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.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Most Unfortunate 3

So now we've covered the six intrinsic stats that every character gets when he starts play: Strength through Charisma.  But don't you remember there is a seventh roll of 3d6 that every character gets that can quickly determine life or death when you start him on his mythical journey?  The answer, of course, is starting gold!

What's the whole reason we go into the dungeon in the first place?  MONEY! MONEY to buy better gear, to hire men at arms, bribe a mayor or town watch, to carouse and meet a lady, and ultimately to buy a castle and take over the world!

You have to have money to buy your armor and so forth.  With a paltry 30 GPs (a roll of 3 x10 GP), you're going to be stuck with crummy options for armor and weapons.

Hauler by Stefan Poag
Option #1: Cooperate with (scam) your friends into pooling your resources and use some of their money to buy what you need!

Option #2: Visit the town loan shark and take out a loan (at 100% per week interest) to buy the sweet plate mail and pack mule you wanted to begin with.

Option #3: Play the plucky Peasant Hero with leather armor, a sling, and quarterstaff!  It's practically free.

Option #4: Play the Wizard, because then all you need is a bath robe and the book your master gave you.  And then make sure to take the best magic items every time.

In any case, the 3 in Starting Money might be the most telling and informative 3 of all.  You really have to think hard to imagine why he's completely broke and how he got to be that way.  On the other hand, nobody has a stronger motivation to get down into the dungeon and haul out some loot!

What are some other solutions to The Most Unfortunate 3?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

So You Rolled a 3: Charisma

A pitiful and smelly Aghar family. Their Charisma may surprise you!

Charisma.  The Big Cheese in old-school games.  Nothing is more important than Charisma.  Let me tell you why.

Charisma determines how many loyal assistants your character has.  Do you need a squire? You want a Yolus or a Gabby?  A Dr. Watson?  Would you like to be able to call on Gentle Ben? Gosh, Doc Savage could call on like ten different NPCs, all experts in their discipline. Loyal sidekicks are great to have, and Charisma tells you how many you can have. 

Then there are hired hands. Are you hiring out a cadre of bodyguards and attendants to help you and your party on their way?  Charisma determines how loyal those hapless sods are, and how often you will have to worry about them running away or stabbing you in the face.  

Finally, Charisma will help parley with monsters and enemies - a higher Charisma score means less fighting, and less fighting means less dying.  All in all, Charisma is the "god" stat of old-school play.

In the old-school game, characters start out as an adventuring party.  They are mostly cooperative because each of them is a squishy weakling.  After all, they don't have to outrun the owlbear; they only have to outrun the fighter in full plate mail! As they level, they will acquire both hirelings and loyal assistants.  Each man is like a miniature party in and of himself, and the group will be able to accomplish more, both together and individually.   Finally each man who has lived to Name level (around 9th) will build himself a castle and clear the land, starting his own barony. Then it's on, brother. Every man for himself! War and peace, civil and otherwise. Even then, to the degree that politics and intrigue enter the campaign, Charisma and reaction checks are going to be very important.

So now we know what Charisma does do.  But let me talk about what low Charisma doesn't do.
  • Low Charisma  doesn't make you stutter.  It doesn't make you a mush-mouth. You can have a low Charisma and also be able to speak properly, even speak well.
  • Low Charisma doesn't mean you are ugly.  You can be quite pleasant to look at and still have a low Charisma.
  • Low Charisma doesn't mean you are smelly or have bad breath or wheeze or snore.  It doesn't mean that people don't want to be around you!

All a low Charisma score says is that you are not an inspiring leader and you are not very persuasive! Even a celebrity or politician can get by with a low Charisma!

So out of all the six character stats, Charisma is the most elusive.  It is slippery - you can't necessarily point to some quality of a character and attribute to that low Charisma.  It's just one of those things that you know it when you see it - and you might only "see" it on the character sheet.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

So You Rolled A 3: Constitution

What does it mean to have a Constitution score of 3 in old the school game?

Mechanically, it means you get one fewer Hit Point (or worse) per level, but always at least one.  And more often than you would like, it's gonna be one!  So you're going to have to spend your career playing turtle a lot.  In fact, you're almost assuredly destined to play the Magic User, because none of the classes who engage in melee will live very long with so few Hit Points.

