Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Woods of Myth

The woodlands of the OD&D world are thick and plentiful, second only to grasslands in terms of number of hexes. Over half of the castles are actually in wooded locations, and although they only contain one town, three others sit on the border of forests. Woods surround both swamps. They are presumably the reason for the low population density of the OD&D setting, since so much of the arable land is forested. As we will see, there may be good reason that more has not been cleared for farmland.

In the encounter tables, the most common (1 in 4 chance) are lycanthropes. Werewolves, wereboars, weretigers and werebears stalk the woods in uncommonly high numbers, and by alignment, only the werebears can be Lawful. These are mostly small family packs, and lycanthrope attacks create fresh lycanthropes. Foresters and rangers in this world must prize silver weapons, and no logging expedition would dare go out unless it was guarded by men with silver. This is a double danger since lycanthropes can be either human or animal in form, and what appears to be an encounter with bandits may suddenly turn much more dangerous.

Your "typical" humans wander the land - bandits, brigands, berserkers, and high level classed characters. These are presumably travelling parties from the leaders and defenders of the nearby castles. Bandits and brigands amass in relatively large forces, 30-300, and presumably prey upon various merchant caravans. Given the demographics, there are an extremely high number of such if you roll 30-300 men-types as per Monsters & Treasure, and each major forested area should have perhaps 2-3 groups, either bandits or brigands (like bandits but Chaotic). The brigands are presumably deserters from military service while the bandits are general outlaws from civilized society.

The real depth of the forest comes in the "Optional Woods" table of encounters which includes centaurs, unicorns, minotaurs, gorgons, pixies, manticores, dryads and medusae. Centaurs are explicitly stated to live in hidden glens and be at least semi-intelligent. In ancient Greek myth the centaurs represented barbarism and civilization was triumphant over them; in OD&D, some centaurs are actually Lawful in alignment, and fit more of a role as ancient defenders of the wood. Unicorns are always lawful and follow medieval myth in only being approached by maidens. These are powerful creatures, and a typical encounter might be with a powerful maiden-warrior who has taken a unicorn for her mount.

Minotaurs are an interesting choice, since traditionally they are so closely associated with Daedalus's labyrinth. These are obviously the awful half-man, half-bull hybrids, and they are described as man-eaters who always attack. Gorgons are, as I discussed back in March, based on an article that showed a monster like the khalkotauros that had a poison breath. Manticores are straight-up horrors to cross, and I've already talked about medusae and pixies.

Dryads are interesting because they're one of the encounters that is totally non-violent but can potentially remove a character from the game; they will use Charm Person when approached, with -2 (stated as 10%) to the saving throw, on 90% of the people who approach them. It's a powerful encounter but its character-removing nature is entirely optional, since an intelligent character shouldn't go up to a dryad. It's also worth mentioning that elves don't have any of their usual immunities in OD&D and would be impacted by this just like any other character.

The woods in OD&D are a truly mythical place, full of wonderful and horrible things. Humans build castles here to huddle behind the walls - and flying defenders - when they're overflown by manticores or attacked by brigands. They hire guards armed with silver or magic against raiding wereboars and weretigers. The forest is like to be peopled by the occasional emdusa and gorgon statues; their lairs take on the "statue garden" aspect. But it is possible to ally with the occasional centaur tribe, or hope for help from a unicorn-mounted maiden. It's a place where heroes can be made, or disappear never to be seen again.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Clerical Strongholds

There are two types of clerical strongholds: those of Patriarchs and those of Evil High Priests, their Chaotic equivalents. Clerics are served by fighters of 4th level (hero) or 8th level (superhero), ents or hippogriffs. As with griffins and rocs, the hippogriffs are ridden by heroes. EHPs have trolls, vampires, white apes or spectres as their retainers. Generally clerics only request a tithe rather than a quest, although if the tithe is refused one will be commanded.

One important thing to remember is that nazgûl in OD&D are assumed to be spectres (as opposed to Chainmail which treated them as wraiths). Such riders are fearsome encounters near an EHP's castle, as are level-draining vampires. The ent, conversely, is a great subtle defender of a cleric's castle; an enemy force might ride up to the walls only to find that the trees they rode past are alive and will defend them.

The cleric in a siege is a fearsome opponent. If his castle is in a wooded area, Turn Sticks to Snakes is potentially quite deadly, as is a creative use of Speak with Plants, and Insect Plague will almost certainly turn away the footmen needed to capture the stronghold. If he has 7th level assistants casting Create Food and Create Water, or does it himself, there is no question of starving out a small but stalwart group of the faithful.

The impact of high-level clerics in the game world obviously stems from the Raise Dead spell. The character can only be dead a few days, at which point Constitution comes into play (low Con characters may not survive). Every cleric high enough in level to cast Raise Dead is also high enough in level to have their own castle. Since there are eighteen castles on the Outdoor Survival map and one-sixth of the castle inhabitants are (presumably Lawful) Patriarchs, that means there are three nonplayer clerics in this realm who can Raise a PC, unless more are in cities without a castle of their own - nothing is detailed about this, but even so one per city would give a maximum of 12 Patriarchs, none guaranteed to be within 4 days' ride of the characters.

Of course this can create an interesting opportunity. If a Patriarch is not available, perhaps an Evil High Priest could cast Raise Dead - though this would be at some terrible price. EHPs are not immediately belligerent per the rules, and could negotiate with PCs.

One reason I like the idea of clerical strongholds so much is that it reinforces the idea that a cleric is not another term for a priest. Clerics are much closer to the knight templar type, abjuring in OD&D only edged magical weapons, and leading cavalry and crossbowmen. The OD&D cleric is a templar and a vampire hunter, and I think it's interesting if their training involves the initiation into secret mysteries, only slowly being taught the true powers - after all, the cleric can't cast a single spell at first level, and must prove himself to the order in order to gain even that.

Given the castle density I would suppose that the Lawful clerics are tied to a single order rather than spread across multiple deities, while the Evil High Priests who should occupy three of the castles are each individual forces, as befits servants of Chaos. This could have interesting consequences when a PC cleric goes to build his own stronghold.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Wizard's Tower

In the listings for castle inhabitants, there are two types of magic-users: wizard (11th level) and necromancer (10th level). A wizard will be attended by dragons, balrogs, wyverns or basilisks; a necromancer by chimaerae, manticores, lycanthropes or gargoyles. Unlike the griffins and rocs of the fighting-men, the magic-users' retainers never have heroic mounts. In their castles, the magic-users will use Geas to send the player characters on some quest after treasure, claiming half and preferring the magic items. This is an obvious and easy way to send player characters on a perilous quest of the referee's choosing, and to make sure that the treasure thus gained does not enrich the PCs too heavily. The alternative of giving up a magic item as a toll is a good way to strip out any excess items from the party. All told, a very convenient and simple encounter type. So let's see what lies under the surface for our setting.

It's hardly a coincidence that the wizards who live in these castles are all able to cast 5th level spells. A necromancer has access to Animate Dead, so they can be true "necromancers" in the classic sense. A 10th level magic-user casting the spell gets 2d6 skeletons or zombies at a time; one can imagine that a necromancer's tower would commonly be stocked with zombie servants who need no food and fight without reservation.

The fifth-level of magic-user spells in OD&D is practically built for mass combat. This is the level of Cloudkill and Wall of Stone, of Transmute Rock to Mud and Pass-Wall and Conjure Elemental. It's also the level where Feeblemind comes in, the ultimate defense against magic-users attacking in such a situation. Someone laying siege to a wizard's tower could well find themselves facing a zombie army backed up by dragons or balrogs, and elementals to boot, not to mention a magic-user with three or four fireballs to throw.

There are all kinds of mini-settings here. Consider a wizard with basilisks; the basilisk-handler is reliant on his master's access to the Stone to Flesh spell, and it may be best to recruit a blind man for the task. The wizard's tower will be surrounded by a statue garden the likes of which would suggest a medusa rather than a spellcaster lives in the tower. A necromancer who keeps gargoyles may have them blend in as if they were architectural elements, and they will prove formidable foes indeed since only magical attacks effect them. The tower will seem almost defenseless until it springs to life. If it has lycanthropes, the mild-mannered residents will appear to have nothing unusual about them, until they show their nature - perhaps a Lawful magic-user will be served by ferocious werebears. Some spells also imply interesting settings; consider the wizard who casts Hallucinatory Terrain on the lands around his tower.

