Thursday, July 31, 2014

about Zak

It's 5am here in central Illinois and I should be writing a preposterous paper on how object oriented ontology explains the relationship between the faux medieval verse of Thomas Chatterton and John Keats's long and ridiculous poem Endymion.  But I guess that can wait for later, because I am a little annoyed and need to talk about Zak's present situation.

Do I need to tell you about Zak or do we all know who I'm talking about?  Zak S(mith/abbath) is a guy with a weird haircut and a dragony tattoo on his head who makes art and writes about playing games with adult video performers and occasionally produces excellent gaming supplements you can buy but more often just throws brilliant free stuff you can steal onto his blog.  He is one of the key people who got the old school scene to embrace Google+ as a play venue, leading to a crapton of great gaming.

I think I've known him about five years now, but my memory for dates is hazy and it could be longer than that.  We've never met in person but I've read a bunch of stuff of his and talked with him online and exchanged emails with him.  All the stuff you do with online friends.  Maybe I'm naive, but I feel like I've known him long enough and well enough that if he were this kind of jerk, I would know about it.  To me, the idea that he uses the followers of his blog as some sort of invisible harassment legion would be laugh-out-loud ludicrous, were it not also such an easy way to ruin someone's reputation.

I still kinda want to laugh, though.  The man is one of most overt people I know.  Apparently some people really think a guy with a dragon where half his hair should be, who also makes it a point to tell you in the title of his blog that he plays D&D with porn stars, is some sort of sneaky bastard.  I am baffled.  He may be a bastard, but he ain't sneaky about pretty much anything.  (However, maybe some confused individual is misreading Zak and thinks that when he criticizes someone he is sending a secret telepathic signal to harass that person.  If you are that guy please KNOCK THAT SHIT OFF.  Seriously.)

Zak's "here is a picture of me with my dick out, now let me write 3,000 words about goblins" overtness can really throw people off their game, especially in places like RPGnet, where some days it seems like Sneaky Bastardry is an official sponsor.  In such venues simple interrogatories like "I am asking you point blank: are wizards awesome or not?" often function as rhetorical land mines.  You say yes and the other person writes three paragraphs explaining how, by clear logic, anyone who likes wizards obviously endorses the Holocaust.  So when Zak asks similar-looking questions with all sincerity, people freak the heck out.  People also freak out sometimes when he says things like "We're having this theoretical argument about gaming and it's getting pretty heated, but I suspect that at the game table we have more in common than we think.  Howabout I run a game for you and we see what happens?"  Apparently gaming discourse in some circles has gotten so messed up that an invitation to play a game is sometimes misinterpreted as someone laying a trap.

Zak's also been accused of being sexist and transphobic.  As a cis het male, I am not in an ideal position to evaluate these claims.  Scrap Princess confirms my own gut reaction to accusing him of transphobia.  I guess I could see how at first pass Zak flaunting his association with porn stars could be read as a bro-tastic performance of hypermasculinity, but from where I'm sitting, my impression from reading his blog shows him treating his adult actress associates as players, as friends and as people.  And female characters in his game writing are way more interesting than I would expect from a sexist jerkwad.  Does that mean Zak has somehow magically escaped the patriarchal systems in which the rest of us mere mortals are trapped?  No.  I'm not putting the guy up for sainthood.  I simply suggest that he's one of the people acting in good faith,  trying to get it right.  Like most other people, I'm sure he gets it wrong sometimes.

In conclusion, I'd like to say that Zak is okay in my book.  If you want to call him out on something, that's completely cool with me.  We all need to be called out once in a while, I think.  But cite your damn sources, please.  Passing on vague rumors is a bullshit move and you damn well know it.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

oh, look. a monster.

We live in a visual age.  The advent of photography and cinematography plus earlier advances in the reproduction of images followed by the invention of the world wide web have resulted in a culture where we share images with one another constantly.  As a result, some guy in LA can immediately share the paintings he's created with the entire world.  While some other dude in the midwest can have a tumblr account that is 99% him recirculating images other people have created and posted.  Earlier ages would have called these activities miracles, but for us they are now routine components of our lives.

Now I am not a luddite by nature.  I like having a lever in the kitchen that causes fresh, clean water to erupt from a spigot, for example.  However, we live in a fallen world where every boon has its unintended consequences.  For us, one of those consequences is the way that our hyper-visualized culture can ossify parts of our imagination.  Allow me to demonstrate: take a moment to think about Frankenstein's monster.  I feel pretty confident you could immediately call up an image of the monstrous star of books, comics, films, etc.  And I also feel pretty confident that most of you imagined something like this.  The original novel by Mary Shelley has almost no description of the creature.  You can just about count on one hand the number of sentences that describe him.  And none of them mention green skin, bolts in the neck or a flat-top head at all.  Our collective imagination relies on the visual of the 1931 Universal Pictures film.

