Friday, August 18, 2017

Magic-Users and Weapon Selection

I was talking with the fellows over at ODD74 about the reason that in OD&D, Magic-Users (heck, I'm just going to call them wizards because that's what I call them) only get the dagger and the quarterstaff.  If you look at regular normal men, which are first level guys in OD&D because they hadn't invented 0-level guys yet, if you look at them, they can use any weapon and use them just as well as a fighting-man.  So why would a wizard go backwards in his weapons training, if a weak old lady or a child can use a normal sword?

Cool crossbow, but not an argument.

"Oh, Scott, that's stupid, they don't study swords and long bows, that's why."  Okay so what about the other NPCs in the milieu who are not similarly so punished?  It seems arbitrary and capricious and like a weenie move for certain adventurous men to be denied the use of weapons that everyone else in the world gets for free.  In the case of the cleric, he forgoes using edged and piercing weapons, which is a different thing.  It's not that he cannot use them, but that he will not use them.  Or perhaps he would in dire circumstances? Anyway.

I kept that rule, by the way, for the finished manuscript of Mythical Journeys.  Now 0-level Men and others can use every weapon, but training as a wizard retards weapons use for a reason similar to that of clerics.  And here is the reason.

In the implied setting of Mythical Journeys, it takes about two years to really learn and understand magic and what you need to know to be an adventuring Magic-User.  But regardless of the time it takes to actually learn magic, wizards will take on only those students who will submit to years of indentured servitude.  It might be five years before a wizard's apprentice even touches a spell book, because he's too busy proving his dedication and will to power.  Even so, giving up these years of life for the power of arcane magic is usually a good bargain for the apprentice.  

So the apprentice has spent seven or more years under the tutelage of his master.  He's been laboring and probably learning to read and write, and to fight with a dagger and a staff - and that's it.  Any skill he had previously in warfare would retard considerably under these circumstances.  Furthermore, part of the culture of being a wizard is that one only uses a dagger or a staff, and that's it.  Other weapons are for lesser intellects.

One of the setting elements that I have come up with but is not implied is that while arcane magic among men is very much a master-and-apprentice affair, there are two broad traditions in teaching magic.  I have not named them, but they are informal clubs where wizards can recognize their colleagues who have completed similar training.  One kind of wizard wears white robes and carries as his credentials a specially-inscribed white quarterstaff wizard-marked by his master certifying he is who he says he is.  The other kind of wizard wears blue robes and carries as his credentials a specially-inscribed dagger with a blue velvet-wrapped handle, likewise wizard marked by his master certifying he is who he says he is.  Each kind of wizard trains in the other's favored weapon because both weapons are the weapons of a proper wizard, and can use them both interchangeably in actual combat.

This kind of sounds like the towers of high sorcery or whatever from Dragonlance (did I say that right? I never read the books) but I wasn't thinking of that when I thought this up.  Maybe instead of robes they can wear circlets or signet rings or a gold chain of office or something like that.  What do you think?  Maybe their choice of weapon is enough.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

100th Post!

100th post! Yay for Old School D&D! My daughter Julie, aka GizmoGamer, has gifted me this wonderful work of art to mark the occasion. You can see more of her work here on DeviantArt. She's a social media darling and regularly posts video game videos to YouTube and does drawing live streams there too. If you would like me to feature one of your art objects on the blog here, you should drop me a line!

Celebration Goblin by Julianna Anderson

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Undead Fighting Tactics for Laypeople

Undead are such a threat to PCs level by level that they became one of the focuses of one of our core classes, the Cleric. And rightly so. They are completely silent when approaching. They are quite likely to attack and are never friendly by default.  They cannot be reasoned or negotiated with. And they never stop, ever, until one side or the other is dead.

But what if your group doesn't have a Cleric?  And what about the poor common folk who might never meet a real Cleric in their grimy, drudging lives?  How do you, and they, deal with the undead without the silver bullets a Cleric carries with him every day?

Undead Warlord by Le Rastilav

Holding Undead At-Bay

Any Lawful layman of any of the common races may attempt to hold undead at-bay with a cross (or their holy symbol) or a silvered mirror.  By presenting the dread object forcefully and earnestly toward the undead, the layman may make a Turn Undead check with his caster level equal to half his character level, rounded up. This means normal men will have a caster level of 0, but adventurous types will have at least some nonnegative caster level. This special ability affects up to 9 HD of undead and triggers Combat Round time. A Neutral layman may attempt this too, if he is an earnest devotee to a Lawful god.

Effects: The undead will shrink back. They will not depart, but they will not be able to touch or attack the presenter or anyone who he shields. The presenter may not take any action other than to continue to present the dread object and to move 1/3 their speed each Round. The effect is broken if either party is attacked or otherwise takes hit point damage.  This makes it useful for lay people to buy their own holy symbol and identify themselves as earnest supplicants of some Lawful god.

