Saturday 30 June 2012

The New Wave of Geekish Heavy Metal

Continuing an irregular music series.

And lo, it came to pass that the child Dungeons and Dragons was given to be fostered in the years of the 1970's, in the sylvan glades of art rock and the mead halls of heavy metal. And as the years wore on, the two grew up together; so that the bards of metal sang songs of epic fantasy and derring-do,

the videos did writhe with wizards and dragons,


with far more iron than irony,

And, as all things revolve under the sun and nothing truly dies, the 2000's begat a new wave of alternative heavy metal. In the nomenclature of metallic groupuscules, these are bands faster and tighter than stoner metal, less complex than progressive metal, harkening back to power-metal and New Wave of British Heavy Metal acts like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.

Among these are bands unable to resist the lure of lyrics steeped in the 70-80's vibe of comics, speculative fiction and gaming. Such as 3 Inches of Blood:

And of course, The Sword, who give 3 Inches competition for the most old-school D&D lyrics of all time, with a postapocalyptic science-fantasy quest for weapons "wielded by kings of old" and "crafted by evil wizards":

"Hyperzephyrian" meaning "beyond the west wind" as "Hyperborean" means "beyond the north wind." Hey, if your campaign doesn't have ancient Hyperzephyrians in it, it better have something just as good!

Tuesday 26 June 2012

D&D Unified

In a place
where edition
wars against edition
one thing
can unite us:
the certain knowledge
that this
is going to suck.

Saturday 23 June 2012

The Save-Or-Die Remedy

Save-or-die poison is a corner often cut when reviving the Old School. Losing that seventh-level character to one bad die roll seems so unfair. So poison becomes a matter of hit points ... or just a knockout, not a killer ... myself, I have been giving players an extra saving throw, the first to avoid being incapacitated, the second to avoid death from the poison's effects.

But in our last session of play, gearing up to fight a venom-tailed wyvern, the player innocently asked if they could buy some anti-venom at the apothecary in town. With a successful availability roll (-3 seemed about right), a flask of the substance was found. After some haggling ("what price life itself?") the sovereign antitoxin was procured for a measly hundred silver pieces and packed on the person of the dwarf. Good thing, too; in the combat, the self-same dwarf, being the party member least likely to do so, failed a poison save, but had the remedy quick to hand and chugged it before the poison could take effect.

(I'm just noticing, by the way, that I don't feel the need to explain the silver standard in my game. Why? Well, even D&D Next uses it now.)

Although I may want to increase the standard price, there's no doubt to me that making antitoxins readily available through alchemists and apothecaries is a good move. Play-wise, it lets the threat of lethal poison remain, while offering a way out of its dangers through skillful planning and treasure spending. In terms of historical legends and folklore, a huge number of things were supposed to be a sovereign remedy for poison:
  • Bezoar (calcified stone found in the stomach)
  • Toadstones (stones spit out by a toad)
  • The correct half of a toad liver
  • Powdered amethyst or emerald
  • Herbs: Garlic, Vervain, Betony, Mistletoe, Mithridatum, Theriac
  • Unicorn horn
  • Confection of Cleopatra (not the best spokesmodel for surviving poison, but you have to agree she's strangely appropriate for a beverage of musk, birthwort and scorpions macerated in wine) 
Never mind that most of these are nonsense or, by sympathetic magic, obviously poisonous themselves. Never mind that poison was rare enough so that these overhyped antidotes almost never had to pass their screen test. Leaving to more obsessive minds the distinction between snake, insect, chemical and plant poisons, let's consider the standard, composite kind of antidote in the game to be as effective as the mythical bezoar or unicorn horn, against all sorts of ingested, inhaled and injected toxins.

Such a sovereign antidote costs, as base, 200 sp and has availability -3. It is a small, non-encumbering flask. After a failed poison saving throw incapacitates a character, he or she has only 1 round (6 seconds) of feeble ability to take out and apply the antidote. Beyond that, active colleagues have 5 more rounds to administer an antidote. Success means recovery from incapacitation in d6 minutes.

Poison is common enough between monsters, traps, potions, and villainous weapons that it's really something adventurers should have some kind of chance against.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Four Dungeons Inspired By BLDGBLOG

Courtesy of the blog of weird architecture.

