Tuesday, May 30, 2017

WHY Did It Have To Be Vargouilles?

Well, maybe not vargouilles vargouilles, but man-eating vampire bats have injured 40 and killed one person in Brazil. A tragedy to be sure, but also fodder for a great mystery-extermination adventure.

If I was a player who was presented with such a challenge, I don't know how I would handle it. But one thing's for sure: the reward would have to be really big to tangle with a colony of vampire bats!!!

Herein Lies the Problem

The problem for me blogging is that I say everything I want to say and then I don't want to say it again!  There's only so many things in an OSR game, and once you solve them for yourself satisfactorily, then what else have you got?

I have great admiration for those of you who can churn out column inches say after day... Erik Tenkar is chief among those folks. Please don't take this as a political comment, but he reminds me of Sean Hannity. Sean's great gift is turning out four hours of consistent programming every day, year in and year out. So it is with Erik. 

But he's not the only one. The fellow from Castle Triskelion has been posting one room of his megadungeon every day since late 2013. Some days he also posts a new magic item or monster which you will find in that new room. It's  an unimaginably ambitious task and he's getting it done! Wow!

Even among those writers who write sparingly, their depth and breadth of work can be astounding. I have been informed to a great extend by Brendan of Necropraxis, Roger of Roles, Rules and Rolls, and Courtney of the Quantum Ogre fame.

OH GEEZ I almost forgot to mention Wayne Rossi of Semper Initiavus Unum!  He solved so many problems so long ago and it's all just there to go look at

There are lots of people I admire who love what we love. This is just a partial list of the bloggers I read every time I look online. 

In the sidebar I have that Murlynd's Spoon. Even if you don't want to read what I write, let me urge you to bookmark this page to see what the other OSR guys are thinking about today. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

50th Post and Thief Guy Talk

You can play D&D without thieves too. Try it some time.

I used to think Thief was my favorite character class. It turns out being a Thief guy doesn't rely on Thief skills nearly as much as I thought!

In the old D, with sparse character sheets and minimal reliance on numbers, the Fighting-Man chassis ends up doing a lot of work. A LOT of work. Basically just wearing leather armor and acting like a Thief guu makes you the Thief. Sure you have a way lower chance to do some Thief stuff than a mid or high level Thief guy, but face it: a 1st or 2nd level Thief is not all that much better than some worthless duffer.

Here's a thing I wrote when I was planning the 19th Castle campaign. It's a handout to the player who ants the Thief (or ranger I guess) explaining why he's out of luck at this table, brah.

What, No Thief?

Anyway, the Thief guy is my binky. But playing any of the common races by taking straight fighting man levels and then pretending you took Thief levels instead really works.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Who Is the Hero?

I made a silly suggestion below that your man should play a treacherous game, sacrificing party members rather than face danger himself. Whether you play it like that or like a Boy Scout is up to you. Both ways can be fun and interesting (as long as everyone plays the same kind of game.) 

Mike Mornard, Original Grognard

As you all know by now, Michael Mornard is one of the last living beings to play in the first campaigns of Gary, Ernie, Rob Kuntz, Dave and M.A.R. Barker, among many other of the red hot pioneers of the hobby.  He was there at the very start.  Now someone will doubtless be along to correct me on this but I'm going from memory of what Mike wrote on a forum years ago, so just bear with me.

When they first played in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor sandbox, they were all wargamers.  There was no Role-Playing Game thing yet.  Their characters were more like chess men than characters from a play or literature.  Even the idea of "metagame" information was something to be discovered in the future - if the player knew something, the character would too.  The players were really playing against each other, even when the characters were cooperating!

Evil Fights On by SMS00
While they had to have their weaklings stick together at the beginning, each of the players just knew that sooner or later his PC was going to build his own castle, raise his own army, and battle the several other players for ultimate domination of the world.  Because that's what wargamers knew how to do!

Anyway, there was a sense of rivalry bordering on the cutthroat there from the very beginning there in 1973-74.  They were all in on the joke. It was just the way these things were done.  

