Friday, March 27, 2009

And They're Coming Into the Home Stretch...

Mr. Umlaut, editor of Fight On! published this update about the contest:

With 4 Days, Still Holding at #3
Going into the final weekend we are still in one of the top spots. Amazing! A bunch of you have come through already, but I'll come out once again in hopes of luring more of you to buy! Remember, only purchases of print issues help with the contest!

However it comes out it's been a fun ride.

Winning would be a huge feather in the Old School's cap. If you haven't purchased any copies yet, now's a great time to do it. Fight On! is the real deal. It's not some anemic little 4.25" by 5.5" thing, but a full-sized magazine. Issue #2, which I have at my desk right now, weighs in at a hefty 88 pages.

Issue #1 came out shortly after Gary Gygax passed away, and is of course dedicated to him. It includes Mr. Maliszewski's "The Ruined Monastery", the first appearance of the monks of Saint Gaxyg the Gray, who now feature prominently in his megadungeon project.

Issue #2 is dedicated to Dave Arneson. Inside, you'll find an interview with Mr. Arneson as well as two articles from players lucky enough to have gamed with him. Edsan added an Empire of the Petal Throne adventure, and you'll find my "Shields Shall be Splintered" houserule, including a pair of magic shields not included on this website. Also included is the first level of "The Darkness Beneath" megadungeon project.

Bob Bledsaw and Judges Guild is the topic for issue #3, and is full of Invincible Overlord goodness. And that one weighs in at 145 pages.

Issue #4 is the latest, and I haven't received my copy just yet. Here's what Mr. Umlaut has to say about it:

Dedicated to Dave Hargrave and his legendary Arduin campaign, this issue features no fewer than 8 adventures, plus spells, magic items, new classes, races, and rules to take your FRP passion to the next level! Our contributors include Steve Zieser, Kevin Mayle, Steve Marsh, James Maliszewski, Monty & Josephine St. John, Gabor Lux, Jeff Rients, Geoffrey O. Dale, Baz Blatt, David Bowman, Calithena, Kesher, Douglas Cox, James Raggi, Matthew Riedel, Geoffrey McKinney, Alex Schroeder, Lee Barber, Vincent Baker, Patrick Farley, Kelvin Green, Fu Fu Frauenwahl, and many more!

Swords & Wizardry is in 7th place in this contest, so if you were planning on getting a hard copy of that game, now is an excellent time to do so. But don't wait! The contest ends on March 31st, so you only have until Tuesday to place your order and have it count.

UPDATE: Jeff Rients reports that the first four issues of Fight On! have been gathered together in hardbound collection available only until the end of the month.

UPDATE II: And now there's a collection of black-and-white art called Art of the Old School. As I understand it, this is a joint Fight On!/Knock Spell production, which means you can pick which outfit you want to order it from.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The LL Campaign in 25 Words or Less

Over at “Malevolent & Benign”, Max has asked for descriptions of home-brew campaigns in 25 words or less. It's a tough challenge, more so for me because I think the players and I are still feeling our way around the Labyrinth Lord campaign I'm DMing. Here's a shot:

Titans vs. Gods on a young world of mystery where adventurers plunder the treasures of the past, risking awakening buried dangers.

Meh. Accurate, so far as it goes, but I don't think that really captures the flavor of the campaign. Noisms suggested ditching the sentence and just unleashing the flood of words. That might look like:

Titans vs. Gods, carnivorous riding birds, early Iron Age, shattered empires, storied ruins, steamy jungles, pirates, returning fey, dangerous magic, vengeful monsters bearing ancient grudges.

That's a bit better. But the truth is, I'd probably need to revisit this in a few months anyway. Partly because the players and I will have better shaken out what our mutual interests are, but also because the PCs will be higher level and will probably have gotten themselves entangled in some larger plot. At this point I have no idea what it will be, but that's the usual pattern for my campaigns. And I'm hoping to get a bit in of the old school “end game” of clearing the wilderness and building strongholds of some sort which will change things yet again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fair is Fair, but don't Expect any in the Land of Moldvay/Cook

So I was building the first true dungeon for my weekly Labyrinth Lord game. Some of the players have never played old school before and all the PCs are first level. I carefully crafted the setting based on giving the players meaningful choices, encouraging exploration of not just the physical space but also the history of the structure, and areas with unusual features they can play with.

And then, at a critical choke-point, I dropped in a critter with 7 hit dice who can only be harmed by magical weapons. Just what the heck is Trollsmyth smoking?!?

What I'm smoking is pure, unadulterated Moldvay/Cook D&D. The Moldvay Basic book covers only levels 1 through 3. And in the monster section you can find the 5 hit-die ochre jelly (can only be harmed by fire or cold), the 4 hit-die giant rattler (with save-or-die poison), the 6 hit-die minotaur, the 4 hit-die medusa (with her save-or-be-turned-to-stone gaze and save-or-die-from-poison “hair”), and the full range of classic chromatic dragons. And while the wandering monster tables embrace the notion that deeper levels means tougher monsters with richer treasures, the outdoor encounter tables in Cook's Expert book toss even that fig leaf aside. One in eight random wilderness encounters results in a roll on the dragon subtable, and the weakest critter there is probably the 5 hit-die hydra. Oh, and since these critters aren't in their lairs they're not likely to be carrying much in the way of treasure. Just about all you'll win from killing them is your life, plus a paltry handful-hundred experience points.

