to be a totally awesome way to gin up some character art when you suck at drawing. Here are some recent characters I've made.

When my daughter and I play the videogame King of Dragons she always chooses the elf, at least partially because the simple sprite art in that game allows from some ambiguity in the gender of that particular character. I think she plays Lancelot in Knights of the Round for the same reason.

This dude is based upon a guy on the cover of one of my OD&D rulebooks. I had to do a little graphical shenanigans to get the helmet to turn out that way, combining the horned helm and the helm-with-coif options.

Here's Uzenna the Hobgoblish Medusa, from my module Under Xylarthen's Tower.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Welcome to Kurazocan

I recently tried out the solo game/dungeon generator How to Host a Dungeon. The results aren't a complete keyed dungeon like you'd get using the tables in the back of the 1st edition DMG. Rather, you get this cool historical overview of the dungeon and a nifty vertical map that can serve as the springboard for level design.

Most of Dungeon Kurazocan was designed by long-gone drow and carved out by their subhuman slave-things. Notable non-drow areas include the scribbly bits bottom-center, which is the home of the Orcs of the Green Flame, and the squares on the righthand side of the map, which started as a dwarf mining colony but was later conquered by a party of evil adventurers. One of the adventurers, a mad wizard, opted not to return to the surface and has instead turned his talents to conquering the dungeon. Apart from the orcs, this wizard's main rival is Althiona the She-Rakshasa, who has many men and monsters under her hypnotic sway.

I haven't a single level mapped or even a lone room keyed, and I already know more about this dungeon than pretty much any other I've designed. How cool is that?

Friday, March 21, 2008

a brief note on monster books

Everybody thought 8 monster books was crazy...Thanks to gameblog reader and Hackmaster superfan Topher I've been able to recently acquire the entire 8-volume 1,600-critter Hacklopedia of Beasts. Thanks again, Topher! I've had a great time flipping around in these books and reading various monster entries.

If you run a first or second edition Advanced game you might want to check these things out. Monster statblock compatibility with those games is very high. I'm not saying that every DM needs to own the entire set, but you could spice up a campaign nicely with just one or two volumes.

Back when I was running 3.x I owned and used fairly few monster books. Sure, several books had a monster section that came in handy. The Epic Level Handbook's critter selection was very useful when my Wild Times campaign started inching its way up and past 20th level. But in terms of pure bestiaries I only owned maybe four total and none of them, besides the Monster Manual, were from Wizards. And upon reading the Hacklopedia I think I finally figured out why ...but how man critter books does Wizards offer nowadays?I never got the new Fiend Folio, or the later Monster Manuals.

Every once in a while I would go into a bookstore or nerd shop and check out the WotC critter books. Sometimes I even had opportunity to pick up one cheap, like the time I found the FF in the discount bin of my favorite local bookstore. The problem has always been that I flip through the book and I never see anything fun. The monsters in WotC monster books might be fun when the dice hit the table, but there's nothing in the book that shows me that upon a casual perusal.

I can open up a random Hacklopedia and see a Map Snatcher running off with some poor party's dungeon map or a qullan sheering some fool's skullcap off with his preternaturally sharp broadsword. I can read about how sirynes get annoyed that men seek them out for their looks rather than their singing. The Hacklopedia has all the loopiness and sheer joy that I get out of original Fiend Folio or the monster sections of the Arduin Grimoire. I get the distinct impression that someone had a heckuva a lot of fun writing up these monsters. With WotC products all I see is grody art and monsters designed mostly by mechanical concerns. "Hmmm, we need an aberration type that is aquatic but suitable for CR 2." That sort of paint-by-numbers thing.

Again, this is only my opinion and only based on surface impressions.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My wife just called from the Wal-Mart...

...where she's buying me a copy of the third season of Scooby Doo just because she can. Isn't that sweet? Scooby Doo is one of the very few cartoons in the universe that she will watch, even if she's not the huge fan that my daughter and I are. The third season features some great bad guys, including the Tar Monster and this guy:


Ironface rides around the water by standing on two sharks. He's a ghost pirate with a face like an evil robot. How can you not like this guy?

