Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gencon 2014 Report

GenCon this year was one of those experiences where I knew what I wanted to do, I did it in moderation, and it went well, producing a satisfied feeling. I wanted to:

* Play and run old school roleplaying games, meeting up with like-minded players and writers.

I think my first ever appearance on the official GenCon Schedule was a success, running the Mule scenario. Despite a few glitches in my preparation, the players had fun facing the challenges and coming out with all six slots on the Necromule filled with named corpses.

The midnight run happened on my Five Rings group's party floor, and while a little more distracted by raucous goings on, drinking and equipment mishaps, did take the players to a different area of the Crypts with a strange social encounter and a rousing final combat against plague zombies, who yielded only two nameable corpses.

On Saturday I went and played in Tavis' ACKS scenario using a Dyson Logos map and exploring an ancient tomb. A really good group of creative role-players assembled, including Tavis' 12 year old son, and I'm grateful he found space for me. We ate a burger, discussing insider stuff about the Dwimmermount kickstarter with one of the backers, and then headed off to our party floor to play a really good off-the-grid Ars Magica introductory scenario with GM Rob. Even better, Brian "Trollsmyth" Murphy stopped by briefly to say hi.

* Try new games of all descriptions.

Thursday morning kicked off with a definite "SCORE" at Gaming On Demand- getting first pick and picking Jason Morningstar's run of The Warren, an Apocalypse World game that does Watership Down/Bunnies & Burrows. Jason's scenario was a bayou with appropriate creatures and challenges, including a memorable Cajun raccoon named Boupignon. AW rules sets seem to hit the right notes between rules-light and cool subsystems. In particular my rabbit, Tunguska, made good use of the Seer procedure in which the other players write single words on pieces of paper and the seer has to make up a vision involving them.

I did the usual walking the dealer hall and trying new games. I can report that a) playing a demo and then not being able to buy the game because it will be "out in November" is a frustrating experience b) if you walk on to an empty demo table it may be because the game sucks; good games seem to create their own buzz and interest c) so the only game I played and got was the PvP deckbuilder Star Realms, whose computer version is indeed fiendishly addictive. Also bought the usual ton of miniatures and accessories, and got but did not play Hillfolk - my impulse is to start with anything but the.vanilla-Hebrews default setting.

Also memorable - bottom feeding on the party floor (thanks Eric, I think) with weird card games using Magic mechanics for questionable simulational purposes, like Ultimate Combat where mana is "conditioning" and "fighting spirit" and so forth and creatures are combat moves, all illustrated with amateur photos of karate dojos -- or god help me, Furoticon where the mana is one of four genders and you can send minions to block your enemy's erotic assault before your orgasm points or whaatever are worn down.

* Do some networking.

As well as catching up and connecting with the new brand manager for the L5R CCG, and other people in that enterprise, I went to a seminar "Gaming as Other" where useful advice was given about helping to diversify the gaming world, and made some more connections there. There is even some possibility of a seminar next year on academic research and non-computer gaming. Would be great if I could wrangle my research fund to pay for the trip...

We're all getting older. There is less wild partying,more retiring at a reasonable hour, more reaching out and getting into new spheres of activity. Jet lag kicks my ass, too. But as a way to spend part of your vacation it's not half bad.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Running 5th Edition

I wanted to introduce D&D to my other brother-in-law's kids (age, 9, 13, and 15 with the latter having played 4th edition before). The best thing for their gaming future was to give them the industry standard experience. So I bit the bullet and downloaded 5th edition Basic, figuring that what with all the conversion resources out there I could lead them to the familiar Citadel of Evil.

They never got there but they had a blast, over two sessions. Below are some of the pro and con features of my experience.

PRO: Character creation is long by old school standards, but the best parts are backgrounds and their associated roleplaying hooks. Backgrounds are great and the implicit idea that splatbooks will focus on them rather than mechanically new classes is genius. Choosing the non-optimal background from the starter set gave two characters some interesting "multiclass" dynamics as an ex-acolyte wizard and an ex-criminal fighter who in action operated more like a combat rogue. It is great to have the mechanical elements pull one way and the roleplaying elements pull another way.

The three starting characters came raring out of creation with reasons to adventure: take back the halfling folk-hero's village while ducking minions of the tyrant; defend the wizard's Zen-like faith against the more military offshoot of the same (literally, a case of Mumon vs. Musashi); find a lost heirloom stolen from the reforming highway robber.

Trinkets are a thing I have used before so they also provided nice hooks, in particular the coincidence of "defend a sacred text" with "diary with seven pages missing" would have been immediate plot fodder in a longer campaign.