Even the alignment system reflected this lack of cooperation:  Lawful meant "from the realm of men" and Chaotic meant "against the realm of men" but neither alignment really dictated how you were to play.  They were just labels for Team A and Team B so to speak.

By the time Steve Marsh edited B/X in 1981 though, the presumption was that the several characters  would work together but also that the several players would work together too!  Lawful guys would be good and Chaotic guys would be shady, and may the gods help the shady ones if anyone discovered their dastardly deeds!

But this is only one choice that is implied in the rule book, not an artefact of the rules. You and your friends can choose to play "against" each other, like you would in a game of Sorry or foosball.  Mike and his friends certainly played it both ways over the years and you can too.

You can run your game either way.

The "hero" of the story is the one who lives to tell the tale; no more and no less.I don't think that needs any further exposition. Take it how you will...!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Campaigns Use People

The title is a riff on the old joke. When the clueless president of some company decides he wants  a new people-centered slogan, and he comes up with "WE USE PEOPLE!"  Just a silly old joke.

Anyway the point of this post is to pass on some player-centric campaign advice. Sure the Ref can do his best to build out a sandbox or string together interesting adventures, but if the several players aren't doing their intellectual due diligence then the whole thing falls apart sooner or later.

Save versus d20!
The first rule for playing a guy in a campaign is, if he dies, he didn't make it through the campaign! Always take care to push one of the other PCs ahead of you and keep a Lawful guy behind you. And you would never catch me telling you this in front of your mother, but sometimes the truly heroic thing to do is to sacrifice a henchman and then lie about it later. Everyone likes a chance to mourn a great sacrifice, and they don't need to hear about how it wasn't voluntary. 

Okay, now the seriousness advices.

1. Always ask, "how do we get the loot without putting ourselves in much danger?"  Loot is how you level; combat is how you die. 

2. Always have a larger plan. You might be able to afford to build a castle at level 8 but who's going to actually build it? Who will man it? What peasants will support it?  A random castle in the wilderness is worse than useless. It's a huge mausoleum. 

3. Build up the towns you visit through industry and military power. Make them remember you by leaving a mark on their town. 

Industry: build a work house. Like maybe there's clay nearby. You can hire a master potter from the nearby city to show the hapless sods how to throw clay pots, and then build a pottery factory. Or maybe invest in some looms and start a rag maker's shop. Something to improve the lot of the least among the townsfolk.

Military: spend some time with the men showing them how to fight. Introduce them to your gods. Offer to take them out adventuring nearby. And when you leave, give them a way to call out to you if they ever need your help. This will build you an army and make sure the town is safe when you return. 

Family: if you are a boy character, take up with a maiden and have a baby. That will tie you and the town together in a way no mere physical connection can. Given enough down time, a lady character could make a baby and leave it with the dad in the same way. 

If you plan to stay a while, finance a palisade around the town or at least a bailey. That way you will have a defendable position and the beginning of a fort or castle in the future. 

All of these tasks can be completed in several different towns in order to establish a real territory. 

4. Clear areas systematically. You will be able to build new frontier out of wilderness piece by piece. 

5. Spend treasure to buy legitimacy. Titles and political favors are as valuable as military might.

6. Have stuff your guy wants, and tell the Ref he wants it. Then a good Ref will give you opportunities to find or earn those things. It makes things go easier for him to get input.

7. One of the very important things that all of this requires is adequate down time between adventures! Down time requires a calendar and regular time keeping. So if you want to have a real campaign, offer to take care of time, seasons, and weather for the Ref so he doesn't have to. 

There's lot of other good advice to give, but that's all I have for now. What kinda of advice can you give to players so they add entertainment to a campaign?  For instance, what advice would you give the player of a thief guy?  Or a cleric?  A elf?

