30 April 2015

D&D: The Movie(s)

[incidentally, if you want to see D&D: The Book of Vile Darkness for yourself ? It airs on Saturday May 9th on SyFy channel at 0100 hours.]

I posted on G+ last night regarding a big studio effort at bringing D&D to the silver screen. As you likely already know there has already been a film in 2000. The company behind it? New Line Cinema, the folks who brought you Jackson's LotR and Hobbit trilogies.

Dungeons & Dragons: The Movie (D&D:TM) was ... well it's difficult to put into words. On the one hand D&D:TM had a promising cast including Jeremy Irons, Justin Whalin, Tom Baker, and Thora Birch. On the balancing side you had an inexperienced director in Courtney Solomon and a low budget. These 2 factors alone are often the kiss of death for this type of film.

The best way I can think up to describe the film is schizophrenic. It couldn't decide if it was a slapstick comedy with wise-cracking Marlon "Snails" Wayans playing off straight man Justin "Ridley" Whalin. Or was it campy, with Jeremy "Profion" Irons chewing the scenery and milking the giant cow? Or was it menacing, with tough guy Bruce "Damodar" Payne in his black armor and armed with a wicked looking sword? Payne, by the way, was incongruously wearing blue lipstick which was never explained but was distracting and looked rather silly.

Overall, the film was mildly entertaining. I saw it in the theater and I must admit there was a rather awkward silence among the film's patrons, few of them though there were, when the credits rolled.

I didn't care for the excursions into comedy or the hammy portrayal of Profion. Wayan's Snails was almost a caricature comic relief character and not very funny anyway. The single dungeon delve was abbreviated and involved only one character while the rest of the party waited outside. The dragons were just plain awful. I realize both these last issues were related, in part, to the budget and freshman director, but a film must be judged on its presentation.

What did I like? The basic story was a good idea. I liked the main characters of Ridley and Marina. I thought Damodar was scary and liked the relentless way he tracked our heroes throughout the course of the film.

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (D&D II) came out 5 years later, much to my surprise. I say "surprise" because (a) I didn't think it there would be another after the poor performance at the box office of the first one, and (b) it was actually pretty good (at least, when compared with the first). D&D II was a made-for-tv film that was a sort of sequel to the first film, taking place in the same milieu and involving the same antagonist but a new story-line and new cast.

D&D II had a third of the budget of its big-screen brother but was a better all around film. Gone was the half-hearted attempt at comedy while the acting, from the main characters at least, was better with much less ham and cheese evident. Even the dragons looked better, though this can be partially chalked up to improved CGI in the intervening 5 years. Best of all, the film depicted a believable adventuring party with each using their abilities to allow the party to progress. I found Tim Stern's Nim the Thief to be particularly well-played: surly, secretive, borderline uncooperative, but when push came to shove he was acting in the best interests of the party.

This one is my favorite of the 3 and it seems many folks who have seen both feel the same way.

Finally, we come to Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness (D&D III) in 2012. Another made-for-tv movie but after the relative success of D&D II I was certainly willing to give it a chance. Unfortunately, between the acting and obviously lower budget this film fell short of already lowered expectations.

I really liked the story. I interpreted it as a fallen paladin questing to regain his paladin-hood. He basically had to look into the abyss and, for a brief while, the abyss looked into him (with apologies to Nietzsche).

Unfortunately? Between the pedestrian acting and low budget, this movie just didn't work. It can't even be bought here in the US of A last I checked. I had to log into the German version of Amazon, fortunately I speak and read German, and order it from there.

BOTTOM LINE The second film comes the closest to capturing the "feel" I expect of a film with D&D in the title.

29 April 2015

Variant Character Classes

My feelings about popular variants changes with my moods and the needs of the campaign but, overall, I simply don't care for them. Many seem invented to fill campaign specific slots while still others are a bit overpowered, taking emphasis in game-play away from cooperation and the party pooling its resources and talents.

Still, I do use them and here are my general guidelines:

Archetypes are the best at what they do. IMC fighters are the best class at dealing and absorbing damage, magic-users are the best class at casting spells and using magic, and so on. So, for example, if you invent a warrior class that exceeds the fighter class in some respect I will add in some disadvantages to off-set this skill.

You can't do it all. Table-top FRPGs are designed around groups of player-characters, each with their own set of skills, working together to solve problems. So your character will be very good at his profession but still have to rely on the others for certain things.

