Saturday, March 20, 2010

Gotta Love Second Hand Games

Stopped by Emerald Comics on campus today and picked up some $3 boxed sets and $2 modules.  As much as I love buying new products, the bang for your buck when buying used is insane!  Plunk down $22 and get four boxed sets and five modules!

Of course, I already owned the 1981 Expert books (but not the box!  I had to have it!), and the Companion Rules... but what the hey, how could I pass up getting back up copies for $3?

Thanks Emerald Comics!  BTW, if you live in the Eugene area Emerald Comics is on 13th in between Hilyard and Alder, it has a ton of used 1e, 2e and 3e, Gurps, Rifts, Ars Magica, Runequest, Shadowrun, and more.  Other good local spots are the shop that looks like a castle in Glenwood on Franklin, about 1/2 mile from the bridge to Springfield (cheap 2e boxed sets, some 1e hardcovers) and Evolution Games on 24th and Hilyard in the little shopping complex that includes Sundance Wine Sellers and Humble Bagel (they even have some used Stormbringer material for $5 each, and I recently picked up a bunch of 1e modules there, all softcover used RPGs are $5 and hardcover are $10, so it is a little pricier than the other two).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I hereby promise to not publish any more "generic" fantasy crap on this blog.

In the comments to my last post (a continuation of my ongoing Orcish Lowlands series), Timeshadows called me out for throwing some gargoyles into the petrified forest without providing a real sense of what they were doing there, why they were doing it and how they might get  'er done.  I responded with some equivocating bullshit excuse about how I have been removing some of the stranger elements from my homebrew setting to keep the Orcish Lowlands more usable, to make it "plug and play" to steal the parlance of USB connectivity.

The gargoyles, in all actuality, are not gargoyles.  They are first generation offspring of tree-devils and petrified trees.  I suppose you might call them Stone Devils, or Stone Tree Devils.  As such, they are quite powerful and have access to a kind of magic that is all but forgotten in the day and age described in my Orcish Lowland posts.    That is really neither here nor there, but the point is this: after allowing Timeshadows' comment to marinate today while I tramped around a natural foods conference (I emerged with giant bags of loot and a new respect for dungeon crawlers that haul out bags of gold; my bags of food and supplement samples, teeshirts and product literature weighed a TON and were quite unwieldy), I have decided that she was completely right.

"While I can understand your concern about the setting v. generic issue, I'd much rather see your setting than another generic product.
--My opinion on this has been stated all over Bloglandia.

Regarding the specifics you have shared, that is exactly the sort of stuff I'd rather read than something I could generate on my own with a hexploration table and dice."

Thanks, Timeshadows, that is exactly what I needed to hear.

It is really easy to strip away strange weird details from a setting to leave something bland and vanilla to insert into boring Forgotten Realms campaign X (not to pick on the realms, but... I'm picking on the realms).  Perhaps I take for granted my ability to come up with the strange, the outlandish details, the downright bizarre.   I am reminded regularly when reading other people's posts that not everyone can just come up with crazy shit off the top of their heads.

So I hereby pledge to not censor myself, to not remove the strange details, to not present a generic fantasy product.  That means you are going to read some BATSHIT CRAZY stuff.  Brace yourself.

Orcish Lowlands - Petrified Forest

Long ago, immense trees covered the landscape that is now a high, barren, windswept plateau.  In the millions of intervening years, all traces of these trees have been obliterated... except in one valley that rises from the lowlands up into the nameless mountains to the west.  When an ice dam burst and released a torrential flood from underneath the ice caps above the valley, the giant trees were buried in a slurry of silt and slowly petrified.  As the climate of the world changed and the ice caps receded from the mountains above the valley, the silt filling the valley was gradually washed away by ages of glacial run-off.  

The end result is an eerily beautiful sight: an old growth forest, skeletal giants sedately spaced and reaching leafless branches futilely out toward the sun, stands as a mute reminder of a very different time.  Many of these trees were knocked over in the flood, making it difficult to traverse the valley on foot.  Agatization of the trees is quite common, and if some method could be devised to cut the trunks (which reach up to 40' in diameter!) and transport sections away they would be exceedingly valuable.  

end-on view of a broken-off agatized branch

The valley today is eerily quiet.  This is a result of the gargoyles that perch high in the trees, their stony bodies blending in perfectly against the massive trunks.  The gargoyles may be escaped shock-troops from the wars that ravaged the lowlands, or they may be a naturally occurring result of an environmental magic source in the middle of a petrified forest.  In any case, they are vicious predators that kill anything that moves.  They prefer to let intruders work their way far into the valley before making their presence known, as the gargoyles love the thrill of chasing victims through the difficult terrain.  In a grotesque parody of flesh and blood carnivores, they tear their kills to shreds with their sharp beaks as if they were eating them.  

Friday, March 12, 2010

RPG Creatures - Check out these amazing illustrations!

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Nicholas Cloister, a freelance artist who was seeking to promote his new blog where he posts creatures to use in fantasy RPGs.  I finally got around to checking it out tonight, and color me impressed!  He does not have a lot of illustrations up, but what he does have are incredibly detailed.  I particularly like his use of color.  He also provides system neutral stats for the creatures, along with descriptions that might run a little too long for some people's tastes (if you want a detailed ecology of each creature, this guy is your man!).  In any case, he asked me to promote his blog because it wasn't getting very many visitors and gave me permission to post an illustration if I did so.  By the way, all of his illustrations are free to use (but not publish) for non-commercial purposes.  Without further ado, here is my favorite creature, the Mellian Trollfrog.