Qualitatively, it means you get sick a lot!  You never feel well.  You complain a lot because you hurt a lot.  If someone is going to catch a disease in the party, you can bet it's going to be you!  Save or Die poisons and diseases are particularly deadly to you.  You're not going to survive being turned into a newt - you won't be getting better!

But why would you have a CON of 3?  Most people with a low CON score would have died already. Maybe you got the Pox or the Plague or the Rattle, but you were one of the "lucky" ones to survive. Maybe you are a drug addict or smoker - that would be fun to roleplay even if it's no good in real life.

What do you think a CON 3 could mean?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

So You Rolled A 3: Dexterity

I frankly have little insightful to say.  I'm going to have to lean on your to think up something cool about having a Dexterity of 3.  For many of the same reasons that Strength could be a 3, so could Dexterity:  Overweight, athletically unpracticed, feeble, clumsy, and blind or nearly-blind.

But it could also be due to Parkinson's Disease or Syndrome, or ALS, or polio.  Some muscular-skeletal-nervous system disorder that is nonlethal, and for some reason you man was able to live through childhood despite his disability.  While most people in that situation would be lame beggars, your man has decided to seek his fortune in some way.  Because of his penalty wit missile weapons and a worse AC, he will be at a disadvantage. But because the penalties are small he will not be at a huge disadvantage like he would be in a new school game.

Can you think of other reasons why your man might have a Dex of 3?

Monday, July 31, 2017

So You Rolled A 3: Wisdom

Oblivious by Michael Wood

Wisdom represents your man's powers of observation, his intuition, and the sum total of the knowledge he as gained through passive observation of people, places and things.  Generally, someone is wiser when they are older than when they are younger, but they might not have been too wise to start with!  So what can you say about a character who has a Wisdom of 3?

This was a hard one for me.  I suppose the first thing you might say is that the person is quite myopic. If you can't see details, then it would be very hard to spot traps, describe monsters, or even recognize and differentiate between acquaintances.  Reading runes and "reading" peoples' emotions and so forth becomes much harder.

You might instead say that the person is an ADHD case who can't concentrate enough to provess what he's seeing and hearing.  Remembering names and faces becomes nearly impossible. Concentrating on searching for a trap or, for instance, counting a large number of objects is very difficult.  The person is always mentally far away even if he's right there with you trying to have a conversation.

You could also say perhaps the person is "on the spectrum" and gets super-focused on whatever he's interested in at that moment to the exclusion of all other details.

But I'm really more interested in what you think a 3 in Wisdom might mean. I'm sure I'm missing something obvious; what do you think it is?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

So You Rolled A 3: Intelligence

Dumb! Dumb! Dumb!  It's  easy to imagine a particularly dim fighting man, who is only good for sucking up hits and swinging a mighty battle axe. Decades of half-orcs and barbarians have been played like this and the trope has been screwed right into the ground, like some goofy Dwarf with a Scottish brogue. 

But remember in the old school, an Intelligence score of 3 is perfectly playable. Like we said with Strength, an Int of 3 doesn't necessarily mean someone is feeble-minded. It means instead that they might not be so clever, creative, or be passionate about learning. It might mean they are willfully ignorant of the world around them - incurious, as opposed to unobservant (that's covered by Wisdom). 

The most likely scenario is that the person is quite passionate about his field of expertise but you can't get him to think very deeply about anything he doesn't care about. Fighting Men are very smart about fighting; clerics are very smart about religion and monster hunting; and magic users are very smart about spells and magic items. 

Yes, even a Magic-User can have an Int of 3 in the old rules! In most rules sets, his XP will be penalized slightly, but he is perfectly able to cast spells and even able to learn new ones like his high-Int peers!

But what an INT 3 does NOT say is that you, the player, have to stop being clever.  You can use your player knowledge to solve problems and get by.  Don't even think you have to dumb yourself down because your man is dumb!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

So You Rolled a 3: Strength

What does a STR of 3 mean in old school games?