Combat, when it came, was very simple and classic-feeling. I ported in some of my "good ideas" like morale rolls, and used Stan Shinn's monster conversion formula for a random stirge encounter and for the climactic battle with the hobgoblins and evil wizard occupying the halfling village. Using this system, 12 hobgoblins and their boss were a very even match for the 3 PCs and handful of halfling refugees, and that only because the kids showed excellent tactical sense, doing a thorough recon, and shooting from high up in trees, by preference at the hobgoblin bowmen. If I had used the 2d8+1 HP, AC 18, +2d6-damage-when-team-fighting ho-gos from the Dragon Queen monster list, the good guys would have been utterly crushed. As it was, two of the PCs and one NPC emerged successfully from the Land of Death Saves.

Knowing how tough monsters actually are in 5th edition, the leveling numbers make a little more sense. The 300 xp needed to get from 1st to 2nd is almost like a 0-level "funnel" now that classic cannon fodder like orcs are best matched to 2nd and 3rd level parties. From there things proceed pretty much as they do in 3rd edition and my own old school rules.

Inspiration I had doubts about, but for these starting roleplayers it was a good, limited and non-intrusive way to have them think about whether their actions in the game reflected their character concept at the end of a session.

Nine-year-old boys have a hard time playing Lawful Good.

CON: My biggest gripe with 5th was the lack of class role differentiation. Spells and special abilities themselves muddle the classes (fighters can self-heal and clerics get a sweet damage spell, for instance), but this doesn't bother me as much. It's more the decision to boil the mechanical class benefits for skills, weapons and equipment down to a proficiency bonus which starts at +2. This means that a rogue isn't much better at lockpicking than a fighter or wizard with a DEX bonus; and in our party, the melee combat beast was the lucky wizard who rolled high stats for STR and DEX as well as INT, meaning he did the best damage with the quarterstaff and, once buffed with Mage Armor, had the highest AC. The Santa-Claus-like handout of ability numbers, "highest of 4d6" plus race, subrace, class and background ability bonuses further tips the balance away from class and toward abilities, so that a +0 bonus was the new -1, and +2 and above was standard.

Being able to cast spells in the face of melee further de-differentiates the classes. We had a two wizard, one fighter party but there was definitely no feeling of "protect the squishy wizards!"

I can see the logic of combat and, as others have said and I found out, it makes for tough experiences. At the same time, the challenge is definitely oriented toward individual fights rather than resource management over a longer haul, due to the healing and spell recovery effects from short and long rests.

But the point is, we had a good time and I feel like I know what I need in order to run this game in a fluid way. I will definitely be getting the Starter Set as a present for the kids ... if I can find a game store that has any in stock, that is ...

Friday, 1 August 2014

GenCon Run: A Mule Called Golgotha

All right. I have taken the step of registering my 52 Pages Old School Basic/3E hybrid game run with GenCon. It will be August 15 (Friday) 10AM-2PM in Embassy Suites, Chancellor 1. If you are already logged into Gencon events manager the link is this un. I want to see some of my blog readers in the crazy mix! Here is the splash page for my GM screen.
The scenario is a delve into Castle of the Mad Archmage's Crypt level with 5th level pre-gens using the 52 Pages system (see downloads, right). The mule is what you will be using to transport the bodies of the blameless dead back to the surface, but the dungeon might have other plans.

I hope I can get some of you fellow bloggers, readers and commenters out of the woodwork for this one!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Indefinite

There is one use of "appears" language, which I mostly panned in a previous post, that actually can be appropriate -- when the character has only an indefinite idea of how to call something they're experiencing.

"In the shadows at the back of the room you see a still figure that appears to be human-shaped" (approach closer and see it's a wooden effigy)

"The vial is full of a fine white grainy powder that looks kind of like salt" (you need to taste it or have alchemy knowledge to find out anything different).

The difficulties in describing this kind of situation are basic to the task of conveying visual information through language. To describe something efficiently you must categorize it. "You see a cylindrical form about two meters high, topped by a sphere, with one long cylinder hanging from each side." That's just a clunky, roundabout, parlor-game way to say "You see a human-shaped figure." But the problem with "human-shaped" is that it forces an interpretation too strongly, while "cylindrical form" doesn't capture the automatic leap to a conclusion that you might experience when you see this feature in silhouette:
For non-visual cues, using approximate metaphors seems fairer. "You hear a sound like a huge sleeping animal snoring" can be revealed as just waves resounding in a grotto. "You see a powder like salt" but when assayed it's actually the alchemists' compound zafronast. Fortunately, visual cues suggest their own method or resolution, transferring the characters' perceptions' to the players' themselves by means of illustrations.