A proper magic-user's tower will also have a rich library; in pre-printing times that could number in the low dozens of books, including both spellbooks and tomes of magical knowledge. They're also like to have magic items, preferring the miscellaneous ones; so a wizard in his tower may well have a Crystal Ball or Medallion of ESP and be able to see his foes coming well in advance. Rare items that could be of tremendous use in defense include the Drums of Panic, scattering an invading army at a stroke.

So a wizard's tower should be a rich environment for the PCs to come upon. And after the wizard dies, there's always the possibility of what dungeons lie beneath it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Lord in his Castle

As I indicated in my last post, when characters come across a castle in OD&D it is possible that a fighting-man will come out and challenge them to joust. This refers the reader back to Chainmail, which has some pretty simple jousting rules (a combination of rider position and aiming point determines what happens). I find this interesting in one minor sense: it implies that Chainmail is more important than some interpreters of the original rules have made it.

Talysman on the OD&D board pointed out that this brings a bit of Arthuriana to the setting. There are random knights and damsels scattered liberally throughout the OD&D world, and it's possible for a hexcrawl to look like something out of Le Morte d'Arthur, where PCs are challenged by random knights; one would hope to expand this to include being insulted by dwarves, and variously petitioned by maidens and noble ladies alike.

What's fascinating to me are the "guards / retainers" in the castle. In addition to Swashbucklers, Myrmidons, and Champions (that is, fighting-men of 5th, 6th and 7th level), a Lord or Superhero in a castle can be served by griffins (spelled "griffon"), giants, rocs or ogres. Griffins and rocs are ridden by Heroes (4th level fighting-men). This makes a lot of sense given the setting: random encounter tables often bring out "flyers" which include everything from chimerae to dragons to balrogs.

But when you consider that A, fighting-men challenge PCs to random combat, and B, some of these fighting-men have a stable of rocs or griffins, and C, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures dedicates three whole pages to aerial combat, this should be going somewhere a bit more fantastic than the little jousting table in Chainmail. Specifically, PCs should occasionally be challenged to an aerial joust by these fighting-men.

It also implies that there are some aerial defenses. There is a specific reference to "sling-ended catapults" - which I'd think implies a trebuchet - uses a load of small stones in a birdshot-style fashion, creating a spherical hit area. For castles without flying defenders, this is probably the main form of immediate defense from marauding dragons, balrogs, and so on. It's also stated that bombing is part of aerial warfare; basically this is equated to the largest stones that can be thrown from a catapult. Bombardier rocs, then, would be able to drop boulders on troops or fortifications in an attempt to crush them; this can deflect left or right, short or long, or both.

Little wonder that this is such a hardscrabble world! You don't just have to worry about overflights from pteranodons and balrogs and dragons, but sieges get into bombardment from above. It's interesting that this is well and thought of in OD&D's castle defenders, since it's a frequent complaint that castles would be useless against wizards and dragons; but if the castle's defenders are dropping boulders on wizards and using trebuchets to knock the dragons out of the sky, things start to make a lot more sense.

It also makes the Charm Monster spell a lot more essential - the next time you run into a roc, you should try and make it your party fighter's mount instead of killing it. That is the way it's done in the OD&D world.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On OD&D's Setting

(Credit here.)

The map from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival was the stated setting of original Dungeons & Dragons, and it's gotten a lot of love as a simple world for hexcrawling. If the hexes are 5 miles across, then it's about 175 miles by 180 miles - or 31,500 square miles, a heavily forested inland area that's around the size of South Carolina or the Czech Republic. Here is the description of this world:
The so-called Wilderness really consists of unexplored land, cities and castles, not to mention the area immediately surrounding the castle (ruined or otherwise) which housed the dungeons.
If you actually read the wilderness description in OD&D volume 3: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, it turns out that the implied details of the setting are weird. Fighters in castles demand to be jousted, magic-users cast Geas and send them out after treasure, clerics demand a tithe or send the characters on a Quest.

But the real weirdness, and this was apparently confirmed in Gary Gygax's campaigns, is what is there when you start wandering about the wilderness. Mountains are haunted by cavemen and necromancers; deserts are home of nomads and dervishes. The "Optional" animal listings turns swampland into the Mesozoic Era - rather than alligators and snakes it is full of tyrannosaurs and triceratops. Arid plains are Barsoomian, with banths, thoats, calots and the lot, while mountains are outright paleolithic, peopled by mammoths, titanotheres, mastodons, and sabre-tooth cats. Gygax confirms this:
When I was using the pre-World of Greyhawk map for my world setting, the West Coast of North America was the Pleistocene region inhabited by savage cavemen and their contemporary fauna.
This makes the Outdoor Survival map a truly wild place. That huge desert towards the center? That's running with weird creatures of Mars - and maybe Tharks, Red Martians and so on. The mountains surrounding them are the home of cavemen who hunt sabre-toothed cats. The marsh castle is overflown by pterodactyls - does its lord ride around on a triceratops?

Each type of region has its peculiarities. Only cities lack flying encounters, humanoids (labelled "giants" and including ents, elves, dwarves, and all humanoid and giant types in OD&D), animals and dragons. Lycanthropes haunt all but the deserts and the cities, while the undead are found mainly in cities and swamps. This is a truly wild land, and land for 20 miles distant from a character's stronghold can be kept clear of monsters just by holding the stronghold.

Clearing 20 miles in each direction from the swamp stronghold on the lower left would clear the entire swamp and a number of points in the surrounding forest. This area (assuming it's in hexagons) is 1,299 square miles, a bit bigger than Luxembourg, but it is almost depopulated; the average area will have 5 villages with an average of 250 inhabitants, meaning that there is slightly less than 1 person per square mile. That is slightly less than the population density of Alaska. Even with the maximum 3200 people it's still sparser than Wyoming by a factor of more than two. Presumably the whole village is in a single hex (area 21.65 square miles), and the remaining hexes are simply unpopulated.

Cities in such a place are probably small affairs. This is not the world of grand cosmopolitan wonders; it's downright post-apocalyptic and probably has a few thousand people per city. Trade is downright perilous, given that you're likely to run into dragons, or giant crabs if you follow the river, or many other horrid things.

But more and more I'm finding that I like the idea of this setting. It's radically different from, say, the more comfortable World of Greyhawk, or most other fantastic realms; it's a true outland, where civilization hangs on by a thread. It leaves open terrific possibilities; the nomads, dervishes, cavemen, and berserkers all live in the world around towns; so do centaurs and pixies and minotaurs. I want to start to go into what the oddities of this setting are, and how they fit; it's a good match for the concept of "Demon-Haunted Lands," which I'm seeing more and more as a way to make something unique out of this setting.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Get your bear coat on!

The original etymology of berserker comes from the Old Norse word berserkr, which meant "bear shirt" or "bear coat." It described the ferocious Viking warriors who would go into battle, some of them wearing the eponymous pelts of a bear instead of shirt or armor.

There are various hypotheses for what exactly gave them their ferocious rage, and exactly what that meant. OD&D interpreted it, and most clones follow, as a mere +2 to hit. I prefer Snorri Sturluson's description:

His (Odin's) men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang.
These berserkers, then, were not just ferocious but powerfully strong; in Swords & Wizardry I'd give them a 17 Strength and the attendant +2 to hit and damage. But that hardly lives up to these mythic warriors' reputation.

So for a tougher take on the berserker, I'd propose this: it's the bear shirt itself that has special properties. Snorri and other Norse writers were quite clear about the immunity to fire and iron, and I would play with that using the actual bearskin: when wearing the pelt of a bear or wolf, a berserker takes half damage from steel weapons (none from pure iron), and automatically saves versus fire attacks (taking no damage from mundane fire). At the same time, the bear shirt itself forces the warrior to fight until victory or death.

Not every berserker wears the coat. Indeed, it is a mark of high status since there are only two ways to obtain one: you can either slay the bear, or slay a berseker wearing a bear coat. Their preparation is only known in a few select cultures that produce such warriors, and takes several months to properly cure. The inside of the hide is laid in with runes against iron and fire, and the words that summon the bear's spirit into the wearer. Usually it is only the leaders and elite fighters of a berserker group who will wear the shirt.

If the bear coat is ever sold, it loses its magic. It embodies the victorious fighter's spirit, and exchanging money for such a coat destroys that at a glance. In some cases, when they are sold, the original bear may come back to haunt the buyer for their insult to its once-mighty fighting spirit. And it is angry.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dungeon Crawl #2 review!

Erik Tenkar over at Tenkar's Tavern put up a review of the second issue of Dungeon Crawl.

Information about buying the issue is available here.

Actual Play: Stonehell

As is typical on a Sunday, some thoughts from last night's Stonehell game.

