Friday, December 17, 2010

The Wargame DNA of the RPG

A few years ago, I helped out a family friend, Craig Besinque, in designing and playtesting a block-based wargames, which ended up being called Hellenes: Campaigns of the Ancient World.

Craig is pretty well-know in a certain element of the wargaming community - which is like being well-known in the RPG community, except that wargamers tend to be a bit more community-oriented than most RPGer's.  He's designed games like WestFront and EastFront for Columbia Games, so it was really interesting to learn about board game/wargame design from him.

In brief, here are the things I learned working with Craig.

1) Designing wargames is unlikely to make you rich.  You are working in a niche market, with a fairly small customer base (as customer bases go).  They are a reliable base, though - willing to spend money on quality product.  This is presumably also true for RPG's - something anyone wanting to design RPG's should heed.

2) You had best be good at math.  Craig has a Masters Degree in Mathematics from (I believe) UCLA.  He can do fairly complex probability in his head.  I suspect that it's a good thing he's not into gambling, or he would be cleaning up on

3) Game balance is all-important.  Moreso in this context than some others, since Hellenes was designed to be a fairly short 1v1 wargame.  Balance in this context is very similar to what balance means in chess - there should be no sure, or even preferred, route to victory.  If there is, the game is "broken" and considered by most people to be unworthy of being played.  Which will kill your sales (or even your chances of being published) - see point 1.

4) You can design whatever you want, but if you stick to certain material constraints, there is a much better chance that your game will be published.  In this case, Columbia games had certain pre-packaged numbers of blocks and decks of cards.  If you used a different number of blocks in your game, it meant the game cost more, which would be a factor in the publisher deciding to release it.  Likewise, if you use cards, try to stick with the same number of cards as a standard deck of cards, for the same reasons.

To further explain this point, we should examine a different game - Railroad Tycoon.  This game has a ton of different blocks, tiles, markers, plastic trains and whatnot with it.  It's a pretty good game, but now out of print.  I think that's probably because all the bells and whistles (hehe) cost more that it's worth to produce the thing.

5) You must playtest.  Then, playtest more.  Then put it out there and get others to playtest it.  That is the only way to get good game balance - see point 3.

6) If you want to design a historical boardgame, you must start with the historical part.

It's nice if the game can reflect historical realities, but you should pick what realities you reflect - they should be ones that create interesting possibilities and trade-offs.  Guns or butter decisions are what make wargames interesting.

Ideally, players should be making decisions that reflect those that the actual historical sides would have made - in the case of Hellenes, the Athenians need to decide how much of their fleet to take out of the city, whether to focus on attacking Spartan coastal provinces, how much effort to spend putting down revolts, and how many resources to apply to land armies vs the fleet.

7) Limiting resources is a good thing.  When you can't do everything, you have to make decisions about where to allocate a very limited pool of resources.  This makes each decision a difficult one, requiring much deliberation.  Combined with point 6 - it means you can never do everything you want, and you're always making interesting decisions about what you can do.

Many RPG's use one or more of these design principles.  Interestingly, older versions of games like D&D tend to use less of them, despite the fact that they are closer, genetically-speaking to those old wargames.  Specifically issues like game balance, playtesting and limiting resources don't seem to have been foremost in the minds of the designers of say, 1e Dungeons and Dragons.  It's a hybrid game system, and the designers seem to be focused more on the overall experience than applying the lessons of wargame design to the new system.

In more recent years, things have swung back around.  4e, for all it's flaws, pays much more attention to 2, 3 and 7.  It would have been nice if they spent more time on 5, though.  Curiously, it's frequently panned by fans of the older editions - which is kinda weird, since it owes much more to the initial inspiration for D&D than many of those old editions did.

Ultimately, helping to design a boardgame was a great experience - it's really changed how I look at both RPG's and computer games.  I feel like I have a much better view of the decisions that were probably made in the design phase that resulted in the game I'm playing, which makes it easier to mod games, and strangely, easier to like each system for it's own merits/flaws.  To understand something is to lose the fear of it, after all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

OD&D, Session 6

It's never a good idea to leave the person who plays the thief alone with the DM.  I'm just throwing that out there as a general RPG rule.  Never leave the thief alone.  With the GM.  Things will occur that most of the rest of the party probably don't want to occur.

As de-facto party leader, I suppose Fingolfin should have been surprised when we loaded up the cart for "Operation Get the Lazy Bitch Elves Their Magical Thingy Back" and found 2 large, unplanned barrels of wine in the back.

"I bought them", proudly announced Hanz, the resident thief (and ex-Black Eagle staffer).  "Why?"  I responded.  Then decided that I didn't really want to know, but figured we could work with it, and rolled.

Now, I'm not going to say that the decision for Alexi to pretend to be a prisoner was totally motivated by desire for revenge for his getting us involved in this merry cluster-frack, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a consideration.  So with a certain degree of relish, we had him strip down, inflicted a few cosmetic bruises, tied him up in the bottom of the cart, and headed south from Luln for Black Eagle Barony and sunny, friendly Fort Doom!

A travel video about Fort Doom would go something like this:

"Set like a festering sore in the reeking western marshes of Karameikos, the main industries of Fort Doom are fishing, slavery and incompetent plotting.  Tourist attractions include slums, hovels, and wretched masses cowering from their master's boot.  The friendly local inhabitants are mostly fisherfolk, who are kept roughly in line by hostages, held by the jackbooted thugs who make up the rest of the population.  If you're lucky, you'll see some of the exotic orcs, goblins or other horrendous monsters that the friendly and hospitable Baron uses to terrorize his subjects.  Truly, the holiday destination of the Duchy!"

So yeah - nice place.  We got into the city with no problems (guards at gate drunk, also apparently developmentally disabled), and approached the eponymous fort.  True to form, the sergeant of the guard proved to be fat and obnoxious, challenging us upon approaching the gates.  Some judicious display of the captured Iron Ring badge (a ring, made of... wait for it... iron.) and a properly arrogant attitude saw us through the gates.

Then operations really started.  We generously "donated" one of the wine barrels to the gate guards, which went over about how you'd expect - no drinking on duty issues here.  I informed the sergeant that we had magic items to put in the tower, and was told I needed a pass.  Apparently those are given out by a lieutenant Garand or somewhat.  So off we went, prisoner in tow, to see the Lt.

We'd also acquired a neat magic item, a Horn of Plenty - which makes... food.  Awesome.  But it looks magical, so into a sack it went.  Informing the Lt that we had a magical horn which "blows holes in walls" - which is what I wish we'd gotten, I expedited the pass process by offering to test it in his office.  Pass acquired, we headed to the tower.  Once inside the tower, we put the main evil cleric-guy (who lounges around in his boxers while on guard duty) to sleep, looted his stuff, then headed upstairs, where we encountered a complaining old man.

It quickly became apparent that the old fellow was an alchemist, and no fan of team Black Eagle, so we promised Nicholai that we'd help him escape, if he helped us find the magic whoosis.  He agreed fairly quickly and said that Lt. Demetrios (or something roman anyway, I wasn't taking notes) might have it in his office.  We burst into the Lt's office on the second floor, and discovered a bit of a scene.  The Lt and a fellow in tight black leather were sitting very close to each other - "discussing" something or other.  Whoops.

So we cast sleep on them.  Heheh.  I don't know how anyone makes any headway against the elves - that spell is pure murder in OD&D - 2d8 hd, area effect, no save.  Love it.  So they went to sleep, and we killed them, and discovered that the gem was already being moved - the mage Aurelius was planning on taking it out to the Baron, who is enroute here from someplace, and he's just waiting for an escort from the main keep.  This is just the gatehouse to the main keep - apparently.  Which explains that negligence, drunkeness and general slothful attitude.

