Monday, 31 October 2011

Vampires: Luxuria

Vampires embody the sin of lust. Do I need to say more? All right, then.

Besides having the most attractive appearance of all the undead crew ... besides the neck-bite as kinky substitute sexuality ... besides the tapping in to archaic beliefs about vital force and sexuality, "the expense of spirit in a waste of shame" ...

Vampires are users, and that is the difference between the joy of sex and the sin of lust. Their embrace is pleasurable, perhaps, but actively bad for the one embraced. And yet, there are those who seek out vampires, wishing to be one, wishing to be used abjectly and in turn using. Intimacy becomes hierarchy.

Turning vampires? It's the classic operation, with the cross or the Magen David... I can't really improve on that ritual. But the sin of the vampire means that a failed attempt to turn brings the would-be Van Helsing under the vampire's charm, no saving throw. If you look into those eyes and blink, the eyes look into you.

And after Stoker, Murnau, Rice, White Wolf, Hamilton, and Meyer, and a hundred more, if you can't think of something creepy and sexy to do with your vampires, I'm certainly not going to give you a table.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Mansion World

A heady blend of Dickens, Gormenghast, Chas. Addams, Castle Amber, and Tegel Manor is on the menu tonight.

The maid has a phoenix feather duster. The feathers spit flame.

Six down ... thirty to go!

Ghosts and Poltergeists: Ira

Wrath (ira) is a hard sin to attribute to any undead. I originally thought "hey, the wraiths of wrath" but beyond a stupid not-even-pun there is not much going for that. Wraiths and spectres, on reflection, are life-stealers, so they belong with the envious shadows. Redundant ones at that; I always thought that spectres in the original D&D were Gary's realization, "hey, these wraiths are not quite badass enough to be Ringwraiths."

As an emotion, anger is complicated and hard to study. In my analysis, this is because anger can be brought on by many individual things; it's a feeling state that over biological and cultural evolution has been recruited to respond to many situations. We feel angry when we are personally threatened, so that we can put up a threatening front; when our goals are personally blocked, so that we can persevere in working on them; when an injustice is perpetrated, so that we can apply social pressure to right it. The problem with anger is that each of these three things uses the same emotion, meaning that the three causes bleed over to each other. So, even if we have a goal blocked - bad traffic, say, or somebody publishing a game on the Internet that uses ascending armor class - anger pushes us to treat it like a personal threat, and even an injustice. And anger is a very visible state, which motivates us to communicate it and to come up with reasons for it. It's no wonder the medieval church fathers classed this ubiquitous emotion as a sin.

So what undead is defined by its rage? If you look to ghost tradition, the answer is obvious: the poltergeist. A literal spirit of rage, the poltergeist manifests in a house by throwing and disturbing objects. The problem is that in D&D, poltergeists are low-level joke monsters from the Fiend Folio. So we need to make them bigger and badder, and perhaps merge them somewhat with their bigger cousins, the ghost.

If the D&D ghost seems under-used, it's because, like the mummy, it merges high hit dice with weird attack modes: aging, which you can see as a kind of fear effect from its angry expression, and magic jar attack, which in effect is a kind of possession. It's not too much of a stretch to see the ghost as possessing its victims in order to express its rage, turning them immediately to attack their companions. Henceforth, the reworking:

Ghosts are another kind of undead where their sin in life translates well to their state after death. They died possessed by anger, frustrated in the accomplishment of some goal which may even be evident in the environment: an unfinished statue, an unescaped deathtrap. They are very hard to deal with because they can turn invisible and ethereal at will, and may only be hit by magic weapons, holy items or spells. Trying to turn them directly only makes them more angry, and they attack the one doing the turning; the way to deal with them is to face the other way while holding the holy symbol and intoning the sacred words, which will affect them in the normal way. The one weakness a ghost has is for the attainment of the goal that caused its anger; for example, a ghost created when a wrathful person died trying to escape a trap will be dispelled when the original bones are moved to a place of freedom.

A ghost will have 3 (poltergeist), 6 (ghost) or 9 (greater ghost) hit dice, with all other stats as written. It has one special attack for every 3 hit dice, from this list:

1. Save (Mind/Spell) or age 1d20 years when ghost first shows itself.
2. Telekinesis, throwing dangerous objects about as through the spell (and the ghost will seek out places with such objects).
3. Possession as by magic jar.
4. Supernatural chill in a 60' radius, extinguishing small fires, and doing 1 hp of damage/round if warm clothing is not worn (this will not reduce a character to zero hp however).
5. Death wail (as banshee); once per night, all who hear must save (Body/Death magic) or fall unconscious for 1 hour (3HD), 24 hours (6HD), or die (9HD).
6. Fear effect: roll two saves (mind/Spell) when ghost first shows itself, if both are failed then stand rooted to the spot for 3 rounds, if one is failed then flee at top speed for 3 rounds.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Mummies and Wights: Avaricia

The sin of avarice would seem to be a natural one for the undead guardians of grave treasures. If this sin is a desire to possess more than one needs, then its ultimate expression would be a defiance of the truism "you can't take it with you." The animated mummies of horror films and stories, and the pale, hoard-guarding Barrow-Wights of Tolkien's invention, would then seem to refer to the same evil, the same origin.

But there's a paradox in this story that goes back to the Norse legends of the draugr: if the avaricious wight is so intent on hoarding its gold, why does it "recruit" the victim and increase the number of wights who share in the treasure? In D&D, the mummy's touch doesn't act this way, but I think this is more due to the obvious problem that the mummy needs to bandage up the bodies of those it kills in order to create others like it.