1. I called for more saving throws in last night's session than I have in quite a while. The party thief was on the receiving end of far too many of them. He somehow managed to fail on all the nonlethal things (nonlethal poison, save or laugh uncontrollably for d6 turns) and nailed the save the one time it would've actually ended him.

2. Still love Stonehell kobolds, who I've been running as a cross of my own description of kobolds with Stonehell's janitorial staff kobolds. They don't actually have any interest in fighting and have become more concerned with extorting the PCs, who they consider unforgivably messy.

3. My players picked up on Stonehell's "Wheel of Fortune" to the point where they talked about "Vanna Whiting" when giving it a spin.

4. The difference between Labyrinth Lord's giant centipedes and Swords & Wizardry's giant centipedes is significant (1/2 HD and nonlethal poison versus 3 HD and lethal poison), and I couldn't understand why Michael had put them in the first level until I double-checked their entry in LL.

5. The party has been very smart about not engaging kobolds or giant rats in combat. This has meant that since the orc fight in the first session (where the orcs got surprise and rang a gong for reinforcements) they have outnumbered their opponents in just about every fight, which explains why nobody's been dying.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

First Impressions - Swords & Wizardry Monstrosities

With the hype of Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day this past Wednesday, one of my purchases was the 500+ page tome Monstrosities. I received the book in the mail today and have started to look it over.

Monstrosities is the second S&W monster book - the first came out a few years ago. It had a high number of monsters in a low page count, and was set off by not having a ton of illustrations. Monstrosities is different: it devotes a full page to each entry and provides an illustration and a sample encounter for every one of its 500+ monsters. Its heft means that it could be used pretty handily to off a first-level magic-user.

The creatures in Monstrosities are a good mix of OGC monsters and new monsters; the new entries are marked with the name of their author. Matt Finch has his share, and it includes some of his signature monsters like tunnel prawns* and shrooms (though oddly not the Pod-Men from Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom). There are also some great oddities - I noticed that Scott Casper's "Mechanism, Giant Robot" is everything I could've dreamed of in a D&D-clone giant robot. The mini-encounters are mostly well written, mostly appropriate for a hex crawl, and strung together would make a modestly interesting implied setting. My favorite so far is the kobolds, who ride atop a giant snapping turtle through the Sin Mire swamp.

A few gags are scattered through this lengthy tome. Much like in the 2e Monstrous Manual, the Invisible Stalker entry is accompanied by a plain white box instead of an illustration. There are not one but two entries for the grue and there are things that are just odd like the "toadawan masters," enlightened toad-men with hallucinogenic skin. I'm not sure what's going on there, but I'm tempted to have it speak like Yoda.

Overall the book's production is quality, the binding is good (important on a mammoth tome like this) and the art mostly shows up well. The one gripe I have is that there's a good deal of white space in the book, and not all in the good layout sense. Many of the entries are extremely short - the illustrations take up a bit more than a quarter of a page, and in some of the monster entries the text is considerably smaller. So the 2-page spread for "Goat, Giant" and "Goblin" has more white space than space taken up by text. The aggressively minimalist descriptions that make the core Swords & Wizardry Complete book work are a hindrance in Monstrosities. The book doesn't need a ton of filler, but even adding a paragraph to describe common monster tactics in combat would've been appreciated given the premium price (cover is $49.99, although Noble Knight has it for less, and includes PDF).

Despite that complaint, this is simply an indispensable tome for a referee running old-school D&D or any of its simulacra. It's a one-stop shop for hundreds of monsters both obscure and common, and provides at least one thoughtful idea about each monster. It's very much worth the price, especially if you get the PDF.

* Tunnel prawns are a great answer for the question, "what do they eat in the dungeon?" Why, tunnel prawn, of course! They've appeared in at least 3 monster books, including the OSRIC Monsters of Myth and both S&W monster books.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dwarves, the Other Dark Elves

Elves, as I discussed before, are intrinsically related to Faerie. As are hobbits. Completing the Tolkienesque trifecta, of course, means dwarves.

There are a few themes that run through the presentation of dwarves. One is that they're inexplicably Scottish (the dwarf in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions actually speaks in some Scots-influenced English) despite being plainly Norse in inspiration; another is that they're greedy, which is sort of cringe-inducing when you realize that Tolkien equated them with Jews; and third is that they live underground and like axes and hammers.

In Norse myth, dvergar (dwarves) are sometimes equated with svartálfar (black elves) or dökkálfar (dark elves). They are the opposite side of elves, and somehow have gotten the reputation that they are carved from stone. I have something a bit different in mind.

Unlike elves, dwarves don't study magic. That's because they did something different from the elves, who stayed out of Faerie and in the world of light - hence the name "light elves." The dark elves rebelled, abjuring both the Faerie realm and the world of light above, instead choosing a world of darkness - the world beneath the ground. This was long ago, before it began to be claimed by the underworld. Instead of learning the magical arts, the faeries in this sunless world channeled all their energies into creating works of beauty with stone and metal.

In the process, the dark elves became shorter, stouter and more like the earth they worked. Their hands, initially fine as gossamer, became heavy and work-worn. They grew beards, and their songs became deep and bassy, and their aspects became less attractive. The inherent magic remaining in them makes them hard targets for sorcery. They grew hardy but strange to the faeries living above. Yet the child of a dwarven couple looks remarkably like that of an elf, and if raised by elves may recover some of the fae aspects.

Artifacts of the dwarven masters are inherently magical items, and many of the +1 swords and the like are of dwarvish make, rather than being enchanted. The oldest and greatest artisans turn out masterworks that humans would weep to see because of their beauty. Yet a dwarven master sacrifices much: becoming a master smith means forsaking the light world above forever and dedicating oneself solely to the dark world beneath. These dwarves lose their abilities to craft magical items if they are touched by even a ray of sunlight. Adventuring dwarves are youths, who have yet to truly become one with the world beneath.

Dwarves therefore are very protective of the world below. Legend says that the Dwarven Lords of old created the gnomes, using the last of their ancient magic to invest a few dwarven children with the ability to prevent the dungeons from growing beneath the earth. These gnomes are periodically born to dwarven parents, and can be told immediately because of their shock of white hair. They call them "cousins" but in reality the gnomes are the children of dwarves, often literally.

It is a frequent misperception of dwarves that they are a dying race. The truth is, settlements that humans see are minor outposts. In order to prevent the underworld from consuming the great dwarven kingdoms, they had to cut their cities off from the world above. They can only be accessed through special paths that only the dwarves know. Yet even these paths bring a danger, the edge of Chaos can still seep through...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

You should do something about that cough...

The last of the supplement rules where I'd sort of like to see some equivalent in Swords & Wizardry, aside from artifacts and sages, is disease rules. This is another area where Blackmoor and the Dungeon Masters Guide both have guidelines. The DMG's is much more general - area effected, chronic or acute, and severity - while Blackmoor gives guidelines for realistic diseases such as grippe (flu), cholera, typhus, malaria, the bubonic plague, and so on.

The older system is by far the better. It presents each disease with what is likely to carry it - so you'd actually have flea-bitten plague rats, you'd be more likely to get malaria or yellow fever in a mosquito-infested swamp, typhus during a siege, cholera or dysentery from bad water, tuberculosis in a city, and so on.

I've long felt that disease rules were frequently neglected, despite being constantly on the edge of utility in the game. You have Cure Disease and Disease spells, cursed scrolls cause disease, giant rats have a chance to give you diseases, and you're walking around in an underground world that has to have some nasty germs and so forth in it. But I think it's not seen as "heroic" enough to have disease rules; after all, what good is a fighter if they just get typhus and die in a siege?

But in the real world, by far the biggest killer during wars before the 20th century was disease. In no small part this is because wars were mostly composed of marching, camping and sieges, with a few pitched battles at key moments. So to me at least, it's interesting to have some good disease rules, and I think in part the rarity of the Blackmoor supplement hurt things, since its simple and interesting rules got lost in the shift to AD&D.

One very interesting fact about Blackmoor is its treatment of Cure Disease. Several diseases state outright that you only catch them once: you never get a second bout of the black plague, and you're only at risk to die of dysentery the first time, for instance. But Cure Disease doesn't remove the possibility; you haven't fought off the illness, it was just removed, and you can be susceptible to it again. Of course a further Cure Disease would work, but it makes for an interesting dynamic: taking a risk with a particular disease can get you immunity from it thereafter.