Which was just fine for us way back when. Our models were “Choose Your Own Adventure” books where you had to outwit your foes because fighting just wasn't an option in most of them. We also looked to the stories of Sinbad and Odysseus, who didn't slay the roc and cyclops, but outwitted them. And of course there were the Saturday afternoon Harryhausen flicks, where, again, the monsters were not usually defeated by mere swordplay, but by being shoved off ledges, tricked into tar pits, fought with other monsters, or just plain running away.

It's not for everyone, and if you're not used to it, it can seem a bit odd at first. I think it best catches the real thrill of exploring a wild place, where not everything is safe and nothing is predictable. It does require strict adherence on everyone's part to noism's ur-rule of good play. A DM who is too quick to say "no" or is out to get the players can really sour things fast. So can players who are unimaginative or too timid. And it'll really crash if everyone isn't on the same page. I'm not a huge fan of the "social contract" thing, but if someone wants this sort of play and the rest of the group isn't on board, gears will grind and the game is likely to lurch a bit.

But when it's working, the game just sings. The players are having fun because they have no idea what will be behind the next door, and they know they can really get their hands dirty mucking about with the setting. The DM is having fun because there's no telling what the players might try next. I love this kind of gaming, and I feel very, very lucky that I've consistently been able to find the sorts of players who enjoy it too.

UDATE: Mr. McKinney touches on a similar topic.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Cellar of the Poyma

At last!

Ok, I'm a bit slow, but I finally got this scanned and posted. Huzzah!

So what you're looking at here is where we left off last time in my Labyrinth Lord hack. This is the cellar beneath the Villa of the Poyma. Green slime, a nest of rats, a torture chamber, and a well-stocked wine cellar. But what's that large room in the NE, beyond the secret door and pit trap? That's where we left off last time:
The room beyond is larger than any you've been in yet. 45' square, with this door in the middle of the western wall. Four massive pillars are in the corners, each fashioned to resemble a twisting riot of snakes surging up towards the ceiling, the snakes crafted from different metals: silver, iron, copper, bronze, and even a few that appear to be gold. The roof is domed and ribbed, and the entire effect gives you the feeling that you are looking into the gullet of a some leviathan.

The walls are painted red with a repeating pattern of tiny gold and green flowers, which only heightens the disturbing sensation of being swallowed. In the middle of the southern wall, you see a massive portal of gleaming red orichalcum. On either side of it are clusters of large pots, six on each side, each large enough to hold you and small friend.

The floor, fashioned from alternating tiles of glossy green and yellow stone, is smeared with blood. It is littered with the detritus of recent combat: the bodies of seven elves, four of which have been stripped naked. Three more naked elves hang from long tendrils of root and earth dangling from the ceiling. These three are alive, but badly bruised and battered, and all three sport smears of mud over ugly-looking claw marks. Two are male, and you think you recognize them from the assault on Uban's temple. The third was their leader, the elven woman with the strawberry-blonde hair.

Hunched in the middle of the room, its back to you, is a massive, bestial figure, a creature apparently of living stone. From here, all you can see is it's stony hide, mossy lower legs, and a rack of gorgeous crystal antlers rising from its head. It appears to be hunched over the body of another dead elf, and the body twitches a bit as the head descends, and you hear more of that odd ringing sound, though now its source is clear: the stone beast is chewing through the slain elf's chain mail. The belongings of the stripped elves are arranged into two piles: one for clothing, packs, and generic equipment, and a second pile of armour and weapons.

I made a few mistakes last time I ran this adventure, but nothing serious. It was mostly due to me getting knocked off my game by a family phone call in the middle of things. Among stuff that got left out were two recently deceased elven bodies in the cellar and on of the cells in that long north-south passage south of the torture chamber. None of that was serious enough to retcon.

In other news, the game has moved to Sunday nights, from 7 PM to 11 PM Central time. If you'd like to join us, drop me an email at trollsmyth-at-yahoo-dot-com.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Artesia and Half-ogres

Can't sleep. So a little tea, a little fudge, and a little inspiration, and we have a blog post.

First, I should have been reading Mark Smylie's “Artesia” years ago. A healthy helping of Greek myth and John Keegan's The Face of Battle (a book I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone interested in military history) sprinkled liberally with Joseph Campbell and the gorgeous world building of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels make for a mighty fine tale. Yeah, it's got a pinch of “Women = Good; Man = Bad” in it, but so far nothing quite as obnoxious as other stuff I've read.

And that prods me to make a hierodule class for my Labyrinth Lord game. But I'm not quite up to the creative challenge tonight, in my sleep-addled state. However, Mike D. recently posted his version of a half-ogre class for Swords & Wizardry. I could just adopt his and drop it in as-is, but I'd rather take my own whack at it, especially since I think some of my hacks to the Labyrinth Lord rules will work very well for something like this.