The Dungeon Master by and copyright Moulinbleu

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Days When Smiths Were Mages

you never know when you will stumble upon the inspiration for an article. Sometimes it comes right at bed time! (Yes, grown ups have a bed time too believe it or not.)  I will explain later but I want to put this here before I go to bed since it's so neat: Bronze Age Swords Primer. The info goes several links deep and it's really cool. If you ever wanted to try a Bronze Age campaign or play a few frames of Mazes & Minotaurs then bookmark these links and you won't regret it!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

And He Calls It By A Different Name

So Brendan at Necropraxis calls it "fight off, dodge, or block" which makes my nomenclature very confusing. My "Soak" is his "Block" and my "Block" is his "Fight Off."

Therefore we now issue errata for the system we have misnamed.

Soak becomes Block;
Block becomes Fight Off; and
Dodge, um, stays Dodge.

Additionally in his system he has the Con check come after the Fight Off or Dodge attempt whereas I have moved it up to be in front. It's a minor point that makes armor slightly more valuable in my version.

I believe the choice between the several armors (and the choice of no armor) is intrinsic to the game, even with the added player agency inherent in this combat system: Armor is a trade-off with movement speed and with the amount of treasure you can carry. This system trades off some of the importance of armor to achieve greater player agency, which is a good trade, but within that framework I will want armor to be very important.

So in the next post we will finalize the system and look forward to play testing it in June and July.

Gonna Play Us a BECM Campaign

My old Magic: the Gathering nemesis and all-around excellent fellow, Steve, has a son.  His son is itching to play some D&D. But his son will only play if he can play with some kids his own age.

My daughter Julie is about a year younger, and she's also itching to play.

So we have a table with Steve as the DM, the two kids, Steve's wife, and me.  My wife and son are also thinking about asking in, but we haven't talked to Steve about it. Running for six is different from running for four.

Over the last couple three years I've become such an idiosyncrat (I just made that word up.  You can use it.) in my game preferences, I wonder what it will be like to sit with another table and play with another DM. Also, I have to brush up on my red book D&D rules which are of course just different enough from my own ideas that I'll obviously be confused.

On the bright side Steve knows how to run a game and he knows the rules, so I'll just tell him what my man is doing and let him decide how best to kill me.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Block, Dodge or Soak? And Advantage & Disadvantage Rolls

Block, Dodge or Soak Alternative Combat System

Block, Dodge or Soak is an alternative combat system for Basic D&D and its compatible games.  It was devised by Brendan from the Necropraxis blog to give players a little bit more agency during combat resolution.  You can read about it here and here but I’ll go through it below as well.

Normally in D&D the attacker will throw an attack throw and then compare that number to a chart with the defender’s Armor Class listed.  This means when monsters are attacking players, the players are just sitting there waiting for their character to get it in the neck.

A more fun way to handle it is to give the player the d20 and let him roll to defend!  Mechanically it’s the same but you’re putting the strands of Fate into the player’s hands – or tying them around his neck as the case may be. 

The player rolls.  The Ref compares the result to the chart, and the character either gets hit or is able to soak up the assault and avoid hit point damage.  We will call this standard action a Soak roll (rather than a monster’s attack roll) because the player is trying to let his character soak up the onslaught.

Now, rather than just allowing one kind of defense action, let’s give the player a chance to use his character’s ability scores to maximize his chance to defend.

If “Soak” is a kind of passive defense based on Armor Class, then the first kind of active defense is called “Block” because it means you’re counter-attacking and using brute force to keep the enemy off balance in an attempt to blunt his assaults.  The way we “Block” is to make a Strength check. If the check succeeds, then the attack is blunted and there is no Hit Point damage.  This makes sense for doughty Fighting-Men but probably not for wimpy Magic-Users.  You can imagine Conan being overwhelmed by several lesser men and just throwing them off with a great heave, his bare chest glistening with sweat.

So the second kind of active defense is called “Dodge” because it represents your character dodging and running around rather than standing to fight.  It is represented by a Dexterity check.  It makes sense for characters with a high Dexterity score but not a very high Strength score.  A tricky marital artist like Jackie Chan could fight dozens of men by repeatedly dodging out of their way!

Now if you pull apart the math on this, Block and/or Dodge will almost certainly be better options on defense than standard old Armor Class.  So how do we mitigate that big advantage?

