Tuesday, June 30, 2009

First Swords & Wizardry Session - TPK

Well, it was a little anticlimactic; I've been blabbing about introducing roleplaying to people with no former experience but those players bailed on me last-minute. So, I had just two players tonight. Neither of them have any old school gaming experience but I've at least talked with them about Swords & Wizardry. One of these players is my 4e DM and he went and downloaded the free pdf after all my talk about it.

So they both knew a little of the hazards of old school gaming.

I hadn't intended to use hireling if all the expected players had come. Luckily I'd printed out Bulette's Hireling Generator and Steven Cook's Quick NPC Checklist. Even though they knew they needed hireling help desperately, the players rolled up a porter and an unarmored club wielder, haha. We were all having good laughs thinking of the unlikelihood of success.

Magnus the Magic-user and Skinny the cleric (he said he figured he'd die quickly) were investigating the history of an abandoned convent and just as they found the faded frescoe that revealed the information their patron wanted, they were set upon by four giant worker ants. Ants got initiative, plop, plop, plop-- Skinny decided to stay and fight-- and plop, down they all went.

They quickly rolled up new characters and had more success this time: a deftly cast sleep spell brought down a flight of stirges, and we ended the session with them having just retrieved a crying infant from a well (I put a bantling in a well, haha ) which was drawing more ants toward them.

We all had great fun, and plan to meet again next week.

I've been thinking about Swords & Wizardry and writing about it, but now having actually run a session, I feel even more enthusiastic. The rules were light and smooth. Cant' wait to play more. Thanks for the system and all the ideas community!

I'll try to do a more thorough post mortem on the rules later.


I've mentioned detailing humanoid culture in my campaign world. I went into some of the background and philosophy behind why I would do that here. So here is a little piece of my artwork from about ten years ago trying to sort out the differences between the various humanoids.

I understand DMs not wanting any orc babies; having humanoids spring straight from the darkness of the mythic underworld to plague your players. In fact I'm leaning more that way myself. I can't stand, however, if this lack of detail leads to the idea that humanoids are the default enemy that scales along in power with player characters. You may as well call them Humanoid HD1, HD 2, HD 3 etc.

For example, in 1e what is the difference between goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears other than size? I never got any feel or flavor of what hobgoblins or bugbears were except fantasy names tied to hit dice, so I cut them out of my campaign world altogether.

Anyway, in the picture you see some clues to the tribal culture of humanoids from my imagined world. Much of this culture involves raiding the settlements of other humanoid species. The greatest evidence of prowess is the capture of the young of a tribe more powerful than your own and raise them as thralls-- fighting slaves. The goblin in the picture would be a kobold thrall, the orc a thrall fighting for a goblin tribe.

Most tribes would have a central totem related to their ability to slay or invoke the power of said beasty. In the picture the kobolds are from the Fly Totem tribe.

I almost photoshopped out the human in the picture because he's so out of proportion, but thought what the hell, if I made things to my perfectionist standards I'd never post anything on this blog. So I'll leave ol' tinyhead as a humble admission of my room for artistic growth.

Swords & Wizardry - Warts, Houseruling, & Me

There was some discussion recently on the Swords & Wizardry forums about troublesome aspects of the core rules as they stand. Matt Finch has said his goal was not making his house rules available but restating the original rules, warts and all.

I think that's laudable and probably the best attitude he could take towards this endeavour. The community benefits from a simple, original conception to work from and house rule from. And if this remains as much in the spirit of the original as he can manage it doesn't become an argument with Matt having to justify rules to every new DM that comes along.

With the possibility of older versions of D&D being reprinted or supported slim to none, the OGL was an unlikely boon. The systems thousands have grown to love playing have at least been preserved in amber, and if enough people form a community around these simulacra, they can share new ideas with each other.

That's all well and good, but coming with the majority of my roleplaying experience with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition), Swords & Wizardry did not feel like a snapshot of rules captured, or a restatement to me. It felt like a revision! And re-vision in the literal sense of, having a new vision on the philosophy of play. It felt drastically new in a way that excited me.

Part of this feeling was from all the cruft that had accumulated in the rules over the years being cleared away (paladins, druids, illusionists, gnomes, assassins, weapon modifiers versus armor class, polearms). But part of this feeling was from fundamental changes made to the basic rules- no thieves at all!, a single saving throw, and ascending armor class.

I know now that Matt had to make certain changes so that Swords & Wizardry wasn't in fact the exact same set of rules as the original Dungeons & Dragons (I don't really know why, because as I understand it, rules can't be copyrighted or trademarked, but so be it). I also know now that ascending armor class was an innovation of 3e. But when I first encountered Swords & Wizardry I was under the impression that Matt had made this brilliant revision himself and that the spirit of Swords & Wizardry was this: no sacred cows, changing the rules to make them more elegant, simpler, more playable.

It was this accident of perception that led me into my current attitude of absolute confidence that I too can add to, cut from, and edit the Swords & Wizardry rules and make them if not better, my own. (The irony is that a misunderstanding is what lead me to this tenet of the OSR community-- that houseruling isn't just accepted but encouraged).

Why does this matter? Well, for one I imagine there are more people like myself who had no experience with 0e, and so capturing those rules exactly is not an agenda for them. I also imagine, they might be in the same mindset as me-- feeling empowered and invited to make drastic rule changes of their own. To question the system.

And why does that matter? I think because it's from that very same attitude that any thought of little ol' me being able to offer up a monster, or treasure, or One Page Dungeon, that the community might like is possible. It matters because the feeling of confidence engendered by knowing the rules are just guidelines is the same confidence that will cause the next Hand of Vecna, Leomund's Tiny Hut, or Drow, to rise up from the minds of the Old School Renaissance.

You may be thinking, but of course, Gary said that from the start, that these were just guidelines. Well, yes, he also said the opposite quite a lot. And anyway, it's a very different thing to be told something and to experience it. It was was the missing thief and the armor that gets better with higher numbers that led me to the place where I am now: confident I can design a better monster, a better magic-item, a classic dungeon, and excited to share it all with you for free.

Monday, June 29, 2009

D&D Commercial

I never saw a D&D commercial on TV. I didn't know they even made commercials! And with Jami Gertz, I loved Square Pegs!

Saw this on Boing Boing who saw it on Laughing Squid who saw it on RetroJunk.com. (What's blogging etiquette for references? Do I have to hunt down the guy who video taped this before I share it? haha)

Streamlined Swords & Wizardry II

I met with my ex-girlfriend for some tea last night and tried to explain D&D to her. I've tried explaining it to my father recently. They both gave me friendly, supportive looks, nodding their heads as if I was telling them that aliens were teaching me the violin.

I suppose many people these days will have encountered video games and to explain roleplaying you could say it's like a game with no limits, but these people I'm talking about have no conception of video games either. (This is why I value the OSR community, you sort of know what I'm about)

I meet tomorrow with 3 players who don't know what a roleplaying game is. Because of that I've been trying to distill down only what I need to get them going, but without just throwing them in the game. I shared some of my thinking behind it here and my progress to that end here.

So, to be clear, this isn't me re-writing the rules because I'm dissatisfied with the writing or the organization in Swords & Wizardry book-- I actually think they are pretty well done. And I'm not trying to make a Quick Start-- Chgowiz has done great work on one already. Think of this as more like player handouts, things an experienced DM can pass out to inexperienced players to help while explaining the rules and especially move them through the process of character creation. If you can find uses for them other than that I would be thrilled, but that's the aim I have in mind.