In fact, there's a lot that's weird about the wight. Tolkien has them as bony things, but they appear in D&D as these snarly bodybuilder types with Land of Oz hair. They're not that strong in hit dice but have the feared and hated ability of level drain, whereas mummies are tougher in combat but have a grab-bag of abilities that are not that nasty, and have a weakness to the common torch. Personally, I'll take the mummies; they come in all kinds of cultural flavors (Aztec ... Peruvian), there were cat and crocodile mummies, and it's not such a long step from those to the horrid animal-human hybrid mummies envisioned by Lovecraft in his ghost-written  Harry Houdini story, Entombed With the Pharaohs.

Anyway, I want to take a different approach than the "living undead" of the last three Deadly Sins, and suggest that wights, mummies, and whatever skeletal guardians may exist are just variations on a single type of creature, united by their motivation to remain undead. These tomb guardian creatures may exist in a lesser form (stats as a wight) or a greater form (stats as a mummy) but each one's appearance is largely a product of the culture that buried it, and whether it awakened soon or late after burial.

There is a special restriction on turning tomb guardians, as with the other sinful undead. Although they may be turned normally, the turning ends if any associate of the cleric picks up any of the creature's treasure. Turning will not succeed while any such associate is carrying loot, either. By ransacking the tomb, the adventurer shows his or her self to be a fellow-sinner in avarice with the undead guardian, and the power of holiness will no longer work as protection.

In addition to only being harmed by magic weapons, tomb guardians have two of the following special attacks, which vary from case to case (d6):

1. Level drain as a wight (but without "recruitment")
2. Rotting disease as a mummy
3. Fear effect as a mummy
4. Unerring tracking of those who stole its treasure (as in the old mummy movies)
5. Enchants a victim within 30'; save (Spell.Mind) or become mentally confused, transported back to the times of the guardian and unwilling to act (as in Lord of the Rings)
6. Shapeshifting at will, into smoke, an unnaturally heavy animal, or seaweed (as in legends of the Norse draugr)

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Shadows: Invidia

The animated shadow is by definition a being of lesser standing, an envious follower, dependent on light and an intervening body, aspiring to an independent state it can never have. Like the ghouls, its status as undead wavered in early D&D, and is still uncertain in (for example) Swords & Wizardry. There is a certain eerie power in the idea of a shadow that one day refuses to serve, and that really doesn't need the additional tag of undead to chill the blood. Lord Dunsany memorably explored the idea of a detachable and tradeable penumbra in his novel The Charwoman's Shadow.

The sin of envy, or the medieval invidia, is studied by psychologists and philosophers as an emotion. It seems to be a pretty common theme in such studies to split the emotion into a "good" side and a "bad" side, which reflects the idea that emotions are basically functional but often go wrong. In this research, benign envy is explained as a desire to emulate the superior, while malicious envy involves achieving parity through reducing the superior instead. It is the destructive side of envy that the evil shadow embodies.

Shadows make a fine undead creature. Think of them as a void of life-force, lacking entirely in Strength. When they see a being with superior Strength, they enviously approach, implying that they will attack the strongest by preference. Their touch destroys the strength, but does not steal it. Eventually, their victim ends up dragged down to their level, a shadow among shadows.

What of the person who voluntarily chooses existence as a shadow? This is a rare wish, supported by an equally rare necromantic rite, and marks the ultimate triumph of envy. To give up one's own worthless existence for the chance to tag at the heels of a far superior person is similar to the motivation to become a zombie, perhaps. Thus, the living shadow creeps at its master's feet in imposture of the natural shadow. But the creature saps, rather than serving, its superior - making one attack per day on the victim's abilities, and adding any stolen points to its own score, until it merges in hateful life with the victim, creating a being of walking dusk without a shadow of its own, and adding the victim's hit dice and hit points to its own. Thereafter the envious soul has no reason to remain, its victory complete, and the completed shadow-being tends to become possessed by a darker genius.

At both stages, the living shadow can only be turned by two or more clerics, each bearing a holy symbol on which a clerical light spell has been cast, and arranged so as to surround the shadow.

For this as well as the more common undead variety of shadow, there exist several varieties which each possess their own special attack upon the abilities, and their own consequence once draining is sufficiently advanced (1d3 points on a successful hit, regained at 1 point/day). The consequence of zero points in any ability is death and conversion to a shadow.

1. Attacks strength; at 1-2 points victim becomes flaccid and unable to move.
2. Attacks dexterity; at 1-2 points victim becomes hyperactive, moving and acting about uncontrollably.
3. Attacks constitution; at 1-2 points victim becomes moribund and takes 1 hit point damage each round of moving.
4. Attacks intelligence; at 1-2 points victim becomes amnesic and unable to remember declarative facts such as his or her own name.
5. Attacks wisdom; at 1-2 points victim becomes catatonic, unresponsive to outside senses and lost in a world of his or her own mind.
6. Attacks charisma; at 1-2 point victim becomes repulsive even to him or herself, and will attempt suicide if not restrained.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Ghouls: Gula

Beyond the titular Latin-to-Arabic pun, ghouls embody gula (the cardinal sin of gluttony) in an obvious manner: they feed on the bodies of the dead. On top of that, ghouls are my favorite undead creature because, at least in their source material, they're not obviously undead. In Lovecraft's story Pickman's Model, it's implied that ghouls, like the inbred Martense clan in his less accomplished The Lurking Fear, are a degenerate strain of humanity, whose necrophagy forms part and parcel of their condition. Pickman even becomes a ghoul in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, where he and his meeping buddies come off as strangely sympathetic Addams Family types.