This bad boy is going to find a home in the jungles of my 4e campaign, that is for sure!  I wish Nicholas all the best and hope that he continues to post more creatures over time.  As a fledgling fantasy illustrator myself, I am very impressed with the level of his illustrations.  Do yourself a favor and check his blog out!

Houserules and Dice Fudging - at what point are you no longer playing D&D?

In the comments to my last post many people made the point that D&D is never played RAW, and each group will come to a consensus together on how the game should be played.  My post was about PC mortality, and Rob Barret even went so far as to state,

"In all the years we played Moldvay, Mentzer, and AD&D, I don't think we ever had a character die.  Ever.  Same for 2nd edition and 3rd edition for that matter."

To me, that suggests either some serious houseruling to reduce the lethality of these games or some serious dice fudging or both.  Houseruling I totally understand, being a big proponent of this myself.  The urge to tinker with the rules runs strong within me, and sometimes I have to consciously hold myself back from making unnecessary changes just because a particular mechanic seems a little wonky to me.  Lately, I have been satisfying this urge by just writing my own rulesets, and that has been a ton of fun.

Dice fudging is a little more alien to me, on either side of the screen.  As a DM, if I am not comfortable with the idea of PCs dying, what am I doing running a game that has an abstract combat system like D&D where the falling dice determine success or failure with very little room for player skill to influence the outcome?  I think a lot of DMs roll their dice behind the screen, so no one would ever be the wiser anyway.  As a player, sure I can understand the desire to roll well, but half the fun to me is when you get that awesome critical hit in after a long string of pathetic rolls.  Still, I guess a lot of people out there do practice dice fudging.  Heck, I was reading a thread on the other day about how one of the top sellers on an online RPG store were the loaded d20's!

I would hazard a guess that both houseruling D&D to decrease lethality and fudging dice rolls are a product of the desire to make D&D more of a storytelling game.  Them may be fightin' words in some circles, but I feel that the desire to play out a storyline involving the PCs as the Heroes of the story precludes the PCs dying from being a very real possibility.  Many people don't want to play a game of D&D that involves their characters dying.

More power to 'em, I say.  People should play the game they want to play.  I guess what has been bugging me when I think about this is the nagging feeling that this isn't really D&D.  I keep going back and forth about this; the rational side of me knows that houserules have been mentioned and encouraged in every edition of the game (as Kevin reminded me in the comments to my last post), but my gut reaction just keeps being that a game with no chance of death just isn't the game that I call D&D.  It may be as simple as that - there is no monolothic D&D, and what each person thinks of as D&D is really a unique creation of how she interprets the rules and how she has bent them to her own ends.

But let me conduct a little thought experiment: surely there must be some point past which you cannot push D&D and still have it be recognized as D&D.  Let us imagine a hypothetical gaming group.  This group has decided that they like D&D, they like the races and classes and character creation, but they don't like the way combat is resolved, they don't like the non-combat skill system and they don't like the magic system.  So they make a houserule - each player simply narrates what her character does, and the DM narrates what the NPCs do.  If there is a conflict between these narratives, the group as a whole must come to a consensus as to what happened before play can continue.

Is that still D&D?  Or is it a group storytelling session with some elements of D&D thrown in?

Where would you draw the line?  Give me some examples of what, in your opinion, would push a game beyond "D&D" into the territory of something else entirely.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Character Death = Function of Play Style?

In the middle of another controversial post, Faustusnotes tosses out that character death rates have nothing to do with system and are actually dependent on the style of play.  Taken to the extreme, I suppose I would agree; if the "play style" of the group is to stay on the farm and not go out adventuring, I guess the death rate would be pretty low!

At first I thought this point was a no-brainer.  In the comments to his post, I said the following:
In OD&D every class had between 1 and 6 HP at first level! You could be a FIGHTER, for crissakes, the guy who is supposed to be able to kick ass and take names, with 1 HP! To be felled by a single rock thrown by a kobold!
Lets contrast that with 4e, which (just in case your answer to my two questions was no, you have never read or played 4e) starts characters out with their Constitution score worth of HP + a sum of HP determined by their class AND lets you heal yourself during combat once per combat AND lets you heal yourself more or less at will outside of combat AND says you do not actually die until you reach a value equal to negative one half your HP.
Faustusnotes responded with a comment that made me think a little about styles of play and the effect of the system on leveling up.

Carl, I wasn’t thinking just of first level in either of these games – D&D characers double their unkillability at 2nd level, then it goes up by 50% again at 3rd level, and so on – they quite quickly become proof against a few sword blows.
But more specifically, I was thinking that the rate of PC Death really depends on the DMs decisions about what and how many monsters to use, what kind of encounter settings to use (for example, whether the PCs get a chance to plan for combat), and so on. Obviously if you run encounters as simple stand-up fights without preparation or warning, strictly according to the random encounter rules, with the appropriate level-balanced monsters, at 1st level D&D and D&D3.5 are much harder to survive in than 4e. But I don’t think many groups do that, and they certainly don’t have to do that. It’s about style.