So, here I have the explanation of the six abilities and how to roll them. I made some house rule tweaks in here that might make them less universally useful, but I added some text to the three "mental" stats that I think could have been helpful to have in the Core rules.
After that players will most likely want to see the classes. Here is the list of
I had to make some decisions about what to cut and what not (standing toe-to-toe with a dragon probably isn't the best image to put in a newbie's head). I wanted this on one page so I tried to keep what was essential about each class, what distinguishes the archetypes. For example, I don't think you need to know how many experience points it takes to get a cleric to 20th when you're first choosing a character, so the charts are right out. If you'ld like to use this handout, there is room for one more class of your choice on the page: thief, druid, or a dragon borne homewrecker, whatever suits your fancy. Also if you'd like the editable open office files just let me know.

What I like about these streamlined resources is that when they are trying to decide on their class a player may want to see the spells a wizard can cast or what weapons are available, BOOM-- you've got those on separate, single pages right there.

I decided not to put a NPC/Hireling generator on the backburner; I'm still digesting all the wonderful ones I've found on your blogs and trying to decide what I think is essential. I'm also thinking that maybe the best way for these newbies to realize the value of hirelings is to have a little taste of old school adventuring without them.

As for the adventure, I still don't have a map, arrrrgh. How's that for procrastinating? But I have the location in my mind and could probably run it from that if I had to. It is an abandoned convent. The convent has seen several waves of occupiers: the original Sisters of Penitence, humanoids, bandits, and now a nice big hill of giant ants. I'm going to put several hermit cottages on adjacent hillsides and multiple methods of ingress for the players to have to choose fromm. Oh, and also there's going to be a bantling in a well . . . buwhaahahaha!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fable 2 - Choo Choo

I'm back from the land of house-sitters. I played Fable 2 until the batteries in the controller went dead. Due to my unfulfilled desire to experience the D&D endgame :) , I spent far more time earning money than following the story and ended up owning every property available (yes, I'm the landlord of three damn cities!) and half a million in gold pieces. Fun, huh? . . . umm . . . no.

When you can't play D&D because the groups you're in drift apart, or you can't find anyone that knows something besides WoW as fantasy gaming, you don't have many options. I have a long, conflicted history with fantasy computer games (yes CRPGs, but come on, there's no roleplaying involved).

Some games do a better job of satisfying the various things I seem to want from gaming than others. I have fond memories from Baldur's Gate 2 of having a powerful mage hunting liches hidden throughout the city. Hear that developers? Not only do I not remember the main plot of the story, but I remember thinking of it as a hindrance and wishing I could do more of what I wanted-- that most dangerous game, lich hunting.

Morrowind probably came closest to scratching all my itches. I didn't get a chance to play it much because of real world happenings, but I remember the joy of creating my own levitation spell and floating lazily above Where I Was Not Supposed to Go, monsters that would have easily killed me, drifting past beneath me.

Are you seeing a trend? I want to make choices. I don't want to be an actor in your finely crafted story, I want to make my own story. So, now I get Fable 2 which:
Spoilers below

Strips you of everything you have; shaves your head; forces you to make "moral" choices where the good choices don't affect the plot but lose you experience points; puts you in the most difficult battle up to that point-- without your gear-- so you'll most likely be scarred (permanent in the game); and then releases you back into the "sandbox" ten years later!

I know there are difficulties with designing a fantasy computer game and that the only real solution is to have a human brain looking back at me saying "what do you want to do now?" But really? After how many years of computer gaming and still this is state of the art: you follow along in a story where your actions make little difference to the overall outcome of anything? Do people like these games? Or are they like me, playing them because they are all that's offered?

I know it's a complicated problem involving hardware constraints, developer investment, and even player expectations, but it seems so evident to me: if you give players choices, story will rise up like a flame; if you force story on players, choice ceases to exist.

This turned into more of a rant than I intended, and I realize others have probably said all of this before and better. It's just I've been out of the gaming loop for a long time and was surprised to find a game released in October to still be pulling this stuff. It also seems applicable to this blog, because choice and railroad-free gaming is why I like the old school philosophy.

It seems especially applicable right now, because I am currently planning for a first gaming session for three people with no roleplaying experience whatsoever. I'd originally intended to have a patron give them gear, give them a quest, and get them going in a dungeon. I didn't want these players' first experience with roleplaying to be, "Okay what do you do?" I wanted to give them training wheels, so to speak. Get them down in the dungeon and experiencing the thrill of exploration and hard choices. But now, after having such a strongly negative reaction to the railroading of Fable 2, I'm going back to the drawing board. I'll probably still give them a patron and gear, but I want there to be real choices involved from the start, even in this first introductory adventure. It may be difficult to give them choice without them being confused, but I think it's important and I'm glad I'm thinking about it.

So, thanks Fable 2 . . . I guess.

Constraints, or: One Sentence Monsters

Constraints help in generating, because it forces your brain to go places you never intended, because dealing with the constraint engages your brain at a slant. The One Page Dungeon and One Page City are evidence of this. But I just had a thought, one page isn't much of a constraint for an encounter, religion, or monster. Why not One Paragraph Gods, or One Paragraph encounters. Okay, it could work, in fact a lot of blog posts are this already, so it might not be much of a constraint. Let's push the constraints up a notch, One Sentence Monsters. I figure if you can't get the concept across in a sentence it's probably too fiddly or complex. Here are a few classic monsters rendered in one sentence:

Humanoids with squid-like heads and great mental powers that hunger for your brain.

A floating sphere with many eyes on stalks, each shooting different dangerous effects.

That captures them fairly well doesn't it? Okay, how about some of my own deadly distractions:

It appears to be a child when encountered, but will wail loudly if unfed and age decades if fed.

It appears to be a small treasure but if you put it in your pack it will digest your real treasures.

I like this, because now that I think about it, it leaves the nitty gritty up to the DM to determine. I mean, do you really need to have the beholder's eye powers spelled out completely? Would it be less a monster if it had 3 stalks or 18? The incarnations different DMs come up with could be like different species of the original conception.

One sentence is too abstract for a dungeon or city, but I think it might be better for monsters and magic items. So here is my

One Sentence Challenge: Monster!
In one sentence, relay a monster that will be intriguing enough that we'd want to use it in our campaigns. Post in the comments.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

House Sitting

I have a lot of stuff I'd like to explore in writing right now, but I'm house sitting for friends. I've started playing Fable 2 on their Xbox 360 and got sucked in. But I plan to post about what CRPGs taught me about roleplaying.

Also, looks like I may have yet another complete novice to introduce to Swords & Wizardry. She asked me if it was the thing on Freaks & Geeks. Luckily I had seen a clip online and knew what she was talking about (I don't watch TV).

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Who Built The Fountain of Gender Exchange?

I'm a Gygaxian naturalist, actually probably more than that, a verisimilitudinist, or even, gasp, a fantasy realist. Well, not completely. I have conflicting urges.

My undergrad degree was in biology and I come to the world wanting answers. I like knowing how things work and what to expect in given situations. I loved the old monster ecologies in the Dragon magazine and actually xeroxed many of them, putting them in a black binder-- my own Tome of Teratology.