When shown and not told, whether drawn on the spot or prepared ahead of time, the visually indefinite can be a powerful stimulus to conjecture and mystery. Consider the following glyph that recent adventurers in the Castle of the Mad Archmage found daubed on the wall in the south of the second level:

Its meaning was much debated -brains? snakes with wings? Looked sinister enough, anyway. Only when a more detailed amulet was found on the body of a cultist was the intent made clear:

To depict the twin heads and tentacles of the demon lord Demogorgon.

Apart from crude drawings, the visually indefinite can be achieved by holding a mask of random dots printed on an overhead projection over an illustration; else, by holding it up at a distance, as I did in the same adventure when the party glimpsed from afar the notorious fountain of serpents, which is illustrated in the Castle of the Mad Archmage illustrations booklet.

Clues first, then revelation, is a general principle that works wonders when running adventures. A wonder or hazard hinted at before provides a strong guide to play, and makes the final encounter that much more satisfying, than if it comes as a complete surprise.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Air World

And now, pushing forward my other multi-page table project, here is the air-themed table for my 36 x 20 x 20 x 20 modular encounters (that's 288,000 possibilities, or over 10 million if you roll each table separately...)

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Baroque Poisons, Diseases, Stuns and Healing

Incentivized by renewed interest in our baroque spells project of last year I went ahead and completed another page in the very, very occasional series of the 52 Baroque Pages. This time the spinning die had indicated that page 33 of my 52 Pages should be given the "Baroque" treatment, that dealing with poisons, healing hit points, and the like.

Click to enlarge or read below
I decided to split the 52 items four ways, with four thirteen-entry tables that should by no means be interpreted as an attempt to somehow outdo twelve-entry tables. As before, the larger-type #13 entries are my idea of the best of the lot and may be held in reserve to substitute for a lackluster or inappoprriate outcome of the genuine d12. Not all of these, however, need be randomly chosen.

It is also my belief that all the HP recovery activities are much more fun than "taking a short rest" or whatever.

13 Rare Poisons
1.Rosy Tincture: eyes fill with blood, save or blinded, euphoric effect
2.Ingrate’s Milk: poison for baby’s lips that spares it but kills mother
3.Consensifer: paralytic, 1 hr; victims believe they just chose not to move
4.The Null Hypothesis: victim fails to see anything as important, 1 hr
5.Parrhestic Rigor: victim speaks whole truth for 1 day then dies choking
6.Implausible Gauntlets: selective paralysis of hands, feet, 1 day
7.Skuldine: shortens natural lifespan by 2d20 years; long-game poison
8.Gutwrench: too-good antiseptic, kills eubacteria in body, die in d6 days
9.Destiny Venom: kills in 7 days; only gaining 500 xp/level cures it
10.Complix: also envenoms foe’s blade on touch, hence, moral quandary
11.Justichor: medicine that cures most diseases but fatal to malingerers
12.Entheotoxin: makes blood ethereal, only cure is to shift to that plane
13.Legacy Wine: swell, empurple, die; made only from Legacy Wine victim’s last tears; paradox noted

13 Odd Diseases
1.Rust-beast Hyperaemia: if armor rusts into wound, -2 STR, CHA
2.Medusa’s Gallstones: drawback of petrification-save success, -2 CON
3.Displacer Dance: sidestep tic after teleport, -2 DEX until next level up
4.Pharaoh’s Wrack: aftereffect of mummy rot, freezes joints at angles
5.Numismiasis: infection on copper coins, crud webs fingers together
6.Hornflamm: d4-day ague from unicorn noses that neutralizes poison
7.Eargrub: infectious tune, when heard gives -4 INT, WIS for d6 days
8.Sainted Boils: -4 to all abilities, d6 weeks; sucking pus heals d6 HP/day
9.Monty’s Revenge: radiation coma from more magic items than WIS
10.Green Grippe: jealous flu makes host clean freak, spreads post-mortem
11.Esculent Scabs: can peel or bite off for d4 HP damage and 1 meal/day, food smell draws monster attacks
12.Griffon Fur Tick: bite in groin causes overconfidence, -2 to all abilities
13. Litchworm: eats maze in you, 30 days to live, magic-proof; only hope, enlarge self, send in reduced party

