Saturday, February 28, 2009

Villa of the Poyma


I'm hoping that clicking on the image above will allow you to get a larger version that's actually legible. Yeah, it's ugly, a hand-drawn map scanned and edited with my meager Photoshop skills. I'm certainly not using it to advertise my capabilities as a cartographer. ;p

This is the Villa of the Poyma, an ancient elven clan. The building's been abandoned for over 700 years now, with intermittent habitation by orcs and goblins. Otherwise, it's become the home of various less-than-sentient monsters, including rats in the storeroom (bottom southwest corner), bats in the armoury (just east of the barracks, the little room with the secret connecting passage), a pair of tarantella (tarantellas? tarantelli?), and mystery creatures that are buzzing very loudly in the unexplored area east of the kitchen.

Ugly as the map is, it's a good example of my design philosophy for dungeons. This place was built to be lived in, not as a challenge for adventurers. It was a functioning home and center of operations for an influential family who were leaders in their community. The single entrance in the western wall brings you into an audience garden, where the matriarch of the family or her stand-in would greet clients, debtors, and petitioners on a regular basis. Many of these would bring gifts or payments, usually in the form of goods the household needed. So a farming family might bring milk from their cow every morning as part of the tuition they owed the family for a son attending the family school. Non-perishables would be kept in the storeroom directly south of the garden. Just north of the garden are the stables, where the riding beasts were housed. The large doors in the eastern wall of the garden open directly into the great hall, where the family would hold parties and feasts. The kitchen is directly south of the great hall and east of the storeroom, convenient to both.

You can see how this style of designing makes it easy to fill up your graph paper. One area flows naturally into the next, because lived-in locations have their own logic. It's a great way to get started if you find a blank page daunting. If you know who built a place and why, you can then begin to shape it based on those assumptions. Later inhabitants will then move in and put their own mark on the place. You can build a ruin in layers like this.

This particular villa was also built in zones. The western-most rooms are all about coming and going: audience garden, stables, and warehouse. North of the great hall are the barracks and "sand garden" (for sparring and training) of the guards/mercenaries. The small room with the secret door to the east of the barracks was their armoury. The secret passage allowed the guards to get quickly to the matriarch's chambers, and also allowed her to get inside the armoury and lock it from the inside if she feared mutiny. The southern portion of the map was the servants and slaves territory, including the kitchen and storeroom. I doubt I'm giving too much away when I say that the rooms beneath the "fog of war" were more barracks and workrooms for the family's slaves. Finally, the eastern portions of the map were the private areas enjoyed by the family. Knowing all this helps when coming up with descriptions. The finest furnishings and fixtures are found in the family's dwelling rooms, while the rudest and most utilitarian are found in the slave quarters.

After I knew how the Poyma used and lived in the villa, I could then add the layers of years since they fled: orcish graffiti gouged into the pear tree in the audience garden, the detritus of the goblin spider-hunters' camp in the old guard barracks, the wounded carvings and doors where gems and gilding have been plundered.

There are a few old school touches here and there. For instance, while the villa has only one "official" entrance, the first room that entrance opens into offers multiple paths for exploration. The entire place is a bit of a circle, and after exploring for a bit, the players can then pick-and-choose which challenges they feel up to tackling.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Playing with Witches

Here's a new character class for my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack. It grew from some stuff that came out of a long-running one-on-one game that recently went on indefinite hiatus, work I've been doing on the campaign background for my Thursday game, and inspiration I've been picking up from various parts of the web.

Clerics have always felt like an odd fit in D&D. As proto-Christians, they work ok, but that opens up a whole nasty can of worms about how the Christian pantheon operates and where the powers come from and so on and so forth. I'm rarely comfortable tackling that sort of thing. Plus, Christianity fits poorly into my games, and would really throw my Iron Age Thursday game out of whack. 2e clerics kinda sorta got close. They, at least, acknowledged that clerics of Poseidon probably shouldn't wield the same powers as a cleric of Thor. But that threatened the cleric's role as healer in the party, and it was very easy for the inexperienced to create gimped clerics.

For my Thursday game, I embraced the D&D cleric because I really, really didn't want to try to create an entirely new class, nor did I want to fold the cleric spells under the magic-user's domain. I was tempted my Mr. Maliszewski's idea that clerical magic sprang from the same source as magic-user magic, only approached from a different angle. However, since I wanted my gods to be walking the world and rubbing elbows with mere mortals, I took another tack. I decided that clerical magic was a byproduct of the existence of the titans and the gods, and their relationship with mortals. It's the odd and complex magical nature of these relationships that dictate the no-edged-weapons rule and the nature of the powers that clerics get.

The Eldest, however, are different from the titans and gods. They really are separated from mortal existence. They are emanations of creation itself, and while they have physical manifestations in the the plane the campaign started in, their existence also manifests on every plane and reality (though not always in recognizable forms).

The source of all of this, and everything else for that matter, is the Mother. Among mortals, there are those who attempt to commune with Her, to make the most of being a part of Her, and to see creation from Her perspective. They attempt to see beyond the dichotomized world to a universal truth beyond, the central truth that unifies all of existence. There are many names for these folk, but most call them witches.

Central to learning the ways of the witch is a union with the Mother, the universal feminine. Because of this, nearly all witches are women. Any man who wishes to become a witch must abandon his masculinity. These males must either be magically transformed into women or castrated. Regardless of the process, they then adopt the clothing, behavior, and rituals of women in their culture.

Witches seek to recognize the Mother in all things and all people. They search for the interconnectedness in all things, and then seek to teach this knowledge to others. Most witches live within a community where they serve as natural philosophers, teachers, advisers, herbalists, healers, and midwives.

The prime requisites for a witch are Wisdom and Charisma. If a witch has a score of 13 or greater in both stats, the character will gain a 5% bonus on earned experience points. If a witch's Wisdom is 13 or greater and her Charisma at least 16, she gains a 10% bonus on earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Witches use six-sided dice (d6) to determine their hit points and use the cleric's saving throws. They must be Neutral in alignment. They may use any weapons or armour, but may not use any that are made of iron. Yes, bronze is fine and yes, this probably means I need to better define the drawbacks of bronze. Witches use the same attack tables as clerics. They have their own spell list which they draw spells from, and they may use any magic item normally reserved for magic-users and clerics, including scrolls.

HERBALISM & HEALING: In seeking the interconnectedness of all things, most witches begin by studying the natural world. A witch may use her skills as an herbalist and healer to aid others. Those under the care of a witch regain hit points through rest and other natural means at twice the normal rate. Those convalescing or suffering from a disease recover at twice the normal rate.

Any character inflicted with a poison or a disease who does not die outright can be aided by a witch. The witch will need at least one uninterrupted round to treat the inflicted character (which means both will have to be standing still without someone trying to hit them with weapons or malicious spells). The character then gets to make a second saving throw, adding the witch's Wisdom-based saving throw adjustment to the roll. If this roll also fails, the witch may try again, but only after she has an uninterrupted minute to work on the inflicted. (Keep in mind that rounds in my game last only 10 seconds.) A third saving throw is rolled, again adjusted by the witch's Wisdom. Success on any of these saving throws means the inflicted no longer suffers from the effects of the disease or poison, though any lost hit points or modified stats must be recovered in the normal ways.

If the witch knows exactly what sort of poison or disease might be threatening a character, she may attempt to inoculate them ahead of time. This requires the witch to work uninterrupted for at least one hour to prepare her potions, but allows the character to add the witch's Wisdom-based saving throw bonus to saving throws against this particular poison or disease over the next 24 hours. Only one such inoculation per character is allowed in any 24 hour period.

In order for a witch to do any of these things, she needs access to a supply of herbs and minerals, water, and some common cooking tools (fire, pot, knives, etc.). It can be assumed that a witch in the wilderness is constantly resupplying her stash of herbs and minerals. However, DMs may rule that this is impossible in especially barren or alien environments.

FAMILIAR: A witch may summon a familiar if she doesn't already have one. This requires a full 24 hours of preparation and ritual. Any non-sentient creature possessing fewer hit dice than the witch may be summoned. The type of creature who answers the summons should be determined randomly by the DM. The witch and her familiar share a powerful mental bond. The witch can experience the world through the familiar's senses if the familiar is within one mile per level of the witch. The familiar will obey any command it is mentally given by the witch, even self-destructive commands. However, should a witch's familiar die, the witch will lose one level or, if the witch is first level, she must save vs. Poison or die herself.