1. Swiss chalets conceal underground bunkers, barracks and fortresses, with mountainsides and bridges primed to blow:

Fantasy version: Orc armies underestimate the peaceful mountain valley of the Gnomes of Zorich. You come across the chaotic combat raging above and below ground, and immediately see an opportunity to get your hands on some of those fabled gold bars and cuckoo clocks.

2.  Urban eccentrics in London and Washington take up excavation as a hobby and greatly complicate their cellars:

Fantasy version: Old Man Hackney's grandson and family have moved in to the house he left them ... and incautiously removed the bar and padlock on the trapdoor leading down. Seems he stopped his digging pastime for a very good reason. Now the baby is missing, the family fled and the whole neighborhood is passing the hat for a crew of heroes to clear out the basement.

3. Soviet research cities not listed on any map, with their own passports and consumer goods, abandoned to an afterlife of radioactive waste and biohazard labs.

Fantasy version: The Empire made these sorcerer gulags literally invisible, behind enchanted walls of illusion that showed only the other side, and an anti-magic cordon that ensured the most dangerous wizards would be helpless if they tried to escape. Now only an incautious, dying farmer knows the secret of the poisoned ruins within, their population of ape-hybrid and head-transplant mutations, their stockpiles of forgotten, unauthorized magical devices.

4. The hypothetical Castellum Umbrarum, a shade of Plato from the late Middle Ages, in which projections on the wall from inside and outside each room would create moving shadow figures.

Fantasy version: The transparent glass and mica walls of the Castellum's convoluted interior are infused with ancient pacts in silhouette form, reaching and binding creatures of the Plane of Shadows. Light sources taken into one room or passage will create shadow monsters in the other. The strength of these monsters will depend on the light projected to make them: candles the weakest, magical light the strongest and most dangerous. Looking with infravision will create invisible creatures. All who know this secret also know that going in with no light at all will avoid the monsters; but none, yet, have dared.

Monday 18 June 2012

Brute Characters

Half-orcs. Half-ogres. Half-giants. Nephilim. Lizardmen. Minotaurs. There's always the impulse in fantasy roleplaying games to let the players take on that role so familiar from the superhero comics ... the big, dumb, straightforward aggro machine.

There's a mechanical problem, though, and a balance problem. The mechanical problem exists in games like D&D through 2nd edition, where monsters follow different rules than player characters. It's alluded to in the AD&D material on playing monsters as characters; how do you make a centaur or a lizardman with their multiple hit dice realistically start off on the same footing as a 1st level party of player characters?

This leads into the balance problem. The brute kind of character is strong in combat ability and resilience, but weak in subtlety, strategy, restraint and charm. (And in intelligence, wisdom and charisma, but to be fair, those are pretty much dump stats for this kind of character.)

Ultimately, to be true to the character type, the player has to play dumb, impulsive, and crude. Restraining a mechanical advantage with a roleplaying restriction doesn't work for paladins, and it doesn't work for this type. And like with paladins, when the player does take on the brute's roleplaying burden it's often to the detriment of the party (see below):

So although I'm not sold on allowing the brute type character class in my race-as-class world, this did get me thinking on how I'd implement him. First, I'd make the brute rare. For example, you'd have to score below 12 on INT, WIS and CHA, and below 9 (penalty territory) on at least two of those stats; and I allow 3d6 in order with only one switch. Then you would get +2 on STR, hit dice d6+1 (1 less bonus point than a standard fighter), and an extra hit die on character generation. Its hide would count as leather armor but would have to have custom armor fashioned for it to get any more protection. The class would have no special powers, no feats, unable to even handle a bow, nothing but a pure tank. Oh yeah, and you could choose among a variety of options; basically any bipedal creature without special abilities and 2-3 HD in the wild; lizardmen, gnolls, ogrillons for Pete's sake.

The good grace of the Old School approach is that you can play this guy like a Machiavelli, or Beast from X-Men, because his powers and stats ultimately don't circumscribe the guile and problem-solving the player brings to the table. Might be something to try, anyway.

Saturday 16 June 2012

A Strange Class of People ... The Druids

Thinking it over, there's one more core class I want to add to my system. The Druid. Here's how they fit into the evolving scheme of classes in my game. The bold ones are the core classes, for now, and the others are expansions.

A work in progress...