13 Nonlethal Damage Effects (at exactly 0 HP)
1.Subdued: if hit was with rope, whip or chain, victim obeys, 3 rounds
2.Intimidated: victim retreats, in preference to attack, for 1 day
3.Disordered: victim gapes in confusion, attacks at random
4.Opossum’d: victim falls to floor, appears dead for d6 minutes
5.Aggravated: victim attacks you at double speed 1 round, collapses
6.Ransomed: victim bargains for life with real or wishful treasure
7.Obligated: if victim is Lawful, unable to aggress against you for life
8.Agog: victim panics, flees by most unorthodox route
9.Near-Death: victim views afterlife in daze, returns in d6 minutes
10.Moonstruck: victim adopts new random persona, amnesic
11.Circle of Life: if victim is animal, it dies, another 3x bigger appears
12.Maledicta: victim throws dying curse, avoided if you spare him
13. Amen!: if hit was with holy symbol, victim adopts your faith

13 Idiosyncratic Hit Point Recovery Activities
1.Charging at an active foe with HD > your level, regain 1 HP/ level
2.Taking an hour-long stroll alone, deep in thought, regain d3 HP
3.Every 3 strong drinks you swig, you restore 1 HP
4.Meditation, 1 hour: roll WIS or under on d20 to recover d3 HP
5.Loudly denying frailty, regain your last 1 HP if 2+ others believe you
6.5% chance /hour asleep of lucid dream; adjust HP by d8-3; can die
7.Sleep in carcass of monster that damaged you for HP = its HD
8.Hot sexy love, 1 hour, exhausted for 2 more, 1 HP for coming last
9.Pity friend with 2x+ more damage than you have HP, recover 1 HP
10.1 hour hot bath with scrubbing buddy heals you like full night sleep
11.Once/week, permanently lose 1 HP to heal 2 HP/level by exertion
12.Character gains 1 HP spending 3 hours musing aloud on a theory of injury and heroism, may provoke NPCs to violence
13. Sir yes Sir! Heal 1 extra HP/day if slapped in the face by a higher level ally

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


Here's how it probably starts.

There's a slip between the input and the output of the Gamemaster-In-The-Middle. The adventure writer communicating to the GM says "This appears to be a worn stone stairway leading down, but really is a sloping passage floored with the sticky illusion-casting tongue of a Deceptive Devourer, the rest of which lurks in wait in room 15 of the next level." The GM then communicates to players,  "You see what appears to be ... an old set of stone steps leading down into the darkness." Or consulting the "appears" synonym book, "seems," "looks like," "apparently is," et al.

Who knows why they do this, but two reasons come to mind. It could just be literal-mindedness, relying on the words in the description to craft a speech to the players. It could also be a reflex of honesty; the inner moral angel balking at saying there "is" a flight of stairs leading down when it just isn't true. Whatever the reason, it becomes immediately clear to the players that using "appears"-isms in this way is a giveaway that something funny is up.

Now, there's still time for you, the GM, to repent of your folly. Realize that your job is only to describe reality as it appears at any given time to the players. A successful deception will appear with the full force of reality;  "is," actually, is fully appropriate.

But in some games I've seen, the GM instead takes the left-hand path, doubling down on "appears"-ism by applying it as a decoy to things that aren't deceptive at all.

"What seem to be some mushrooms are growing from the dung heap." (They're just mushrooms.)
"There are some humanoids approaching. They appear to be orcs." (And they are.)
"A stream of what looks like clear water flows from the left wall to the right." (PSYCH! It's acid, save or take 4d6!!)

In any case, "appears"-ism usually gets left by the wayside when the players enter safe surroundings. Or at least imagine this:
You find what appears to be the same trail leading back to the village through superficially familiar birch and fir trees. After walking a distance that feels similar to the distance you took to get there, you see what may very well indeed be the buildings of the village. You go to a low house that looks very much like your inn. A hot meal for five is seemingly brought out within what feels like minutes by the self-styled innkeeper, who closely resembles the man you remember from this morning. Pewter-look plates apparently are sitting on what looks like a table, with a liquid having the appearance of ale in a ceramic-like pitcher. The "plates" are heaped with putative sausage and ostensible beans ...
This, I think you'll agree, is a Brechtian alienation effect gone too far; it turns the game into an exercise in Plato's Cave or radical philosophical solipsism. Whenever appears-speak is used, it will keep the players vaguely tipped-off and on guard, lending a hallucinatory aspect to the proceedings.

But I'm not sure it's necessary to use such a blunt instrument to get that effect -- shouldn't players naturally be wary in the dungeon? And more to the point, how do you really spring the classic "innkeeper-is-a-werewolf" surprise when you telegraph safe and dangerous areas so obviously?

In conclusion, there can only be one response to an environment described through "appears"-book-isms ...