The paralysis that is the ghoul's special weapon, and especially deadly with multiple attacks, doesn't appear in Lovecraft, and may be original to the D&D game. I used to think it was a reference to the ghouls that accost Elric in Moorcock's The Vanishing Tower, paralyzing him with their cold touch, but the novel's 1977 date is later than the Chainmail and OD&D originals. It's unlikely that Moorcock cribbed the idea from D&D, but one never knows.

Although Gary Gygax made the conscious choice to make ghouls undead in going from Chainmail to D&D (more ghoul-trivia here), they seem like an obvious choice to explore as "voluntary undead" in this series. I've never quite understood how ghouls fit into the D&D undead mold of "if they kill you, they recruit you" because they seem so indiscriminately ravenous. A vampire might have the self-control to grant the "dark gift" of undeath or withhhold it, merely killing its victim ... but a ghoul holding back from a tasty, board-stiff human morsel? Hardly likely.

Living ghouls are gourmands and degenerates who develop a taste for human flesh and determine that the best way to get it is to feed upon the already dead. The diet awakens regressive tendencies in their genetic makeup and they become prognathous, robust and somewhat dog-like in their gait and demeanor. Haunting graveyards, they logically become followers of strong undead creatures, who feast on the souls of the unfortunate and leave ghouls the mere body.

Not being undead, living ghouls require a special reminder of their damned state in order to be effectively turned. In this case, it is sacred food, such as the consecrated bread or wine of Christianity, or barring that, foodstuffs created by a holy clerical spell. If the turning destroys the living ghoul, it lapses into a coma and can be returned to human state by forced feeding of consecrated food for three days.

The appearance of a ghoul - living or not - sets off ancestral memories in humans and related beings (dwarves, halflings, gnomes) but not elves, which can lead to one of the following fear effects - varying either by the individual, the ghoul pack, or on a racial level:

1. Save (Paralysis/Body) or paralysis by touch, as the original.
2. Howling causes a morale check among NPCs, and PCs must save (Spell/Mind) or become distracted, incurring -2 to hit and +2 to be hit.
3. Charnel smell within 30' forces a save (Poison/Body) or retch as with a Troglodyte's stench, unable to attack.
4. Paralyzing stare within 30'; victim gets two saves, one against the gaze (Spell/Mind) and one against the paralysis (Paralysis/Body).
5. Gibbering and meeping  in close combat is maddening; requires a save (Spell/Mind) or become confused and attack a random adjacent being.
6. A hit from a ghoul's claws requires a save (Spell/Mind) or the victim cowers for a round, either fleeing or fighting defensively.

And no - I am not going to stat up the bizarre, half-medusa Roy Thomas comic-book version of Pickman's Model....

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Zombies: Accidia

The medieval sin of accidia (acedia), or sloth, refers to a condition that today we treat as a mental illness: depression. But more generally, the sin refers to inability to act or decide, retreat from the world rather than engagement with the world, and in its ultimate expression, suicide.

Psychological writers, such as Erich Fromm or Roy Baumeister, have identified the human motive to "escape from freedom" or "escape from the self" by submitting to authoritarian regimes or cults. When people willingly become zombies, they symbolize this abdication of will to another. This living zombie is perhaps closer to the drug-induced state of living death implicated in the questionable anthropology of Wade Davis (The Serpent and the Rainbow) than the walking dead of George Romero. It also brings to mind the philosophical zombie, which forms part of the solipsist argument (referenced in Heinlein's story "-- All You Zombies --") that we can never know for sure if anyone apart from ourselves is free-willed and conscious.

Zombies, sluggish and slavish, embody the sin of sloth when a living person willingly submits his or her body to the ritual of a necromancer. Otherwise they are mere animated corpses, a desecration but nothing more than that. Necromancers greatly prize the former kind of zombie, for their greater power, and because to recruit them gives much prestige. Therefore, necromancers and their agents often haunt popular locations for suicide - bridges, precipices - in hopes of persuading the unfortunate to surrender their lives in one sense rather than the other.

A living zombie has all stats as a regular zombie, with 4 additional HP.  It is unholy but not evil ( having given up its free will) and not undead. So, it can only be turned by reminding it of its own identity -  its personal name must be spoken, or a mirror held up to its face in place of a holy symbol. If the turning destroys the zombie, the spell is broken and the person returns to life.

As a bonus, here is a d6 table of attributes and powers that can make all kinds of zombies more scary.

1. Fingernails and teeth that break off in the wound, preventing 1 hit point of healing per wound until Cure Disease is cast.
2. If wounded down to 3 or fewer hit points, guts spill out of the zombie's abdomen and come alive. They make an extra attack ignoring armor, and if successful ensnare the arms (on an odd "to hit" roll; cannot attack until victim rolls d20+STR > 25) or legs (on an even "to hit" roll, cannot move and 2AC worse until victim rolls d20+STR > 25).
3. Zombies are immune to piercing weapons (although being stuck on a spear can hold one at bay), and take half damage (rounded down) from blunt weapons unless the wielder aims at the head with -4 to hit.
4. Zombies can only be killed by physical damage if it does 5 or more points at once.
5. Can throw its own arm, which attacks on its behalf for 1d4 damage, while the remaining arm on the zombie also attacks for 1d4.
6. Is a bloater zombie.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Evil World

In keeping with the seven deadly sins, I guess, although I'm also just going through a table I made several months ago for these genres. A little Dante, a little Bosch, a little de Sade. And a toast to Matt of Nod, and his own very tasty Inferno.

Some of the categories on the table of genres don't look as viable as they used to, so maybe there'll be a little contest coming after the coolest stuff has been exhausted...

