Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I wonder if this ever happened.

It's 1979 or 1980 and you're a bright, imaginative youth living in a remote rural part of the United States.  Maybe once a month or so you get to the nearest town where you can buy a paperback novel or a comic book with your meager funds.  On one such expedition, you find the blue Holmes Basic D&D on the shelf of a toystore or the toy section of a department store (even a hardware store isn't out of the question).  For purposes of this hypothetical, we'll assume your usual bookstore doesn't stock D&D stuff.

You read the book several times, only dimly understanding at first, and eventually run the game for a circle of friends that become the only game group for miles around.  The game is played off and on for a year, maybe two.  Perhaps after everyone gets several characters each to third level, interest begins to wane.  You decide to re-read the rules and try to suss out how higher level characters work based on the mention of higher spells, extrapolating the XP charts, etc.  But on this read-through you re-discover something glossed over in early attempts to understand the book: mention of an Advanced version of the game.

You resolve that the next time you go to town you will check for Advanced D&D at the place you bought your original D&D set, but you don't find any Advanced D&D.  Maybe they sold out or maybe the person responsible for ordering stock doesn't think the toy section of hardware store needs expensive hardback rulebooks.  But you do find this:

That "Expert Set" up in the corner sounds kinda like an Advanced version of D&D, so you plonk down your cash and bring it home.  It turns out to be exactly what you need!  More spells, more monsters, more treasures, rules for characters to 14th level and lots of clarifications of the rules you didn't understand (like how elves work).  There's a passage explaining that this Expert Set is designed for a new version of the rules you are using, but also there's advice for how to use your version with the Expert book.  You keep the scroll rules from the original book and your slightly wonky initiative interpretation (you don't even realize it's a house rule), which uses Dex somehow and allows daggers to strike twice under some circumstances.

The Expert rules mention two other texts.  In a couple of places a Companion rulebook is mentioned that will allow for even higher level play.  You spend years bugging the staff where you got the Expert set.  Every time you're in town you go an ask them if the D&D Companion set is out yet.  Eventually some of them recognize you and shake their head before you can even ask.

Meanwhile, it turns out that your cool weird aunt, the one who lives in a distant college town, was actually paying attention when you were yammering on about the Best Game Ever and actually tracks down a copy of the other rulebook mentioned in the Expert rules:

Go ahead and look at the bottom of the first column of page X25 if you don't remember this book being mentioned in the '81 Expert rules.

So now you got this weird little booklet from 1976 with strange rules for mass combat.  Some of the stuff in this book you can adopt right away, like the weapon reach rules or the morale rules (which are pretty sparse using Expert without Moldvay Basic to explain them).  The rest of it requires a lot of work to understand and obtaining a large quantity of figures, which is probably not practical given that you are so far out on the edge of the hobby's supply chain.  So you either don't do mass combats despite owning these rules or else you go on to make your own armies out of haphazard materials.  Maybe you even sculpt your own armies out of clay or whittle them or something.  That's what M.A.R. Barker did for Tekumel back before the hobby had a commercial sector attached to it.

Meanwhile, 1984 rolls around and your long-promised Companion rules finally appear!

There's lots of cool stuff here: new weapons, new class options, crunchy unarmed combat, level charts to 25th, weird monsters (including bigger dragons) and the War Machine, a less mini-focused and better written mass combat system.  Combining the War Machine with Swords & Spells allows you to play out in detail battles the PCs attend while the overall war is somewhat more abstracted.  Too bad the level charts don't go to 36th as promised in your '81 Expert rulebook, but the Companion rules promise a Master set that allows for characters up to 36th level as well as the chance to attain Immortality.  Pretty cool!

So there you have it.  A scenario under which over 4 or 5 years you can draw a line across 4 different editions of D&D and still be playing "by the book".  That '81 Expert rulebook connects you to three other editions.

Friday, July 26, 2013

answers for Random Wizard

 Original questions posted here.

(1). Race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) as a class? Yes or no?
In most games I run, yes, that's the normal set-up.  However, I would be open to accommodating someone that really wanted to play a Dwarf Druid or whatever.

(2). Do demi-humans have souls?
Souls are not explicitly discussed in the rules I tend to favor (BX).  However, the Raise Dead spell does not distinguish between humans and demi-humans, so I think the answer is "yes".  (Note that the Reincarnation spell suggests that at least some members of the following species also have souls: Gnomes, Neanderthals, Blink Dogs, Pegasi, Unicorns, Rocs, Pixies, Sprites, Rock Baboons, Lizard Men, Apes, Centaurs, Werebears, Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Gnolls, Bugbears, Wererats, Ogres, Werewolves and Minotaurs.)