While searching for pics for this post I found a shot of the gang from the revamped Scooby Doo Gets a Clue! I've heard the writing on this new series is crap, but I can't say the character designs are bad.

Hey, it's game night! Also, a link.

Tonight my pals will once again brave the dangers of the ruined Moathouse just beyond the village of Hommlet. Many will recall that the Moathouse was once a key fortress of the forces of evil operating out of the Temple of Elemental Evil. What some of you might not know is that back in 'o6 dragonsfooter Paul Stormberg put together a tribute game of Chainmail where the members of the original Castle & Crusade Society (including Gygax, Perren, and Kuntz) played out the battle that left the Moathouse in ruins. Follow the link below, if for no other reason that to check out the gorgeous and exacting Moathouse replica.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

direct from the nineties

One of my daughter's favorite places at the mall is the arcade. She plays a little air hockey and some Hydro Thunder (a speedboat racer) and an over-the-road trucker simulation (she really likes honking the horn). When her mother isn't around we sometimes play House of the Dead. My wife doesn't like little kids playing gun-based video games, while I think it is important that you teach children the proper methods of zombie killing at an early age. It's a life skill.

But Elizabeth's absolute favorite game is skee ball. At this point she's notably better than her old man. Not that hand-eye coordination is one of my great talents. Skee ball is one of the games at this arcade that gives you tickets that can be traded in for cheap crap. Lately Elizabeth has been using them to lay her hands on the small selection of comic books behind the counter. Most of the issues they have are movie tie-ins for various Spiderman and X-men flicks. But this last trip to the mall Elizabeth spotted the one oddball in the bunch:

Collector's note: first appearance of the Engineer from The Authority.Bagged and boarded and straight from 1993, it's Rai and the Future Force #9, written by John Ostrander and published by Valiant. Remember Valiant? They were a big deal back in the nineties.

The funny thing is, I owned this comic back in '93. My cousin Greg thought Valiant was the bee's knees and was always pushing new mags on me. I remember liking Archer and Armstrong, which I recall as the buddy adventures of fat slob Hercules and David Carridine from the original Kung Fu. I got two or three issues of Rai and friends, mainly because the team included one of the greatest characters in all of comic books:

Ridiculously badass.

Magnus, Robot Fighter!

He's a dude whose only purpose in life is to flip out and kill robots. And he does it while wearing a red miniskirt and white go-go boots. What's not to like? I don't know who owns the rights to Magnus these days, but I'd be totally onboard for some Essential style reprints. Between his original 60's Dell/Whitman/Gold Key run and the 90's Valiant relaunch there's more than a hundred issues of this dude karate punching robots, not even counting appearances in crossovers and group books like Rai and pals.

I gotta share one more thing from this issue:

That's the Valiant logo on his helmet. I wonder how many of his teammates asked him what the hell that was? Little Jason there would be in his twenties or early thirties now. I'm tempted to try and track him down to see if he still reads comics.

Monday, March 17, 2008

RPG/wargames symbiosis

The move from Chainmail based wargames to fullblown Dungeons & Dragons is often noted by game historians. Often it is described in terms of a conceptual revolution. But even taking that quantum leap for granted, many RPGs include some sort of wargame element. Some games pretty much demand mass combat resolution of some sort. Games set in the genre of giant fighty robots aren't really complete unless you can play out vast armies of mecha slugging it out, for instance. And Pendragon's abstract war rules are definitely needed for an rpg so narrowly focused on the exploits of cavalrymen.

Lately I've been thinking about the origins of the World of Greyhawk. Reading Gygax's words in early Dragon articles and such I get the distinct impression that initially he wasn't 'worldbuilding' in the sense the term is used today. That is to say, creating an artistically inspiring fantasy world was not his foremost goal. Instead, the World of Greyhawk developed initially as a fictional Europe-equivalent for Chainmail campaigns. I think you can still see artifacts of this era of Greyhawk in some of the placenames. I'd bet dollars to donuts that the Kingdom of Keoland got its name because it started life as the home country of Tom Keogh's troops. Similarly, what else could the Grand Duchy of Geoff be but the home country of a player named Geoffrey? The latter is obvious to me as I know for a fact that all people name Jeff are total egomaniacs.