Another fascinating one is that a character who dies of leprosy can't be raised using Raise Dead. Considering that the rules give it to mummies, it makes them absolute terrors, able to cause a meaningful permanent death. Grippe, on the other end of the spectrum, is only fatal 2% of the time and is suggested as the opposite of Cure Light Wounds. I love the idea of an anti-cleric being able to touch a PC and give them the flu.

I do think a good set of herbalism rules alongside Blackmoor-style disease rules would make for a great pseudo-medieval disease set-up: characters get sick and often go to wise healers rather than just clerics. The right herbs and so on should enhance the survival roll, sometimes significantly. Likewise, things such as Bless spells and various superstitious rituals should lower the chances of actually contracting disease.

One aspect that the Blackmoor and DMG rules never touch on is demihumans. I think that it's much more interesting if elves and dwarves are immune to some diseases, hyper-sensitive to others, and have special diseases that humans can't get. For instance, a wasting disease among elves that causes them to raise as banshees or a fungus found deep in mines that absorbs and takes over dwarven flesh is a way to put a fantastic twist on this. Constitution likewise should come into play in survival.

I think that the rules we pick show what we're interested in. Disease rules show that you want to have a grittier fantasy world, in a very low fantasy register. They're heavily implied in the D&D rules, and I think that ignoring them (as many groups did and do) is one of the things that pushes the game into a high fantasy mode. This is true of a lot of the less popular subsystems in the older editions, which reinforced a particular vibe that the game's creators enjoyed but players looking for D&D to be Lord of the Rings or later epic fantasy did not.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

S&W Bonus #4: Vespertilians (Bat-Men of the Moon)

I had talked back in February about the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. Well, there was an adaptation of the bat-men of the moon that I've got written up, which will be published when I finally actually put out the adventure - I have some notes but other projects and frequent blogging have gotten in the way. In the mean time, for S&W Appreciation Day: the Vespertilians.


Hit Dice: 1d6 or by class
Armor Class: 8 [11]
Attacks: 1d2 or by weapon
Saving Throw: 18
Special: None
Move: 9/6 (flying)
Alignment: Law
Challenge Level/XP: B/10

Vespertilians are a species of humanoids that dwell on the lunar surface. They are covered in fur save for their faces, and have bat-like wings that extend under their arms and down their torsos to their legs. Vespertilians vary in height from 4’ to 6’ and in coloration from dark brown to a light blonde. They are uncivilized but fairly intelligent and live in relative harmony; a vespertilian eats primarily fruits and is rarely armed. They do not form mated pairs and will frequently intermingle between different small tribal groups. 10% of any encountered will be shamans who operate as a 3rd level cleric. Vespertilians are unable to fly, and become uncommonly weak (Strength 4) if taken to a world with Earth-like gravity.

S&W Bonus #3: The Taggbjörn

In making Dungeon Crawl #2's monsters, I had a backup creature in case I didn't get all the art I wanted. It's a little bit in the style of the monsters from Geoff McKinney's Isle of the Unknown. I did get it. And since S&W Appreciation Day is rocking on toast so far, here's your third bonus: the Taggbjörn converted to S&W stats.


Hit Dice: 6
Armor Class: 4 [15]
Attacks: 2 thorn whips (1d6 each), 1 bite (2d6)
Saving Throw: 11
Special: Entangle, Thorns
Move: 12
Alignment: Chaos
Challenge Level/XP: 7/600

The fearsome taggbjörn is a large creature like a large brown bear, save that long, plant-like thorns sprout from its skin and are visible through its fur. These are sharp to the touch, and do 1-4 damage to anything coming in contact with the bear. The fur varies in color, and is usually brown but with patches of green. It is bipedal, and from under the wrist of each of its forearms grows a thick vine-like whip, covered in thorns. Any creature successfully hit by these whips must save or be caught and drawn towards the taggbjörn, which then uses its powerful bite to kill. The whips prevent it from using its claws as weapons. Each of the two whips can withstand individually 2d8 points of damage if a character attempts to cut through them. This damage is not done to the taggbjörn directly.

S&W Bonus #2: Pit Traps!

Since everyone's having so much fun with S&W Appreciation Day, here are some charts to liven up your pit traps. Not terrifically S&W specific but hey, I like trap charts.

The tables below are intended to put some variety into the standard pit traps that one encounters from time to time in dungeons. Roll once on table 1 for the pit depth, once on table 2 for the dimensions, once on table 3 for what is covering the pit, and once on table 4 to determine any special features.

Table 1: Depth of Pit
01-105 feet (1d2 damage)
11-5010 feet (1d6 damage)
51-6515 feet (1d6 damage)
66-8020 feet (2d6 damage)
81-9025 feet (2d6 damage)
91-9930 feet (3d6 damage)
00Infinite (characters fall “forever”)

Table 2: Width and Length of Pit
01-102 feet by 2 feet (victims may become stuck)
11-305 feet by 5 feet
31-5010 feet by 5 feet
51-8010 feet by 10 feet
81-9010 feet by 20 feet
91-0010 feet by 30 feet

Table 3: Trap Covering
01-10Open pit
11-30Trap Door, Stays Open
31-40Trap Door, Resets after 1d6 turns
41-50Wood (only triggered if more than 200 lbs weight is above pit)
51-60Glass (shatters if more than 100 lbs weight is above pit)
61-70Loose stone (crumbles to reveal pit beneath)
71-80Sliding section of stone (moves away; resets itself after 1d6 turns)
81-90Cloth covering (canvas or other fabric; goes into the pit first)
91-95Illusion of actual floor (can be disbelieved if pole or other object goes through)
96-00Solid stone; magically disintegrated if more than 200 lbs above pit.

Table 4: Special Features
01-35Bare Floor
36-45Spikes, Wooden (add 1d4 damage)
46-65Spikes, Metal (add 1d6 damage)
66-70Spikes, Metal, Poisoned (add 1d6 damage + poison)
71-80Animal (consult Table 5)
91-00Filled (consult Table 6)

Table 5: Animals in Trap
01-30Rats, Normal (2-12)
30-50Rats, Giant (1-6)
51-60Lizards, Giant (1-2)
61-70Beetles, Giant (2-8)
71-80Insect Swarm (various)
81-85Snakes, Cobra (1-4)
86-90Snakes, Vipers (1-4)
91-95Killer Bees (2-12)
96-00Bear, Black (1)

Table 6: Filled Traps
01-50Water, Normal (if deeper than 5 feet, armored characters may drown unless rescued)
51-55Water, Icy (1d2 damage / turn from hypothermia until victim leaves)
56-60Water, Boiling (1d6 damage / round until victim leaves)
61-65Water, Contaminated (10% cumulative chance / round of catching disease)
66-70Tar (extremely sticky, takes 2 turns / individual to extract if possible)
71-75Acid (1d3 damage / round, destroys wood, leather etc in 1 round, metal in 1 turn)
76-80Poisonous liquid
81-85Gray Ooze
86-90Green Slime
91-95Ochre Jelly
96-00Black Pudding

S&W Bonus: Grug Beetles

So as a brief bonus for S&W Appreciation Day, here's the Grug Beetle from Dungeon Crawl #2 adapted for Swords & Wizardry:

Beetle, Grug

Hit Dice: 1
Armor Class: 5 [14]
Attacks: Bite (1d4)
Saving Throw: 17
Special: Poison (slows)
Move: 12
Alignment: Neutrality
Challenge Level/XP: 2/30

The grug beetle is a giant beetle about 1½’ long found only in underground environments, and feast on carrion and excrement found there. Their hard carapaces are similar in color to the floors or walls of their habitat, growing more so as they reach maturity, when they seem to “blend in” with their surroundings. This allows grug beetles to surprise on 1-3 on 1d6.

Grug beetles are most notorious for their oily secretions. A character bitten by a grug beetle, or touching the trail they leave behind, must make a saving throw (add +2 to the throw). For the next 4-24 turns (1d6x4), characters failing this roll become horribly clumsy and take -2 to normal attacks, -4 to missile attacks, and are unable to perform thieving skills or cast magic-user spells.

The nest of a group of grug beetles will be constructed from the sort of detritus that often exists in caverns and dungeons, and is saturated with its oil. Attempting to sort through it will inevitably result in a character being exposed to it. Grug beetles are highly territorial in their areas and will be natural enemies of other insects and vermin of the dungeon.

Art by D.L. Johnson: Iron Image Industries / Art of D.L. Johnson

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Swords & Wizardry

Let me begin this post with a confession: I did not start out loving Swords & Wizardry. When it was first announced, I was excited for a very specific reason. I was running original Dungeons & Dragons based on the original booklets, which are collectibles. I needed a resource that would let me stop using the OD&D books and run with something a bit cheaper, in case pizza got on the booklets. Since most of my gaming is over Google+ these days it's even more imperative; I don't want to have a game where players need to hunt down an original D&D boxed set just to roll up a PC or look up a spell - especially considering that at the time I allowed spells from Greyhawk, a very expensive supplement.