Well, first let's talk about AD&D 1st Edition.  At the break point of 1E, the Strength stat was for the first time assigned a value.

Chart Copyright 2000-2002 by Stephen Nispel
We can see that the STR 3 guy can lift an astonishing 10 pounds over his head!  And he has a 0% chance of bending steel bars or lifting a portcullis (clearly two especially important actions in 1st Edition.)  In later editions and up until the present day, we have imagined that a STR of 3 correlates to the weakest of the weaklings across the spectrum of people everywhere.  

But in old school play, this simply is not so!  A Strength score of 3 has no exact weight correlation.  A STR of 3 can certainly mean someone who is a complete weakling, but it doesn't make sense that a veteran adventurer would be too feeble to carry his own gear, does it?  No, it does not.  Instead, a STR of 3 just means your man is very weak compared to other adventurers - perhaps he would have little chance of winning an arm wrestling contest.  Certainly he would have little chance to bend iron bars or break down a door with his bare hands, among other feats of strength.  

But a STR 3 character is strong enough to carry his gear, wear his armor, and swing a weapon (just perhaps not as forcefully as Conan might do).  As far as other strength-related tasks, he would likely fail most of the time.  That's all it means.

So therefore what can we say about your man when you roll a 3?  Perhaps he is a child.  Perhaps he is very old.  Perhaps he is as strong as a normal person but so grand that it takes all his might just to propel himself around on his two tree-trunk legs!  And this will get me in trouble to say in this day and age, but perhaps he is actually a she* instead?  If you really want to get kooky, maybe you say your man only has one arm or his legs do not work.  He's unable to perform a wide range of feats of strength because of this drawback.

Do not despair when you roll a 3 for Strength.  Let it inform you about your man.  You will be all the more heroic for overcoming such a limitation.

*There ought to be no mechanical difference between male and female characters, so you are free to play a woman with an 18 STR.  However in the real world almost all women are less strong than almost all men.  It's just a fact of biology.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Balancing Encounters the OSR Way Part II

There are two other parts to balancing encounters the old school way that we need to talk about. They are allowing the several players agency to set the goals for their adventure session, and giving the players game space to make decisions.

What? No Cleric?

A lot of other writers have discussed and defined agency better than I have but let me give it a shot: Player agency means that the several players, and not the Referee, decide what will happen in a session, an adventure, or a campaign.  The players are not tourists in the Referee's world being shown this and that passively.  Nor are they pushed down an adventure path that they are meant to finish. At most, they are given several adventure "hooks" and allowed to choose which to pursue and in which order.

There is a text book's worth of analysis and basic and advanced rules for playing in this way, but the most important thing to remember is that the animating force of the adventures has to come from the player's side of the screen and not the Ref's side.  If the Ref is telling the players what to do with their characters, that's a red flag.

So that's agency.

The other part of balancing encounters is that you need to leave room for the characters to progress slowly as well as quickly.  For instance, the first dungeon level should have much more treasure and many more monsters and traps than it would take for the party to achieve second level.  They don't hit second level and DING! head downstairs.  That would be the Ref telling the players what to do! It's so critically important for the players to be able to keep their characters in the "shallow end" and for them to have meaningful content there as well.  

That may mean putting five times as many rooms and five times as much treasure as they would need to hit level 2.  It may mean restocking that dungeon level through some mechanism, such as new monsters from deeper in (but in this case, not tougher) lairing up closer to the surface.  In reality, it's probably good to use both of these methods in tandem. In the Wilderlands, it's easy to say that the characters missed something on their first survey and there was more to be found after all, so that's a third way for you the Ref to provide more room for the characters and more agency for the players. Additionally, because of the open nature of a hexcrawl, there should be plenty of opportunities for characters to backtrack to unexplored areas they missed because of their direction of travel - more so than even in a dungeon.

And that's space.

Along with the critical relationship between risk, reward, and distance, player agency and the game space for characters to work in make it possible for old school encounters to balance in a different way from new school encounters.  It happens in real time at the table and may result in real character death. These are exciting prospects which will bring your players back again and again.