There are 2 places this Aurelius might be - either the dungeon or the inner barbican, the entrance into the keep proper.  I figure it's easier to do a quick check of the barbican before we go to the dungeon, so we head off in that direction.  The barbican is closed, but there are guards up top on the wall, so I ask them if Aurelius is still waiting there for his escort.  They say "Yes, but it's a secret, so keep it quiet."  Smooth boys, smooth.  So I tell them to open up, as I have Aurelius' things.

They do - whoohoo!  Then we see that there are a lot of guards in here.  So we cast sleep on them.  Whoohoo!  Snoozing.  One of the other things that we found in the tower was an elven cloak, which Hanz the thief is now wearing.  This is an OD&D magic item, so none of this sissy, +5 to sneak rolls 3e crap.  This makes you totally invisible unless you roll a 1 on a d6.  So Hanz uses it to sneak into the barbican and finds Aurelius, some thief, the watch-commander and a bunch more mooks.  At this point, we're out of sleep spells, so we do it the old-fashioned way.

By backstabbing the wizard.  Who dies.  And then we burst into the room.  Didn't quite manage surprise, although I'd be pretty fucking surprised if the person I was having an argument with sprouted a spear point in mid-shout.  We carve down the guards, and after a few rounds of pretty rough rolling, get into the spirit of the thing and take out the watch-captain and the thief-guy.  We also find the gem, some magic rings and a few other nice things.

Then, downstairs and out the front.  At this point, we discover that an orc patrol has come in from the city, and is milling around the front gate.  We turn it into a party with the other barrel of wine, and I discover one of the reasons for the thief/dm rule.  Hanz poisoned the wine.  Not "keel over after drinking" poison.  No, giant ant venom apparently blisters the interior of the stomach/bowels, incapacitating the victims in a few hours.

Leaving everyone to their "party", we hurry out the gate.  But Hanz stays behind.  Once again, we log off and leave the thief alone with the DM...

I find out the next day that Hanz snuck into the dungeon, backstabbed the jailor, stole the keys, released and armed the prisoners, met a friendly ogre and gathered a handful of "followers", who all meet us just outside the city walls.

So, for our next session, I'll be figuring out how to get out the Black Eagle Barony with an ogre in tow.  Oh, and the magical geegaw lets us cast charm person, ESP and some other spells a few times a DAY.  That shouldn't be a game-breaker.

Friday, December 10, 2010

OD&D, Session 5

When a session starts off with a map of your campsite, and the DM casually mentions, "so you're sitting around the fire..."  NO GOOD CAN COME OF IT.  Things will be coming out of the bushes.  Horrible things.  With swords and teeth and biting and aaaayyyy.

And that is how our last session started.  Fortunately (I suppose) what came out of the darkness was a guy on horseback.   Shouting.  Shouting about "They're right behind me, they'll kill us all, AARRGH".  Upon reflection, it would have been smarter to just conk him over the head and give him to his pursuers, but instead we stupidly asked, "Who's after you?", like a bunch of dumbasses.

'Cause, it's obvious that whoever is after him is a Bad Person.  And will attack us.  So it was no surprise when he told us that he was pursued by agents of the Iron Ring, a bunch of slaver-assholes who would no doubt attempt to kill/enslave us just for being here at the same time he was.  He's pretty fucking lucky it was our camp he rode up to, and not, say, a travelling minstrel-show.  He'd have been screwed.

Immediately, aforementioned Bad Person and thugs showed up - surrounding our camp, conveniently.  The leader loudly instructing his men to "Kill them all".  Talk about lack of due diligence on his part.  Rule 1 for slaver/bandit: Identify potential threat level of target.

I won't say I didn't warn them though - my character, Fingolfin the elf, shouted loudly (at the darkness) "if you attack our camp, we'll put you all to sleep, and then I'll personally nail you to a tree."  It seemed like a reasonable threat.

So they did.  And we did.  I had a wooden mallet, and the thief had some iron spikes.  The slaver leader seemed... distressed when we woke him up by driving in the first spike.  He was also markedly uncooperative.  More so that I would expect someone to be when one is crucified, one's men have been hung, and a pair of wolves are sniffing hungrily around one's feet.  I'd be positively fucking loquacious at that point.  But he just cursed and spat and generally made an ass of himself.

Then somebody shot a crossbow at us from the bushes.  But the wolves ran him down pretty fast.  These guys aren't learning.  They're also not telling us WTF is happening, so we asked our "guest" Alexis why he was interrupting our evening with the shouting and the blood.

Apparently, the forces of the Black Eagle Barony, upon whose metaphorical doorstep we now trod, had stolen a magical gem doohickey from the elves in eastern Karameikos (presumably because the elves were busy snorting pixie-faerie dust off each other's naked backsides and having unprotected elf-sex - because really, what else is there to do when you're immortal).  The gem is REALLY important because you can do mind control with it - notwithstanding that Charm Person is basically mind control and a level 1 spell.

Alexis is part of a rescue mission sent to retrieve it before all manner of horror can befall the faire realme, but all his friends have been killed by the Iron Ring, and now he's on his own and wants OUR help.  There are apparently more slavers about, so we're "encouraged" to hurry along to Luln.  So we packed up the campsite and headed off down the road - we're all out of sleep spells, so no reason to push our luck.

Arriving in Luln in the morning, we hurry to a cobblers shop where Alexis has allies.  Walking in, we are immediately ambushed.  If I didn't know better, I'd say this nitwit was trying to get us killed.  2 ambushes in a row starts to stretch the bounds of credulity.  Fortunately, we'd had enough time to rest up, so most of the ambushers got unaccountably drowsy, and we didn't have much difficulty taking out the rest of them hand-to-hand.

There was a rough moment when a wizard popped out of a side room and cast magic missile, mainly because nobody in the party can survive a full-damage magic missile.  Luckily, he shot it at the NPC, who has a few more HP's, so everyone survived.  After some mourning over his friends, Alexis took us to yet another location, an inn.  There we meet another of his buddies, who explains more about the missing mcguffin, and gives a potential plan for retrieving it.

And boy, is the plan a doozy.  Amigo wants us to hide in a turnip cart, sneak into Fort Doom (great name - love that subtle, understated villainy), go through the dungeon, which they stock with monsters specifically to devour prisoners, and finally, break into a vault-tower where they store magical items.  Oh, and do it all in the middle of a garrison of soldiers and orcs.

A quick poll of the party reveals absolutely no interest in: a) the plan or b) retrieving the gem at all.  So we decide to go with our own plan.  Next time - breaking into Fort Doom.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Half-Made World: A Book Review

Wow.  This book came out of nowhere and blew me away.  It's without question the best new author pickup I've had since I randomly picked up Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville.  Half-Made World has a lot of Mieville-esque elements to it, in fact.  The novel is 1-part western, 1-part steampunk and 1-part horror, with a solid dash of fantasist, stirred just the right amount.

To an RPG gamer, especially one raised on the tradition of D&D, this book brings an interesting twist to the concepts of Law and Chaos.  The fantastic, "half-made" west of the novel is a place where many of the traditional ideas of the western are taken from the realm of the psychological and made real.  The world literally gets less real, less "formed" as one moves further west, and the western ocean is a sea of raw chaos from which gods, spirits and creatures form spontaneously.

Contesting for this potential country are the opposing forces of the Gun and the Line.  The Gun is represented by the Agents - criminals and anarchists with supernatural powers who rely on subversion, sabotage and stealth.  They prefer to avoid direct confrontation, and instead work through cats-paws and unknowing dupes.  The chaos and lawlessness of the old west is a clear influence on the Gun, and the fact that their powers are granted directly by the spirit-infused weapons they bear makes the metaphor even stronger.

The Line, on the other hand, is represented by the Engines - massive locomotives possessed of malign intelligence that plot and scheme to spread their railway tendrils and industrial-hell stations across the land.  Thousands of Men of the Line serve them - hammered into faceless cogs by the infernal sound of the engines.  Black-clad, gas-mask wearing and using steampunk weapons like motor-guns and heavier-than-air helicopters, the Line are methodical, unstoppable and terrifying forces of "progress".