There are several problems I have with this statement.  The first is that in every edition prior to 4e, HP were rolled randomly upon leveling up, while 4e awards a set amount of HP based on class at each level.  So for instance, your 1st level Labyrinth Lord character with 3 HP could roll a 1 for HP upon attaining level two.  Far from doubling her unkillability, it would have gone up by a mere 33%.

The second is the unspoken assumption that the character is going to level up at all!  While it is true that even in OD&D (definitely the most lethal version of the game in terms of mechanics, because there are no bonus  HP for high Constitution and all classes use the venerable d6 for HD), a character becomes much more durable at mid to high levels, I would argue that it is much rarer for a character to advance to these levels in OD&D or its ilk than 4e, for instance.  It isn't just the increased HP that 4e doles out or the healing surges; it isn't the fact that multiple stats now can modify AC, or that feats can be used to increase HP; it isn't even the whole death does not occur until the character drops below her negative bloodied value (negative 1/2 total HP); it is the way that 4e is designed as a system to make sure that a party composed of the different roles works together effectively in combat, with the leader restoring lost HP, the strikers dealing out the damage, the defender drawing the attacks... 4e is designed for a the party to be a well oiled machine, each character performing a vital function.  I would argue that this mechanical aspect of 4e design creates a strong pressure on the DM to keep characters alive.  Unlike the old OD&D scenario where a character drops and her player just takes over one of the hirelings, if a member of a 4e party dies the whole game kind of grinds to a halt or at least works much less optimally because one of the party roles is no longer being fulfilled.

Compare that to OD&D, where both in my experience and in the actual play reports I have read of others, it is not at all uncommon to have more characters die before reaching 2d level than not!  I think that is the crux of it; sure, if you survive to 3rd level or higher in OD&D you have a much better chance of not dying from any nick or scratch, but just getting to that point is an accomplishment that is worthy of praise.  This also gets at the actual subject of Faustusnotes post (story based gaming) - in OD&D and other older editions, any character that actually makes it past the most deadly phase of the game already has a story, has already gone through adversity and probably has already had some lucky near death escapades.

Getting back to the subject of play style, it really does not matter if a party has had a chance to plan before being shoved into combat, and it certainly does not matter if the monsters encountered are balanced to the party's level: OD&D is just flat out more deadly at 1st level.  The best laid plans of platemail clad fighters can be laid low with a single roll of the d20.  The absolute lowest AC that an OD&D fighter can have is AC 2 (that is AC 17 for you ascending AC heads), which means that there is still a decent chance of getting hit by even the lowliest of attackers.  Every time combat is engaged in, no matter what the circumstances or the play style, players of OD&D characters hold their breath a little because they know that they are one unlucky roll away from death at any moment.

One final point about leveling up:  4e has a very clear and well defined number of encounters (10) that it takes to reach 2d level.  Lets look at Labyrinth Lord style XP for a second - at 15 XP each, a party of four would have to kill something like 500 orcs to level up!  To level up in ten encounters at that rate would require killing 50 orcs an encounter!  XP for GP helps this somewhat, but it still takes a much longer time to level up in older editions of the game, prolonging the sweet agony of the "sudden death" levels and making Faustusnotes position that PC mortality is a function of playstyle even more untenable.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Player's Handbook 3 Review (4e)

I received a review copy of Player's Handbook 3.  Part One of my review was published today at Eye of the Vortex.  Part one has a detailed breakdown of the content, goes over the races and analyses the Hybrid Character rules and the new Skill Powers.  Part two will cover the new classes, stay tuned!

I personally think PHB3 marks a significant change in the design philosophy of 4e.  Up till now, if I had to choose a single overriding design goal as the obvious priority of 4e, it would have been balance.  Every class and race and power was carefully balanced against the other options.  Unlike 3e, it was genuinely difficult if not impossible to make a character that could not hold her own against the min-maxers best efforts.  Unlike 3e, you did not have to carefully analyze what impact feat choices would have far down the road.  You could pretty much just pick what sounded cool in 4e character creation and rest assured that the carefully balanced mechanics behind the scene would allow your character to hit and do damage within the frequencies specified by the design parameters.

Well, in a way that is all in the past now.  The Hybrid Character rules (see my review for more details on these rules) pretty much throw balance out the window.  By allowing complete freedom to mix and max classes, you could easily end up with a horribly unbalanced class that could not pull its weight in combat if you were not careful.  I see this as a major shift for 4e - the desire to provide options for players to build the character of their dreams has trumped the desire for balance.

By the way, if you are reading this and have a RPG product you want me to review, drop me an email (carlgnash AT gmail DOT com).  The Eye of the Vortex is about to enter another Magic the Gathering spoiler season, and they get a TON of traffic during spoiler season.  If you want to expose your product to thousands of kids with disposable income, this is your chance!

Mice in Mech Suits update

Thanks to everyone who has downloaded the 1st beta version of the Mice in Mech Suits rules.  Over 40 of you have done so already!  Download them now if you have not done so yet.  If you have downloaded the rules and looked them over, please give me feedback even if it is telling me how much the rules suck.  If you can be specific about what particular part of the rules suck, negative feedback is probably even more helpful than positive feedback so don't hold back to spare my feelings!  I am completely reworking them, but your feedback can help me refine what areas of the rules I focus the most on in this rewrite.

