Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cryptid Wednesday: Loveland Frogs

Celebrate Wednesday with a frog-man variant for Swords & Wizardry!

Loveland Frogs

Hit Dice: 1
Armor Class: 8 [11]
Attacks: Bite (1d4) or by weapon
Saving Throw: 16
Special: Device uses
Move: 12
Alignment: Chaotic
Challenge Level/XP: 1/15

Loveland Frogs live in remote swampy environs. These are small (3') bipedal creatures that resemble frogs except for the facility of their hands. They are occasionally mistaken at a distance for extremely ugly halflings, with wrinkled bald heads. They are social creatures and travel in small groups, usually between 2 and 5. Their preferred attack is to ambush solitary travelers or small groups by the side of roads or paths, always at night.

Owing either to magic or some rudimentary technology, these frog-men have relatively sophisticated devices in the form of metal rods. When activated, such a rod gives off telltale sparks, and if used to attack an opponent cause 2d6 electrical damage (save for half). However, a given rod only works if the referee rolls 1-4 on 1d6. A result of 5 or 6 indicates that it will not work for at least 24 hours. Each activation lasts for 2d6 rounds, and a rod should have 1d10 activations remaining before it needs to be recharged (magically or technologically, at the referee's discretion). Only one in three frog-men will have such a device.

The Biggest Monsters of All

It causes much consternation and clucking of tongues when gamers point out that both Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes for OD&D and the fourth AD&D hardback, Deities & Demigods, are basically the Monster Manual on steroids. This also follows suit for the Judges Guild supplement Unknown Gods which follows the same basic format, and of course its OSR follow-up in Petty Gods. Each carries with it the implication that gods are fundamentally killable things.

Now, there are rationalizations, such as the idea that gods have "avatars" that appear in the mortal world periodically. That's kind of lame - you go through all this trouble, beat a god, and are told that you just killed something temporary and the god is still in its realm doing its thing. It smacks of cheap GM tricks, saving a favorite NPC and taking away player agency.

My own thought is that gods should be immortal but not invincible - therefore able to be killed. It should be hard, and for the most part it is extremely hard. That's the point: gods are tough but not impossible opponents. They get to "cheat" in all kinds of fantastic ways, because in no way should fighting a deity ever be easy, but I think it's a major violation of the source material, if nothing else, if you can't kill a deity.

Elric and the Eternal Champions kill gods. Gandalf slays the Balrog of Moria, which is technically one god killing another (both are Maiar, which are the equivalent of the Aesir in Tolkien's cosmology.) Gods sometimes go hang out on the Street of the Gods in Lankhmar, and if you wanted you could almost certainly kill some of the gods in Lankhmar (not the Gods of Lankhmar), in some cases possibly with a stout stick or a strong breeze. Lovecraftian entities are never clearly unkillable, although it may be extremely difficult for humans. Except for Eru Illuvatar in the Silmarillion, gods in the source literature are never actually theological in the medieval sense. So why couldn't they be killed, assuming you can pin them down to a fight? Not to mention the myths themselves; the deaths of the Norse gods is baked into the very idea of the Twilight of the Gods

It raises interesting problems. When the gods are killed, what happens to their clerics? Do they have to consecrate themselves to new deities? That could be an interesting problem, and a potential seed for an interesting adventure if a cleric has to go and save his deity's eternal life from an evil cleric or wizard. It also would be reflected in the worship of deities, as the ones who can't realistically defend themselves would have fewer clerics.

This really implies that D&D has a sort of Lankhmar-esque system of deities, where gods start off weak and grow stronger as they accumulate worshippers. Heroes at high levels might be able to tip the scales and themselves become gods (even without leveling from 1-36 twice as per Mentzer's Immortals rules). Becoming a demigod after a long and legendary campaign seems ultimately just; maybe even letting a beloved old PC come out to defend himself if challenged by future PCs...

Monday, July 29, 2013

Above the Dungeon

You may have already seen pictures of this abandoned mill in Sorrento, Italy. As I've been developing a dungeon recently, I've really been reluctant to put the classic "castle" above it. The reason for this is mainly in terms of my own concept of the dungeon, which started life as a classical "dungeon" beneath an ancient fort no longer in existence, and subsequently grew kobolds, who began the expansion of the dungeon into a far vaster and more labyrinthine complex.

Putting a dungeon into forgotten antiquity really seems to me to be much more evocative than having a castle atop it, which kind of implies that the dungeons were built beneath the castle in some more recent times. I've been thinking about having an abandoned mill over the dungeon entrance because it sort of implies the opposite: the dungeon wasn't built beneath the mill, the mill was built over the dungeon. The stairway down to the dungeon is actually there because the dungeon's denizens built it, then attacked and drove off the humans who inhabited the mill above.

The mill you see above has been abandoned for a hundred and fifty years. It's inherently unsafe, and in all likelihood most of the floors are going to be rotted out. In D&D terms, we're mostly going to be interested in the ground layout and maybe what's on the roof - though judging by all that foliage I don't think even that is going to be in tact.

There's a great photoessay here where you can see more of these pictures. To me, that place has just got to be infested with giant spiders and horrible things, making the dungeon exit and entrance more difficult. All the foliage also allows an area where there are some true 3-dimensional concepts, with some different things hiding above, and maybe some treasure hidden on floorboards that are rotted and inaccessible by mundane things like walking.

One factor I find really important in dungeon design is the multiple entrances. Technically there are a couple in Stonehell, but the big central entrance is something I think should be avoided. The mill is one of two entrances to my dungeon's first level; the second is going to be accessible by a cave with some other threat lurking in it. Generally I find that if you make access easy, it tends to make a shorter "workday" viable - where PCs spend their resources and head back out of the dungeon.

(As an aside, I really don't mean to rag on Stonehell. It's got some excellent content, especially for living dungeon experimentation that is going to play a big part in my next session. But at the same time, it's got flaws of structure that I do think impact on play.)

A lot of strategic concepts can come out of an interesting ruin like this mill above a dungeon. PCs might take measures to clear out the mill, or even burn it down to make dungeon access easier. They could rebuild it and make it a redoubt, or use it as a place to salvage materials for dungeon delves. Having a place above a dungeon instead of a massive entrance, I think, is really worthwhile. I also would encourage folks to go looking for things like ruins and massive stairwells. I plan to have a massive stairwell leading to one of the deeper levels.

As a final note, I think some really evocative pictures that are going around are tremendous inspiration for this. I'd be interested to see more pictures that inspire you to say, "What dungeon is beneath that place?"

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Blue Book and B/X: Magic-User Spells

I want to start to examine Blue Book D&D and see where it differs from B/X D&D with the Moldvay set. I'll start with Magic-User spells, since they have some meaty differences.

Holmes has several more spells. At first level, Dancing Lights and Enlargement are added to the list. At second level, we gain Audible Glamer, Darkness (a reverse Light), Magic Mouth, Pyrotechnics, Ray of Enfeeblement, and Strength. Also, Tenser's Floating Disc uses Tenser's name in Holmes where it doesn't in Moldvay.

Charm Person is much more powerful in Holmes, because the ranges wind up being longer for most Intelligence scores. Light in Holmes lacks specific rules about being cast at a creature's eyes, leaving this as a ruling for the referee to make. Magic Missile is superficially worse because it needs a roll to hit. But Holmes only wrote "Higher level magic-users fire more than one missile," and it's never expanded on in the Cook/Marsh Expert set, so the spell could allow more missiles than in Greyhawk and Moldvay. So a house rule that would make the spell more useful would be one missile for every three levels beyond first, getting your second missile at 4th level - and making it a pretty useful spell at higher levels.