The old cliché of a giant crammed into a dungeon room or dungeons as menageries with no hint of an ecology, turn into the farcical for me. If I, as a player, stop and say: "Wait a minute . . . how did that get in here?" or, "what do these hundreds of orcs eat!?" then my suspension of disbelief has been broken. The sets come tumbling down. You ruined the mood.

And it's more than mood, it doesn't make for a good game. Without some sense of pattern, some sense of reason, players can't make rational decisions. How are we supposed to ration our resources and survive the dungeon experience if we open a small door to find 10 dragons? Now that's probably an exaggeration for the mature, experienced roleplayers of today, but I think this idea of things making sense applies to other features in a dungeon as well.

I think you can sum this issue up with the question: "Who built the fountain of gender exchange?" What is the reason for these things? Why did Zelligar have all those lovely pools in Quasqueton? And really, why was the megadungeon built at all? Who would go to the expense of excavating level after level of rotating rooms and chutes and random teleporters? The only answer seems to be madness; Zagyg was nutty.

But here's the other end of the problem, no one wants to go exploring the post office. The magic, the Unknown, is sort of the point . I don't care that it might be impossible physics, I want my flying bears. And giants, and firebreathers, and shapeshifters.

The lack of the unknown makes for a bad game too. The uncertainty of what might happen is just as essential to player choices as rational boundaries. I mean, the last five rooms have been empty, but the next room could have 10 goblins arguing over a captive. Without randomness, you could plan out your resource expenditures on a spread sheet, dole out XP, and call it a night.

So what is the solution to this problem? I don't think it's an easy one. I think you have to find a balance between Reason and the Unknown. And I think people do a decent job of that. Zagyg was an acceptable solution, but I don't think the reason behind megadungeons can always be madness.

I like the idea of layered history: this was built by Dwarves, then used by a forbidden cult, then the lair of bandits, now abandoned to orcs. This allows you to add things in a dungeon that might seem random otherwise: features from different eras of time, artifacts of wildly different religions. So this could allow you to pack in some wonderous variety while adding to a sense of history and grounding detail.

I also like the idea of the quotidian distressed: the flooded monastery, the half-collapsed dwarven mine, the temple corrupted. This is similar to a layered history, the flooding had to happen sometime, but more than that, it uses one layer of rational description to add chaos to another.

But maybe this is all really about restraint; the chutes, and magic fountains, and teleporting pools, are more unnerving and effective when they aren't in every room.

(p.s. I'd still love to play a character trying to figure out things, like how many ounces of blood a week a stirge needs to survive, haha)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Faces for the Faceless

This little devil has been around for yeeeeears. I remember playing around with it at least 5 years ago. But you may not have stumbled across Ultimate Flash Face so I thought I'd share it with you.

I like the consistency it can give a range of sort of realistic faces, as if a single artist better than myself had drawn them all. But I get to make the choices! I like it now for the possibility of NPC and Hireling Faces. It's not unlimited, but has a pretty good range of options. You can't save the face you make directly, but I just take a screenshot and then cut the face out in Gimp.

Here are a few of my greatest hits:
Could be a monk, cleric, or slightly tired fighter.

Linkboy? Ghoul-doomed?
Mild-mannered accountant? Porter?

Ahh, yes, I couldn't leave you without an unsavoury type. This is Breeyark Damp-pants, and you'll be parleying free passage in exchange for that linkboy up there.

Streamlined Swords & Wizardry

Here is what I have so far towards streamlining the novice Swords & Wizardry experience. I offered these as Open Office files before, but realize now, people may find them more convenient as pdfs. So, here they are newly minted as pdfs and titled more specifically so you won't lose them in your many computer folders:

Again, I've only edited and synthesised the work of others here. To learn about the construction of the starting equipment list read this post, and to realise why the weights for the weapons list are in stones see here.

  • So, what else do I need?I have been digesting ~five different NPC/Hireling generators and may need to finally boil that down.
  • I still plan on producing a one page summary of the three primary character classes.
  • Still trying to decide how much, if anything players need to know about my world (gods, governments, languages, etc.) in order to situate themselves for play.
  • Introductory Dungeon, and I mean for novices-- a kind of preview version of the Dungeon Alphabet to give them some of that Old School Flavor!
That's it for now. If you have any suggestions, or experiences you want to offer up about novice play, please let me know.

Update: I added an acknowledgement to the Streamlined Equipment list because it wasn't my great idea, I just edited it down and tried to simplify it for novices. So thanks to Thoth Amon from the Swords & Wizardry forums for the idea and to Lord Kilgore for bringing it to my attention.

Introducing Novices To Swords & Wizardry

Game's Afoot! It looks like I've got all systems go for my first Swords & Wizardry Session next Tuesday! Three players so far: one, my 4e DM who has no experience of D&D before 3.x and, two others with no roleplaying experience whatsoever.

I've been trying to streamline the rules for a complete novice, especially adult novices, who I think will have much less time and need to have a good first impression to decide to devote their time to playing more in the future.

Today I re-read Ed Greenwood's Article "Keep Em Guessing" from Dragon #49. It's about this very subject, introducing complete novices to D&D. He suggests having the DM handling everything and just narrate what the results of die rolls are, even to the point of not letting the player see their stats.

I agree that this could work, but . . . I have some big reservations here. First, by introducing new characters to the game this way, you aren't really introducing them to the game, but shielding them from it. I think the reason I'm so nervous about DMing novices is that my last DMing experience, about 3 1/2 years ago involved novices and I handled it all wrong. One of the things I did was give the novices pre-rolled characters. This might be the first thing that comes to peoples' minds as a logical way to start newcomers: "Cut to the chase," "Jump right in to play." But what it did was put inert pieces of paper into their hands that they didn't really understand.

Novice players will understand better what is going on by rolling up their own characters. This is an introduction to a lot of subtle things about the game. First of all, that it is a game; we won't just be playing pretend, their are baselines and boundaries. Just seeing stats will, for example let you know you have limits on your strength and how many hits you can take in combat.

Even something as simple as rolling the dice can give a novice a preview of the unpleasant possibilities of dice outcomes "I rolled a 5 for intelligence!" I've read elsewhere that an important part of game design is letting players know their chances of success so they can make informed choices. It seems small, but getting a feel for the randomness of the dice may help them to understand that they won't be hitting every time they swing their sword and all the implications that follow from that.

I think character creation also gives players the first sense of the power they have to shape the game in ways they will enjoy. They have to start thinking about whether they would enjoy playing a sword swinging Saxon, or whether the idea of magic intrigues them. And with this, is the implication that there are more ways than one to approach the game, and that they will be able to try another approach later if they like.

Character creation can also be a subtle foreshadowing of the challenges that lie ahead in the fact that players have to decide: "Will I need missile weapons?," "Having torches, implies we might end up in darkness. . . right?" "What spells should I memorize?"

So I guess after all that, my conclusion isn't profound, it's just if you want to introduce players to a game, you need to introduce them to it. And Ed's article was more sophisticated than just hiding the game from newbies; he actually suggests slowly introducing them to the rules over many sessions and touches on some other issues. But for me, I think time spent creating characters is time well spent, at least with something as simple and clean as Swords & Wizardry.