I am working on a revised set of rules with its own unique mechanic revolving around d30's.  Recently, you see, I have acquired a bunch of d30's.  While it is pretty cool being able to give each player in my games their own d30 to use for their once a session d30 roll, I have been itching to come up with more ways to use the dice.
I should have a new d30 version of the Mice in Mech Suit rules ready in a week or two, then I will upload another Beta Playtest.  I will also post a simple conversion to use these rules with d20's instead of d30's.  The new rules are pretty different, featuring an attack resolution system that combines attack and damage rolls into one d30 roll opposed by a defenders roll.  The number of d30 that can be rolled per round for attack and defense are determined in mech creation.  One interesting thing about the new system is that the amount of defense dice remaining = remaining movement, so unused defense dice can be converted into movement and a mech that rolls all of its defense dice cannot move at all unless it received a bonus to movement in mech creation.  Actions occur more or less simultaneously in a round, so the initiative rules have been changed dramatically.  These rules will no longer create mechs that are directly portable into a D&D setting, although I will provide conversion rules.

More on this later!  Now I am going to finish packing for a business trip that will take me away from my blogging duties for a week.  See you on the flip side!


Monday, March 8, 2010

A follower for every year of my life...

Thanks to one and all of my 29 followers.  You guys have made a very wise decision!  In honor of your discernment, have at this Smörgåsbord!

Thanks for reading my blog.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

If this was a design goal of 4e, EPIC FAIL!!!

From this interview with one of 4e's lead designers, Andy Collins (responding to the question, "What is the audience for today's Dungeons and Dragons, and how is that different from the audience for my Dungeons and Dragons, growing up in the '80s and early '90s?"):

"People today, the young kids today, are coming into exposure from D&D after having playing games that have very similar themes, often have very similar mechanics ... they understand the concepts of the game. So in some ways they are much more advanced as potential game players. But in other ways, they are also coming from a background that is short attention span, perhaps, less likely interested in reading the rules of the game before playing.

And I'm not just talking about younger players now, but anybody. I know when I jump into a new console game, for instance, the last thing I want to do is read the book. I want to start playing. And that's a relatively new development in game playing and game learning. And we've been working to adapt to that, the changing expectations of the new gamer."

So... one of the design goals behind 4e was to make it so that you didn't have to read the rules before playing?  So that you could just jump into play and go?  Um...  

Let me make one thing clear before I go any further.  I am not a 4e hater by any means.  I have played the game, I am currently DMing a 4e campaign, I appreciate it for what it is.  And what it is, is not a rules lite game!  No way, no how.  Even a player with experience in previous editions of D&D is going to face a steep learning curve when thrown into 4e combat.  I don't know how many times now I have reminded my players as they move straight through squares that are threatened by a monster that they are going to incur an opportunity attack.  The guy playing a cleric in my campaign is now in his second campaign and has been playing 4e for months now.   He still constantly forgets that if he doesn't shift back one square when next to a monster, when he uses most of his (ranged) powers he is going to incur an opportunity attack.  Terms like "Close Blast 3" and "range 10 burst 1" are hardly intuitive when you are looking at the text of a combat power.  Heck, looking down at the little cards that are printed out by the character creator it is not at all obvious (until you figure out the color coding) which powers can be used at will, once an encounter, or once a day (yes I know it says what type of power it is, but there are a lot of little blocks of text crammed into those cards...).  And don't even get me started on the use of skills such as dungeoneering or nature to learn about monsters.  Who is going to think to do that if they haven't read the rules?

If the designers of 4e were trying to make a game to appeal to "the young kids today" who have a "limited attention span" (which I think is complete and utter bullshit in and of itself, but that is neither here nor there), and wanted to make a game that could be picked up and played without reading the rules, they failed.  Plain and simple.  Total, epic, rolled a natural 1, failure.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Running a 1e module with 4e rules - and making D&D history?

My players (unbeknownst to them) started exploring the 1e module "The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan" last night in my 4e game.  I have, of course, made a few tweaks to what was originally a tournament module for AD&D.  The biggest change is that they are going through the module backwards.  If you are unfamiliar with the adventure, it starts with the players falling through a hole into a deep level of a hidden shrine underneath a pyramid temple, and they have to find their way up and out before they are killed by the poisonous gas that is filling up the complex.  Therefore, the players work their way up from the lowest levels and finally (if they avoid MANY devious traps) emerge at the top of the pyramid.

In my game, the players are exploring a strange cavern that was recently broken into by gold miners.  The cavern contained a pyramid temple and some four-armed demon apes that killed the miners and wreaked havoc in the surrounding area.  Even worse, a giant spider with sword-edged arms and human hands later emerged from the cavern and systematically hunted down most of the surviving miners.  The party has been employed by the gold mine to investigate.  Last night's session was an eight hour marathon, so I am going to skip hours of interesting gameplay and talk about the experience I had when the players actually got down to poking their heads into the pyramid and the shrine on top of it.