Using A Holy Relic

A Holy Relic is an especial blessed or accursed object such as the finger bone of a martyr or a splinter from the club of a saint of some religion. Pilgrims often purchase these relics from the destinations of their pilgrimages. A Lawful lay person can use his Relic in an attempt to Turn Undead. If successful, the restless dead are dissolved away rather than being turned. A Chaotic layman can use his cursed Relic to Beckon Undead to his service for one Turn or one combat. A Neutral layman can use either one kind or the other depending upon his religion. Such Turning and Beckoning attempts are made as a 5th Level Cleric. After a Relic is used, roll 1d6. On a 6, it crumbles into dust. Relics cost 250 GP, are not widely available for sale, and they only work for a person of the correct religion.

Mundane Tactics
  • Corporeal undead are all damaged by fire, except for Skeletons who don't have any flesh. Nagzúl also fear fire. If you can't  bring a cleric, then bring oil and holy water!
  • Ditches and man-traps require labor, but are good ways to keep walking undead away. Skeletons, Zombies, Ghouls and Shadows should be too dumb to defeat these barriers.  Thouls might be able to bypass them, and smarter undead certainly can.
  • Skeletons of course require bludgeoning weapons.  Piercing weapons deal no damage and slashing weapons deal half hits. Fire doesn't damage them but it does turn them a toasty brown.
  • Zombies are destroyed by 1 lb or more of salt. Salt also kills slimes, oozes and jellies when applied in amounts of 1 lb to 1 HD or fraction. Burning oil works against Zombies.
  • Feed raw meat to Ghouls and then burn them with oil.
  • Shadows dislike limelight, it burns them like fire for 1d6 hits per round.
  • Wraiths and Nagzúl will not approach within 5' of an open flame. The Nagzúl especially are harmed only by fire, magic and magic weapons.
  • Mummies dissolve in two Rounds in an excess of water.  Wearing heavy perfumes, such as dousing your clothing in rosewater or lavender, will make you invisible to a mummy.
  • Vampires have their own well-known rules of course. But to ward oneself against their blood sucking attack specifically, coat your exposed skin with a tincture made from the black bile of a magical beast or dire predator.  This tincture is also good against stirges.
  • Liches love ancient and forbidden knowledge. They may spare your life for a spell or other arcane morsel, just as they might have done in life.  Many of them hate the taste and smell of fresh mint sprigs, but some will overcome this to attack you anyway.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Celebrating Uniform Fighting-Men

These three fighters are mechanically almost identical

The farther back in the history of the game we go, the more uniform the Fighting-Men become. Without feats, without weapon specialization and no weapon proficiencies, there is very little difference between one man and another. Especially when you go back to ODD74 and Holmes, where each weapon does 1-6 damage and stat bonuses are minimal.  Not incidentally, the same objection can be made about Clerics as well. (It is less true for Magic-Uses because by memorizing different spells, they can play very differently from one another.)

The mechanical differences between two fighting men from ODD74 and several OSR offerings are: level, hit dice, hit points (both level-dependent) and character stats. But we already know stats are minimally important most of the time. So mechanically, two Fighters of the same level are just about identical.

The first large point of differentiation you have control over is gear. You can make sure your man has everything he will need, and nothing he doesn't. You can have him buy great armor and a shield: and a hat and a rope and a pole and a lantern a long bow and so forth and so forth. OR, you can have him buy leather armor and a pole arm, and count on stealth, foot speed and reach. To a lesser extent, you have the ability to bargain with the other players for magic items, but what items there are to bargain over is up the the Ref. Even though magic items can make a huge difference, you have much less control over what you get.

All of this however is preamble when we get to the single biggest factor that differentiates one figure from another: the player. Not the character sheet, not feats, powers, or magic items; the player.  In chess, no one complains about two knights being identical; you just use them the best you can. Even with the minimal mechanical differences between fantasy medieval knights, you get to do the same thing! Similarity breeds familiarity. You can translate what you learn with one fighting man to the next fighting man figure you play. You don't have to start from scratch every time.  Therefore, uniform Fighting-Men is a feature, not a bug, of the early games.

Just as dungeons are endlessly iterative, so are fighting men. So are clerics and so are magic users. I'm in my 34th year of playing d&d and I'm drawn to simpler and simpler versions, even though they are not what I started with.  The reason I think is because the more you strip away the system's crunch, the more that player skill, at the table, in real time matters. That's what "playing the game" means: one player (the Ref) poses problems in the form of a mysterious and dangerous setting, and the several players work together to think through problems posed and then risk their pieces to conquer the setting.  That's another way of stating the bargain implicit in D&D: risk life and limb in exchange for fame and fortune!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Game Report - Castle Caldwell Explorers Session III

6 August 2017 6:45 - 9:30

The DM was Steve.  We played at my house tonight and he and his family brought a TON of stuff. He was really prepared!  My wife AJ was there and everyone got along great and had a great time.

