Sunday, 27 May 2018

Amazon Mutual: Day-Glo Ideas from the Typewriter Era

Digital cameras can't really handle Day-Glo. I tried.

The year: 1982.
The text: electric typewriter and Letraset titles.
The cover: fluorescent orange.
The art: strictly amateur.

"Amazon Mutual Wants You!" Volume One, from Dragon Tree Press, is the most interesting and creative of my three old-school pickups (previously, previously).

 High concepts.

The concept driving this anthology is very 1982. It's that era in which the first flush of playing D&D straight had faded out, and the kind of self-aware narratives seen in Dave Trampier's "Wormy" comic were taking hold. So, the party are meta-adventurers, having been hired by a guild (the titular Amazon Mutual) to carry out the corpse retrieval clause on other adventurers' insurance policies. The four adventures are four such missions, each with a different author and a markedly different style.

Some of the guild rules are typical AD&D fun-crusher magical fiats. Retrieval teams are geased ("absolutely no save!") not to steal the victims' possessions. Body bags of holding eliminate the problem of lugging corpses back. There are half a dozen better ways to approach the first problem, ways that open the slim possibility of hoodwinking the guild -- Amazon keeps a list of possessions and recovery teams are held liable for missing stuff; an annoying familiar chaperones the rescue effort; and so on. The body bags solve a problem that's nonexistent if the party eliminates all opposition before retrieving the corpses, and kill an element of challenge that should hang over the adventure if they don't.

The book's approach to what we would now call challenge ratings, though, is one of the dead-end gems of the Typewriter Era, up there with the Midkemia attack matrix.
  • First off, each adventure has a manifest of all the experience points available in the form of monsters. (It would be most helpful if treasure was listed, too, though, but the need for a GM to manage advancement rate is one of the most underrated things in level-based gaming.)
  • This manifest also includes suggested experience awards for outwitting monsters, dealing with traps, and finding clues and other plot goals. Given the slow advancement pace of by-the-book AD&D this is absolutely key.
  • There's also a section where it's explicitly recognized that the character power level appropriate for each adventure depends on what approach the players and DM take. So, one adventure is suitable for level 7-9 if the DM plays it as a standard fighting room-crawl, 14-18 (!) if the DM treats it as an organized fortress where all the denizens can be warned in a short time, or much lower levels if the players choose to take on the adventure with sneaking, diplomacy, or infiltration.
Temple of the Four Gods. The first adventure takes you to retrieve four adventurer bodies from a temple with a prosaic layout, short on monsters and long on tricks and traps. There are a few clues explaining how the temple went over from the four gods to the service of Loki, but overall this is a funhouse mini-dungeon with a few random gleams of dark humor.  Two corpses can be had almost immediately without any fight, one comes after a four-goblin battle, and it's only the last body that forces the players past a meaningful number of tricks and traps. Would run: 3/10.

Stronghold of the Mer-Witch. An underwater cave mission to retrieve two adventurers. One is dead and can be found almost immediately after a nasty fight with a gigantic eel. The other is alive but a captive of the mer-witch deeper in, who commands a small army of mer-orcs and (not very tough) sea trolls, and can throw three death spells a day among other powers. A coral golem and an interestingly furnished underwater torture chamber liven up the otherwise unremarkable, "storehouse, barracks, kitchen" design. Would run: 6/10.

Mission to Danger. The gonzo spirit of early-days roleplaying lives here. The person to be rescued, captive but not yet dead, is a "Hobbit Fighter-Techno" with a pistol, a switchblade, and a deadman switch, for he has mined the dark elves' dungeon fortress to blow sky-high! The DM is asked to play out the ticking clock in four hours of real time. Some nice situations can happen: meeting an illusionist cat who might help with infiltration, a possible fight between an enemy red dragon and a captured rainbow dragon, finding out the hobbit is an ornery and contrary ally, and a treasure hoard that turns into a river of molten gold if the explosives blow. Would run: 8/10.