I did a small amount of prep work the night before the game, mostly consisting of making a couple of notes about each encounter area that I planned to use from the module.  The PCs were starting at the end of the module, basically, and working their way backwards, because they started outside the shrine on the pyramid and entered the shrine from above, entering its upper levels first.  I liberally hacked out some areas that I just didn't feel like translated that well, as well as a few areas that made little sense if encountered from the wrong direction.  I also made a note of each creature that might be encountered and spent a few minutes typing names into the 4e Monster Builder to find a rough equivalent for each.  Finally, I inserted my human-handed spider into a secret location (not sure if any of my players read this blog, but they have no idea where the spider is so I shan't spoil the surprise here...).

A few notes - 

The end of the module (and the first thing the players encountered) is the altar and mural on top of the pyramid.  In the module it is a bat altar, in my game I made it a spider altar.  The players carefully examined the place and noted two odd things: the mouth of the spider in the mural was an actual hole that seemed to be lined with real sharp mandibles; there were handles on the bottom front of the altar.  More careful inspection revealed that the entire altar might be able to be lifted by the handles, pivoting on its back edge to lift up.  Hammer the warforged barbarian and Tilia the albino minotaur warden tried to lift it and realized that they needed a little bit more muscle.  Luckily for them, they started looking around more carefully and realized that the legs of the spider which extended all around the alter were edged with razor sharp blades and there were some strange indentations in front of the handles on the floor by the altar.  Tilia made a mental leap and suggested that the entire party kneel before the altar and lift on the handles.  They succeeded in tipping the altar up and back and the spider leg blades whistled harmlessly through the air over their heads.  Trap number one, avoided!

The party then began investigating the mouth of the mural.  Everyone was pretty certain they were supposed to stick their hand in but were understandably reluctant to do so.  Finally, Hammer just did it but he unfortunately does not have blood so after taking some relatively minor damage and being stuck in the jaws of the spider mural for four rounds, the jaws opened and nothing else happened.  

Next, I think we might have made D&D history.  You can never be certain what wacky things have gone on in all the D&D games ever ran, but somehow I think there is at least a chance that Rhaziel was the first character ever to purposefully root his finger around in his nose until it started bleeding.  He started off by warning the party, "This could get dirty", then proceeded to give himself a nose bleed.  Many off-color jokes later the entire group was convulsed in laughter and Vomar the bugbear cleric's player was literally crying from laughing too hard.

Rhaziel collected the blood from his nosebleed and stuck one of the arm bones of a beheaded skeleton the group had found in the treasure pit under the altar into the mural's mouth.  When the jaws closed, he poured in the blood.  This was actually a good idea, as the mechanism was triggered by liquid weight, but he simply didn't have enough blood for it to work.  Finally, Vomar just bit the bullet, stuck his arm in and watched as his blood slowly drained into the hole.  Then the legs of the spider in the mural swung up and back and revealed a set of stairs that descended into the dark...

The next thing they encountered were the secret doors leading to the alter-ego encounter.  Tilia almost immediately figured out how to open them when she leaped up to grab the lintel above the door to pull herself up and look for a mechanism.  Of course, the lintel above the door was the mechanism, so in the party went. 

Hammer went in first, and discovered a statue with his face on it holding a golden scepter.  After other party members tried and failed to move the scepter, Hammer picked it up and was instantly petrified while the statue animated and tried to convince the party that it was Hammer, that he had just been switched into its body.  One of the changes I made was that I decided that the player of whichever character was petrified would get to control the animated statue.  So I pulled Hammer aside, gave him the little sheet on which I had scribbled a 4e conversion of the statue, and told him that he had all of Hammer's memories but clearly knew he was not Hammer.  I told him his goal was to convince the party that he really was Hammer and to continue exploring the dungeon.  I also told him that if it came down to combat, the scepter had a special property that if he scored a critical hit with it, it would petrify the victim, the statue would become an image of that new victim, and the real Hammer would become unpetrified.  Then the new statue/PC would have to play the part!

He did an AWESOME job of roleplaying this, and I had a lot of fun watching the obviously distrustful party try to poke a hole in the faux-Hammer/statue's logic.  They carefully asked him what he remembered, and tried every way they could think of to prove that it wasn't hammer.  Finally, Rhaziel casually scooped up the basket with anti-magic properties that the party had discovered a few sessions back and meandered over... until he was close enough to try to cover the scepter with the basket.  He succeeded, but nothing happened.  Hammer/statue tried to pull the  scepter out of the basket, and Rhaziel tried to yank the scepter out of his hand.  I had them roll off against each other with opposed strength checks (Rhaziel, an Eladrin rogue, has a poor strength score.  Hammer, the warforged barbarian, is a beast in terms of strength and I was using his strength as the statue's strength).  Their first rolls resulted in a tie, so they rolled off to break the tie.  Rhaziel got a natural 20 and the party all cheered as the scepter clattered to the floor.  Hammer/statue then began attacking the party, using his gaze attack to disarm them and clawing around wildly while he attempted to regain the statue.  Ultimately, the party managed to destroy the statue and Rhaziel tried wrapping the scepter in a blanket, picking it up carefully without touching it, and touching the scepter to the statue of Hammer.  Well, this is exactly how you restore the petrified character, so trap #2, met and dealt with!

At this point, Tilia's player mumbled something about, "Why would you make a secret room that is nothing but a big trap?  If you are trying to trap somebody, wouldn't you want them to find the trap?  Why make it hidden behind secret doors?"

