Archive for category RPG

The Traveller Book – Introduction

Recently I picked up a POD copy of the Game Designers’ Workshop book The Traveller Book. First printed in 1982, this book is a collection of the Traveller rules first published in 3 separate books by Marc Miller in 1977. Traveller is a science fiction adventure RPG set in the “far future”, an age where mankind has spread out amongst the stars, travel faster than the speed of light is possible, and merchants, militaries, pirates and others vie for a piece of the universe to call their own. Largely a “space opera” style game, traveller envisions a massive universe with a powerful (but distant) government, and communication speeds that are limited to the speed of starship travel, and intends players to be “retired” characters from a previous career seeking some new fame, fortune, glory or home.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be reading through the book calling out some sections and thoughts as I go. So let’s get started…

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S&W Appreciation Day – Son of S&W Appreciation Day

When I first ran an S&W game, I did so using a bookmarked copy of the 4th printing of Swords and Wizardry, the Stickies application on my computer and a whole lot of flying by my pants. While it went well, and the book marks made jumping from chart to information very easy, I quickly found myself wishing I had a GM screen for Swords and Wizardry. Ultimately, I didn’t stick with the S&W game I started long enough for that desire to turn into a desire to make one myself. Eventually I did make one for Labyrinth Lord (which I should post some time) which worked out pretty well, but I never made one for Swords and Wizardry. For todays festivities I’ve decided to correct that failing, so without further ado I present a Swords and Wizardry GM screen:

GM Screen

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S&W Appreciation Day – Part the First

Welcome to the Swords and Wizardry Appreciation Day at iDungeon Crawl. In case you wandered here without knowing what’s going on, today across the OSR community we’re showing our appreciation for Swords and Wizardry, a retro clone published by Mythmere Games. If you don’t have it yet, you can download a free copy of the core rules from the previous link. You can also find more information about what S&W is, but the short version is S&W is a cleaned up clone of an early version of D&D. S&W and other retro clones can exist legally due to the existence of the OGL and some various functions of copyright law. More reading on the OSR in general, and retro-clones in particular can be found elsewhere on the web, but are outside the scope of today’s events. For more Swords and Wizardry appreciation today check the list of participating blogs over at Tenkar’s Tavern.

Swords and Wizardry was the very first game that brought the OSR and it’s related community to my attention. Some years ago (2009 if the timestamp on the file is any indication), I was browsing the web searching for information about the older editions of D&D. I’m not entirely sure why or what path led me there, though it might have had something to do with the death of D&D creators Gary Gygax (2008) and Dave Arneson (2009). Regardless I soon stumbled upon the Swords and Wizardry core rules, which had just had their 3rd printing. Here was a chance for me to play original D&D and give it a try without dropping a bundle of hard earned cash on some books from a collector. Ultimately, the core rules make some (very handy) changes to the original rules that made it “less pure” than I was aiming for at the time, and that “impurity” sent me on a hunt through out the rest of the OSR in search of more “pure” versions. This caused me to discover such great games as Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons and many of the blogs and links listed in the side bar. I still had though a soft spot for S&W and eventually returned to it (in its 4th printing, with my custom bookmarks) as my go to game for my first attempt at DMing a game.

Unfortunately, there was one thing that appeared in that 3rd printing of the rules that were subsequently eliminated from the 4th printing, which were the race-as-class versions of the Dwarf and Elf classes. While I’m generally ambivalent about race-as-class, I very much enjoyed the 3rd printing S&W interpretation of the Elf, which was a dual classed fighter / magic user that could switch classes each day as the need arose. A similar version of the class is preserved in the Whitebox version of the S&W rules, but I still liked the original. So to kick off today’s festivities, here’s the advancement chart for the elf variant as it appeared in the 3rd printing:

3rd Printing Swords and Wizardry Elf

3rd Printing Swords and Wizardry Elf

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Pre-Swords and Wizardry Appreciation Day

If you haven’t heard about it yet, Erik over at Tenkar’s Tavern is putting together an Appreciation Day for Swords and Wizardry on the 17th of this month. In anticipation of that day, I decided to post some revisits to some of my older swords and wizardry related posts:

The Corpse Crow post introduces a new monster. Looking back on it now, I notice that it’s a very Stirge like monster, which leads me to wonder if I might have over estimated its CL. The stirge is listed as a CL 1 monster, though if you follow the monster creation guidelines, it appears that it should be a CL 2 monster (1HD + Auto Damage). The corpse crow works in a very similar way, attacking and then dealing auto damage, though the crow then gains the ability to possess the corpse of its victim. The question is, does that possession ability make the crow 3-4 challenge levels tougher? I’m honestly not sure.