For those of us who read Philotomy's Musings and the OD&D revival, the lacunae and oddities of the OD&D game made it into less of a complete game and more of a framework, something like a model kit that people could assemble their own games from and fill in their own ideas. From that perspective, S&W wasn't an acceptable substitute. It was a game all its own, with little idiosyncrasies of its own, and different rules - the thing that stuck out to me was that it originally had d6 initiative a la Moldvay but no OD&D surprise rules. (Those were added back in later.) It was like a model kit that was partly assembled.

It was the realization of what Matt Finch did with S&W Complete that brought me around. This was not, no matter how it's labelled, a simulacrum or retro-clone; it was something different, a distillation. It's missing a couple of things - artifacts, sage rules, an adventure on par with "Temple of the Frog" in Blackmoor - but the important thing is that S&W Complete takes the good from the OD&D supplements and leaves the rest on the floor, and bolts those parts onto a straightforward and light framework. It still has its idiosyncrasies, but these become forgivable when you are using it as a system in its own right and not a replacement for OD&D.

In actual play, S&W Complete is something like "AD&D Lite." This is what OD&D plus material from Supplements I-III is sometimes described as, but it's a very rough-edged version. S&W Complete is a more refined one, with nice and straightforward initiative rules and none of the things like hit location, weapon vs armor charts or other oddities that are introduced if you try and use the actual supplement booklets. There are also improvements, such as the treasure system; initially I was hesitant about it but further investigation shows that it's got one big advantage on treasure tables: every monster can have treasure generated for it, no matter what game you adapt it from. It makes adaptation much easier and more flexible with the treasure.

The golden age of D&D was from 1974 to 1979, and while S&W isn't an exact recreation of those rules, it captures them in a way that makes them immediately accessible. In many ways I think that's more valuable than the "game creation kit" approach that I had hoped for back when it first came out; it's hard to overstate how nice it is to have the core classes, races, spells and rules I want all in a single volume. Plus it's got a terrific community and an easy overlap with the OD&D community.

S&W Core is a good light experience, but to me S&W Complete is the real deal - a robust but rules light game capturing everything that was good about mid-late '70s D&D in a single game. Nobody had ever done that before, in any TSR edition or any of the so-called clones. There's work that can be done with it, but it's overall the best framework out there today.

Today only you can buy products from Frog God Games, including S&W Complete and resources for it, at 25% off. Use the code SWApprDay for the discount. You can also buy S&W PDFs from the d20pfSRD Store at 25% off using code SWAD252013.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Backstory, Actual Play and "Show, Don't Tell"

I want to talk briefly about how two fiction writing adages apply to RPGs. One is illustrated figuratively by the picture to the right: the idea that a well-developed character or story is like an iceberg, where only 10% actually appears above the surface. The rest is the backstory that the writer knows but the reader doesn't. There are two ways that RPG products can take this, and it's worth talking about both.

On the one hand, you should probably show more than 10% of the iceberg, since it's not clear which 10% will be above the water in actual play. On the other, there is often a lot of backlash - for instance if a standard adventure module contains more than a page of background, reviewers will complain about the amount of time spent on this. I think what's important is that the authors want to show off a complex backstory behind the dungeon, while reviewers want game-relevant information.

That's why I think a second writing adage is even more important to RPG writing: "show, don't tell." What this means in gaming terms is that detail should be given in a form that has a reasonable chance to appear in actual play. A long and loving history of a dungeon is fine, if it is presented in terms of places, objects, encounters or magical effects that show off what that history is. For instance, I've fed bits of Stonehell history through the dwarven architect Snorri Broadshoulders, and found that the murals and statues and weird encounters do a good job of giving an impression of the place. But 6 or 8 pages of pure backstory would never make it into play, or at best inspire sporadic bits.

I would also say that good gaming material has another adage that doesn't apply for fiction writing. That is: hint but leave some things open. Think of how many fledgling referees cut their dungeon-designing teeth on the reference to the Cave of the Unknown in B2 Keep on the Borderlands. For me this is the key to good game writing; a backstory should hint at legendary things, when possible ones with evocative names, that referees and players can fill in with their own imaginations. You may not know what exactly a Wind Duke is or where Aaqa lies, but a single reference to the Wind Dukes of Aaqa (in the Artifacts section of the Dungeon Masters Guide) creates fertile land for imagination.

On the whole, the products I've enjoyed most give me some depth but with lots of room to grow. Depth should be selective with a heavy emphasis on things that will appear in play. After all, what good is showing me as the referee the deep layers of the iceberg without giving me a way to show it to my players?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Some More Thoughts on Stonehell

Some points after a second session.

1. One of the strengths of the dungeon is the way the factions are laid out. I particularly love the kobolds, who have started to get tired of the PCs leaving dead orcs all over the dungeon. Stonehell's kobolds are pretty much dungeon janitors, which is just fun. One got a bit short tempered and offered to let the PC dwarf, Tybar Thunderaxe, test the trap they were working on. The NPC dwarves are also great, I rolled them again on a wandering monster check. Snorri Broadshoulders is offended that the orcs thought he was allied with Tybar.

2. The party has survived pretty well, largely because they haven't been attacking giant rats, fire beetles or kobolds when they're encountered. Of course that means that they aren't searching those rooms, but it's an interesting trade-off.

3. I may have to sub out the crypt contents chart for the one I used in Dungeon Crawl #2. Level 1B is a bit of a grind.

Overall I'm still really enjoying Stonehell. I'm thinking that things are going to change more as they get further down, both with the existing factions and one or two new twists I intend to introduce. (Not to mention some large-scale reworking in some of the lower floors.)

Side note: ever since I was in high school, I've had a set of these dice from the Middle-Earth card game in the '90s. One of them is always my wandering monster die.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

On saving throws

The most popular article I've ever written on this blog is Save vs. Death Ray!. I love the fact that OD&D and the B/X line of Dungeons & Dragons had that saving throw category. But I've actually come to like Swords & Wizardry's single unified saving throw despite that.

What was important about saving throws in every TSR edition of D&D, and what's been copied along in most of the OSR games, is that characters improve their saving throws in absolute terms as they increase in level. A 9th level fighter is more likely to save versus any spell than a 1st level fighter. This is a significant factor in how TSR editions of Dungeons & Dragons made spellcasters less dominant. When the same spells were given in 3.x D&D, but with saves that get harder based on caster level, it made them more powerful. This was a serious design flaw, which helped contribute to casters being overpowered.

But the real reason I like S&W's saving throw is that it provides a good analog for the saving roll from Tunnels & Trolls. T&T had the unified saving throw 33 years before S&W did, although it was one based on the character's luck stat rather than their class and level, and it served as a handy roll for anything the referee or module designer felt was needed. While this isn't quite a universal mechanic, it's simple and flexible and good for many things other than dragon breath and death rays.

For instance, a saving throw with a Strength bonus may be used for when a PC is trying to hang on to a bar or ledge, while one with a Dexterity bonus could be used as a quick dodge roll. A particularly bad idea may call for a saving throw adjusted by Wisdom if the referee wants to be particularly kind. In more traditional D&D I've tried using the 5-category saving throws like this, but players get very antsy when you tell them to save versus dragon breath, and it loses the novelty after the second or third time. Other than dragon breath and death ray they don't generalize well and don't allow for enough interesting use cases, where a catch-all saving throw allows a blank canvas to invent uses.

Of course, some people and games like the Luck stat that T&T has, and I can't really blame them. But I think S&W's single save has more potential the longer I think about it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

AD&D Second Edition, Nostalgia and Missed Opportunities

A lot of detractors look at the Old School Renaissance and old school gaming in general as some kind of weird nostalgia trip. It was never that way for me, because I was born about ten years too late for early '80s D&D to have any nostalgia value for me. The first RPG book I ever purchased was the AD&D Second Edition Players Handbook, although I was utterly confused by it until I played through the introductory solo adventure and then a single session game of the 1991 Dungeons & Dragons basic set (the "black box" set with Zanzer's Dungeon and lots of cardboard standups). After that, I ran and played in AD&D second edition in a continuous string of campaigns through middle school and high school, including Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Al-Qadim games. The last 2e campaign I played in was a Dark Sun game that converted to 3e and then fell apart right after that was released. I never converted to 3e.