SPELLS: A witch gains spells in the same manner as a cleric, automatically gaining access to all spells at each level. While she can cast spells if her hands are full, such as when holding weapons or a shield, she may not cast if her hands are bound or if she cannot speak. Witches draw their spells from the following list:

1.Detect Magic
3.Pass Without Trace
4. Predict Weather
5. Purify Water
6. Speak with Animals

1.Charm Person or Mammal
2.Create Water
3.Cure Light Wounds
4. Feign Death
5. Locate Animals and Plants
6. Obscurement

3rd Level
1.Cure Disease
2.Neutralize Poison
3.Plant Growth
4. Protection from Fire
5. Stone Shape
6. Water Breathing

4th Level
1.Animal Summoning I
2.Cure Serious Wounds
3.Dispel Magic
4. Protection from Lightning
5. Repel Insects
6. Speak with Plants

5th Level
1.Animal Growth
2.Animal Summoning II
3.Commune with Nature
4. Control Winds
5. Insect Plague
6. Transmute Rock to Mud

6th Level
1.Animal Summoning III
3.Conjure Elemental
4. Control Weather
5. Cure Serious Wounds
6. Wall of Thorns

(Those of you with really good memories or active 1e campaigns may recognize the above spells as coming from the 1e druid's list. They seemed a good match for what I was going for, and most won't require any serious tweaking.)


I'm fairly happy with the way this turned out. It's not quite the druid, and it's certainly not the cleric. Level advancement is a bit slower than the cleric, but I think the ability to use magic wands and staves and magic-user scrolls more than makes up for that.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Little Blogging, and a Preview

Wednesday is going to be extremely busy for me, and I'll likely be tied up with workaday matters until the late evening. Blogging will be light, if it happens at all.

Late Wednesday or early Thursday I'm hoping to post a new character class for my Moldvay/Cook/LL hack based on the information of the Eldest. The witch (tentative name, but the best I've come up with) is kinda-sorta a cleric to the Eldest, combining the roles of herbalist, natural philosopher, midwife, and village wisewoman. I may also post parts of the dungeon I'm using in my Thursday game. (And yes, Oddysey, I will get you those scans of the portions you've explored so far before we play Thursday night. My apologies for being slow on that.)

And after that, hopefully I'll finish my series on mapping Pitsh. With luck, that should take me through the weekend.

Monday, February 23, 2009

My Top 10 D&D Monsters

A number of bloggers have been having fun with these, and I'm pretty worn out after a bit of a rough day, so something light and fun seems to be appropriate to end the evening with.

10 - Tarantella from Moldvay's Basic
A horrible pun, but a fun monster. If it bites you and you fail your save vs. poison, you start a spastic dance that could wear you out and leave you helpless. Even worse, anyone who watches you dance must save vs. spells or start dancing too! Came about as close as we got to a TPK last Thursday thanks to one of these.

9 - Drow from Fiend Folio
Effete sadomasochistic hedonists. What's not to like? Got the next best thing to a TPK with these on my old college group. Luckily for them, the poison the drow use only puts you to sleep. Unluckily for them, Lolth needed some sacrificial victims to try out a new version of her drider test.

Oh, and drow have nothing whatsoever to do with comments on race relations in modern America, veiled or otherwise. The drow are jet black because Elric of Melnibone was an albino. (And no, I can't quote chapter and verse on that from anything Gary ever wrote, but it seems pretty obvious to me.)

8 - Aboleth from Monster Manual II

Some of my players are going to be shocked the aboleth rate so far back. They are my favorite big scary monsters: alien, inscrutable, and possessing some very nasty attacks. Plus, they live so deep down and underwater that they're nearly as hard to find and reach as they are to understand.

7- Kuo-toa from Fiend Folio

I loved the anthropological detail these guys were described with. They've got a wonderful mix of Cthulhic and Mayan influences that just fires my imagination. When I was told that the name of their goddess, Blibdoolpoolp, was an onomatopoeia for the sound of a drop of water falling into a pool in an echoing cave, that just made them all the cooler.

The classic module Shrine of the Kuo-toa is a wonderfully open-ended adventure. If the PCs play their cards right, and learn the rituals of the kuo-toans, they might make it through the entire shrine without ever having to draw their weapons in anger. Very cool stuff in my book.

6 - Lamia from Monster Manual

I once got a vision of one of these with a tiger's body wearing heavy anklets around its paws and it fired my imagination. I created male versions and had them living in tribes where an alpha male lorded it over beta males who tended to the kittens and the camp while the females hunted and competed for the alpha's attentions.

5 - Graz'zt from Monster Manual II

A favorite villain of mine. Suave, sophisticated, utterly ruthless but always with an eye over his shoulder because if he ever stumbles Orcus and Demogorgon will be all over him like ducks on a junebug.

4 - Gnolls from Moldvay's Basic

I think it was in Moldvay's Basic that the gnolls were first described as hyena men. Hyenas have very unusual social dynamics, and certain unpredictable savagery that really clicks with my imagination. I had fun crafting a culture for them based on these ideas.

3 - Tiamat from Monster Manual

My love affair with Tiamat started with the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. That led me to the mythological Tiamat. In high school, I chunked the lawful evil version, made her chaotic and somewhat capricious. Happy to use the PCs towards her own ends, she's treacherous and sly, and always looking for the double-cross. She has a lot of respect for powerful or sly opponents, and a love-hate relationship with Baphomet.

2 - Succubus from Monster Manual

Yeah, well, ok, looking beyond the fact that I was an early teen when I got that book and the art is, um, well... Yeah...

Ahem, anyway, succubi make wonderful hidden villains. Everything points to the baron being a the source of all evil, and the PCs tool up to take him down, hardly paying any attention to the sweet, freckle-faced slavegirl at his feet. Until, of course, it's too late, and she's gating in Demogorgon who wants to have a word with these uppity mortals who seem intent on ruining his plans...

1 - Trolls but only kinda sort inspired by the D&D version

Well, duh! I mean, look at the name of this blog, and it should be obvious. ;)

Seriously, I've loved trolls since before I knew there was such a thing as RPGs. I'm rather fond of the cow-tailed versions from northern Europe especially. My trolls are creatures of fey, keepers of chthonic wisdom and guardians of not just bridges, but any place of transition, where worlds meet and realities cross. But I mostly still use the stats from monster lists. I just change how the trolls react to the PCs, and what the PCs can hope to gain from meeting a troll. That sort of change is easy and potent, and can transform any monster into something special and unique to your campaign.

The four elemental genie races deserve special mention here as well. I love playing with them and their rivalries, and the djinn and efreet usually make some sort of appearance in my games. Traveling to the cities of the elemental planes makes a nice change of pace from dungeons and wilderness areas, and gives the players new cultures to explore in a setting where combat is extremely dangerous but for the most advanced parties.

Little Treasures, Huge Imagination

Don't linger, click over to pick up Taichara's latest gift to the gaming world: a collection of wonderfully described works of art fitting for the richest treasure hoard. They run the gamut from tasteful and understated ("A finger-ring of translucent, deep green jade, carved to resemble a twisting vine of ivy") to the splendorous barbaric ("A sword scabbard of thin wood overlain with the spotted pelt of a great cat, with fittings of granulated gold and the cat's tail hanging freely from the scabbard's lip") to the just plain bizarre ("An ornate reliquary of cedar overlaid with ivory and ebony marquetry; inside, on an undyed velvet cushion, is a skeletal finger tipped with a long curved claw"). Some just make me bop my own head and ask, "Why didn't I think of that?" (I'm most particularly thinking of fabric spun from the feathers of peacocks. Peacocks figured prominently in my last 2e game, and this cloth would be an amazing shimmer of iridescence.)

It's a downloadable .pdf file, so be sure you get it ASAP. The items are completely stat and rule free, so they can be used with just about any RPG you can imagine, from traditional Tolkienesque fantasy to decadent space opera to pulpy archeology-adventure.

I'm a CISP!

Or a CISPO if you adhere to the Zak S. addendum. Find out what you are with Noism's Playstyle Categorizer.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Eldest

This is a bit of background for my Thursday night game. It has very little bearing on the current adventure at hand, just in case any of my players were wondering. I'm mostly posting this to offer a bit of additional mythology and to explain some of the curses and exclamations used by the coarser NPCs. It's also a bit of background for a new class I'm contemplating for my LL game.

The Eldest are, as the name implies, the oldest creatures in existence. They are the most primal forces in creation, and as such, their influence in all things is powerful, but sometimes very subtle. Their exact relationships are not always clear, and there's much debate on just which beings are Eldest and which are titans. Tiamat, for instance, is called an Eldest by some and a titan by others. I include her here, because I prefer it that way, though many wiser than I certainly disagree.