My post on the Repeating Crossbow introduced a new weapon that on reflection I think I did poorly. The basic concept is fine, but I think it might do too much damage. A user of a repeating crossbow gets 4 chances to hit per round, and each does damage and a chance to inflict poison even with the +4 save. Were I doing this again, I think I might say that a repeating cross bow user has two choices of ammunition. The first is the ordinary 1d3 bolt. The second choice is poisoned, but rather than doing damage and poison, I think I would say that a hit deals poison damage only (no save) and that the effect of the poison damage is 1/2 hp (or even 1hp) per round cumulative.

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In Defense of “3d6 (or 4d6-) in Order” Stat Rolls

Over and Papers and Pencils, LS has a post up with an incredibly awesome and useful stat rolling system that bakes in racial ability modifiers. It’s a very neat little thing that wraps racial modifiers into a nice simple package, so go read and enjoy, then come back.

Are you back? Good. Did you see the most important (IMHO) paragraph in that post? If you blinked you probably missed it, and it’s so subtle I doubt even he saw the genius in it. Allow me to quote:

Typically, the first thing I ask my players to do is to roll their ability scores. Which means that their first glimpse of the game is “Roll these dice, record the resulting sum. Repeat this task five more times, then assign one score to each of these six abilities, the functions of which you probably don’t fully understand yet.”

Generations of D&D players have chafed at the original proscription that ability scores should be rolled 3d6 in order. Gary Gygax himself appeared to prefer 4d6, drop the lowest and arrange to taste. Other systems use point buy, or more lenient rolling systems and it all sort of culminated in 3.5/Pathfinder and 4e with the “standard array”, eliminating the randomness entirely for pure calculated consistency. And for experienced TTRPG players, this is perfectly fine and acceptable. When you know what you want in the game or from your character, there’s no reason that the rules need to prevent you from playing the character you want.

But take a moment, gentle reader, and consider the humble new player. The beginner. The n00b. Imagine you are brand new to the game, you don’t know what AC is, THAC0 sounds to you like a brand of potato chips and the last +1 anything you saw was a social networking button on a web page. You sit down at the table ready to roll up a new character and your DM starts throwing numbers and jargon at you and tells you to assign the scores to these “attributes” which makes only a small amount of sense in that you know what each word means on its own. Sure the GM tries to help, but really, how important is it for your character that they have a 14 DEX vs that 13 that you rolled? No one knows until your character is fully fleshed out, but this assignment is the first thing you need to do (or perhaps the second after you made a bewildering whirlwind tour through the list of races and classes).

Now, gentle reader, imagine instead you sit down at the table and your GM tells you “OK, roll 3d6 6 times and write the numbers down one after the other. Those are your attributes, don’t worry about what they mean right now, we’ll get to that later. Now based on your scores, here are 2 or 3 classes you’re eligible to play with this character, pick the one that sounds coolest to you.” Suddenly character creation is a lot easier, a lot quicker and ultimately a lot less intimidating, and because you didn’t get blasted with learning a whole bunch of jargon and attributes and classes and races and how they all relate together so that you can make an informed decision, you’ll feel much more comfortable with the idea of “simply” rolling up a new character if you don’t like this one.

Ladies and gentlemen, looking at it from this perspective, the seemingly restrictive and punitive character creation system in OD&D was a thing of simple elegance and genius. It was a simple and un-intimidating way to approach what is in reality (and certainly as the generations have worn on) a complex and interlocking system with plenty of room to experiment and grow. In a world without optimization forums, character builders or in many cases even an experienced DM to show you the ropes, the original character creation method was a brilliantly simple device that allowed players to jump right in by hiding complexity and flattening the learning curve. Even better, unlike a pregen character, it allows a small amount personal choice, just enough to invest you in your character without requiring you to understand everything first.

Going forward I think I’ll require all of my new players to generate their character randomly and in order. Let them get to the good stuff first, and then if they want to change things around later, once they have a feel for things, they’re free to do so. They can discover the character creation mini game later, for now, it’s time to buckle some swash.