The two forces clash in the "unfinished" west as they both try to capture an old man, once general of the fallen and near mythical Red River Republic - the Camelot of the west, that once defied and fought off both the Gun and the Line, until it was torn down by both Powers.  The main characters, a female doctor from the settled north and a rebellious Agent of the Gun, flee from the Line into the far west, where they encounter the last remnants of a fallen history, and things far worse cast up out of the chaos of the western oceans.

The book has great characters, a setting that manages to be both fresh and familiar, and a great mythic-horror-western feel.  Lots to recommend here - I haven't heard of Felix Gilman before this, but he's on my must-read list now.

Friday, November 26, 2010

OD&D, Session 4

With Castle Caldwell behind us, the merry band of adventurers now proceeds back to Guido's fort to receive our comparatively meager 100 gp each.  Regrettably, I forgot to charge the 100 gp fee for Zhanna, our lost cleric.  Have to remember that in the future.

Zhanna has since been replaced by another elf, we've brought on Earnest's mage, and the thief has returned from  wherever he disappeared to last session.  We've also picked up Ceeay, who has "heard about another really cool god, called Alphaks the Roarer" that she's going to worship since we told her Orcus was "kind of a dick".  This is going to be an ongoing thing, I feel.

We also still have Fritz driving/guarding the cart.  Which is handy because it contains many thousands of pieces of silver and a not-inconsiderable amount of gems and jewelry.  Pretty good start to our careers, actually.

After paying us off, Clifton tells us that he's had a message from a friend of his, who is himself possessed of an ancestral castle.  It has apparently been "lost" for a while, although how one loses a castle I have no idea.  Now that it's found (perhaps it was between the couch cushions, that happens to me with my castles a lot), he'd like somebody to clear it out.  Since we now have "credentials" on the castle-clearing front, we're offered the job.

And he's willing to pay 500 gp each, with half up front.  We get the money, and the thief immediately asks, "so what should we go do instead?" Which isn't a bad questions, since we just got a bag with 1000 gp in it.  After some discussion, we come to the conclusion that we "don't have fuck-all else to do, and look how well the last castle job turned out."  Well, except for Zhanna...  But whatever.

Of course, the downside is that the new-old castle is way over on the other side of Karameikos, close the to inventively-named "Black Eagle Barony".  Karameikos isn't really that big - it's about 200 miles across and maybe 100 miles north-south, and we're pretty much smack in the middle, so we only have about 150 miles or so to travel - first south to good 'ole Speculum-City, then across to Luln.

In planning the trip, we discovered some interesting things about overland travel in the Rules Cyclopedia world.

1) Horses are stupid-fast.  Apparently a riding horse on a standard trail can go 72 miles in a day.  That seems... excessive to me.  Some basic internet research shows that 100 miles in a day is about the most possible, and can generally only highly trained or exceptional riders can maintain that - the equivalent of modern marathoners.  I'd say 50 would be more reasonable, but I might be wrong, so I'll just deal with it.

2) You get a lot of encounters. Even in clear/settled terrain.  Standard is d6 during the day, and d12 at night, with encounters occurring on 1's (or more in rougher areas).  Also, in almost every environment, 1 chance in 8 is a "Dragon" type encounter.  That basically means that on average, every 48 days of travel, one encounters a Dragon.  Which explains why the roads seem so quiet.  How the fuck does Specularum feed itself?  I guess maybe farmers travel at night, very cautiously, and dragons don't eat turnips?

Anywhoo, we had several encounters on our trip south.  We ran into some orcs.  They attacked us so we cast Sleep on them (why have an AK-47 and not use it?). Luckily, they all went to sleep, so we killed them, and discovered that they had $5000 gp in a sack by the road.  Aren't random treasure tables wonderful?  I'm starting to see the attraction of treasure parcels.  But I'm also not complaining!

Then we encountered a couple of bodies with some trained war-wolves standing over them protectively.  Through some inspired animal-training, the thief of the party now has 2 loyal trained war-wolves. Which should come in handy!

Once we reached Specularum, we had some work done on the cart - added sidewalls for better defense, and hired 2 light footmen to assist in guarding it - Frizt's son and his wife - so it's a family affair now.  Plus, light footmen cost 2 gp/month, so we have enough just from the orcs to pay them for... 104 1/8 years.  Good job security, I say!

Further down the road we ran into some giant ants.  They gave us a nasty turn when 1 sleep spell only put 2 of them to sleep!  Luckily, we have 3 casters, and the second spell did the trick.  Ant-shell helmets for everyone!  And then I had to go to bed, so we called it a night.

I'm not sure I'm loving this game, but playing it as written is sure informative.  I see reasons why many changes were made to it over the years...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

OD&D, Session 3

Onward, into the depths (the horizontal, well-lit depths) of Castle Caldwell!

We used a Sleep spell on the Pearl Necklace Gang in the last session, so the party took the cart back to Guido's Fort for a well-earned sleep and feed.  Love those 20 minute adventuring days!

My character has done maybe 40 minutes of real work in this place, and we've looted about 100 years worth of earnings for a hard-working carter.  Put down the tools!  Pick up the sword and adventure!  It's like the lottery but with poisonings and eviscerations!

The next day - sleep spells reloaded, we head back to Castle Caldwell.  A few people can't make it, so we bring in Jenny's husband Earnest as a ringer, and Jenny rolls up a new character.  A second elf!  Yaay!  And Earnest is a mage.  Now we have 3 sleep spells.  Monsters, beware!

Nobody is really sure where these other characters are coming from, but whatever - there are doors to open.  Cause that's pretty much all there is to do in 'ole C.C.  Lots of doors with stuff behind them.  Verrrry retro.

The next door we open - after checking the inevitably empty corner tower, contains a very attractive female in plate armor with a mace.  She is kneeling in front of a small altar.  As we enter, she turns and says "Greetings, are you here for service?"  "What god are we servicing to?" I inquire.  Politeness counts, people!

"Orcus" she says (we may retcon this to be Aphaks the Roarer).  So I cast a sleep spell on her.

Then we strip off the armor, tie her up and loot the room.  Man, this post devolved into fanfic pretty fast.

Once we've looted and oogled, we wake her up and ask some questions.  Turns out, her name is Ceeay (stands for C.A., which stands for Chaotic Acolyte).  She's been here about a week, just wandered in and set up a shrine.  She doesn't know very much about Orcus (or whoever) but she's keen to be an acolyte of something.  She proves sane and reasonable, albeit totally naive and inexperienced, so we get her to promise to help us out in exchange for 1/5th of the treasure, untie her and now we have a henchwoman/back-up character.

Then we check more empty rooms, find some stirges and a talking statue of a Herdsman which answers 3 questions - we can only think of 2, "what is the most dangerous monster in the castle?" and "how do we get into the magically locked room?"

Answers are: "Giant crab-spider that hangs from the ceiling" and "with the key that the owner of the castle has", accordingly.  So that's handy.

Then we find some sleeping merchants - well, ex-merchants - they left their mule, loaded with silver and pearl necklaces, outside, but it was stolen.  They agree that they are crappy merchants, and leave when we suggest it - citing the impending arrival of the owner of the castle, and the fact that we took away their weapons while they were asleep, as reasons why they should go.

More rooms - we find an internal grassy courtyard with some wolves in it.  Apparently the wolves were trapped here when the merchants shut the door.  Why they were in here instead of the FOREST remains a mystery that we will never solve.  We kill the wolves and find some kobolds - upon which time we cast sleep and initiate operation "Chunky Kobold Salsa".  Apparently the new elf doesn't like kobolds.  Fingolfin speaks Kobold, which suggests at least some affinity for the scaly little assholes.  But that doesn't stop him from finishing them off.