Which is not to say that I am arguing that you should all read the original 1818 novel (you should, but I'm not arguing that here) nor am I trying to argue that the yellow-eyed creature with translucent skin portrayed therein is superior to Boris Karloff all dolled up by make-up man Jake Pierce.  The latter version continues to haunt us for a reason.  However, I do think we should take a moment and reflect on what our hyper-visual culture does to our games.

Particularly, I am thinking about how monster books or chapters are put together.  This thing we do where every monster comes with a glamour shot is bugging me today.  Are we not doing to ourselves what the 1931 Frankenstein did to us?  For example, in my crazy brain I think I know exactly what a level 4 shambling krenshar looks like, because when the krenshar appeared in 3.0 the nice folks at Wizards kindly supplied us with this illo:

This monster is a hyaena-leopard thing that shows you its own skull before you die.  I think that's a pretty effin' cool concept.  But I'm not sure the art direction here delivers that concept.  In fact, I think this picture takes away rather than adds to freaky-deakiness of the krenshar.  What could be a monster instead becomes an interesting specimen from a wildlife documentary.

You know who did this crap right?  Sandy Peterson and the crew at Chaosium back in the 1983 Call of Cthulhu boxed set.  Dig it:

That little black silhouette suggests rather than defines the look of the Star-Spawn.  I would go so far as to say it raises as many questions as it answers.  What color is this creature?  A lurid green?  Jaundiced yellow?  Or perhaps it's pale white and shot through with creepily visible red veins?  That knobby head, is that an exposed brain, maybe?  Does this creature have a mouth under those tentacles?  If so, is it a slobbering, fanged maw or a snapping beak or a puss-dripping sphincter?  Etc, etc.

I'm not saying I'm against monster art.  I like pictures of monsters and little miniatures of monsters and videogames where you do nothing but blast hordes of monsters.  What I'm concerned about is the effect of definitive visual representations in monster reference books.  The systematic representation of monsters goes a long way to de-mystifying them, which takes away part of the numinous joy of having your PCs head ripped off by some unknown thing.

However, there are some things that I think you can do to put a little but of that frisson back into a game that doesn't involve chucking the beloved canonical monsters.  I'll try to cover those in my next blog entry.  Feel free to yell at me on G+ if I haven't posted by Saturday.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Random Hamlet Names

My new campaign map indicates the location of cities, towns and villages.  Hamlets are smaller-than-village units (10-60 inhabitants according to Ready Ref Sheets p38,) that can be found in any 5-mile hex containing a castle, town, or village.  On my smaller scale wilderness map I also assume at least one hamlet in any hex marked as cultivated land.  (The 1st edition DMG uses a slightly different definition of "hamlet" with a population of 100-400, while a "thorp" has 20-80 (DMG p 173).)

Since I'm working on "where the heck are you from" charts for PCs, I might need names for these tiny burgs.  Rather than mark and name each individual place, I thought a random table would be more fun.

Random Hamlet Name (2d30)

1st RollFirst Element2nd RollSecond Element
1Arse-1-back, beck
2Barmy-2-borough, burgh, bury
3Bog-3-bourn(e), burn
5Bugger-5-by, bie
6Bung-6-chester, cester, caster
7Cock-7-cotte, cote
12Fart-12-hall, hale
15Knicker-15-heath, hythe
16Muck-16-ing, ings, ington, ingham
17Pig-17-ley, leigh
21Rot(ter)-21-stead, sted
22Rust-22-stock, stowe
23Scab-23-ston, stone
27Sod-27-tree, try
28Stink/Stank-28-wall, well
29Tick-29-wich, wick
30Turd-30-worth, worthy

Saturday, July 19, 2014

tiny thoughts about tiny hexes

Much has been made of the fact that the classic Wilderlands of High Fantasy is actually rather small in scope; its five mile hexes results in a cramped environment more on par with Europe rather than a world of adventure.  Now, I've never been to Europe, but I hear it's a reasonably big place.  Still, of you want your players to travel the globe, meet new people, and kill them, then the Wilderlands isn't quite big enough.

Of course, there is no ideal hex size or campaign map size.  There's only finding the right fit for your campaign.  If world travel is a major goal of your campaign, by all means break out the 24, 30 or 36 miles hexes.  Personally, I'm thinking that 5 miles per hex is too big for my needs.  According to Wolfram Alpha a five mile hex is half a Manhattan, or one third of Walt Disney World (not just the Magic Kingdom, mind you, the whole dang operation).  If my math is right, a 5 mile across hex encloses 16.24 square miles.  Any hexcrawl campaign that posits only one thing in such a space is letting the artificiality of the hexagon do some of the thinking for it.  Which is okay, that is why we use simplifications like hexes.  I'm just for consciously considering the ramifications of such a choice.