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On Female Dwarves

So it’s been a little while since I last wrote anything hasn’t it? Mostly that’s because nothing particularly new has been going on around here. The two campaigns that I was running found themselves on temporary hiatus while the craziness of summer wrapped everyone up. Luckily things are winding down and should be back to normal. I the meantime however, hopefully you’re all enjoying the new play test packet from WotC. I’m certainly excited about the possibilities that the fighter combat superiority dice bring to the table, and the new magic classes look interesting so far.

So about that post title… A few years back, I came across a blog post, or perhaps a forum post that I can no longer find. I would love to finding again and link to and credit the original author, but so far my google-fu has been weak. The post came to mind for me the other day while thinking about various fantasy race tropes and stereotypes and it was a brilliant and imaginative way to handle the “female dwarves with beards” bit that shows up every now and then. What follows is my hazy recollection of that post, if for no other reason than to preserve the idea. If anyone can recall the original author, please let me know.

Many a traveler through the wilds and the world will have noted that dwarves women are a rare sight. Indeed, aside from children, no one is really ever sure if they’ve seen one, leading most people to assume that they must have, and therefore that dwarves women must have beards, which is why you never seem to be able to tell them apart from the men. The truth my friends, is even stranger still. You see, it is well known that the dwarves have a love of mining, and a love of gold and shiny rocks. It is equally well known that they are master craftsmen when it comes to stone, building grand halls and caverns the likes of which even the giants would feel small inside. Perhaps even more well known is the ill temper of the average adventuring dwarf, but why should this be so? What drive possesses dwarves to produce monumental caverns? What need does a dwarf have for a cavern a hundred dwarves tall? Similarly, why the lust for gold and gems? Surely there are enough dwarves miners that others could set themselves to another task? And really, why are so many adventuring dwarves so grumpy? My friends, I tell you it is all for their women. To understand, you must first understand a bit about dwarven love. Dwarven children are often kept away from the outside world, kept safe in dwarven cities under the mountains until one day, the males begin to set off on their adventures, or set off for a life in the mines. But what of the girls? During their younger years, when a male and female dwarf fall in love, they will be married in a grand ceremony, to commemorate the marriage, and the male’s new eternal purpose, for you see, every male quests for his bride. To find her the treasures she adores, the room she needs to grow and blossom into her beautiful self. And what might that beautiful self be? Ask yourself my friend, what other creature do you know that seeks large caverns underground and massive amounts of gold and gems? Yes my friend, the great secret of the dwarves is that as they age, their females slowly change from the figure that we recognize as dwarf, to an altogether more awesome sight, that of a dragon. Her husband spends his life accumulating treasure for her to make her nest upon, to live comfortably. I assure you friend I am not joking, for this explains so much of the world. It explains the ongoing quest of every dwarf to find more treasure and gems. It explains the great halls and caverns, and it explains how so often when an adventurer encounters a dragon, they are at the bottom of some great dungeon, whose halls the creature could not have fit through, and with a pile of treasure that would have taken a dwarf a lifetime to move.

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On Complexity vs Options

Sometimes, when I argue that we need to keep and maintain simple classes in D&D (and usually this comes up in discussions over the current D&D Next Fighter), people mistake that desire for simplicity with a desire to not have options. When I argue that there’s no need for a fighter (or indeed any class) to have a massive list of abilities to choose from, I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t have that option, just that they shouldn’t have to take those options to be effective. I did a little bit of math on this that I think exemplifies my point.

Lets say you sit down at a table with a bunch of players. You hand them the primary rule book and say “We’re going to run an adventure here, roll up a character you want to play, start at level 10.

If you were using Labyrinth Lord, your players would need to read and parse 42 pages of material, assuming that they read all the equipment lists, and all the spell lists. If you wanted them to choose some magic items from the treasure tables, add another 16 pages for a grand total of 58. At the minimum they would need to read a mere 18 pages if they didn’t review the spell lists.

If you were using Advanced Edition Companion from LL, they would need to parse (including all spells and equipment and magic items) 96 pages, and a minimum of 24 pages (including multi-classing) if they didn’t read through the spell lists or treasure.