I've long had a fondness for half-ogres. I really can't say why. I ran one in a 2e game a few years back. The most important lesson I think we took away from that game was, never assist a half-ogre engaged in magical research.

It is said that Tiamat favors the orcs and their kin the ogres more than almost all of her children, save the dragons. Whether or not this is true, they certainly rank among the most numerous of her offspring. Both races are so fecund it is said that they can successfully mate with nearly every mammalian humanoid species. Whatever the species of the mother, such children almost always favor their orcish or ogreish parent in looks and demeanor.

Half-ogres grow quickly to massive proportions. Adults range in height from 6 to 8 feet tall weigh in around 300 pounds. They tend to be temperamental, sadistic, and aggressive. Most assume they are slow-witted, but many possess a sly, bestial cunning that makes them dangerous foes.

The prime requisites for a half-ogre are Strength and Constitution. If a half-ogre has a scores of 13 or better in both Strength and Constitution, the character will gain a 5% bonus to earned experience. If the half-ogre's Strength is 13 or better and his or her Constitution is 16 or better, that character will earn a 10% bonus on earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Half-ogres role six-sided dice to determine their hit points. However, do note that a first level half-ogre rolls 2d6 for starting hit points. (And in my game, that means a half-ogre's hit points at first level are 12 plus any Constitution bonus.) Half-ogres my use any shield and any armour. However, this armour costs 150% of the normal prices due to the half-ogre's massive size. They may wield any weapon. Any normal-sized weapon that usually requires two hands can be wielded by a half-ogre in just one, and they still do 2d4 damage. In addition, massive weapons that require even a half-ogre to use both hands can be fashioned. These cost 150% the price of normal-sized weapons of the same type, may not be fashioned from bronze, and do 2d6 damage. Most normal mounts are not strong enough to carry a half-ogre character very far, if at all. A character must have a Strength of 11 or better to be a half-ogre.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Half-ogres have infravision and can see 60 feet in the dark. The use the same saving throws as dwarves. They may eat almost anything that isn't outright poisonous without ill effect, no matter how spoiled, moldy, or rotten. If a half-ogre slays a foe, and there is another foe also actively attacking the half-ogre, the half-ogre player gets an immediate attack on this second foe. Rinse and repeat until the half-ogre fails to slay or runs out of foes.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Death of RPGs

Photo credit: MoToMo

The brains of trolls often run in odd little circles...

It started with... Well, it probably really started with my job. Spend all day up to your eyeballs in SEO (that's Search Engine Optimization for the uninitiated, the practice of raising a website's visibility to search engines like Google) and these sorts of things bubble up from time to time. But that's just the background. The catalyst was an article on the escapist by fellow Austinite Allen Varney entitled “Internet Killed the Tabletop Star”. I think he's a bit off the mark, though. His thesis appears to be that table-top RPGers should embrace the 'net, even though all these MMOGs have killed pen-and-paper RPGing. He then points out all the cool pen-and-paper RPG happenings on the 'net, like the old school renaissance and online tabletops.

Which is all well and good, except MMOGs are a distraction to the problems in the pen-and-paper RPG world. The folks who left our games to play MMOGs mostly prefer what MMOGs have to offer, and only really played pen-and-paper games because MMOGs hadn't been invented yet. These are the folks who played primarily for the DING! of level advancement, who eagerly waded into 10' x 10' rooms where orcs guarded pies and never needed anything else. They're happier playing MMOGs than they could ever be rolling dice and enduring the budding romance between the character of the player to their left and an NPC. And, at the risk of sounding like sour grapes, my games at least are better off without them.

So where are the new young roleplayers? They're not in the MMOGs, ladies and gents. They're enjoying free-form roleplay in chatrooms and bulletin boards. They're running through the halls of Hogwarts or creeping through the mists of Mirkwood. They're doing everything we're doing, and doing it so much that Mom is having to limit their computer time, only they're not rolling dice or filling out character sheets. And they have no damned use for a 300 page, $35 book full of rules.

No damned use at all.

And that, right there, ladies and gents, orcs and trolls, is the elephant in the living room. The truth nobody wants to look at.

MMOGs didn't steal an entire generation of gamers, young people who were raised on Harry Potter and the Lords of the Rings movies and collecting Pokemon, a generation better primed than almost any before it to enjoy RPGs. Nope. It was the pen-and-paper RPG industry that drove them away.

Justin Alexander, in a comment on Grognardia's post about Mr. Varney's article, said it best:

While other forms of entertainment have certainly poached tabletop's audience, I still think a major contributing factor is the lack of gateway product...

...The investment time in terms of reading the rulebooks also drastically increased. The BECMI Basic Set I started playing with had roughly 100 pages in it, and a significant chunk of that was actually a solo play adventure. By contrast, 4th Edition's core rulebooks are 800+ pages.

D&D is still the game synonymous with RPGs and to start you need to shell out $140 and read 800+ pages. I have no idea what kids make mowing lawns these days, but I do know that $140 will get you in to see one movie a month for an entire year. It's over twice the cost of a new video game. And before we even talk about price and the daunting size of the rules, D&D has got to overcome the hurdle of being that game Dad played way back in the Mesozoic era, when he wasn't running away from veloceraptors barefoot through the snow uphill on his way to school.

