Saturday, May 26, 2018

Useful Strange

Over on the Monsters and Manuals blog’s 10 year anniversary post (congrats!), reader Mufn said of McGrogan’s blog:

Your blog is at the heart of what i call the 'Useful Strange' corner of the OSR blogoscene, im glad that you keep chugging away at things.

When asked what other blogs fit that category, the mysterious Mufn replied:
You have the usual suspects of Coin and Scrolls, False Machine, Goblin Punch, Zak, Against the Wicked City, though there are many MANY others as I'm sure you know haha

(Links added for your convenience.)

The central point being that there's an onus on developing strange/weird/new ideas that are mechanically simple enough to slot in almost anywhere with a minimum of fuss.

I’d put Elf Maids & Octopi on that list, as well as Wizard Thief Fighter, Swords & Stitchery, and A Monster Manual Sewn From Pants. Cavegirl's Game Stuff absolutely belongs on this list. I’d love to put Hill Cantons on that list, but it’s been almost a year since the last update (but do go through the older posts for lots of fun weird goodness). Jeff's Gameblog probably belongs on this list, though compared to some of these others he might come across as a bit tame. ;)

Useful Strange is a wonderfully evocative description of a flavor of blogs we are blessed with. Hear’s hoping we see many more and for a long time.

And, of course: which ones did I miss?

EDIT: I oopsed and spelled Mufn's name as "Mfun." Fixed, and added a link to Mufn's blog.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Go and STAHP!

So, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is, as I’m sure you’ve heard, like that Volo’s book but different. Where Volo’s was more “Who are the People in Your Neighborhood,” Mordenkainen’s is a 30,000-foot view of the default multi-dimensional politics of D&D. The first section is the Blood War.

Now, straight up, the Blood War is one of my least favorite bits from Planescape. It’s just not that terribly compelling to me. It’s an endless, eternal war with no real prospect for major movement, forget climax. The way it’s described in Mordenkainen's makes it clear that, should either side actually achieve any serious victory, it could very well cascade into a rolling series of conquests that result in the end of everything, everywhere.

This is perfect if your game is all about the PCs trying to prop up the status quo by running around putting out little fires. To me, it feels way too much like Joss Whedon stomping on your face with the “Reprise” episode of Angel forever. Anyone who scratches at it even a little will see the nihilism-filling under the candy shell. It’s the antithesis of everything in Rients’ Broodmother Sky Fortress. If your idea of a good time is unleashing the PCs on your poor, unsuspecting worlds and watching them actually change things and knock stuff over or build their own stuff, the Blood War could serve as the outer bounds of that sandbox, but it threatens to become a wet blanket to smother the whole thing.

Even worse, it takes WotC something like 2,000 words to basically say that the demons and devils are engaged in near-constant warfare on the banks of the river Styx, primarily where it flows into the first layer of the Hells. The war is trapped in a deadlock where vast hordes of ravening demons smash against the highly organized and disciplined defenses of the devils. Both sides scour the multiverse for a way to break the impasse, thus creating all manner of opportunities for PCs to thwart cults, treasure-hunters, etc.

That up there is less than 100 words and gives you just about everything in the 2,000 words from the book. Paying writers by the word is a sickness that needs to be stamped out.

Now, we do get some fun stuff on demonic and devilish cults, the big personalities of the Hells (which is new for 5e) and the Abyss (which is largely lifted from the Out of the Abyss adventure) as well as fun random tables for creating cults and the like. Lots of useful stuff here for DMs, especially if you’re running a sort of PC-Inquisitors-vs.-Cults-of-Evil campaign. There are ways to customize cambions based on who their otherworldly parent was. We also get some tiefling sub-races based on the heavy-hitters from the Hells. Alas, there’s nothing in there about Abyssal tieflings. Boo!

The section on elves is probably the most useful for players. It’s nearly 30 pages long and gives us what may be the most Tolkien-esque version of D&D elves to date. It’s laced through with that melancholy sense of doom, this time cast as family drama, with the elves eternally longing for the acknowledgement and acceptance of a father who never really wanted them and can’t set aside his jealousy long enough to forgive them for wanting something he had no interest in giving them or helping them acquire. (Seriously, everyone comes out of this looking like self-centered jerks.) We get a nice big elven pantheon, and then we get new elven subraces, including sea elves, shadar-kai, and yet another version of the eladrin (this one kinda being four sub-races in one, as your eladrin character can shift between four seasonal versions depending on their general mood that day).