(3). Ascending or descending armor class?

Descending.  Sometimes I'm a grumpy old man who likes things the way they used to be.

(4). Demi-human level limits?
Yep, but then I also assume human level limits.  For most campaigns the limit is either 20th (per the Field Guide to Encounters) or 14th (the upper limit of Expert D&D).  Not that it comes up much.  I usually run lower level games.

(5). Should thief be a class?
Yes, but it is often gimped by harsh rules and/or adjudicated poorly by the DM, myself included.  Opening Locks should allow one to earn another roll by continuing to work on it (and maybe giving the DM an additional Wandering Monster check).  Finding and Removing Traps rolls should be the last resort of a lazy thief; good descriptions of precautions should preempt the need for a roll.  Picking Pockets and Moving Silently should be much easier if the thief can arrange a distraction.  Climbing Walls should only be rolled when the obstacle is something no ordinary person can climb.  Hiding in Shadows should only be rolled if there's no actual intervening cover.  Hear Noise is okay, I guess.

(6). Do characters get non-weapon skills?
Yes and no.  Beyond thief skills I don't use any skill mechanics, but if someone said to me "my halfling is a decent cook" I would take that seriously.

(7). Are magic-users more powerful than fighters (and, if yes, what level do they take the lead)?
Yes.  If you keep your adventure tempo low they are always better than fighters, assuming one encounter per day and a Sleep spell.  But by fifth level the fireballs come out and everyone knows who the boss is.

(8). Do you use alignment languages?
I usually don't.  But I think I can make it work in threefold alignment games, using them as religious languages for the churches of Law, the covens of Chaos and the druids of Neutrality.  In five- or ninefold games it's just ridiculous.

(9). XP for gold, or XP for objectives (thieves disarming traps, etc...)?
XP for monsters (100 times hit dice overcome), XP for treasure (1 per GP) and XP for carousing (typically 100-600 per drunken bender).

(10). Which is the best edition; ODD, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, 1E ADD, 2E ADD, 3E ADD, 4E ADD, Next ?

I prefer Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert, but I do not claim that is an objective choice.  Anyone claiming any edition is objectively superior to another is probably either a shill or a patsy.

Bonus Question: Unified XP level tables or individual XP level tables for each class?

XP chart by class, please.  I'm all in favor of crummy classes and anyone who plays one should get a bit of an XP aid for doing so.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

non-mechanical charsheet fodder

So here's a thread I started on Google Plus that I wanted to save.  Here's what I said:

I think it was the Compleat Arduin where I saw a character sheet with a spot to fill in your PCs best friend. I thought that was a brilliant example of the kind of non-mechanical info we need more of on our charsheets. Please help me brainstorm some other ideas.

Here's what everyone came up with:

Favorite Oath, Curse, Swear or Expletive:
Favorite Intoxicant:
Monster or Animal That Gives You the Willies:
More usable by the player then the character; but theme song.
no. 1 friend, rival, enemy.
What are they afraid of?
What would they be doing if they weren't adventuring?
What family role do they play? (parent? kid? foundling? weird uncle?)
Prized or lucky posession.
Most influential person -- -- they don't necessarily have to have even met and they might be entirely fictional. Alexander the Great's might be Achilles, for instance.
Favorite item of clothing
Most shameful act
How/where did they acquire their weapons/armor/spellbook etc.
biggest flaw or greatest fear, family and/or business ties. One one conveyed something in game for the GM to use. 
"I'll get that guy...someday" 
Why are they adventuring in the first place?
Important Person, a formative or influential person in the PC's history.
Hiding spot. What's hidden there.
Favorite food
accent/regional dialect (some people can't do voices but want their characters to have them anyway)
most important memor(y/ies)
most important possession and/or person
family's social/economic standing
favorite hobby when not bashing heads in
most applicable diagnosis (since most adventurers are actually pretty crazy or dramatic sorts)
Why can't you return home for some time, if ever?
[Seems like brevity would be key if you wanted these things on a character sheet.]
In #torchbearer you have best friend, enemy, parents, mentor and home
What are they going to do when they get out of this shit? (War Movie rule #38 they need to harp on that in conversation right before they get it.)
Annoying catchphrase, ofc.
Civilization level
Favorite bar/tavern/pub
favorite drink order
most successful pick up line
preferred hangover cure
Morning Temper
Mannerisms and quirks
"Tell" when lying
One thing loved/hated
Secret dream/secret shame
Personal strength/personal weakness
Favorite color (Blue!)
Beliefs about the causes of diseases and infections
Favorite LoTFP publication
Political position on the association between rats and copper pieces
[Let 10,000 designs bloom around the idea of quick-starting a character with an online dating profile instead of the traditional sheet!]
Hero from childhood
"Signs" from Over the Edge: Tell-tale signs that hint at your character's abilities without stating them explicitly (for instance, "thick veins and beefy arms" could be the sign for high strength.
I've used Drive (something like Sex, Money, Fame, Knowledge) that the character is motivated by, and Aversion (something like Commitment, Attention, Work) that the character seeks to avoid.
Rival's been one I've had fun with. "why can't you go home" also seems incredibly useful. 
Who do you hate in the party
Who do you like/need/love in the party
What's the worst thing you've ever done
Commonly used expletives
Most shameful desire
Failed Profession
Some for more modern/Sci Fi feel, some just taking the piss, some of more general application
  • PCs favourite TV/holovision program 
  • PCs favourite fast food 
  • If this was PC was a kind of fruit what kind would he/she be? 
  • How much this PC hates telesales calls 
  • Hours spent noodling on the internet per day 
  • Favourite vacc suit/combat armour air freshener scent 
  • Tattoo, location and how badly it is misspelt 
  • Organ Donor Card? 
  • Length of criminal record in feet and inches 
Battle scars and Amputations
Where they've stashed the loot.

