Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fresh meat

When I was first considering starting up a new game, I thought I was going to round up some old friends that have been active RPG players that hadn't played using any of the old rulesets recently.  The intention was to use OSRIC with some house rules and play some of the old TSR modules.  It now looks like my girlfriend and some of her friends are interested in playing, which changes everything.  From what I can tell they have never played D&D or any other tabletop RPG.

With all new players I've decided I'm going to have to use a more basic set of rules.  I'm probably going to use a heavily house ruled version of LL or B/X.  More importantly I'm going to have to decide upon a new adventure to run.  Originally I was going to run Caverns of Thracia.  For veteran players it seemed like a good challenge and a wonderful, classic dungeon that they probably were not familiar with.  However, after read several play reports online I realized just how deadly this module is, and I think I am going to need something a little easier for completely new players. Currently I'm leaning towards B2 or B1, with the possibility of T1 as I've been playing the computer version of that recently, so I'm more familiar with it.  I'm still going to stick to the OSR guns with this group, there will certainly be some deaths, but I don't want to totally steamroll them with a difficult 1st level adventure.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Descent into the Depths

Aaron over at A Paladin in the Citadel recently made this post about the classic AD&D module D1 - Descent into the Depths of the Earth. I had recently been skimming through the module recently, looking for more old school inspiration.  I often like to revisit modules that I never thought much of, and this was one of them.  I had the D1-2 version which combined the original with Shrine of the Kua Toa, and I also owned the Vault of the Drow, so I had the whole series.  They seemed cool, but as a kid they were difficult to use because they were high level adventures that required the GM to do a lot work, and for the players to use something other than brute force. Also, they lacked a defining story or goal  (remember my group attacked the keep in Keep on the Borderlands, so you really had to point them in particular direction).  I never used them in any of my games.

Today I find them much more interesting.  I think they would be better presented as a sourcebook than as adventure modules, but that's a small point.  Rereading all 3 modules as a whole gives me a much better overlook of the underworld.  Aaron sees D1 as a "megadungeon template", but I see it as even more.  The underworld of D1-3 combines dungeon and wilderness settings, and it forces the PCs to make difficult decisions if they try to resupply without returning to the surface.  The possibilities here really do seem endless.  The one change I would make is to lower the average power level of the inhabitants so that players could start adventuring in this environment starting around level 5 rather than 10+.

In a way these modules remind me of the feeling I had while reading Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth".  It's really too bad that those movies stink.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Howard Pyle

I started playing D&D before I was 10 years old.  At the time, I had very little exposure to the what we would consider the "fantasy" genre.  To me, fantasy was fairy tales and ghost stories.  I had seen the Rankin-Bass animated version of the Hobbit, and that had sparked my imagination.  I had yet to read the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings though.  At the time I was mostly reading Hardy Boys books.  Then I found a book in my school library called "The Story of King Arthur and his Knights".

 I knew a little bit about King Arthur from popular culture, but  Howard Pyle's book took the story to a whole new level for me.  I became totally engrossed in the Arthurian world.  For weeks I read the book and three others that followed it.  Despite Pyle's antiquarian writing style, I moved through the stories quickly, and even went back to reread my favorite parts.

Later I discovered Pyle's Robin Hood stories and book of Pirates.  While I enjoyed them, they never had the impact that King Arthur did. Years later I stumbled across Men of Iron, which was an original story rather than a retelling of existing legend.  Reading Men of Iron rekindled my appreciation of Pyle, though I didn't bother to track down any of his other works.  By then I was reading all sorts of fantasy, old and new, but Pyle still intrigued me.  He is generally considered a children's author, but I never found his stories childish.

Today, thanks to the internet, I've come to appreciate Pyle as an illustrator as well as a writer. While it is hard to consider him a fantasy author,  I have to imagine that both his writing and illustrations influenced the pulp artists and writers that followed him in the decades after his death in 1911. Gary didn't include him in Appendix N, and I don't know if he was familiar with Pyle's work, but as a young boy it was Pyle that lit the fire of my imagination and influenced me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The influence of Anime

I was sitting around watching TV the other night with my girlfriend.  She was browsing through Netflix, and start looking at the the Anime selection.  She put on a couple of difference shows I had never heard of, and I was quite surprised to see they were all fantasy related.  I've never been a huge anime fan, though I've seen my fair share of the stuff, mostly the classics like Macross and Akira.  I've never watched any fantasy related anime.  After watching a hour or so of these shows, I began to wonder how much fantasy themed anime has influenced younger generations of tabletop RPG fans.