Balancing Encounters the OSR Way

Traffic Jam, Level 3A

For those of you who are players of modern games, you will understand that the encounters that you face and the challenges you come upon are closely balanced to your level and party makeup.  You are meant to be able to overcome each encounter and in many cases, it will be through making die rolls against skills, both combat and non-combat, that you careful chose for your characters beforehand. Player skill at the table gets rewarded, but the real skill comes before table time, where you build your man up from the many options available to you.

Not so with old school D&D.  There was certainly a system for encounter balancing but it has very little to do with what the players and Referee do before table time. The Referee does prepare encounters and place them, or make rosters of wandering monsters for various areas.  But the balancing act of party strength versus encounter danger happens at the table in real time. 

You might remember that we observed the relationship between XP (the measure of personal power), encumbrance, speed, and equipment.  They are all inextricably linked to each other through the touchstone of the gold piece.  But let's go a little further now and link the gold piece up to dungeon levels.

The first dungeon level is the one closest to the surface world.  We know this to be true because it is a given in the game. The weakest monsters and traps guard the least of the many treasures in the Underworld. Not only are they meager, but they are usually composed of relatively heavy objects, such as copper pieces or perhaps sacks of grain.  Deeper levels hold greater danger, but also contain greater treasures.

Therefore it is up to the several players to decide what level of risk/reward they wish to pursue.  The greater danger guards greater rewards, and therefore the depth below ground (or similar distance) guards faster advancement in terms of XP.

Likewise, there ought to be a simple way for the several players to know how dangerous the Wilderlands can become.  One simple way is to say that the hex that contains a town is Civilized and within it, dangers will be those of civilization.  Things will be "normal."  Two hexes hence will be the weird Borderlands, where dangers of a wild and sometimes magical nature may reside.  Past that is true Wilderlands where one must be prepared for anything, because it's impossible to say what is out there.

In any case, keeping that relationship between distance, risk, and reward is how the Referee keeps encounters balanced. Let this be your lesson: If the Referee does it well enough, the players will trust him and the table will have more fun, and play together longer.

So You Rolled a 3

Bad dice happen to good people.

When you play in old school games, a lot of folks trick out their stat generation methods, but a lot of people don't.  Whatever the options are, I like to go with the most hardcore method available. In my opinion, there's 3d6 in order... and there's everything else.

Even in my Game, Mythical Journeys (see the Featured Post!), there are other methods to do it. But for me, there's nothing like 3d6.

One reason is the stats are much more qualitative than quantitative.  The best (and worst) you will do is +/- 1 on isolated rolls.  Another reason is that player skill trumps character ability almost every time.

But what happens when you roll that 3?  When the dice gods are trolling you?  When half the table is laughing and the other half is beset by pity?  How do you make the best of a 3 on your character sheet?

My answer: since the numbers are largely qualitative, use them to spur your imagination.  Why does your man have a 3 in a particular stat?  How did that come to be? What does it say about him?  How has he overcome that 3 to become a functional person in his fictional world?

We will talk about specific scores of 3 going forward.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Some Things Brewing

I'm working on a little series of dumb posts about rolling a 3 during chargen. I also look forward to wrapping up the revision of Mythical Journeys Book I in the next couple of weeks, and making it available for purchase (the PDF is free).  

Work will be nutty this weekend and the first half of next week. We will see whether I can squeeze out a couple of posts, since I have a lot to say. 

But whether I can or not, July 27 is Gary Gygax day. And I can tell you everything's gonna be all right. Gary sent us. He made up some stuff he thought would be fun and showed us how we could do it too. 

Thanks, Gary. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Holmes Basic D&D At 40

Dr. J. Eric Holmes was the first of us into the OSR.  In the mid-70s, he offered to revise the original OD&D game for a mass market audience, combining elements from CHAINMAIL, OD&D and his home game to make a streamlined game that stands on its own - and still stands on its own today.  Gary and the rest were smart enough to hire him and make this a TSR project.  That is a very good thing.

On July 22nd 1977, Dr. Holmes premiered his version of the D at Origins III, a convention in Staten Island, New York.  It was well received and consumed voraciously.  Although the game was revised again in 1981 (Marsh) and 1983 (Mentzer), the Holmes version was still for sale at the time the latter revision was published.