No evil characters. This is not a popular stance these days but I make no apologies. I don't find running a campaign with evil characters such as assassins*, anti-paladins, death masters, demons or half-demons, etc. to be fun. You don't have to be a caricature of the All American Hero or anything like that, but you won't be committing murder, rape, or the like in my game. I put a lot of work into running the campaign and I have to find it fun, too, or it isn't worth my time.

I won't offset a mechanical advantage with a role-playing disadvantage. To go back to my example of a variant fighter? If you are better at sword-fighting than your typical member of the fighter class I'll likely limit your armor wearing ability or perhaps decrease your hit points. What I won't do is limit your ability to have magic-users or clerics in the party because members of your profession "distrust" magic users. Role-playing disadvantages often turn into what my character would do types of arguments. No! Mechanical advantages will be balanced out with mechanical disadvantages.

THE BOTTOM LINE Would any reasonable player wish to play the variant class over the archetype? Does your Blade Master variant class dominate player-character classes, all but replacing stock fighters? Then, in all likelihood, the class is over-powered for the purposes of my campaign. Of course, it should go without saying if the class is meant to replace an archetype (something I've never done) then this is not a consideration.

* Yes, I have assassins in my campaign but they are NPCs, very Lawful, and have a lot of laws and societal expectations built into the specifics of how they are used. 

The Archetypal Character Classes

I use archetype in the sense of a perfect example of something. The term is often used to describe the basic four classes of D&D (or the basic 3 + 1 classes if you've been playing since the beginning).

I don't have a lot of standard variant classes in my campaign. What I mean by standard variant is classes besides the four archetypes (fighter, magic-user, cleric, thief) included in the milieu. Variants, though present, tend to be one-offs based around a character concept by a player.

WHAT DO I INCLUDE? My wood elves are based upon the druid class from Eldritch Wizardry. They are one of 2 main classes of elves that survived the cataclysm that formed the campaign world into it's current state. The wood elves adapted and, to a degree, have continued to participate in the world of man.

I've also rearranged the Gnome class to be a bit different from the Dwarves. In my campaign Gnomes favor gems and jewels over gold and precious metals. They also have a special affinity with burrowing animals. Gnomes also breed superior war ponies in The Shattered Lands, prized both by themselves and the Hobbits. Dwarves also seek these fine steeds but IMC Dwarves and Gnomes are in a state of cold war threatening to go hot at any time. Last of all, Gnomes are the weavers of a mysterious silk cloth (garnrillon) prized by makers of magical clothing (e. g. robe of protection).

I included druid-type elves because I felt these would fit in well with my campaign milieu. Gnomes are included for no more reason than they were included in the TLBBs and I wanted them to be more than merely Dwarves Lite.

IS THAT IT? Assassins, martial artists, witches, and similar niche classes can be found as NPCs. While I'm not averse to having a player be a member of those professions, they are not commonly found adventuring and endure a number of prejudices from society.

Assassins in my campaign take the depiction of assassins in fictional accounts of the Far East such as the Amida Tong and ninja. They are Lawful, almost painfully so, and ill-suited to the adventuring life. These men and women are basically living weapons to be used once then discarded with extreme prejudice.

Martial artists, also called brawlers, are adept at weaponless combat in the finest tradition of Welsh and Greek wrestling. No flashy moves or flying kicks here, these guys are deadly close up but mostly useless in a sword fight. Brawlers are the bouncers in most places that need same in the campaign. Many a burly and over-served Fighter has been humbled by these fellows in the bars of my campaign. There is also a sect of monks, The Children of Ashing, who are mainly dedicated to brewing very good beer but have an enforcement arm of staff-wielding brawlers in the vein of Friar Tuck (et al.).

Witches are the healers and folk magicians of the common folk. They have staunch defenders among the people they serve, but they rarely need protection. First, they are dedicated to promoting weal and doing no harm to any living thing. Second, they have a number of magical abilities that make them dangerous opponents.

SO HOW DO YOU ADD CLASSES? I mostly make the player do the work. One wishing to play a variant class IMC must bring me a work up of the class with level progressions, abilities, saving throws, combat ability, and so on clearly laid out. This can be a photocopy of a published class or their own work. I review it, make any changes I feel make the class a better fit for my milieu and hand it back to the player. If he likes the changes, we're good to go. Otherwise, we repeat the process until we're both happy.