Now AD&D second edition is getting the premium re-release treatment. Unfortunately it's going to be using the awful "2.5e" versions. Released in 1995, these do not contain any rule changes, they are just new printings of the books that had poor full-color art throughout – the original printings had full-page paintings but most art was either black & white or blue.

Later in high school, when I got into Greyhawk, I switched to the first edition DMG. That really was what got me into old school gaming, as well as (via the famous Appendix N) reading more sword & sorcery and less crappy Dragonlance tie-in novels. It seems cliché to say that Leiber, Moorcock, Anderson, Howard, Vance and Lovecraft are favorites of mine, but quality shines through.

The fact that 2e was basically written to get Gary Gygax's name off the cover and stop paying him royalties has always irked me. I like certain things about 2e, for instance I thought THAC0 was fine, and showed which of my friends were good at doing subtraction in their head. Its initiative system was actually one of my favorites, and when I ran I used 2e style initiative with weapon speeds, spell casting times and all. There's no segment crap in 2e, just 1d10 + modifiers, and it worked really well in practice. The proficiency system is terribly lame but I've always used d20 roll-under attribute checks; it just works smoothly.

Second edition was a world of missed opportunities and bad priorities. The Dungeon Masters Guide was damn-nigh useless, because all the good advice had been cut and moved into the DMGR books. Nobody told us at the time, so we just had a book full of neat magic items that told us to be extremely stingy with them, and a game with a ton of combat rules that told us not to use them either. 2e never was comfortable with dungeons and made dragons so big that they were not realistic enemies - so you were left with a game called "Advanced &."

The game lines of the time had some really good worldbuilding. Most of it went to waste, though. Dark Sun was a neat idea for a world that was immediately turned upside-down by metaplot. Greyhawk got trashed and then got a pretty neat revamp only to be cancelled because senior management hated Gary Gygax. Forgotten Realms, which in the 1e releases was not an awful setting, was ruined by a stream of absolutely sub-par releases. Planescape was marred by the awful "cant" writing and the bowdlerized names of the demons and devils. Birthright was an excellent setting that got tied to a bad set of domain management rules and sunk by the worst business model ever, trying to sell modules for individual PC realms. Ravenloft was a cliché storm, and Al-Qadim had some solid releases, but was a limited line.

The problem was, second edition AD&D was never ambitious. It had no direction, and got very badly bloated by supplemental material. The "2.5e" Player's Option books were uneven and wildly mixed in quality; Skills & Powers was guaranteed to break campaigns while Combat & Tactics introduces 3e-style fiddly combat; the spell point system in Spells & Magic didn't work but some of the classes and new spells were okay. Modules got very railroad-heavy, and dungeon design degenerated into the straight lines that were later seen in 3e. The game wanted to be a generic high fantasy RPG but was still loaded down with baggage from the dungeon crawling first edition.

So I'm going to pass on the second edition reprints, the first real "nostalgia" books for me. The basic rules aren't awful and would do in a pinch, but I have them; and for me the nostalgia is mostly about trying to hack a game that didn't work like the books told you to run it.

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day, April 17

You may know that a ridiculously large portion of the old school blogosphere will be participating in Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day next Wednesday, April 17. Exactly what the other 119 or so blogs will be doing, I'm not sure, but I will be posting about S&W Complete, which is what I'm now using to run Stonehell.

Erik Tenkar hasn't listed it yet but I will be giving a free copy of Dungeon Crawl #2 in PDF to a randomly selected participant. This is just one of a seeming cavalcade of freebies and bonuses that folks will get for participating.

On the 17th itself, Frog God Games and the d20pfsrd shop will be offering a coupon code good for 25% off of Swords & Wizardry products that day. May be a good day to pick up something like Rappan Athuk, a megadungeon published for S&W as well as Pathfinder. I'll share the discount code as soon as I have it.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tricksy Hobbitses

I usually spend a bit of time talking about the mythic history of various monsters and races I'm discussing. But you know where the halfling comes from, it's obvious. In the 5th printing of OD&D and earlier, they were called hobbits, and "halfling" is a word that also appears in Tolkien's published writings. It's a patent gloss and frankly I refuse to give it any credibility, much less the attempts by WotC editions of D&D to reimagine them.

So is it weird that hobbits are sort of benevolent versions of the Daoine Sidhe? I mean, both are an old, diminutive race of beings, who live in hollow mounds, and have faded as humans come into being. The "people of the mounds" indeed - but Tolkien who had a soft spot for the faerie race tamed them and made them proper domestic English people. They reflect his idyllic vision of a pre-modern society instead of proper faeries, just like his elves.

Whereas elves are a people who live on the edge between the mortal and faerie worlds, in danger of slipping into it as they grow in power, hobbits are the faeries who chose the world, and diminution, and ultimately mortality. The hobbit communities are indeed built on the "mounds" of rolling wild plains, and individual hobbits can seem essentially like short humans. But there is another side to them.

Every hobbit is in some way "fae-touched." (This is a whole category of abilities and drawbacks in Demon-Haunted Lands.) The most common manifestation of this is their ability to go mostly invisible in woods or underbrush, or even difficult to see in other surroundings. This semi-invisibility is common but not universal; other hobbits have abilities similar to the druid spell faerie fire or the ability to charm animal on natural creatures.

While hobbits are largely civil and polite beings, they have a love for riddles and tricks and minor traps. This is why hobbits make such proficient burglars, after all. (And seriously even if I ran B/X I'd allow hobbit thieves.) But their idyllic and rural lives are periodically interrupted by the Wild Hunt, which seldom happens even once in a lifetime for most hobbits. In this ancient rite their latent bestial fae side comes to life and hobbits change, growing horns or otherwise becoming part fae as an elf. Unlike the elf's fae marks, for hobbits these things change back over a period of weeks and the hobbit becomes "normal" again - but diminished and lessened, often losing any will to do anything but tend to their homes and gardens. The Hunt itself is a mass frenzy the likes of which no human has ever experienced, pure joy singing through the blood as the chase is joined, followed by the rapture of the final capture and kill. No one who is the target of a Wild Hunt has been known to survive.

So the next time you see a homebody old hobbit, remember - he may have seen things you can only dream of.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Weirding Up Your Elves

Jeff Rients said on G+ yesterday: "ELVES GROW HORNS AT FOURTH LEVEL." This was a reference to the illustration by Bill Willingham above, which shows a character who just might have horns. (It's always possible that she is wearing a horned helmet but that's just not as fun.) This appeared on the first page of the Expert Set, which provoked Rients's observation: in the Basic Set they have pointy ears but in the Expert Set (levels 4+) there are horned characters. And it's had me thinking.

The problem with elves is that so many damn variants on the same basic idea have been done. Celtic myth, Scandinavian myth, and various fictional sources have all been mined to hell and back. Elves out of Tolkien, elves out of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, elves in Runequest are considered plants.

I'm thinking that elves might be something different still. I've been developing this concept of Faerie, a place that is the utterly weird home of the beings like those from folklore and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is something of a wonderland that has its own rules, a shifting landscape, utter beauty and extreme dangers often side by side. And more and more I've wanted elves to be connected to that realm.

I think Jeff's concept of elves who get weirder each level meshes very well with this. Elves start out nearly human; I'm tempted to say that either elves or half-elves are actually changelings, left for humans to raise. They are short, though, and by learning a single spell their ears change into the pointy elf ears that we all know. Gaining further levels in a magic-using class (whether as a Fighter/Magic-User multiclass, straight up M-U or a B/X style Elf class) takes them a step further from ordinary humans.

Sometimes the signs are odd abilities: perhaps elves gain the ability to see other colors of light, or some of their characteristic abilities like immunity to sleep and charm spells and ghoul paralysis. Elves who travel in dungeons gain the ability to know, not through keen eyesight but through a weird connection with the dungeon, where a secret door is located. Perhaps at higher levels they become more synchronized with the underworld, able to sense its rhythms and know if a monster is around a corner, or are able to open stuck doors without an Open Doors check.

Periodically this comes out as a physical phenomenon - the elf grows horns, or vestigial wings (perhaps at a higher level they become functional), or their feet fuse into cloven hoofs. Other elves become achingly beautiful (increase in Charisma, perhaps) and project an aura of awe that makes low-HD monsters check versus morale or flee. Ultimately they make the trip back to Faerie, no longer fit for the mortal world.