Bob Bledsaw and crew knew that although 5 mile hexes might sound small in the age of the automobile, they are actually big enough you can get lost in.  Here's a favorite bit of mine from page 38 of the classic Judges Guild supplement, Ready Ref Sheets:
"When entering a hex containing a village, tower or castle, a 6 on a six-sided die indicates that the  feature in question has actually been found, a 5 indicating that a small farm or hamlet (10-60 population) has been found instead.  Players following a road, coastline or river that intersects a village negates the necessity of 'encountering' same." (p38)
Elsewhere in the Wilderlands material is a note that any five mile hex contains 0-5 additional items not in the key, but I can't find it at the moment.

I run dungeons mostly, so the campaign world exists primarily as the context for the dungeon adventures.  My new campaign map is based on a model of one league per hex.  We don't use leagues very much any more, but one way of defining them is the distance a man can walk in a hour, roughly 3 miles.  Of course, someone in chainmail might need 90 minutes, should you wish to make use of those sorts of rules.  Someone on a riding horse needs only 30 minutes to cross the same hex.  Something like this:

Riding horse
Warhorse or mule
1 hour
1 ½ hours
2 hours
30 minutes
1 hour
1 ½ hours
2 hours 15 minutes
3 hours
45 minutes
1 ½ hours
2 hours
3 hours
4 hours
1 hour
2 hours
40 minutes
1 hour
1 hour 20 minutes
20 minutes
40 minutes

Of course, this chart basically comes down to one hour per hex, plus a few simple modifiers.

Basically, I want a game world where getting to the dungeon is a good, refreshing hike and travel times to cities and castles can be measured in hours or at most a few days.  So I'm scaling my world accordingly.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fireballs and Dragonbreath

So Ian Harac and Delta have reasonably made the case that I am reading too much into the 5e fireball rules.  They maintain the overall burst effect rules do not allow for the free flowing 33 1/2 cubes of fire I talked about yesterday.  Way to rain on my parade, guys!

I think my way of doing it is cooler by a country mile, but they seem to be on the money with their arguments that the dreaded Rules As Written support lamer, non-volumetric fireballs.  I think Delta is wrong about my fireball rules being too complicated, but he plays OD&D so I expect him to want things even simpler than I do.  My fireball rule is not complex, but it does stop play in its tracks while the DM figures out where all that magical fire goes.  I find that the pause builds suspense.  Even in combat not every moment needs to be go-go-go, as long as the pauses are for effect and not to look up the AC of lizard men.

(Seriously, on that last point, a lot of time can be saved by knowing a handful of monster stats and thinking comparatively.  What monster do you know something about is it close to in hit dice?  Is it as tough as an orc?  A gnoll?  A hill giant?  Is its hide tough as leather, hard as plate, or roughly in-between?  Should one blow from it have a chance of outright killing a man, or be likely to do so?  Answering these questions can be much quicker than looking up the stats.  Also: you would be astounded by the number of big, scary monsters my players have fought that were mechanically the exact same as an ogre.)

Anyway, I got to thinking that the same rules I threw out yesterday for fireball volumes could be used for red dragon breath.  Using the BX D&D rules, a red dragon breaths out a cone 90' long that's 30' wide at the far end.  That comes out to 21 cubes of 10' x 10' x 10'.  That could make life interesting in small spaces.

red/white cones, blue/black lines, green clouds 

Green dragon breath takes up even more space!  Their cloud of deadly gas comes out to 40 cubes in BX.  The AD&D1 dimensions are slightly larger, resulting in 60 cubes of volume.  Of course, poison gas doesn't behave the same way as a blast of fire.  I wouldn't roll to blow open doors and I would assume the gas is heavier than air, so it would only float down or sideways, only going up if there was no other place for it.

White dragon cones are slightly smaller than red dragon blasts, amounting to 19 cubes in BX but only 11 1/2 in AD&D1.  Whether the cold blasts of a white dragon behave like fire blasts is up to the individual DM, but I like the idea.  Blue dragon breath ought to follow the same rules as lightning bolt spells, which is maybe another post for another time.  The 60' long, 5' wide stream of black dragon acid does amount to much, only 1.1 cubes.  However, that equals about 8,800 gallons of acid!  Where that drains after each blast might be worth considering.

5e Player Spellbooks

In case you missed them over the last couple days, here are links to two hand-outs I made based upon the 5e Basic rules document.