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Seven Undeadly Sins

I'm thinking more and more that the right approach in monster-ology lies between Flame Princess' "do it yourself, do it all yourself" and conventional D&D's "here, all the monsters are in this book." In fact, my one-armed man chart from earlier in the week comes within an ace of accounting for the hit dice of most existing classic monsters, and is a good template for any others you may care to design.

But what about the stranger stuff, like undead? Well, what makes undead scary and unpredictable is their special abilities, both attack and defense. This suggests a little d6 table with possibilities for abilities that will make each encounter uncertain and memorable. After all, folklore doesn't treat ghosts as a race, but as a class of cursed beings, each with its own story.

One thing I want to do before Halloween is try a new take on the undead, using as a background the medieval church doctrine of the Seven Deadly Sins. Beyond a naturalist "ecology" of the undead, these reworkings imply a mythical symbology and moral psychology of these wretched creatures. In brief: sloth = zombies, gluttony = ghouls, envy = shadows, avarice = wights/mummies, lust = vampires, wrath = spectres/wraiths, pride = liches. Justifications to follow, especially for that one that doesn't quite seem as right as the others.

A final issue: undead-ism is most often seen as a curse transmitted unwillingly, but the more frightful possibility is that some persons desire the various states of undeath, as a means of achieving desires unavailable to living mortals. It's this potential that I think affords a new vantage point on these venerable villains.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Character Birth: Choice vs. Speed

Count me on the side of quick with a few choices rather than slow with a lot of choices, when it comes to generating characters for adventure games.

My One Page system cuts out an element of choice - not without some controversy as I recall -  by having class determined directly by stats which can, if necessary, be switched around once. It works choice back in, though in a relatively light way, by allowing open-ended selection of background descriptors that can have some effect on when skills work best.

Oh yeah, I changed the skills sheet some so that languages and backgrounds could fit in.  I am pretty happy now with the way backgrounds are a kind of "adjective" or "subject" that modify the base chance that the very generic skill gives you. You only get to use Knowledge to remember facts that are part of your background, and if you try using most skills in a setting or task consistent with your background you get a +2 on that (these are indicated on the new version of the character sheet, below).

I've noticed recently, though, that character generation with this system tends to bog down around skill and equipment selection.

The solution for equipment is to have random tables for weapons and standard starting armor, and to pass around a deck of cards with the six equipment packages so that the party as a whole is adequately equipped for their first expedition. That's for a future post ...

The solution for skills was simple. As I had it, players were "choosing" only a pip or two of skills to shift around their character sheet. So why not just have skills also flow from class and stats - keeping in mind that the flavor and scope of each skill in my system is modified by the freely chosen background descriptors ...

Anyway, this is what's going on the end of this sheet now.

At this point I'm a little overwhelmed by the multi-ring circus I've got going on in my free time, what with the One Page system ( a little stalled out, as I got done what I needed to run a few games with it, so the impulse to complete is kind of dormant for now ), the Genre Worlds tables, Zak giving the high sign for the Obstacles & Openings cards, and even more, including some contributions to other people's product and a big slow secret project. It will all come complete in the fullness of time, I guess.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Old One-Armed Man's Monster Guide

How to balance the need to keep a not-always-level-appropriate environment fair to players, with the need to keep a sense of mystery about the campaign? There has to be a middle ground between the monster-book memorizers and the clueless neophytes who unwisely take on a troll.

Most of the people I've been DMing for recently are new to the hobby, and I've been trying a variety of subtle and not so subtle hints. I think one thing that might work is just a simple rule of thumb based on size, with cautions about oddball monsters and special powers. This says nothing about what kind of bestiary the DM is working with, but avoids some of the more obvious mismatches, as long as you refrain from throwing killer bunnies into the mix. By the way, fighters should also be able to size up the fighting capacities of other humans and beings with levels.

I ran out of room to mention dragons on this sheet, but there's no real need to, right?

Click to enlarge. Apologies in advance for the Bush-era color code flashbacks.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Insect World

For every can of pesticide, there'll be a human genocide...

I see the exterminators as masked ranger-types with tanks of poison on their backs and chitin-smashing pick-hammers.

Also, slightly different choice of verbs here, which I'll go back and update the other charts with.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

First Timers' Dungeon Crawl

At the university's game club meeting today, I finished off the first foray into the Castle of the Mad Archmage. If the previous week's theme was "slaying easy foes" this one's was "RUN!!"

There were six people around the table and four were completely new to tabletop roleplaying gaming as of last week, with various experiences in boardgaming, computer RPGs and those online story games my niece is into. I think D&D provides a perfect entry point because its assumptions and cliches are so widespread that everyone slips into it like an old pair of loafers. From my viewpoint the run of computer RPGs these days tends toward the "line up and blast each other" Japanese style, so having real, running, 2 dimensional problem-solving tactics in a game may have been a special revelation.

Four of the eight people who were at the previous week's game showed up along with two new folks. It took a while to roll their characters up (I'm thinking of producing custom character sheets for each class to speed this up) and we decided that the turmoil of the party fleeing down separate corridors and splitting up would explain the disappearance of some and the appearance of others.

Incidentally, I may be going to Dragonmeet in London on 26th November in loose affiliation with the club (that is, more likely to stay with friends than take the minivan, coach or whatever they end up hiring for the day). If any UK or other oldschoolers are planning to be there, I might want to run for one session and play for the other. Let me know in comments.

Play report and Mad Archmage spoilers after the cut.

Swamp World

Number 2 of an ongoing series.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

36 Genres, 36 Worlds

One more adventure content generation idea.