The other facet of all this is that I listed this entry under the "monster" tag intentionally. I think elves, especially at higher levels as they become more like the fae, can make for excellent encounters. They are haughty but beautiful, strange and defend points of honor that are incomprehensible to mortals. They consider PC elves to be "impure," tainted by living among humans. Not necessarily a combat encounter, but possibly one that will have some confrontation in it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sages and Various Know-It-Alls

Yesterday I mentioned that artifacts are one of the things that I miss having rules for in S&W Complete. Of course I still have Eldritch Wizardry and the DMG and all, but it's a rule I feel enriches the game. Another is the sage, which was introduced in Blackmoor, per Dan Boggs as a PC class but made an NPC by Tim Kask, and had a much more thorough treatment in the DMG. The original sage rules gave the sage a basic and sub-category, rules for a Sage's Guild, and a table that returned chances that the sage would know a question. It's simple, even if in the original rules it's ludicrously expensive with prices given in the 50,000 to 100,000 GP range.

Having the ability to hire out a sage in an RPG is tremendously useful, both in terms of play and for the referee. For the players, the reasons should be pretty obvious: it's a basic way to get information about spells, monsters, enemies, weird locations, artifacts and so on. It's something I don't see enough of and feel should be a standard part of good D&D play. Rather than going off into an unknown tomb, research its history and anything known about its creator - this can be almost as useful as Library Use in Call of Cthulhu.

But in the referee's case, a sage is a golden opportunity to add more depth to the world the players are exploring. So many RPG products give the referee a wealth of details which vanish after a 10-minute fight kills the NPC or monster. A sage is a golden opportunity to run much of that background into the game without giving up spoilers or simply having the PCs sit through a history lecture. That long introduction to the adventure has a use, but it's buried in the back of Supplement II.

As with artifacts, sages offer a great way to get bits of the impression that the setting is really deep even if it isn't. It also allows non-magical books to be a really potentially valuable part of a treasure hoard: that book Trees of the Northeastern Flanaess might not get most PCs' juices flowing but a sage with an interest in botany may trade some research on a more interesting subject for a copy. Of course such concepts should be limited - in an RPG such an ability should not be able to be exploited, and ticking off a sage can create some justifiable ire and future problems when the characters want information.

In Blackmoor, sages are explicitly stated to be part of a guild, which looks after its members and has rules about unjustly firing a sage once employed. I like this wrinkle and think it adds to the default fantasy world that characters live and interact in; it makes sure that characters don't abuse these interesting NPCs. And a sage also has a death curse, which is just awesome - death curses are something I've been interested in for a while. It's a great way to make NPC death meaningful.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Artifacts, Mythology and Impression of Depth

As I've been thinking about Swords & Wizardry for the upcoming appreciation day, one of the few things that S&W Complete didn't use from the OD&D supplements that I'd actually want in a game was the artifacts from Eldritch Wizardry. For me, artifacts were always an excellent part of the shared mythology of Dungeons & Dragons; having started with the 1991 set and gone on to AD&D 2e, the artifacts were the most colorful and interesting parts of the DMG. Of course it told you basically not to use them, which meant that in my earliest games I wanted to use them. Later when I got involved in online communities they provided one of the touchstones of stuff that every gamer knew and shared in some way. Even today you should recognize that the picture for this post is the Hand of Vecna.

One of the important things that artifacts provided for the game was the creation of the illusion that the world has a rich history behind it even if it doesn't. Not every fantasy world should require the depth of imagined material as Glorantha or Tékumel or Middle-Earth, Hârn or the Forgotten Realms. As much as I love reading fantasy setting material, I think worlds with sketchier backgrounds are better for some kinds of gaming when not everybody needs a strong familiarity with years (in many cases, now decades) of intricate detail.

In some cases, less is more. I don't know what a wind Duke is, or where and what Aaqa is, but the Wind Dukes of Aaqa that I invented in my head on hearing the name are cooler than the ones detailed out in the late '90s by Wizards of the Coast employees. Just like the Clone Wars I imagined as a kid are better than any media adaptation of them from 2002 onward. It takes a master storyteller to get something legendary really right, and having a mediocre version is sometimes worse than having a vague legend that you fill in yourself.

I like artifacts in a couple of other, more game-related senses. First, they transcend the concept of the "typical" magic item and become special because of their uniqueness. The fact that a good artifact should have at least some downside really reinforces this: magic is something special, not a sort of technology. Second, they are good for higher-level play, giving a viable goal aside from gaining levels and getting treasure. Since they are legendary, they let characters connect and become legends of their own through their deeds - rather than just rich and possibly famous.

Exactly what artifacts are has been discussed before; relics are kind of an odd subject. Of course "relics" are physical pieces of saints, such as bones, teeth and hair. For instance, Roland's sword Durendal was supposed to have a tooth, blood and some hair from various saints as well as a piece of the Virgin Mary's garments in its hilt. Such things can give mystery to an artifact, but not necessarily act as one itself, unless like Vecna's hand it's a whole body part. (At this point I would be remiss not to link to the Head of Vecna.)

One question on artifacts that's interesting to me is the way they are presented in the AD&D 1e Dungeon Master's Guide. Each artifact is presented with a number of power "slots" for the referee to fill out on their own. In a way I like this, since it means that artifact powers remain a mystery even to players who have the books. That can be a hard thing to do, although it does strip out some flavor. I'd probably prefer a hybrid solution, with some "set" powers and some "open" powers, so that the artifacts retain their mystery but have flavor appropriate abilities and drawbacks. It certainly beats the way magic items ended up in later editions.

So I think some artifacts will be part of Dungeon Crawl #3. If there is enough interest over time, I'd like to put out a whole booklet full of the things, complete with new tables and rules for artifact powers. It seems like they're just a missing part of the OSR field at this point.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Brief notes: actual play in Stonehell

Some short thoughts on running Stonehell last night.

1. Two encounters with giant rats were neatly avoided by the PCs distracting them with food. I enjoyed that aspect, particularly because actually running that many giant rats in combat would've been either a TPK or a slog.

2. By pure coincidence, in my Holmes game I had run an encounter with a dwarven archaeologist mapping the dungeon, and since the PCs ran into Snorri Broadshoulders I wound up running another in Stonehell. It was also a nice opportunity to give some of the dungeon's history and an impression of it.

3. Stonehell's vision of kobolds is pretty compatible with mine: instead of being little guerrilla warriors, they're the dungeon's janitors. This meant that the first four encounters were non-combat, which was promptly fixed with encounter #5.

4. I love that the orcs in room 16 of level 1A got to ring a gong for backup. Built up a nice sense of dread, because the party had almost won when the orcish reinforcements came. One orc got away, which is always good for potential.

5. A player wound up playing a monk and noted that their powers were fairly imbalanced in S&W Complete. The orc captain in room 14 of level 1A had a philosophical disagreement with this, and used his battle axe to demonstrate that the monk's low hit points balance things out. The party now has a druid.

Overall, I enjoyed how Swords & Wizardry Complete ran, and I thought Stonehell offered some nice encounters. Only the monk died. Stonehell overall is a bit stingy with treasure and I may fix that a little bit as time goes on.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Stonehell as Centerpiece

I'm currently preparing to run a new game that will be using Stonehell as its "tent pole", and I've been thinking a lot about what I want to do with the module. As a referee I have very rarely used modules in the past, and one of the things I've always talked about on this blog is the difficulties of publishing megadungeons. Stonehell was the first OSR megadungeon to come out, and is generally excellent. There are some quadrants I'm less fond of than others - I don't really care much for the "monster dorm" on level 3 - but overall I think it's a very viable basis to use as the center of a campaign.

Any fan of older D&D should know instinctively where Stonehell goes. Level 0, the box canyon with the opening of Stonehell, fits very neatly over the map of the Caves of Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands. I'm not the only one who has noticed this, and following it through the wilderness map of KotB seems to be the perfect place to actually locate Stonehell. As needed I'll be able to expand the wilderness map with other places of interest pilfered from here and there; for instance if the players want to go to a town I have Verbosh.

One of the things I love about Stonehell is how it solved the basic problem of flipping back and forth by putting the room keys on the same two-page spreads as the quadrant maps. With modules it's terribly inconvenient to actually use the room keys when they're separate from the map, and a lot of recent modules don't use the TSR folder format so you often have to flip back and forth between key and map, or photocopy/print the map, or have the PDF open on two screens at once. None is a great solution. Stonehell embraces a modified one-page dungeon template and gets it done, keyed with a fairly minimal level of detail but enough to make Michael Curtis's intentions clear.