The first name given is the most common used and the second name is the Common version of that name (almost always derived almost directly from the tongue of the Lizardfolk). The third name refers to the celestial body associated with the eldest.

The Mother, Kohma, the Sun
The Mother is the eldest of the Eldest, and existed before creation. She is the source of creation and all that lives. Some traditions say she gave birth to all creation, others say that she fashioned it of herself, and other say she is herself all creation. Most traditions agree that she is the primal source of all that is, in every Plane and every world.

The Earth, Wakax
The Mother's second son and believed to be her favorite until he angered her. Most traditions say that the Mother lusted after her second son, but that he spurned her advances. In anger, the Mother called upon the Planes of Earth and Fire and bound her son securely in place, a torment and a prison until such time as she chooses to forgive him. This imprisoned Eldest is the world upon which our adventures begin.

The Ocean, Ukot
The Mother's first daughter. When the Mother bound her son with Earth and Fire, she then bound her first daughter to him with Air and Water. Exactly why is a matter of debate. Some say that Earth spurned his mother because he was in love with Ocean, and that the Mother punished her out of jealousy. Others maintain that Ocean chose to be bound to Earth out of love, though whether that love was romantic or filial is also a matter of dispute. Most traditions maintain that she also has feelings for the Silver Moon and strains at her bonds to be with him. All the fish of the plants, fish of the sea, beasts of the earth, humans, lizardfolk, dwarves, and all else that is mortal but is not a monster are said to be the children of Ocean and Earth.

The Huntsman, Kinsik, the Silver Moon
The Mother's first son. The Silver Moon is called the Hunter, Huntsman, and the Gatekeeper. He has authority over all transitions, portals, and transformations, and thus is seen as a potent and powerful force in creation. The stars are said to be his daughters, sired upon the Mother. Of all the eldest, he is probably invoked and propitiated by mortals the most.

Tiamat, the Mother of Monsters, Prisoner of the Red Moon

Tiamat is a wild and dangerous creature, but also very much a mystery. Most agree that she was born of the Mother, but there's a lot of debate as to who her father was, assuming she even had one. It's believed the first dragons were sired on her by the Huntsman, and that she raped the Earth to give birth to the first monsters. She claims credit as the source of most of the monsters that plague the world, including orcs, goblins, hydra, seaserpents, basilisks, and slimes. All wise agree, however, that she is not responsible for the undead.

Near the end of the century-long Third War Against the Monsters, it is said that Tiamat flew into a rage and personally attacked a number of elven cities, leaving nothing but smoking craters and melted ruins in her wake, and leaving hideous scars upon the flesh of Earth. The titans and gods, terrified that Tiamat might accidentally slay or even free Earth, subdued her and created the Red Moon to imprison her in. Most believe, and the gnomes maintain, that the gnomes came from the feylands in order to help heal Earth of the wounds Tiamat inflicted upon him.

Tiamat is a very ambiguous figure. While she is seen as the source of bloodthirst and rage, she's also the wellspring of mortal fertility. It is said that she was imprisoned and not slain because, if Tiamat were to die, no plant would ever flower again and no babes of any animal or race would ever again be born. Tiamat is the second most invoked Eldest, but always with caution. Among the lizardfolk and those humans who have not adopted the ways of the gods, it is still customary for a woman to serve at least a week as a hierodule in Tiamat's temple before taking a husband.

Stupi Educated NPC Tricks

To say that I'm overjoyed by Oddysey's reaction to last Thursday's game would be an understatement. What DM wouldn't be? The thrill of exploring the unknown, of daring its challenges and emerging (mostly) intact is very much at the core of most D&D, whatever the edition. Or, at least, that's the way it's always been for me.

What follows was already discussed in the game or emails, so my players should feel free to read on if they wish. No spoilers here, though a few more details are fleshed out.

The group is currently on the trail of some murderous elves. That trail has led them to the villa of the Poyma family, on the outskirts of the ruined elven city of Krybol. The city and villa were abandoned hastily at the beginning of the Third War Against the Monsters. It was occupied briefly by an orcish army. Being far from the coast, however, it was ill suited to the plans of the nagpa who led their armies to the coast where great barges were constructed to carry the armies of Tiamat across the Turquoise Sea.

Krybol didn't figure much in the rest of the war. Even when the combined armies of the elves, lizardfolk, gods, and titans besieged the island in the closing months of the war, Krybol was mostly ignored. In the intervening 700 or so years, it's been the haunt of this or that tribe of humanoids. Most lately, a tribe of orcs called it home, but these were driven out by an army of human mercenaries and freebooters, financed and led by priests of Uban, eager to plunder the city of its mysteries, and willing to let their army plunder whatever gold or jewels they might find.

Back in its heyday, Krybol was a distant outpost of the Elven Empire, a refuge for free thinkers, deviant artists, and those who sought to revolutionize the mystical and natural sciences. The Poyma were a powerful family in the city. They exercised influence over the Tower of Stars, a center for research and learning. They were also rather wealthy, and loaned money to those they felt worthy of credit, or who would give them additional influence in the community. The villa was the seat of their power, and was designed to be a display of their wealth and influence, an administrative center for their political and financial dealings, and a fortress in time of need.

Which is all well and good, and certainly was a big help when it came to designing the layout of the villa. But handing your players a giant chunk of exposition before or after a game is hardly the way to put everyone in that adventuring frame of mind. Even George Lucas was pushing it with those long crawls at the beginning of the Star Wars movies. In the early days of B sci-fi movies, exposition would be handled by one character turning to another and starting a long speech with the phrase, “As you already know...” This has since been deemed unbearably clunky, and writers have found more elegant ways to handle exposition. In Dr. Who, for example, the Doctor's companion, who generally knows less about the universe than the Doctor, can always ask for the audience, “Hey, what is this giant slime monster chewing on my leg?” Later, shows like Star Trek and Stargate: SG1 would have the commander of the team ask the science expert to explain what it was they were encountering.

This latter was the tack I chose, made easier when Rukmini decided to hire a retainer and specifically set out to find a cleric of Uban. The one she got was something of an expert on the elves that settled on Dreng Bdan. So when they found the villa, he was able to fill in these details as they encountered things or questions were asked:

Rukmini: I go over to the door to the east. What's it look like?

Trollsmyth: Nicer than the rest. You think it once held some gilding and carvings of winged serpents, but somebody defaced the carvings when they pried off the gilding. Still, 700 years isn't good for any wooden door, and this one is in pretty bad shape like the others.

Rukmini: I push it open. "Navan, why are there snakes all over the doors? Is that an elf thing, or something specific to this family?"

Trollsmyth: "Both, I think. In elven myth, snakes were said to slither between worlds, and to dance between our world and the Elemental Planes. The shrike was on the family coat-of-arms, but it was the serpent that later generations adopted as their totem, because of that myth." The room beyond appears to have once been a comfortable sitting room...

This gives the players who enjoy exploration a whole new level of mystery to pick at. Not only do they get to explore the physical rooms and corridors of the dungeon, but also the temporal dimensions as well, the many layers of history that happened to the location. A DM can use this information to hint at where the PCs are more likely to find whatever goal they seek, or warn them of dangers they might face elsewhere in the dungeon.

And, if you're a history/anthropology/archeology nerd like me, it allows you to wallow in all that “useless” information you've got crammed between your ears. ;)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Role-playing with Rules

Over at “The Fine Art of the TPK” (listed on my blogroll as “All Your Dungeons are Belong to Us” because I keep forgetting to change the name) Donny asks for a definition of role-playing:

Specifically, I'd like to know how or why one game would have it in any more or less abundance than any other.

It's an interesting spin on the old question, and completely legitimate. Sure, some would say that role-playing is just taking on the part of a character and playing out that character's actions in a hypothetical situation, and thus the rules themselves don't matter. You could, theoretically, role-play Monopoly or Settlers of Catan. And to some extent, I have to agree with that, because I tend to RP in my head when playing boardgames.

That said, there's a reason we fork over wads of cash for sets of rules. I mean, if the rules didn't matter at all, we could all just save ourselves lots of money and utterly destroy the business side of the hobby by adjudicating uncertainty through flipping coins or popular vote or DM fiat. But for most of us, that wouldn't scratch our itch, would it? In this, I think the Forgites are right. Rules matter. Setting matters. And the two should, at the very least, not work at cross-purposes to one another.