Grimethorp's Manor. This adventure plays around with the Amazon Mutual premise. The party has to retrieve a peacefully deceased retired adventurer from his mansion, following the letter of his policy, but his ghost doesn't want his body moved. It's a clever concept but the execution is lacking. Until the party finds the body, they will be walking through the mansion rooms with nothing interesting to do. When they try to take the body out, the ghost starts interfering, casting nuisance spells and animating the house's furnishings to attack, just to frighten and annoy but not cause harm. That's also not going to work. You frighten D&D players by taking huge chunks of hit points, and making them roll save-or-die, not by having a rug say "boooo".  Would not run as is, and the adventure needs a lot of editing to work; I'd start by having bandit squatters and other random ruin pests in the mansion to give the adventure a real first act, make the ghost's attacks really dangerous, and on top of that have the rest of the bandits coming home from a raid just as the party is making to leave.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Awesome Pain in the Ass That Was DragonQuest

Continuing my trio of bargain-bin rescues from Glasgow (actually a gift from Paolo, in lieu of buying an adventure from the system) I present to you DragonQuest, 2nd edition!

Why does this RPG system set my teeth on edge? My nostalgia should be all for SPI and the days of punching out wargame counters, all for Deathmaze and Citadel of Blood and War of the Ring and Sword and Sorcery. But good boardgaming chops do not guarantee a good roleplaying game.

Let's judge a book by its cover. Sorry guys, RPG players are not just dreaming of being Conan. D&D art got that right more often than not. They are in a fantasy-hero world, but team players; just like they're in a horror world, but not doomed, and in a science fantasy world, but stone cold medieval. The Frazetta muscleman hoisting up the results of his DragonQuest like a trophy bass is someone else's idea of "sword and sorcery".

The writing style of the game is a 180 degree reaction against the fast, loose but evocative D&D writing of the time. No gaps and confusing terminology here! DQ is buckled and strapped into the case law structure of an SPI wargame's rules (see and apply the Rules Writing Procedure). If the GM has leeway, we'll tell you exactly where that leeway is. It's meant to be clear, but it's mechanizing and alienating on the page. The wargame influence also shows in the tight regulation of combat on a hex grid.

Maybe case-law would work if the mechanics were more elegant, as in Metagaming's contemporary offering The Fantasy Trip. But they're standard Rolemaster-type fare, a percentile skill system with "RPG 2.0" features like separate fatigue and physical damage, damage-reducing armor, critical hits, background packages, custom advancement ... Determining target numbers might have you multiplying 39 by 2.5. Damage involves frequent table lookups to see if a crit and physical damage happen. God forbid you should have a d6 laying around the house, here, roll one of your d10's and take half for a d5 instead. And roll four of those d5s to determine your character's stats.

What's a Satanic panic?
But it's funny how often interesting magic systems come attached to clunky base mechanics, while elegant systems like TFT or RuneQuest have difficult or prosaic approaches to magic. Certainly, something was possessing SPI around the turn of the 80's. They had a boardgame about the demons from the Lesser Key of Solomon, and worked some of those names into their Citadel of Blood adventure game. And yes, there's a whole school of DQ demon summoning that ramps up to 16 pages of fully powered Goetic infernal royalty. That menu is clearly where all the love lies, and the other magic schools suffer collectively by comparison. Some are solid, some near-unplayable like the Water Magic school with its Aquaman-style restriction.

By the way, there is a lot of cribbing from D&D, especially in the monster list. And in the kind of rules that compel game balance. Wizards can't cast near cold iron or while being distracted by damage. Player characters who poison their weapons might nick themselves. This points at the heart of the problem, that Dragonquest isn't built around a compelling setting (implicitly, as in D&D, or explicitly, as in Runequest). So much of it is generic that the special stuff fails to stick.

For example, instead of alignment, your characters get a quasi-astrological Aspect which gives them bonuses and penalties for very short periods of the day or year, or around a birth or death. Sounds cool, but it doesn't really resonate with any other social or magical structure, mostly boiling down to an optimum time and place to do housebound skill tests. Only the death aspect has any impact on the typical adventurer, with a +10% bonus just after a mammal dies near you.