So that's some good stuff, but also a lot of stuff.  How should we navigate all these good ideas?  The DM could pick a few categories.  That would be a signal to the players that those things were important to the campaign somehow.  Allowing players to pick would give them interesting ways to round out their characters.  Or you could turn your favorites into a random chart and have everybody roll d3 times or so.

Original post.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

a thing I made

Over the summer I've had the opportunity to take a very brief "Intro to Photoshop" class, which only gives me more tools to pull crap like this:

Artist ARP (who I don't know from Adam, but here's his tumblr) re-colored the Jack Kirby-penciled cover of issue #3 of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features the highly non-canonical adventures of that big creepy monolith from the movie.  You can check out the original cover here.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

mapping dreams

Inside cover.
 So Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi's The Dictionary of Imaginary Places is pretty groovy, with write-ups for all sorts of places that never were, like that little German duchy Flashman got in trouble in that one time or the places imagined by the Brontë siblings set all their early adventure stories.  But I really wanted to point you to the maps by James Cook.  Good stuff, including the best map of Earthsea I've seen.  I was surprised at Cook's interpretation of the Dreamlands of H.P. Lovecraft, which the book refers to as Dreamworld.  See the southern landmass on the scan below?  That's labeled the Isle of Oriab, which is much smaller on the map Chaosium published with the original Dreamlands stuff for Call of Cthulhu. The Gug Kingdom and the Vaults of Zin, which I thought were underground locations, are marked on this version of  Oriab.

You can see Oriab as a tiny little item at the bottom of this map:

Here's a close-up:

I only caught this discrepancy (not that there can't be two different versions of the Dreamlands) because I've thought for a while now that Oriab would make a fine place for a vaguely Arabian Nights style D&D campaign.  I vaguely remember reading that Baharna is sort of a Persian mercantile city, possibly full of Omar Khayyám style poets, Hashisheen, alchemists, etc.  The ruined city of Tyrhhia, the Accursed Valley, and the nightgaunt-haunted caves of Mount Ngranak would make for plenteous dungeoneering action.  And everyone would get to ride around on zebras.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Fun with Imirrhos

Imirrhos is the local name for Antares IX, setting of the TSR Minigame Revolt on Antares.

I adore this game, even though I don't play it too much.  The map and chits are too small for a ham-handed oaf like me. Some days I dream of doing up a spectacular 'big board' version of this game, the way you see some games at conventions.  I got a buddy who does Kingmaker at cons on a 4' by 8' board with miniatures instead of chits.  Something like that.

Anyway, there are a lot of good reasons for me to like Revolt on Antares, such as:
  • Written by Tom Moldvay, my favorite guy from back in the day.  You probably know him as the editor of the '81 Basic D&D rules or author of Lords of Creation, a whacky multigenre RPG from Avalon Hill.
  • Clearly a Star Wars ripoff game.  Star Wars ripoff boardgames generally came in three varieties back then: strategic galaxy rebellion simulators (SPI's Freedom in the Galaxy, for instance), spaceship dogfight games (like another TSR minigame, Attack Force) or planetary warfare operations, which is what we have here.
  • Art by many of the same guys who illustrated the best D&D products of the time such as Jeff Dee, Bill Willingham, and Erol friggin' Otus.  Check out this panoramic Otus battle tableau: 