Protection from Evil has the same function in Holmes and Moldvay, but in Holmes it's a better spell because it doesn't explicitly break if the caster attacks a monster. Read Magic lasts two turns instead of one turn. Sleep works differently in Moldvay than Holmes. In Holmes, if creatures are up to 1+1 HD, then 2d8 creatures are put to sleep; if they are up to 2+1 HD, it's 2d6 creatures; if they are up to 3+1 HD, 1d6 creatures, and for 4+1 HD, only one creature is put to sleep. In Moldvay there are 2d8 hit dice worth of creatures unless the creature is 4+1 HD, in which case it is only one. The probabilities work out fairly similar and Moldvay's way is simpler, but Holmes's has the OD&D pedigree.

Continual Light is the same as Light in both versions, with the same addition in Moldvay. Holmes is less philosophical about evil for Detect Evil, presumably because that edition actually has an evil alignment - although it still is detecting "evil thought or evil intent," not alignment as such. Interestingly Moldvay adds traps to poison as not being evil. There aren't a lot of restrictions on ESP in Holmes about concentrating a full turn or getting thoughts jumbled up, but otherwise the spells work the same, so it's simpler for Holmes.

Invisibility in Holmes is again better - you can cast a spell without breaking it, so long as you don't "strike a blow." Clearly the referee has some leeway on this, but by default it's not as restrictive. In Holmes, Levitate can be cast on another character, while in Moldvay it can't. Motion in Holmes is also 60' per turn up, where in Moldvay it's only 20' up or down. Mirror Image is one of the few spells that got better in Moldvay, where it specifies that an attack on the caster always hits an image instead. Holmes has no such stipulation, just that each image disappears if hit.

Holmes's Phantasmal Forces is the magnificent spell from OD&D, which does real damage if it is believed, and has none of the saving throw jibber-jabber, although a living creature touching it will dispel it. Web works about the same in both Holmes and Moldvay but covers twice the area (10'x10'x20' instead of 10'x10'x10') - not coincidentally that should be two dungeon blocks on a 10' map instead of one.

From a spellcaster's perspective, Holmes (which frequently follows the LBBs although often adding bits and pieces to them) offers mostly stronger spells than Moldvay. In Moldvay there is more of a tendency to spell out exact consequences, which in my opinion really takes spells like Phantasmal Force(s) down in overall power. Between the scroll rules, the spell descriptions and the spell learning rules, Holmes makes magic-users a bit more powerful.

The thing I really enjoy about Holmes versus Moldvay is that Holmes was more reserved in his spell descriptions. This leaves a lot more room for player and referee creativity and interpretation. The wide-open nature of Phantasmal Forces versus its relatively tame Moldvay version is probably the most dramatic example, but Invisibility which I see as one of the most powerful M-U spells for a dungeon exploration game is also much more wide open.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Troll Questions Answered

A questionnaire from Random Wizard. Enjoy!

(1). Race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) as a class? Yes or no?

Yes and no. As I discussed in the "Blue Book D&D" post a few days back, I think there is a good compromise in having some classes that are hybrids (ACKS has some good ideas with bad names on these lines), and others that are just hobbit thieves.

(2). Do demi-humans have souls?

Hobbits and dwarves have souls, though dwarves' are slightly weirder than you might expect. But elves are different. An elf may have a soul, but he certainly wasn't born with it.

(3). Ascending or descending armor class?

Descending. Not because it's better but because ascending AC looks wrong to me.

(4). Demi-human level limits?

Level limits make sense for me in multi-class or combination class characters; if you can be an elven fighter/magic-user and go all the way up in level, it doesn't make sense to be a human. Limiting hobbits to level 4 is lame.

(5). Should thief be a class?

Thief should be a better class. I've thought about just giving them 20 points at chargen to distribute among the skills. That said, when running anything but 3 little book OD&D I will allow thieves if that's what a player wants to play. Considering I don't run a lot of 3LBB OD&D these days - sure.

(6). Do characters get non-weapon skills?

Thieves do. Other than that, I don't play with any skill system.

(7). Are magic-users more powerful than fighters (and, if yes, what level do they take the lead)?

With a sufficiently clever player, I think magic-users become better in the dungeon exploration game at 3rd level (or whenever they get 2nd level spells). But for players who aren't clever, the magic-user can wait a lot longer before becoming a dominant class.

(8). Do you use alignment languages?

Alignment languages are technically in my games, but players don't generally use them. As I discussed previously, I think of them as battle-languages like in Dune.

(9). XP for gold, or XP for objectives (thieves disarming traps, etc...)?

1 XP = 1 GP of treasure brought back to town. XP is awarded immediately upon returning to town. There is also BTB XP for killing monsters, but it's much lower.

(10). Which is the best edition; ODD, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, 1E ADD, 2E ADD, 3E ADD, 4E ADD, Next ?

OD&D will always be an inspiration to me above and beyond any editions that came since. But on a practical, day-to-day level, I would say Blue Book D&D (i.e. Holmes / Expert mashup) is the closest to my ideal D&D game.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Reading and Writing Magic

First off, I want to give a hat tip to D. Vincent Baker for his The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions for inspiring this particular article. It's one of a number of new releases on the Lamentations of the Flame Princess store that were made available today.

From the original edition of D&D onward (Holmes copies the text almost exactly), Read Magic has been a fundamental spell for reading scrolls and generally "magic." Without it, the instructions on scrolls, spellbooks, wands, and so on are incomprehensible. In Seclusium, Vincent discusses how - and this is an "in his campaign" moment - there is something personal of the wizard wrapped up in his own writing, explaining why magic writings even in an age of print as assumed by LotFP are still hand-written. That's one way to do it, but I've been thinking of another.

As I see it, the words of magic-user spells are inherently magical. Uttering them is enough to tap into unknown energies and change reality itself. From there, the words on a scroll or in a magic-user's memory are in a semi-stable form, where they've been encoded in some way so that the magic-user has to interpret either the contents of the scroll or his own memory to transform it into the actual words. This form is based on a personal cipher that only the magic-user himself knows, and disappears once it is actualized. That's why the memorization isn't permanent: the form requires the magic-user himself to complete it.

The level of a spellbook has to go even further. Since the magic-user must be able to memorize the spell without it disappearing from the book, it has to be an encoded form of the already semi-stable form. This means that the magic-user has two personal ciphers, one for memorization and scrolls, and the second unique to his spellbooks. It follows that these ciphers themselves are also magical, and that writing with them takes a certain number of pages, words, diagrams and so on that, when read, will store the semi-stable form of the spell into the magic-user's memory without casting it.

From this perspective, the ciphers are "securing" the underlying spell in place. No magic-user knows another's ciphers; they are not just a secret, but something crafted as an apprentice that is as much a part of the MU as his arm. And that's where the Read Magic spell comes into play. Read Magic lets the caster read without casting, and what it's doing is the work of simultaneously deciphering the original and presenting a re-ciphered version to the magic-user as if it were written on his own scroll or spellbook. This allows, as per Holmes, for a MU who has read a scroll written by a different magic-user once to cast the spell from it without casting a second Read Magic.

One side effect of this is that magic-users who have Read Magic memorized has a 25% chance to spontaneously decode any nonmagical message written with a non-mechanical cipher (alphabet substitution, etc). Actually casting the spell and using it to read a mundane-encoded text is possible, but it's much too powerful; there is a 10% chance that doing so will cause a backlash that knocks the character unconscious for 2d6 turns.

Cryptid Wednesday: The Dover Demon

It's Wednesday, so there's a new cryptozoological monster for Swords & Wizardry. Like last week, it's an American cryptid, this time from the East Coast in Dover, MA.