Cantrips and 1st Level Spells - arranged by class and level, to make spell selection easier for newbies

2nd and 3rd Level Spells - similarly laid out

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fire in the Hole

I have a few nitpicks about the spells in the 5e Basic rules.  Sleep only lasts a minute, Charm Person last only an hour.  Revivy, basically a combat time Raise Dead, is only a third level spell.  Fireball and Lightning Bolt are no longer d6 damage per caster level.  There are other things in the spell section I could get worked up about.
Instead, I’m going to talk about something I like: the return of the dangerous Fireball.  Ditching the skirmish-minis friendly burst template of 3.x (I honestly have no clue how Fireball worked in 4), instead we’re back to the golden era of the Fireball that forms a 20’ radius sphere of blazing death.  The implications of this change are enormous for dungeoneering play.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

inevitable 5e post

Okay, let’s take this baby out for a test spin.  I’m going to make a couple of NPCs in both my beloved ‘81 Basic/Expert rules and this new-fangled edition, just to see what happens.

I’m going to base my two NPCs on this illo by comic artist Dave Cockrum.

We’ll start with the BX versions.  I’m going to use the standard array (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8 arranged to taste) rather than rolling dice because my dice bag is in the other room and I’m feeling lazy.  Besides, the standard array is one of the WotC folks’ better ideas. especially for NPCs.  Anyhoo, here we go:

Ororo the She-Devil, neutral fighter level 6
Armor Class:3   
Hit Points:27 [average for a F6 with no Con bonus]
Str15 Dex14 Con12 Int10 Wis8 Cha13
equipment: [something we will pretend protects as well as] chain, shield, sword, dagger, 500gp in various jewelry (armbands, jeweled scabbard, etc)

Sonja Stormwitch, neutral magic-user level 6
HP:21 [average for an MU6 with Con 13]
Str10 Dex14 Con13 Int15 Wis8 Cha12
spells:  sleep, ventriloquism, continual light, ESP, fly, lightning bolt
equipment: concealed dagger, spellbook [back home?], 1000gp ruby cloak pin, hella sweet boots

Okay, that took about 5 minutes (the little graphics not included).  It’d take a little longer if I wanted to give them some magic items. But since the 5e Basic download contains no items, I’m skipping it.  Low magic rules, anyway. So now we’ll give the new version a whirl.

Ororo the She-Devil, neutral human fighter level 6
Armor Class: 18
Proficiency Bonus: +3
Hit Points: 52
Str18 Dex15 Con14 Int11 Wis10 Cha14
[all attributes are +1 over the BX version because all 5e humans get +1 across the board, plus stat pushes for levels 4 and 6]
Background: Criminal
Skill Proficiencies: Deception, Stealth
Tool Proficiencies: knucklebones, thieves’ tools
Skills: Animal Handling, Survival
Fighter Abilities
Fighting Style: Defense (+1 AC while in armor)
Second Wind: d10+6
Action Surge
Champion Archetype: Improved Critical (19 or 20)
Extra Attack
equipment: chain ‘shirt’, shield, longsword, dagger, 500gp in various jewelry (armbands, jeweled scabbard, etc)

Sonja Stormwitch, neutral human wizard level 6
AC: 12 (15 when Mage Armor is in use)
Proficiency Bonus:+3
HP: 38
Str11 Dex15 Con14 Int18 Wis9 Cha13
Background: Folk Hero
Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Survival
Tool Proficiencies: calligraphy tools, vehicles (land)
Skills: Arcana, Investigation
Cantrips: Minor Illusion, Ray of Frost, Shocking Grasp
Spell slots: 4/3/3
Spells Prepared Per Day: 10
Evocation Savant
Sculpt Spells
Potent Cantrip
First: Comprehend Languages, Detect Magic, Identify, Mage Armor, Magic Missile, Shield, Thunderwave
Second: Flaming Sphere, Misty Step, Suggestion
Third: Fly, Lightning Bolt, Dispel Magic
equipment: concealed dagger, spellbook [back home?], red crystal arcane focus, hella sweet leather jacket

Putting those together took longer than I expected, but I can't report a fair time for it because I got distracted by Futurama.

As I experienced with 3e, picking spells was the opposite of fun.  Give me lists sorted by class and level any day.  Heck, I don’t even know if I picked the right spells to go with Evocation School abilities, because I decided to pick spells by name rather than scrolling up and down the alphabetical list.  If I were to run this version, I’d have to redo the spell lists.

Overall, the 5e version of Ororo the She-Devil looks fun and manageable, certainly less of a headache to manage than similar fighty NPCs made under previous WotC editions I’ve used.  But the new wizard seems like a pain in the ass to run as an NPC.  In BX I can get away with spells known = spells memorized, this strikes me as a bigger fuss to deal with.  Maybe players will dig it, but if I ran 5e I’d probably be cludging together wizards rather than building them according to the PC rules.  Which I kinda do in BX, by the way.  NPC wizards always have something weird and messed up about them, because, hey, they’re wizards.  But I generally prefer bolting weird new stuff onto a simple set of rules rather than wrestling a more sophisticated system to the ground.

So 5e looks better than anything I've messed around with from the Wizard o' the Coast, but I don't see anything yet to dislodge my irrational attraction to the older versions.