Allow me to dig deeper into that definition of role-playing. For me, role-playing is taking on a character, inhabiting that other person while exploring an imaginary landscape that is simultaneously internal, social, and physical. Add in the “game” of RPG, and I'm not just exploring that landscape, but tackling the challenges that landscape presents.

So, with that definition in mind, I can begin to come up with a list traits that a game ought to have to “do it” for me. First, the rules must promote and support verisimilitude. I want to submerge myself into the character and the worlds that character explores, and the more I can do that without being asked to fiddle with gaming bits, the happier I am.

This has a lot of consequences for my choice in game. For instance, some games of the Forge school attempt to remove the DM by sharing the world-building duties among the players, or even making it part of the game. This, though, is horrible for me. With the world so uncertain and often times so random, I never feel I can trust it enough to explore it, but must stand back, watching out for where it's going to suddenly transform itself again. I'm much happier with a GM who has a strong sense of what the world is about and how it works. With a good GM, I'll trust a bit of zaniness, because I know, while I might not be able to say how, the whole thing holds together like a tapestry, and if I follow the threads long enough, I'll find how they all weave together.

It also means that I don't want any more rules than I absolutely need. If I'm looking up a rule in a book, I'm not enjoying my character. If I'm using the rules to overcome a challenge instead of using my character or the setting, I'm too deep into the game and too far from my character to get what I want from an RPG.

So why don't I get rid of the rules altogether? Because I need the rules to reinforce the verisimilitude. The rules keep things consistent, dependable, and understandable. This is especially important for the fantastic elements of the game. Magic, fictional technology, and the supernatural need a structure they can hang on, so I can trust that they'll work in a consistent and believable way.

I also need the rules to deal with things that I can't just play through easily at the table. Combat rules are useful because I don't want to try jumping around the dining room swinging swords at my friends. Rules which abstract certain economic realities mean I can focus on the fun parts of being an interstellar smuggler and don't need to worry about keeping track of supply and demand for certain commodities across a hundred dozen markets. Arguing with a spreadsheet is only fun for me if the character I'm playing is an accountant who, you know, spends his days arguing with spreadsheets.

And this is why my game of choice right now is Labyrinth Lord. Combat is abstract, and with a few tweaks it doesn't disturb my sense of verisimilitude. Character creation is also very abstract, so I don't end up with a character who can barely do half the things I'd mastered by the age of 16. Does it have some annoying gameisms? Sure does, but I can live with most (such as escalating hit points) and can change those I don't like (such as the limitations of class, and race-as-class) very easily. More than all of that, though, is probably that I know this game backwards and forwards. I rarely need to look something up. I can gin up a ruling at the drop of hat, without fretting overly much about how this might impact other aspects of the game, and spend more time in the world and less time in the rules.

This is why 3e was such a let-down for me. They'd purged the game of nearly every annoying gameism that had hobbled D&D over the years. But they did so at a cost of such a rigorous and complex rules structure that I just couldn't get away from it. Nearly every sort of interaction now had a rule governing it. I was sad to leave it behind, but I just couldn't enjoy a 3e game the way I did older versions of D&D.

Even though 4e's design philosophy seems to be at least 90 degrees off from 3e, it's got a lot of the same problem for me. There's far too much game standing between me and my character. Keep in mind, this is a completely subjective thing. For someone else, 4e might be the perfect fit. If I was forced to really master the rules of 4e, it's possible I could achieve the level of comfort I'd need to pass through those rules and tweak them so that I could inhabit my character like I'd prefer. But I'm not sure how I'd keep food on the table and a roof over my head while I did that. Labyrinth Lord is working great for me so far, and a game with 4e's complexity would really need to be something exceptional to justify the time and effort I'd need to bash it into a shape I'd enjoy as much as I do Labyrinth Lord today.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

SEE the Pleasure Ziggurat of Gallagorgon the Man-Bull!

And this is just the first adventure hook. Someone certainly believes in immersing the players in the flavor of the campaign right from the start.

UPDATE from the comments: "Ungar is willing to risk life and limb (especially those of his comrades) to get that reward."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mr. Raggi Brings the Awesome

And invites some more.

Nothing invites lateral thinking like plunking a trap in front of the PCs when there are no thieves around to roll them away. But these old-school style traps and puzzles aren't the easiest things to make. It's especially tough when you consider that your single DM brain must compete against a handful of player brains. So it's always great to get fresh ideas from other DMs. I've already been going through my old notes to stock the dungeon for tomorrow night's game, so hopefully I'll find something worth for Green Devil Face.

Insomnia and Fishes

I can't sleep tonight, so you get your herrings early.

So what is all this about pickled herring? One of the challenges at the heart of old school D&D is logistics. This is the reasoning behind the rust monster and the giant centipede whose “bite does no damage, but the victim must save vs. Poison or become violently ill for 10 days. Characters who do not save move at ½ speed and will not be able to perform any other physical action.”

Logistics are especially challenging for first level characters. Let's turn our attentions to the brave Adler Wyrmbane, “gnomish dragonslayer extraordinaire” and brave PC in my Thursday night game. Adler is a brand new character, with but a single evening's adventuring under his belt, and little in the way of treasure to show for it. Learning of a promising dungeon two days away, Adler's player perused the equipment list I gave them for provisions. Alas, a week's worth of standard iron rations proved too expensive. What to do?

I've always found the Moldvay/Cook equipment lists to be a tad anemic. 2e had by far the best equipment lists in D&D, and since I wanted a slightly exotic cast to this game, I cribbed liberally from Al-Qadim to fill in the holes. The barrel of pickled fish (3 gp), however, comes from the standard 2e PHB. It was rendered cheaper by my special rules for the gnome class.

But now I'm left with a quandary. How long can a gnomish hero survive on pickled fish alone? The PHB isn't much help here, alas. Thank the gods for the 'net, where the answers to all of life's tough questions may be found.

Let's see what we can learn:
1 cup of pickled herring has 367 calories

1 US beer barrel = 496 cups
(Let us hope that the barrel was emptied into mugs of good cheer before the fish were pickled in it.)

Thus, some basic math tells us that 1 barrel of pickled herring has roughly 182,032 calories. And an active adult male needs roughly 3,000 calories per day. So our barrel will supply our gnome with just over 60 days of the raw caloric energy he needs. Granted, he won't be a happy gnome, and unless he supplements his diet he runs the risk of scurvy, and I sure as hell won't want to be standing downwind of him.

But wait, you say, shouldn't a tiny gnome need fewer calories than a full-sized human? Yes indeed, but remember, our gnome purchased the gnome-sized barrel. The gnomes cancel out, leaving us with the same answer: a man-sized barrel of pickled fish yields 60 days of calories for a man-sized hero, and a gnome-sized barrel of pickled fish yields 60 days of calories for a gnome-sized hero. Or, at least it does in my world, because I like to keep the math simple. ;)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Three Clue Rule

Ran across a very interesting article on adventure design by following a link in this thread. Here's a little taste:

Richard Garriott, the designer of the Ultima computer games and Tabula Rasa, once said that his job as a game designer was to make sure that at least one solution to a problem was possible without preventing the player from finding other solutions on their own. For example, if you find a locked door in an Ultima game then there will be a key for that door somewhere. But you could also hack your way through it; or pick the lock; or pull a cannon up to it and blow it away.

Warren Spector, who started working with Garriott on Ultima VI, would later go on to design Deus Ex. He follows the same design philosophy and speaks glowingly of the thrill he would get watching someone play his game and thinking, "Wait... is that going to work?"

When designing an adventure, I actually try to take this design philosophy one step further: For any given problem, I make sure there's at least one solution and remain completely open to any solutions the players might come up with on their own.

Sounds like excellent advice to me. And there's a lot more where that came from, so be sure to read the whole thing.

(Promised herring later tonight or tomorrow, depending on how late birthday festivities go. ;) )

Unsolicited Advice

...for my players, in honor of our first dungeon delve, coming up soon, I think. This actually comes from The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope:

Stonehell is set up so that it's probably going to be a tough challenge for 1st level characters if they go in swords and spells a' flying and hope to kill everything they come across. In order to best meet the challenges of the dungeon, the party should be open to using their heads as much as their brawn.

One thing to remember is that many of the intelligent monsters down in Stonehell are not going to automatically attack the party on sight. I recommend highly that you use the Monster Reaction Table on p. 52 of the Labyrinth Lord rulebook when the party first meets the monsters, provided that the party doesn't attack them first. On a result of Neutral or Indifferent, the monsters might just warn the party off rather than attack. A result of Friendly might even indicate that the monsters are willing to reveal some information about the dungeon that may help the party in their explorations. Remember that characters with a high Charisma get a bonus to roles on the Reaction Table, so if the party has a character that’s particularly charming do the talking, they stand an even better chance of avoiding a conflict. If that character also speaks the monster's native language, I'd award another small bonus as well...