Dover Demon

Hit Dice: 2
Armor Class: 8 [11]
Attacks: Hands (1d2/1d2)
Saving Throw: 16
Special: Mental attack
Move: 18
Alignment: Chaotic
Challenge Level/XP: 3/60

The Dover Demon is a small humanoid, with a peach skin tone. It is totally hairless and lacks a nose, mouth, or ears; the only interruption in its smooth skin is the eyes. These are green and glow visibly in the night. Its hands and feet are equally long and spindly, and it grabs and climbs readily, the extremities adapting to rocks with ease.

Most of the time, such a demon is interested in following and frightening humans, slipping away unseen. At night or in poor lighting, the demon's body can become almost translucent, leaving only its eyes visible. It does not speak any language and is not interested in eating, though it will be attracted to magic items. If it can corner a solitary human, it will use its sleep attack and subject the victim to a painful examination, leaving before they wake. Only one demon will be encountered at any time.

If attacked, it will counterattack with a powerful mental assault. This requires a saving throw (vs. spells if modifiers are applicable) and it can stun an opponent for 1d6 rounds, or put them to sleep (as per the spell) for 2d6 turns. Against magic-users only, the demon may attempt to cause the M-U to go incurably insane (same parameters apply).

Monday, July 22, 2013

Blue Book D&D

I've long had a love for Holmes basic D&D that is second only to my love of original D&D for inspiration. At the table, Holmes is simpler and cleaner in many ways, but it requires some expansion past 3rd level. The easiest way to do this is what I call "Blue Book" D&D - Holmes Basic plus the Cook/Marsh Expert rulebook.

This is discussed in the Expert book, but that takes the boring and prosaic route of overruling everything from Holmes with a quick Moldvay-like hack. I want to talk about another way to do it that doesn't take either 100%.

First: I prefer the Holmes attribute charts. They de-emphasize high attributes that most players with 3d6 stats won't have. However, I'd make three adjustments toward Moldvay. For Strength, 8 or less gives -1 to damage and 13 or more gives +1. For Wisdom, same thing for saving throws versus magic. And for Dexterity, no AC adjustment but apply the ranged modifier to initiative, which I'll get to. Intelligence, Constitution and Charisma work exactly as in Holmes. This gives each stat a use without making 18s the be-all and end-all.

Second: Keep the Holmes division of race and class, but allow players to be the Elf class from the Expert book. All the benefits of race-as-class without the drawbacks.

Third: I'd junk the Holmes 5-point alignment system. It's kludgy and I vastly prefer the 3-point alignment system, which Holmes even drops into when talking about "Lawful Werebears." But it has its defenders, who I would never begrudge their preference.

Fourth: All the scroll and spell learning rules in Holmes are drastically better than in Moldvay. For the rest of magical research, follow the rules on X51. These changes will make low-level magic-users much more useful.

Fifth: In combat, my current thought is individual 1d6 initiative with a Dexterity modifier equal to the ranged attack modifier. This saves the referee from having to roll Dexterity for every single monster, and is a synthesis of Holmes Dexterity-based initiative with B/X's 1d6 system. Variable weapon damage should be considered. While it's easier to roll a d6 for everything, players enjoy rolling their funky dice and monsters usually have damage listed anyway. Finally, parry from Holmes and morale and defensive movement from Expert round everything out. Most morale scores can be eyeballed by using a value from 6-10 depending on how "reliable" the referee thinks the monster should be.

Sixth: Follow Holmes in using only "Remove Trap" as a thief skill. "Find Trap" takes a whole lot of fun play straight out of the game, and the damn thing is a pathetic roll at low levels. Parties have a much better chance to find traps by actively searching a room than by the thief giving them a 10% chance.

Seventh: Elsewhere, let Holmes trump Expert, which fills in the blanks. If anything is missing, I would recommend going to the Ready Ref Sheets, which really complement Expert's wilderness rules quite well when you have to design an interesting locale on the fly.

Eighth: Print out this sheet from the Zenopus Archives, one for the referee and one per player. It's a great reference and will save a lot of page turning.

What I really love about Blue Book D&D is that the differences between the two books provoke choices, and in resolving those differences you wind up fine-tuning your own D&D. Whether you like or dislike race as class, or Dexterity-based initiative, or variable weapon damage, or Strength bonuses - it's all there, and you can pick the tools you like and leave the others behind. A whole range of classic D&D styles can be created just by interpreting how these two books go together.

Of course, from here I think there are a lot of interesting house rules to be made. But that's one way to start with Blue Book D&D.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Has the OSR mostly embraced thieves?

In the earliest days of the OSR, a number of people didn't care for thieves. Read through this thread on Grognardia from 2008, and it becomes clear that a lot of people (including me) didn't really care for them. I think a good chunk of the reason was in Philotomy's musing about thieves and thief skills (you can find all of Philotomy here, it's a great read if you haven't gone through it yet), which posed it as a live question.

With more games being based closer to B/X D&D, and with Swords & Wizardry Complete taking on more prominence, the thief has snuck back into the game without much protest. Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea both remove percentiles as a way to not make thieves so bad at everything, but many games stick with the thief skills pretty much on the model of Supplement I: Greyhawk.

I have a thief in my Stonehell game, and he's pretty well played. Not to mention lucky - he may have failed a bunch of saving throws, but rolled a 20 when he took a jet of save-or-die poison gas to the face. I kind of like having a lightly armored character in the dungeon, but I don't think the thief class is the best way to get that. Thief skill percentages are awful until high level, and it's more fun to do trap detection by narration anyway.

It seems to me that, in a game without thieves, magic-users should have a bigger niche. Classically the M-U's main job is to cast sleep once (unless the player went and memorized something else; charm person is ok too, but magic missile seems like it was mostly meant to cause players to waste their spells) and then hide behind the fighters and clerics; in return she (gender choice in honor of Azraiel, an M-U who recently perished in my Stonehell game) will be blasting things with fireballs and lightning bolts once she reaches 5th level.

But the magic-user seems to me to be well suited to recon, particularly once she reaches 3rd level. Then she can cast invisibility on herself, and use sleep or charm as a failsafe if she gets in a spot of trouble. By contrast, a thief who gets caught loses his whole advantage since he can't backstab once he's been seen. Magic-users are lightly armored and so have their full movement rates in tact.

I think this doesn't play out as much as it should because M-U players value every scrap of experience they get towards being able to nuke enemies with fireballs. But that doesn't really call for a thief, and I want to discuss the possibility with the players next time I run OD&D.

Now, I think that if you're playing AD&D the magic-user/thief is actually pretty good. Extra HP and weapon use, backstab damage and only half a level behind, plus the thief levels keep going up after the elf hits the M-U level cap.

But in an OD&D or classic D&D game, or their simulacra and genetically modified clones, do we really need the embrace the thief has gotten?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pacing in the dungeon and within levels

So far in my discussion of dungeon pacing, I've focused on the pace of entire levels. In an actual dungeon, though, the basic principles of fast and slow can be applied on a smaller scale. The quick and easy way to do this is sub-levels; you could pretty easily build a fast main level that has two or three really interesting slow sub-levels, where monster lairs or treasure caches are located.

But I'm not talking about sub-levels here, I'm talking about fundamental dungeon design. A dungeon can be described in a Melan-style diagram, with the basic types outlined below:

Dungeons are directed graphs composed of rooms. Any sub-set of rooms can be considered a section if every room in the section is accessible from every other room without leaving the section. A section of rooms is considered a closed section if there is only one way out of it ("sidetracks" in diagram B above) or a complete section if there are two ways in and out of it (such as the side-path in "D" above). A complete section may be blocking if it is the only way through to a goal (treasure, stairs down, etc).