Well, thats the beauty of a 1e tournament module for ya.  Traps around every corner...

The party soon encountered what in the original module would have been a centaur mummy.  I made it a spider-taur mummy, motionless on a slab in the middle of a room filled with cheap baubles and crappy jewelry.  The party did find the hidden treasure in the bottom of the urns full of river rocks.  So far, I have been very impressed with how thorough and "old school" my 4e players have been; maybe next time I will try the Temple of Doom on them...

The party was very suspicious of the mummified remains of the spider-taur.  Two party members flanked it while Tilia cautiously opened the door to the only exit from the room and took one step backwards down the stairs that were revealed beyond it.  Of course, the mummy flung its heavy bronze spear at her and the melee was on.

One REALLY hard fight later (I made the mummy-taur a reskinned Mummy Guardian, bumped it up to a level 9 brute for the base stats, then gave it some extras - an at will that was the ability to make two slam attacks in a round instead of one, to simulate both the human and spider halves being able to attack at once, and a special move action that recharged on a 5 or 6 that enabled it to shift 3 squares through enemy squares to simulate its ability to spider climb right over everything), Vomar was one HP a way from his negative bloodied value and absolute death and both he and Tilia had mummy rot.  The session ended there as the party retreated to try and find help to cure the disease (they had taken an extended rest first, and the disease had gotten progressively worse for Vomar so that he was one bad roll on an extended rest away from dying from the disease, and in any case was at -10 HP permanently until the disease is cured... the party is 2d level... ouch...).  

Thus ended session one of using a 1e module in 4e, and I have to say it worked great.  The rooms were plenty large enough for 4e combat, especially considering that the squares in 1e equaled ten feet so each translated into four 4e five foot squares.  I was most impressed with the party's logical trap solving ability, and I now know that I can throw an old school deathtrap style dungeon at them and have a good time!

How to DM - Play to your strengths

I have a feeling that the one thing that all successful DMs have in common is that they play to their strengths.  The old maxim "be true to yourself" is kind of what I am getting at here.

When I was much younger, I tried very hard to run my games in a similar style to Alexis over at the Tao of D&D (this post was inspired, in part, by this post by Alexis, this response by G. Benedicto and this response by Trollsmyth - it actually grew out of a comment I left on Trollsmyth's blog).  I desperately wanted to create these incredibly detailed worlds with all this background information and prep work and I ended up spending a lot of time working on what amounted to a mediocre final product when I actually ran the game.  You see, I am just not very good at meticulous world crafting.  I want to be, but I lack the self-discipline and commitment.  I have great ideas spilling out left and right, but when it comes to fully fleshing them out and setting them in stone before a session, I just suck at it.  And when I tried to do this, I tended to flounder around at the table paging through my notes looking for the place where I wrote down whatever pertained to what the PCs were trying to do.

Now that I am a little older and wiser, I have come to realize what my strengths as a person are.  I do my best work, in RPGs and elsewhere, when I am under the gun.  Deadlines motivate me.  Getting something done at the last minute is not just my style, it is my forte.  I do better work when I have less time to do it in, possibly because I quit over-thinking things and just trust in myself and everything just flows out.

I have a ton of experience in improvisational speaking and acting - I went undefeated my senior season in high school in competitive extemporaneous speaking, and I was named actor of the year all four years in high school.  Extemporaneous speaking requires that you be able to structure your improv, to format your speech with an attention grabbing intro, a quick bullet point list of what you are about to say, a structured speech that hits those bullet points and then a conclusion that wraps it all up.  Improvisational acting requires that you not only be creative yourself, but that you play off the creativity of your partners and allow their input to shape what you do next.

Combining my speaking and improvisational skills and my last-minute under-the-gun get 'er done skills, I have come to my adult DM style:  Some last minute prep work (making sure not to spend too much time over-thinking things) and a ton of improvised details during the session.  The sort of prep work that I like to do is notes on possible NPCs that the party might encounter and their motivations, and maybe a few brief sentences on locations that the party is likely to be exploring during the session.

This probably would horrify someone like Alexis, but the truth of the matter is that is how I get my best work done.  And the truth is also that if Alexis tried to run a game like this, it might very well suck hard.  He may not have the same unique set of strengths and skills that I do, just like I do not possess his meticulous craftsman like approach to worldbuilding and running a game.  You see, the spontaneous details that I come up with in the heat of the moment are great.  They are pure gold. They are better than what I come up with when I try to lay out it all out before hand.  I take notes during the session of what I am spouting out, and I never end up contradicting myself or painting myself into a corner.  Play flows very smoothly and I never have to stop and shuffle through notes.  I am organized while I am improvising in a way that I am not when I am trying to work from something previously fleshed out.

From conversations with my players outside of the game, I know that they never have a clue how much of my games are improvisational on my part.  One of my favorite tricks (and one that I talk about in this post) is to listen to what the players are saying and include it in the game.  If they ask if there is a ventilation shaft in the ceiling, why not?  If they are asking around to see if anyone has found any other strange stone heads like the one they found at the edge of the swamp, why not?  Old Traggert over there is an amateur archeologist in addition to a hopeless alcoholic, and would probably fill your ears with tales of stone heads if you would just buy him another round!

