Sunday, January 31, 2021

Be Wary of Wizards

So I'm still putzing around with Tunnels & Trolls solitaire adventures. There's a lot of them. At least 25 full-length solitaire modules were published by Flying Buffalo back in the day, as well as numerous mini-solos appearing primarily in Sorcerer's Apprentice magazine. And they continue to appear at places like drivethru. Most of these adventures are designed for one PC. A very few allow you to run a whole party.

One of these party-based solitaire adventures is "Old Dwarf Mine" by Roy Cram, originally published in Pegasus issue #7 (Judges Guild, 1982) but also available online in revised form here. The revised version says you can take a party of up to ten PCs level 1-3, so I rolled up ten PCs yesterday, bought equipment this morning, and played the adventure this afternoon.

Here's my party:
  • The Other Fili, dwarf warrior  (So-called because I used my quickie dwarf name generator and got a canonical Tolkien name.)
  • Stumpy McNabb, leprechaun wizard (Named using a "what's your leprechaun name" graphic from last St. Patrick's Day.)
  • Framhere, nondescript human warrior
  • Elenmír Starjewel, elf wizard
  • Doniram Sithmore, human wizard
  • Fleetfoot Jones, human warrior with excellent Dexterity and Speed stats
  • Foscho Brockburrow, hobbit rogue with a 4 Str
  • Brunaine Shadowsure, human rogue with astonishingly good stats
  • Yuri Silvertongue, a.k.a. Yuri the Pathetic, human warrior, his Charisma was good but his Strength, Intelligence, and Constiution were all abysmal
  • Vidfara the Wanderer, a mediocre human rogue 
I did pretty well at first. Other Fili and Frmahere defeated a half dozen goblins that attacked the party in a narrow confine.  A giant spider poisoned Fili but he survived to aid the rest clear out the spider nest. Things started to go downhill when a hobgoblin ambush riddled Fili's body with crossbow bolts, leaving him dead. Some gems and a couple magic items were recovered as well as a little gold. But then we fought a wizard. The party defeated the wizard's chief goon, but Elenmír and Vidhara were killed by the classic wizard attack spell Take That, You Fiend. Then I made a hotheaded move that destroyed the wizard, the party, and the entire damn dungeon.

One of these days I'm going to have a real success in one of these damn solos.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

3 bold adventurers, 3 dead adventurers

I was feeling some anxiety this morning (the plague being in the land gets to me sometimes) so I decided to distract myself with a couple old Tunnels & Trolls solo adventurers. The Mighty Hugo, a strong but poor human warrior, entered the legendary Buffalo Castle by Rick Loomis (RIP). Hugo didn't get very far before being smashed flat by a wandering giant. Too bad. He had pretty good stats.

Igmutt G. Goblin, who had previously survived the adventure Goblin Lake, entered the castle and took another route. He escaped the clutches of a giant octupus only to run into a killer jellyfish. Igmutt probably could have beat it had he possessed a better weapon or some armor, but he was a poor little goblin equipped only with a flint knife and a filthy loincloth.

Finally, Kanmund Moonfox, another human warrior, entered Buffalo Castle. Kanmund wasn't as strong as Mighty Hugo, but he had much better starting gold and entered the dungeon with a broadsword, leather armor, and a shield, as opposed to Hugo's bludgeon and buckler. Unfortunately, Kanmund kept wandering the halls, finding very little adventure. He found 10 gold pieces on the floor of a room before a wandering jellyfish jumped him. He slew it, but eventually he left the dungeon out of sheer boredom. Though he did have to fight another jellyfish to escape the Castle.

Kanmund then visited the solo module Labyrinth, which has a nice Greek mythos feel. It's written by Lee Russell, "based on a concept by Daedalus." Kanmund picnicked with gods, got drunk with a satyr, and was blessed by Athena for not being a dick. Unfortunately, he bumped into Ares when he was in a "murder first, ask questions later" mood. Thus ends the epic of Kanmund Moonfox.