There are at least 36 genre cliches for content in fantasy adventures: deserts with mummies, tombs and pharaohs ... savage prehistoric lost worlds ... dark brooding gothy castles ... the special legacy of mechanically minded races with clockwork traps and horrors ...

Now, the most interesting adventures tend to layer one of these content ideas over another, either in space (the fire demons tunneled up under the dwarven fortress) or in time (the fire demons inhabit what used to be the dwarven fortress).
Here' s a template for a dynamic encounter table, eventually one per genre, with at least 4 ways of using it:

1. Roll d2 for column (the 2 wide ones) and d20 for row, for 40 straight-up features, hazards, treasures and encounters from a single genre.
2. Roll d20 and read straight across the table for a canned encounter in a single genre.
3. At the interface between two genres, roll d20 on the main left column of one table, d20 on the main right of the other, and pick the verb that goes with the right hand column (or with the left if that makes more sense; the verbs will be the same on every table). You end up with something like "troglodyte workers PRODUCING scrap metal from the ruins."
4. When one genre occupies the ruins of another, do the same as 3, but only accept italic responses to represent the "dormant" genre. You may have to do this a couple of times; alternatively, or if you have to reroll more than once, show the corpses or abandoned works of the dormant creatures instead of the real deal.

And the example ... (click to enlarge)

Yeah, it'd be a lot of work, all 1440 entries of it, but it could be really cool ... so let me know what you think.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Obstacles and Openings

Zak S had a really cool idea that never got finished up: to have tables where you could roll a quick entrance feature or encounter as the players start to explore a ruin you haven't got prepared, together with a purpose and history for that thing that would give you something to latch onto in improvising further content in that adventure. He also suggested that it might work well as a deck of cards.

The main way I want to tweak this is to break the purposes down into Openings and Obstacles. That way, you could take each card straight as it reads, or add variety by drawing one card and then drawing others until you found a matching card so that the purpose can be mixed-and-matched with the description. I also am going with more detailed descriptions of the features to make it easier to use as a "quick, need ideas" generator.

As with the original idea, the texts assume you have determined by some other means who the original Architects and current Inhabitants of the ruin are. Monsters, Vermin and Intruders may also make an appearance ... perhaps to be determined by some other deck?

A couple of examples below. Don't know if it'll amount to anything, but I figured I'd test the waters and see if there is an interest for this.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Slouching Towards the Slugfest

There's a process I've observed over my years playing and designing for the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) collectible card game, and that recently came to mind as I read what Randall had to say about overpowered spells in D&D.

Some background: The designers of L5R:CCG made a very simulation-based game back in 1995, much more detailed than the original CCG, Magic:The Gathering. The characters you brought out in this Kurosawa-meets-Tolkien world could attach troops and items, go to court, fight in duels, choose the terrain for their battles, cast spells - even commit seppuku if necessary.

One very visible source of strategic thinking for this game was Sun Tzu. Battles were winner-takes-all, with the loser destroyed, so assurance of overwhelming odds was necessary, and attacking always risky. It was possible to take back-and-forth actions to try to whittle down the enemy forces or temporarily disable them, but terrains could shut down battles or annul them entirely. What's more, there was a range of intrigues, assassins, duels, and courtiers that could put enemy leaders and troops out of commission before the battle.

This state of affairs resembles a certain type of old-school roleplaying game where combat is potentially lethal; where cheesy, if naturalistic, tricks abound. Flaming oil, sleep spells and war dogs were the players' weapons against save-or-die poisons, meager hit dice, and death at zero hit points. Under such conditions any advantage was acceptable to seek.

In both games, as time passed, designers responded to player concerns by making the combat more back-and-forth, less all-or-nothing. In L5R, effects that shut down battle or kept military units out of battle were greatly restricted or eliminated, starting in Diamond Edition in 2004, with the ideal being for units to meet in battle and trade actions back and forth. Meanwhile, D&D's 3rd edition redesign in 2001 also filed away the rough corners, with greater PC survivability, less absolute dangers, more whittling down and strategic combats.

This process - inevitable? - represents the fading of the simulation of war into the game of war. Also, the compression of the simulation of life (exploration, politics, intrigue) into the self-same game of war. The truth of Sun Tzu - avoid engagement if victory is not certain, and seek victory by other means than battle - turns into the chivalrous slugfest, approximating equal arms on an equalized battlefield.

Turning a rough-edged simulation into a smooth, equalized game is an achievement much prized, it seems, by game designers anxious to please a certain player demographic: those who at the same time take their games too seriously, while at the same time having little patience for subtle and deadly gameplay. It's as if people would agitate for fool's mate to be removed as a possibility in chess. There's a visible point, though, in many gamers' evolution when they become willing to put down the foam boffers and pick up the katana.

Monday, 10 October 2011

One Page Equipment, Weapons, Armor

As promised, for those following along at home. Probably the one page of these that's most "detachable" from the system is the equipment page. I find that this distribution of the standard adventurer equipment into six little packages really speeds up preparation for one-shot dungeon crawls. It would be even nicer, I guess, if each equipment package was represented on a separate card...

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Testing out the One Page System

One Page is my ongoing revamp of Basic D&D, with less kowtowing to Old School mechanical concepts than the Old School Players rules, and more "stuff that works" from all editions.

Eight members of my university's Adventure Gaming Society, mostly students and capable gamers all, sat down on Saturday to give it a whirl. I walked them through character generation, with the printed-out sheets handy, and that took less than an hour. Still, I feel like making even clearer sheets for character generation once people have settled on their class, similar to the Old School Players self-filling character sheet (download on the right).