Looking at Appendix N from the 1st DMG, I see a lot of material that is well before my time.  People my age were inspired by things like Clash of the Titans, the movie versions of Conan, Willow, Sword of Shanara, Thieves World, and yes, Dragonlance.  I expect that kids today are influenced by more current works of fantasy (such as Harry Potter) than the older stories, just as I was in my youth.  I'm certain that fantasy video games are a huge part of that influence.  Another big part of that may be anime.

The thing that I always note about anime, is that the characters tend to be over the top.  The main characters seem to have nothing normal about them at all.  The tend to be destined to greatness, demi-gods, or psychotic. This is quite contrary to the picaresque themes seen in the origins of the fantasy RPG movement.  It makes me wonder if there is a fundamental disconnect between different groups of gamers based on their influences, and if major changes in D&D rules over the years are just a reflection of these differing influences.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Snakemen > Lizardmen

Giant snakes with arms!  These are so badass.  Next time I use a published module that calls for Lizardmen I am sooo replacing them with these guys.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sandbox vs. Story

There's been a bit of a discussion going on the past few days that started with a post on the Mule Abides, and was picked up on Grognardia and Monsters & Manuals.  It seems that Tracy Hickman's penchant for story based games was something that he actually enumerated, as displayed in the original printing of his "Pharoah" scenario.

I work in the video games industry, at Bioware to be exact.  Bioware is known for story based RPGs.  These games are some of my favorites (Mass Effect 2 in particular).  The other big name in western RPGs is Bethesda.  They make the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3 (for the record, Skyrim was the best game I played in the past year).  These are generally considered "sandbox" games.  Both styles of game work extremely well, though they deliver a very different type of experience. If you have a preference, that's great, but neither one is better than the other, when done well.

On the tabletop, I think things are a little different though.  The computer RPGs I mentioned are all single player games. Try developing story in a multi-player computer game.  It's a much more difficult proposition.  If you are going to run a story based tabletop RPG, all of the players must be willing participants in the story.  The better option, in my opinion, is to let the story develop out the actions of the characters and the world around them.  If you create a rich world for the characters to exist in, the story will write itself. As a player, I'd much rather play a game in which the story cam about because of things that or my group wanted to accomplish, rather than a game where the DM had some grand vision of some "meaningful" plot.

As a side note, I loved the Dragonlance novels when I was in 7th and 8th grade.  I found the modules to be unplayable.  They ended up in the same pile as the Indiana Jones RPG.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A tidbit from the Player's Handbook

"Co-operation amongst party members is a major key to success,
particularly when the characters are relatively low-level. Later, when
players have characters of 9th. 10th. or even higher level it will be a
slightly different matter, for then some adventures will be with but 
one or two player characters participating, and the balance of the group will be
made up of henchmen whose general co-operation is relatively assured."

Gary Gygax, AD&D Player's Handbook, page 107, Successful Adventures

One or two players plus henchman? It's very interesting to see Gary's take on how high level games could, or should be run.  It makes sense though.  As the character progress in levels, they develop as characters.  Their history grows, as does their place in the world around them. The game becomes focused more and more on the characters as they become more important in the world around them.  I find this an interesting adjunct to the Story vs. Sandbox debate.  There's nothing wrong with story in my opinion, as long is it comes from the characters and the players.

As a side note, I wish that we had used henchman and hirelings more when I played D&D as a kid.  I think of all the times we wanted to play but never had more than 2 or 3 players, so we did something else.  This probably occurred because TSR published so many tournament modules during the early 80's and because no published module I recall every made reference to the possibility of the party having retainers. More on tournament modules in a future post.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Armor in the campaign.

This isn't a complaint about RPG rules themselves.  My concern is more with the settings presented in many sourcebooks, or the implied setting in certain games.  It may be nice to have rules for all sorts of armor, but characters shouldn't have free reign to purchase any type of armor that was ever invented if you want to have a more realistic campaign.  There should be a few option available, based on what is locally available and currently made.

Using 1e as an example, Gary lists the following type of armor:
Plate Mail
Plate armor (full plate)
Ring Mail
Scale Mail
Splint Mail
Studded Leather

There has been some debate as to what types of actual armor these categories represent.  What exactly is "Banded Mail"?  Is it the classic roman lorica segmentata?  What about "Splint Mail" and "Ring Mail"?  Regardless, after some thought it would seem to me that this list is composed of various types of historical armor that was used in Europe and the near east over 1500 year period.  To me, the idea of a character being able to pick his armor out of this entire list seems fairly absurd once I really thought about it.

I was going to go on to say something about how silly it is for a character in a D&D game to be able to pick between 15th century style platemail and 11th century chainmail.  If plate existed, everyone would be using some form of that.  But I always go back to same winning argument that was made in a comic book store long ago: "It's a FANTASY game!"  So really anything could happen in your campaign, but I just wanted to mention it if you felt you wanted to run something with a little more historical accuracy, and to point out how Gygax might have gone a little overboard with the armor listings, though not nearly as bad as he did with polearms.