(Ok, that's not entirely true. There's a $17 Starter Set that's a sort of cut-down version of the game that will take you up to 3rd level. Is this the first you're hearing of it? Me to. I stumbled across it when doing research for this rant, er I mean, blog post.)

D&D has abandoned that target audience of young, budding gamers. And D&D is supposed to be our gateway game. Maybe, if we're lucky, a few might stumble into the game via Magic: the Gathering, but isn't the steam draining out of that engine as well? I wouldn't know, so if you know otherwise, tell me.

I'd dare say that Spike is probably doing more today to introduce kids and teens to RPGing than WotC.

And to me, this looks like an opportunity. The prime RPGing years are roughly 9 to 16, when you're reading and making your own choices about friends and entertainment, but don't yet have your own car. The next best chance to get someone interested is in college, when you have more time than money and lots of people your own age around, but transportation is mostly limited by how far you can get on foot. After that, it gets harder and harder to interest someone in a hobby that's as time-consuming and imagination-demanding as RPGs.

You can maybe make the case that 4e is a good fit for the college crowd, but 10 year olds? I don't think so. WotC has abandoned them, and they are ripe for anyone with the right marketing strategy.

Speaking of, here's something else interesting. When I Google “roleplaying game”, D&D doesn't even show up on the front page. Wikipedia is my first two results, followed by a hosting site for free online MMOGs. What's 4th? RPGnet followed by RPG Gateway then RPG Sheets, RPGNews, and 1km1kt. You have to go to the second page before D&D shows up under their preferred spelling of “roleplaying game”.

The field is abandoned. The audience is out there. They're web-savvy, eager to use their imaginations, and steeped in the lore from movies and computer games. They want something more, and since they've not been given it, they're making it on their own. And the industry has nobody but themselves to blame.

UPDATE: The Alexandrian agrees, with a tale of a young player getting into RPGs only after persevering in the face of not quite getting it the first few times.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why I Love Living in Austin

We do stuff like this.

Subdued Addendum

Guten tag to my readers in Deutschland, especially those of you coming by way of Brave Halfling Publishing's German bulletin boards. Attention from that board to my Table of Death and Dismemberment, plus Chgowiz's recounting of a bar brawl in the solo game for his wife has me thinking about subdual damage. Traditionally in D&D, subdual damage is tracked separately from “real” damage, and I'm not entirely certain why. My guess is that a captive is generally more valuable than a corpse, and tracking them separately means you can't use fireballs and lightning bolts to subdue a foe. The only place subduing a foe shows up in Moldvay's Basic is under the dragon entry of the monster section and speaks specifically against allowing spells and ranged weapons.

Fair enough, but I'm still not seeing the necessity. Right now, if someone tells me they want to subdue their foe, I run combat like normal except that the target is knocked out instead of slain at the end (unless, of course, those final hit points are lost to a lightning bolt). It's not quite the same thing that Moldvay was talking about, but it's worked pretty well for me in the past.

If someone wants to capture the PCs I do things the same way. They still get a roll on the Table of Death and Dismemberment, but any roll other than a 10, 11, or 12 results in simply being knocked out rather than losing limbs and whatnot.

I also noticed that there's no roll that results in losing an eye on my table. Eye patches are cool, so I may need to change that.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Traffic Notes

Just an interesting observation:

I saw a 30% spike in traffic on Friday the 13th. Besides being my lucky day ("If it wern't for bad luck I'd have not luck at all...") I really saw nothing to drive that spike. Most of the traffic came from Jeff's Gameblog and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I can only assume the title of the blog, "Why I Wimped Out", was the draw. I've never noticed a spike like that based on a title before.

I think I can rule out weather, since the rest of the week shows pretty typical traffic for me. Spring Break starts at different times in different places, so I think I can rule that out as a significant influence as well. (If anything, I'd expect the break to lower my numbers, not raise them.) If you've got some thoughts on the subject, please let me know. I'm very curious about what exactly happened and why.

I draw my sword and... Wait, it's a what?!?

I think the old school crowd is starting to rub off on poor Chatty. He's thinking of mixing things up a bit in Thunderspire Labyrinth:

So I’m going to make one small change to that encounter.  While the adventure mentions that the first NPC the players are likely to meet should ‘attack the PCs on sight’, I’ll give the NPC some motive to prefer to deal with them and have them remain alive in the complex...

If this works out, the NPC may point out toward the second set of NPCs in the area and propose some sort of cooperation to advance a common agenda.

Ahhh who am I kidding? The PCs are likely going to be rude to the NPC up to the point where I’ll say something like ‘it grips it’s sword in anger’ and all everyone will reach for their d20s.

This is one of those areas where old school and new school players diverge and not in the stereotypical ways. The new school knows that orcs is for killin'. Veterans of the Caves of Chaos, the D series of adventures, and Danger at Dunwater have a more circumspect relationship with humanoids. I think this is one area where 2e really pushed the envelope, with lots of adventures in Dungeon magazine that had players doing such things as rescuing a green dragon's eggs from magmen. Planescape not only had the PCs playing races that had previously only been monsters but made dealing with demons and cross-dimensional horrors just another day at the office.