At least the 2nd edition book concludes creditably, with a tight little sample adventure in a bandit oasis. It maybe shows, though, that DQ doesn't really know what kind of fantasy game it is. The journey to the camp is described last of all, oh yeah, you might encounter a sand golem. The real detail is put into the characters at the camp, their secrets and intrigues. It's not really necessary that one is a halfling and another is a hobgoblin. The magic, too, is subtle, pulp-story stuff. There are other consequences of aping the pulp era (the camp is run by one "Alla Akabar," and roles for NPC women comprise jealous wife and sex victim). Perhaps the game is more suited for would-be Conans after all?

Saturday, 28 April 2018

One Page Dungeon 2018: Beneath the Nameless Towers of the Kremlin

This year I thought I would do something gonzo and topical about all the rumors, disinformation, and horrible truths surrounding the Russia of the Czars, the Soviets, and Putin. There is a wealth of material, some of it verified, some of it shadowy, some of it obvious bullshit, and some of it (like Mushroom Lenin) a purposeful hoax. Any adventurers from any world using time or dimensional travel might find themselves summoned to the mad science labs under Moscow, embroiled in a Kremlinological intrigue.

Linked pdf version with sources for all the history and mythology.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Why the City?

File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg
"All I wanted was a repeating hand crossbow!"

Continuing the discussion about urban supplements and adventures ...

Cities and towns are ambiguous places in fantasy adventure roleplaying games.

They are safe places where parties can expect to rest, refit, do business, and train in a predictable way.
They are boring places where the above activities take place, between real adventures, with little fuss or muss.


They are dangerous places of adventure, crime, fights, intrigues, in the tradition of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser and dozens of other fantasy sources.
They are interesting places full of local color and characteristics.

Because of this dual role, and other characteristics such as their non-linear, fractal organization, cities are easy to get wrong in play. Players just want to trade and heal up, but the GM comes barging in with plots and names and scenery and thieves and murderers. Players want to get involved in the city, but the GM doesn't have details, or has so many details that there's no place to start. The encyclopedic organization of nearly every city book ever produced, including the one we looked at last time, doesn't help with this at all.

If you want the city to be safe and boring, in fact, there's no need for any special material about the city, other than a name, location, and approximate size to gauge the availability of goods and services.

Otherwise, it's useful to think about four kinds of "actions" in urban play.

Player-to-GM, mandatory. Players expect they can do a number of things in a decent city or town. Find an inn to rest, a temple to heal, various shops to buy equipment and sell loot, places to train. An urbanity without any of these features is damaged and in need of explanation, as when you buy a sword that is prone to break at the first blow.

Player-to-GM, optional. A lot of urban play revolves around players asking for goods and services that are not standard or listed in the rules. "Can I buy a repeating crossbow? Can I commission one? Can I find an arena fight? Is there a wizard who wants to trade spells with me?" The GM can agree, flatly refuse, or put some kind of test or adventure in the way.

GM-to-player, optional. GMs can also insert clues or hooks to tempt the players into adventure as they go about their mundane business; strange buildings, odd happenings in the street, the old man in the corner of the inn. Or, the players can just get things done and move on to the next dungeon.

GM-to-player, mandatory. This is when characters, plots and situations force themselves on the players. Guards barge in, thieves sneak in, wizards demand their time, the neighborhood is on fire; a thousand ways for the city to compel adventure.