That being said, I think there is wisdom in streamlining the novice experience. That's the reason for my work at boiling down equipment and weapon lists in previous posts. Along those lines I think I will avoid demihumans for now. I'd like the players to get a sense of what humans can do first and I envision demihumans uncommon in my campaign world anyway. I'm thinking for the same reason to leave my Choose Your-Own rogues out of the mix for now. But we'll see.

On Sharing

I thought I should say explicitly, you can use everything on my blog under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Sharing is important to me. I'm a big Free Software advocate. I'm not sure if the license I've chosen isn't too restrictive. What I mean is, I'll use it as a legal baseline, but I would rather you use my creations than worry about thanking me specifically for them. And if you want to use them in a module you're planning on selling, just contact me, I'll probably be thrilled.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Deadly Distraction - Cave Locusts

Mention of the Albino Ape on the Swords & Wizardry Forums had me thinking of other monsters from Moldvay Basic.

I think I acquired the book as a hand-me-down from my DM friend when he got the Advanced books. I read it lovingly and got to know it, even though all our play went into 1e.

There were several monsters that never crossed over into 1e, which helped give the two systems, which seem very close rules-wise, different flavors for me. So, I dug out my Moldvay and perused it again. Here are some of the monsters unique to the red book:
  • Ape, White
  • Cave Locust
  • Living Statue (Crystal, Iron, Rock)
  • Rock Baboon
  • Thoul
And, yes, gnolls are rumored to be the result of a magical combination of gnomes and trolls. Weird and wacky. No mention of that when we get the 1e hyena-men.

Now this is probably old news to many of you. But it's interesting for me to look at the different flavors as someone who spent my gaming career focused on 1e. The cave locust seemed interesting to me way back then, I may have even made a little dungeon with them placed in it. I think I liked them because they could be a logical fit to the environment, Gygaxian naturalism, I suppose. But now looking back at them I realized they were a Deadly Distraction! Look at some highlights from their description:
  • They are camouflaged in their stone environments and may look like a statue
  • They are nervous and will flee rather than fight
  • It can accidentally jump into characters, injuring them
  • Frightened or attacked, they start shrieking, drawing wandering monsters
  • Cornered, it will spit brown yuck that makes you unable to do anything for a turn and causes people to get sick until you wash it off.
First, it seems to lure in the unwary by looking like a statue, it's trap-like. But, second, it doesn't want to fight. And, finally, it can cause a severe distraction to an adventuring party if they get any of its spittle on them. I think these are all features I've been trying to incorporate into my Deadly Distractions monsters.

But think about it, this one monster is practically a primer in old-school encounters: Be cautious, "Hey look at this statue over here . . . "; Fighting everything is a bad strategy, "Now it started shrieking, it's shrieking!"; Umm, yeah, fighting everything is a bad strategy, "It spit on me . . . oh, the smell . . . blarrrgh."

Who designed this creature? Anyone know? I'd like to congratulate that person on a finely designed old-school monster. And I hadn't planned it when I started the post, but I can't resist, my Swords & Wizardy conversion homage:

Cave Locust
Armor Class: 4 [15]
Hit Dice: 1d6
Attacks: Bump (1d4) or Spit
Saving Throw:18
Special: Spittle causes nausea
Move: 6/18 (flying)
Challenge Level/XP: 1/15

These skittish herbivores the size of a dog, are a mottled-grey that blends into cavern walls. If seen, they appear to be a large statue of a locust. If bothered, their first inclination is to flee, which entails leaping with their powerful hind legs. Unfortunate adventurers in the path of such a jump will not soon forget it.

Cave locusts unable to flee unhindered begin emitting a piercing, shriek-like noise that may draw wandering monsters. As a last resort, a cornered cave locust will spew brown spittle on attackers. This sticky mess is so noisome as to cause anyone smelling it to become nauseous enough to hinder their ability to move and fight.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Challenge Ratings

I like the simple number of the challenge rating to let me know how powerful a monster in Swords & Wizardry is. I even like the fact that the low power creatures are indicated by letter, because it sets them off quite nicely as a different sort of creature.

And, if you've been reading, you know I have been trying to create those lower powered monsters in my Deadly Distractions. Well, what I started noticing, and finally became a sort of roadblock with the Glass Golem, was how challenge rating is based on physical confrontation.

Should the glass golem be challenge rating A? It has a razor sharp weapon that does 1d8 and if you try to fight the thing any success will bring down a poison cloud on yourself. That seems dangerous . . . if you fight it. The whole point of the glass golem is figuring out how not to fight it. Heck, it's designed to avoid conflict-- a mage wouldn't want this expensive creation to charge off at the first provocation, abandoning its post.

Now I realize the fun of successfully defeating foes in combat, I even lamented the fact that I've never fought a beholder, but I think this is an inclination that requires caution. It reminds me of a Knights of the Dinner Table strip where the DM is away and the guys go through the monster manual alphabetically, fighting everything. It also reminds me of the notion that humanoids are cookie-cutter foes that climb in power level with the PCs; kobold>goblin>orc>hobgoblin>bugbear>ogre>troll>giant, or whatever.

I was brought face to face with this when I first read Jeff Rient's table for what Goblins are up to when you encounter them. Now some of these strike me as silly, but the best of them strike me in the sort of: haha . . .that's . . . creepy, way. It reminded me of the Gremlins movies. It makes me think a little of the god Pan and how chaos and revelry can be frightening. And that makes me think of Bacchus and the bakkheia. This all fits into the conception of the dungeon as a mythic underworld.

Ideally, I would want even a powerful, name level, character to feel unnerved when encountering kobolds. I would want them to be reminded that they are not in their own element, to be uncertain of what may be around the next corner, to say to their hirelings: "These shouldn't be a problem . . . but be wary." If they are instead thinking: "these things are less than 1HD, I can take them all in 2 rounds," we've lost something cool from the game.

So, what of challenge ratings? I still like them, if only as a rule of thumb to let me know PCs are kooky to confront this head on, but I will be on the lookout for falling into that way of thinking-- that monsters are for physical confrontation-- in my own mind. And I think I'll rent Gremlins and watch that again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

House Rules - Rogues III

I chose abilities that I thought would work best in my campaign for my Choose-Your-Own Rogue class. But I thought you might be interested in seeing some other possible abilities I ended up deciding against. I was trying to avoid choices that would override a player's abilities-- so no diplomacy, bluff, intimidate or lying. I was also trying to include abilities that covered the great roguish triumvirate of thief, brigand, and conman. So here are the semifinalists and why they didn't make the cut:

Acrobatics -- Mostly for long jump and tight rope walking, but maybe surviving falls and swinging on things. Climbing walls seems gritty and Swords & Sorcery (hey Conan did it!) in a way that jumping and flipping just doesn't. But if you want something like ninja's in your game you could squeeze wall climbing into this and be good to go.

Appraise-- Know the value of gems, jewelry and other precious items. I smooshed this in with Ancient lore, now that I think of it, it would probably fit better in street lore. The point being, it seems too small of an ability on its own.

Disguise-- Fool even people familiar with you with a modicum of materials and preparation. This just seemed like it would be useful so rarely as not to be worth adding complexity to my ability list.

Forgery-- Exactly reproduce the markings of someone else. Same as above, not useful very often, but you might include this in street lore if you want your rogues writing the princess love poems as the local pig-herder.