In the end, the party contained five fighters - ranging in flavor from barbarian, to rural nobleman with 18 Strength and 17 Charisma - plus an elf, a priest of Thor and a gnome. The nobleman's Charisma entitled him to a follower, which I rolled on the handy 20-random-Meatshields table as the notorious Lesseig the elf! Is this a prelude to my Trossley campaign or just a parallel universe? For the venue was none other than Joe Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage, using my house-designed first level.

(Some SPOILERS, of course, follow.)

However, the party voted to enter the second level through a secret entrance that rumors had turned up (corresponding to the Quicksand entryway in the Blochiverse), so my original content was bypassed. After dispatching some randomly encountered Bloater zombies, they began romping through the corridors. Between the 3d6 high as a base for 1st level hit points, and the use of a serious wound table for falling below 1 HP, we only had one casualty, who was healed up to 1 hp from her sucking chest wound by the party priest. But then again the party managed to avoid the serious badass encounters in the area, as well as any meaningful random encounters...

Some observation on the system and dungeon (I'll spare you the links back to the One Page posts):
  • Gnomes are really good, between humanoid interpreter and superior darkvision and the random spells (though let's wait till the mishaps start getting rolled). May have to tone back their darkvision to the dwarven norm.
  • The "chop till you drop" fighter rule got used a lot; we didn't see that many damage rolls that the "force or finesse" applied to, which confirms the general lucky dice rolling of the party. Several crits but not one fumble!
  • The priest is really good, especially the ability to heal up a wounded character back to where they can function again. May have to rethink the armor allowance for that one.
  • Working with descriptions as sparse as Joe's Castle allows for a lot of improv and strange phenomena, especially when I'm using a 2 on the encounter die as a clue or noise from a wandering monster. Strangest improv: I decided that pushing in an ogre statue's eyes would open the nearby secret door, but the gnome used Weightlessness magic to allow the barbarian to bash it down, so I ruled that the impact reversed the force through whatever mechanism was working, and caused the eyes to bug out. Then the party brought the statue to life, and the ogre so created is wandering around with pop-eyes.
  • I have a better appreciation of Joe's design skills. In one section, there's a seemingly pointless mini-maze with baffled corridors and a couple of branches. But the room on the other side of that maze has a fear effect. Turns out that little maze is really good for splitting and confusing terrified party members fleeing in the dark!
  • I'm learning to roll with and enjoy player shenanigans I would have censoriously vetoed a year ago, like splitting the party, intraparty conflict, or treasure-filching.
  • Random failed hireling loyalty rolls are funny.
Next up, the three equipment pages that almost complete the character generation part of the game; still need to do the followers and animals page.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

How to Remember Time in the Dungeon

By Haku, via
In running dungeon adventures, one thing that has always eluded me is the careful in-game timekeeping needed to judge things like torches burning down, explorers getting hungry, or wandering monster checks. It's something that's easily forgotten in the heat and fun of the moment. So that makes me suspect that draining precious attention to do a careful, minute-by-minute accounting of time would be both doomed to fail, and detract from enjoyment. This is the same consideration that led me to drop pre-announced actions from my game.

What's needed, I thought, is an insight like James Raggi's list-based encumbrance (see also the Alexandrian's Stone system). Take something players do anyway - like write down what stuff they have - and simplify the bookkeeping to follow directly from that. To be exact:

1. As with list-based encumbrance, switch to more natural units: from "minutes" to "scenes." Exploring 1 room is a scene, unless it's a huge cathedral-like space. A combat is a scene. Walking carefully down more than about 50' of corridor is a scene. Taking extra time to do something like skin a lizard or eat lunch is a scene. Each scene is roughly - very roughly - about 5 minutes. That means a 30 minute torch lasts 6 scenes, a 1 hour flask of lantern oil lasts 12, and you roll for wandering monsters every 2 or 3 or 6 scenes depending on your rules.

2. To keep track of time - this works best if you have more than 4 or so at the table - pass some kind of visible token around. Start it at a random player and say it passes to the left whenever you change scene. If you forget a scene change, just do it retrospectively. I tried this in the first test of the One Page system today with eight players at table, one of whom volunteered her toy ninja, and it worked like a charm. It's easy to remember how many times it has gone around already, and to say things like "The current torch will go out when the ninja gets around to Connor."

3. As a bonus, I found myself designating the player with the ninja token as a kind of democratic caller. This meant that the temporary token-bearer had the responsibility to propose motions on decisions, like which way to go, and put it to a vote. This tended to cure the paralysis that eight at table can cause. In combat, because I use side-based initiative, I would start with the token-bearer and ask for actions clockwise. That worked pretty well too. Oh, and finally, whoever has the token gets to roll the initiative die.

This rule looks like a keeper in my games, especially for large dungeon crawl sessions.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Skill Resolution: Red, Yellow, Green

I believe there is an apocryphal quatrain of Nostradamus that starts out

When the Cook of the Mountain returns to Wizards' lair
To beat the Old School drum, or maybe not

And the Monsters and Manuals swell to the number 78
With the crackling flames of men of straw
Then Tupac shall slay the one whose initials are JFK ... (etc., etc.)

In other words, how should dice rolls, DM rulings, and rules procedures be balanced? This sounds strangely familiar to me. But let me try and tie it all together.

What Monte Cook was proposing is simply a feature that all RPG resolution systems have. Think of three zones. In the red zone, an action fails. In the green zone, an action succeeds. In the yellow zone, more resolution is needed.