I reward the players for their creativity and include them in the world building process.  My players love it, I attract new players to my games constantly because current players can't stop talking about all the cool stuff that is going on in game, and I find that I have the time to run two different weekly games and play in a 3rd while working full time, writing two blogs and writing reviews for a gaming website.  Not to mention spending time with my fiancee.

I could never do this if I hadn't figured out what my strengths were and played to them.  Awesome DMs come in many different flavors.  Find out what your strengths are and play to them.  Don't try to emulate what someone else is doing, because no matter how cool THEY are when they are doing it, you are not them.

Are you experienced?

This was prompted by this post and this post at the Tao of D&D - a thought provoking blog if you haven't checked it out.

Sitting on the toilet at 3:30 AM last night after returning from the first 8 hour D&D session I have had in a long time, something crystallized in my mind.  I realized why I have been struggling for so long with the way D&D rewards experience primarily for killing things (and taking their loot in the earliest editions).  It boils down to semantics.  If instead of "experience points" they were called "combat points" or "martial prowess" or some such bullshit, I would probably never have had this problem.

The word "experience" brings to mind a whole host of things.  By the time we are conscious beings, we have had more experiences than we could ever enumerate and each one has helped shape who we are.  This process of course continues until it stops (or doesn't depending on your beliefs) at death.  The word itself implies that anything that happens to you is an "experience" because you "experienced" that thing happening.

I truly believe that this has been at the root of my long standing practice of disregarding the rules as written when it comes to awarding XP.  You simply cannot convince me that someone only becomes more "experienced" by killing something.  I have killed very few things more complex than an insect (and no humans, demihumans or monsters to date!), yet I am far more experienced now than I was when a child.  I dare say I have leveled up a few times, even.  You cannot explain this away with my acquisition of wealth because I have not been terribly successful in this regard.  So my subconscious reaction to the word "experience" has made it very hard for me to not award XP in a game when players obviously have just undergone some life-changing events, taken actions that would have grown them as people and spent time and effort outside of combat accomplishing things.

Now over at the Tao of D&D, I think Alexis has looked at this from the other side of the equation.  He has looked at the mechanical changes that occur when a D&D character levels up, and sees those changes as a steady progression of getting better at killing shit.  When you frame the problem like that, D&D experience makes sense.  I may just change the word I use for "experience" in my D&D games and become a traditionalist.

Nah, who am I kidding, my way is the one true way and everyone else is going to hell.  Repent, Convert and Bathe in the Glory of My Light!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

OK, I had to get in on this action...

Reacting to this post:  (as many others have done, some more eloquently than others... I'm thinking of you, JimLotFP, oh ye of the sheer poetic Twattiness!  Yeah, yeah, and Zak too.  Very eloquent, but perhaps not the visceral impact of LotFP's prose stylings...)

The only thing in this post that I find disturbing (and this was really crystallized in the subsequent comments made by the author) is the supposition that anyone saying they like one style of gaming is simultaneously somehow denigrating any other style of play.  No one (or at least no one that I have read, and I read a lot of old school blogs and have for over a year now) in the old school renaissance is going around putting down other styles of play.  If anything, the OSR bloggers have been a wonderful example of people talking about what they like, creating material for what they like and giving examples of actual play of the style of gaming they like without all the negative flamewar bullshit that accompanies many other internet gaming communities.

I do find it a little bit sad that Faustusnotes has never had the opportunity or the pleasure to play in a good sandbox campaign.  I suspect that he/she (hereafter I will just use the female pronoun as is my wont whenever gender is in question - this implies absolutely nothing and I do this habitually because I hate how imprecise English is when it comes to talking about a person in gender neutral terms) must have experienced at least elements of the type of gameplay old schoolers love while playing her  "story" oriented games, because without the sort of player/DM interaction that old schoolers strive for any game feels flat no matter how wonderful the storyline that the DM came up with is.  If the players are not impacting the story meaningfully, a roleplaying game becomes a DM storytelling session.  Faustusnotes has had fun roleplaying - I posit that she must have had some impact on the story then.

The fact that she continues to cling to the idea that old school gamers are anti-story reveals that she understands absolutely nothing about the style of game that old schoolers in general like to run.  There are stories galore, ranging from the simple treasure hunt to the most intricate court intrigues possible, with high drama across multiple realities; the thing that the old school movement is trying to capture is that these stories do not have to be pre-scripted.  A DM can create a world that is dynamic and continues to run regardless of the PCs actions, and the way that they interact with this world creates the story.  The type of story that plays out is wholly dependent on the group of players and the DM, and even the DM (especially the DM) can be surprised with how it turns out.  In this manner, the DM gets to play the game as much as anyone else.  The DM gets to experience the joy of discovery along with the players.  It is a way of gaming that allows the entire group to take part in the creative process.

It is not the only way to game.  It is not the one true way.  It is a way that works, a way that is fun, and a way that NO published 4e adventures to date really leave room for without substantial DM work ripping the tracks off of the railroad.  The very idea of a published arc of adventures that goes from scene to scene with the assumption that the PCs will co-conspire with the DM to do exactly what the module author intended is the antithesis of the old school movement.  Writing such an arc of adventures would be a supreme waste of time in a sandbox - the PCs might decide they didn't even want to follow the plot hook into the adventure in the first place, and then all the effort of writing this grand unfolding plot would be for naught.  Do some people like these story-arc module series?  Sure.  Do they have fun?  Sure.  There are still plenty of opportunities even within the strictures of a railroad to impact the story.  The difference is that you only get a chance to impact the details of the story, not the overall plot itself.