I also like players who taking the option of playing into a certain class. Want to be a knight? Play your Fighter in a knightly way. Want to be an alchemist? Have your magic-user delve into the mysteries of alchemy, seeking out masters of that arcane art. I like rewarding campaign level play and gamers choosing this route are rewarded in proportion to their role-playing ability.

THE BOTTOM LINE I will not guarantee a player the chance to use his or her character and the unusual skills of same. If you want to be a Thief-Acrobat? It's up to you to figure out how to make pole vaulting relevant to your group. Why would an Assassin, normally an NPC class, be adventuring with the player-characters? That's up to you the player to decide and then justify, not the referee.

28 April 2015

If It Ain't Broke

The original 1974 boxed set edition of Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D), in my opinion, begs to be tinkered with. Yes--I know I ended a sentence with a preposition but, since we're all adults here, I just let it all hang out. At any rate, sometimes the need to tinker can overwhelm the simplicity of the rules. Take combat, a common sticking point for a lot of folks. As characters gain in level a lot of the areas gamers feel get overlooked are actually abstracted into the rules.

For example, let us examine the 2 advantages of of higher level player-characters: hit points and better "to hit" numbers in combat. Greater numbers of hit points reflects a lot of factors in a general way as opposed to specific and often complicated sub-rules sets referees tack on. More hit points means a player can stay in the fight longer, outlasting lower level opponents. Anyone trained in the various combat arts can testify winning a fight is often a factor of outlasting your opponent as opposed to landing that perfect kayo. But it could also be considered to reflect a better use of armor (and shield, if applicable), fending off damage that might otherwise place the character hors de combat. 

In like manner, better "to hit" scores abstract increased ability to deal damage, obviously reflecting an increase in skill. Further, hitting more often and finishing an opponent more quickly is also a bonus, in a manner of speaking, to hit points. You don't have to heal or rest-and-restore hit points you've never lost in the first place.

As written, combat reflects reality fairly well. A better equipped and more experienced fighter will defeat a lesser opponent most, but not all, the time. The greater the disparity between the opponents the less likely the weaker shall overcome the stronger. But, there's always a chance. I once had a first-level thief character hold off 5 goblins for several combat rounds until help could arrive. He killed 3 of his enemy and survived the fight, though just barely. 

I'll always agree with the referees right to change whatever rulings he sees fit. But, as Gary advised in an article of the The Dragon long ago, make certain you've played the rules as written and understand why they work as they do before making a lot of changes.

And please, don't open posts about your spectacular rules variant with "my group and I have considered the rules regarding [XYZ] and found them to be stupid and idiotic." Yes, I've seen that very statement made. You've just insulted the myriad players who like that rule the way it is. Geeks being what they are they'll rush to defend rule [XYZ], likely using language similar to yours, and ... voilà ... instant flame war! You've also given us a peek at how close-minded you are. Believe me, nobody looks at a statement like that and thinks to themselves how smart you must be. We know the rules work just fine because we've used them, some of us for decades. Even if we ourselves have changed them to address the specific needs of our campaign.

24 April 2015

He Was A Tall Short Man

I could send 10 friends to Disney World and get 10 descriptions of the place with areas of both commonality and vast difference. I'll lay odds I could send 2 people to Disney World who would spend the entire day together and yet still get 2 pretty different descriptions from them regarding the place. Today's post is inspired by statements from 2 men who both spent time playing D&D with Gary at the time of the original publication of the rules.

One tells in a very matter-of-fact manner of how players naturally evolved into the (so called) end-game of OD&D. Upon reaching name level or soon thereafter, players would naturally gravitate toward building strongholds, establishing realms, and joining the (ahem) game of thrones. This is sometimes accompanied by the rather snide observation of how modern day gamers (kids these days, I swannee) need everything spelled out for them.

The other insists the end-game is but a modern day fabrication of folks over-reading the rules and not making the game their own. Back in the day there was no expectation or even a trend toward building strongholds. Different opinion but, oddly enough, the same mildly condescending tone.

Which is right? Why, both of them, to my way of thinking. Oh, not in the way they look down, however subtly, on how others play the game. But I'm pretty sure both are giving an accurate accounting of how they perceived the game as played. They both sat at the table of the game's co-author. Perhaps not at the same time, but certainly within the general time-frame of one another. And both took away a different experience.