I never owned Holmes.  I did own the Marsh Basic set and the Menzter Basic and Expert sets, and learned to play with the Mentzer set.  I have subsequently been able to play Holmes with the help of the great BLUEHOLME retroclone from Dreamscape Designs.

The Holmes game is very special because it serves as a nexus or touchstone for OD&D, Basic D&D and Advanced D&D. And it also touches CHAINMAIL because Dr. Holmes used that game to fill in details like order of combat and simplifying encumbrance. 

For a great overview of the history and importance of Holmes D&D, visit Wayne Rossi's Semper Initiavitus Unum blog.

For more information about Holmes D&D and for great modern documents meant to round it out, you can visit the Zenopus Archives blog, which deals almost exclusively with Holmes Basic.

For more information about the history of the hobby and about the origins of D&D, visit Jon Peterson's Playing At the World blog.

Dr. Holmes DMing in the great early days

Friday, July 21, 2017

This Flyer

I posted this flyer at the friendly local games store.  Do you think I'll have many takers?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Game Play Novelizations

Recently the Chic Santorian was asking me in the comments section about the novelization of actual play reports. Like, why not turn their adventures into fun works of fantasy fiction?

Short answer: It's hard to write compelling fiction and I don't like working hard on that aspect of the hobby.

Longer answer: no matter how hard I try, there's no way I could write a fictive tale of value in the same neighborhood as some of the greats of the OSR.  You can put lipstick on a pig, as they say, but you'll still end up in the mud after the barn door closes on your eggs.

Allow me to instead recommend this post on Dragons Gonna Drag, a novelization of the continuing misadventures of his table of blundering PC slobs. Very funny!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Deadly Sardonian

I was reading the dictionary today (don't judge me) and came upon the word Sardonic.

Sardonic means "Characterized by bitter or scornful derision; mocking; cynical; sneering."

A good word!  And one that about half of English speakers know.

It originated between 1630 and 1640.  It's from a Middle English word sardonian influenced by the French word sardonique, which in turn comes from the Latin sardonius, which they borrowed from the Greek sardonios.

But what is Sardonios?  Well, it appears to be a plant which when eaten produced convulsive laughter ending in death!

THIS IS TOTALLY SOMETHING THAT SHOULD BE IN D&D!  THE DEADLY SARDONIAN! Can you imagine spiking someone's salad with the Sardonian, which should probably look like some leafy green ground plant?  That would be devious!  And during a rip-snorting party and feast, who would think of poison if someone laughed and laughed and keeled over dead?  They just overdid it is all!  Right?


So here's the Sardonian plant written up for your old school game:


The Sardonian plant resembles rhubarb, with dark leaves and a slight hair.  Its stalks are maroon to red, warning fauna of the danger it poses to those who ingest it.  Sardonian is slightly bitter but edible, and blends nicely with edible leafy greens.  However, when eaten, the Sardonian plant (leaf, stalk or root) produces convulsive laughter ending in death!

Onset for convulsive laughter is one Round. This lasts 2-5 Rounds, during which the victim may make no action other than a half move.  Upon the conclusion of this period, he makes a Save versus Poison.  A successful save results in 1d6 damage and 1 day of discomfort (all rolls at -2).  A failed save results in death.

Assassins, apothecary, alchemists and wizards will cultivate this plant in small amounts as ingredients for their carious concoctions.  Beware eating from their gardens, for death "stalks" every plant!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Schedule of Combat and Combat Cards

Someone on Dragonsfoot, I don't remember who, used to say that Initiative and Morale are the Kobayashi Maru test of D&D.  In other words, no amount of player skill or PC stats can "win" these tests consistently, but you can learn to endure them with dignity and minimize the damage they can do to you and your party.

Here's how we do combat Rounds in Mythical Journeys.  They are one minute long and intended to be quite abstract.

The key steps here are 2 and 3: we declare our actions before we know who is going first!  This is makes it so combat feels chaotic and keeps people from "cheating" in some ways - gaming the system.  It's fun and kind of swingy.  There's something akin to rock-paper-scissors going on at the start of every combat Round.  You have to guess what is going to happen.