Finally, we encounter the spider-crab thing.  Sleep spell.  Splat.  During the fighting, the new wizard proves to be preternaturally accurate with his sling.  He hits 5 times in a row in a battle against the stirges, and Ceeay proves to be a loyal and a biddable meat shield.  So that's good.

Eventually, we get to the big payoff - a massive chest in the magically locked room.  It contains a scrap of paper which reads "thanks for the treasure - Bargle".  Like we needed more reason to hate that asshat.  I never did get to nail Aleena.  Maybe I'll have better luck with the current attractive female cleric (are henchman allowed to say "No"? - Discuss)?

We left the Castle and returned to the owner, blissfully unaware that we missed the incredibly sucky "Beneath Castle Caldwell" - the entrance was under the giant chest.  Presumably the new owner will find it, but we're off to do something better.  Like modules produced after 1981.

Also, I think we answered the question "why would you use a pseudonym when writing a module"?  The answer of course, is that you're shit at it, and don't want your name attached to it, or people will be coming up to you at Cons and kicking you right in the sack.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fantasy Webcomic Lessons

There are some great webcomics out there on the underwebs.  In addition to being entertaining and cool to read, they can be a great source for DM inspiration.  Here are some of my favorite gaming webcomics, along with a cool gaming lesson I got from reading the comic:

Order of the Stick: The classic gaming webcomic.  OotS teaches us, above all, the value of the villain.  Xykon the Lich is exactly the kind of bad guy that the whole party can really love to hate.  Better yet, he presents a real threat.  Xykon is a capable adversary and comes back to (un)life, so you can use him over and over!

Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic: The name says it all.  This is a long-running fantasy comic that has run a number of plotlines over the years.  Starting off as a Dungeon-Keeper-esque monster comic, it's since evolved into an interesting collection of fantasy stories.

There are a ton of different ideas you can get from this comic, but the one that really jumped out at me is the way that the adventures have large-scale impact on the world.  Kingdoms rise and fall, village and cities are destroyed and the world changes.  Making sure that the actions of the players have an impact on the world is a great way to keep them engaged in the game.

Erfworld: What if you lived in a turn-based strategy game?  Erfworld is funny, violent and all-around great.  The funny aspect of Erfworld really caught my attention.  My best memories of gaming are the funny moments, intentional or, more often, unintentional.  The best lesson I got from Erfworld is that you can tell an awesome story AND keep your party snickering at the same time.

Goblins: Goblin PC's, lots of violence, and a character called Minmax.  What's not to like?  A couple of things from the Goblins comic really stand out for me.  The first is that a little metagaming is not a bad thing.  The characters in this comic (and OotS for that matter) discuss game rules the way we discuss things like gravity or oxygen - they represent the natural laws of the world, and therefore, must be talked about.  So let the players chat about rules and metagame - no need to even assume it's out of character...

The other really cool thing about Goblins, is the reminder that random tables are AWESOME.  Complains the goblin has a magical shield that causes a random effect when it is struck by a weapon.  It creates the most excellent fight scene in the comic so far, and random effects can have equally awesome impacts on your game, if you can let them (but then, I played a Wild Mage when Tome of Magic came out).

Challenges of Zona: This is a bit of a weird one.  It's got sex, violence and classic rock and roll, though!  The best lesson I learned from Zona is that heroes should be heroic.  There needs to be something that sets the characters apart from the common ruck of humanity - something that makes focusing on their adventures exciting and worthwhile.  Zona, Mentl, Tula and even Yatta-Ta (of Ir Anis) are capital-H heroes, which is what I think that characters in RPG's should be.

Girl Genius: Setting, setting, setting.  The three rules of fantasy real-estate!  The great characters, cool art and generally excellent steampunk/mad science story notwithstanding, it's the setting that really sets (hehe) Girl Genius apart from other webcomics.

 Alternative history/fantasy Europe, ruled by a powerful, ruthless Baron?  Check.

Crawling with monsters and worse, mad scientists?  Check.

Huge castle built by generations of the most insane and villainous of all the mad scientists?  Check.

Castle AI fragmented, homicidal and insane, with thousands of death traps at it's command?  Check.

Awesome?  Check and double check.

Anything I missed?  What are your favorite fantasy webcomics, and what gaming lessons did they teach you?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Towers of Midnight: Book Review

Have you ever sat down and eaten an entire pint of Haagen-daz?  Not really on purpose, but you just keep finding excused to keep eating, and pretty soon the entire pint is just... gone.

I did that with Towers of Midnight.  I kept meaning to go to bed.  Just a few more pages and I'll put it down.  It's getting late... better stop.  But I didn't stop.

I read this book until 2:30 in the morning, then got up and read for another hour to finish it.  It was mental.  I had to drive 8 hours the next day, and I was exhausted because I literally could not put this book down - that's something hasn't happened to me with a Wheel of Time book for a looong time.  So - that's a good thing.

But what was it, exactly, that kept me so engaged?

Some if it is definitely the feeling that a marathon is almost over.  I read the first Wheel of Time book when I was in junior high - 20 years ago or so.  After a run like this, it's hard not to try and sprint across the finish line.

Towers of Midnight was also a pretty compelling read, even though it had all the problems of the middle book in a trilogy.  There was a definite "Empire Strikes Back" vibe to it - lots of cool things happening, but you know that you won't get the real payoff until the next installment.  Still and all, this book accelerates the final race towards the conclusion of the series - wrapping up plot lines, bringing things together as much as possible.

In a fast-paced book like this, where the action comes quickly and time is at a premium, Sanderson's talents are really valuable.  He's better at straight action scenes, things like swordfights and mage battles, than Jordan was, which makes for some great scenes, like Perrin's battles with Slayer, and Egwene's fight against the Black Ajah in Tel'aran'rhiod.

There are some things that Sanderson doesn't do as well Jordan, though.  And Sanderson's voice is becoming a louder part of the book.  He's working off of Jordan's notes and partially-written manuscript, so it's inevitable that he has to fill in more gaps as time goes on.  In those gaps, we see more and more of Sanderson, which isn't always a bad thing, but the feeling of reading a book by a different author is getting stronger.

You really start to see the differences in this book when we read war scenes.  The big battles in the book are good, but I felt like they lacked something that Jordan brought to them.  Which isn't that surprising, as Jordan was a Vietnam veteran with combat experience.

The other real crack that shows here is Sanderson's take on Matt Cauthon.  Matt is a character that I always got the feeling Jordan really liked and identified with.  He was a more light-hearted, slightly comic character - a counterpoint to the damaged Rand and self-involved Perrin.  Unfortunately, Sanderson doesn't really do Matt justice.

Sanderson's Matt has all the essentials of the character.  He ogles women, swears a bit too much, and trusts his luck, but - like the war scenes, something's missing.  It doesn't feel like Sanderson really loves the character, so Matt's comes across a bit flat.  His Rand is much, much better, though - and his Perrin is pretty much the same as Jordan's.

Ultimately, the book is a great success.  It finishes off a lot of loose threads and sets the stage nicely for the last book in the series.  There is a bit more Sanderson here than in The Gathering Storm, but that doesn't detract from the book, so much as it changes it a little.  It's still a ripping story that moves at a great pace, has all your favorite characters and really sets up the coming finale.  If you like the Wheel of Time, you'll probably have a few quibbles with this book - but it's a great read.  Of course, if you've been reading these freaking books for the last 20 years, you don't have any choice but to read the damn thing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

How to Sort Out the Digital Initiative

I've been talking a bit about DDi, rules distribution and digital tools for gaming lately.  I've been drawing a lot of parallels between gaming rules and software - both are updated with new material frequently, can sometimes get over-complicated, and now have the option of being updated digitally.