During the round that a player elects to Block or Dodge but before the Block or Dodge attempt happens, have the player roll a Constitution check.  If it fails, then he can no longer Block or Dodge until he’s rested for a Turn after combat.  He can only Soak.  This means it is still good to wear good armor because you never know when your muscles and reflexes won’t be up to the task!

Furthermore, the Referee should impose a -1 to the Block or Dodge roll (but not the Soak roll) for every attacker beyond the first.  This makes it harder to fight off groups of bad guys ganging up on you.

Advantage and Disadvantage in Combat

Big admission: I have never tried 5th edition D&D. Kid you not! I'm not an edition snob or something, I've just never had an opportunity to do it. Actually it seems like it hits the sweet spot between modern and older editions (the monster manual however I could do without.)

One of the super innovations put in the middle of the 5E rules is advantage/disadvantage. It just feels right. It feels like D&D. It feels simple and powerful too. It marries a narrative element to a rule element to a game mechanic element so good! I used a version advantage in Treasure Hunters prolix edition to simulate the use of a two-handed weapon and then use of two weapons in skirmish. It turned out exactly right.

What if, instead of worrying about a Constitution check, you just make Block or Dodge subject to Disadvantage?  Like, you have to pass two Str or Dex checks to succeed?  That would be cool but it would also get rid of the need for armor entirely.  So I don’t think that’s exactly right.  Let’s keep thinking about how to use this kind of active defense combat system.

"Loose" and "Rigid"

This is a long post with lots and lots of words and no pictures at all. 

Yesterday I described newer RPGs as "loose."  That was unfortunate because I did not define my terms closely and I received thousands of cards and letters here at the HQ from confused, frightened and angry young people from all of the six corners of the Realm of Men. (The Realm is hex shaped, of course!)

Well children (under adult supervision while you use The Computer, of course), let us talk about what is loose in the old school and the new school and what is rigid.

In the old school, resource management was paramount: time, torches, weight, distances, money, hit points, and so forth.  Especially calendar time, if you meant to make a campaign out of it. But at least time measured in Turns.  Everything could be related to encumbrance, time, and XP and they were all closely related to one another (see this post here.) Even leveling up, which is instantaneous now in the time of the ubiquitous computer RPG, took some money and some weeks training.

In the new school, time, distance, and encumbrance are almost-universally hand waived away. I think that's because the math is tedious and managing resources gets in the way of telling a fancy story.  Money is no longer even nominally tied to XP. Fighting monsters is a central activity rather than one of last resort.

So in this respect, old school play is "rigid" and new school is "loose."

In the old school, there are very few numbers and words on the character sheet. Players can't rely on tools the rules have given to him in order to overcome puzzles and challenges. Therefore the player has to think up the solutions. Overcoming mysteries, traps and puzzles is more like a parlor game of 20 Questions than a mechanical exercise. In fact, "metagame knowledge" can sometimes be allowed or even encouraged in this kind of game, in the name of rewarding clever players. Old school proponents will call this "playing face-up" because most of the time you are working things through with your fellow players and the ref rather than looking down at your sheet.

Combat is described loosely. Weapons are simple; combat "maneuvers" such as they are, are just telling the ref what you want your guy to do. Maybe they get as complicated as splintering your shield or setting your spear.

In the new school, character sheets are jam-packed with lots and lots of detailed information covering a lot of corner cases. Many, many puzzles and mysteries are overcome with dice throws rather than worked through like a parlor game. We sometimes call this "playing face-down" because your nose ends up buried in your character sheet!

This is especially true for conbat. Weapons and tactics are defined very precisely in new school games. This is because the authors expect combat to be  the central activity. "Builds" - the way you construct your character beforehand - become more important than an agile mind at the table (not that an agile mind is unnecessary!)

So in this case, old school play is "loose" and new school play is "rigid" - especially when it comes to combat!