Gambling-- Know how to play, and how to win, whether deservedly or not. This just seemed a cheap way to get money, and not really interesting in play: "I'll lose twice then take them for everything." But, on second thought, it could cause problems for PCs. Your call, maybe (Dex/Chr)

Identify-- Know the function and provenance of magic items. I smooshed this in with Ancient Lore. I always liked the Legend Lore ability of bards and thought it was a shame to be hogged by them (and I was trying to become a bard in 1e!), but this kind of lore seem very adventurerish, Cudgel-like.

Mimicry-- Exactly reproduce the sounds and mannerisms of someone you are familiar with. Again, didn't seem like this would come into play that often.

Read Person-- Tell by looking at their clothing, posture, and facial expression, a persons mood and character. This, combined with Mimicry and/or Disguise might be a good addition for the jongleur-type rogue. Or, you could include them all as a grab bag in Minstrelsy, so a player might be more tempted to pick it.

I would caution, if you decide to add your own abilities to the rogue, not to have too many. I tried to keep them to a minimum and I'm still worried the whole Dex/Chr dual-thing might be too fiddly. I mean the point of this blog is supposed to be about doing more with less, to be more minimal. But I suppose this class could keep people from thinking they need several other classes. And if it heads off the need for a full blown skill system, I think that would be worth implementing the Rogue class right there. On minimizing choices, Delta posted about keeping things as close to 7 as possible here.

But hey, it's been a long time since I've been able to DM, you all probably have some great ideas for abilities that players are wanting to do, but you feel would require more knowledge/skill than a normal person would possess. Share them in the comments.

Deadly Distraction - Glass Golem

A glass golem most often appears as a hollow glass figure half again as tall as a man. Inside its clear glass shape, green-black swirls can be seen curling like foul smoke. Often a representation of a dignitary or civil servant, they are created to watch a doorway or prevent access to an area and are found holding glass tablets inscribed with these instructions. Though these tablets have a razor sharp edge to them, a glass golem will only attack if forced to in fulfilling its orders.

Glass golems are silent but may try communicating their orders through gestures. If the golem is shattered the noxious vapors trapped inside it will be freed to the doom of all onlookers.

Glass Golem
Armor Class: 9 [10]
Hit Dice: 3hp
Attacks: Glass (1d8)
Saving Throw:18
Special: Releases poison cloud on shattering
Move: 6
Challenge Level/XP: A/5

House Rules - Rogues II

First, this class is built on the thinking and sharing of others, like James Maliszewski, Skathros, Akrasia, and others. I want to thank them before I offer up my derivation of all their ideas.

Now, without further ado, Telecanter's Choose-Your-Own Rogue:


Rogues find themselves on the wrong side of the law more often than not. In order to survive they have to rely on their wits, toughness, and/or flair. You might be a backstreet cutpurse, a burly thug, or a charismatic con artist. Your role is to find a way around obstacles, whether they be locks, walls, or the law itself.

Prime Attribute: One of: Dexterity, Constitution, or Charisma, 13+ (5% experience)
Hit Dice: 1d6-1 per level (gains 1 per level after 9th)
Armor/Shield Permitted: Leather
Weapons Permitted: Any one-handed

Rogue Abilities

Choose 5 of these at start of play:

(Con) Backstab – When attacking from behind roll two dice for damage and take the highest result.

(Con) Street Lore – Know who is powerful, who owes who, and find out local rumors & gossip. Know better where to roust out hirelings and followers.

(Con/Dex) Extraordinary climbing – Climb surfaces that seem humanly impossible to climb.

(Dex) Pick locks/Disarm Traps – With the proper tools, you know how to open locks and make most mechanical traps safe.

(Dex) Two-handed fighter – Using a dagger in the off hand, fighting with two weapons will get a +2 to hit and damage is the average of the two.

(Dex) Escape – No bonds can hold you for long.

(Chr/Dex) Sleight-of-hand – Make small things-- keys, blades, scrolls-- appear to disappear. Also, take things from people without them noticing.

(Chr) Ancient Lore – While anyone might know the value of gems and objects, some have heard tales of items carrying terrible curses and stories of powerful magic items and the ways they are made to work. The rogue with lore has also picked up a smattering of useful words in many languages.

(Chr) Minstrelsy – Improvise poems and songs, play musical instruments, sing and tell jokes, all well enough to gather a crowd and earn a little money.

On the Rogue's Prime Requisite: You may only have one prime requisite. You must have two skills centered on a stat in order to choose that stat as a prime requisite, but you aren't required to. If you want your 14 Con rogue to take all the Charisma oriented skills, that's your prerogative.

Rogue Advancement: After making a table of my own, I realized it was almost exactly that of James Maliszewski's found in Knockspell #2. With one exception, all saving throws are base 15 in my campaign and rogues gain a +2 to saves versus dodgeable traps.

Attracting Followers: At 9th level your reputation will attract less experienced rogues that wish to follow your leadership . . . as long as it profits them. These followers can take the shape of a gang, guild, or troupe depending on the type of rogue you play.

Design Notes:
  • Ability scores are important not just for performing, but acquiring these abilities. For the Con abilities, I imagine the rogue would need to be tough to acquire them (continually falling from walls, getting beat, in the quest of rumors). Likewise for the Chr abilities ( you need to convince the old wizard to tell you about the magic sword or teach you the word for treasure in Stygian).
  • Notice they are called abilities. I'm trying to push towards the idea that these are unique things the rogue can do, like the cleric's ability to turn undead, not skills anybody can pick up over a fortnight. And they are things that the rogue can do most of the time successfully.
  • How to adjudicate these? DMs, you choose. I'd suggest roleplaying where possible, but you can decide if you want to roll on a d6, d20, or d%. I suggest rogues be able to perform these abilities in most cases at 1st level, be able to handle trickier situations at 3rd, better still at 6th, and by 9th only fail in the most extreme of situations.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

House Rules - Rogues

There have been a bundle of thief implementations for Swords & Wizardry. I've read through them all. I like bits and pieces of each, but not all of any of them.

I've been thinking a lot about the resistance some grognards have to putting thieves back in to the game. With that much resistance I think it pays to think about why. As I understand it, they feel pre-thief anyone could try anything, post-thief everyone was limited in what they could try to do and the great slip towards skill began.

I think I'm agreeing; why shouldn't every character class, type, or race, be able to try to move stealthily? Why shouldn't they be able to climb walls? But, should they all be able to pick locks? Umm . . . I think I still have the desire to implement a roguish character. And I say rogue, because to me it includes thugs, brigands, and, yes, bards (I don't see a lot of evidence for the bard archetype in literature. Bards to me are witty, talented cons and parasites).

So, I propose a class with only those roguish skills that DMs would have a hard time allowing characters accomplishing without months of training. I also propose a small selection of skills that a player would select from at start of play. This would allow them to decide what kind of rogue they want to be, the burly bully or the delightful dandy.

The good thing about this concept is 1) it prioritizes the ability of all characters to do almost anything they can think of in play, barring the few things that would need training, and 2) you can pick and change the skills you, as DM, think would best fit that description.

Here are my thoughts on some of the most common thieving skills:

Hide in shadows-- unless this is ninja-like hiding in direct sight, it seems like anyone could try this.

Move silently-- If I take off my hauberk and boots, are you saying my fighter can't be silent enough to surprise some bandits?

Climb walls-- Is this preternatural wallcrawling, or just scaling a wall?