This is one reason I try not to look down upon how others play the game. It's easy to think we've got it all figured out and dispense our wisdom to others struggling to reach our level of familiarity with the rules set. I'm certain this 'blog sometimes gives persons that impression of me, which is why I struggle to keep my postings from sounding exclusionary. They are either my experiences with something from 40 years ago or my opinion expressed humbly. Well, as humbly as a great intellect and humanitarian such as myself can manage! Sorry, couldn't resist that last part.

By the way, the title of this post was taken from a seminar demonstrating the fallibility of eyewitnesses. Even to a recent, as in minutes ago, event.

23 April 2015

Super-Duper Cheater Pants

I've run into the concept, once again, of a referee altering the game to suit his unique vision as cheating. I find this a curious idea. Not that the game can't be cheated in some way, by altering die rolls or character records and such. But, the referee's campaign?

The books themselves encourage tampering with the rules, to wit; making the game your own, why would you have us do your imagining for you, imagine the hell out of it. Or, as put recently by a member of the team who helped form the game itself: those are the fun parts!

It's terse, it may even put off some, but my campaign works the way I say it does. I don't intend that to be rude, I intend that to be a Mission Statement of sorts. You the player are welcome to know all the printed rules as well as anything the common man (were he real) living in my campaign milieu would know. Otherwise? You'll just have to poke it with a stick, wear it, taste it, talk to it, push the button, turn the crank, etc., to figure out what it does.

Likewise for my vision of how the classes and races work. If I decide, for example, Hobbits are mighty magic-users with unlimited progression within that class? That's how it works. There is literally and figuratively no aspect of the game I won't change to suit my campaign.

I recall running a temporary solo campaign game due to lack of players about 20 years ago. After conferring with the player about the game he wanted to play, I allowed him a relatively over-powered player-character. This PC was primarily a fighter with some abilities in both magic spell casting and thievery. As referee, it was incumbent upon me to run a game my sole participant wanted to play. Would I have allowed his PC in a game with more players? Almost surely not ... but this wasn't for a full game table. It was a limited and temporary situation we were both making the best of. Anyway, as I was sharing this information with another gamer a few years afterward, that person became quite indignant and accused me of cheating. Then, as now a few days ago when I read the same charge on a D&D related forum regarding Magic-Users able to wear armor, I just don't get it. I wouldn't run them that way in my campaign but that doesn't mean it's cheating.

OD&D resembles a rules book but it really isn't one in the meaningful sense of the term. It's more a collection of here's how the game might work -- now let your imagination improve upon this idea. Calling OD&D's TLBB "the rules" is akin to calling Lego bricks a toy. Lego is technically a toy, yes, but until you build something out of them there really isn't much entertainment value to be found in the box. And, because of this ephemeral nature of the so-called rules? I find the concept of calling their use as building blocks to a unique vision as cheating to be rather foolish.

19 April 2015

It's Simpler Than That

I once read a statement by a seamstress that a simple black dress was far more difficult to make than a fancy one. The reason being a simple "little black dress" had nothing to cover up any errors. I think this concept holds up to gaming campaigns as well, with referees believing more and more flashier detail will cover the overall poor structure of their campaigns. Note: not saying complicated campaigns are automatically in this class. 

This thought often arises when I read about gamers attempting to explain to newcomers of the OD&D rules set. Referees talk about how simple it is ... then with no trace of irony offer up pages and pages of explanations regarding how to play this simple game.

One explanation I admire about OD&D and how to approach play came from a member of the pre-publication D&D campaigns. Using a warfare analogy, which makes sense considering the backgrounds of the co-authors and beta-testers of the rules, the following concepts were put forth:

  • Fighters are the infantry, the ones bearing the brunt of the fighting.
  • Magic-Users are the artillery, powerful offensively but weak defensively. 
  • Clerics are the support and medical corps.
  • Thieves are recon and scouts, the providers of intelligence.

I like this parallel because it emphasizes salient points. Fighters are the backbone of any army and a good general will tell you no war can be one without infantry (dog-faces, ground pounders, etc.). A successful party will have several well-equipped fighters in it. Magic-Users, like artillery, have a lot of firepower and deal mass damage but are not intended to go toe-to-toe with the bad guys. Clerics are useful in either supporting the front-line fighters or healing (sorry to all the cleric players frustrated with being treated as combat medics, but if the magic boot fits ...). Finally, thieves are adept at reconnoiter and infiltration but should only be fighting as a last resort.