I've got several of these T&T solo modules laying about the place, but I only play them once in a blue moon. But I'm kinda digging on the T&T rules right now and have been thinking about running a game of it online.

Whether David Bowie shows up in Russell's
adventure is unknown at the time of this blogpost.

Friday, January 22, 2021

That explains quite a bit, actually.

Here's the last section of the rules clarifications used in the D&D tournament for Gen Con IX:

Edit to add: The more I think about it, the more "the gods are back from their eons-long vacation" would make for a heckuva campaign concept. Kinda like Shadowrun's "the magic comes back and changes everything" vibe. The gods would probably be just as annoyed at the state of the world as Specules the Wizard was when he got back home from his cruise only to find Korgoth of Barbaria and other filthy adventurers looting his tower.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

From Aberdeen to Paris: Mapping the British gaming advertisers circa 1985

So here's something I've wanted to try for years. I logged the names and addresses of all the ads in White Dwarf issue #68 (September 1985), excluding the small ads (i.e. the classifieds). I only know a tiny thimbleful of British geography, but I really wanted to see where all these game companies, retailers, play-by-mail outfits, and miniatures manufacturers could be found. So I put the data into Google maps:

Monday, January 18, 2021

more fun with Traveller mapping

Okay, here I go again on this space hexagon nonsense. Let's start with a typical Traveller subsector like this:

Let us assume, for purposes of this exercise, that those 43 white dots represent all the places you can go in this subsector with a starship. Each one is a solar system with at least one planet you can visit or at least a source of fuel.

But now let us add an assumption about jump drive technology and the nature of jumpspace, the spooky n-dimensional realm starships mov through to achieve FTL speed. Here is the assumption: three different jumpspace dimensions intersect this subsector. Each jumpspace only reaches some of the worlds marked above. Furthermore, whenever jumpdrive is invented, the resulting technology only interacts with one jumpspace and not the other two.  We'll call the three resulting technologies Jump-Red, Jump-Green, and Jump-Blue.

A starfaring society that exclusively used Jump-Red drive might only be able to access the following worlds:

Meanwhile, another society that developed jumpdrive on their own might be equipped with Jump-Green and only be able to visit these worlds:

Meanwhile, a third polity entering the subsector might use Jump-Blue. Hence, they would be limited to visiting these hexes:

Here's what a complete starchart of the subsector might look like:

Lots of interesting situations arise from this model, especially if you assume exclusive use of one drive mode per civilization. For example, both trade and warfare become very interesting at worlds reachable by two polities who normally can't visit each other. Or say someone from a Jump-Blue society want to dodge the space cops. They can effectively skip town by hopping to a "two color" system, then buying a ticket on a ship that uses Jump-Red or Jump-Green. 

Of course, espionage and/or salvage will eventually lead to each civilization cracking the secret of the other jump colors. But then what do you do? Build fleets that can only visit a small fraction of your own worlds in order to be able to interact with others? Equip some ships with two different sets of engines? Maybe higher up the Tech Level list someone can invent a Jump Converter that allows you to switch between the color modes.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

I've mapped with squares and I've mapped with hexes...

...and one time I ever used polar coordinate graph paper to do a faux non-euclidean dungeon level, but it never, ever considered mapping in irregular pentagons:

Holocaustic Dungeons is a dubiously-named sci-fi/fantasy game/module series from Silverwolf Games. Why you would need to map these dungeons onto rows of half-hexagons is not clear to me. You can also get hex paper from the same company, which only raises more questions. Although published in the 1980's, you can still buy Silverwolf Games materials new, if this website that looks like it was built in 1995 can be believed.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Space, as Douglas Adams used to say, is big.

Traveller is a pretty funky little system for creating sci-fi universes, but, like any game, it has its limits. For one thing, the excellent mapping system designs useful game environs without much correspondence to our real galaxy. Here's one example: globular clusters.