Pick pockets-- I think you would have to practice a lot to do this. But, of what use is this in the dungeon? This might be the poster boy for allowing players to pick their core skills.

Pick locks-- This may be one of the takes-a-while-to-learn type of skills. I wouldn't want everyone of my players running around picking open every lock. At the same time, I'd hate for them to have to bash open every chest they find. This skill may be the poster boy for why thieves are a good addition to the game.

Disarm traps-- sounds fiddly, tricky, like taking apart a watch. Experience and training are essential, but it depends on how sophisticated the trap is. I don't mind letting any character try to disarm traps through roleplaying, though.

Hear noises-- ??? Okay, am I just dense? What is the deal with this? I don't understand why it is mentioned in some systems at all. Is this meant to see who has a better chance of hearing through dungeon doors? That seems a twiddly little thing to have a rule for. Exactly the thing a DM should make rulings on (how noisy is the environment outside the door, inside the door, what kind of creatures are inside, etc.) Is this just a factor of who has sharper hearing? I think the 1e DMG talks about this, giving different races different bonuses. This seems the perfect thing for Bohemian's "Good At," system, a player could say Keebler the Elf is good at hearing. But it seems to trivial to add a whole rule to the game. So, how about our rogues? Nah, that extortionate thug over there is hard of hearing from all the punches he's taken, and the sly, dark fellow . . . well, he'd rather you put your ear against that obsidian door there.

Backstab-- anyone should be able to try it, but a person grown up in the back alleys may have a lot more practice at it. Not necessarily a dandy, though, again reason for the player to choose.

Stay tuned for Telecanter's Choose-Your-Own Swords & Wizardry Rogue

House Rules - Priests

I remember reacting negatively to the introduction to 2e. Not because of the rules, because at the time, I didn't know them yet. No, because I could sense that the game I knew would be left behind. And sure enough the mindshare shifted for, what, the next 15 years?

But after playing 2e there were a few things I found I liked about it. I thought the way specialist wizards were handled added a lot of flavor with almost no added complexity-- get more spells of your school, lose an entire other school. Another was the way clerics became the more abstracted priests. Finally, there was room for the Christian saint and the Swords & Sorcery type evil snake priest, they just had different realms of spells. I think that if D&D had been more designed and less organic, this would have been the divine character class from the beginning.

I want to implement priests in my campaign, too. I've never had the problem with Vancian magic that some people do-- it is logically consistent and works great as a game mechanic. But I do recognize the value of diversity in wondrous happenings in a fantasy world. And I, personally find a Vancian system for divine casters harder to suspend my disbelief for-- Really, Thor doles out spells every morning?!

So I've decided to make priests petition their gods whenever they need help. Clerics will still have the same limits on number of spells per day-- how often they can bother their deity, but can choose what to ask for when they need it. They will also have a small chance their deity will grant additional or more powerful petitions depending on the situation.

Clerics in my campaign were (and will be) warriors involved with holy fighting orders dedicated to various saints. Clerics from different orders had slightly different spells. The order of St. Eomund, for example, was focused on justice, righteous vengeance, and the eradication of the undead. Those clerics are bad news for skeletons!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Start of Play

I have been working on recruiting players for a campaign. Several of these have no experience with roleplaying whatever. When I asked one if he'd ever played roleplaying games he said "You mean like "Settlers of Catan?"

Because of this, and probably because I'm nervous and obsessing the details to try to compensate, I have been putting much effort into what I'll actually show new players when we start. (On writing this, it seems very teacherly-- preparing for class-- which I suppose is fitting, since I've done that and super prepare because I'm nervous).

I've mentioned before how I worked on a streamlined equipment list you can get here. But even that seemed more than a beginner needs to know, and could be streamlined. So, the result of my post on starting equipment is this much slimmer document.

This assumes players will pack up and head out and already takes into account encumbrance. What I realized was there is still the choice of weapons for my players. So I looked at the weapon list in Swords & Wizardry core. As clean as it is, I don't like the way weapons are listed. Why are arrows always listed separately? You can only use them with a bow. Also, no need to list lance, as my starting characters will be heading underground.

Another thing I was doing by looking closely over the list, was getting a feel for the parts of this sweet vehicle. More and more with Swords & Wizardry it feels like the briefness of some rule sections and the open invitation to customize has lead me to take it apart and put it back together exactly how I like. This seems different than just pasting on a homebrew bandage, this is like a review and revision and I really like it. The system is sparse enough where it is still possible!

So, for example, I notice the weapon, warhammer. Why would anyone pick this weapon? It does the same damage as a light mace, but is heavier. Why would I ever pick it over a light mace? I think there must be a rule of game design that says if the only way something will be used in your system is if players roleplay a disadvantage to their characters, you need to go back to the drawing board.

So, I cut warhammer and added flail, which I think can be distinguished by an ability to ignore an opponent's shield. I think it adds some period flavor, with a reason to use it without being to crunchy.

I also rearranged the listing of the weapons more by family. Except the top are all blunts. If the player asks which are blunts it's very easy to say: "The first four."

I like what I ended up with, but, backing up I realized that after rolling stats there is a decision of what class to take. For me that decision would be partially determined by the differences between the classes. And if you told me "These guys can cast spells", I'd be thinking "what kind?" So, I fit first level Magic-user spells on one page. I think the only difference here from core is I left out read magic, which I don't plan to use (reading and understanding a spell are two different things. In my campaign anyone can learn to read the arcane languages spells are written in, and even get the gist of what they do, but that doesn't mean they can cast them).

I've included second level spells on both, so a player will have an idea of what this class can do, but for Clerics I'm also planning to allow first level characters a small chance to successfully petition for higher level spells. Thus the need to really let them see the second level spells.

I hope to gather these documents into a pdf to ease players into Swords & Wizardry. So far I have:
What else will I need?
  • I'm still deciding on thieves, if I'll have them, and if so, what form they'll take.
  • I'm trying to decide how much, if any, I need to say about my campaign world. Maybe just a paragraph to set the flavor.
  • I'm thinking of excerpting the class explanation from Swords & Wizardry (cut the charts).
  • Maybe a brief note on mapping (keep it simple, like a flow chart)
But, I know from experience that what will help me revise this Ease into play-pack is, well, getting the opportunity to ease into play. So, here's crossing my fingers and off to make some more scheduling phone calls to those potential players.

Update 6/20/09: I added a missing link to my streamlined weapons list mentioned in the text.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Combining Categories to Generate

Okay, these little puppies thought up by Bulette, along with my own false fortune creature have got me thinking of items that aren't just one thing, but combine categories. What I mean is, the Gauntlets of Grasping are useful, so they're like a magic item, but they are potentially deadly, like a trap, and they are sentient, like a monster. The false fortune is a creature, but acts more like a cursed item. What if we push this and see what we can invent?

A) Hmm, magic items are treasure so how does this work? Maybe this would be something like a pouch that generates coinage. So emphasizing the value of treasure, it is a magic item which has magic that generates value.

B) The treasure trap, this is valuable but has a gotcha-- necklace of strangulation fits here I think.

C) The valuable creature, I think the goose that lays golden eggs fits here. Spiders that produce silk if you can capture them safely etc. Wait, no, these are more like magic items if they keep producing, hmm . . . It would need to be a creature valuable in and of itself.