There is something the 4e DM can do to shake things up and make the players adopt a more cautious attitude towards encounters, and that is to throw in something clearly beyond their level. Things are so clearly delineated by levels that tossing in a monster that's beyond the PCs' ability to fight straight up is fairly easy to do. Heck, to really throw them for a curve, make it a monster above their tier. If the players know anything about the MM and are paying attention, that should be all it takes to get them to stop and weigh their options a bit more seriously. Once they've had a taste of that sort of play, hopefully they'll look for more opportunities to play like that in the future.

If, instead, they look puzzled and ask, “Is this a combat situation or a skill challenge?”, well, I dunno how to help you there. I really, really doubt, though, that most players are to that point.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Why I Wimped Out

There's been a lot of macho talk about death in D&D lately. Most of it I agree with. The occasional death of a PC, or even an entire party, gives the game a visceral edge that plot immunity simply can't match.

And yet, I've clearly wimped out with my Table of Death and Dismemberment. Well, mostly wimped out. There's a lot of save-or-die in Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord. Still, this table makes it a lot harder to kill a PC. So, if I agree that the threat of imminent death is good for the game, why have I watered it down?

Because, to be blunt, I find death boring and frequent death blunts its sting. Yeah, I know, rolling up Roger the Fighter II is something of a tradition in Old School D&D, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. When it gets to the point where you just don't name a character until he gets to 3rd level, and death is an annoyance rather than a serious issue in the game, the Trollsmyth is no longer a happy DM.

Besides, why would I want to kill a magic-user when I can chop off his hand? What's he gonna do now? Can't cast spells with just one hand, and nothing short of a wish will restore it. It's crunch time for the player. Take on some grand quest to get the hand back while enduring the handicap? Change classes? Or retire the character? That last might seem the most obvious, but just think of all the possibilities that offers the DM. The next time they're in town, the PCs might pass the poor crippled ex-magic-user begging for coins in the street. But that dude's still got a 17 Intelligence. You think he's going to stay down forever? Imagine how the PCs will react when their “old friend” returns, looking for a little payback a few levels later, backed up by the toughs of the Beggars' Guild...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Free eBook by Charles deLint

Tor's latest free ebook offering is Spiritwalk, Charles deLint's sequel to Moonheart.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

Oddysey asked a question about returning to an old but beloved campaign a few days ago. I haven’t had the time to write the sort of pithy and succinct response appropriate to comments, so you get a long and rambling dissertation. ;)

”Which leaves me wondering why it is that they want to play this sequel game so badly.” - Oddysey

Very good question. The answer should guide your next steps.

I'm going to go waaay out on a limb here and suggest character empathy is a strong part of it. Your players feel a really strong connection to their characters, and they want to see how the story goes on, what happens next. (If this is the case, congrats! You did an excellent job of GMing,and they did an excellent job of playing.) Beloved characters are a joy to play just in their own right. When they already have a collection of cool gear and a web of associations with interesting NPCs, there’s even more fun in the offing.

If this is true, you really need to let the players either play their old, beloved PCs or new PCs who have a strong connection to those PCs, like their children or close retainers and lieutenants. In either case, you’re not starting the campaign at the traditional 1st-level-nobodies. Even if the PCs are first level, they’ll likely have access to powerful contacts and resources. You can, of course, invoke some major disaster to sever the PCs from most of these, a la the opening paragraphs of A Game of Thrones. However, this isn’t necessary and might feel a bit like a cop-out. The “Road Warrior” is as great as it is primarily because it doesn’t bear much resemblance to “Mad Max”. Likewise, “The Empire Strikes Back” doesn’t start with Luke back on the farm, but picks up where “Star Wars” left off.

You might, however, have serious issues if your players feel too strong a connection to the characters. If they’re feeling overly proprietary, and absolutely refuse to allow anything bad to happen to their beloved PCs or associated NPCs, it may not be worth revisiting that campaign. Give your imprimatur to whatever fanfic they want to write, or just tell them that everyone lived happily ever after, and leave it at that.

Another strong draw may have been the themes of the campaign. If your campaign was all about fighting for social justice, or dealing with a doomed world in an unfeeling and alien universe, or had a strong comedic element that really resonated with your players, this may be what they are looking to return to and play with. If this is the case, you might be better off with a new campaign, or maybe even an entirely different game system! However, you’ll have a hard time convincing the players of this if they haven’t made this realization themselves.

Finally, the players may feel that the campaign ended without resolving issues that they feel personally invested in. This is a not uncommon problem in more sandboxy games where some goals end up being deferred as other take precedence. Yes, Khanthrax the rakshasa prince was defeated and his plot to turn all the good humanoids of the world into rodents was thwarted, but a pretender may still sit on the throne of Lorany. Or Sir Martin never reforged his father’s broken sword. Or Kalit never finished building that temple as she promised Isis she would. If the issue is small enough and personal enough, you might not need a full-scale campaign. A few adventures or scenes might be enough to create appropriate closure for your players. Feel free, though, to let players whose PCs were not directly involved to take part. Friends helping each other through these sorts of things is a rich vein in literature and can be fun to play with, if those other players don’t mind their PCs playing second-fiddle for a bit.