So now I've got this idea in my head that maybe an authentic D&D campaign should run parallel to a wargame campaign using Chainmail or some other set of rules. Players who build castles and gain followers would immediately have something to do with those shiny new toys. Running through a few wargame sessions before starting the D&D game would also give some nice background that would be immediately accessible to the players. Why are you all at the tavern? Because the 23rd Goblin War just ended and you've decided you're not quite ready to go home. Why do you trust the cutthroats, wandering priests, and wizard's apprentices assembled around the table? Because they, too, held the line when the chips were down at the Battle of Felltree Pass. Why the heck are all these bandits and hobgoblins wandering the countryside? Because the war just ended last week and it was the kind of fiasco where nobody really won.

Then let the PCs wander around for almost a year of game time. Maybe they encounter some war refugees. Maybe have the villages they visit are burned to the ground. Maybe the party will parley for a change when they encounter some bandits and you say "They're flying the colors of Lord Remrik, who saved your unit's bacon at Umlo Hill. The hobgoblins destroyed his lands and sacked his castle, banditry is all he has left."

When the 24th Goblin War rolls around the experience will be much richer. The D&D sessions will give the wargame some really juicy context, while the wargaming gave texture to the RPG. Assuming your group likes both kinds of games, that's a win-win scenario.

this seems appropriate, given the week

Easter 1916, by W.B. Yeats

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

from beyond time and space, five links

Spring Offensive - A local con coming up next month. The first con I ever GM'ed at.

Internet Anagram Server

The Delver's Dungeon - 1st edition AD&D site. Proposing marriage to me online has got to be good for at least a 'five links' appearance.

The Fruitful Void - I'm still trying to figure out if there's anything here for the non-indie types. Opinions?

Abridged Dungeons & Dragons - Another super-small Retro Stupid option.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Speaking of Excalibur...

Anybody got a line on this font?

I've loved the style of Excalibur's opening lines since before I ever heard of the word "font". I've never seen a font like this for download.

Closed Caption Conjuration

Next to my computer is the TV I have hooked up to the Xbox. This particular television has an interesting quirk: you can't turn off the subtitles. My daughter and I watch a lot of DVDs on this set, using the Xbox as a DVD player. Today I got off work early, so I decided to watch Excalibur, one of my alltime favorite films. Just a moment ago the film got to the first use of the Great Spell of Making. For a long time I've been curious as to the proper spelling of the chant, but now I wonder no more:

Annal Nathrach
Oolthvas Bethod
Dochyel Dyenve

So now I'm all set for the next time I need to conjure up a bridge made of mist or encase somebody in a column of crystal.

Goblin Doors

The goblins of Cinder are not the filthy little bastards of mainline D&D. Well, they are filthy little bastards, but they are also much more. The goblins are a fey people, related to elves and fairies and dopplegangers. (Incidentally, Cinder fairies are basically elves with butterfly wings.) They are not kin to hobgoblins or bugbears. It was an influential but completely clueless human sage who decided that obviously green sub-elves, Andorians, and pumpkinheads were all branches of the same family tree. That same dude also insisted in his bestselling bestiaries that aardvarks were a subspecies of dragon.

As a fey race the goblins are a magical people, but they don't cast spells like elves or change shape like dopplegangers. They have a body of magical lore but very few members of the race know more than one or two tiny bits of magic. Goblish moonbeam farmers probably don't know any other magic but that necessary for lunar agriculture. Goblin armorers probably only know how to make rag mail armor (which protects as plate+1 as long as it goes unwashed) and little other magic. One of the more common bits of Goblin magic is the ability to summon and use Goblin Doors.