D) The Gauntlets of Grasping are close. Wand of Wonder? I'm assuming it isn't as simple as a trap that uses magic (or this whole process would be pointless), no, a useful magic item that is also trap-like. Rings of invisibility, that keep you from becoming visible again. So mild curses, but the item must still be a boon. But, wait, shouldn't trap/hazard mean it can kill you? Hmm . . .

E) Wow. Again the gauntlets are close. This could be something like a bag of devouring, if you consider it a creature feeding, and the characters know what it is and use it to dispose of things. I suppose the false fortune could fall here too, if you consider a portable garbage disposal useful.

F) I think green slime fits nicely here. Envelopers and trappers too.

But my little matrix doesn't account for combinations of more than two, which is what got me thinking about this.

So how about:

G) treasure, useful magic item, trap/hazard
ex: a bag of coin production that will bury the user in suffocating coins if a key phrase isn't uttered.

H) treasure, trap/hazard, creature
ex: a foothold trap (think bear trap) made from the pale-rose ivory tusks of a creature that wants to digest you. Harvest the tusks and you're rich.

I) treasure, useful magic item, creature
ex: a snake that sheds silk each month. Or, a bird whose song polishes gems up to the next level in value.

J) useful magic item, trap/hazard, creature
ex: iron snake necklace which is alive but dormant until put around something. Then it awakes and will constrict, crushing anything it's put around (cutting through bars, smashing open small chests), but is bad news if you put it around your neck.

And now that my juices are flowing, lets try to invent for the first six:

A) treasure, useful magic item
ex: St. Hubert's Travelling Font: a three-legged, mithril bowl that produces holy water as fast as you can fill containers.

B) treasure, trap/hazard
ex: A sapphire that blazes up in a fiery flash the first time it's handled.

C) treasure, creature
ex: a rare dancing lizard, it "dances" to music, and displays its scintillating colors.

D) useful magic item, trap
ex: a portable pit-trap, opens under someone treading on it, but, knowing this, characters might use it as an awkward bag of holding.

Whew, that was fun! I don't think I explored the hazard part of the trap/hazard duo. Maybe I should have made it separate. My mind tingles with ideas of chutes and pools. Well, I leave that to another time. Do you have special ways to generate?

I think anything that comes at the topic "from a slant" would help. The slant can be arbitrary, like items dealing with liquids, or creatures that climb. Maybe more on these later.

If you try combining categories to generate, let me know how it goes!

Deadly Distraction - Blind Agnes

Appearing as a girl or young woman, pale and eyeless, stumbling through dark passages, a blind Agnes is an ill omen for those that see her. Anyone close enough to see the white holes of her eyes will have their own eyes stolen by Agnes. She will gain her victims eyes and with them sight. Once she is able to see, blind Agnes will attempt to flee.

The poor soul that loses their eyes to blind Agnes will still see, but through the eyes set in Agnes face. Their vision will follow wherever Agnes goes while they must negotiate their actual surroundings sightless. Stories tell of men crying out about wondrous treasures only to step unknowingly off of ledges to their death.

There are at least two ways for the victim of a blind Agnes to regain their sight. The first is by waiting, after a matter of hours they will regain their eyes and see as normal. The second is by slaying the blind Agnes. But as she falls dead, her eyes see things no man was meant to see, and a victim that regains their sight in this way is often reduced to whimpering and moaning of the horrible sights they were forced to witness.

Blind Agnes
Armor Class: 9 [10]
Hit Dice: 1d4
Attacks: -
Saving Throw:18
Special: Sight will steal vision
Move: 12
Challenge Level/XP: A/5

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Deadly Distraction - Torporous Worms

These worms are actually a kind of caterpillar that dwells in the small cracks and crevices of underground passages. They are covered in fine bristles which numb flesh even through clothing. On seeing a motionless creature, torporous worms will beginning crawling towards it, slowly, by the hundreds. Once this silent tide of grey worms is moving it can seem as if the very stone of a floor is undulating.

A creature covered in torporous worms will drowse, undisturbed, while the hungry caterpillars begin feeding. Stories tell of adventuring parties foolish enough to bivouac underground, waking to the wet sound of flesh being stripped from their comrades' bones.

The worms themselves are defenseless if not handled, and on any movement or commotion around their prey, will begin retreating.

Torporous Worms
Armor Class: 9 [10]
Hit Dice: 1hp each
Attacks: 1hp per turn
Saving Throw:18
Special: Touch causes numbness & drowsiness
Move: 3
Challenge Level/XP: A/5

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Oddness of Blogging & Poetry

I know people have been doing this for years, but this is an entirely new genre for me. I also realise that much of the stuff I'm writing about has probably been hashed out long ago by grognards. So why blog? Well, for one it isn't so much I'm trying to communicate wisdom to you as to synthesise and understand for me. It is writing as discovery.

And why do this in public? This I can't quite articulate, but audience is essential for writing as discovery to happen. I have a long-planned-but-never-written-essay I call "Why Put a Love Poem in a Book?" which is about this very thing, something about audience makes even poems more "true." Because, that if any type of writing should just work privately, but our greatest loves poems were published, were written with larger audiences in mind than just the beloved.

Well, that's for the long-winded house rule posts, I also have a great desire to contribute and belong to a community and that's one of the reasons for the monster posts-- maybe something new that you can use, that will keep you coming back and tolerating the blah blah blah.

Oh, and on your blogs, I don't read them, I obsessively read them. I currently have 59 feeds I check about twice every day.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I read a forum post (can't remember where, sorry) about someone using scrabble tiles in lieu of miniatures. I like the simplicity and utility of this idea. I have been in the process of digging all my old gaming stuff out of storage lately, including my miniatures. My miniatures are 90% unpainted and don't have a lot of variety-- they'd be handy if a team of specially trained orcs attacked in perfect unison, using the same sword swing (that's what I get for buying the cheaper packs of duplicates).

I still think they are cool, but they don't live up to the hype for me. You can barely see the detail on them when they are set out on the table in marching order, and most of the poses available are flashy and not gritty enough for me (we're going down into a dirty, infested hole, what's with all the flowing robes and feathers?!).

Game Tiles for Monsters

So scrabble tiles . . . I like any solution that can use objects likely to be on hand. I happened to find a spare scrabble game and . . . yoink . . . I now have tokens to represent monsters and heroes. I decided to find out how many of each letter there are in a typical English language set so, for your edification:

Scrabble tiles:
100 total, 2 blanks
12 tiles: E
9 tiles: A, I
8 tiles: O
6 tiles: N, R, T
4 tiles: L, D, S, U
3 tiles: G
2 tiles: B, C, F, H, M, P, V, W, Y
1 tile : J, K, Q, X, Z

Two things I learned from this 1) my set has four tiles missing! 2) we need more monsters with names beginning in E :) As you can see, there are enough Os for a nice Orc onslaught, Rats do well, Snakes and Spiders are okay, but alas, only one Kobold can attack the party at a time (you thought they were weak in groups!).

Oddly enough, I stumbled across an old Perquackey game going through my grandparents' things this weekend. I'd never heard of it before, but it's a word game that uses letter dice similar to Boggle. I don't know if these would be of any use for generating words or names, but they could serve as additional monster markers, the dice being taller than the Scrabble tiles. They could represent tougher things like Ogres, and King Kobolds (kidding about the last). I started tallying up the probabilities of rolling any particular letter with the 13 dice, but found it too tedious and stopped.