Now, this scheme can help coordinate GM and player expectations about what they think is fun about cities, with players being able to talk about their need for more or less GM involvement at any point in the campaign. But it also suggests a better way to organize books about cities.
  • You start, literally, with the party at the city gates, describing what they see and what they have to do to get in.
  • You list the most common targets of Player-GM Mandatory play -- inns, shops, temples -- how to find them, and any "color" peculiarities about them (the temple has a dragon's skull for a dome! the inn has a goblin barkeep!) The players can stick to that shallow level of interaction, or dive in deeper.
  • You then describe ways to satisfy a number of Player-GM Optional requests, including things they may not have thought of themselves. The unusual goods and services in the town, and what they have to do to access them.
  • You give hooks and encounters that are GM-Player Optional, things they may see in the street. This is how you introduce factions: start with visible signs in society, later the full story of who is involved, and how these interact behind the scenes.
  • Finally, some strong moves that are GM-Player Mandatory. These can proceed logically from the party's other business (they see something they shouldn't have seen, so assassins are sent after them; a messenger from the Red Wizard Guild tries to talk them out of further business at the Blue Wizard Guild store). They can introduce contingencies, countermoves, campaigns.
The first two of these are kind of what I was getting at in the Street Guide Without Streets years ago. It's also a similar structure to the functional method of room description in adventures. With a little thought about what's useful, writers can satisfy both the GM's need for accessible information, and the player's variable needs for involvement with the goings-on in a city.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Can We Do Better than the Tyrant's Demesne?

So. I'm back.

Visiting Paolo up in the northern lands, we went to the excellent game shop Static on King Street and browsed its second-hand trove. I came away with two third-party products from the glory days of my first encounters with D&D, the early 80's days of electric-typewriter-and-Letraset layout, amateur art, and occasional gemstones of creativity amid the dross of naive simulationism. Paolo added thereto a third item from his collection. In the next few posts, I'll now review and muse upon these items in ascending order of interest value.

First up: WITHIN THE TYRANT'S DEMESNE, "a complete campaign module set in the world of Haven." The stats are from the "Thieves' Guild" game but very similar to the levels and abilities of D&D or its then-numerous improved systems. The authors don't get cover billing, but it's a collaboration among four names, chiefly Walter Hunt and Richard Meyer. The artists include -- is that Jeff Dee? no, the similarly cartoon-deco-styled V. M. Wyman (are those sci-fi lady initials?), and some other less talented names.

Overall: A standard fantasy city where the intrigues are predictable.

Cons: The kind of gazetteer-style design Zak's Vornheim reacted against. We start with a regional map and history, call out the factions and describe in detail each of their characters, go for a "tour" around the city neighborhoods, involving more building, shop and character descriptions, and finally -- in a 48-page book -- get down to six pages of plots and encounters that deploy what we've seen.

There's very little bizarre about the place, even in its weirdness. There's a tyrant, who keeps power through his brutal guards, the unfortunately named Redshirts, and also through a coopted thieves' guild. There's a merchant society, a bunch of wizard guilds. Reading about the other characters, it doesn't feel much like a tyranny is going on. Political allegiances of most shopkeepers are down to a random table. Explicit descriptions of oppression, resistance, toadying, plotting, and cowardice are few and far between. Probably the most memorable encounter hook is a bunch of blobby chaos creatures who bring back human meat for a butcher, Sweeney Todd style.

Awful wordplay abounds, like the gang modeled after The Who with a "Dr. Jimmy," a "Quiet One," etc.; the potion seller Plazebo; throwing in some obscure US labor movement references, a wizard called Ilgwu who is involved in a plot with the resistance leader Johill. But ...

Pro 1: In a fantasy world filled with Butars, Adars, Radmars, Bonams, Corams, and the occasional Lobar (all from the Tyrant's Demesne, mind you), it can be hard to get names straight. Yes, awful puns can help the DM remember who's who.

BUT, the players must get the puns only too late, or never. So Plazebo is too obvious; the Who goons could be just under the radar. Likewise the most clever name in the module, a lockpicker named Kasserine Khyber, after two famous mountain passes from military history. I once had a party do a whole campaign where Rick, son of Nick lived in a millhouse with a water gate near the Ford of Jerrold and was being investigated by the Wood Warden Burnsteen from the rangers' Post... Thankfully, they never got it until I revealed the scheme.