That being said, there are a few monsters lurking on the first level that have a good chance of eating the whole party should they stand and fight. The Giant Gecko Lizard and the random ghoul could easily tear through a party of 1st level adventurers, so they need to know that running away isn't always a bad thing.

There's more there that's good, so I'd recommend anyone attempting to run or explore an old school dungeon ought to take a look.

I won't be running Stonehell, but an original dungeon of my own design. I'm a product of the Silver Age, with a firm love for Gygaxian Naturalism. Part of this comes from my love of Harryhausen movies. I'm currently watching "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad", a great little flick starring Tom Baker as a villainous sorcerer. One thing about Harryhausen monsters is that most have lives outside of being killed by heroes. So do the monsters in my dungeons. Most are not just sitting around waiting for a fight. Like you and me, they get hungry or sick, worry about their love lives, and make plans for the future. This is both a good and a bad thing for the PCs.

It's bad in that I build dungeons that "make sense". That is, they're internally consistent instead of "fair". If you come across a few kobolds, that probably means there's a whole tribe of the little bastards nearby. That also means that they'll have sources for food and water, and the other things kobolds like to have to turn a ruin or cave into a home. If you meet some skeletons, that probably means there is, or was, a necromancer in the neighborhood who animated them. So I worry more about things being internally coherent than I do about them being the proper "challenge" for your level. In short, I don't play fair. Within the bounds of the rules, neither should you.

And here's where it's good for the PCs. These dungeons make it easier to find advantages. The monsters will behave in reasonable (from their point of view) ways. Kobolds can be negotiated with. Their water can be poisoned. They can be bribed, or driven off by a larger tribe of orcs. The necromancer who created the skeletons probably gave them orders. Maybe they're to guard a certain area, but not leave it in pursuit of the party. Maybe anyone who wears a certain garment or displays a certain symbol is allowed to pass unharmed. In any case, I love lateral thinking, and will usually give any creative idea the benefit of the doubt, or at least a dice roll for success.

This also means that you'll get the treasure that it makes sense for these critters to have. In most cases, that's better for you than the usual returns on the treasure type tables.

Next time, I may get back to my mapping of Pitsh, but it's more likely I'll be posting about the caloric content of a gnome-sized barrel of pickled herring. The things I do for my players...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Thanks to Taichara

hamsterharo_originalMuch thanks to Taichara of the Hamsterish Hoard for the monstrous Gefirir. It's exactly the sort of thing I was asking about.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

State of the Campaign

Well, we've had three sessions of my Thursday night Labyrinth Lord game, so this is certainly premature, but I figured I'd take stock at this point to give myself something of a baseline to look at down the road.

Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth Lord is working out very well. I know these rules cold, so it's been very easy for me to just jump and run when the players zig and I was thinking they'd zag. Character creation has been a snap. The flexibility has also served us well, though we really haven't pushed it as much as I thought we'd might. I'm hoping we all get more inventive in the future.

I have had a few folks who seemed interested in maybe joining the game, but then lost interest when they found it wasn't 3.x or 4. Frankly, I'm not going to cry over that, since the players I do have are great. I've also lost more interested players to Real Life concerns rising up, which I frankly expected. Happens in every group.

New Rules
So far, I'm pretty happy with how my hacks are working. We've had three combats, and they've all flowed fairly smoothly. Rolling d6 and 2d4 for damage makes things pretty easy for everyone, I think, and cutting out the roll for initiative has certainly sped things up some. I haven't really gotten to push the spell stuff I did, since the only spell memorized by the party so far has been sleep, which has fairly boring side effects.

Someone chose to play a gnome! And he's really giving the race an interesting flavor. I think David may come to define who and what gnomes are in this campaign, and I'm just fine with that.

I'm moderately happy with this. I think I've invested the campaign with a certain flavor, and I think the players are enjoying it. I also think it's a bit more friendly than I'd originally conceived, but that's likely to change. The NPCs feel good to me, but I've not gotten much of a sense for how the players feel about them. Time will tell.

Efficiency and Pacing

We're not doing as much between games via email as I'd hoped, but on the other hand, I don't feel the game is dragging at all. We've been able to get things done and have some fun RP usually within three hours. Part of this, though, is because I'm driving events along pretty aggressively, and I'm not getting much push-back from the players. Not sure if that's a good or bad thing yet. So long as they're happy, I'll say it's good. And they took the reins pretty firmly at the end of the last session. As we head towards more traditional dungeon play next week, it'll be interesting to see how this changes.

The players seem a bit hesitant here, but David really jumped into a small hole I left them and got some nice interplay going within the party itself. The players have come up with very interesting characters, and I hope to give them more opportunities to indulge in the backgrounds they've created.

Probably the least important, so it comes last, but I'm very happy with this. I was pretty sure that playing would give me interesting things to talk about, and it certainly has. I'm especially proud of the blog about mapping Pitsh (though I'm not sure how popular it's been with y'all) and the latest in my Romance, Sex and D&D series got some great response.

UPDATE: Chgowiz does something similar for his West Marches style 1e game.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Extremist Hindus?!? WTF?

My apologies for this post, folks. I try to keep the Real World as far from my blog as possible, as I consider it a haven, both for you and me, from the madness we deal with every day. But every now and then, I gotta ask, WTF?

Understand, I grew up in suburban America. You meet all kinds of folks here. Our friends and neighbors include Christians of various stripes, Mormons, Muslims, atheists, and Unitarians. I've adjusted dinner plans to accommodate vegetarian Hindus, worn a yarmulke at a Bar Mitzvah, and one of my father's groomsmen was a Sikh. You get all kinds in suburban America. Except extremists. The most extreme I've ever dealt with on a regular basis were some Catholic nuns, but they were pretty much get-along-go-along folks for the most part. So, like most Americans, the idea of religious extremists is something I have a hard time wrapping my brain around. Especially when we start talking about Hindu extremists. I'm sorry, but that makes about as much sense to me as militant Amish.

So can someone explain to me what's up with Shri Ram Sena? I mean, how do you expect us to take claims that women at a bar are “violating traditional Indian values” when you've got this sort of thing (NSFW) decorating your temples? Seriously, the folks that told us that kama is one of the four goals of life are getting their knickers in a twist just because some gals decide to go out and enjoy a few drinks?

Ok, maybe there was more going on in this bar than I'm aware of, or maybe there's some cultural issues I'm just ignorant of. But near as I can tell, this would just be amusing if it didn't actually involve people physically assaulting folks. Can anyone enlighten me?

UPDATE: In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I myself am Episcopalian, which is the American branch of the Church of England. Our extremists look like this.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Romance, Sex and D&D: Women are from Venus, Men are from Nowhere

I'm having a great time with my Thursday game. In spite of relearning old rules, exercising a few disused mental and gaming muscles, and a bit of player attrition due to the hassles of Real Life, things are rolling along nicely, and I'd like to thank my players for making it such a pleasant experience.

And now that I've done that, I'm going to tease them in public, in honor of the feast of St. Valentine. ;)

Seriously, we have a great cast of PCs to play with, and things are threatening to get even more interesting in the near future. I can't wait for next Thursday. And they also fell fairly closely into a pattern of character creation I'd noticed back in my college days.

Here's the relevant part of the character creation outline I posted:

What I absolutely need are the names and current whereabouts of your character's family, and what your character did before hopping on the boat to Pitsh.

Let's take a look at what I got in response, in no particular order, with names changed and other details omitted to protect the innocent:

Player A gave me a character descended from a long line of heroes who has just finished his training to take part in the family business. However, no names are given, nor do we know anything about the character's parents or siblings, if any.

Player B's character's mother “was a serving wench at a big city inn/brothel.” Obviously, figuring out who dad was in this case is clearly problematic. Mom, unnamed, passed away when the character was 14. The character's mentor, however, is named, and “has become a surrogate uncle” to the character. It was this uncle/mentor who sent our hero to the island of Dreng Bdan to seek his fortune.

Player C first asked me if these family would be nearby where the adventures began or far away, the only one to do so. Player C then named the home community, father, mother, and two siblings of the PC, and explained what those siblings were currently up to. The character's life of adventure was precipitated by a nasty quarrel with the PC's family, leading the PC to head for the horizon, vowing never to return, or, at least, not to return until the PC had proven there's more to life than what was offered at home. Player C also provided me with a mysteriously vanished relative.