I read Lord Kilgore's post about using poker chips to keep track of time in a session. I like the idea. (I was bummed that the sand timer that was supposed to be in the Perquackey game was busted because I think a sand timer could similarly reinforce the tension for a minute long time limit). I followed the links in the comments to that post and found several more suggestions for counter/marker-type game tools.

Tokens for Consumables

Tracking consumables was the idea that popped out at me the most from all of that discussion. I had just begun wondering if there was a simple way to track missle weapon use. I read a post here that suggests making a roll to see if consumables are all gone or not. I don't think having to make a roll before or after every battle is really any easier than marking off 5 arrow hashes on your character sheet and it becomes so abstract that it actually loses the flavor of: "Uh oh, I'm down to my last 5 arrows." I think poker chips would work well for this, the most you'll need is twenty.

Thinking a little more about missles, a far as the issue of whether to allow for recovering them after battle, that doesn't seem abstract enough to me. In getting their one hit, a character may have shot off 5 arrows and they only have to record one as used, so I think it evens out that they can't pick up the few arrows they may have missed and not broken. Tracking that would be too fiddly with no gain. You can still roleplay it if you want: "as you are retrieving unbroken arrows you notice a strange sigil on the floor."

Update 6/24/09: Added picture goodness.

Shopping at my FLGS

The only game store I know of in Fresno, CA is like an archaeological dig of gaming history. Everything from wargames to 4e sit gathering dust on its dreary shelves. I asked the proprietor if he had any Gamescience dice and he didn't know what they were at first. It felt like some eerie Twilight Zone shadow-shop; I was expecting to learn he was a simulacra or something.

This is what I thought of when I heard Swords & Wizardry was getting a publishing and distribution deal. Do other cities actually have vibrant game stores where people will encounter S&W if it shows up on the shelves there?

I know Lulu has its problems, but this all seems kind of backward, because of the great success of S&W available as POD, it will now go back into brick and mortar stores. Unless that means it will appear beside 4e in Borders, I really don't see the gain.

I think some people are uneasy because once you start getting bigger money tied up in it, then there is a chance that the goal is to make that money back, not make a fun game you can imagine the hell out of. I assume Mythmere believes he's found a publisher who doesn't consider those things mutually exclusive. I'm crossing my fingers because I just got to this party and I sure want to contribute.

On a more upbeat note, I visited a nearby comic shop where I've purchased far more gaming material over the years than the game store, and bought, the third LLB (I only had the first two), and: Chainmail, Greyhawk, Eldritch Wizardry, and Gods, Demi-Gods &Heroes! I got them all pretty cheap, I think. I didn't cheat him though, I mentioned I saw the three LBB on Ebay for $400.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

House Rules - Skills

I've mentioned Delta's encumbrance system as a catalyst to my starting this blog, the other was Bohemian's simple and elegant system for adding skills to Whitebox.

As anyone who has dinked around trying to make their own roleplaying game finds out, skills, while seeming like a cool way to add realism and detail, quickly turn into a lot of rule overhead for not much benefit. That's because there are three basic category of skills, those that:
  1. Give characters direct benefits to combat or survival
  2. Give characters benefits outside of combat (essentially will result in 1. eventually)
  3. Are included for logical completeness, but no one would ever choose before any of 1. or 2.
Skills falling under 1. are things like two-weapon fighting, martial arts, disarm, trip and anything that makes a character more likely to hit or to hurt. The second category is all the things players will try to do to get ahead outside of combat like making their own armor, gambling, mining, or any skill involved with shifting a burden from the player to the character: knowledge checks, observation checks, diplomacy, bluff, lie etc. But now that you have your juicy skill system with things that seem cool and that your players are clamoring for, you realize that if you have an "armory" skill you should really have blacksmithy, goldsmithy, gem cutting, and yadda yadda yadda.

Now don't get me wrong, I like these skills showing up in play. I had a fighter character who rolled a tanner background in the 1e DMG and I was constantly trying to turn monster hides into capes and belts. It was fun, it added flavor. But . . .

If you have limited skill choices-- which you must, or what's the point, everyone can do everything-- and you have players choose skills-- and you will probably want to, a randomized character could be cool but would be an oddity-- then you will end up with the situation where a player will have to choose between cooking and critical strike, between skills of type 1. and 3.

I'm sure some people think, "Of course, and the mature role player will make those choices." I just can't do it. Maybe I'm not mature, maybe I'm ultra-gamist, I don't know. I'll give you a specific example: creating a higher level wizard for 4e recently, I had the choice to choose a power that might damage a foe which had successfully hit me or one that allowed me to cast magic missile every round of combat in addition to my normal spell casting. Really!? The designers expected some players to think "Well I could double my spell casting ability, but I envision my character as more of an acid mage." I can't believe it.

Thus we have the fundamental problem with skills, you want a way to include things some characters can do that others can't, like climb walls or track, but if you do you have a balancing nightmare, any "best" skill will be chosen by all characters. What is the solution?

One solution seems to be chaining skills to classes: only thieves can climb walls, only rangers can track. But what if my wizard wants to learn how to track? We are either right back where we started, a general skill system that includes tracking, or we have to invent a new character class that is a spell-user able to track. That sounds kind of cool, could be a hunter-type-diviner. But then for every new skill you need a new class; you have a proliferation of classes. Isn't this what kits were, essentially?

Bah, throw the things out, no skills for anyone. But wait, friend. Bohemian has a solution. In a nutshell, when players generate a character they choose one thing they are "Good At." There are no percentages, no attribute check, the DM will just take this into consideration when the Good At comes into play.

Why do I like this so much? First, it's simple-- no numbers!-- and adds flavor and detail while adding little overhead (the raison d'ĂȘtre of this blog). Second, players want these and will use these; no more cooking or tin smithing, or whatever, sitting unused on your skill list while players choose other things. Third, it incorporates infinite possibilities. Not only does this mean, as DM, you no longer have to compile a list of every skill possible, but, and this is probably the single most elegant aspect of Bohemian's system, players can choose Good Ats of various granularity and focus. Examples from Bohemian's own campaign include "drunken fighting" and "finding and hoarding useful items." These are both far more specific than most skills in a traditional RPG system. This means it would be much harder to predict anyone would have wanted these skills in creating a traditional skill system. It means they will come into play less often and thus should cause less worry about imbalance or how to deal with them. But, the second example was from a player wanting to be able to make gadgets on the fly, so this system lets players approximate the variety of kits without needing them, or new classes.

Now, for my own adaptation. Just one Good At seems light; Fitz uses character intelligence and wisdom to determine how many Good Ats they get. I don't like going to attributes though, it assumes Good Ats are related to smarts, what if I'm Good At climbing? It also adds complexity without giving me much in return.

Bohemian's system allows players to choose as many as they want as long as they choose a Bad At in addition. I like this. Does there need to be an ultimate limit? Probably, this throws some things on the shoulders of the DM, like if a Bad At is roughly equivalent to a corresponding Good At, but I think that's better done on a case by case basis anyway.

One other concern I have is beginner players, I'm thinking this might add an extra bit to the learning curve that can be avoided. Maybe they could choose their Good Ats at second level, after they've gotten the hang of classes and combat, spells and the point of all this.