Like any analogy, the comparisons begin to break down with in-depth analysis, but doesn't this explanation just lay it all out in a row for you?  Of course, after using this explanation I would go on to encourage tyros to the game to expand their characters in their own directions. Just as the rules are really guidelines, so is this just a nudge in the direction they may want to go. As a player gets a handle on the rules, these give an indication of how to approach problems presented within the milieu.

17 April 2015

The First New Monsters

If you read my last post carefully you already know this, but the first creature published outside of the original rulebooks was arguably the Mind Flayer. I say arguably because the publication date for the premier issue of The Strategic Review is Spring 1975 and Greyhawk was published in March 1975. At any rate, here are some of the monsters that appeared in the early years of the hobby.

SR 1.1: Mind Flayer. Just Mind Flayer, by the way. The label Illithid didn't show up until the AD&D Monster Manual.

SR 1.2: Roper. Incidentally, the Ranger PC class and the first of what has been jokingly called Gygax's polearm porn appeared in this issue.

SR: 1.3: Yeti, Shambling Mound, Leprechaun, Shrieker, Ghost, Naga, Wind Walker, Piercer, and the Lurker Above. Also included was an article listing some humorous monsters with a satirical bent such as the Droll, Weregamer, and Hippygriff.

SR 1.4: Clay Golem. Greyhawk gave us the flesh, stone, and iron varieties of these monsters. This one rounded out the 4 that went on to be included in AD&D Monster Manual.

SR 1.5: Rakshasa, Slithering Tracker, Trapper. This issue also had the infamous Sturmgeshutz and Sorcery article detailing the battle between fantasy forces and a German armored division.

SR: 2.1: No new monsters. The issue did have the Bard, a new PC class. It was also the first time the 9-point alignment system saw print. Included in this issue was a great deal of errata and corrigenda for Greyhawk which would also be included in later printings of that supplement.

SR 2.2: Catoblepas. Also included was a satirical monster labelled the Denebian Slime Devil.

After issue 2.2, Strategic Review became The Dragon. As one can see, every monster appearing in SR made it into the canon, if not in an OD&D supplement (like the mind flayer) then in AD&D's Monster Manual.

11 April 2015

Well, I'll Be Flayed!

The Original Pre-Psionic Rules Mind Flayer

Quoted without permission from TSR's Strategic Review Vol. 1 Issue 1. The holder of rights to TSR's material does not, in any way, relinquish their rights to this material. It is presented here in the interests of comparison and contrast to how this monster evolved in later editions of the game.

The Mind Flayer:

Number Appearing 1-4
Armor Class 5
Move 12”
Hit Dice 8+3
% in Lair 50%
Treasure F
Magical Resistance 90%

This is a super-intelligent, man-shaped creature with four tentacles by its mouth which it uses to strike its prey. If a tentacle hits it will then penetrate to the brain, draw it forth, and the monster will devour it. It will take one to four turns for the tentacle to reach the brain, at which time the victim is dead. A Mind Flayer will flee if an encounter is going against it. Their major weapon, however, is the Mind Blast, a wave [of] PSI force with a 6" directional range and a radius of 5'. All within the radius must save as indicated or will suffer the result shown: (ranges listed are in inches, I omitted the ["] from the table)

How I Built My First Dungeon

This post is an edited cut-n-paste of an answer I gave an online friend to the question of how I designed my first dungeon.

One problem with commercial modules is they were often tournament modules or very lightly modified versions of same. This gave folks who used them for inspiration a somewhat skewed view of what a dungeon adventure should be like. I've spoken with many referees who felt frustrated their modules didn't look and play like "X" ... whether X was the B2: Keep on the Borderlands or A1-3: Against the Giants. My main inspiration OTOH was from a quote near the beginning of the first volume of rules: [a] huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses. Upon my first reading of the rules all those years ago several things leapt at me: huge, ruined, vast, generations, insane, genius. This, in turn, fed into my philosophy on dungeon design.