Player D's character “is the third child of five from a reasonably wealthy family” but no members of this family are named or described. This PC is “still on good terms with” this family, but “has more interesting things to do.”

Ok, time to cue the music.

Now, keep in mind that I'm not saying anyone did anything wrong here. The differences between them are what make for great interplay between the PCs, and I love it when my players play with each other in addition to interacting with me and the world. And while I prefer to get characters more like Player C's, I'm more than happy to work with the others. After all, if you don't give me the details, I consider that carte blanche to fill in the gaps as I see fit. plotting

But that's not my point today. My point today is that Player C is a woman and this falls right in line with a difference I've noticed in how women and men play RPGs.

Clearly, nothing like this is universal. I'm notorious for deluging my poor DMs with mountains of family detail and background info, and last time I checked I was a guy. And I've known gal gamers to have a great time playing Paranoia,where every PC is a clone with all the family life of a tube of toothpaste. But I have seen a trend in my horribly-not-scientific experience. Keeping in mind that the plural of “anecdote” isn't “data”, I think a lot of it has to do with the reading habits I've mentioned before.

Think of the novels by Anne McCaffery, Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon, or Jacqueline Carrey. The characters in these novels are either surrounded by family, or immediately work to make a new family once the old one is lost. Family is a source of strength and support, and even villains tend to have family of their own. Stories can become generational epics, with the children of the previous heroes picking up the torch and continuing on in their parents’ footsteps. In the past, this has been true of the women playing in my games, and I've seen it in others games as well. Relatives become resources, not just for in-game goodies, but also in a meta-game sense, becoming touchstones for dramatic RP or bringing the spotlight onto a player's character. And these women worked to create and maintain relationships in the game, fought over them, and worried about them.

And it's not just my games either:

Legwork begins. Rather than roll social skills on the handy-dandy legwork tables and assume a lot of networking has gone on, the girls decide to RP out their search for info. Randi comes up with the idea that Sasha's decker contact is her little brother. We have an awesome RP moment when we find out that Brian, who styles himself "Lord High Emperor of Ultimate Matrix Badasses" is at least as much playa' as Decka'. We meet him in a decker bar, surrounded by teenage weefle-runners held rapt by his descriptions of his most recent datasteal. He is very obviously putting the make on several attractive, illegal female decker-wannabes. In ten minutes of pure character development, we learn that Brian resents the hell out of his sister, blaming her for the mysterious deaths of their parents, and points out that since their party lost their own decker, whom Brian had been involved with, perhaps running with Sasha wasn't such a good idea. There's some verbal sparring about previous events between Brain and Sasha that could have been scripted, but were totally ad-lib. Very much the brother and sister. Finally, with promise of challenge and payment, Brian dismisses his entourage and asks what the girls want, making sure to sidle up to Tyna, who has obviously made him forget the young deckers from moments ago.

It's an amazing technique for massaging more out of a game. Not only has Sasha's player subverted the system somewhat, by making the contact more than just a contact and thus far more valuable an asset than she probably paid for in character creation, but we have a great moment of RP, a cool new NPC, and all sorts of hooks for interesting play in the future.

Most men don't create these opportunities, partly, I think, because the books we read don't really prepare us to think these sorts of terms. And while we all desire the closeness of family, all need to find a place where we belong and fit in, the mystique of the Man With No Name is heady stuff for guys. We all know exactly what Captain Jack means when he says, “But what a ship is, is freedom!” In the novels of Steven Brust, George R.R. Martin, or Robert Jordan, family is something to escape. The sins of the fathers are the torments of their sons. The characters constantly weave about, like moths drawn to a flame, wanting the closeness of intimacy, but constantly veering away, pulled by duty or fear or whatever else. Family is often something that must be escaped before the adventure can begin (as for Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd) or so trivial as to be hardly worth mentioning (Robert Howard’s Conan). Heroes in these novels might see family as a spur or lash, a burden either dutifully or resentfully shouldered, which I see something of in Player A's character. But generally, family is the past, a point of origin from which the character's trajectory into the future constantly takes him further and further away. Compare that to Player C's character, where multiple paths for reconciliation immediately present themselves, and avenues are readily offered to include her character's family in the campaign.

Now, I'm sure some will say that people who create characters who have severed all ties with their family are just protecting themselves, and that past DMs have taught them to do this by using family as a way to screw with the PCs. To that I must ask, do you really think that makes a PC safe? Say, just to create an example at random, someone gave me a character sheet that read “family – all dead”, do you really think that would thwart a creative and sadistic DM? Or do you think I would find a way to make certain that this dead family came back to haunt them? mwahaha

UPDATE: Spike of Ubiquitous Orcs has more thoughts on this theme.

Surveys of the Coast

Greywulf has linked to a survey apparently posted by WotC about their Insider website. Honestly, the way it's put together, I'm suspecting it's front-loaded to return data pointing to people not using it because they haven't been properly informed about what it offers. Follow the links and take a look for yourself.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pitsh Interrupted

A rush-job came up, and since it pays real, hard cash, it must take precedence. Alas, this means my mapping of Pitsh must be delayed a bit. However, I leave you with this aside from tonight's game:

Rukmini: (Gnomish war gear?)
Adler: (Cute but deadly.)

There are spots open in the game, if anyone cares to join us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blatant Plug

Thanks to Taichara, I've just learned that Labyrinth Lord is available through Amazon.

Yes, I'm behind the times, so sue me!

(And this lil' Amazon linky thingy is kinda cool. May need to play with it to see if I can make the pic bigger. Wrapping the text around the pic seems to be beyond me, though. Drat!

That did the trick! Thanks, Szilard!)

Erol Otus Art Challenge at Fight On!

Just got this from the good folks at Fight On! magazine. Looks like a fun opportunity.

Otherworld Miniatures and Fight On! present the Erol Otus Art

Judged by Erol Otus and shown in the pages of Fight On!

All artists are invited to submit a picture on one of the following

-The Adventure Takes a Surprising Twist
-One Charge Left
- Overland

By Erol's Command, Any Style, Any Media, and Any Freaking Thing Goes!

Winning Entries will be published in Fight On! and awarded
PRIZES in separate Color and B&W categories, as follows:

1st Prize: Up to £ 50 worth of Otherworld's magnificent minis, or a
full year's (four issue) print subscription to Fight On!

2nd Prize: Up to £ 30 worth of Otherworld miniatures, or a half
year's (two issue) print subscription to Fight On!

3rd Prize: Up to £ 20 worth of Otherworld's fantastic figurines, or a
full year's PDF subscription to Fight On!

Honorable Mention: Free PDF of the issue of Fight On! in which
your work is published.

The six 1st-3rd prizewinners will also receive Erol's commentary on
their work, published along with the image in Fight On!
(Winning color images will be covers of upcoming issues.) That's six
top prizes in all, three in each category! You can see Otherworld's
product line at http://www.otherwor , and check out Fight
On! at http://stores. FightOn.

Better yet, all artists submitting retain ownership of their own
work. Fight On! asks only for the right to publish winners in
a future issue of the magazine and for artists not to post their
submitted work on-line in any form (including for sale in other PDF
products) for six months after the conclusion of the contest. They
may re-submit or re-sell to print venues immediately and to on-line
venues six months after the contest's conclusion, and in general
ownership and all rights except the delay in on-line
posting/publication and Fight On!'s right to publish your
image in a future issue of the magazine remain with the artist.

So artists - let's see what you've got! Please send submissions to
iggyumlaut@gmail. com by Sunday, May 3, 2009 to be considered. Thank

Tyranny and You

Chgowiz today discusses a post over at ars ludi describing "the benefits of tyranny". Riffing off both, I just want to make a few comments on old versus new school gaming.

Mr. Robbins points out that the tyrannical DM is actually shouldering a large chunk of work, and can be described as taking one for the team:

But with the tyrannical GM, you have one person who steps up and says “this is my game, it is my creation, I’m in absolute control and make everything happen. I resolve all disputes and I make sure all players are entertained.” Which means you, the player, are completely off the hook. You can be as selfish as you want, or as rude as you want, or as lazy as you want, because the GM has taken responsibility for making the game work and taking care of everyone at the table.

I think that's a tad extreme, but not entirely off the mark. However, I also think there's a marked difference between what is accepted tyranny in old school play and new school play, and that this leads to some, if not most, of the friction between us RPGers.