In the long run, it doesn't really matter what the armor looks like.  The particular construction of the armor is only really important if you want to use things like hit locations and to hit adjustments based on weapon vs. armor matchups.  As far as I am concerned, AC 5 armor could be chainmail, or it could be poorly made plate or very well made and thickened leather.  If you don't use hit locations then AC 5 might be plate without the helmet and greaves (I think 3e already does this sort of thing with the breastplate and chain shirt armor type).

I also began thinking about different sorts of armor that might be made out of the various monsters that are found in the game.  To my mind, we don't see that sort of thing enough in D&D.  Sure, from time to time you see things about making armor out of dragon scales, but what about giant insect carapaces?  I think Dark Sun had some rules for things like that, and it certainly adds some flavor to the game, and really that's what I'm aiming for.  Simple rules, lots of flavor.  That's the difference between Old School and 3e-4e.  In the new systems all the flavor is in the rules.  In Old School the flavor is in the fluff, and that's always easier to work with.

Retrospective: Mordheim

I have a love/hate relationship with Games Workshop.  I could go on for hours about the hate side of it, but I think everyone is aware of the normal criticisms of GW by now.  I do love the Warhammer universe though, and from time to time they put out some really cool games.  It seems that their best games aren't always the most popular though, and they aren't given the long term support that they deserve. Necromunda, Epic 40k, GorkaMorka. Adeptus Titanicus all fall into this category, as does Mordheim.

If you aren't familiar with it, Mordheim is a skirmish level fantasy combat game, fitting somewhere in between an RPG and wargame.  Each player has a warband of about 5-20 models.  The game centers on the city of Mordheim which has been destroyed by a comet, and the bands of adventures that have come to plunder the remains of the city and gather the precious magical warpstone from the comet.  The warbands are themed units based on different troop types from around the Empire, and some more more monstrous units like beastmen and skaven.  Over the course of time, official and unofficial warband lists have been created for just about every sort of Warhammer army and troop type.

What I love about the game is that it doesn't require a lot of work or time, yet is very fun and has a lot of replay value.  Collecting an army of over 100 miniatures is a daunting task, not to mention expensive.  15-20 is great for a beginner or those that are short on cash, space and/or time.  There are also plenty of ideas for scenarios, and the campaign rules give the game depth and purpose.  The rules are fairly simple, being a slightly modified version of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, the major difference being that units don't "form up" in blocks, thus removing the need for a lot of the movement rules.

In short, Mordheim is everything Battlesystem Skirmishes could have been.  With a focused and detailed setting, thematic army lists and campaign rules, Mordheim is a complete game, not just a set of rules.  Yet, if you wanted to, you could take he skeleton of those rules, and use it for a different purpose, say an RPG?

GW lists this as a Specialist game, which mean they aren't producing new material for it, and most of the rules and miniatures have to be ordered online.  It also means they aren't running games in the stores, which is a shame because I think it is a great way to introduce people to the hobby.  Fortunately there is still some good fan support for the game, and a revised set of rules named "Coreheim" is freely available.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bloggin ain't easy...

I've tried twice today to put together a post about armor types in the campaign.  While re-reading them I thought that they tended to ramble.  The I thought that the subject matter was dealt too much with a quest for "realism" in the campaign.  It's something that I am prone to get bogged down in.  So please forgive me if some of what I post is over the top.

In a related note, the more I write about making a game more "realistic", the more I realize that simple solutions can work much better than complicated ones.  I'm gaining a new respect for Warhammer.  Not WFRP, but regular old Warhammer the wargame, 1st and 2nd editions in particular.  The idea of categorizing armor into Heavy, Light or None, actually works very well.  So does cutting down the weapon list and having a category called "hand weapons" that includes most 1 handed weapons such as swords maces and axes.  It seems to me that those rules, along with the original "Rogue Trader" 40k rules were designed to be used with small battle scenarios with a handful to a couple of dozen miniatures, rather than the pitched battles and scores of miniatures that these games have used for the last 20 years.

Now that "John Carter" is officially a flop, this will never happen

"Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser - Ill met in Lankhmar" as a 'buddy' movie.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

But what would a Welsh Longbow REALLY do?

I just spent the last 2 days looking at videos on youtube of people hitting various types of armor with various types of weapons.  Why?  Call it my obsession with the "Weapon Types, General Data, and 'To Hit' adjustments" table from the PHB.  Say what you will about that beast, I think it is much more accurate than "table 52: Weapon type vs. armor modifiers" from the 2e PHB.    So what did all of this video viewing get me?  Some insights, but probably not the sort of things you'd think.