If you were playing Dark Dungeons (a Rules Cyclopedia clone) and including all the weapon proficiencies, skills spells and treasure, 110 pages, with a minimum of  22 pages without skills, WP, spells and treasure, or 48 with skills and WP.

If you were playing OSRIC, 155 pages, including all spells and treasure. A mere 31 pages without spells and treasure.

So what we have so far is

  • LL – 18 / 58
  • LL AEC – 24 / 96
  • DD – 22 / 48 / 110 (depending on whether you play with out without skills and WP)
  • OSRIC – 31 / 155

So what does it look like for a new player of 4th edition? 20 pages of basic character information, 17 pages of races, 125 pages of classes and their mandatory powers, 13 pages of skills, 19 pages of feats, 45 pages of equipment and 19 pages of rituals. A whopping 258 pages of material that a new player must read through to make a character. If you drop the rituals (as only some classes use them) and the equipment (including magical) you’re down to a minimum of 194 pages just to get started on the game. And unlike previous editions where skills or weapon proficiencies were truly optional rules, 4e doesn’t work if you don’t take powers and feats and such, and so you have to parse all of that.

  • D&D 4e – 194 / 258

That is why I support having simple classes, where powers, feats and special tricks are optional, rather than mandatory and baked in. In my ideal dream system, characters would level as normal, perhaps with general bonuses to hit, damage or stats. As an option, players could choose from among lists of powers, and each of these powers would make the character a bigger specialist in something rather than making them all around better. So as a quick off the cuff example, When leveling from 9 to 10, the fighter would normally get +1/+1 to hit and damage. Instead, the fighter might choose to take the skill “Crushing Blow” where in some limited number of times per combat, the fighter can choose add an addition weapons worth of damage when using any heavy weapon. Under such a system, players who chose the standard leveling method would still be able to hold their own at level 20 against a character that took specializations.

Now other may argue that this ignores places where the games could be alternatively complex, like variable weapon speeds, or THAC0 or other such early fiddly systems that have been improved over time, and they’re right. But I don’t argue that D&D needs to bring back those fiddly bits, I argue that D&D needs to bring back simpler classes. Let’s keep the improved other systems and bring the character complexity back down as well.

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Playing the Game

It’s been a while, and in that time I’ve run through two more sessions, one a D&D Next playtest session, and the other a Labyrinth Lord session.
D&D Next continues to be an entertaining game, and the players certainly enjoy it. The players decided to take on the 40 kobold room as a straight fight, though quickly realised that they would be outnumbered if they didn’t do something. So the wizard cast sleep, and half the kobolds fell asleep. While the physical characters engaged in kobold genocide, the wizard then used mage hand to wind an oil soaked rope among the fray and once it was set, lit the rope on fire. All in all it worked out pretty well. Next definitely needs some form of swarm/squad rule combat however. I tried putting something together on the spot, but it didn’t feel quite right.

Later the party ventured into the Owlbear’s cave, and despite my warnings attempted to fight off, and were almost destroyed by the gray oozes.

The next week, we got back together for a Labyrinth Lord session. However, rather than have the players pick up in the caves again, we’ve changed settings entirely. The LL characters are now Level 3, and they are exploring the Castle of the Mad Archmage, a fantastic megadungeon and simulacrum of the Greyhawk castle by Greyhawk Grognard. In addition we’re using the wonderful Mad Demigod’s Castle from over at DragonsFoot as the first level. I’m running this for a couple of reasons. I want to run a megadungeon, I want to experiment with running without a map, and I want to switch between the games to get a good side by side comparison going. And I’ll be honest, they’re pretty similar, which is awesome to me.

One thing I did notice harkens back to my initiative discussions earlier. I really like group initiative (though the group sometimes hates it) but, it only works if I insist that the players declare their actions upfront and act as a group rather than individuals. If you roll group initiative and then parse each players actions one at a time, you get pretty much the same effect as having individual initiative. I’m considering switching to a combined model as in Dark Dungeons where initiative is still a d6, and characters on each initiative segment act at the same time.