Old school tyranny is best summed up in the phrase "rulings, not rules". The old school DM has the final say on what can and can't happen. Can Rukmini sew a bag from scavenged sail cloth to keep the enchanted jade eggs safe in? Old school versions of D&D don't have skill systems, so it's entirely up to the DM to decide. However, this is great freedom for the players. They don't have to worry about what the rules do and don't cover. If they want to try to disguise themselves, or kick sand in the face of an enemy, or distract the guards with a Punch & Judy show, they can just dive in and do it, letting the DM worry about how such things intersect with the rules.

New school tyranny is a different sort. Ok, first off, let me say I don't have a copy of Keep on the Shadowfells handy, so I'm working off memory here. If I'm wrong about something, someone please tell me so I can eat crow, but...

The new school tyranny is the tyranny of plot. The DM has a plot, a story, that they expect the players to play through, just like in a computer game. Minor deviations might be permissible, but if you go off the reservation, you risk derailing the entire evening's gaming, because the DM isn't prepared for it. Take a look at Keep on the Shadowfells. There's some wiggle-room in the order in which events take place, but not a lot. First this ambush, and then that ambush, and then into the tunnels...

The players, for their part, don't need to look for action. It's up to the DM to point them towards the next way-station in the plot. They show up, interact with whatever the situation is, and then move on to the next. It's pretty low-impact, and if you're digging what the DM has planned, it's pretty much guaranteed entertainment.

Now, compare this to Keep on the Borderlands. The first thing some folks notice about KotB is that the people in the keep are described with stats and treasure. Yep, that's right, if the PCs decide to, they can kill everyone in the keep and take their stuff. Some, of course, scoff at this, saying it plays right into the fight-and-loot myopia of old school gaming. But, in truth, it opens up all sorts of possibilities for play. Yes, the PCs can fight the monsters in the Caves of Chaos and use the keep as their base. But they can also decide to become burglars, breaking into the homes of the keep's denizens and stealing their loot. Or they join the evil cult and lead an army of monsters against the keep. Or they can play the monsters and the keep off against each other, Yojimbo-style.

But what if the players want to try something like that in 4e's Keep on the Shadowfell? The poor DM is all on his own. The adventure as published assumes the players will fight the cultists and their monster minions on behalf of the town of Winterhaven. If you want to loot and pillage the town instead, you've gone off the rails. The DM has to come up with stats and treasures without much help from the game at all. I suppose you could use the Human Rabble and Guard monsters from the Monster Manual to flush things out, and then (speaking of tyranny) use the 4e treasure system to dictate what the players can loot. But I wouldn't call that optimal.

Building Pitsh

Wherein Trollsmyth waxes anal-retentive and probably humiliates himself by screwing up some very simple maths. ;)

Pitsh is the largest “civilized” community on the island of Dreng Bdan, where my Thursday night Labyrinth Lord game is currently taking place. The PCs are likely to find themselves there on our next game, so I thought it might be a good idea to think about what the place looks like.

Normally, I don't bother with maps of cities. It's usually good enough to know vaguely where things are, and what is available. This time, however, I thought it might be interesting to do at least a rough map of the place.

Most of the following information is public knowledge, so my players should feel free to read on, without it causing problems in the game.

First, a bit of history: the current Pitsh is the third community to exist on the site. The first was a small elven port town destroyed during the Third War Against the Monsters. Most of the ruins are now under the bay, though you can find the occasional pot shard, bit of jewelry, or foundation in the city.

The second community was built at the height of the Second Lizardfolk Empire. Many buildings still show their architectural influence, and the fan-and-palm motif that was popular then. It was abandoned during the Coming of the Ice, when the water levels fell and left the port high and dry. By the time the sea returned to the city, the Second Lizardfolk Empire was already in decline.

The current city takes its name from its previous incarnation. It was founded by pirates and adventurers, looking to plunder the ruins or prey upon shipping in the Turquoise Sea. Following on word of the ruins, the god Uban sent an expedition to see what other secrets might be found. They based themselves in Pitsh and soon discovered that the entire island was a trove of lost wonders. The expanding base turned into a temple, and it served as the nucleus of the reborn city.

Today, Pitsh is home to some 10,000 souls, mostly human with a few lizardfolk, dwarves, and goblins. Within the walls, most of the buildings are baked brick and stone. Outside, walls are fashioned from woven reeds stretched on frames of bamboo and thatched with palm and banana leaves. The primary industry is supplying goods for the temple of Uban and the numerous adventurers who sell the priests whatever junk or treasures they manage to spirit out of the jungles. Shipping is the second largest industry, since Pitsh imports a lot of grain, cloth, and metals. The temple defrays some of their costs by exporting spices, fruits, and nuts.

That's a good start. I came up with the 10,000 number by using The Domesday Book. That number is based on northern Europe, so it's probably a bit on the low side, but we're still talking about a community based on peasant farming and muscle power, so I doubt it's that far off. The page also tells me that my city is roughly 165 acres in size. But what's in those 165 acres?

Finding data on the dimensions of Iron Age dwellings is an exercise in frustration. First, these places were not exactly built to plan or firmly regulated codes. But beyond that, nobody really seems to talk about it. However, I do have the Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Stephen Bertman. Yes, ancient Mesopotamia is a mostly arid environment, and Pitsh is in a jungle, but the basic architectural style, “a central roofed courtyard around which smaller rooms would be grouped”, is pretty similar to what's been the fashion in India for thousands of years. So I feel pretty good about using this book as a resource. If you feel strongly about it, feel free to buy me the Mayan one, or preorder the Indian one. ;)

Anyway, the book I do have says this about the dimensions of these houses:

In ancient Babylon, such a courtyard might have measured something like 8 by 18 feet or as much as 17 by 45 feet, giving the overall house plan a rectangular shape.

Ok, not everything you might like to know, but it's a start. If we assume the courtyard is a third of every dimension, that gives us buildings that range from 24' x 54' up to 51' x 135'. These are probably on the large side, honestly, but we'll go with them for now.

Here's some interesting math based on this. If we assume our city is laid out in a perfect grid, with 6 feet of clearance on every side of a house for streets/alleys (and simplifying our dimensions on the smallest dwelling to 30' x 60', making each 1,800 square feet), our 165 acre city can hold up to 3,993 of the smallest homes, or roughly 2.5 people per home. Obviously, there's going to be a LOT more to this city than just small homes.

Ok, so how many people did live in one of these houses? Unfortunately, my handbook doesn't say, so I'm going to go ahead and say that a man and woman who marry are expected to move out on their own; no extended families in the same home. Besides, with much of the population moving to Pitsh, rather than having grown up there, the rest of the family is probably back in the old country. So these families will tend to be small. Within the walls, the average burgher family will be eight strong: the burgher and his wife, their three children, plus two apprentices and a servant or slave. Outside the walls, it's probably six, with the married couple having four children but no servants. There will, of course, be lots of folks who don't live this way, larger and smaller families, plus the priests, the freebooters, and larger slave gangs that might work the docks or for architects. So within the walls, we're looking at something like 875 families. If we round the footprint of each family to 2,000 square feet (just to keep the math easy), we end up with a total area of 1,750,000 square feet, or a little over 40 acres making these homes take up roughly a quarter of the city. That leaves lots of room for markets, docks, warehouses, orchards and fields, temples, brothels, taverns, inns...

But we don't need to make much room for workshops and the like. Most of these burghers probably work out of their homes, with space set aside for practicing their trade. The Domesday Book page gives us a nice spread of trades that might be found in our city, but Pitsh isn't your usual sort of place. The primary businesses are supporting a priesthood dedicated to knowledge and learning, and supporting the ships that bring necessities from civilized lands. So I'm thinking that papyrus farming is probably a bigger business in Pitsh than demographics based on northern Europe are likely to represent. But they'll still need buckle makers and sandal makers, tailors and fishmongers. Actually, there are likely to be more than the usual 8 fishmongers, since this is a coastal port city.

And this post is already huge, so we'll stop here and talk about drawing the actual map tomorrow. Unless I run out of time. ;p

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?

I was a little surprised to see this over at Grognardia:

There can be no nameless NPCs, not even the guy at the general store who sells you iron spikes and bullseye lanterns. He needs a name, a personality, and at least a hint of a life outside of his interactions with the PCs. All of that is the stuff from which future adventures can be written and are every bit as important as stocking your megadungeon.

I can't say why this surprised me, but it did. I've been playing this way for decades now, allowing the PCs to build personal webs of association and alliance (and antipathy) with the people who live and work and love and fight around them. It makes the world feel more real, it gives the PCs something to care about and allows me to craft conflicts that the players will actually be interested in.