Mike Mornard said that he had done it like that some in the old days too, and it made sense to him.  I remember reading about something similar on the Lord of the Bling thread on Big Purple years ago.  I don't know whether I read it right but it seemed like they declared before initiative.

What else might jump out at you is there are very few categories of things to do during combat: move, missile fire, magic spells, melee attacks, and other things (overturning a table, drinking a potion, binding wounds.)  That is, there are only five categories of actions to take.

Combat Cards

What I tried a while ago, and it didn't work perfectly, is to write out Combat Cards, each of which has one category of action written on it: Full Move, Melee, Spell, Missile, Other.  

Each player would the select his card and hide it;
I would secretly choose what the monsters would do; 
The players "lock in" their action by revealing their cards;
Then we roll for initiative, 1d6, by sides.

When combat actually happens, the several combatants choose their targets or where they are running to or whatever, but within those action categories.  It didn't really work the way I wanted it to because the players were not as enthusiastic about it as I had hoped.  (I love the old game shows Match Game and Price Is Right; in my brain, this mini game would be fun like those games, oh well.)

I want to try the Combat Cards again.  Do you see any issues with this that I can clean up before I roll it out at the table?  Or do you think I should just try it and hope for players willing to work with me?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Game Report - Castle Caldwell Explorers Session II

15 July 2017 6:45 - 9:30

The DM was Steve.  He does a good job of moving things along. It's been a month since we were together.  A month!

Adventuring Party by Artikid on DeviantArt

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 turned 13 nest week, who ran Vuvier, the Lvl 1 Thief who loves poison.
  • my son Nate, just turned 15, with Gruffle the Halfling Thief, Level 1.
  • and me, I ran Vuvier's twin brother Yaspar, the Fighting-Man with 2 Hits.  GRAH!!!

The rule set was modified 1E.  1E, but we could only have one character class. Raven the Cleric had gotten to Level 2 in a previous adventure.  18 hit points and chain mail made her the WRECKING BALL of the crew!

We were rolling through Castle Caldwell.  We got to an old kitchen and my fighter Yaspar tried to loot the tableware to everyone's amusement.  There was an old leather chest.  We poked it with our 10' pole (MVP of the dungeon by the way) and found it to be safe.

So Julie's thief, Vuvier, opened the chest, only to be POISONED!!  She lost her Magic-User, Emma, to poison last session.  She didn't die though and a healing spell restored her.

The next room had a snake in a bag.  Yaspar poked all the bags with the 10' pole until the snake popped out and hit him with spitting venom!  He had two hit points!  He was a goner!  But it turns out he only took 2 hit points damage, and was saved again by healing magic.  Later on we came back, doused the room with oil, threw in a torch, and burnt the snakes into snake bacon!

We fought with a whacked out cleric of Lolth who we were not supposed to be able to kill, but we did.  Ronin, who struck the final blow, claimed her +2 Chain armor as his own and almost made level 2 on the spot.

Finally there were two fire beetles that managed to paralyze 3/5 of the PCs.  Ronin and Yaspar were able to make good attack and damage rolls at the last minute to save the day.  Yaspar palmed a potion he found in a hollow book.  It turns out, it was a potion of Climbing.

His second potion of Climbing!

An animated statue helped us a little, and there's still the mystery of the magically-sealed door.  We will have a hireling Wizard in next session to cast Knock for us.

PROPS: Simone for suggesting we just burn those nasty snakes out.  It worked perfectly!

SLOPS: The dice, which were 1000000% against us all night.  We're totally buying new dice before the next game.  These dice hate us!

MVP:  Ronin, who despite whining and threatening to run away all night, saved the day against the evil cleric and the fire beetles.  He's very brave once he's got no other choice!


And just gonna leave this here:

"When I first started playing back in 1980, we quickly learned the value of Fire Beetle glands. Harvested them. Used them as exclusively as we could underground.
Wham! no smoke, no runny eyes/noses, no smell warning creatures that we were mucking about. Lasts up to 6 days, emits illumination 10' radius. Put that in a bulls-eye lantern!