If I was trying to be super-parsimonious with this scheme, I would put druids as midway between clerics (prophets) and wizards - where witches are. But I see druids as deserving of their own slot. They're alterna-clerics, serving an older religion, more tied to nature. They also use charisma as their prime stat, unlike any other class and further distinguishing them from prophets.

How to make them more than just an outdoorsy Aquaman-type? Give them stuff they can take underground, and things they can do, and hook them up quickly with the primal elements. If they can speak to plants, why not to slime molds?

All right, so here's the basic class with a couple of variants. Basically, they can restore hit points as a cleric does (a kind of morale boost for PCs) but can't use magic to heal actual injuries at 0 hp or less.

And they get nature powers:

 This follows the trend of divine-type powers not being spells, but per-day or at-will in other ways. One principle I maybe need to make more clear is that "speak with plants" is not some all-consuming intelligence spell; although plants have a longer memory than earth, their senses are also restricted to touch. They might tell you someone ate their berries five hours ago or a lot of heavy feet passed by yesterday, but that's about it.

I'm not including these in the 52 Pages of my system just yet (the Basic-level document), but have developed them because one of our elf characters acquired an elf henchman and I was looking for ways to make this wood elf a little different in play. Hence, the powers and the classes.

Next: Two popular class/race-types I didn't put in the diagram and why not.

Thursday 14 June 2012

GenCon This Year

I'll be going back to GenCon Indy this year. Because I'm affiliated with a company there and may need to keep time free to consult or help out, I can't tie down to anything specific, so signing up for on-the-grid games is right out. Which is too bad, seeing how space is tight in just about every old school event I would want to play in.

Still, I want to run a game off the schedule like I did in 2010, for a combination of Five Rings friends and Old School folks. I'd also like to play in a couple of off-the-grid games. And I'm definitely going to stop by the Old school Renaissance booth.

So - is anyone going and interested? And can anyone point me to forum threads and the like where informal gaming arrangements are being made?

Beyond Generation Wars

"The problem with this new generation is that they grew up on computer games that hand everything to them. They don't have the gumption for old-school play!"

This is a common enough sentiment, but I had to question it recently after reading this article by David Wong. Granted, he admits to "pushing 40," but most of the computer games he mentions are hits from the past 10 years. And some of his criteria for a great moment in computer game play seem lifted straight from the Old School roleplaying ethos. Such as:
  • "When you feel truly powerful for the first time:" Means that you have to spend some time paying your dues, hiding and skulking and killing rats with a stick. Power is earned, not granted from the start.
  • "The first time you see an awe-inspiring enemy." Means that you have to face things you're not sure you'll survive.
  • "The first time you see the universe running without you." Right on. To continue: "Here's a quick way to separate good fantasy stories from bad: The good ones leave you feeling like the universe continues whether or not the camera is there to see it." 
These are all ideas behind old-school naturalism: the world is not composed of carefully measured, player-centric combats and artificial puzzles. You are let into a world where things can overpower you, where there are problems not puzzles, and you have to use all your guile, stealth and good judgment to survive. The computer gaming examples Wong gives here would also make great experiences in tabletop gaming - for example, running from the dragon only to have it fight the giant.

But here's my suspicion: there hasn't really been a change with the generations. Maybe there's less tolerance for pointless grinding at the tabletop because of the ready availability of electronic timewasters. But running a naturalistic world always has taken insight and a certain amount of grit when faced with the players' desire to win. Steering clear of pointless reward and pointless sadism as a DM - and of the self-consciousness that you might be indulging in one or the other - has never been easy. It's also not easy as a player to stick with such a campaign, even though it ultimately brings deep rewards.

You can see from the fulminations of Gygax in the AD&D books that many of his contemporaries ran overly easy "Monty Haul" campaigns. Dice fudging is openly discussed. Clearly, not all old-time players had the Old School mentality. And evidently, a minority of roleplayers today embrace it.

This way has never been mass-market - which is why Mike Mearls feels the need to surround his old-school advice in D&D Next with a slew of padded safety mechanisms. That's OK; those of us who care know how to unbolt the training wheels.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Nigerian Hyena Keepers Are Definitely Weirder Than You Think

While researching hyenas I came across an amazing photo essay on a troupe of animal handlers in modern-day northern Nigeria.