As it relates to D&D, after viewing all of these weapon videos I realized that it really isn't worth the time to simulate all of this.  In fact, simplicity is probably better.  The OD&D idea of everything does a d6 really isn't a bad idea.  As hit points are supposed to represent "immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck" in higher level characters, a bigger axe really shouldn't do a lot more damage. Instead the skill of the user and magical properties or the weapon would seem to be more important.  However, you do have to account for hit points representing the overall physical toughness of larger monsters and animals.  Rather than handling it the way 1e does , I'd rather use what's available in B/X.  Maybe use a d6 for all weapons vs. human and demi-humans etc, and the variable weapon table against larger monsters?  Could work.  Rather than have variable weapon damage against "human" targets, you might grant to hit bonuses against targets in heavy armor. That would probably need more details to work out, but it's the general impression I got from watching the videos.

So what did I learn? (not directly related to RPG rules)

  • Nobody used "butted" chainmail in combat.  Only reenactors and LARPers do.You have to rivet the links closed in order for the armor to offer decent protection and not fall apart when hit.
  • Good chainmail is really good.  To cut through it or pierce it take a really serious blow.  You're more likely to suffer broken bones and severe bruising that cuts or punctures.
  • 15th century style "full plate" is almost impervious to arrows.  Seems like you would need one of those wind-up style heavy crossbows to get through this stuff.  
  • Fantasy axes are kind of silly.
  • I'm surprised that the Estoc has never been more prominently featured in a game.
  • Some of the videos are very entertaining, and usually more accurate than the History Channel.  Not tough to do honestly.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Conehead Casting

A whimsical idea for spellcasting.....

Matt over at The Land of Nod made this post concerning the possible unique qualities of a wizard's brain, both living and dead. I found this to amazingly inspiring. After reading the phrase "..demands chocolate at any price", it struck me.  The human brain burns a lot of calories when doing heavy thinking, problem solving and computation in particular.  Specifically it burns glucose.  What if casting spells burned an incredible amount of  calories, so that the caster had to consume mass quantities of food and drink every day, or risk falling into a diabetic coma?  I think this could be an interesting way of introducing some non-vancian magic to a campaign.  Someday I'll have to develop an actual system around this concept.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What I learned from LARPing.

I don't know how many people in the OSR have ever participated in a LARP, let alone a combat intensive one.  In the early 90's I was heavily involved in "padded weapon" LARPs in the DC area.  It was a fun activity, and at times provided some cool stories and excellent roleplaying opportunities, not to mention good exercise.  After a few years I got out of it because I had other interests, and was generally tired of the political/personality conflicts in these local groups.  But in 4 or 5 years I did discover several things that I can apply to tabletop games as well. Most of what I learned was about social interaction and roleplaying, but some of it can actually be applied to tabletop rules.  WARNING: I'm not trying for "silver age" realism here. I am trying to put some "real world" experience to good use. I don't want to add overly complex systems to the game, put I do want to examine existing systems and rules in light of my experience on the padded weapons battlefield.

The first subject might not be that obvious, but I can not emphasize enough the importance of morale.  Creatures of any sort of intelligence are not going to get themselves involved in a losing battle, except in extreme circumstances.  Let's take a hypothetical.  An adventuring party of 6 kicks in a dungeon door.  In the room is 4 goblins.  Typically you roll for surprise and initiative and then combat begins.  If the party attacks first, the goblins will engage in combat.  In B/X rules, morale is first checked when the first death on that side occurs.  Under 1e, it's checked when the leader is defeated, 25% of the force is eliminated, or when they are facing an obviously superior force ( which is left up to the GM's discretion).   From my experience in LARPing, people think twice before engaging in combat (even when it is not life threatening), and only pick fights they think they can win. An outnumbered group is going to retreat or surrender unless those options have been taken away from them, or they are absolutely sure that their opponents are inferior.  They also tend to steer clear of the best fighter on the other side, preferring to take out the weaker targets first to get the numbers in their favor. In the above example, the goblins are not going to fight if they see a group of well armed men kicking in their door.  On the other hand if they were to see 6 peasants stumble in, the goblins would probably be up for a fight. Of course, this all depends how goblins view themselves in your campaign.  Maybe they are chesty little buggers that are always biting off more than they can chew, or maybe they are bullies that quickly turn coward as soon as they are pressed.   But no matter what, morale or reaction needs to be considered at the start of the encounter. The takeaway from my experience is that using 1 number to represent a morale rating, or a random roll to determine reaction is probably too simplistic.  It's much better for the GM to take the time to think about the psychology and morale of the monsters the players will be encountering, and figure out how they will react to different situations. Less rules and roles, more thinking.