Most Goblin Doors look like smaller versions of standard dungeon type doors. Occasionally spielbergian light will shimmer and shine through the cracks in the planking or from the keyhole. Other fey races can open and close Goblin Doors, but the summoning and dismissing of them is an unknown art to even them. Goblin Doors usually lead to other rooms in various parts of the same dungeon, but 1 in 6 lead to more distant locales. Note that when open the space on the other side of the door might be plainly visible, it might be hazily perceived, or the doorway might be full of sparkly lights making surveying the space beyond impossible. It is believed that once summoned, the same Goblin Door will always lead to the same destination.

Reports of Goblin Doors leading to places that have no Goblin Door to take one back are nothing more than baseless rumor. Honest.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

more on deep dungeons and strategery

Over at his own blog my good bud Stuart decided to offer a lengthy reply to the non-Telengard portion of Tuesday's Gameblog entry. Stuart's main beef, as far as I can see, is that a crazy-go-nuts dungeon (with things like a succubus in room 23 and a gold dragon in room 24) is the last place that strategic thinking will come into play. Stuart, if I'm off on this, please straighten me out in the comments section here or shoot off a flare gun or something. S. John Ross already offered a response to Stuart's concerns in the comment section of the original post, basically arguing that Stuart's concerns reach outside the bounds of the dungeoneering genre. And Stuart responded to that comment as well. It is unwise of me to step in between S. John and Stuart, because I'm dead certain they're both smarter than me. But I'm going to do it anyway, for no other reason that writing my own reply will make me think harder about the subject. I'll start by quoting Stuart's last comment:

This slippery slope is something that I suspect occurs across multiple games rather than in a single game.

Game 1: Players investigate. GM makes stuff up for them to find.

Game 2: GM makes up stuff ahead of time for players to find. Players ask questions/do things GM didn't anticipate.

Game 3: GM tries to create more coherent setting so that making stuff up will be easier...

Does that make sense?

My first thought here is to ask where the problem lies in this scenario. Stuart calls the situation a slippery slope, but as described I see a basic GMing technique. Only the dimmest of players will fail to go beyond the scope of the GM's initial creations. My old HERO System group called it the inevitable "X+1", where the GM plans for X number of contingencies and the players come up with at least X+1 responses to the situation. Rolling with these sorts of punches is something every GM does. Nothing about the dungeon makes that different.

Let's give a concrete example. The party has discovered a treasure that by random die roll happened to include a large number of potions. One of the players gets curious about this and innocently asks "Are all these potions in the same kind of bottle?" The DM has nothing in the key one way or the other, but he sees a golden opportunity. "Yeah, they're all shaped like those wide-bottomed science flasks, but made out of green glass. Now that you mention it, the potion of heroism from the bugbear lair is in the same kind of bottle." While the players spend 10 minutes discussing the ramifications of this, the DM sneakily writes down "new sublevel 4a, lair of the Mad Alchemist, include Ogre Mage". The next time the players interrogate a prisoner, they might ask the poor critter about potions. The DM is ready now. He tells the PCs that a strange blue giant carries a sack full of them around the dungeon, selling them to monsters for a hefty fee.

To me, this sort of operation is part of the ongoing process of good megadungeon development. Any novice DM can throw some dice on a random stocking chart and sketch some tunnels on a piece of graph paper. To me, that's just step one. A good dungeon makes something out of those dice rolls. And just as importantly, a good megadungeon is never completely done. Adding new sublevels, rooms behind secret doors, and other expansions is an ongoing venture.

Going back to the succubus in room 23 and the gold dragon in room 24, I think S. John is right on the money when he dismisses these sorts of incongruities as basic axioms of the genre. A DM can take that sort of situation and spin a plot out of it. Or he can simply use it as further evidence that the dungeon does not always operate under the same rules as the rational surface. Stuart is right on the money to spot a contradiction here. But I choose to work with that contradiction, even to embrace it. A good dungeon adventure is like a journey to a nightmare realm, where bravery and smarts are your only tools and sometimes they just don't work. Is that unfair to the strategic player, whose bestlaid plans can be screwed up by one bad wandering monster roll? Yes, it most certainly is unfair. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Dungeoneering is not for the faint of heart.