Fast levels and sections are the connective tissue of the dungeon, the pieces that let everything else hang together. The crucial factor for a fast level is that there are no blocking sections that require extensive interaction with the dungeon environment. In a well-Jaquayed dungeon, a fast level will look like model C above, with each node leading to a path down. A fast level can have slow sections, but as a rule they should be closed sections. A slow section of an otherwise fast level will act as a sub-level, and can be a portion where play hangs up. This can be good or bad, depending on what the referee wants.

Slow levels and slow sections are, as I said yesterday, the meat. Let's look at a good example from Melan's original post about what a slow level's graph should look like:

This is a very challenging "faction level" of caverns, and there's good treasure to be had at many of the nodes. It's possible to get to the 10,000 GP hidden gem in the mushroom garden without going through any of the lairs, although you get mighty close to the trolls. Expeditions into this level should be tactical, with the intent of bringing down a certain type of enemy, rather than wandering about which is bound to get you killed. In a megadungeon you'd hopefully have more than one route in, allowing PCs to reconnoiter and pick and choose.

But if you notice that long horizontal line in the center of the diagram, that is a massive cavern that takes up the bulk of the map in D1. That is a fast section of the level, propelling the PCs into exploring any of the slow regions. The troll regions are blocked twice, while the area with the lich and the ghouls is a complete section that doesn't do any blocking.

Now, this is a Gygaxian tournament dungeon and not a megadungeon; if it was, it would not have every room taken up by monsters with treasure. Still, a well-built slow level in the megadungeon will generate a diagram broadly similar to this. What we can take from it is that slow levels offer multiple paths, and some goals will be blocked while other paths will lead to closed sections or complete sections.

Fast sections in a slow dungeon level tend to translate into long lines in the Melan diagrams, and the designer has to be careful not to let them turn the level into a simple linear design with multiple branch-offs. Instead, they should be used to enable the kind of big circular routes that we see in the D1 diagram, creating lots of alternate paths that can be tactically interesting for players seeking treasure.

The reason to alternate between fast and slow dungeon levels is that time spent exploring the dungeon should be a tactical decision. Slow levels are defined by treasure and obstacles to that treasure. Every round spent in the dungeon has the risk of drawing a wandering monster, and every room entered contains potential risks. A well-paced dungeon is one where players can intelligently make these decisions, because the fast levels and sections are either not worth exploring in detail, or are actively hostile to such. Slow levels and sections, the meat of the dungeon where the interesting encounters, obstacles, and treasures are located, are spaced out by fast areas that clever players can cross without detailed exploration, and possibly use as multiple attack routes for the slow areas.

So I think that covers my thoughts on pacing. Next I want to take another look at non-linearity in dungeons and how that impacts the potential for exploration.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Slowing the Pace (But Not to a Grind)

A slow dungeon level, in my classification, is one where PCs spend prolonged periods of time getting through the level. These are really the "meat" of the dungeon, where monsters are fought and treasures found.

Unlike a fast level, there are really only two elements to making a proper old-school D&D dungeon level "slow." The first is the expectation that there is treasure; the second is that there are obstacles preventing characters from getting to the expected treasure.

If you just dump a set of PCs off in an unknown, inky black darkness - that's putting them in a slow dungeon level. They are there under the unspoken presumption that there will be treasure to be had. This means that slow levels are, in a way, the default for dungeons. That's why I say the expectation of treasure is the main factor here: if PCs go about exploring they are doing so because they think there is some reward for it.

Managing these expectations is up to the referee. Treasure maps will do it, as will well-crafted rumors in town; even subtle hints in the architecture indicating a place that players will think are "secure" will lead them to think that this is where the treasure is.

The real trick with slow levels is making it hard. If you had a room full of rubies and it was easy to get to, it would already be emptied. The rubies might be in a secret compartment, or a dragon might be sleeping on top of them, or they might be in one of a thousand rooms of a twisting labyrinth - or any of the thousands of elements that make a dungeon interesting.

A slow level's pace is determined by the obstacles relative to treasure. Varying numbers and hit dice of monsters are the easiest dial to turn to make a level slower or faster; too many and it becomes a grind, too few and it can be a cakewalk. Older D&D's combat system comes into play here, as simply peopling a dungeon with a lot of small groups of "level-appropriate" monsters - which I think, because of modules like B2 Keep on the Borderlands, is rather common - easily turn into grinds.

Making larger groups of level-appropriate monsters, and encounters with (sometimes wildly) higher-level monsters, is a better way to encourage exploration and innovation instead of grinding. If there are 60 goblins between two rooms, the challenge becomes about circumventing or dealing with them rather than simply wading in and going for the slaughter. Of course, this assumes that the dungeon is properly Jaquayed so there is a way around.

Room spacing with empty rooms and navigational difficulties are other classic ways to keep a slow level from bogging down into a grind or a TPK. In the original D&D, Gygax clearly was using these as his primary sorts of traps, rather than the types we're familiar with (poison, arrow, pit etc). It makes a lot of sense from a dungeon design standpoint.

Finally I think that really great enigmas help make for a good slow level. If there's a device or machine on the level and the question is how to operate it, that gives a positive motivation for the players beyond the simple treasure - although presumably solving the enigma will have some impact on the PCs' goals. Likewise, a good themed level or sub-level will let you slow things down without resorting to dozens of monster encounters, such as a sub-level populated with creatures from Barsoom or a level overrun with sentient plants.

I think that a really great dungeon is one where the slow levels are interesting on their own terms, and craft challenges that players really have to struggle to adapt to. So these levels will be the most challenging part of designing any dungeon.

Cryptid Wednesday: The Mountain Devil

Every Wednesday I write up a new cryptid for Swords & Wizardry. This one is from California, where it's known as the Lone Pine Mountain Devil; I'm leaving the location off but keeping the monster.

Mountain Devil

Hit Dice: 5
Armor Class: 5 [14]
Attacks: 2 claws (1d6/1d6) or bite (1d8+poison)
Saving Throw: 12
Special: Poison
Move: 12 (18 flying)
Alignment: Neutral
Challenge Level/XP: 7/600

A Mountain Devil is a fierce bird-like predator that dwells in forested mountains. It stands the height of an average human and has wings and sharp talons, but its frame is furred and its mouth is full of venomous teeth. Their screech will cause pack animals to scurry away in fear.

When a Mountain Devil first attacks, it will swoop down and use its talons to make a first warning attack. If its opponents scatter, it will continue to harry them out of its territory. However, if they stand and fight the Mountain Devil will use its bite, which contains a powerful poison (save vs. poison or die).

Despite their name, Mountain Devils are not evil, but will attack predators and humans in their habitats who are in any way despoiling nature. There is a 75% chance that a Mountain Devil will speak the secret druidic language, and in any case they will never attack a party containing a druid.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Completeness

A question on the Dragonsfoot OD&D forum recently asked of the forthcomimg print re-release: "Is it complete?"

My answer is no - and for all the best reasons.

OD&D was never intended to be a "complete" game. It had only the bare sketch of a combat system, and simple rules for dungeon and wilderness exploration. The three booklets barely reach a hundred pages, and spend a great deal of their time detailing the fantastic, from magic spells to aerial combat. It ends with the exhortation - "Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" More and more I think that's a philosophy.

I've been looking at versions of D&D because I want to sit down and design a megadungeon on the lines I have been discussing here lately. That's mostly meant B/X D&D and Rules Cyclopedia, both of which I find I like. Particularly the Rules Cyclopedia does some nice things in terms of finishing the OD&D encounter charts - the ones in chapter 7 of that volume echo back to the ones I consulted in building my OD&D-based setting.