A globular cluster is a stellar formation, some of which are probably remnants of other galaxies that were absorbed by the Milky Way millions or billions of years ago. I was curious this morning about what fraction of the total mass of our galaxy is constituted by its ~150 known globular clusters. I ran the numbers as best I could and the answer seems to be about one one-thousandth of the total mass of the galaxy is located in those clusters. But that's a rough guess, as only slightly less than half of the total documented clusters in the Milky Way have mass figures on wikipedia.

Then I got thinking about stellar density. In Traveller, starmaps are drawn at one parsec a hex, with each hex either containing a single star system or nothing. Thus a subsector (6 hexes by 8 hexes) can contain no more than 48 star systems and a sector (16 subsectors in a 4x4 array) will have no more than 768 systems. That's with every hex filled; 200-400 systems per sector is more common on official sector maps.

Let's compare that level of stellar density to Omega Centauri, the largest known globular cluster in the Milky Way (pictured above). Globular Clusters are, well, globular in shape, so a flat map won't really do well to represent one. (This is another problem with Trav: the galaxy is flat as a pancake, at least with respect to jumpspace routes. More on that here.) So instead we will imagine each "hex" of space is a hexagonal prism on parsec thick.

With that assumption in place, Omega Centauri can be imagined as a series of stacked layers. The middle layer is about 27 hexes across. Above and below it are layers 53 hexes across. Above the top and below the bottom of that three layer sandwich are those two layers are layers 51 hexes across. And so one until this formation has a single hex sitting on top and at the bottom. If we assume each layer is itself hex-shaped, we end up with a thing that looks a bit like an eight-sided die, only the cross-section is a hexagon instead of a square. I guess you could make d12's that way, but they'd probably look way too much like a d10 to be useful at the table.

If the "north" pole of the cluster is a single hex, the level below
it would be three hexes across, followed by a layer five hexes across,
and so forth until you reach 53 hexes across, then reverse the process
until you get back down to one hex.

That's alot of total hexes. The middle, biggest layer would itself incompass 2,107 hexes by my math, or almost 3 standard Traveller sectors. The total space occupied by the cluster is 32,259 hexes. Wow! That's a little over 48 standard sectors, putting it in the ballpark of the original Traveller sector map, with it's 128 sectors.

At the parsec level, this map encompasses 98,304 hexes. There aren't nearly that many worlds on it, however. A lot of those hexes are empty. The Great Rift and Lesser Rift are very empty.

Okay, so the Omega Centauri cluster is 32,259 hexes. How many stars are packed in there? That's where this little exercise goes off the rails. Best estimate is that the cluster contains about TEN MILLION STARS. That averages to a fraction more than 269 stars per hex! That is to say, each 1-parsec hex of Omega Centauri could hold roughly as many worlds as are usually represented on a Traveller sector map. Of course, actual distribution will be less smooth than a flat 269 per hex. Stellar density in the cluster will be higher in the centermost hexes than out on the edges, probably following some variant of Zipf's law.

One thing I have to check at this point is how many solar systems can fit snugly in a single one-parsec hex, because part of me is doubting whether or not 269 systems can actually fit in a hex. (The other part of me knows that space is always bigger than I imagine it.) There are many ways to define the size of the solar system. I'm going to pick the heliosphere, which is the volume of space where the solar winds are more powerful than the insterstellar medium. I think. Maybe I should have mentioned earlier that I am not an astronomer. 

Anyway, I think that gives us a diameter of the solar system of 242 astronimal units (AUs). There are 206,264.806 AUs per parsec and by my math you could fit abut 9,930 spheres of 242 AU diameter into a hexagonal prism 206,264.806 AUs across and tall. Like Adams say, space is big. With nearly 10,000 spots available, finding room for 269 solar systems is a snap.