One of the knock-on effects of this emphasis on individual builds and intricate skill lists is that rolling up a character takes a lot more time for the newer games. For 0D&D or Swords & Wizardry, you can put your man on an index card in just a few minutes. For a polished 3.5E character, you might spend four hours or more getting him exactly right!

While there's nothing wrong with complicated applied math problems (I love making superheroes up in the HERO system), it means a new guy takes way too long to roll up at the table. And that means that everyone there is quite a bit more hesitant to see a guy die. And that means the real possibility of character death becomes much, much smaller in the new school. And if that fear is far removed, the stakes go way down and potentially so does the fun.

That is a pretty fundamental difference: the rules of the older games focused on tracking resources. So the challenge was to extract XPs from the dungeon (in the form of wealth, mostly) before one of your critical resources ran out and you had to/got to roll up a new guy.

The challenge of the new school is to construct a combat machine to participate in a series tactical skirmish minigames, and to enjoy being a content tourist in someone else's world.  By the way, that's not a bad thing. Most video game RPGs are built this way, and millions of people love to play them!

Note that both old and new schools allow for plenty of character development and interaction.  I think that this is its own reward, even though some systems additionally reward it with XPs.  But I think we should save exploring the philosophy behind PC and NPC interactions for another day.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Board Game Off the Rails


Animal-Land, a South Korean Board Game
It is good to compare the OSR experience to a board game experience. I like to think of it as a board game-plus rather than the predecessor of a modern RPG or story game.  (Of course, it is both!)

The rules are in some ways a little more formal in the old games.  I think it is because those original games were the children of wargames, where the rules and turns are very rigid.

Maybe things have loosened up over time because that makes it more fun for some modern players, but for me, I like to make turn order - especially in skirmish and volley - feel more regular.  That is one of the reasons I dote on the older style games so.

Every so often, I think I have an original idea but it turns out that I heard it somewhere but forgot the source and just internalized it, or it's a copy of an idea someone else had long ago.  I think you might have the same thing happen to you some times!

Kenner's Escape From the Death Star (1977),
which predates their dolls and playsets
It turns out the idea of comparing tabletop adventure games to board games is very old. Ken St. Andre, the librarian who invented Tunnels & Trolls (and arguably expanded D&D from a game to a genre) had made the same kind of comparison way back in 1975.  The incomparable Oakes Spaulding blogs about it here, but I'll bring the pull quote from St. Andre for you just the same:

The game is played something like Battleship. The individual player cannot see the board. Only the D.M. knows what is in the dungeon.

Wow!  Cool! I bet there are other people who have thought along those same lines too, but it's hard to imagine someone had the idea before Ken St. Andre, since he was one of the first few hundred people in the world to even know what a RPG is!

Now when I wrote Mythical Journeys (available for free here), I contrast tabletop adventure gaming with playing video games, but that's because it's written for an audience that is more familiar with video games (and fantasy movies) than analog entertainment options.

Do you ever compare a RPG to board games or to other activities?  If so, what kinds of comparisons (or contrasts!) 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Inspirational Art and a Character Sheet

This picture of The Dragon Charmer painted by Shreya Shetty has got my mental wheels turning.

I don't have anything new to share with you today, but I want to share an oldy but goody: a 2-sided character sheet for pre-1E games.  It has everything you need, and nothing you don't.  It has some new design elements but I did my best to preserve the feel of an old sheet you might have typed up on a typewriter.  It was designed for 0E but you can use it for Holmes, B/X and BECM just as well.

OD&D Character Sheet (2-side)

Just for the sake of comparison, here is my Treasure Hunters Prolix Edition character sheet done in basically the same style.  You can see that Treasure Hunters does encumbrance a little different, and it's a little more bunched up because it's 1-sided.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In Praise of Simple

The Best Fighting-Man There Is.
You have read this line a million times by now but I want to put it down here so people will see it when they pop in.

The more the rules resemble a board game's rules, the simpler the character sheet can be.

The simpler the character sheet is, the deadlier the game can be, because making a new playing piece is faster and easier.

The deadlier the game is, the more your player skill is necessary to survive.

The more your player skill is necessary, the more invested you become in the game.