Yet after all, I still find myself compelled by OD&D for two reasons. First, its tables and charts and rules are free of dozens of revisions and sanitizations; they are methods for resolving things that were close to actual play and game design. Second, it's not complete. It doesn't have the neat little step-by-step methods of doing everything that Moldvay, Cook and Marsh worked out in their Basic and Expert books. Ultimately that stuff should be training wheels for the referee, to be taken off when the skill is learned.

The filled-out nature of B/X and RC D&D is something that I think manages to polish out a lot of the rough appeal of OD&D. I think it's clear when you consider the elf. OD&D had rules that don't really quite jibe with each other about the elf acting as a magic-user or a fighter depending on the adventure, which some people do straight up and others as a kind of multiclass, and so on. B/X solved it by making "elf" a class and requiring 4000 XP to get to second level. There's an elegance there but without charm. I don't really care for race as class, and prefer OD&D's flexible ambiguity.

One quote I like in Dune is: "Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife - chopping off what's incomplete and saying: 'Now it's complete because it's ended here.'" OD&D didn't express everything Gary and Dave wanted to put forward in a ruleset; but the need to get the game published forced them to move and put it out as it was.

In a way, that makes OD&D as complete as it should be. It's a complete game because it was chopped off where it needed to be, and what was essential was there.

Dungeon Crawl #3 is coming along

A piece by John Blaszczyk for the dungeon in Dungeon Crawl #3.

I like the Holmes-ish vibe of the picture's point of view. And of course the GIANT LOBSTER!

Just as a quick update on the zine, I'm waiting on two final pieces of text for the issue, and have a little writing left on my own part. Once everything comes in, we should have a magazine a bit longer than Dungeon Crawl #2, with less material by yours truly and more by other folks. And that's something I am excited about.

Monday, July 15, 2013

More on Fast Dungeon Levels

In my last post, I discussed what I consider "fast" dungeon levels - that is, levels where in-depth PC exploration is not the goal. Now I want to talk a little about what makes a dungeon level fast, because I think there are diverse methods to take a dungeon level out of pure exploration mode.

The easiest way to make a level fast is to increase the number of exits. If you stick multiple sloping corridors, staircases, chutes and so forth on a level, it makes it more and more tempting for players to go down to the next level. The more accessible these are (i.e. not through multiple rooms full of monsters), the faster players will tend to try and venture deeper. This can be done through quantity and layout.

Staying within layout, small size and straightforward layout both make a level faster. Obviously you can have a complex small level with a geomorphic layout, and that would slow things down a lot. Likewise a straightforward layout doesn't help if it's a straightforward grind. A series of long hallways with 10'x10' crypts that monsters burst out of is a tremendously slow level, as anyone who's run the Quiet Halls in Stonehell can attest.

The next way to do it is the sparse level. Some parties will see a sparse, relatively empty level and freak out, expecting it to be a deathtrap; and perhaps it is. In fact, I think that's really the only way to make a mostly bare sublevel a compelling dungeon addition. But if they go over it in minute detail, it's a danger of a lot of tedious sessions.

A level could be interesting but pose abnormal problems for investigation. For instance, what if a level is mostly flooded to 5' but the stairways down are accessible? There could be a lot of interesting stuff beneath 5' of water, but the logistics of it would be difficult. (And there may be lifeforms underneath.) Similarly a level might have some property such as magnetic walls - PCs with metal equipment would be well behooved to get out quickly. It could be something that starts when you enter - such as unavoidable pressure plates at each entrance that begin the level filling up with water, and getting out is a priority.

Beyond all this is the question of what lives in the dungeon. Total disregard for "level appropriate" monsters is one way to make a dungeon level fast; a medusa or trolls in the first or third levels will definitely speed things up, particularly if their lairs are well marked in advance. Slow but powerful wandering monsters likewise might speed up the search for a way down in what otherwise seems like a promising level. I like these particularly because the level can, when the PCs reach higher levels, become a slow level that they go back and explore in depth once they're ready for the monsters.

Levels can also be sped up by treasure maps and knowledge. If the PCs know that the first level has been picked bare by other parties, but there is a really great treasure on the second level, then the players will go out of their way to make the first level fast.

Finally, a fast level can be one where PCs don't have the typical dungeon crawling motivation. A goblin market or a dungeon level populated by overwhelming rival factions can be set up to encourage players to bypass it entirely, treating it as a semi-town rather than as a typical level of the dungeon.

I want to do at least two more in this design series: one about what makes a good slow level, and one that deals more with pacing, including changing the speed within a single level..

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fast and Slow Dungeon Levels

More time running Stonehell and thinking about Blackmoor has me considering a certain principle of dungeon design that I think can be best summarized as "fast" and "slow" levels of megadungeons.

A lot of what we see in the field of published megadungeons are composed of slow levels. I think the reputation of Gygax's early levels (such as the one glimpsed in the photo above) and the general desire to have big maps had a definite influence on this. By a slow level, I mean a level that encourages a party to spend multiple sessions exploring it and finding its secrets. Big levels tend to be slow, but a small level with a lot of rooms and secrets and not many passages down will also be slow. Most sub-levels will be small, but slow, levels.

Fast levels, by contrast, are levels like the first level of Blackmoor. They are designed to encourage the PCs to get through quickly and down to another level. A fast level isn't necessarily a small level; a level with a few big cavernous rooms could be fast if there was nothing in particular to keep the players in full-on exploration mode. Likewise, a level where some local condition makes in-depth exploration difficult or dangerous could be fast.

There is a lot of value in having slow levels; this is where much of the meat of the gameplay will take place. I think the error in modern megadungeon design is an assumption that every level should be slow. We see big intricate maps and think - "I want that in my dungeon." It's understandable. And I think Barrowmaze represents the extreme end: a first level so massive it has its own book. That is a slow dungeon level.

One reason I think good design should lean more towards fast levels in the early parts of the dungeon is that low levels shouldn't always be a grind. The average OD&D piece of jewelry is worth 3,410 gold pieces. There should be jewelry in one out of 15 rooms on level 2 based on the chances of finding jewelry, and there should be 3.5 pieces on average. On average it will be worth 11,935 gold pieces and at 1 GP = 1 XP, that's almost enough for 6 characters to gain a level, more than enough if they have prime requisite bonuses. So in theory, a dungeon should have a single treasure on the second level that first-level PCs can go in, get it, get out, and come back second level. If that second level has 30 rooms, it should have two such treasures, which will get the PCs to third level.

Now, that might require some reconnoitering and planning to extract with a minimum of PC deaths, but that's the nature of the game. I think the ideal pattern for a megadungeon would be a fast first level, a big slow second level, and then two fast third half-levels that each lead to different paths down. After the third level, of course, things begin to be weird.

I have some more ideas about fast levels that I'll get into detail on, hopefully later this week.

Mapping Around Stonehell

A lot of interesting stuff can happen in a megadungeon when players don't have complete maps.  Last night didn't see much new exploration on the first level but it did get to a few new rooms, and wandering encounters did the rest of the work.

The first interesting thing happened when the party found a new area early in the adventure. There is a statue early in Stonehell where a bowl containing 400 SP is nearby, unguarded. If the silver is disturbed, everyone around saves or takes 2d6 damage. The party - which has normally been cautious - rushed in and lost a second-level magic-user to this trap. Which proved a point about caution.

Unquestionably the best moment of the night came after a fight with a group of orcs. First, the orcs had been at a portcullis, which they raised to get to the PCs - who took advantage and took out an orc before meeting combat. Then they won every initiative and got good rolls, slaying four out of the remaining five. The last orc broke morale and surrendered.