Missile weapons and combat are a dicey thing.  It's damn hard to hit a moving target, and anyone with a shield is incredibly hard to hit if they are watching you.  Most of the time firing into a melee is pure chance.  An archer attacked in melee is screwed. Your best bet as am archer is to shoot at stationary targets that are not paying attention to you, and stay as far away from the melee as possible.  This often means targeting other missile weapon users and casters.  There are 2 things that I would change in the rules in regards to archery in particular. The first is that shields should count for more than a simple +1 or +2 when attacked from the front.  The second is that crossbows are much more simple to use than others bows. It takes 5 minutes to learn how to reload, and then it's point and shoot.  I longbow takes a lot of practice before the user can shoot straight on a consistent basis, and would require a decent amount of strength to be effective in  combat. I'm still not sure how to represent this in the rules. 3e places them in the simple weapon category, which allows for a wider range of classes to use them.  While this makes logical sense, I really don't like the idea of wizards and clerics walking around with crossbows. Thieves would be ok though.  The best I can come up with currently is a simple +1 to hit across the board for crossbows.  Minimum strength requirements for using regular bows is an option, and could come into play if you use 3d6 in order to generate characters.

I mentioned shields while discussing missile weapons, and this is probably the one area where my experience LARPing changed my thoughts on tabletop rules.  Shields are tremendously undervalued in D&D.  This difference in attacking a person with and without a shield are night and day.  Since 3e was published, I have used the rules for shields found there for all of my games (large shields are a +2, tower shields +4, can provide cover against missile weapons), but even that is not enough in my estimation.  However, the one thing I can't judge from LARPing, is how much protection armor provides (that's a whole other debate).  Any change in AC bonuses from shields needs to be judged against  the AC bonuses that armor provides, and I am hesitant to make shields too powerful, if only for game mechanics.  A +2 for small, +3 for medium, +4 for large (tower) system seems to be a good compromise.  I haven't included bucklers in the discussion because I think they are special case.  I see them more as a specialized tool for parrying, rather than a static defense in the way that armor and shields are considered.  Also, as they more properly belong to the renaissance period, I wouldn't use them in my games unless I was doing something in the swashbuckler genre.

Historically, shields are generally made of wood, with metal and leather used to hold it together.  As you can imagine, when hit with a sharp heavy weapon swung at high velocity they sometimes break.  This is something we simulated in the LARP rules that we used (3 hits to a shield from a polearm destroyed it), but we also encountered actual breakage occurred with shields and weapons.  RPG rules don't normally account for weapons shields and armor breaking, unless some sort of critical fumble rules are used.  I haven't figure out a simple way to account for breakage yet, as I feel that it probably requires the type of rule that adds more complexity or book keeping.

Something that I learned from LARPing that is often touted by MMA practitioners is that fights often end up on the ground.  That isn't to say that grappling becomes a major part of combat, but that in reality people fall down more often than is typically portrayed in tabletop RPG combat.  Some editions of the rules have abilities that can cause a a character to trip of fall over, but what I noticed is that people have a tendency to trip over themselves or lose their footing when the ground is uneven.  As a GM, you might want to think about what type of surface the combat is occurring on.  Something as simple as a forest or a field can be treacherous footing,  Consider the dangers of gopher holes, loose rocks,  and tree roots sticking above ground.

Closer attention should be paid to the terrain in general when in outdoor environments.  For example, small trees, bushes, and other undergrowth can be a real hindrance to movement in a forest, without blocking line of sight for spells and missiles.  In my experience, archers and casters had a huge advantage in the forest environment because of this. Larger shields, polearms and packs easily become entangle or blocked by bushes and low hanging branches.  Again, this is the sort of thing that should be the GM's call.  Not all forests are the same, and neither are all swamps, rivers, hills, grasslands etc.

This post went on a lot longer than expected, but as I was writing, more things kept coming to mind.  There's probably more I could come up with, and if I do, I'll post more.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

BattleSystem Skirmishes

We've all had this situation in our game.  A large party of players, possibly with some NPC help, gets into a fight with a large group of monsters. Suddenly book keeping becomes an issue.  Lots and lots of dice are being rolled.  What looks like a fun fight at first bogs down and takes far too long.  So how do you as a GM deal with battles that aren't full scale warfare, but are larger than your normal encounter?