The Gadawan Kura are street entertainers and peddlers of traditional medicines and amulets, which they use to capture and tame the hyenas, baboons and rock pythons they use in their act. Minus the athletic gear, but keeping the bright piebald kilts of their trade, they would make a great set of NPCs in a fantasy game.

One version of the troupe:
Hyena handlers Usman (rogue-3) and Danjuma (rogue-1), both men in their early 30s, with 2 female hyenas and 1 subordinate male
Baboon whisperer and drummer Jalil (0 level), a young man around 20, with 2 baboons
Snake charmer Khamisa (magic-user/witch-5), an old woman of 65 or so, with a large constrictor rock python and a small poisonous asp
Girl, age 6, Zainab

Their treasure is about 300$ in a sack, plus their drums, medicine and herbal stash, but they have 2000$ - a family fortune accumulated over many generations - buried in a field somewhere closer to home.

They can be:

NEUTRAL: They have learned how to make potions, powders and amulets of animal warding and control, and other uses (healing, for example). They sell these substances at the market rate, demonstrating their effectiveness with the animals. In every respect they are wandering opportunists, with no higher aim except to make money and see the world.

VILLAINS: They are actually the shared operational arm of two sets of demon cultists; the baboons and snakes are familiars of Demogorgon while the hyenas are familiars of Yeenoghu, all with low cunning and the ability to speak human language. The baboons are used for thievery and burglary, having relevant skills at 5th level; the snakes for assassination; the hyenas for security, intimidation, and bone-crunching corpse disposal. The traveling medicine show is just a front, the potions fraudulent.

HEROES: Usman is an exiled prince with supernatural talents of animal friendship, which he inherited from his mother Khamisa, and which brother Jalil and daughter Zainab share. Danjuma was the court astrologer, the only one to remain loyal after the coup.  The troupe may help the party, compete with them in an adventure, or hire them as mercenaries when Usman decides it's time to start the revolution back home. The use of potions and powders is a pretense to cover up the troupe's true abilities.

Monday 11 June 2012

Gnolls Are Weirder Than You Think

Gnolls have long been my favorite D&D humanoid. They're great villains, based on a foul and baleful animal. What's more, they're a whole-cloth creation in the game. There's no legendary or fictional precedent apart from Lord Dunsany's "gnoles" -- to which they bear only a homonymous relation.

But if you study up on hyena anatomy and society, gnolls get weirder. "Gynocracy" is maybe too weak a word to describe the social structure of an animal where the female is larger than the male and the lowest female outranks the highest male.

Then there's the hyena's genitalia, (warning: not safe for work or lunch) which led Pliny and other ancients to classify them as hermaphrodites. This is not strictly true, but the females do have non-functioning organs that look like the male equipment, and get in the way of reproduction. And that makes life no laughing matter.

Reaper Bones mini (I'm painting 3 of these)
In addition to inverting the more usual gender roles, hyenas are violent among themselves, and often cannibalistic. What would humanoids evolved or created from such beasts be like?

As chaotic evil creatures, gnolls would be warlike, with the larger, dominant females as the warriors. Males, which in the hyena migrate to other packs to mate, would in the gnoll society most likely be seen as chattel, good only for one-time mating and subsequently a food source.

Their tough-brutal mentality can only be helped along by the anatomical facts: mating and birth for gnolls are painful and dangerous. Perhaps any given gnoll lair will have about 5-10% of the warrior females convalescing from either of these activities, having taken d4 (mating) or d4+4 (birth) damage in the process. And this can't make their attitude toward males any kinder. They might see their male chattel as a way to prove themselves in the ultimate way, fusing sexuality with a form of self-mutilation, but ultimately - as with men who take that approach toward women - they would feel nothing but contempt toward these objects of acquisition.

Last night one of my players remarked on the tendency of my adventures to include content rated "raw and gritty" after they did some exploring of a dwarf latrine in the dungeon. I don't think I overpedal these elements, and have no desire to continually throw "flies and dung" in players' faces. But if I'm running a game where players confront the monstrous, I reserve the right to play all the keys of that concept, including the hyenas' "monstrous" gender politics that invert the worst human tendencies.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

One Page Humanoids

I wanted the monsters for the 52 Pages to be something unique - not specifically setting-bound; not the same old D&D bunch presented in retro-clone after retro-clone; not just punting the whole issue to the individual DM as in LOTFP.