The players were

  • Ethan, Steve's 13 year old Son.  He played Ronin, a Fighting-Man.  Level 1.
  • Simone, Steve's wife.  She played Raven, a level 2 female half-elf Cleric of Men
  • my daughter Julie, just 13, who ran Vuvier, the Lvl 1 Thief who loves poison.
  • my son Nate, just turned 15, with Gruffled the Halfling Thief, Level 1.
  • and me, I ran Vuvier's twin brother Yaspar, the Fighting-Man with 2 Hits.  
  • A mysterious 3rd level Magic-User, Thrace, also played by Nathaniel.

There is a SUPER LOT to tell about this adventure even though we didn't get through a lot of crawling.  I will tell you the first part and we can get back to the second part later.

We spent a few days making camp outside the castle while we rested and while Lord Clifton summoned a magic user who would cast a Knock spell on the magic door that confounded us. When the magic user arrived, he had his own colorful adventuring party.

He sent his apprentice, Thrace, in with us.  Nate played Thrace as a DMPC and did a good job of it.

The elderly red-robed magic user who was there to Knock wanted a specific piece of treasure. Something dangerous, accursed and unique. He wouldn't cast the spell without our promise. Our guys say no, it's ours if you want us to clear out the castle. That was the deal: we clear it out and make it safe, and we keep what we find.  That was a non-starter for Lord Clifton and Red Robes. So Yaspar, being Lawful Neutral, spoke to the old wizard one on one and gave his word that he would return the treasure to him if he knew what it was. No, not good enough. The wizard countered by saying he needed to Geas Yaspar, and to send his apprentice along to retrieve the mysterious dread object.

Now it was Yaspar's turn to balk. He told our party what had happened and we agreed to hunt for a different wizard to Knock for us.

So Steve the DM thinks fast and one of the NPCs tells us we can't find a Wizard within 500 leagues who knows the spell.  So.., we're kind of stuck.

We have rivalry pressure from this other adventuring party.  They have a wizard who is higher level - he can cast geas, which means he's what? 9th?  And the DM told us we don't have another option. We're out of chips to play.

So Yaspar agrees to turn over the treasure for their picking pleasure and undergoes the Geas. While insulting to him, it is irrelevant because he was going to keep his word anyway.

Gnome Fighter by Christopher Burdett

Yaspar gives his special hand axe to his brother, Vuvier, for safe keeping.  He accepts the Geas.  The wizard gives him a magic ring and a magic necklace.  Then he collects a normal hand axe and they head into the dungeon...

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Joy of Character Death

One of the most interesting times in the life of a player character is the occasion of his death. Think of the stories you can tell!  After all, there are three distinct activities that go into playing. There is prep time; there is table time; and then there is the interminate period after a good adventure that lives forever in the retelling.

So that's the first and most important point: a character death makes for a great story!

The central bargain of D&D is to risk your man's life in exchange for riches; to cheat Fate. Everything else is knuckleballs and sliders.  But the four-seam fastball of D&D is: life and limb versus fame and fortune. If you want to focus on something else, play a different kind of game in a different genre (totally cool by the way.) If character death isn't lurking behind the next door, then you're missing a lot of the tension and therefore fun of D.  And if the threat is realistic and credible, then people (and specifically PCs) are going to die.

So that's the second point: credible danger leads to incredible thrills.

Finally, if men are dropping left and right, if you are losing henchmen and even teammates almost every session, then it follows that making it to mid-levels is a good accomplishment!  If you go into a low-lethality campaign, you can plan to be level 10-12-14 some day. You just have to show up. But in a high-lethality campaign, actually becoming a Hero (level 4) is a great accomplishment! You might even decide to retire you man as a successful former adventurer somewhere in that range, hanging his Axe +2 over the mantle of his beautiful county house.

So that's the third point: higher lethality makes earning accomplishments bigger.

So revel in character death. The final chapter of you man's life will be his finest hour.

P.S. - this is a fantasy world. Death doesn't have to be the end of the story...!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

In Praise of Killing the PCs

Total Party Kill by JD Webster

So, Referee.  You've got a group of player-characters, and you want to know what to do.

Kill the player-characters.

Kill them often. Kill them with gusto. Delight in their demise!  Crush them with huge slabs, dash them against sheer cliffs, cook them with dragon breath, dump them in a pit of cold water and watch their plate mail drown them! Sic giant weasels on them. Pummel them with Hill Giant boulders. Pull them under with waves of kobolds. Frag them with Magic Missiles.

Just, for Gary's sake, be fair about it! Always give the players clues that something dangerous may lurk nearby. "Bang! You're dead!" is bad because then nobody is playing, you are just taking their character sheet. The way I say it at my table is, "I don't kill you. The dice kill you." It's the way I tell them that they're going to die and it's going to be preventable.  It's not always, or even usually the dice - the player so are quite capable of blundering their way into danger themselves!

Tomorrow, I'll talk about what this looks like from the other side of the Ref's screen.