The problem with this approach is that Stonehell winds up being a dungeon that fits in a set of 600' x 600' squares. All 5 levels in the first published book basically seem to stack more or less on top of each other, like a giant layer cake of evil. But I've always felt that a megadungeon should look more like this:

Part of my evil plan is to get closer to the above by adding sub-levels into Stonehell. Level 1 is not as high on treasure as I'd like so I intend for there to be another dungeon on the B2 wilderness map (probably Tomb of the Iron God) to allow a "breather" session outside of Stonehell with some XP and gold. And there are several other modules I'd like to use as sub-levels, particularly Rob Kuntz's Bottle City deeper down, and if Allan Grohe ever publishes it, his interpretation of the Black Reservoir from Castle Greyhawk. I'd also like to be able to fit in some of Matt Finch's work, particularly Demonspore which is made to drop into a dungeon.

But the real megalomaniac in me wants to do something much weirder: specifically I want to stick part of Anomalous Subsurface Environment into Stonehell. That's right, a megadungeon in a megadungeon. I'm thinking of accomplishing this by using part of ASE level 2 as a sub-level and then having level 3 instead of a chunk of level 3 in Stonehell (specifically the "monster dorm" quadrant). I think this would benefit both works: ASE is really weird in comparison to Stonehell, and it scratches my science fantasy itch without having to go live in gonzo-land full time. It's going to take a bit of figuring but as I see it I have time.

I'm very interested to see how this goes. The whole concept of using someone else's megadungeon and modifying it really appeals to me, since the base work of building a big underground complex is already done. And I think it fits well with the ice cream cone approach I outlined - you take something that is a good base and you add other flavors to it to make harmony, rather than either going full-on chocolate or vanilla.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Going Wild

The sixth [level] was a repeating maze with dozens of wild hogs (3 dice) in inconvinient [sic] spots, naturally backed up by appropriate numbers of Wereboars. - Gary Gygax, April 1975

Original D&D gave the simplest possible guidelines for large animals, saying hit dice vary from 2 to 20 and armor class from 8 to 2, with the 20 HD being given for an example of a Tyrannosaur. Clearly the referee was expected to be able to think up such stats on the fly; hence Gygax's only reference to the wild hogs of Greyhawk as having 3 dice (i.e. hit dice).

I've always been a little torn on how well I like that approach. On the one hand it has simplicity and freedom that makes preparation a breeze; you just need to write down two numbers and boom you've got an encounter. But on the other, it has so little variation that everything runs the risk of becoming bags of hit points, now shaped like a wild hog, now like a bear. I prefer a sweet spot at a medium between that approach and AD&D's hit routines and the havoc they wreak on its already complex initiative system.

But Gygax's use of wild hogs reminds me that outside of things like giant rats, wild animals in the dungeon are under-utilized. They work on a few levels: a food source for the other inhabitants of the dungeon, encounters that are potentially non-hostile, and the opportunity to make things just a bit weirder.

If you ever go to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, one thing you'll notice is that there are a LOT of wild chickens on the island. At some point in my gaming career, I think I want to freak a party out by having a chicken in a dungeon. Not the vicious chicken that was infamous in my high school game (which I'll get to in a minute) but an ordinary egg-laying chicken. Wild animals provide all kinds of potential for sidebars to larger adventures; they could, for instance, use the chicken or its eggs as fodder for some bartering with the more intelligent denizens, or keep it as a pet, or even just let it walk around an empty room to see if there are traps. (It beats having to find a new henchman.) In a pinch, they might have their own dinner.

As you go deeper into the dungeon, the weirder it gets. That's the rule of the dungeon as mythic underworld, and it should apply for animal encounters as well. So by the third floor, a chicken hatched may have teeth; on the sixth dungeon level it may be demonic, and if you hatch it on the weird science fantasy level maybe it's a mutant chicken with eye lasers. That's similar to the high school story: when the players saw that some leaves thrown on an altar they had found to an evil god caught fire, a smart-ass player decided to crack an egg. So naturally it immediately sprouted a giant, evil, flaming, regenerating black chicken of death (conveniently abbreviated as GEBFRCOD). The chicken possibilities may in fact be endless.

This pattern should continue with larger creatures. At the earlier levels, they should be territorial rather than actively hostile. Avoiding combat should be totally possible. But when you get lower, the wild hogs are clearly under the influence of chaotic types and the dungeon-as-mythic-underworld itself, and are perhaps inherently corrupted themselves. I think that a subsystem / reference chart for this would be very useful, so anyone who wants to do one for Dungeon Crawl #3 please call dibs in the comments.

To open the floor: what have you done with wild animals in your game?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On Gygaxian Democracy

It was almost a matter of course that the Hexenbracken would be followed with another collaborative project; in this case, the Kraal. I was in pretty heavily on this one, and I want to talk a bit about what I saw from watching it be created, because I think it's a fun way to create something that is actually usable.

One of the big advantages of Gygaxian Democracy is that good ideas get picked up and run with; people are very thoughtful about building on adjacent and even non-adjacent hexes, reusing races and minor variants. Ice Goblins, White Elves, even Ice Weasels populate the Kraal. There are sabre-toothed cats (smilodons) and mastodons and other appropriately arctic things. Each of these things grows in a very nice fashion. But the basic issue with the fill pattern is that the ideas are only partly developed in the left corner, and as you move to the right of the map they get more systematic and the ideas get more well-integrated. It strikes me that the way to remedy this would be a fill pattern that skips around, building up 4 or 5 subregions bit by bit - for instance, going between the four quadrants of the map in a cycle. This could be done pretty easily using a web application to offer the next hex that needs to be filled; it would also solve the problem of having to reserve a hex and running up against duplicates and missed hexes.

I think the fact that the Kraal decided early on to be arctic really improved the nature of the experiment, because having that simple parameter meant that everyone involved was offering their take on a fairly coherent basis rather than simply slapping together wholly incompatible bits. I also like that it was decided on the basis of the first handful of posts - that is, even the vision followed the democratic norms. The low bar for participation really brings out some folks' creativity, in the best ways.

Using this approach seems particularly well suited to a hexmap, where there should be a diverse but generally related set of things. I don't think it's necessarily going to revolutionize the way gaming settings are done, but it's new and it's a heck of a lot of fun. If it keeps going, I might be interested in doing a rare not-for-work programming project and working up a web form to run Hexenbracken/Kraal style Gygaxian Democracy projects.

But in the mean time, get in on this! It's a great trend and I'm very interested to see what else comes up.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bringing Pixies Down to Earth

Monsters & Treasure describes pixies as "air sprites," which is simply not found in classic fairy tales. A pixie, probably related to the Cornish piskie, is a far more earthy spirit, believed to have originated as a tale with the miners of Cornwall. They are uglier than faeries proper, with red hair, and are often vanishingly small but can assume full human size. They are often associated with the color green.

Many of the monsters in what Dave "Sham" Bowman called the "Fairy Tale Miscellany" are under-represented in most D&D. Of course they aren't exactly a typical combat encounter, but more and more I've been of the opinion that "weird" encounters can and should be a staple item of old school gaming. Caverns of Temeluc in Dungeon Crawl #2 features a whole counter-party of gnomes, and Demon Haunted Lands will deal extensively with faeries and their realms. So, about those pixies. Or piskies, or however you care to spell it.

When pixies steal horses, as they are wont to do, they ride them in circles and form what are called "fairy rings" or gallitrap, made of dirt or ringed by mushrooms. These are a game-ready concept: a person who sets one foot inside a gallitrap can see pixies, but if they set two feet in they are trapped, and falls to their power. Criminals who set foot in a gallitrap will be hanged. Such an encounter is a quick and classic oddity for wilderness exploration.

Generally pixies harass travelers, and are either invisible or so small they cannot be seen. In the case of particularly boorish types, they will mislead them into a river or a bog - this should be handled by illusion, or by false trail markings, adulterated signs, etc. Characters who are carrying a cross/holy symbol or bread may be able to ward off the pixies, or to buy their cooperation, but disrespect is not tolerated. Gifts of clothing may also flatter the pixies and win their non-interference.

Horses - particularly ponies - may have an ability to see otherwise invisible pixies. This is frequently used to their riders' detriment, as the pixies may use this and the animal's tendency to avoid them to herd their riders to their (unwanted) destinations.

I think there is always a danger in RPGs of making too much of "prankster" characters and having them become annoying; pixies instead should be territorial but not homicidal. Hints of where they live should be available from farmers and old wives, and "Piskie Country" should be land that is only entered by seasoned adventurers with extreme respect for its inhabitants.

This idea of "not always combat" encounters in the OD&D bestiary is one I'd like to spend a bit of time with, as I think it's a widely under-appreciated