Poor Oddysey got a session-full of meeting the locals last Thursday. It started with her making this observation: “I continue east, though with the luck we've had so far, civilization will consist of a horde of angry bandits or something.

She wasn't far off the mark. East of where they washed up was a hidden cove where a large gang of pirates had built their base. The good news was that most of the pirates were away on their ships, pillaging and plundering and all of that. The bad news was, that still left over a hundred women, children, and semi-retired pirates to hold down the fort. More than enough to handle a dwarf all on her own on a strange shore.

After skillfully dodging the small scouting party sent to investigate the funeral pyre the heroes had lit the day before to consume the body of a fellow traveler slain in the storm that shipwrecked them, Oddysey's dwarf came upon the base itself. Now, I'd envisioned the party maybe trying to steal supplies from the pirates, or just going around them, pushing deeper into the jungle to avoid being seen (and quite likely stumbling upon jungle-dwelling kobolds in the process).

Players, of course, never do what you expect. Rukmini marched right into the village and asked if she could have some water and maybe trade labor for a place to stay.

Yeah, I should have seen that one coming. She had no idea they were pirates; it's not like they had a big sign over the place saying “Seekret Pirat Baz” or something. And maybe Oddysey had read about the influence of Anne McCaffery's work on my campaigns. Regardless, Rukmini got to meet Myret, matriarch of the base and de facto leader while the captains are away, work with Jebin the peg-legged blacksmith, and get a promise from his grandson Kip to teach her the rudiments of sailing.

Now, Labyrinth Lord, like Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert before it, doesn't come with a built-in skill system. But Rukmini is a dwarf with a family background in brewing. So it made sense to say she could help Jebin repair a few broken machetes and other iron tools, as well as do a bit of work on their still. It also made sense that she wouldn't know much about sailing. No rolls were made on any of this. They simply were not needed. The smithing was very basic stuff, just minor repairs that any apprentice should have been able to handle on their own. And, after a brief '80s style montage, Rukmini will have mastered the basics of sailing and will have increased her knowledge of knots, weather, seabirds, fishing, and the like.

Finally, she helped the locals fend off an attack of angry snappers, aggressive turtle-humanoids, so it wasn't all drinking rum and singing sea-chanteys. (The village, by the way, got very luck in that attack. Two-dozen snappers should have been enough to level the place, but they rolled poorly and attacked without any sort of organization. Which is probably just as well.)

Next week, we'll start the game with Rukmini working with the pirates. Just how strong that relationship is remains to be seen. The dwarf brings some useful skills, but can she be trusted? And is she ready to trust a bunch of pirates? Only time will tell...

Friday, February 06, 2009

Fairytales and Hamsters

I've just added a new blog on the list to the right: A Hamsterish Hoard of Dungeons and Dragons. I'm not quite sure what the adjective "hamsterish" means in this case, but I do find the content very interesting. It's new goodies for BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia D&D, primarily monsters, but sometimes spells or other treats.

That would be neat enough on its own, but I'm also intrigued by a theme I'm noticing in the recent posts. I have no idea if this is temporary, or even a conscious decision on Taichara's part, but where most of us playing with older versions of D&D are embracing a more Swords & Sorcery motif, or wallowing in Dark Fantasy, Taichara's creations have a strong fairytale feel to them. Here's an example of a new magic-user spell that illustrates what I mean:

Vine Truth
Range: 0
Duration: 1 turn
Effect: One conjured flower for divining truth

This spell produces a small coiling vine that wraps around the wrist of the Magic-User, ending in a showy blossom held between the fingertips. Until the spell's duration runs out, if an individual within 30' of the Magic-User knowingly tells a lie, a petal will fall from the blossom to signal the untruth.

And check out this description of the thorn dragon:

Their name comes from their scales: mottled brown and rust-red, edged in green and rose -- and each one's tip drawn out into a long, curved thorn.

I can't quite see Frazetta illustrating this beastie, as most of his monsters tend towards the smoky and dreamy, and glisten wetly. But I could certainly imagine what one of the Pre-Raphaelites might make of it.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Romance, Sex and D&D: the College Years

(Part One of this series is here.)

Things changed radically in the game I ran in college. My college crew was probably the best group I've ever played with. Their skill at the game was exceptional, their styles (mostly) meshed very well with mine, and their interests took the game in directions I'd never considered before.

The biggest difference, I think, came from the girls outnumbering the guys. Most of them were already very familiar with 2e (this was the early '90s) and at least a few of them had experience with 1e as well. They also came from different literary traditions. The guys I played with in high school were fairly avid readers, and we'd enjoyed most of the same books: Tolkien and Brust, Moorcock and A Young Boy's King Arthur, Lovecraft and Rosenberg. We were not nearly as steeped in “the classics” of the Old School as some (I didn't read any Lieber until college), but we had our literary models and struggled hard to bash D&D into a shape that could play them, as the whim took us.

The ladies of my college game brought a different literary background with them. They shared a number of the classic influences like Tolkien, but added names like Bradley, Hambly, McCaffrey, and Lackey. I'd read from a few of those names before, so I had some ground to stand on there, but what really rocked the boat was what they brought with them from romance novels.

Romance is the number one selling genre in bookstores. It dwarfs even combined sci-fi and fantasy sales. Today, most nerds have a passing familiarity with the conventions of romance, thanks to folks like Joss Whedon, Stephenie Meyer, and the emergence of paranormal romance, which have brought them more into the mainstream (or, at least, what passes for mainstream among nerds). It wasn't so much the case back then, but the process had already started.

Gents, if you haven't cracked the cover on a full-blown romance novel, understand that you are missing an entire world of story structures out there. Romance novels have their own styles of pacing and conflict, an entire vocabulary of emotional states and expected conventions for their ebb and flow. And these books are not the halcyon daydreams you might imagine they'd be. Your female junior high classmates were reading books chock full of all the topics you've been taught to avoid in polite company: rape and incest, blackmail and character assassination. Yes, some are light-hearted romps, but others delve into a level of brutality that might even eclipse the other Brian Murphy's Top 10 Fantasy Battles list. (The historical romances tend to be the worst. I read one based on the life of William Shakespeare which described in agonizing detail the experiences of a character who is buried alive.)

So when I knocked down the walls and, in effect, announced that the campaign was sandbox-style (though we didn't have that vocabulary back then), sex and romance took prominent roles in the game. No longer relegated to a few laughs while we celebrated in town between adventures, time and effort and detail were expended on pursuing or luring the opposite sex. What are his interests? What is his favorite color? What sort of women does he prefer for marriage, and what sort for a tumble in the hay? What is his favorite scent?

And we went very Old School with this. The dice nearly disappeared as we played out the give-and-take of romantic conflict, a conversation of blades played out with social conventions, fashion, politics, and raw sex appeal. (Anonymous, this is a critical point in understanding the difference between 4e and Old School play. In 4e, this sort of thing might be boiled down to a single skill roll, or perhaps a skill challenge. Was the way we played it out time consuming? Absolutely. But “non-fun”? Oh, Hell no! Detailing the outfits and buying the presents and planning the parties was the fun! But I'll have a more detailed post on the topics you bring up over the next week or so.)

We still rolled for pregnancy, but now some of the PCs were trying to get knocked up. Issues of fertility, birth control, and motherhood came into the game. What do elves, who have so few children, think about a mother or father who leaves an infant with family in order to save a human city from destruction? Can a polymorphed dragon get a human woman pregnant? What happens to a pregnancy if the mother drinks a potion of speed? What if she contracts lycanthropy?

Anything and everything was pretty much fair game for that campaign. Some of the PCs were bisexual and others strictly hetero. Some eagerly played the field while others sought exclusive relationships. Virginity became a noteworthy (as in, we noted it on the character sheets) stat as we played with ideas on why dragons and unicorns find it important. And we explored topics that would make Carcosa look like a Sunday School coloring book. (For example, near the end of the campaign, one of the PCs ended up marrying the arch-lich Vekna for political reasons. But that's a whole story in itself...)

Keep in mind that none of this was the primary focus of the campaign. The PCs still foiled the plots of scheming wererats, battled orc raiders, dared the hidden fortresses of necromancers, and slew dragons. They played an important role in returning the rightful High King to his throne. They hoarded treasure and leveled up. The campaign lasted for years, even beyond our graduations from college. Level limits were reached and railed against. Orcus was slain on his home plane and a god was destroyed. It was D&D in every way that anyone who has played the game would instantly recognize. But it also warped into something so very much more than the ordinary.