What initially started me thinking about this was a post by Bill over at Digital Monkey Shines, where he likens various editions of D&D to software and tax code.

The tax code part got me thinking...  Right now, the government releases the tax code and provides the technical specs for submitting taxes electronically - they say "this is how it works".  Anybody who wants to can write a piece of software that contains the tax code information, does calculations automatically, and creates files that allow you to submit them electronically.

And this works freaking great.  Tax software is relatively inexpensive (free in some cases), is generally both accurate and usable, and is compliant with the required format.  There is also a lot of selection, and thus, lots of competition, making for very good product.

Imagine then, if you will, what a Government-produced tax software, that everyone was required to use, would look like...  Once you have stopped screaming, and put some ointment on the claw marks on your face, consider that WotC has basically been playing the role of "the Government" in this little drama for a while.

Right now we have a new online Character Builder, online Compendium, unsupported Monster Builder, no encounter builder, no parcel treasure builder, no character visualizer, no online gametable, no virtual minis, no great campaign manager tools.  We have maybe 1/3 of the tools that WotC announced when DDi came out.  Which kinda sucks, because I was pretty stoked about those tools.

When asked about why they don't have these things, WotC generally respond "we still don't really know shit about computers" or some variation thereof.

So - you want to sort this digital shit out, Wizards?  You should, cause it's been a sticking point.

Try this - give some guidelines about what a software app needs to do to be considered "Wizards-Approved".  The app maker will need to pay you a certain amount to get "Wizards-Approved", and there will probably be ongoing licensing fees.  You will give them access to the game data and such, and they can build the programs.  Then you let the market decide which programs are really good.  If they are bad, people won't use them.  If they are good, people will probably pay to use them.  The really good ones, you sign an "Official Support" agreement with, package onto DDi as premium content and then you enjoy the shit out of actually having good digital tools.

Because guess what - there are people out there with good computer skills who like D&D and will do great stuff if you A) stop imagining that you have to do everything and B) start thinking like a smart company.

But that might be hard...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rules Cyclopedia: Session 2

I've played Castle Caldwell for 3 hours, and I want to punch Ron Charulsky in the nut-sack.

Seriously.  This is not how you do things.  I have argued with Trollsmyth before about the steaming "theoretical framework" pile of D&D is always right.  I warn you - this does not display me at my best.  I'm irritated about this, and remain that way.  I cannot think of a better refutation of "D&D is always right", than Castle Caldwell.  I'll get into that in another post, though.

So far, we have encountered the following monsters:
3 goblins
1 spitting cobra (more on the cobra later)
2 fire beetles
1 giant shrew (apparently both ferocious and terrifying)
3 bandits.

We have also encountered one magically locked door and a poison gas trap.  We've found something like 10000 sp, and hundreds of gold worth of gems and jewelry.  Oh, and the cleric died - see spitting cobra.

After the last session, we had slept in the dubious comfort of Guido's fort, bought a 4-wheeled cart and 4 mules to pull it, and hired a drover named Fritz to drive said cart and feed/watch said mules.

Fritz was available for 5 sp/week.  Which means that we have found enough silver (mostly in bags under beds or piled on the floor) to pay Fritz for 40 years.  Not bad for 2 days work... and a cleric.

Returning to the keep, we used the age-old dungeoneering technique - always turn left.  We found a tower room (not really - this is a 1-level bungalow castle) with a tree growing through the window.  The tree was cut down and shaped into a 10' pole.

Then we found a room that used to be a kitchen.  It contained a leather (?) chest, which we opened by tying a rope to the lid and pulling open - which proved to be a good decision, as the chest was apparently used for poison gas storage.  Nothing else in it though.  What kind of asshole traps an empty chest and leaves it in the kitchen?  Someone with a psychotic hatred for scullions, that's who.

The next room contained a "pile of sacks and garbage" and a dead goblin with a swollen arm.  The voices of experience screamed "Rot Grubs", so we doused the goblin in lamp oil and lit him on fire - then retreated out of the room for a while.  I mistakenly assumed that the sacks and garbage would be in contact with the goblin, and that the flames would also drive out anything nasty lurking in them - I was in fact mistaken.

We re-entered the room, poked around a bit, and "disturbed" the spitting cobra who lived under the sacks and garbage.  It proceeded to spit at us vigorously, and Zhanna, the cleric, took a load in the face (I know, I'm a child sometimes).  The 4 damage was not too bad, the save vs poison was... worse.  She did not in fact save, and died instantly as a result.  Bugger.

Zhanna was a great character too.  She had excellent stats (so good that I asked the DM if he had watched them being rolled - the player is his sister...), the best armor possible, and was generally being played in a competent manner.  And now she is dead.  And that is why I hate save-or-die.  Oh, and the snake was worth 31 xp (or 8 apiece).

Jenny didn't have another character ready, so we grabbed Fritz from cart-duty, gave him a spear, shield and Zhanna's plate mail, and dubbed him "Sir New Character".  He did pretty well, actually.

There was, predictably, no treasure in the room.  Nor in the next room, although we found some nifty romance novels (no value, notwithstanding that books were very costly before the printing press), some fire beetle glands - which we detached from the beetles using swords (wtf do people do with those?).

In another room we found a bag full of thousands of silver pieces... Rational.  We also encountered a magically held door, and a room with 3 bandits and a mule in it.  I was fed up after the spitting cobra debacle, so I dropped the tactical nuke (or Fat Boy, if you will) of the OD&D world - sleep.  And then we hit them over the head and took their stuff.  I mean, I'm Lawful, but bandits are, well, bandits.

They were pretty good at banditing, though.  They had thousands more silver, as well as a box of gems.  Oh, and 2 of the bandits had "pearl necklaces".  But not the leader.  I think we can all figure out how that happened. Rank hath it's privileges, after all.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fail. Fail and Double Fail

Argh!  I fucking hate it when somebody proves me wrong!  I have defended ye olde WotC and their Character Builder tools in the past.  Even going so far as to say that I think it's one of the best deals in gaming today, and a wonderful and innovative way to distribute RPG as a software.

But they have, in their infinite wisdom, decided to take all the things I really liked about Character Builder and turf them.  Bravo, Wizards.  Bravo.

Offline access?  Turfed.

Multiple updates for my gaming group?  TURFED.

Ability to stay current without an ongoing subscription?  TURFED.

Reasons to subscribe to DDi?  TUR-Fucking-ERFED.

Wizards... I don't want to be this guy.  I've stood up for you in bloody (blistered?) flamewars for several years.  I like 4e.  I love the tools.  But, there comes a time when a man cannot be kicked in the nuts and smile about it any longer.

And the worst, the very worst part of this is... YOU HAD OTHER THINGS TO WORK ON.

This is like when I tell a programmer that he needs to fix a bunch of critical reporting tools, and after a week he tells me that he did some design work on the USER INTERFACE.  Oh, and he figured out a way to make clients pay more for the software...

So now my clients can access their buggy reporting tools (which makes them upset), more easily, and for more money.  Bravo, man.  Way to fix the system.

Wizards, you could have been working on the Virtual Gamespace you promised me 3 years ago.  Or the character visualizer.  Or a Treasure Generator, or an Encounter Designer.  Fuck's sake - on anything but the tool that was ALREADY the best selling feature.  The thing that most 4e players agree is "indispensable", and which has basically killed the whole 3rd party 4e market (that last bit is not such a good thing).

But instead you reinvent the wheel - and proudly point out that it's now square, works on less carts, and has tolling stations available on all major roads.

Man... now I know why people seem to enjoy raging and ranting about WotC - it feels kinda good.  I'll be playing TMNT and Rules Cyclopedia if anybody needs me... Maybe I can even find my old 2e stuff....

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Way of Kings: A Review

Way of Kings is the first book in the new Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson.  The name may ring a bell for fantasy fans.  That's because Sanderson was tagged by Robert Jordan's widow to be the writer that finished Jordan's... sprawling (let's just go with that) masterpiece, The Wheel of Time.