The old school movement is not an effort to reclaim or cling to a juvenile and primitive way of gaming.  It is a reaction to the lack of a specific kind of gaming in the modern iteration of D&D - not that 4e cannot support this style of gaming, because it can, but that the modules published so far for 4e do not support it.  It is also an acknowledgement that if you like this style of gaming, the mechanical aspects of the system matter very little.  Things like skill checks and feats are totally unnecessary if the player is every bit as much of a story teller as the DM.  If anything, the style of play that proud grognards cling to could be described as much more story oriented than the "story-arc" style of adventure that Faustusnotes is a proponent of.  I say this because each member of the group gets to tell the story in old school play, while only the DM controls the broad outlines of the story in a true story-arc (A.K.A. railroad).

The old school movement can serve as an example that players can be just as creative in coming up with plots and things to do as a DM can - and there are more players than DMs and it is far less work for the DM.  So what's wrong with that?  Maybe some 4e players will read one of these blogs and the next time their DM tries to shepherd them into her carefully constructed plotline, they will rebel and go do what they actually want to do in the world.  And maybe the DM will realize that she doesn't have to undertake the entire burden of creating the story all by herself.  Providing examples of alternative styles of play can never be a bad thing, and should never be denigrated as Faustusnotes has done.  Many groups love railroads.  Some may not like them as much as the alternatives, but they might never know it if there weren't people out there in blogland talking about the styles of game that they play and like.

And that's my two coppers worth.

(incidentally, I play in a Labyrinth Lord campaign and run a Mutant Future campaign and a 4e campaign.  I run my 4e campaign in true old-school sandbox fashion and my players love it)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Monsters with Powers that Recharge... in OD&D?

 One thing that I find interesting about running 4e is the mechanic that allows certain powers that a monster has to only be reused if a specific number or better is rolled on a d6.  In play, this means that some monsters can be radically easier or harder to fight from encounter to encounter simply based on the random bounces of the dice.  I ran an encounter two sessions ago with a creature that had two different abilities that recharged on a 6 on a d6 - and I had an incredible streak of luck, recharging both abilities almost every single round.  This made the fight much tougher than it would have been otherwise.  With all monsters of the same kind having the same amount of HP in 4e, this mechanic still allows for some variety when encountering the same kind of monster for a second time.

Thanks to Delta's thought provoking post today, I also just realized that the very first version of OD&D (before the Tolkien references were deleted) had a very similar mechanic.  To quote from this thread on Dragonsfoot, a Balrog attacks in the following manner:
"The normal attack is with a magical sword of +1 value, and if the Balrog immolates (any score of 7 or better on two six-sided dice, check each turn of melee) it also attacks with its whip. If the whip hits the Balrog drags the opponent against its flaming body, doing two, three or four dice of damage (depending on size)! In this manner a Balrog can fight one or two opponents at the same time."
This is almost identical to the 4e recharge mechanic, only differing in that it uses two d6 instead of one to determine if the monster can use the power.  Like 4e, the check is made each turn, and like 4e, the power that can be used if recharged is very powerful (in this case up to almost four times more powerful than the Balrog's normal attack!).  The more things change...

Kid in a Candy Shop

I have been feeling pretty cool lately.  It is so much fun having a hobby like playing D&D when you are an adult and can actually just buy the things you lust after instead of having to beg and wheedle your way into getting them from your parents.  On top of that, I have been lucky enough to get some cool toys lately before they were available to the general public.

First the Swords and Wizardry White Box set (which is AWESOME and I do not use that word lightly) arrived last week; I was lucky enough to be one of the select few who got in on the first pre-order (which sold out almost instantly).  Then came the 4e goodness.  I got a review copy of the Player's Handbook 3, which won't be released for almost another two weeks!  And it is full of good stuff, let me tell you, if you like 4e (look for my review of it to be published shortly at the Eye of the Vortex).  Finally, I got a set of the newest dungeon tiles from Wizards of the Coast, the Harrowing Halls set (also not released to the general public until March 16th).  Interestingly, the packaging proclaims that "All Dungeon Tiles products are compatible with all editions of the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game."

While of course this is true, I still thought it was kind of neat that Wizards was even still giving a nod to earlier editions at all.  Check out the tiles taking over my computer and keyboard:
Close up of the face in the wall:

One thing that I really like about this tile set is that all the tiles are double-sided - the 3D elements are stone on one side and wood on the other, often with different accents (a red curtain on the inverse of the head on the wall, for instance).  This allows you to make either a house or a dungeon with the same set of tiles.  Another bonus - the set includes a bathroom, complete with a shitter (excuse me, an oubliette), a washbasin and a barrel of water. Nevermore shall there be no place to crap in my dungeons!  Actually, to tell the truth I have always included facilities in my dungeon plans, even if they consist of a pile of steaming dung in the corner of the room.

Well, on that cheerful and appetizing note, I bid you adieu!  I am off to play with my new toys.
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