P.9, AD&D Monster Manual. 1st print 1977 (mines a 3rd though).
Perfectly use able in the OD&D system.

Matter resolved. "

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Shield Rules Proposal

Really, really: I think shields are way overcosted in OD&D. This has bugged me forever! At least in 3.X, you can choose to carry a large shield that gives you +2AC.  But you also have to deal with unbounded accuracy, making armor pretty feeble at the high levels.  I don't think we ever played past about level 12, but even then the skill and stat inflation was just silly.  

So we've been working on different shield ideas over on ODD74 and I've come up with the things I want a shield to do.

First of all, shields are constructed of thick wood with a metal rim and metal boss in the middle. They weigh 15 pounds (150cn) and are about three feet across.  This means fighting men can stand at most three abreast in a dungeon corridor, but two of them can seal it off.  The player may decide whether it is round, heater, or kite-shaped, but round is default.  Scuta and bucklers are outside the scope of these rules, but I guess we should address those at some point.

This is not meant to be historically accurate. Various epochs had fighting men who used shields in a great variety of weights and sizes. It's just a game approximation.

Optional Shield Rules for Mythical Journeys to be included in the Referee's Guide if I ever get around to writing it.

1, Armor: Shields grant a +1 to Armor Class versus melee attacks.  Facing is important - shields only protect from the left and front.  Versus missile attacks, shields grant +3 to Armor Class.
2. Shield Wall: two or more adjacent figures, each carrying a shield, grant each other a bonus of +1 to Armor Class in addition to that provided from his own shield.
3. Saves: Shields provide a +3 to any Save versus traps or breath weapons of an appropriate type (Referee's option.)
4. Shields can be splintered as usual for old-style games.  I would disallow the splintering of a buckler I think.

UPDATE: Upon further reflection no, shield facing should not matter in most cases. In one-minute combat rounds, the shield is much too abstract to worry about facing. But the Ref is within his rights to say that in a particular instance, such as a secret sneak attack, that shield facing does matter.

What do you think of these rules?  I'm going for "simple" and useful.  Do they go too far?  Are they too complicated?  The  name of the game is keep it simple for me and for new players - that's why these rules would be in the Ref's Guide as optionals rather than under the regular equipment or combat sections.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Changing the Table Ethic

The old game is a different game than the new game.  There's still dice and elf talking and a DM and so forth but the particulars of what constitutes table time and the emphasis of the rules on different activities will probably seem very strange to people who grew up with Pathfinder and White Wolf.

So how do I say that to people in a short, enticing way?

The first step towards understanding is to figure out what the right question to ask is.  This is a big "DUH!" moment when you see it in the rear-view mirror, but it always surprises me each time that I realize it in different learning situations.

You see, I've been asking the wrong question, and of course then getting the wrong answer.

This is how I said it in the Foreword to Treasure Hunters Prolix:

This is not a game of skirmish & volley! This is a game about Exploration, Acquisition, and Reclamation first and foremost; and about the heroes who undertake these challenges. 
Occasionally there is no alternative but to skirmish, so rules for skirmish are included. But make no mistake: this is not “Fantasy Street Fighter II”; this is “Fantasy Oregon Trail.” 
This is most jarring to those who come to RPGs through those composed the modern way. "When do we get to the good stuff?" asks the modern edition gamer, because to the modern eye, the game "should" focus on tactical simulation. Often table time is dominated by skirmish, which puts the squeeze on all the rest of the game. This is by the design in the modern game: over time, the game genre has evolved to emphasize and reward this kind of play. 
The older game is a game of resource management. The heroes have scarce resources: game turns, Hit Points, rations, torches, &c. The player is to manage these and turn them into other resources: gold, personal power (experience points), and in-game knowledge, thereby growing the hero's ability to manage the former through application of the latter. 
The several players should make their heroes to be self-directed within the game world the Referee provides. In setting goals, overcoming obstacles, and reaching those goals do the characters grow, & Adventures surely will transpire.

This is long (prolix) and certainly not how I would say it, face to face, to another human being. These words do not roll off the tongue!  So how do I say it?