So, no pressure there, Brandon!  Just about 10 million people waiting to see if you can pull off wrapping up the approximately 50000000 dangling threads that Jordan left hanging there for ya.  Hell, the Fates couldn't spin that freaking story into a comprehensive narrative.  But I'll tell you this - I've read the first book of his wrap-up, and I enjoyed it more than ANY of the series, except the first 3, which were still reasonably-paced and before Jordan added a bunch of characters I don't give a shit about.  I'll give you a hint - I want to read about Matt.  And Perrin if you have to.

But anyways, I've wandered off-topic.  Sanderson has major chops as a fantasy author, and I've read pretty much all his other books, except for Warbreaker, which I just could not get into.  Generally, Sanderson does quite a few things well.  The biggest being, he doesn't stick to vanilla medieval fantasy settings.  Pretty much all his books are set in odd, magical or alien environments, with unique and neat magical powers that are both interesting and consistent.  He also writes fairly character-driven stories - there is very little of the "bring the maguffin to mount anti-maguffin" in his work.

So what you can expect from a Sanderson novel is - neat, imaginative world that is very different from a standard fantasy one, and interesting characters that have to deal with this world.

Which is what you get from Way of Kings.  Except... Sanderson seems to have caught a slight case of "Holy shit my publisher will let me write a really long book" from working on The Wheel of Time.  Way of Kings is long.  Like, 1000 pages long.  And it's supposed to be the first of... TEN.  So strap yourselves in, folks.  If you don't get really into this world and story within the first couple hundred pages, put that motherfucker down and leave - you don't want to get invested in something like this in a half-assed way.  This is a series for readers.

But really, if you're a fantasy fan, you'll probably find a lot to like here.  The series title refers to the "magical" energy source of the world, Stormlight.  This energy is brought to the world by massive storms, called Highstorms, that periodically sweep across the world, wreaking destruction but also bringing energy, which can be captured in gemstones.

It's clear that Sanderson has given a lot of thought to what a world affected by Highstorms would look like.  The storms have stripped much of the world of topsoil, and most wild animals are insect or crustacean-like, able to take cover and survive the Highstorms.  Grain is grown inside hard-shelled "rockbuds", and huge, lobster-like "chull" are beasts of burden.  So, cool enough setting that just exploring it is fairly interesting.

Sanderson also manages to create enough interesting characters to keep you engaged.  The self-loathing Assassin in White, the honorable and disenchanted Khaladin Stormblessed, the rigid warrior Dalinar Kholin and a number of others drive the plot forward as the fight to survive and to understand the magic and the world they live in.

Sanderson is also quite good at making the actual nature of the world and it's history mysterious to the reader and the characters, and it's a fun and engaging ride to learn truths (and lies) with them.  The book keeps up a fairly good momentum, rarely dropping into what my buddy Loren calls "the swamp" where you are forced to keep reading even though you're rather just stop, because you want to see if it gets interesting again.  So, no swamp, good characters, neat world.

The only real complaint I have about this book is that it's got a lot of the whole Ancient evil from the past returns to destroy the world thing going on.  Although that's been done to death, generally, Sanderson's well-thought-out world and past a mystery thing help keep it fresh enough not to seem too repetitive.  We are as much in the dark as most of the characters as to the nature of the threat, the "Desolation", so finding out bits and pieces from each character's narrative ties everything together and keeps you reading.

If you don't mind getting into a long haul, you should check this book out.  It's a good one.  And Sanderson, unlike Jordan, when he was alive, actually gets books finished and out - the only author in fantasy that keeps up an output like Sanderson is Steven Erikson - probably the subject of my next review!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

4e and AD&D - The Best Comparison

I was browsing through RPG Blogs today, and I came across this little gem.

The best part of this article is a single line: It’s like modern (i.e. 4th edition)  D&D is software, while the first edition of AD&D was tax code, becoming more byzantine the longer it existed.

So that makes Basic D&D what, programming instructions for a VCR, translated poorly from Japanese?

I jest, but only a little.  4e really is software, though.  As a software tester/seller, I can tell you that for certain.  And many of the issues that people have with it are issues that apply to complex software, as well.  The biggest being "The Errata Issue".

Because of DDI and digital distribution, WotC has the technological capability to quickly and comprehensively update their "software" in a way that has never, ever been possible for an RPG publisher.  Indeed, in my old online 4e campaign, there were no paper character sheets.  In fact, no paper was used in the making of the entire game, except a few pages from my notebook when doing adventure planning.

I was aware of the fact that errata was coming out, but it rarely had any kind of impact on me.  As a DM, I rely on my players to inform me of the capabilities of their characters. I do random "drug testing" just to make sure that things aren't being abused or misunderstood, but really, why bother to learn everything about every class?  I didn't do it when I DM'ed 2e, or Vampire, or Warhammer.  So the inclusion of the errata doesn't really make a difference to me, one way or the other.

But many people don't use the DDi tools, and don't do the digital thang.  So we also have all these paper copies of the "software" floating around.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think that the analogy is slightly off.  4e is like software + manual.  AD&D is straight manual.

Before I continue, let me tell you a bit about the company I work for.  We make specialized database/management software for Fire Departments.  We update our software frequently (once a week or so) and our software manual is about 5,000 pages long.  I shit you not - it's 2 massive 3-ring binders, completely stuffed full.  It's modular software, so nobody uses everything, but somebody uses every part of it.

In terms of market share, we are probably Palladium - kinda niche market, but popular enough.  But we have a system set up that is almost EXACTLY like what WotC has going with 4e.  Many people use the program, some keep it updated, some do not.  Some use the hard-copy manual, some do not, and rely on the digital manual.  So I have much experience regarding the issue of Errata.  

Therefore, complainers about errata, listen closely and learn exactly why WotC releases so much errata:

1) It costs them very little to do so.  With digital distribution, once you have the infrastructure, the cost of updating is negligible.  A little writer/programmer time, and you're done.

2) Some people want bugs fixed.  This should be obvious, but somehow, on the issue of errata, it isn't.  Just because you don't use the "Jaws of the Wolf" power or whatever, doesn't mean that somebody doesn't want it fixed up.  And lets be clear - if something is broken and isn't fixed, it can be a real problem to the people that use it.

3) Users are not required to install all updates.  If you are happy with how the system is running, you don't have to install the updates.  Sure, you might get some new little features with them, but it's not necessary.

4) You can also keep the printed manual up-to-date, if you want to spend the time.  Personally, I think it's a waste of time/money when you can refer to the digital document, but that's just me - you can if you want to, but it's in no way a requirement.

5) It's dirt cheap for users to get the updates.  Hell, I tend to subscribe to DDi for 1 month every year or so.  I update Character Builder (and I can update it 6 times - so my group updates their character builders), I update the monster builder, I dump Compendium into Masterplan.  I just got 1 year of content for what, $12?

So, if you don't like the errata, or all the changes that WotC make to 4e, give your head a shake and think the following:

I don't have get the update if I don't feel I need it.

If I do feel I need it, it's cheap and easy to get.

If I must have the hard-copy update, it's a bit of a pain, but doable.  It wasn't really even an option in earlier versions.

None of this stuff was ever an option before - the fact that it is now is of great benefit to users.  It's a living, active, supported piece of gaming software.  If it's not your cup of tea, fine - but don't bitch about it being a cash-grab - the 3e model was much, much worse - just print more books - all hard-copy manual, all the time.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Now I Understand (a book review)

I used to like RA Salvatore.

I know.  I KNOW.  I mean, The Crystal Shard came out in 1988, when I was 13 years old, so I have some excuse.  But by that point I'd read Tolkien and Howard and Lovecraft and Herbert, so I really have no excuse.