From left to right we have Lyra Starfire in her airjet, the androids of the Phantom Regiment phasing in from another dimension, Magron the Invincible in his Silakkan lasertank, Doctor Death with his zombie soldiers and space paratroopers!
  • As you can see from that illo, the game maintains the spirit of Star Wars and its creator's deep connection to D&D style adventure by focusing heavily on individual characters using their special abilities to turn the tide of the battle.
  • For a minigame, there's a lot of play in this tiny box.  You get the three scenarios: your basic Throw Off the Yoke of the Imperial Oppressors deal as implied by the name of the game, the Beat Back the Alien Invaders (featuring Magron up there and his lasertanks in a starring role), and the multi-players 'Power Politics on Imirrhos'.  Good stuff.
  • Cute little alien artifacts rules, including a big bomb called the Devastator that utterly ruins the map hex it is used in and the six adjacent ones.
  • Speaking of the map, I friggin' love the colorful hexmap of the planet.  Dig it:

I know I'm not the only person who has considered setting some sort of campaign on Antares IX.  Most folks who talk about that discuss using the map and background for some sort of sci-fi game.  Me, I lean towards a science fantasy Dungeons & Dragons.  Set the planet in Tom Moldvay's Imperial Terra setting (a 2-page write-up in the back of Lords of Creation) and make Imirrhos one of the few planets in an otherwise sci-fi galaxy where magic actually works for some dang reason.  The local people are medieval tech, except the natives on the brown hex reservations (they're stone agey), meanwhile only the ruling classes having access to high tech stuff from offworld, thanks to a briskexport trade in various commodities.

Here's the Traveller style Universal World Profile for my idea of Imirrhos:

C386764-3, Red Zone, Agricultural, Rich, Gas Giant

For the non-Travnerd I'll break it down a bit: 
  • C-class starport (as in average, no big whoop), located at the brown hex with the starburst & spaceship icon.
  • Size 3, roughly the same ballpark as Mecury.
  • Dense (class 8) atmosphere, but probably class 9 (dense, tainted) around some industrial areas due to lack of regulation.  I chose the smallest (therefore typically lowest gravity) planet that can support a dense atmosphere, because I wanted the smallest planet that could plausibly support large flying creatures. (Cf. candidates for the Droyne homeworld)
  • Class 6 hydrosphere means that 60% of the planet is covered by water (by counting hexes and simple arithmetic I arrived at ~56%).
  • Population class 7 means 10 to 100 million people.  I want lots of empty hinterlands.  By comparison 12th century England probably had 2-3 million inhabitants, of which probably only 500,000 or so lived in parts depicted in my Wessex campaign map.
  • Government class 6, captive government.  At least until the Imperials are kicked out.  Then it would revert probably to class 7, balkanized.
  • Law level 4 - D&D types weapons are unregulated, as are non-auto slugthrowers and energy pistols.  PCs carrying any heavier stuff (grenade lauchers, machine guns, phaser rifles, etc.) are doubtless committing some sort of additional felony on top of their usual crimes.
  • Tech class 3 - pre-Industrial Revolution.
  • Red Zone - Following Marc Miller's protocol when he did the write-up for Trav stats for Thieves' World, Imirrhos is a restricted world due to the crazy magic shit going down around here.  Visitors better have some sort of impressive looking credentials if they want to avoid arrest.
  • Agricultural, Rich - trade classifications based upon the fact that Imirrhos is a rather nice little green planet
  • Gas Giant - I want a big ringed gas giant in the background of all the outdoor shot.  Blame the ending of The Quiet Earth.
Have you seen this awesome breakdown of a worldmaking technique based upon plate techtonics?  You should totally check it out.  That doesn't have anything to do directly with Imirrhos, but I followed up on that guy's recommendation for the program G.Projector.  It allows you to take your rectangular planet maps and turn them into a more proper projection.  Like this:

That's an Equirectangular projection, one of the less interesting options (and one I could have approximated easily by stretching the original image a bit).  But having a proper projection means I can directly compare a Size 3 Imirrhos to the surface of the Earth, like so:

Using Photoshop, I turned down the opacity on the Imirrhos layer.  Now without doing any math I can see that the larger continent on Imirrhos is roughly the same size as Africa.  That's good to know.  The other two continents look vaguely Australianish in size.  For further comparison's, somebody else wanted to see the surface of the Moon the same way:
Using G. Projector and another porjection scheme, I was able to get a more round planety-looking pic of Imirrhos.  I made several of these, rotating 5 degrees each iteration.  Then using I strung together an animated gif of Imirrhos spinning on its axis.

I didn't do a complete Imirrhosian day because the side of the planet with the map edges and the numbering looks pretty cruddy.  Still, I dig the overall effect.