Back in the early days of 2nd edition, we had BattleSystem Skirmishes.  Most of us remember the various versions of the BattleSystem mass combat rules, but BattleSystem Skirmishes was the less popular and now forgotten system that bridged the gap between RPG and tabletop wargame.  Skirmishes represents individual models on a 1:1 scale, as opposed to the 10:1 or some larger scale that is used in most wargames.  In this way it has more in common with today's pre-painted miniatures games like D&D minis and the Clix games.  As a wargame, it really wasn't all that interesting.  In fact, I don't recall anyone ever using it as such.  However, it did do one thing fairly well, and that was simplifying and speeding up combat for 2e AD&D.

Even though the book goes on and on about the rules of combat, and has good size list of monsters spells and magic items, we only really needed about 2 pages of the book.  Those pages provided charts and rules for converting 2e characters to Skirmishes rules, which actually turns out to be a very simple process.  Hit points and damage are now represented as hit dice or just "hits".  A 1 hit die create from 2e had 1 hit in skirmishes.  your standard weapon that would do a d8 damage in 2e did 1 hit.  Skirmishes used Thaco and armor class, just like 2e with just a few other modifiers. Other than that, you could just use all of the other standard rpg style rules. I loved this system, because it got rid of the damage roll, and weaker creatures were either alive or dead.  You no longer had to keep track of 20 kobolds that had taken wounds.  Even creatures with more hits could be tracked with a die or another simple marker (really tiny d6s were great for this).

Even though this was written with 2e in mind, it would work with any old version of D&D once you see how the conversion works.

Appendix N update.

I just saw this article over at Huffington Post that offers some alternatives to John Carter.  Since I have started reading blogs devoted to "old school roleplaying" I have seen several references to "Appendix N".  I had no idea what anyone was talking about.  So I looked it up.  Wonderful thing the internet. For those like me that don't know what "Appendix N" is, it is a section of the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide that lists authors and books that inspired Gary Gygax as he created D&D.  Now, I've had a DMG since the early 80's.  I don't specifically recall this list, but I'm sure I must have read it a few times way back when.  I haven't read most of the material on this list, probably because much of it wasn't widely available.  If it wasn't in stock at Waldenbooks or in the school library, it was out of my reach.  However I did get to read Leiber, Moorcock, Tolkien, and Zelazny.

I've seen a few people post a list of things that would be in their personal version of Appendix N, but I'd like to see what others think should be in sort of "Appendix N Hall of Fame".  It would be those books and authors that have been published since the D&D was created that should be added to Gary's original list.   Criteria should include popularity, influence, similarity in themes to Gary's original list.  For example, Terry Brooks Shannara series might be a good candidate.  On the other hand,  Mists of Avalon or Harry Potter probably wouldn't be good candidates because of how different they are from the material in Gary's list.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

More on Unified XP tables.

In an earlier post I began discussing class balance, unified xp tables, and the reasons for and against bonus XP for high prime requisite scores.  In this post I'd like to take some time to discuss the pros and cons of the use of individual xp tables for each class.  Most old school gamers like the old individual xp charts, and I certainly don't mind them, but I think that there are some valid reasons for not using them.

I like the old charts because they add a certain flavor to the game.  With every class having a different chart, the players are each carefully tracking their xp, anxiously awaiting their next level.  Leveling becomes an individual goal, not a group goal.  An argument that is often made in favor of individual xp charts is that it allows you to have unbalanced classes within the game, or in other words you can balance a class by making it more or less expensive to level.  The classic example is the thief.  It can't wear good armor or use a variety of weapons, and gets no spells.  The thief's attack tables and HPs are also inferior to all but the Magic-User.  It does have a access to thief skills, but these hardly make up for all of the other disadvantages the thief suffers from.  Thus the thief levels faster than any other class in the game. 

Another aspect of the individual XP charts that should not be overlooked is something that goes beyond class balance.  You could call it feel, or difficulty, but it's easier to just explain.  Of the base classes Magic-Users require the most xp to level (at least at the lower levels).  Why?  Because being a wizard is damn tough.  Not just anyone can be a wizard.  It takes a lot of dedication.  Most would say that Magic-Users are underpowered at low levels, particularly when xp cost/level is considered.  But they are designed that way for a reason.  Not everyone should play a M-U, and not every M-U that is rolled is going to survive the early levels. In contrast, Clerics level a little more quickly than it would seem like they should, but then again they are favored by a god, and they have the thankless responsibility of keeping the party alive with healing spells.

What don't I like about the individual xp charts?  Despite everything I just said, I find them to be wildly arbitrary.  Just how much xp per level is a d8 instead of a d6 for hit dice worth?  Or a better saving throw?   Sure people have tried to create class construction engines (such as in the 2E DMG) but one can usually exploit these fairly easily.  If you are trying to achieve balance between classes, it seems a little harder to do it with xp.  Secondly, the more classes you have, the more charts you need.  I like classes.  I like sub-classes.  Individual xp charts aren't so bad when you have 3 or 4 classes, but what about 15?  or 40? (Don't laugh.  Look at all of the new classes in the non-core 1e books like UA or OA.  Then add in the NPC classes presented in the Dragon.).  Charts take up space in the rules and you have to look them up.  Minor gripes, but still a negative.