I read all the Forgotten Realms books, the Spelljammer books, the Dark Sun books...  plus a ton of other books.  So maybe I do have an excuse.  See, I read a LOT.  Like, 2-3 novels a week, on average, and it used to be a lot more.  I can go through a short novel in one sitting, 3-4 hours and bam.  A Steven Erikson takes a bit longer, and the addition of my daughter to my life, while TOTALLY AWESOME, also cuts into my reading time (and sleeping time, and eating time, and... time).

But back to RA Salvatore.  I bring him up because I have a beBook Reader ( and I picked up RA's new novel, Gauntlgrym, for it.  I've read his books on and off for years, mostly to just fill in the gaps between interesting books, but also because I've always had a fond place in my heart for the Forgotten Realms, and for Bruenor Battlehammer (but not for that fucking Mary-Sue Drizzt).

Before I go any further, I should point out that I have been a fervent, sometimes even vicious, defender of 4e D&D since it's arrival.  I think that many of the complaints that people have about the game are straight-up stupid, and have not shied away from pointing that out.

BUT!  Upon reading Gauntylgrym, I gained new insight into some of those complaints.  I felt the nerd-rage, I steamed about the arbitrary and seemingly nonsensical changes.  I DRANK THE KOOL-AID.  On top of the normal problems that I have with an RA Salvatore novel - the 1-dimensional characters, the juvenile attempts at creating a "gritty" world, the unbelievably over-detailed fight scenes, the CONSTANT use of the word "Blasted".  Besides all that, there is the 4e stuff that is just arbitrarily dropped into the novel.

OK.  OK, I know he's writing with somebody else's IP, so he has to toe the line here, but the Spellplague, this massive, horrible world-changing event, gets maybe 2 lines in the novel.  And tieflings get added pretty much out of nowhere.  He mentions them "no longer lurking in the shadows".  But there are about 1000 of them in the book.  That's some serious motherfucking shadows, to loosely paraphrase Jules Winfield.

Also, there is a Primordial.  Titan-like gods would presumably have been noticed by the inhabitants of a planet that they occupied, one would think.  And he throws in a couple of 4e attack-power descriptions, like "the axe snapped down like the jaws of a wolf".  Fuck. Off.  Seriously - I like the idea of the 4e attack powers, but I can describe them just fine without you pounding them into my head.

In addition to those niggling issues, the book jumps forward through big chunks of time, presumably to catch the timeline up to current Realm cannon, but the jumps are handled so abruptly and clumsily, it feels like I'm reading about the first time I drove a stick shift.  Fine, fine, fine.. sudden forward lunge, fine, fine, stall.

And the book can't help but stall.  There are just so many annoying minor characters/antagonists, like the bisexual elf warrior-chick who wears earrings that show that she murders her lovers, and the crazy dwarf warrior who says everything in rhymes and laughs "Bwahaha" all the time.  He actually types it out, "bwahaha", a bunch of times.  You have to read through chapters of this mess, with idiotic, unpronounceable names, tissue-thin motivations, and loving details of all the foot-movements and stance-shifts of each interminable combat scene.

So, non-4e fans.  This book made me feel your pain.  It managed to make me dislike several things that I previously liked - 4e, Forgotten Realms, RA Salvatore novels.  Man, talk about multi-tasking.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Weird Known World

Since we've started playing a Rules Compendium game every week, I've become more interested in what other people are doing with the old D&D rules.  So in the spirit of inquisitiveness, I downloaded the free rules for Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG.

I love Raggi, although I totally don't agree with him on a lot of scores.  Still, he is a passionate and talented advocate of gaming, which you can't really argue with.  I also thought about picking up the LOTFP boxed set, but I didn't get around to it - if he does it as a collected hardcover, that is a sure buy.

The sandbox-y setting that Raggi included is called "Weird New World".  It sounds interesting, and I'm looking forward to checking it out.  But a world doesn't have to be new to be weird.  I found that out recently when I started researching Karameikos and found... THE VAULTS OF PANDIUS!

I typed that in CAPS because it really should be said in a really deep, impressive-sounding voice.  Because it is freaking insane how much information is on this site.  Hundreds of pages, maps, collected information about Mystara.  I don't know why people want WotC to re-release old D&D stuff - there's a fuck-ton of material out there on the internet for free (and I'm not talking about torrents, people).

Since we're running the new game in Karameikos, I've been doing some reading on the ole Grand Duchy, and have uncovered a number of curious things about it.

1) The original inhabitants of modern-day Karameikos were the "Traladarans"  or possibly "Tralaladarans".  Knapsacks and singing were apparently their most popular exports.

2) The capital of Traladara used to be called "Marilenev", but the name has since been changed to "Specularum". Sources appear to disagree as to whether this change was made by the Thyatians or by Duke Steve-O.  I've been operating under the assumption that it is Duke Stefan.  Hence my previous comment about "Duke Stev the Gynecologist".  (If you don't understand the reference, do a google search for "speculum".  Do NOT do an image search).

3) Steve, formerly of Machetos, is a HUGE DICK.  Really - he traded his ancestral lands to the Thyatian emperor in exchange for Karameikos (or Tralalalalalalaldara or whatever).  The emperor promptly strips the place of everything valuable, then hands it over to a crony to run.  So the people who have trusted and supported Steve's family for generations get the shaft, Steve gets a shiny new country to run, and the emperor gets richer and rewards one of his boys.  Serious dick move, there.

4) Duke Stev is retarded.  No, seriously - he's disabled.  Apparently he's unable to understand the motivations and actions of chaotic or evil people.  Which pretty much means he's high-functioning autistic, or at least Asbergers.  Which leads us to the next bit of "lore".

5) The Black Eagle Barony.  Where to start, here?  Run by Ludvig von Hendriks, some sort of relation of Steffo's.  Ludvig wears all black and silver.  He runs his fief like North Korea, plots constantly to take over the Duchy, changed the name of his city (formerly Mirov) to FORT DOOM.  Oh, and his main advisor is a dude named Bargle (my character was totally gonna nail Aleena, she was Elmore-hot) and somehow, Sir Steffeo the Smart doesn't notice.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, that Mystara is hella-weird.  But a good place to go on an adventure!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

First Session

Well, the first session of our old-school game has come and gone, and it was generally pretty excellent.

It's been 20 years, roughly, since I played this particular game.  Yet I still seem to remember all the rules.  Like when to make morale checks, and listening at doors and business.  I forgot to pay my taxes one year, but I remember that the first time the monsters are damaged, they make a morale check.  WTF, gamer brain?

Anywhoo, we are playing this game using and  I've done 4e games online this way before, so I knew the drill, but we did have a few technical problems.  One player couldn't get on Skype (she could hear but not talk) and one couldn't get on Maptools, but generally, it was working.

Perry, the DM, set up tokens for our characters - mine was a gay little elf-boy in green tights with a bow.  Considering that Fingolfin is a plate-wearing, sword and javelin wielding veteran of Duke Stev the Gynecologist's (I will explain this later, I promise)  very inventively-named "Elfguard", this did not seem appropriate.  But I can deal with it, so we continued.

We found ourselves in the tavern of Guido's Fort, along the river a ways from the town of Threshold.  A prosperous-looking fellow entered, and began waving around a large bag and shouting.  Apparently, he had recently inherited a castle, but it was full of monsters, and he wanted to hire "Extermination specialists" to clear it out so he could, presumably, live in it.  Several of us raised our hands, and were promised 100 gp each to clear the place out.

Our party of 4 consisted of Fingolfin, the elf, Hanz Verboten, a scrawny thief, Zhanna Titova, an impressive-looking female Cleric of Petra, and Elric something or other, a weedy-looking Wizard.  We looked for henchmen, but apparently none were available - not even stupid farm kids to hold our torches and carry stuff. Disappointing.