For myself, I’ve both played in such a campaign (specifically, the children and students of the previous generation) and run such campaigns. Some of my old college group want very much to dust off those characters and continue their adventures. The trick, for me at least, is to find new themes to explore and challenges that I find compelling without doing too much violence to the things that the players loved in the original campaign.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Old School, New School, Red School, Blue School

This started as a reply in the comments to Chatty DM's discussion of building a megadungeon with old-schooly aspects for 4e. First, let me say that I think his emphasis on a game that he and his crew will enjoy is spot-on. That's probably the most important aspect of any D&D game, in any edition.

I asked Chatty what he meant by “player psychology-driven controlled encounters “ and he replied:

I meant encounters designed to hit the motivations of each of the players in your group. My group has a strong butt kicking streak, so I need to put in combats. I have a few Tacticians so I need to let them plan in some encounters instead of having them react all the time. There are strong Storytellers so encounters need to make sense in the world around the PCs and so forth.

I don’t think old school dungeons were designed like that. Although I clearly recall reading about Gygax and Kuntz designing part of their respective dungeons to specifically challenge their players.

I do know that the infamous Tomb of Horrors was designed to thwart common strategies and certain kick-in-the-door-and-whack-everything-that-moves proclivities that seemed to be cropping up in the game at that time. Beyond that, I couldn't say. What I can speak to is the flexibility of dungeons from those days of yore. My favorite example is Shrine of the Kuo-toa. Every encounter, from the mad boatman to the svirfneblin to the shrine itself can go any of a number of ways. Does the party draw swords and charge in with spells flying? Do they attempt stealth? Or do they negotiate their way through the encounter? A smart, observant, and lucky party can pass through the entire module without ever having to fight, and emerge out the other side with extra treasures in their packs and maybe even some allies that might prove very useful in tackling the Vault of the Drow.

This flexibility is a bit of a challenge to reproduce in 4e. In the latest iteration of D&D, encounters are designed from the start as combat or skill challenges or whatever. But older versions didn't have this separation. Any encounter could be a duel to the death, or a tense negotiation, or something else entirely. This is why it mattered that kobolds hated their orc neighbors, or that the ogre had a toothache, or that the owlbear hadn't eaten in days. This is why 3e statblocks are such monsters; if the PCs might negotiate with a creature, it's important to know the necessary stats, skills, and feats that might apply to such an attempt. 4e attempts to thread that needle by making the DM decide ahead of time how the PCs will deal with the challenge, so you only need to worry about it as either a combat challenge or a skill challenge, and then you apply the appropriate rules, and only those you need.

That said, I'm sure a skillful 4e DM can swing one way or the other adroitly, without the players ever the wiser. I think it's a bit easier with Labyrinth Lord, but that likely says more about my personal preferences and strengths than it does about the games. I do know that this flexibility in older editions made it easier for the players to mold the game into the sort of thing they preferred. If they wanted to kick down doors and wade in, that was an option. If, instead, they enjoyed more a game of politics and shifting alliances, the game easily accommodated that sort of play. Players who were all about battle mats and miniatures could acquire hirelings and henchmen before entering the dungeon, marshaling their mercenaries to wage tunnel warfare against the dungeon. Granted, some encounters could better be tackled with certain strategies. In the Villa of the Poyma, there are a few encounters that are very tough for a straight-up, mano-y-mandible fight. Trickery or truce would work better in those situations. But I'm not dictating anything, and whatever method my players chose, I will give them whatever odds seem most just according to the situation.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

“You’re in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”

As I mentioned in the previous post, Oddysey has started work on her megadungeon. She's got some neat ideas:

The initial first level -- what I'm working on right now -- is The Labyrinth, originally intended as a defense system for the fortress. (And amusement for its owners.)

Mazes are cool. They're chock full of mythic and spiritual resonances, can be generated by mathematical formulas (and can you get more nerdy than using an algorithm to build your D&D adventure?), look great on your graph paper, and just ooze old school as much as pig-snouted orcs and rust monsters.

They can also be game killers.

If you assume the maze can only be solved by marching through it and building a detailed map from the inside, it quickly devolves into the DM and the mapper shooting short-hand directions back and forth at each other while everyone else takes a nap, texts on their cellphones, or sees how high they can stack their dice. A raw maze, can, in short, be boring.

Those who adhere to the ways of the old school may take me to task on this. Have I not postulated that logistics and exploration are at the heart of old school D&D? And is there any challenge more suited to that sort of play than the maze?

All true points. But unless your players are really engaged in the mapping process, there's simply nothing for them to do while the mapper leads them blindly through the labyrinth, trying to puzzle it out. And true old school mazes were exercises in unbridled sadism. The DM knew the mapper would try the old follow-the-left-hand-wall trick, so they eagerly set out to foil it. Old school mazes were full of sloping passages, invisible teleporters, and rotating passages. Marks made on the walls or floor of the maze would be erased or altered. There's a picture in the 1e PHB where a warrior is carefully laying out thread from a spindle behind him to mark his way through a maze, while behind the corner a troll is just as carefully wrapping it back up. Drop a party of unsuspecting players who are used to more story-driven adventures into an old school maze and they are likely to quit out of boredom and frustration long before their characters starve to death, hopelessly lost in the bowels of your beautiful design.