This all leads to a unified xp chart.  First, it fixes most of the problems I have with the use of individual charts.  As a designer and a GM I like a unified leveling system because that is what I am used to working with.  Most RPGs use this sort of system, even if they use a totally different sort of advancement system (FWIW, the MMOs I have worked on and played have also used this system for the most part).  I think it is more easy to balance classes with this system, as you can make direct comparisons between the 2 classes.  Obviously they are never going to be completely balanced, but a unified xp table gives you a good starting point, and a frame of reference.

For me, the most important aspect of using a unified leveling system is that it allows the group to completely do away with xp as a whole.  If everyone earns the same xp per session, and they all use the same xp chart, they will all level at the same time.  That being the case, the GM or the group can decide when the PCs level whenever they wish.  No need for the GM to calculate xp.  No need for the players to track it.  No need to figure out how much a new monster or treasure is worth.  I have both run and played in games like this before, and it has worked wonderfully, with the right group.  Not every group is going to like this system, but I think you could say that about any rule. The major problem comes when you have character deaths, or characters/players that are not present for certain sessions.  In this case, you can keep track of the sessions played, and level those characters when they have played an appropriate # of sessions.  It isn't an exact science, but that's the point.

Now as some have pointed out, some problems arise when you get rid of xp.  Specifically how does one reward individual play.  In a future post, I'll explain a few ideas for simple fate/karma system that not only rewards individuals for excellent play, but livens up the game for the whole group.

Monday, March 12, 2012

0 Level Adventures

I'm guessing that not too many people use 0 level adventures.  Up until now I'd be one of them.  There are a few published modules that use 0 level, but I don't think I've seen anything that I found to be that interesting. I started thinking about the idea after seeing the DCC RPG beta rules.  After giving it some thought I've decided I am going to start my next campaign with 0 level characters.  Here are some reasons why.

The chance to explore the transition from "normal" person to adventurer.  What makes an individual an adventurer?  What events set them on that path?  Where did they learn their trade?  I want to explore these questions with my group.  I also really like the idea of establishing who the character was before they were an adventurer.  The DCC RPG uses a table that reminds me of WFRP, where one rolls % dice to see what sort of mundane existence they had before they started wandering around in dungeons.  Farmer?  Rat Catcher?  Mule Skinner?  Tanner?  All of these are possibilities, and they serve to define what sorts of skills and starting equipment the character has, as well as their place in the world.

I want to have a game with a "tight" economy.  Starting characters aren't going to have much in the way of money or belongings.  I want the first adventure to explain why these characters have the equipment that they have, because a sword and armor of any sort are extremely expensive.  Treasure should actually mean something to the players, and being able to go back to town and get a proper suit of armor and with their first haul should be something to shoot for.

The last reason for me wanting to run a 0 level adventure is a little selfish.  I had decided a while ago that if I was going to start a new game, I was going to use "classic" published adventure modules.  Still, I'd like to run something of my own creation at some point. Since there aren't any published 0 level adventures that I would consider classics, this gives me the perfect opportunity to interject something that I have designed personally.  This also gives me the chance to put to use the wealth of information I have gathered from all the blogs and other resources I have been reading recently.  There is a lot more information around today to help GMs build a good adventure than there was 20 years ago, and I plan to put that to good use.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Class balance, unified xp, and prime requisites.

While coming up with some house rules that may eventually become a full blown retro-clone, I began to take a serious look at the classes.  I quickly realized I was going to have to deal with class balance, and that there are issues with class balance in D&D that I don't have to deal with in MMOs (my day job).  The first issue is individual xp charts for each class, and the second the potential for bonus xp if the character has high prime requisite (PR) scores.

I seen a lot written about unified xp charts, so I'll deal with them in another post.  On the other hand, I haven't seen anyone discuss bonus xp for high PRs.  This seems to be something that people tend to overlook a lot of the time.  Not that they don't use it, every game I've ever been in has used it, but nobody really stops to think why this rule exists or what purpose it serves in the game.

I first questioned the idea of bonus xp for a high PR score when I saw the suggestion that there be bonus xp given based on how you rolled your stats.  (sorry that I can't remember where I saw this)  A straight 3d6 would get you a +15%, while the stand 4d6 drop the lowest and arrange to order gets you +0% (there were other options in between).  I liked this idea, but realized that it was probably incompatible with the bonus xp from PRs.  