Huge, vast ... my dungeon was, looking back on it now, a megadungeon though we didn't use that term at that time. If you've ever played Tékumel you have an idea of what my main dungeon was like. If not, I'll encapsulate. Barker (creator of Tékumel/Empire of the Petal Throne) envisioned a vast underworld complex formed by each succeeding Emperor destroying the existing city and building a new one on top of it as an example of his/her glory. Over many generations these underground ruins became quite complex and containing many disassociated connections between each former city's ruins.

I was also inspired by (of all people) Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion. I read how he would build something on his grounds to support some new hobby, then tear it down when he grew bored with it and found a new interest. I seem to recall a specific example of a slot car track (a big craze back on those days) razed in order to build a shooting range [side note: years after his death I toured Graceland with my wife and children, if you ever have the opportunity you should take it. It will teach you a lot about the American psyche.]

In this manner, I envisioned sprawling areas that might have a binding theme of some sort: monster research, undead study, steampunk machines (inspired by Tolkien's vague descriptions of fell machinery), training, etc. These areas could be completely remodeled new areas or they might be adapted from existing older areas with little or no alteration.

Mad wizard also said to me: equally mad and power hungry apprentices. The best of these might have an entire level for themselves, the less powerful (or more remedial!) of these might have (what is now known as) a sub-level off another level.

I also varied level sizes and shapes. I would tape graph paper together to make larger sheets, or layout levels based on arcane/occult symbols.

As far as planning a level? Naturally I would consider depth, ingress/egress, who occupied the level above and below (or who I tentatively thought might be below). I didn't strenuously strive for realism but I usually included some kind of water and food supply but otherwise? The sky was the limit. After all, the guys who built the place were CRAZY! I could do whatever came into my mind.

At any rate, level 1 was fairly random. Like my players, I was just learning after all ... and I had no one to mentor me beyond the brief example in Volume III of the TLBB. Level 2 and 3, designed as the players explored the first level, were more of the same but I began to develop ideas with that. Humanoid factions, demi-human enclaves, an underground (no pun intended) faction of Lawful human commandos. Finally, the wizard's forces themselves began to appear. They were opposed by an Evil High Priest and her minions who were trying to take over the dungeons for themselves. Various sub-factions of each were scattered around as the overall dungeon began to develop.

Beginning with 4th level, more themed layers began to appear. Level 4 was a town of sorts, with an uneasy peace existing under a tacit truce between all the various groups. Level 5 was a vast laboratory where bizarre creatures were experimented upon. A lot of my homegrown monsters appeared here, as well as monsters from other "realities" including many from literature. When GH came out I had the origins of the owlbear explained IMC as being from here. When Mind Flayers came out in the very first issue of The Strategic Review Issue Spring 1975 Issue 1 Volume 1, I made them the administrators of the lab and their own faction within the dungeon.

To sum up: no overarching theme beyond some kind of bizarre playground of an insane, powerful, and very rich arch-mage. He lived on the bottom level in a city populated by the minions of Chaos. Levels were sometimes themed, sub-levels were usually themed. There were lots of factions in the dungeon, association with one brought enmity with others.

I tried to keep players on their toes by throwing lots of things at them drawn from various sources. Sometimes this was to supplement my own creativity by introducing other lines of thought into my milieu. Sometimes it was laziness or artistic burnout. I tried to maintain the idea of a deadly environment with rare scattered relatively safe spots, mixing in occasional light-hearted and amusing encounters (though I tried not to veer off into slapstick comedy).

09 April 2015

Fringe Participant

I use the concept of matrix and matrices quite often when describing my campaign milieu. Basically it means the rules I've set up for how reality works in my ... errr ... reality. Elves can't be arch-mages, humans can't simultaneously be 2 different classes at once, player-characters can't see in the dark, and so on ad infinitum and ad nauseum. For instance, I don't have cross-breed races IMC such as grizzled half-orc veteran or effete (this word can be typed with one hand) half-elf spell-slinger.

So what do I do when I get some dude or dudette who really wants to play a variant character?  Simple! I allow them to enter the milieu from outside the matrix. I make the prospective player come up with a justification for the variant PC being there. The might include an interdimensional gateway, cursed scroll, very angry deity, magical accident, and so on. If they spin a good enough tale? I allow it.

This requires a bit of adjudication on my part and a dialog with both the incoming player (and variant character) and the existing group. In this way I can keep the established boundaries of my game world while still allowing the players some freedom.