In his computer game design series entitled “Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!” Ernest Adams has this to say about mazes:

The original text adventure, Colossal Cave, had two mazes. One was a series of rooms each of which was described thus: “You’re in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” The other was a series of rooms described as, “You’re in a twisting little maze of passages, all different” (or “You’re in a little twisty maze of passages, all different,” or “You’re in a maze of little twisting passages, all different,” etc.). These were the prototypical boring and stupid mazes. Colossal Cave was the first adventure game ever, though, so I cut it a little slack. But that was over twenty years ago; there’s no longer any excuse for doing that now. Somebody gave me a copy of The Legend of Kyrandia a few years back, and I played it with some pleasure – right up until I got to the maze.

Mazes don’t have to be boring and stupid. It’s possible to design entertaining mazes by ordering the rooms according to a pattern that the player can figure out. A maze should be attractive, clever, and above all, fun to solve. If a maze isn’t interesting or a pleasure to be in, then it’s a bad feature.

I am in complete agreement with Mr. Adams in this regard. Even a raw maze without the gorgnard's clever attempts to foil mapping is boring. Besides, your maze can be so much more.

I imagine the ur-maze for those of us who discovered gaming during the Silver Age was probably Jim Henson's “Labyrinth”. While much of the appeal of the movie is in the visuals (from the art direction of Brian Froud), there are also the puzzles and thematic elements which make that maze work. The movie features old chestnuts like the door that always lies and the door that always tells the truth, the friendly-looking denizen who is actually very dangerous and the scary-looking creature who is actually very helpful, and the massive gate with a built-in, steampunk goblin mecha. Er, ok, maybe that last one isn't something we've seen much of before or since, but you get the idea.

That maze is a fairly simple thing, being a collection of atmospheric obstacles sprinkled through the labyrinth. There are other ways to make your maze interesting. There's the maze that is really a bunch of interdimensional back alleyways as used in Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits. A maze can also be a right-of-passage, a miniature journey through the Underworld from one stage of life to the next (which, in its way, is exactly what the maze in “Labyrinth” is, though I prefer something more mythological/anthropological and less preachy ;) ). There's the maze that's actually a machine, where the walls are arranged to focus magical energy or are actually giant gears and cogs that perform some amazing work when the bits are properly arranged and the right activation sequence performed. This is akin to the interactive maze, where the players can adjust the shape of the maze and thereby what parts of the maze they can visit and where the maze exits to. And that's a neat version to pair with the maze as tactical challenge, where the maze primarily serves as interesting terrain in which the party fights an enemy.

I suspect that Oddysey has in mind one of my favorite variations on the maze, which is maze as pitcher plant. These mazes are very easy to get into, but once you do, getting back out again can be a real challenge. At that point, things can get really exciting. Logistics come to the forefront and every wound and spent arrow is an agony for the party. The pitcher plant maze forces the party deeper and deeper to the center while slowly whittling away at their resources, a death of a thousand cuts with the promise of sudden, terrible, and almost certainly lethal violence at the end. plotting

What? Are you suggesting I'm as sadistic as the DMs of old? Perish the thought!

Megadungeons Everywhere

Fight On! #4 is out. The latest entry of the magazine's megadungeon, "The Darkness Beneath", is written by James "Grognardia" Maliszewski. Mr. Maliszewski also brings us word of the latest from Monte "No, Really, I'm Retiring" Cook. The author of Ptolus now offers us a subscription website where he'll be building a megadungeon with daily updates called

The project is intriguing. For $7 per month (if you join in March as as charter member) you'll get:

new game content every weekday. Basically, what I'll be doing is building an ongoing dungeon-based campaign of a decidedly old-school tradition, but utilizing all the newest presentation options. So expect an adventure like no other with hypertext references to all the important game content (including various rules references), fluid encounters, and incredible amounts of detail.

The centerpiece is to be a megadungeon called Dragon's Delve, but you'll also get:

the surrounding area (filled with intriguing ruins), the nearby town of Brindenford (which is far more involved in the goings-on than it first appears), side trips to a mysterious island and an extradimensional tesseract, and forays into strange other planes. And that's just for starters. Seriously.

He has this to say on rules:

The rules supported will be primarily 3.5, but let me offer up two thoughts in that regard. The first is, even as I'm writing this I'm struck by how rules-light it all is. It would be a piece of cake to use it with any edition (older or newer) of the game. The second is, if I discover that a large percentage of the membership is using another rules system, like say Pathfinder or Arcana Evolved, I'll make a point to offer up frequent conversion information, assuming that I can do so legally, respecting copyrights where needed.

He's hit some of the old school buttons, but I suspect this will be the exact opposite to some of the themes the old school has lately embraced. For instance, he's promised "incredible amounts of detail." Compare to the One Page Dungeon form being used in such projects as Stonehell from "The Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope". I also don't expect to see Mr. Cook embrace the Empty Room Principle. I do expect the project will be very interesting and may in fact be worth what he's charging for it. If anyone in this industry can provide value in a project like this, it's Monte Cook.