This is kinda weird

Someone has posted an old blog entry of mine on their blog. They've labeled it a "guest blog" but given no attribution. The other tags they've assigned it are arts, handicrafts, health insurance, miranda de ebro, and salvos. Not only do none of those tags have anything to do with the Judges Guild product Verbosh (subject of the borrowed post), but I don't even know what the last two tags mean. It's not even a blog about gaming as far as I can tell. Check it out for yourself. As I type this my entry is the second one on the page.

Maybe the whole blog is an online cut-up experiment?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Anybody else remember Telengard?

Telengard was a dungeon crawl computer game put out by Avalon Hill back in the early 80's. Like most such computer games of the era, it gleefully swiped D&D's mechanics.

Each level of Telengard had a teleporter device that would take you to another level of your choice. I spent hours sending first level adventurers down to level 50 in hopes of stumbling across some unguarded high-power magic items and teleporting back up to level 1. It rarely worked. Usually I'd find a level 50 wraith or someone that would kill my impertinent newbie PC.

Which brings me around to a simple premise: D&D was designed for dungeons. Sounds obvious, I know. But hear me out. D&D was not designed for ecologically-sound underground lairs. D&D was not designed for adventures with plots and stuff that happen to be set at least partially in subterranean labyrinths. You can do both those things with D&D, but the game is ideally designed for the big, sprawling megadungeon where Orcus lives on level 20 or whatever.

In a megadungeon the PCs can strategically gauge there risk based upon their own level and the levels of the dungeon. Say we're a pretty big and tough party of 10th level adventurers. Do we putz around on the upper levels of the dungeon, pimp-slapping kobolds til they cry and stealing their copper pieces? Everyone will come back alive, but the loot and xp haul will be low. Or do we go to level 10, where we can expect a "fair fight" and earns more rewards if we survive? Or do we spend some gold on extra scrolls of invisibility and silence and try to sneak into the lich-king's treasury on level 15? If we make it out with the liche king's crown jewels it will be worth the additional risk.

Now, the scenarios in the preceding paragraph assume a lot. Assumption one is that it is relatively easy to traverse from one level to the next. A good megadungeon should allow for lots of flow from one main level to another, with only certain sub-levels isolated. Also built into the scenarios is the assumption that the party doesn't just show up to the dungeon and wander willy-nilly. Superior dungeoneers reconnoiter. They map. They plan. They interrogate or charm monsters to get information. Certainly you can slop your way through a dungeon crawl if you want (and that can be lots of fun) but if you want to do a good job of plundering the dungeon you take planning and reconnaisance seriously. Under this approach some dungeon expeditions should be strictly scouting missions. Fighters should wear leather armor to increase chances of surprise and the party flees from most encounters. Finally the biggest assumption is that the DM is on his toes. Maybe he doesn't have the map and key to level 15 complete, but he knows enough to that he can have the ki-rin on level 8 tell the party that the lich-king's treasury is down there.

But if you can put that all together, dungeoneering won't simply be an endless series of mindless slogs. For example, say you've got a successful mid or high level party. You map of level 3 is incomplete, or maybe you just want to check for secret doors that might have been missed back near the beginning of the campaign. Sending a Wizard, a Lord, and a Patriarch to do that seems like overkill. But what about sending the henchmen? Those who have henchmen get an opportunity to score some xp for their sidekicks, while anyone who doesn't have henchies can start a back-up PC.

Now assume that things go bad for the little spuds and everyone's favorite henchmen end up captured by a wandering monster. Time for a rescue operation! A few sessions ago didn't we find a series of prisoner cells on level 7? Let's send the big guns down there and hope that's where the baddies took our sidekicks.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pat has a level on me

I Am A: True Neutral Human Wizard (4th Level)

Ability Scores:







True Neutral A true neutral character does what seems to be a good idea. He doesn't feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos. Most true neutral characters exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality. Such a character thinks of good as better than evil after all, he would rather have good neighbors and rulers than evil ones. Still, he's not personally committed to upholding good in any abstract or universal way. Some true neutral characters, on the other hand, commit themselves philosophically to neutrality. They see good, evil, law, and chaos as prejudices and dangerous extremes. They advocate the middle way of neutrality as the best, most balanced road in the long run. True neutral is the best alignment you can be because it means you act naturally, without prejudice or compulsion. However, true neutral can be a dangerous alignment because it represents apathy, indifference, and a lack of conviction.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Wizards are arcane spellcasters who depend on intensive study to create their magic. To wizards, magic is not a talent but a difficult, rewarding art. When they are prepared for battle, wizards can use their spells to devastating effect. When caught by surprise, they are vulnerable. The wizard's strength is her spells, everything else is secondary. She learns new spells as she experiments and grows in experience, and she can also learn them from other wizards. In addition, over time a wizard learns to manipulate her spells so they go farther, work better, or are improved in some other way. A wizard can call a familiar- a small, magical, animal companion that serves her. With a high Intelligence, wizards are capable of casting very high levels of spells.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Friday, March 07, 2008

one link for one reader

In a comment to an earlier post an anonymous, self-described "aspiring 3.0 gm" asked about conversions of old Gygax modules. Here's the conversion of Keep on the Borderlands that I used back when 3e came out:

You'll need a copy of the original module to make use of the notes at that link. As I recall the conversion worked out pretty well until I went and screwed things up by experimenting with these weird new 'template' rules. At the time I hadn't really bothered to read what an 'ECL' or 'CR' was supposed to be. The look on Rod's face when the gnoll breathed fire was almost worth nearly wrecking the campaign.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

and now, five links

The Gleichman Columns

Dragon Roots - new gaming magazine

James's Random Generators

Zone of Influence

The Ronnie James Dio Lyric Generator - Face the heart from the majestic demon

worldwide GaryCon this weekend

So Ed over at the RPGsite has suggested that this weekend everyone in the hobby should play something in honor of Gary. This is a perfect opportunity to introduce someone new into the hobby or to get together with your old gang. I'm going to try to set up a little OD&D with my nephew the ninja and my daughter.

This one's for Gary

Last night my group got out the 1st edition books and rolled up some level one losers. We used Method IV, where each player rolls 3d6 in order twelve times and picks the set they like. It's kinda like going to Baskin Robbins but they're out of vanilla, chocolate, and that one weird flavor you actually like. Sure, you get a choice, but you're picking the best of a mediocre lot.

Pat ended up with a set of reasonably good stats excepting that the Charisma was so low he could only play an assassin. So he drove his Charisma even lower by opting to be a half-orc. Doug came up with a character with high Int and Dex. We tried to trick him into playing an illusionist, but he opted for a straight up magic-user. When he diced for the initial spells in his book he came up with light for his "offensive" spell. He didn't cast it or any spells all night, as I recall. He threw some daggers and even hit a couple of times. But in the grand tradition of crappy 1st level m-u's he spent most of the night leeching xp's off the rest of the party. (Special note to Doug: had we played OD&D as I wanted, you would have had access to all 1st level spells. So there.) Stuart ended up with a human cleric, which he opted to play as a harsh Lawful Neutral servant of a harsh, Old Testament-style Lawful Neutral god. I'm thinking Marduk is a pretty good fit, but we didn't spend any time worrying about the specific deity. Stuart brought three live goats along, in case he needed to sacrifice something while in the dungeon. (Fortunately "virgin" is not listed among the standard equipment in the PHB.) Anytime the goats misbehaved he lectured them sternly.

We started out right at the Moathouse, the dungeon tucked in the back of module T1. As Doug put it "If you play the module as written the players spend the first couple sessions wandering the village and getting pissed at the DM." So we skipped that part and went back to town as needed. Doug knew much of the module, so he made sure the party recruited Elmo, the "stupid mercenary" who is actually a 4th level ranger. When the party wanted to buy a tent, I told them it would cost 5gp. I totally made up that figure and Doug complained it was much too high. I replied that the module clearly indicates the traders in the town like to soak adventurers. Stuart off-handedly offered to pay Pat 2gp to assassinate the tent salesman. Pat can't turn down an offer like that, so I cracked open the assassination chart.