Pro 2: The intrigues, when actually described, are decent spots of mystery. There's a fairly linear plot to follow and discover a traitor to the Tyrant; a more multi-threaded plot involving apparitions of the apparently dead Johill, with a Scooby Doo-type explanation; and a number of short encounters that highlight some of the other secrets of the town. They're just hiding behind long stretches of description that follow neither the logical order of player engagement with the setting, nor the order of GM preparation to run any given adventure. The helpful table of NPC stats in the back can't mitigate this.

To do better in a modern-day roleplaying work, we have to realize what the city is, functionally, for the players and their characters. And that's the next post.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

One Page Dungeon 2017: Worm Scramblers of the Deep Dire Door

No matter how inactive my blog, I have been trying to come up with something for the One Page contest every year since 2013. This year I was going to post another suite of rooms from my megadungeon but inspiration struck at the last moment - "what if you had a dungeon that was inside a door? A giant door?" The rest practically wrote itself thanks to a very detailed engraving of a crunchy old-time castle door, some pun-generated monsters, and a meta-puzzle about opening the Door from within and who might want you to do that.

"Shrunken adventurers" is a trope verging on cliche so I gave the GM the chance to make the door an actual, 300' high door in some unfathomable dungeon, which I think is the clutch choice for sure. Anyway, it feels good to be able to throw something into the ring on fairly short notice!

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Cold Iron: Forgery and Reality

European folklore often paints fey creatures as allergic to iron. This supports the idea that people with Bronze or Stone age technology, defeated by iron-using peoples, passed into the victors' mythology as faeries and other weird beings. The first and finest expression of this belief in gaming comes from Runequest, where technology is Bronze Age, meteorite iron is rare and near-magical, and elves and trolls can't stand it.

As with so many other issues, Runequest had the elegant solution and D&D ham-fisted it. In a medieval, iron-using society, there's nothing special about the metal itself. Thus the peculiarity, in the AD&D Monster Manual, of seeing iron as the bane of demons and other evil creatures. And the backpedaling, in a couple of entries, to insist that only "cold iron" bans a ghast or harms a quasit.

Adding injury to St. Dunstan's insult.
As I understood this back in the day, "iron" must mean something different from steel. Most likely, the carbon involved in forging weapons in the medieval-Renaissance world somehow disrupted the mojo of iron, so you would have to special-order a mace head of the same stuff as your cauldron or door handle. And, it would be reasonably balancing to say that non-carbon iron couldn't make up a useful blade, because it would be too soft or brittle.

"Cold iron" is near-meaningless, more a poetic epithet than a technical term. Iron can't be extracted from ore without heat, and "cold forging" is a modern industrial term which assumes you can die-stamp a sheet of rolled iron (which passed through heat in the smelting and rolling processes). One obvious way to get iron "cold" is to chip it off a meteorite, but with what tools exactly?

Over the years, the D&D rules got cleaned up to the point where only this "cold iron" can harm some immune monsters, and the 3rd edition SRD lists it as a special material: "This iron, mined deep underground, known for its effectiveness against fey creatures, is forged at a lower temperature to preserve its delicate properties ."

Well, but there's something too game-y balance-y about this solution, full of vague and passive rules-speak. "Stuff that harms the Weird is super expensive because it comes from a Place of Rareness." It makes sense but lacks resonance. The same goes for meteorite iron. I suppose if only dwarves or lost human races had the technology to whittle blades from meteorites that would sound a bit cooler. But ...

Why not have iron (as opposed to steel) just show up the ability of non-carbon-forged tools and household implements to resist the supernatural? After all, the silver that devils and werewolves fear is dirt-common in the D&D world. Silver pieces are crappy coins that make slightly more expensive sling bullets than lead. A party in my campaign once bought a silver teapot, filled it with sand, and swung it as a flail against the equivalent of wights. So why not have desperate halfling housewives fending off a quasit with a skillet? Or adventurers chucking their iron door spikes at ghasts? 

As a bonus, if elves can't stand iron spikes, it throws a little game balance into elven PC's who (at least in AD&D) are far superior to poor old humans.