But it's no surprise to read Mr. Maliszewski's wistful conclusion:

there's a big part of me that wishes the old school community could organize itself into a similar kind of project but without a fee. I know we have the talent to do so.

I completely agree. Hell, I'd probably pay hard cash for a megadungeon crafted by James M., Mr. Raggi, and Chgowiz, populated by creatures and treasures designed by Taichara and Noisms, with art direction from David Larkins and Jeff Rients.

In the meantime, Oddysey has begun work on her megadungeon, inspired in part by Castle Heterodyne. Yeah, there really does seem to be something in the air...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Fluid Edge - An Invitation to Play

To make magic magical, I've suggested making it dangerous. There are, of course, other options. How about magic that invites you to experiment, to indulge your exploration itch, and rewards you for thinking outside the box?

Taichara delivers again. Not only is this a fun toy for the players to explore, but the DM can also use the blade to express something about the campaign. Is the blade useful? Benevolent? Scary? Eldritch? Do the result reflect a theme? Are they random (I could easily see one of Jeff's random generators being tied to this)? Comedic? There's all sorts of fun to be had with this wonderful magical "weapon".

And here's another cool thing: the "guts", if you will, the actual working mechanics of the weapon, can be ported to any system. 4e, 3e, OD&D, True20, Pendragon, Burning Wheel, GURPS, whatever lights your fire.

Keep your eye on Taichara's Hamsterish Hoard. Lots of neat stuff happening there.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Just when you thought it was over...

I haven't been keeping a weather eye on WotC since 4e failed to light my fire and I ran into the open arms of Labyrinth Lord. Luckily, fellow Austinite mxyzplk has been paying attention and brings word of the latest itteration of the 4e GSL. He says it's better, but not great:

Well, the other big change is that they removed the remaining “poison pill” clause. This clause basically said that “you can’t publish the same stuff under the OGL and GSL.” In other words, if you want to create a 4e version of an adventure, campaign setting, etc. that is also available via OGL - you have to give up the OGL. Of course, this meant that everyone with multiple product lines including OGL stuff - Green Ronin’s Freeport, for example - wouldn’t touch 4e with a ten foot pole.

Now, apparently, you could put out a “4e Guide to Freeport,” adapt existing 3.5e adventures to 4e, etc. You can’t dual-stat; the FAQ states that, say, using Cleric as defined in the OGL inside a GSL-licensed product violates the “don’t redefine things” clause in the GSL. That’s a little annoying - I fail to see how they have a vested interest in someone not dual-statting an adventure, for example - but it’s a minor restriction in lieu of the previous huge ass one.

There's a lot more at the link, so if you're a 4e fan or just curious what your favorite third party publishers might get up to, be sure to read the whole thing.

I have to wonder if this helped inspire Necromancer Games' interest in producing an "old school" version of 4e. Frankly, I'm not certain they're barking up the right trees; the first thing I'd tackle is the treasure and magic item creation rules, and then work my way back to character classes and powers. It'll still be interesting to see what they come up with.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Just Write, Just Play

I do a lot of writing these days, some professional and some just for fun. Often, I have a vague notion about the topic, but no specifics. I learned back in college that if I just start writing about the topic, eventually my thoughts will crystallize into an argument that I can hang a paper around.

I run my campaigns the same way. The first session of my current Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord game was back on the 22nd of January. Only this morning, after chewing on it late last night when I couldn't fall asleep, did I finally get around to writing down what the big movers and shakers were doing. And even then, it was in the vaguest of terms.

Why? First, because what the big movers and shakers are up to hasn't been terribly important. The party started out shipwrecked, made their long way back to civilization, and now is involved in tracking down a small party of dangerous elves. Yes, what the Powers That Be are up to does have some influence on this, but it's only tangential. Yes, there will be clues for the PCs to find, but nothing solid yet. The truth is still out there, somewhere, but it's not likely to fall into their laps for some time yet.

Secondly, I wasn't sure what the PCs and players were interested in. And I'm still probably being premature, so I've left things vague. It could be the PCs will, in the end, have nothing to do with the grand schemes I wrote about. It might only end up as background window dressing. If that turns out to be the case, there's no point in me pouring buckets of sweat and blood into it. Much better to focus my energies where they will bring the most fun to our game. Right now, that's a bit of old school dungeon delving mingled with some para-anthropology and empathetic NPCs.

Third, I was still getting a good feel for this campaign. Nearly every other D&D game I've run in the past has been high fantasy of some stripe or another. This is the first where I've tried to inject a bit more Bronze and Iron Age feel. Plus, the new rules for magic and character classes might still alter the flavor of the game in ways I haven't anticipated yet.

And finally, the players are still putting their mark on the campaign. The players always add their own spin on things, and until you do you can never really tell what new dimensions or angles they might bring into focus. It's their game, too, and should reflect their interests and desires as much as mine.

It all comes down, eventually, to wiggle-room. You always want to leave a bit of room for a new monster, or an adventure in an unusual environment, or a sudden shift in the interests of the group. A good campaign is a dynamic one, and keeping things loose and malleable at the beginning gives you lots of room to define things as you and the players express your interests in the play of the game.