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On Confirmation Bias

So Mike Mearls did an AMA over at Reddit. While nothing that was revealed was particularly ground breaking, there was certainly some good information in there and some useful bits too. Others have hit the highlights already, so I won’t go into them here, but suffice it to say, Mearls has been listening to the feedback they’re getting, and they really do seem serious about trying to make this a sort of rosetta stone version of D&D. One thing I’ve notice though (and perhaps I’m guilty of this myself) is that there is an awful lot of confirmation bias floating around about this. It appears that some old edition fans are reading the additional plans (such as viable non-magical healing) as warnings that 5e will not be the olive branch promised. Conversely there are 4e fans who apparently interpret the comment thread (in which Mearls didn’t even reply) about the Slayer theme as a sign that they’re not done neutering the fighter, and WotC won’t be satisfied until Mages are gods from level 1 and all Fighters are merely henchmen. So as a public service announcement, I’d like to remind the internet that sometimes, deeply reading the words that other people write will provide you with far better and much more accurate information, and can reduce your stress levels greatly.

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The D&D Next Playtest: Session I

So yesterday, after many delays and false starts, the group finally got together and played a session of the D&D Next playtest. It was actually easy to get the players in since we’re already running B2, I just had them “fall into a deep slumber and awake in a CRAZY SHARED DREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” were they are in the same world but different characters. I know, I’m so clever. The group mostly cleared their way through parts of the A cavern, and a lot of fun was had by all.

The group consists of 3 players and myself. One player hasn’t played D&D since 2e, so the LL game we started was their first foray back into gaming. One player hadn’t played any D&D or other RPG before we started LL. The last player grew up playing the homebrew game I’ve mentioned a couple times past, and has played in 2 4e campaigns before we started the LL campaign. Reactions around the table were generally positive, though the player who hadn’t played any D&D before found themselves struggling to keep all the new options available straight. For all the whining a bitching the simple fighter template gets across the RPG world, sometimes it’s nice to be able to hand a basic “hit it with a stick” template to a new player to let them get on their feet before dumping spell casting or skill systems on them. If a new player is really having a good time, eventually they’ll start wanting to learn how to do the other cool stuff.

As to specifics, the dis/advantage system was well liked all around. As a GM, while I enjoyed having the DCs in the adventure module for various things (hearing noises in rooms for example), I found that flipping through the manuals for DCs for other tasks to be annoying and tedious. Admittedly, if I spent the time to make up a DM screen like I had for LL for 5e, I’d probably have an easier time with this, but I definitely found myself missing the simple 1 in 6 checks, or the simple “roll under your stat”checks from LL. In fact, I’d love to maybe see about combining dis/advantage mechanic with the simple stat scores to come up with an even simpler check system, where in you have 3 “DCs” easy (stat check with advantage), normal (stat check), and hard (stat check with disadvantage), but I’m not sure how to do it. Obviously you could say “roll under your stat, and if you have advantage take the lower roll”, but that breaks the normal behavior of the dis/advantage mechanic. And rolling over your stat is no good because that means succeeding gets harder as your attributes increase, even if you apply the stat bonuses to the roles. Honestly, I probably just have to copy out the DC ranges for easy, normal and hard from the manual and into a chart on the DM screen and run with that.

I also found that (from a DM perspective) rolling individual initiative is kind of a pain, and it definitely slows down the battles. When it comes time to fight in LL I say “roll a d6”, and whoever wins that whole side goes first, and play sort of continues in the way it has up until that point. In the playtest, it’s a few minutes while initiatives are rolled and ordered and then play occurs in a much more ordered and linear fashion than it has until that point. As a DM I definitely prefer group initiative.

I also found myself missing morale numbers. As the rouge was being chased down the hallway by a band of 3 kobolds, one player managed a crit on their crossbow shot, and pulverized the lead kobold. Immediately I looked for a morale number to check against for these kobolds and found none. Obviously I could have made any ruling I want on this (and did) but I do enjoy having the numbers handy.

Combats were roughly as fast as they are in LL, but are slowed a bit as I said by individual initiative, and also HP bloat. The kobold chieftain has 44 HP, and once his guards had been dispatched, killing him was kind of a slow inevitable slog as the players ground him up. By comparison, in the original module, the chieftain is certainly bigger than the average kobold, but still only has 8 HP, meaning a 2 or 3 well placed sword swings makes quick work of him.

The player playing the fighter certainly enjoyed the slayer theme.

Overall, the game as written currently plays a lot like LL, and while I think I personally still prefer LL, I could easily see myself continuing to play 5e with my players if that was what they preferred.

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