None of the players, not even Doug, knew that the two traders were secret agents of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Out of kindness I decided that the lower level member of the duo would be Pat's target, giving him a 10% chance of pulling off the job. He rolled an 02, scoring more xp and loot than the party would get out of their first two encounters in the Moathouse. Between the cutthroat gig and the actual adventuring, Pat's dude is now 3rd level while the other PC's still languish at 1st. And he's packing a dagger of venom. He gave Stuart the chainmail+2 his victim was wearing.

The session ended in the upper level of the Moathouse. The bandits in the corner tower were soundly defeated, thanks in large part to Elmo the Secret Ranger. Two of their number escaped. Between those guys getting away and the partner of the assassinated trader the PCs are starting to build a decent enemies list.

We're going to do this again in two weeks. As I mentioned at the session I've got years worth of old adventures, between TSR stuff, Judges Guild, Dragon inserts, and the odd Mayfair module. Doug really wants to tackle the Temple of Elemental Evil. I can't find my copy for some reason, so I may have to get a new one.

It was generally agreed that we could use some more players for this campaign. If anyone within driving distance wants to get in on this action, leave a comment or shoot me an email. As I always I'm at jrients {at} gmail {dot} com.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Gary's OD&D House Rules

For a score of 15 or over:
STR: +1 to hit and +1 to damage if a Fighter
INT: +1 1st level m-u spell
WIS: +1 1st level cleric spell
DEX: +1 to AC, and +1 to move silently
CON: +1 HP per HD (same as a Fighter class gets, +2 if a Fighter)
CHA: +1 (positive) on reaction checks

HPs: Characters are only unconscious at 0 HPs. For each level a character may have a minus HP total equal to the level, so a 1st level PC is dead at -2, a 2nd level at -3, etc.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

don't mourn the death, celebrate the life

Things You Can Do To Keep Gygax's Memory Alive
  • Play some OD&D or 1st edition AD&D, or one of the other games Gary created.
  • Adapt one of his modules to whatever fantasy system you are using nowadays. B2 The Keep on the Borderlands is a particularly good choice for "serious" role-players, if you focus on all the intrigues surrounding the various factions of humanoids in the Caves of Chaos.
  • Name your next pet Gary, Gygax, or Mordenkainen. (I am not taking any responsibilty if you name your next kid Gygax or Mordenkainen. You're on your own on that one.)
  • Build that Dragonchess set you've been meaning to construct ever since you read about it in issue #100 of Dragon.
  • Players: Specialize in an oddball polearm, swear "by Gygax's beard", play a cleric of Zagig.
  • DMs: drop the Ring of Gaxx into your setting, sprinkle some scrolls of Mordenkainen-brand spells about your dungeon, use a rust monster or a bulette.
  • Write that module or game or whatever that you've been meaning to get around to. Submit it for publication or publish it yourself.
  • Keep a sharp eye out for the next weird little game that might become a breakout hit, spawning cartoons, films, comic books, novels and countless imitators.
  • Tell the hobgoblins "It's okay, Gary sent us!"
  • Crack open your 1st edition DMG and just luxuriate in the unmistakeable Gygax prose.
  • Send a letter or e-mail to another game designer thanking them before it's too late.
  • Introduce someone else to the fun that is this crazy little hobby.
  • Game like there's no tomorrow.


Troll Lord Games is reporting that Gary Gygax has passed away.

Keep the flame alive, my friends.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

an artifact of gaming past

I found a bunch of old maps and stuff while sifting through my game stuff yesterday. One of the things I dound was my ratty old copy of Dungeon Masters Adventure Log. A bunch of pages are missing from it, but one page from an old session was intact. Click for a bigger, legible view.This info dates from '85 or '86, back when my original crew went through the Temple of Elemental Evil in one caffeine-fueled weekend of gaming. The stats above look like where the party would have stood maybe after clearing out the Moathouse. Was there an article in Dragon round about that time talking about using Hero Points in D&D? We got most of our crazy variants from Dragon articles.