All this happened a room away from the Wheel of Fortune, one of the really neat rooms in the first level. The characters debated for a while what they were going to do with the orc, and a new player suggested barricading him in the room with the Wheel. The other players re-inspected the room, found the wheel, and there was a bit more debate - until the new player had the excellent idea of having the orc give the wheel a spin. He did, and the wheel obligingly landed on the "dies immediately" result. You can't script how this stuff is going to turn out.

On the way around the PCs found a pit trap literally 50' from the dungeon entrance that they had never run afoul of before - sometimes I just don't roll a 1 on 1d6. It's a curiosity of old school traps that I really like: even what you think is perfectly safe is occasionally an old, deadly trap. Of course, in this case it only wound up doing 1 damage to the party's new monk, but still.

A bit later, the PCs discovered a love of fire. They actually sussed out a couple of green slime traps and burnt the slime before they would get struck by it; that's quality dungeoneering. One quibble in S&W: green slime isn't listed as having hit dice, so technically it doesn't give experience; I had to overrule that particular bit and give it an arbitrary value. Beating green slime is definitely worthy of experience points.

The last encounter involved wolves and more fire - the wolves had come up at another portcullis, this one keeping the PCs safe for the moment. They successfully used oil as an incendiary, which brings up the second quibble with S&W: I always wind up using Moldvay style rules for this because S&W doesn't cover it.

There are a lot of little things like this in most rulesets; that's what house rules are for. But at this point I've inserted a good chunk of Holmes and Moldvay into my S&W game, between scroll rules, morale rules, and rules for oil as incendiary weapons. It leaves me wondering whether those aren't a better baseline for me than S&W. If I were starting again I'd be tempted to use Labyrinth Lord as suggested.

Stonehell itself has been a quality dungeon. While I think the first level is kind of dense and not "get down already" like Blackmoor is, it's continued to provide an interesting play experience over eight sessions. Or to put it another way: while I wish Stonehell were structurally more interesting, it certainly makes up for any deficiencies with what it puts on its levels. If I were to start over, I'd probably cut it up and move some things around so it's more of a 3-dimensional dungeon and less of a stack of five huge levels (for book 1 anyway).

Friday, July 12, 2013

Defying Death

A few things have had me thinking about what happens when characters are reduced to 0 HP or less. In OD&D and most versions of Classic D&amp:D, characters by the book are dead. AD&D gives a countdown to -10 HPs.

Most of the time when I'm running, characters taken down to 0 hit points are in fact dead. In large part this is because I've been dissatisfied with the behavior that letting PCs go down to -10 HP causes, where PCs will take bigger risks and rather blithely go down to negative numbers. The OD&D rule creates more paranoia. But at the same time there are interesting possibilities for giving a PC a chance to be "not quite dead yet."

The Dungeon Crawl Classics rules have a Luck check for "recovering the body" where the PC may be dead or not. If they aren't, they have 1 HP and a permanent loss of one point to a physical statistic. That's not a bad start, but I think there are more interesting and flavorful ways to go about not quite dying.

What I have in mind is the idea of defying death. Basically: once in a character's life, they have a 3-in-6 chance of not being dead when reduced to 0 or fewer hit points. This permanently subtracts one from Constitution and one from Charisma. However,they have stolen a life from the gods of death, and owe them a death. Failure to deliver will bring about the character's death by seeming accident.

Now, simply killing your own enemies doesn't seem thematically right for this. I like the idea that, somewhat like in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, the life stolen has to be repaid by killing at the request of another. Anything that can be perceived as cheating, like having a fellow party member ask you to kill that orc over there, could draw the ire of the death gods. Ideally it will be a deed the player doesn't actually want to do, and result in some trouble that will create an interesting adventure.

I'm tempted to limit this to people who have gained a level. It would seem to me that there is some degree of heroism that makes such a thing possible. The curse is more for fun; my main concern is to make the idea that not being dead is a one-time thing with a real cost.

What do folks do for defying death in their games? What do you think about this idea?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Megadungeons, Treasure Maps and the Importance of Goals

Maps are a regular OD&D treasure type, directly on par with magic items, and appear in various incarnations throughout the treasure tables of subsequent editions of the game. These maps could lead to treasure, magic items, or both. I think they're something of a lost art in modern old-school games.

Published megadungeons tend to rely on what we can call the "B-Series Model" for giving advance information about their contents: there is a chart with some rumors, some true and some false. That's very nice for a level or two of monster-bashing, but in a megadungeon complex it's radically inadequate, both in quantity of information and depth. I think you get better exploration with a specific goal in mind.

Now, what I'm talking about here is very far from the plots of typical adventure modules. For instance, you might have something as simple as a set of directions that lead you to a treasure room. The fact that they're sold by an old and kind of seedy man in town shouldn't matter, right? Neither should the fact that what was a legitimate treasure room forty years ago is now a nest of giant fire ants. If the referee is of a mind to be fair, they should give some indication that maybe the room is no longer a treasure trove, maybe a graffito like "KILROY WAS HERE" indicating that the area has been explored.

Giving out the right dribs and drabs of information can make the megadungeon rich in several ways. First, information can be incorrect in subtle ways that the dungeon works against - for instance a map based on a classic shifting hallway can have interesting inaccuracies. Information can be outdated in good and bad ways, or someone's path through the dungeon may have missed a really interesting side area. Most importantly, it gives a sense of purpose beyond "we're looking for treasure, I think it's around here somewhere."

I also think there are certain elements in dungeon design that can lend themselves well to this. For instance, maybe there is a massive chamber with an enormous statue on the fourth level; this could be a landmark that opens up three or four possibilities since previous explorers have used it as a point of reference. Or, more devilishly, there could be two such statues on the fourth level, with one of them being a trap set by some dungeon denizen.

Of course, there should be diverse ways of getting at this information. Previous delvers might share some details for coin or ale, current denizens can be interrogated or bribed for information (with varying levels of success), sages might find out details about how the dungeon was in its halcyon youth, diviners may be able to scry a juicy tidbit. These can also be rewards in the dungeon; for instance, you find the bones of an adventuring group with their maps to date, except the spider that killed them is still around and hungry.

For future published megadungeons (and for the unpublished efforts people are working on), I think having a list of potential clues and a few maps / diagrams that can be used as handouts would be invaluable. Revealing a bit of the megadungeon to draw players along can be a really rich piece of the game.

Cryptid Wednesday: The Mongolian Death Worm

It's been seven days since I wrote up a cryptid for Swords & Wizardry. So without further ado, one of the better pure monsters in the field.

Olgoi-Khorkhoi (Mongolian Death Worm)

Hit Dice: 4-6
Armor Class: 7 [12]
Attacks: Spew poison
Saving Throw: 13, 12 or 11
Special: Poison, lightning, corrosion
Move: 6
Alignment: Neutral
Challenge Level/XP: 4 HD: 9/1,100; 5 HD: 10/1,400; 6 HD: 11/1,700

An Olgoi-Khorkhoi is a bright red worm varying from 2' to 4' in length. It has no head, only a gaping maw that drips venom. Most of the life of these creatures is spent burrowed in sandy or rocky soil, only coming out to hunt a few times a year. Its preferred target are camels and pack animals in general, which they use to lay their eggs, but they will attack humans.