It would seem to me that bonus xp from high PR scores is an concept that got its start with OD&D.  In the original game it makes sense.  High ability scores don't immediately make you much better at anything, but they allow you to advance in your class more quickly. In later editions where ability scores give you bonuses, I don't really see the need for the bonus xp.  In fact it creates a situation where the character pretty much has to have those score or they will be gimped.  The concept may make logical sense in that a strong person may be able to increase their melee combat skills more quickly, but from a game sense it create a  power imbalance between the "haves and have nots".  I think that this difference can become magnified if you are dealing with classes that already have high stat requirements to join them, making the chance of having a high enough PR score for bonus xp much smaller.

I've come to the conclusion that I am not going to use the stand bonus xp % in my game.  If I was doing a straight OD&D or Swords and Wizardry game, I would include them, but I am using the -3 to +3 bonuses from B/X.  Also, I will be making everyone use the same method for rolling stats, so the concept of bonus xp for the method used to generate stats won't be in the game either.  By eliminating the bonus xp from my game, I am making the bookkeeping a little easier on everyone.  It's a small point, but an important step in my larger plan to provide the option to remove xp from the game.  But that's another post.

Monday, March 5, 2012

New inspiration from old sources.

Most old school RPG players would be in agreement that  D&D takes its inspiration from Swords and Sorcery fiction and weird tales.  You don;t have to look further than Appendix N to prove this. However, the writers of those stories were inspired by other stories, many by old folktales. Today, most of us are familiar with the Brothers Grimm and their collection of tales.  While they may not directly inspire D&D style adventures, certain elements of their stories do creep into the game.  Certainly the monsters do, and certain magic items.  Other collections of folktales, such as 1001 Arabian Nights, influence fantasy RPGs, but none as much a Grimm's fairy tales.

What would you say if there were 50 more stories that the brothers missed?  How about 500?  It appears that scholars have recently discovered a collection of 500 new fairlytales.  It looks like some are just variations on old classics we already know, but there's a lot of material here that's new to us.  I can't wait to see this in print.

New game Questionnaire

The guys at Fear the Boot boot together a nice questionnaire that groups should fill out so that they have some idea of why the characters are working together and what they are trying to achieve, with the idea being that players work out a lot problems before adventuring begins, such as what the long term goals are, is there party conflict, are we good guys or bad guys, how do we know each other etc. Since I am very much a fan of troupe style roleplaying (I played a lots of Ars Magic and Vampire), I decided that instead of me dictating the rules of my old school game, I should come up with a questionnaire for prospective players.  So here's my first attempt at some questions.

On a scale of 1 to 5, how complex would you like the game to be?  (A 1 would be simpler than any published rules, a 5 would be more complex that 1e.)
If we were going to play an "official" D&D game, which version of the rules would you want to use? (OD&D, Holmes Basic, AD&D, Moldvay B/X, 2E, Rules Cyclopedia)
Is there a particular retro-clone that you would prefer to use? (Swords and Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, LOTFP, etc..)
On a scale of 1 to 5, how quickly would you like the characters to advance in levels? (1 being almost never advancing, 5 being ever couple of game sessions).
Should the characters start at level 0 or at level 1?
How much magic would you like in the game? (1 almost none, magic items and casters are extremely rare, 5 almost everyone uses magic of some sort, its part of everyday life.)
Are the PCs allowed to do evil nasty things, or are they essential "good guys"?
Should the focus of the adventure be in the dungeon, the wilderness, the town, or a mix?
Are you interested in trying some experimental rules, or you would you prefer to "play by the book"?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG beta thoughts.

Just finished reading through the beta version of the rules for Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. There's a lot of cool ideas in there.  It certainly isn't a retro-clone, and it isn't going to play nice with existing 1E and B/X adventures, but if I was going to start a campaign from scratch I'd have to seriously consider trying these rules.  The magic system is awesome.  If you've ever considered using some sort of alternate magic system, you need to read this.

Another Crazy Idea

Recently I discovered Heroes of the Mythic Age and Small but Vicious Dog.  It got me thinking, could one devise a retro-clone hack that generally kept the characters at a low power level by changing character advancement from a traditional level based system, to some sort of skill based system. As an example, currently when a character levels they get a new hit die or extra hit points, better saving throws, better attack bonus, new spells and class abilities, and more proficiencies etc.  Instead of this system where the character improves in a variety of ways all at once, it would allow the players to spend xp to improve one of those items, which is similar to how WFRP handles character advancement.

While thinking about this I realized that trying to balance each improvement would be a lot of work.  Then a thought popped in my head. "Hey, 3e has these things called feats that are all supposed to be roughly equal, you could just use those".  I think this is one of those ideas best left unexplored.