Does the existence of the Omega Centauri cluster and similar formation mean that Traveller astrography is rubbish? Not at all. The Traveller mapping mechanics produce useful, playable starchats for a universe of adventure. Still, I wonder what it would be like to play in a game universe where, instead of a Jump-1 drive being able to take you to your choice of up to 6 other worlds, it could take you to any one of a couple thousand possibilities. What would that look like, I wonder.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

a minor Dragon magazine mystery

So this morning I was flipping through Dragon issue #47 (March '81), as I wanted to take a gander at David Cook's Crimefighters, a small pulp hero RPG printed in its entirety in that issue. Anyhoo, I noticed this small item on page 11:

That's obviously meant to be a teaser ad of the enigmatic type, designed to make one curious and therefore more attentive for a follow-up ad that better explains itself and the product involved. The thing is, I have no idea what the item being advertised actually turned out to be. The name Namalk the Seventh doesn't ring a bell. I looked through the rest of the issue to no avail, so I also did a quick search of the next four issues. Nothing seemed to connect back to this tiny illo of a mysterious cloaked figure approaching a castle.

Maybe I just missed it. Or maybe the people who bought this add never followed through by purchasing a follow-up ad. Or maybe the follow-up isn't clearly connected back to this teaser (i.e. the ad campaign wasn't designed very well). If anybody knows what's going on here, please leave a comment.

Adventure Hook: Rumors abound in the realm that "Namalk is coming" but no one seems to be able to agree as to who or what Namalk is. A paranoid noble hires the PCs to get to the bottom of this mystery. Until they can assure him of Namalk's identity and purpose, he won't be able to sleep well.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Faking Campaign Depth Using Your Stupid Game Collection

If you're anything like me (which I can't necessarily recommend) you have a large enough array of print and PDF roleplaying products that you'll never use all of them. Here's a way you can get some juice out of that archive of rpg junk. Maybe doing this will even help you feel better about blowing all that money on game crap.

Anyway, here's the basic idea: let's say I have something I want to add a little background color to. This could be a magic item, a character, or any other little campaign element that could be spruced up. You rarely need a fullthroated background for this sort of thing, a line or two will do. Like, I want to add some spice to a nice magic sword in a treasure trove. This sword isn't a key plot point, but it's +3 and so will likely stick around for the long haul. A little flavor text could shift the player reaction to it from "+3! hot damn!" to "this is the coolest sword I have ever owned."

So I have the old Dragon magazine CD-Rom set with PDFs of the first 250 issues of that venerable institution. (They're probably all a google search away nowadays.) So use the last line on the WotC die roller (my other favorite Wizards product for the last decade or so) to randomly determine a number between 1 and 250. I get a 75, so I pull up issue #75. I also randomly determine a page and end up on ad for two modern era modules, the Cold War adventure Border Crossing and the pulpy Adventure of the Jade Jaguar

Repeat the process and I get issue #229, which I think was after I stopped reading every issue. The random page I get is another ad, this time for Games Day '96 in Baltimore, featuring the Golden Demon Awards. A third set of rolls gets me to the second page of "Playing the Political Game," Mike Beeman's article on political adventures in AD&D, from issue #90. Here's an excerpt from an example Beeman uses:

Lord Valdis von Wodinskirk of Karmagia... sandwiched between the much larger and stronger fiefdom of Luxor and the foreboding Suss Forest. Karmagia’s sole asset was gold--the territory sat on a mother lode--but Valdis could neither entice merchants to Karmagia nor send his own caravans to town because... incessant highway robbery.

So putting this stuff together with a bit of judicious tweaking and a pinch of pixe dust, that plain sword +3 now becomes something like this:

Sword of Valdis: this +3 longsword was reputedly forged in the Second Age by the golden demon Grazzmathax, how it came into the possession of the nobleman Valdis of Karmagia is unclear. He wielded it in numerous border disputes with the Count of Luxor and battles with bandits. Both the sword and Valdis disappeared on an ill-fated expedition to locate the legendary Temple of the Jaguar.

Okay, maybe that's not the "coolest sword ever" as I promised above, but it's certainly better than a +3 and nothing else. For extra funtimes, add Karamgia and Luxor to a corner of your campaign map, sprinkle some rumors about the Temple of the Jaguar about the place, and write up the stats for Golden Demons of the Second Age.