The d20 resolution system that Cook co-designed for 3rd edition lays the zones out like this, based on what's known about the action's difficulty class number (DC) and any modifiers that apply:

 1 + mods > DC           
 Any other DC/mods combination (resolution from d20 roll)
20 + mods < DC    

Going to the other extreme, a system based on DM's say-so and interaction with players looks like this:

DM says you can         
DM asks you for more questions and decisions (resolution from information provided)
DM says you can't    

 What exactly was Monte proposing in that recent article? Details are hazy, but it looks something like this:

Rules say you can (character skill > challenge level)        
If character ability = challenge level, roll dice against an ability check (resolution from dice roll) OR player describes action in such a way as to change from "no" to "maybe" or "maybe" to "yes" (resolution from information provided)
Rules say you can't (character skill < challenge level)   

 Which is not too far from the Grand Unified Model of all Refereed Gaming:

Rules as interpreted by the DM say you can (character skill > challenge level)        
If the DM finds no clear "yes" or "no" in the rules or in the DM's head, roll dice against an ability check determined by the rules, or by the DM if the rules do not cover it (resolution from dice roll). Player can describe action in such a way as to change from "no" to "maybe" or "maybe" to "yes" (resolution from information provided)
Rules as interpreted by the DM say you can't (character skill < challenge level)  
From which all else can be derived depending on the exact procedures which are privileged in the yellow box, the amount of stuff in the rules, and the amount of stuff in the DM's head.

But you know, since I started on this post earlier today I think it might have been scooped a little more elegantly.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who Mourns for HyperCard?

I thought I'd contribute my own gaming-and-Macintosh reminiscence on this sad occasion.

In my early years of graduate school, though I had no regular gaming group, I was still coming up with all sorts of things for gaming. One of those - lost, alas, in the mists of floppy disk breakdown and software obsolescence - was a random dungeon level generator using HyperCard.

If you never had the chance to use it, HyperCard was an incredible application for the Mac, with aspirations to be a kind of object-oriented operating system within an operating system. It let you program hypertext, create databases, and much more, using a very simple, intuitive language. HyperCard was quickly picked up to create such point-and-click adventure games as Cosmic Osmo (pictured), by the Miller brothers, who would go on to create Myst. I used HyperCard to create an academic article database and keep addresses in, but also screwed around with creating games (where the "pieces" were buttons that moved around and could be clicked on) and the dungeon generator.

HyperCard had an easy, snap-to-grid function  that let you draw rooms and corridors with ease, and I eventually figured out how to randomize the size, shape and position of generated room objects. Over on the side, the program spit out a key with features, monsters, treasures, tricks and traps for each room.

All this, of course, was before the Internet as we know it existed. If I'd been able to post the stack up and share it with the kind of community that visits this blog, it wouldn't have died an obscure death, and I would have had the motivation to make it a lot better than it ended up being.

Look to the right, and see my downloads: "PowerPoint Mapping," "Old School Dungeon Encounters," "Endless Bag of Tricks," "Bag of Problems." Those are just the fragmented and worked-over pieces of that lost HyperCard stack. Where now, indeed, are the bytes of yesteryear? Who will put HyperDumpty together again?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Bard as Hireling

So ... if all a bard character does is strengthen your morale and make you feel at home in the wilderness and know lots of semi-useful trivia, maybe you're better off having a bard as a retainer instead of playing one?

Think of the precedent. African kings with their praise singers ... Brave Sir Robin's bard. Xena's sidekick Gabrielle was a bard, and it's hard to think of the roles being reversed, isn't it?

The bard, then, can be seen as a luxurious accessory for a pretty accomplished party of adventurers. Wages for a bard are a base 100$ (gp) a month, with an additional 50$ for each bonus point the bard's Charisma and Intelligence scores give. What do you get for all this? Well ...
  • The bard can sing in a wilderness or dungeon camp. This increases the natural healing rate by 1 for characters 2nd level or higher. (I houserule that you only heal 1 hp/night in camp, but 1 hp/level/night in a safe location such as an inn).
  • The bard with exceptional Charisma, can sing and play at any time to give all other hirelings and henchmen a Morale bonus on 2d6 equal to Charisma bonus; if no bonus, a bard's playing still negates 1 point of any morale penalties in effect. 
  • Some bardic traditions instead give enemies a like Morale penalty. These are the ones that come equipped with bagpipes.
  • The bard can create a spectacle of entertainment as the party enters or wanders around a settlement. This creates a certain notoriety, both for good and bad: urban encounters are twice as likely to happen, and the party is twice as likely to come to the attention of local authorities. This also gives +1 to reaction rolls in situations where a song is appropriate and the audience is receptive to the bard's style, but -2 if the style is disliked. Finding out the king's tastes is very important.
  • The bard can sometimes act as a sage on matters of history and legend for the cultural tradition he or she knows. This translates to a 50% chance of answering a general question in that field of history or legend, 20% of answering a specific question and 5% of answering an exacting question, plus 5% per bonus point in Intelligence the bard has. Chances are cut by 1/5 for a cultural tradition that only borders on the one the bard knows. 
  • If using the carousing rules, the bard increases by a factor of 1.5 the amount of money that can be converted to experience, as people flock to the party trail.
Mere musicians can also be had for 50$ a month, with none of the "sage" or "morale" abilities, and thus no bonus for exceptional scores. Musicians, however, often show poor morale when heading into danger (2d6 morale score 1d6+1) whereas bards are more inquisitive and made of sterner stuff (morale score 2d4+2).