This is followed by shorter sections on the dwarves (including the duergar subrace), the giths (including playable versions of both gith-kind and an excuse for gith of both kinds to cooperate temporarily), and finally a section on halflings and gnomes (including rules for the sverfneblin sub-race).

This stuff could be nifty-keen if:

  1. Your DM reads this stuff and agrees that it describes how it works in your campaign, and…
  2. Your players read this stuff and incorporate it into how they play their characters.

The shortest of these sections is 12 pages long. There was a time when I would have read these entries with the obsessive eye for detail of a medieval scholastic. But that was junior high, and I was weird. For most of us, we might incorporate some of the sub-races listed here, as well as some of the fun random tables. Otherwise, there’s a lot of stuff that you might read once and then promptly forget.

In spite of all that, if you’re a DM, you want this book. Why? Because it has some of the best monsters ever officially produced for the game. The very first monster, the allip, is what happens to a scholar who learns cursed knowledge. The only way to escape the curse is to basically infect another scholar with a manic episode in which they scribble out all manner of nonsense that also includes the secret that cursed you. Flip the page (past the Astral Dreadnaught) and you find the balhannoth, a teleporting tentacle monster that uses illusions of your deepest desire to lure you into its traps. There’s the boneclaw, the result of a botched attempt to transform into a lich and which bonds with someone with “an unusually hate-filled heart.” They might not even realize they now have a talon-fingered undead slave eager to fulfill their most blood-curdling revenge fantasies, resulting in all manner of Carrie-esque hijinks. The cadaver collector is an automaton that spears corpses on itself and then raises the spirits of those corpses as specters in combat, which alas is mildly overshadowed by the more versatile corpse flower which kills you before adding you to the flower-like arrangement of corpses in its tangles, which it later uses to power its magical abilities.

And that’s just the first handful of pages from the bestiary. It doesn’t include the various sorts of deathlock, warlocks who have gravely offended their patrons and paid the price, or the alkilith, demonic fungus that grows in broken windows and open doorways, transforming them into portals to the Abyss. We also get the duergar hammer and screamer, mining machines with punished duergar strapped inside, which feed on the pain of their tortured occupants. There are the very Harryhausen eidolons, guardian spirits that animate sacred statues. There are the elder elemental kaiju, and the trapped-in-armor elemental mamluk myrmidons. We get horror-movie-esque baddies like the giant nightwalker and the body-snatching oblex. We get wargamey ogre variants: battering-ram, bolt-launcher, and howdah. We get some interesting variations on old favorites. The retriever is now a drowish automaton that scours the Demonweb for demons to enslave. Grue are now a version of the star spawn, cthulhuish monsters analogous to demons or fey. The grey render is the very embodiment of Kiel’s “Good Boys.”

Alas, the failings of the first part of the book do intrude in the bestiary. This shows up most strongly in the devil and demon entries, most of which read like units for a wargame. Still, there’s a ton of fun stuff for DMs in the monster section. If you’re a player, you can probably give this book a pass, especially if your DM uses bespoke settings and will allow you to use the Unearthed Arcana versions of the sub-races in this book.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Back to B2

Lady-love wanted to play some D&D this weekend, something quick and dirty without much prep. So she rolled up a gnome wizard botanist/inventor and I dusted off good ol' B2: Keep on the Borderlands.

I don’t remember the last time I ran this module. It was absolutely back in the 20th century. Shock and surprise: it holds up really, really well. I considered giving it an early Iron Age feel but didn’t pull the trigger on that; might still, but might not, also.

The opportunities for RP are excellent. Our PC fell in with a certain visiting priest and his two acolytes; if you know the adventure you know the fellow I’m talking about. Plot-balls are already rolling nicely.

The adventure badly needs a set of player maps. Of course the first thing PCs with access to the sleep spell are going to do is capture some goblins and interrogate them. It could also benefit from some NPCs or NPC generators. But maybe not; I’ve got access to so many of the things they’re hardly necessary.

The bare-bones structure also creates minor issues. The Caves of Chaos are insanely close to the Keep; even with my saying the CoC crew plans to take over the Keep and move in, the distance is frightfully small. There are some questions about the diets of the monsters, where they came from, how the location calls out to them, but if you’re a halfway decent DM that’s just opportunities for world-building. Ditto with the lack of names and interior details.

All-in-all, I’m really happy with how it runs even after all these years. We’re using 5e and not having a hard time at all with the conversion. Once again I’m tempted to run an old-school game with Moldvay/Cook built on old published adventures. Maybe if we find a group after the upcoming move.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Down-time Ding!