You don't even need a run of Dragon mags or a die roller to use this simple technique. A couple of random pulls from a shelf full of miscellaneous gaming stuff will do the trick.

Friday, January 01, 2021

The Secret Doors of Arduin

David Hargrave was one of the seminal original dungeon masters who took OD&D, made it into something his own, and shared his vision of fantasy roleplaying with the world. In this regard he should be remembered among such luminaries as Steve Perrin and Ken St. Andre. His original Arduin Grimoire series is a glorious mess. I'd never attemot to run it "as is" any more than I would try to run OD&D straight, but there is a lot of stuff worth looting from them, whether it be the crazy classes and races, over-the-top monsters, kewl magic items and spells, or the awesome-as-heck critical chart.

Although I am a big Arduin fan, I have never been a fan of Hargrave's dungeon maps. To me, they look like big ol' overdone messes. Here's the first one I encountered, from the inside back cover of the original Grimoir:

My first thought when looking at this map is always holy crap, those room designs are terrible! How much time would be wasted describing these rooms to a mapper? I dunnon, maybe David draws the party map for them (which I have done in some games) or uses miniatures with pre-made room tiles. Even the latter would take a lot of time to create before the session. I'm not against odd-shaped dungeon chambers, but in my opinion they have a greater impact on the game when sprinkled lightly among square and rectangular rooms.

My second thought is always and what is up with all those dange secret doors?!? That single level has like 50 secret doors and I just don't. get. it. I like secret doors. They add a lot of fun to a dungeon level because they can accomplish many different things:
  • You can hide a major treasure behind one
  • A sneaky monster can have its lair behind one
  • Big Bad Guy's can get away by passing through one
  • During an encounter some reinforcements can show up from an unexpected direction, catching the party unaware
  • You can roll for extra wandering monsters while the players search for one
But the best thing about secret doors is the wicked glee on the players' faces when they find and use one. Some player just get a naughty thrill of finding something hidden and/or going someplace forbidden. But to make that work, you need to space the secret doors out a bit. Two to five per level is adequate for most purposes. I honestly don't understand what Hargrave is trying to accomplish by placing a secret door in darn near every room and corridor. 

But a map without the context of a dungeon key makes it harder to judge the logic at work here, So I decded to tale a closer look at one of Hagrave's modules. Arduin Dungeon #2: The Howling Tower is Hargave's intro advaneture, suitable for parties of first through fourth level. It is also where my alltime favorite Erol Otus illustration was published:
The essence of D&D in one illo.

Anyway, I decided to take a level from the Howling Tower and color in all the areas that could be accessed without passing through a secret door, just to see what I could see.

So what gives? Most of the areas that can only be reached via secret door are empty rooms of a single 10' square or smaller. I tend to imagine those small spaces are restrooms, janitorial closest, the room with the server stack, etc. Imagine opening a secret door only to reveal a 10' by 10' room with nothing but a skeleton switching out the filter on the furnace.

Despite the abundance of secret doors, there are really only four interesting things concealed by them. Two of the three staircases to other levels are behind secret doors. In fact, the one direct access from this level down to level B (i.e. from first to third level) is hidden behind 2 secret doors coming from the north or three secret doors approaching from the east! If I was to use this dungeon as is, I would go through the key and try to find some ne'er-do-wells who could use this hidden access to cause mischief for the party.

Two stocked rooms are also inaccessible unless the party finds the relevant secret doors. One of them has some nice treasure in an invisible treasure chest guarded by an Ice Tiger, which is the exact sort of monster you think it is. Similarly, Room Five has a nice treasure sitting in the middle of the room, guarded by an armored ogre who has just drunk a potion of speed. I suppose there's nothing wrong with hiding these rooms, but nothing really sets them apart from other rooms on the level. Room Two, for example, has a treasure chest guarded by a skorpadillo (pictured above) hiding behind an illusion.

So I'm not sure I've learned anything about Hargrave's dungeon design logic by this exercise, but doing it has made me think more about my own use of secret doors and room shapes. Nothing wrong with that.