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Why the Bard is Meh

Great PC games, shame about the class
The Bard character class, currently being considered by J-Mal and FrDave, is a notorious target of fantasy adventure jokes. Despite perennial efforts to reboot the class, it carries a heavier burden of affliction than Marley's ghost. Let me count the chains:

1. First and foremost, when bards use their bardy powers, the player says something like "I sing away your cares and worries!" or "I strike up the lute with an epic lay that sets the foes to flight!" The thing is, when any other class casts a spell, the other players don't care what the mumbo-jumbo is. With a bard, though, you expect to hear an actual song, against all reason, and that creates a nagging itch.

NO, bard player, do not sing at the table. Not even if you're good at it - not unless everyone signed up for an adventure game that every now and then becomes an awesome singer concert. Nor should you specify that you are singing some made-up fantasy song like "The Ballad of the Owlbear and the Hive of Bees." That's still way too damn twee. It's embarrassing, like having two players describe how their characters are making out.

2. Wizards can cast a spell, clerics pray, and the effect happens. But a song should last longer than a one-minute combat round and especially longer than a ten-or-six-second one. So fire-and-forget bards are unsatisfying and need-to-stay-on bards are no fun to play.

I wish you'd prove me wrong...
3. A cleric can bash while brandishing the holy symbol, "a Dios rogando y con el mazo dando" as the Spanish saying has it. A wizard isn't supposed to fight. We imagine the bard as being able to fight, although in a kind of effete way, all with puffed breeches and a feathered hat and a jaunty little Robin Hood sword. This compensates for magic abilities that are less versatile than a wizard's ... perhaps. But the fact is, you can't fight very well while strumming a lute. Especially considering that ...

4. That lute is also as sensitive as a baby's bottom and with one misaimed blow, one dunking in cold water, there goes the bard's meal ticket. Unless you go all munchkin and demand to play a cast-iron vuvuzela bard, a triangle bard, or the ultimate in powergaming: an acapella bard.

5. At the end of it all, if I go back to my analysis of miracles, the bard's most characteristic powers just make him or her a secular cleric. Dispelling evil ... calming storms and savage beasts ... swaying minds ... even the fortifying effects of music can be seen as healing if character hit points represent some amount of confidence and morale.

So maybe the bard works best after all as a cleric? Oh, and not to forget this decidedly historical version of the bard class for Old School systems, envisioned as a kind of rogue/faceman/sage hybrid by Dave Baymiller. Yeah, I stumbled across it while searching for embarrassingly effete bard pics online, what of it?

Anyway, I've said my piece. If anyone wants to stand up for the bard, let's hear it!

Monday, 3 October 2011

Page Two of the One Page Character Sheet

I thought I'd put this up to finish off the character sheet, as prelude to the "starting equipment" one-pager. The main notable feature is the encumbrance system, and even that is a boiling down of the brilliant list encumbrance system from LotFP. You incur -3 move penalties as you take on more items, and start on a line that's higher up depending on your strength.

Dwarves, by the way, can't really carry as much as He-Man. They just start up there because they start at 9 move, and stay there for a longer time as they take on load. Their effective encumbrance ends several lines form the bottom, because at -9 to move they are stationary.

Finishing character generation for the OPP (One Page Project) takes on a new urgency these days. I have made contact with my university's Adventure Game Society and there is some provisional interest in a floating Old School dungeon delve...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Resonant Meaning in the Fantastic

Let's get back to the jewelled mosaic of perfect little scenes of wonder and fascination that I last examined as a replacement for the naturalistic churn of monster races and by-the-book magic in D&D.

The problem with that mosaic is that without some underlying sequence  to it, it eventually grows meaningless and dull. The cure for that, then, is to arrange the tiles in some sort of scheme that has resonant meaning.

1. The Initiatory Progression. This is the hidden thread connecting the "levels" of the standard adventure dungeon. The rootless monsters, pointless tricks and riddles, sadistic deceptions, and weird environments have out-of-frame meaning as initiatory challenges to the followers of the Dungeon Mystery Religion. As the players progress, the challenges become harder and more varied, and they acquire level titles and cultic secrets like good Mithraists or Freemasons. It's this lurking text that explains why even the most random gonzo collection of levels exerts a narrative pull. But imagine the flow of meaning that opens up when some of the other techniques are layered onto it ...
2. Mock-Naturalism. A naturalistic initiatory progression behaves like a film noir; with progress comes revelation of the hidden web of corruption, the material ironmongery underneath the noble ideals. Mock-naturalism, though, commodifies the intangible in a whimsical and mysterious way, without reducing it to solid matter. The goblins steal dreams from sleeping children, which they then weave into pixie-nets and sell to the muffled merchants from Mars. Demons traffic in soul coins. What this is not, though, is demystification. If the magic sun gems are really radioactive rocks, we leave the fantastic entirely.
3. Power Struggles. Trade and production can coexist in the fantastic with the other common structure of the naturalistic world: struggle. A war between day and night, between heaven and hell, between mountain and sea has the potential to fix in place all manner of combatants, neutrals, vacillators, turncoats. Each side has its own style and esthetics, and there need not be only two. The discovery of these hidden powers is itself an initiation.
4. System of the Cosmos. An expedition to the southern polar land reveals unthought-of abysses of history that conclusively dethrone man as lord of the earth. The initiatory path reveals the mystic meanings of the ten numerals, tracing the zigzag path of creation back from World to Essence. The sins, the planets, the spectral colors all reveal a comforting and powerful structure to the universe. And the horror genre reveals instead a system that is malevolent or wholly uncaring. The goal of this knowledge can be power, godhood, immortality, the salvation of the earth, or merely to know the truth, which is reason enough for many.

I strongly believe that looking back in a few years' time, the prize for the best mega-dungeon, super-campaign or whatever will go to the experience that weaves the most of these elements of meaning into itself.