So I'm presenting more of a monster creation kit. Keeping mind this is my "Basic D&D" for levels 1-3, so I'm leaving out any more than a few high-level monsters. Here's the first page: pretty much condensing and simplifying the approach I take in Varlets & Vermin. And extending it with "templates" ... which are very different from 3rd edition's, much more limited and oriented toward helping create unique and surprising worlds.

Monday 4 June 2012

Monster Ability Scores on the Fly

As teens we played two roleplaying games: D&D plus variants and Runequest.

Runequest was attractive because it felt more realistic. But it was a pain to create adventures for, which is why we didn't play it all the time. The magic system was restrictively Gloranthan, but worse yet, each individual monster had separate stats that had to be rolled up.

Because it was AD&D, the two systems came off about the same in complexity, but at least in AD&D the DM could create a monster our of thin air, or throw a few ogres at the party without blinking. D&D was a system thrown together from a number of unrelated wargames. Runequest was a system that sought to simulate the world consistently, simplifying some areas (skill resolution) at the cost of others (monster generation).

3rd and later edition D&D assimilated the Runequest mentality with the triumph of consistency over ease. Skills got easier but monster statblocks grew fearsomely big.

D&D Next seems to pare down the monsters considerably but retain the "consistency" approach. Monster saving throws are ability score-based just like characters' and if you want to wrestle a gray ooze, its Strength is a known quantity.

Mike Mearls, to his credit, realizes that this can work out awkwardly in practice and gives the option to just wing ability scores. If your gray ooze's strength is a few points off, that can always be explained away ("He was a big strong ooze, even as a little puddle").

But here's my alternative, on the page of my large-print heartbreaker that explains monster stats. The relevant section lets you compute monster abilities from other parts of their statblock like move and hit dice. I also use descriptive terms like "nimble" and "frail" that should be easy to apply.

 I'm not sure if a simple algorithm for each stat is less unwieldy than just looking things up in the monster book, but at least it can give you some things to think about when improvising monster stats for Next/5th. Me - I'll work toward not requiring ability scores for monsters at all. And anyway, this exercise has got me moving again on the 52 Pages.

Saturday 2 June 2012

D&D Next's Analog Writing

Strangely, the one thing that I like most about the D&D Next playtest materials was not the mechanics, the nods to Old School play values, or the Caves of Chaos. It's the style of the monster write-ups, the way they fit so well with my liking for analog detail.

D&D monster writeups started minimal in Original, and ramped up fast to the bloated style seen in 2nd edition, with every fact of ecology, tactics and social structure spelled out across two back-to-back pages of small print looseleaf. The AD&D Monster Manual got it just about right, with enough tidbits and hooks to make monsters interesting, but not enough to leave no room for invention or mystery. Strangely, the Field Folio had the right average of detail but the wrong spread, with some monsters underdone, and others developed to the point where playing against them would be a little railroaded module all to itself.

Still no "weird hooting" though.
It's not just nostalgia for the nods to AD&D - the tribe names, the green-gray skin of the gnolls and the red-rimmed eyes of the owlbear. Really, the descriptive text of the D&D Next monsters comes in at just the right level of detail. If there's information about the creature's diet, organization, treasure "drops" (like the owlbear's eggs), or natural history, it doesn't feel like it's been forced into an encyclopedia entry. Rather, the haphazard information reads more like an almanac or bestiary, the kind of knowledge a well-informed adventurer would be likely to pick up from late tavern nights on the borderlands. The one constant is good physical description and a short paragraph of likely actions when confronted.

The digital stuff - boss feats, six stats for everyone - is easily enough ignored, simplified or fudged in play, as the notes recommend. It did inspire me to come up with a very simple way to determine monster ability scores and saves, which I'll share next time.

There's less of a wealth of analog detail in the Caves of Chaos adventure, though the format is nice: a short establishing paragraph, and specific notes on lights, smells and sounds that might reach the players before they enter the area. That's OK, though; while the writing style in this example sets the tone for adventures under these rules, it's something that can be easily changed by individual writers.

As I figure out which of the distasteful parts can be dropped or modified, I'm coming to like the Next approach more and more.