A 2' worm will have 4 HD, 3' having 5 HD and 4' with 6 HD. The death worm has an electric shock that it can use once per day; this is a lightning bolt for a number of d6 equal to its hit dice. If encountered at a distance the olgoi-khorkhoi will always use its shock as a first weapon. Subsequently, it can spit venom up to 5'. On a successful hit, a target must save versus poison or die. If this is unsuccessful, there is a 1 in 6 chance that a character in metal armor is hit by the spray. This will corrode the armor beyond use.

The body of the olgoi-khorkoi is entirely venomous and corrosive. If a metal weapon is used against the death worm, there is a 3 in 6 chance of it being affected and corroded beyond use after the combat (subtract any bonus on a magic weapon from this chance). Any character touching the skin of the death worm must make a saving throw versus poison at +2 or die. Both dangers continue to exist after the creature itself dies.

A dead olgoi-khorkhoi's body is a valuable resource, that may be purchased by wizards, alchemists or assassins. As a rule of thumb, each foot of body weighs 25 lbs. and fetches 500-1000 GP, up to a maximum of 4000 for a 6 HD monster.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Blackmoor and the Early Levels of Dungeons

In running Stonehell, I've been given to thinking a bit about megadungeon design - and low-level dungeon play in general. The overall pattern of published dungeons, following the rules for populating a level in the D&D rules, tends towards a fairly high concentration of presumed combat encounters. The modern megadungeon is inclined to have more empty rooms, but it still presumes a fairly high degree of combat, sometimes with new inventions and other times with the cursus honorum of humanoids. All this tends to lead to a pattern of short bursts of exploration punctuated by monster fights.

But if you look at the original dungeon, Blackmoor Castle, as presented in First Fantasy Campaign, it's nothing like that. The first level is very sparse - there are nine rooms, only a few of which have combat encounters. The ones that do have large combat encounters - 60 goblins between two rooms (marked 9C and 9D), another with 16 goblins, one with 32 kobolds. But there are nine or ten ways down, and at least five or six stairways up.

One aspect of this I find interesting is the volume of monsters. Sixty goblins, sweet merciful crap! Older D&D is a game where numbers matter, and that many goblins will overwhelm any party you can throw at them. It makes some other tactical solution more or less inevitable, at least after the first TPK when players knock down the door and charge in. This lets the dungeon have adversaries and factions without stringing them through a dozen or more rooms to make them manageable.

This also makes good logical sense. Who is most able to survive in the first level of the dungeon, most vulnerable to raids, small enclaves or large masses of cannon fodder?

The number of entrances and exits, likewise, is stellar. Figuring out which way to go into a dungeon is important when there are rooms with sixty goblins in them! This also encourages a style much more in line with early megadungeon play, where instead of leveling up carefully on the first floors, players would go as deep as they could and get the best treasure they can find. Making the first level less of a place for accumulating levels and more of a passageway down really creates a different dynamic from the dungeon that I think is worth exploring.

Of course, Blackmoor is a first, and as such doesn't have everything. The FFC notes very few "weird" rooms, which I think should be features of the early dungeon levels. Traps, statues, pools, odd features - pretty much what we see in the Dungeon Alphabet - should round out those early levels and make them strange and foreign, setting a tone much different from a monster-heavy place. In Stonehell, I find myself thinking I'd have really appreciated this style of dungeon; there are some really great weird rooms that kind of get lost in the shuffle because of all the rooms built more or less for combat, particularly in the grind-y Quiet Halls.

These are lessons worth considering for megadungeon design. None of it means that big, sprawling levels are in any way inappropriate. It's just that there are other models for first levels that I think we should look at, and think about in terms of dungeon design.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Goings on in the OSR

Since my regular game got postponed AGAIN, I wanted to take the time to post some things about what's been going on in the old school renaissance lately.

You can buy Jim Raggi's module Better Than Any Man in PDF from RPGNow for any price you want, including free. I backed this module on Kickstarter so I'm hardly an impartial judge, but it is seriously impressive. I got my copy at Free RPG Day and was thinking of writing a review, except that reviews aren't a regular part of this blog and I don't really intend to start. This is a detailed sandbox module with a central town, several dungeon settings, and a built-in timer so PCs can't lollygag through the plot. This is a trend with Raggi, who wrote The God That Crawls to have a dungeon race instead of a dungeon crawl. It also has a number of new spells that you really do not want to ever have to use. All magic in LotFP seems double-edged.

I really like BTAM's sandbox style of presentation. The module has loads of plot in it, but there is nary a drop of railroading to be found. All the plot has to be emergent from players interacting with the world. Now, there are two things that are less than comfortable in the module - one, it more or less encourages roleplaying out some debauchery in the section about the Joy in Karlstadt, which is honestly a bit juvenile. Two, it does a two-page spread making cannibalism explicit, which seems gratuitous. But Raggi has worked out a niche where épater la bourgeoisie (shock the middle-classes) is a commandment, so at this point it's just expected that something unsavory will be in there.

I'd like to play the module specifically because the second half (the dungeons) make the first half (the town) feel mostly like a bit of a red herring, and I want to see if that is borne out in play. Oh, and if you get to the end, a near-TPK is inevitable.

Then there is Scott Moberly's AFS zine, issue 3. This is a print-only zine that has two adventures, some monsters and magic items, some fiction and a couple of articles, all in a sword & sorcery vibe. You have to get this issue, if only because of Benoist Poiré's module. Scott put the map up online, and it is gorgeous. Look:

Probably one of my absolute favorite dungeon maps since The Original Bottle City, which is another gorgeous thing. Benoist's module is written in a "this is how I used it, this is how you might use it" fashion which I'm not sold on, mostly because the "how you might use it" (called IYC for In Your Campaign) notes would have done better as a single section rather than repeating on every single room description. But it's a fresh, clever module with some really wild ideas in it. But I swear, I could buy a book full of maps that look that great. Even without any keys, it'd be worth every penny.

One other thing I wanted to comment on. A recent game called Monsters & Magic came out that tries to add some "modern" mechanics to a game that is old-school. Which isn't a bad thing, but it bills itself as an OSR game - and it's not. To me, the OSR is more about play than the trappings. We have hardcore sword & sorcery, horror, gonzo science fantasy and high-magic, post-apocalyptic, all kinds of flavors but have remained clustered around play that you could reasonably say comes from a TSR-centric pre-1986 mold, even when using post-1986 materials like the Rules Cyclopedia. M&M, to me, misses this point in the OSR, by trying to keep some trappings but fundamentally change the play.

None of this is to knock the game or its creators. I haven't played it, and it looks like it's fun if that is your bag. But it's really made me think about what being part of the OSR means, and I think more than anything it means a shared set of assumptions about the way we play.

Finally there's what is coming up. Dwimmermount should come out in the next few months, and Stonehell; it's not just because I'm running the latter that I like it better as a megadungeon. LotFP has a lot due in late July, with its Rules & Magic hardcover, Vincent Baker's Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions and Kenneth Hite's Qelong adventure. We should be nearing a penultimate issue of Fight On!, and my own Dungeon Crawl should be releasing around the beginning of August.

So that's what I've got about the OSR. I'm curious what other folks have found interesting and/or are looking forward to.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Integrity, Randomness and Improvisation

The idea has been going around:
To put it bluntly, the GM’s job is to be defeated by the players in the most entertaining way for everyone involved.
It's not particularly interesting to say I disagree with this. But it's worth talking about why.

Fundamentally, as I've said before, the referee's job is to prepare a world and run it for the players. From this perspective, keeping integrity intact is more important than the survival of the party, or any sense of "story" the referee chooses to make. As I emphasized before, integrity only applies to written material - what the referee wrote down exists.