02 April 2015

Well, It's About Surviving ... Outdoors

The Avalon Hill Gaming Company's board game Outdoor Survival (OS) gets a great deal of mention in the OD&D boxed set booklets. More than one person has questioned why, since everything needed to run a wilderness campaign is already in the rule books. The answer is rather simple: you need OS for the map board.

If the party became lost while in the wilderness, the map/board from OS came into play. This is why there are no rules in the OD&D booklets for generating random terrain: there was no need. When the party found its way again, they were moved back to the larger terrain map (Ah, yes! We're 6 miles south of where we ought to be!) and play continued from there. If players moved off the edge of the map while lost, Gary would just have them reenter from the opposite side.

The map really is handy, but with a sheet of hex paper, some map colors, and modicum of imagination you can produce something just as good. There are also a variety of maps for free created for D&D types of games available on the internet.

On a side note, I'd suggest using 6 mile hexagons for your outdoor maps as opposed to the 5 mile hex recommended in the rules. Why? Because character movement rates are generally divisible by 6 not 5. This small change will greatly ease referee burden during overland travel.

Electrum Woman & Dyna Girl!

Electrum is a not-as-beautiful-as-one-might-think alloy of silver and gold. It was listed as an optional coin in the original boxed and, depending on referee choice, was suggested to be worth either half or twice as much as gold (2 electrum to one gold coin, or 2 gold coins to 1 electrum piece). Besides being a rather ugly metal (see graphic below), electrum coins are significant for another reason.

Ever wonder why Experience Points were abbreviated XP rather than EP? According to at least one person around back on those early days, it was because of electrum pieces (EP).

And now you know!

Running Into The Sword

Gary had a habit of summing up gaming experiences into pithy little sayings. One of my favorites was his oft-repeated admonition that while he never set out to TPK (total party kill) if players insisted on running into the outstretched sword he'd certainly allow them to do so. I feel much the same way. Brought on, I suppose, by my wargame experiences in which losses were commonly the result of poor strategy or tactics.

Sometimes, however, the dice just hate you and want to kill you. As referee I've made a habit of rolling in the open so the player can see the dice fall where they may. This is why one uses dice to begin with, after all, to introduce an element of chance (or chaos to my way of thinking!) into the game. So, what do you do when the players do everything right but the player-characters wind up in extremis?

INSTA-CAPTURE! I've mentioned this in a previous post but one house-rule Gygax used and is rarely mentioned elsewhere is the insta-capture (my name, not his). This ruling states a PC successfully grappled by four opponents of a similar size is instantly and automatically successfully overborne and subdued. Thus, if half the party is slain or hors de combat there is no need for a bloodbath. Thag the Orc-King (first of his name, don't you know?) orders Sergeant Grom and his squad of 40 bully-boy Orcs to take the player-characters into custody. Hooting and jeering the Orcs swarm over the adventurers still on their feet and the lot of them are carried off and thrown into the Orc's prison cells. Those smooth-skins will pay, and pay dearly, to get their precious heroes back. The PC's, on the other hand, will have to pay back every gold piece ... with interest! If they don't have the money? Or if the money is in some big city bank? Well, no credit here! This is why spells such as geas and quest exist!

Or maybe 1 or 2 player-characters escape. Upon returning to town (or home base) with nothing but what they managed to carry as they ran away from the fight, they'll have to organize a rescue. This will cause them to lose much face with the locals, you can be sure of that! The one(s) that escaped may be accused of working with the enemy, or of cowardice.

Or perhaps one of the captured player-characters is sent by the Orcs to carry their own ransom demands back to the town. That one is under threat to return within "x" days or one of his fellow adventurers will be beheaded each day of his delay. Of course, upon returning to town the carrier of the ransom demands is thrown into jail while the Captain of the Guard sorts out what happened ... 

BOTTOM LINE There is no need to wipe out a party if they've had a run of bad luck. Now, if they are goofing off and playing poorly, by all means: let the last thing their characters see is the edge of an Orcish scimitar. The insta-capture rule can allow the referee to show a bit of mercy to otherwise good players without flat-out rescuing them by deus ex machina. They players will pay for their bad luck, such is life, but they'll live to fight another day. Of course, Bambi the buxom tavern wench will never look at Boromir the Brave with the same twinkle in her eye again.