I recently dropped GP-for-EXP in one of my 5e games. It works great until about level 5. At that point, on a 1-for-1 basis, it starts getting silly. 6th level requires 14,000 EXP. I was saying PCs get 1 EXP for each gold piece they spent, and they could spend it on anything they wished. Unfortunately, 14,000 gp is insane. That’s individual, not total, so if four players pooled that kind of cash (56,000 gp) they could buy two warships, five longships, 50 spyglasses, 140 warhorses, 280 elephants, 1,000 camels, or 746 hand crossbows. Which would be great if the PCs were trying to start the world’s biggest circus or bankroll a small war. But keep in mind that this is only going from 5th to 6th level. Each character going from 9th to 10th level would need to spend 64,000 EXP, so its more than each of the things listed above before they’d pool their money.

Now, it’s entirely possible to organize a game to work with these sorts of numbers. According to the DMG, 5th through 10th level play is described as “Heroes of the Realm” tier play, so you could totally have the PCs involved in political shenanigans that would warrant those sorts of expenses: outfitting mercenary forces to supplement their liege lord’s border defenses against a rampaging orc horde, for instance, or an expeditionary force to a distant and exotic locale. From 11th to 16th level (“Masters of the Realm”) the PCs could be funding their own colonies on the edge of the wilderness old-school style and paying the upkeep on their own personal armies. And that’s a fun way to play, and fit our expectations of the game back in ‘80s. So yes, I think 1 EXP earned for each gold piece spent can work. But it does require the campaign to scale up sharply as the PCs level up.

Unfortunately, the campaign in question was a far more intimate thing, dealing with the politicking of neighborhoods and guilds. Granted, this was in a massive city, and reading about the history of the Roman Republic (Amazon Associates link) has given me some ideas on how the gold could have been spent to further that sort of play. In fact, studying this more closely I’m now kinda jonesing to run a game with that sort of structure. But that’s not how things were set up for this particular campaign, or how we’ve been playing the game. So it’s gone off the rails and I now reward levels on a completely subjective basis.

So yeah: new ideas for a new campaign. What’s new, right? 😉 But alternatively, I’ve also been tinkering with an alternative leveling-up system that would keep things on the small and intimate side. This system would allow the PCs to level up whenever they wanted (and could afford) to take the time. It would work like this:

Whenever the players wanted to level up their PCs, the PCs would have to spend at least one week preparing for and then actively studying/praying/communing with totems/etc. They would need to spend their normal costs-of-living amounts (bottom of page 157 in the PHB) plus 20 gp per level they wished to attain (so 100 gp to go from 4th to 5th level) per week. At the end of that week the player would roll a d20. If they rolled 20 or higher, the character leveled up.
If this isn’t the first time they’d spent a week trying to gain this level, they get to add +1 to the roll. For each two contiguous weeks they spend, they add another +1 (so spending four weeks in a row to gain a level gets you +2 on the roll). They might also get additional bonuses for having a mentor who is at least the level they wish to attain, special materials or the like.

Players can attempt to level-up their characters anytime they have the cash and time to do so. However, they must be in a relatively safe and civilized place, somewhere where they are not actively adventuring or traveling. Small, short events don't interrupt this training (getting mugged, attending a ball, rescuing kittens from trees), but being forced to travel more than six miles in a single day or spend most of a day in life-or-death situations (that isn't the training) will ruin it. Also, each week must be seven contiguous days of studying; it can't be broken up. Once the have leveled up, they can’t do so again for at least twelve weeks.

This sort of scheme absolutely demands down-time. If you run the sort of campaign where it’s a cliffhanger every week and players hop from crises-to-crises, this ain’t the leveling-up system for you. However, if you love slice-of-life sort of play, where you can actually delve into what else is happening during that down time (politics at the cleric’s temple, rivalries with warlock’s patron’s other warlocks, etc.) you can have a lot of fun with this sort of thing. If you want to slow things down and enjoy the scenery more, this is probably a good fit for your campaign.

The big caveat here, however, is with the random rolling it’s entirely possible you’ll end up with characters spread across levels, with high-rollers two or three or more levels advanced from the unlucky. You can absolutely weight things for those who’ve rolled poorly by offering them resources to help out. It might also make sense to extend the length of time that has to pass between a successful leveling-up and the next attempt in order to slow down the lucky. Or you can dictate that a character automatically succeeds if another PC is at least two levels higher than them.