The reason integrity matters is that without it, player skill is a game of impressing the referee. But since D&D is a hidden-map game, player skill should be a function of being able to explore the map without falling victim to what is on it, either in monsters or traps. When we look at it this way, the referee's job has to be coming up with the map and the hard and fast parts of what is on the map - and not losing in an entertaining way.

Of course, what's on the map is necessarily only a subset of what is actually there in play. Improvisation and generating details randomly are a classic part of RPGs, and many times the most memorable moments and ideas are made up on the fly during a game session. And this interacts with player skill again: one part of player skill is figuring out which details are unimportant and not wasting time on them. I've seen players bash their heads against unimportant areas, or overlook crucial ones that would hide major treasures. That's integrity.

Randomness is one way to bridge the gap between integrity and improvisation. Wandering monsters and random charts both are cases where the world has an objective chance - but not a certainty - for their contents to exist in the world. To me, the quantum ogre is misnamed. Quanta refer to percentages; a true quantum ogre is one on a wandering monster chart, which may or may not be present in any given turn, and has a certain chance of existing. Which is, oddly, exactly what wandering monster charts and other random tables imply about the game world, from the referee's perspective.

Integrity does matter here as well, though - if you have an ogre on your wandering monster chart but decide not to spring it on the PCs when the WM die comes up, that's arbitrary just like adjusting the number of trolls in a room to party size would be. The integrity of random tables is in the chance of the referenced creatures or obstacles appearing. You could make a very interesting dungeon level where there are no programmed encounters, only high-risk random encounters, and treasure extraction was possible, but only as part of an arduous and extremely time-consuming process.

I think this is important because the assumption of PC success is basically illusionism. If failure is not an option, there really is no skill - players are going to succeed whether they are good or not. I think this is honestly one of the reasons that OSR gaming has the appeal it does. Since character death is up-front and entirely possible, it makes it clear that integrity is more important than your PC. And players respond positively, by becoming very conscious of what their characters are doing, and it leads to the development of player skill. And that, I think, is a good thing.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cryptid Wednesday: The Batsquatch

In honor of the middle of the week, I write up a cryptozoological horror for Swords & Wizardry. This one is too odd to pass up.


Hit Dice: 6
Armor Class: 6 [13]
Attacks: 2 claws (2d4/2d4)
Saving Throw: 11
Special: Squeeze
Move: 15 (Flying 30)
Alignment: Neutral
Challenge Level/XP: 7/600

The batsquatch is a creature similar to the elusive sasquatch, and preferring similar hunting territories in temperate and sub-arctic forests and mountains. It stands nine feet tall, covered in bluish fur, and has bird-like claws on its feet. The massive leathery wings on its back are fully functional. Its legs are powerful and muscular, and the knees bend backward, giving it an unearthly gait when it walks. The yellow eyes have half-moon pupils and darkvision.

In the wild, the batsquatch is often hunting, and will attack intruders into its territory. If it is encountered from a distance it will pick up large rocks and throw them for 2d6 damage each. Once engaged in melee combat, the batsquatch lashes out with its long, fierce claws. If a single opponent is hit by both claws in the same round, the batsquatch can squeeze them for 2d6 extra damage.

A batsquatch is a solitary creature. There may be more than one, but no groups are ever spotted together. The batsquatch does not speak Common, but it does speak a variant of the sasquatch language and can be understood by anyone who speaks Sasquatch.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Rules Cyclopedia - Now in PDF

The D&D Rules Cyclopedia is available from D&D Classics as a PDF for $9.99, which seems to be an indication that the rulebook will not be getting the "premium hardcover" treatment from Wizards of the Coast. Still, it's encouraging that the book is back in circulation.

The RC had the distinction of being the first book to put all of Dungeons & Dragons into a single hardcover, collecting most of the B-E-C-M rulebooks into a single volume and adding some variants of its own. I think a big part of the love for it comes from the fact that it manages to be complete in one book and reflects the rules a lot of people (yours truly included) started off with. It also has the odd distinction of having all the interior illustrations done by Terry Dykstra, who also illustrated the 1991 beginner's boxed set. Much of the art is recycled between the two.

RC D&D is, in a way, a daunting prospect. Without mitigating the lethality of low-level B/X D&D in the slightest, the RC offers 36 levels, with multiple shifts between play models dating all the way back to OD&D. It preserves the "endgame" in a serious way, working in mass combat rules that we used in several occasions in my AD&D 2e days. Opinions differ widely on the weapon mastery and skill rules, but personally I think the "prestige" classes (added in the Companion set) were one of the best additions. But the levels are the biggest challenge. Even at a level every few sessions it's hard to imagine getting all the way up to level 36 with a full party; it's much more of a retinue-type of adventure.

It's funny to see how relatively conservative the D&D game was between 1974 and 1991. Rules stick around in the RC that are totally familiar from OD&D, although sometimes with modifications. The wandering monster check, for instance, is up to once per two turns; the secret door rules are exactly the same. Listening rolls are little different. There are some more rules, but it would be fully recognizable if handed to someone who hadn't seen a book printed since 1974.

The other thing I like about the RC is how much character its monster list has. Skimming through it again, it has many of the iconic D&D monsters, and many that are peculiar to the "basic" line (giant weasel, thoul, fire beetle, living statue), but at the same time some is just odd like the mek or the hydrax. There's just enough here to keep players on their toes while in totally familiar ground, which seems to be the trend in the Rules Cyclopedia.

With the RC back in circulation, albeit electronically, I think there's a chance for some quality gaming. You just have to wonder - did WotC stop from reprinting it because with a printed Rules Cyclopedia, there's really no need for a "D&D Next"?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Party versus Retinue

In thinking a bit about the OD&D setting, I think it implies a very different structure from how much of Dungeons & Dragons has been played.

Whether it's a knight in his castle, a wizard in a tower, a cleric in his temple, or a wandering encounter version, there is assumed to be a retinue about the NPC. Two things are noteworthy here. First, the retinue is usually made up of characters significantly lower in level than the main character. Second, player characters are pretty much assumed to take up the same formation. The barony and specialist / man-at-arms rules more or less encourage this style of play: once you have your own stronghold, you turn it around and start recruiting.

Even AD&D had some assumption of this methodology, with its lengthy lists of retainers in the DMG. This seems rather odd when you are looking at it from the perspective of a "permanent party" but when you switch it around and even AD&D had some assumption of this methodology, with its lengthy lists of retainers in the DMG. This seems rather odd when you are looking at it from the perspective of a "permanent party" but when you switch it around and consider retinue-based play, it makes perfect sense.

The party seems to have come about because of the conditions of play. Rather than large groups of wargamers where individuals cycled in and out of play regularly, D&D became a game played among small circles of friends, starting in the pre-teen years and going up through high school. In that period, the party makes sense because people that age typically form such tight-knit groups for their social activity.

I've always found that play gets better at high levels with fewer high-level PCs, and I think much of the grousing (particularly about the impact of high-level wizards) is based on stretching the party model much further than it is meant to go. Party-based play makes sense in D&D when you are low level; at that point it's primarily a numbers game, and you're better off stacking the deck in your favor. But after 7th or 8th level, it's just not as interesting - which is precisely when the original game's rules move on to the more complex "endgame."

One reason I like this approach is that it feels much more "Appendix N." D&D doesn't do solitary heroes well at lower levels, but once a PC reaches a certain point, they have gained the ability to do it, with support from their sidekick(s) as necessary. This is much closer to your literary swords & sorcery; even Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are two people, not a balanced "party." Most of the time, each PC will have their own agenda and be off doing things that take up a lot of their own time.

This model still allows for scenarios where players do assemble a whole bunch of high-powered PCs (and NPCs) to go off against some suitably large threat - but it's not the usual modus vivendi of the PCs.