Fingolfin and Elric immediately sat down and started copying each other's spellbooks.  Somebody muttered something about "secrecy of the magi", but both of them ignored it and promised never to tell!

Then we loaded up Fingolfin's mule (Bill - it's a tradition) and hiked the five miles to "Castle Caldwell". To say that the place is unimpressive is an understatement.  It's not very big, and appears to be 1 level - a rancher-style castle, as it were.  Leaving Bill outside, we head up the ramp to the main doors, unlocking them with the key provided by the owner, Harold "Harry" Nuckols.

We were then confronted by a hallway with doors on either side.  Starting on the left side, we instruct the thief to listen and see if anything is inside.  He listens carefully, and announced that he hears "Nothing - quiet as a tomb".  This is not terribly reassuring, or surprising - he apparently hears things about 30% of the time...

With the armored elf and cleric blocking the door, we open it, and check the room.  It appears to be an abandoned dining room - tables and chairs covered in cobwebs.  So we toss the place.  Harry did promise that we could keep everything we found!

And boy, do we find stuff.  There is a bag under one of the tables, full of silver coins.  Hundreds of them!  What an excellent start to the day.  Worked for five minutes and already we made more than most farmers do in their ENTIRE FILTHY LIVES!

So we drag the coins outside and bury them in the side of the dirt ramp for later retrieval.  Then, back to the 2nd door!  This time, the thief actually hears something - it's a loud argument in an unknown and unpleasant language.  He tries quietly opening the door, but he sucks at that too, so the short, ugly humanoids that are arguing inside stop arguing and look at the door.

4 of them, 4 of us, and they are standing in a room with literally piles of coins!  Like, BIG piles.  So Fingolfin shouts in Orcish (see ROTS #5) - "Surrender or Die!".  The goblins don't speak orc, don't like elves, and come up with option 3 - CHARGE!  Which they do.

They are met with arrow and sling fire from Elric and Hanz, and a javelin from Fingolfin, who decides not to use the "encounter ender", or sleep as it's otherwise known.  One goes down with an arrow in it, and the other 3 splash up against Zhanna and Fingolfin.

We learn a number of things about this version of DnD in this first combat.  Things like - there are no criticals. 20's are automatic hits, but that's all.  Goblins apparently have very high morale, that's another thing.  Oh, and ALL spells are Dailies - Perry and I got a good laugh about that one.  Also, weapon skills are ree-donculously overpowered.   I'll get into that in a totally separate post.  So we squish 2 more of the goblins, and seriously wound the last one, who promptly surrenders.

After a brief discussion, we decide that we can't trust the goblin, can't talk to him, and therefore elect to squash him.  Zhanna also decides that goblins remind her of "beastmen" who apparently Petra has issues with, so, towel-time (as in, you're going to need a towel to get all the goblin off your armor).

Then we check out what the goblins were arguing over.  Literally THOUSANDS of silver and copper coins.  After some discussion, we drag the table over from the other room, use the other table to build sidewalls and skids, load the coins onto it, and drag the whole mess back to town behind Bill the mule.

We then use the coins to buy, in no particular order, 1 cart, and 3 more mules - we would have got draft horses, but Guido didn't have any for sale. It's now midday, so we retire to the tavern, get some fresh towels and booze, and call it a day.  Ahh, the life of an adventurer!

More About the Slog

For those of you who aren't the sort of voracious fantasy novel readers that I am, the Rules of the Slog might be a somewhat obscure reference.  It's from the new R Scott Bakker novel, The Judging Eye, which is the first book of his second series, the Aspect-Emperor.

If you have not read R Scott Bakker, and are a fantasy fan, they're a very good read - the first 3 anyways.  The new one is a STUPENDOUS read, especially the portion about the dungeon-crawl into the Mansion of the Nonmen.  Really - this is Old-School at it's best.  A few high-level characters, Achamian, Kosoter, Cleric (actually an insane Nonmen wizard), a few mid-level henchmen, and a bunch of low-level grunts, the Skin Eaters, collectively.

The battle scenes in this book are fast-paced, gory and very, very fatal for most participants.  Enemies come out of the dark in shrieking waves, magic is brutally powerful, except when it fails totally, and high-level wizards are engines of destruction who are also terrifically fragile.  If you want to read pretty much exactly what OD&D dungeon-crawling is like, pick up this book!

The rules of the slog are the guidelines of the Skin Eaters, veterans of many trips into hostile territory, populated only by hordes of implacable enemies (aka, adventures).  They are fairly simple rules, enforced with a ruthless lack of compassion.  Rules like: No weepers on the slog.  Fail a morale check with these boys, and you don't get to go home...

For our new Rules Cyclopedia game, I'm working on our own set of "Rules of the Slog".  No, obviously we can't go killing the help - the orcs will take care of that for us, but I think I can come up with some excellent rules of thumb for those unfamiliar with this particular gaming genre.

1) HAVE A PLAN:  Pretty self-explanatory, you would think.  But actually put into place a lot less than you would expect.

2) DON'T PANIC:  If you run, you pretty much just die tired.  I'd rather have a TPK than get cut up piecemeal.

3) STAY IN FORMATION: That means you, thief!  I know you can backstab for tons of damage, but you wear leather and have 3 hp!  So stay the fuck behind the plate-mail and shield boys, OK?

4) IF IT LOOKS LIKE A TRAP, IT IS A TRAP:  The old neckbeards who wrote these modules were evil fucking bastards.

5)  TALK, THEN KILL:  This one is missed pretty often in the era of balanced encounters and milestones.  If you talk to them, you may not actually have to kill them, and better yet, they may not try to kill you.

6)  YOU ARE SQUISHY:  All character, the entire campaign long.  You never really get tough in a save-or-die environment.

I'm sure I'll think of more later.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Not Sure What All the Fuss is About

Well, looks like I'm going to be getting back into some regular gaming now that the summer is over.  My buddy Perry, who I have been playing DnD with since basically forever, is running a once a week, 1-hour Old-School Sandbox game.  We're playing with Rules Compendium R.A.W.  I rolled up an Elf.

Now, I'm normally a Dwarf guy myself - and I could have played a Dwarf no problem, I got a decent enough set of stats.  But I liked the idea of the elf.  Access to any weapons/armor and spellcasting?  You betcha.  So was born Fingolfin the Elf.

It's been a really long time since I read these rules, and I have to say, there is some seriously senseless shit in here.  I've gotten a little punchy in the past with Ole Trollsmythe about the preposterous "D&D is Always Right" garbage that some people spread about, and I see nothing in these rules that changes my mind.

First off - some spells are ridiculously overpowered.  Sleep, just for example.  I like the no saving throw aspect of that.  Light is handy - I'm particularly fond of how blinded people can't attack or move.  Saving throws are very difficult to make, so good luck on that.  Other spells are just absolutely fucking useless, and other stuff is just... so arbitrary.

Like... encumbrance.  This is a flat amount for all characters.  Over 800 cn, and you're at 3/4 move.  Over 1200 and you're at half.  Functionally, this means that my 130 lb elf can haul 119.9 lbs of gear around at 60' per whatever.  In real life, I weigh 230.  120 lbs of gear is fucking brutal.  Roman legionnaires didn't carry that much, and Caesar called them "human mules".

Plus, a 90 lb halfling with str 5 can carry THE SAME AMOUNT OF GEAR.  And my spellbook weighs 200 cn!  WTF?  Even my university collected works of John Milton textbook didn't weigh 20 lbs.  Also - I love the spell selection.  Everyone gets 2 spells, but one of them pretty much has to be "Read Magic", or you won't ever have more than 2 spells.  So why not just give everyone 1 spell and Read Magic?  We'll never, ever know.

I could really go on for hours here - but truth be told, I'm actually really stoked to play this game.  I know this style well - and the rules of the slog are pretty straightforward:
Thou shalt not open doors when you don't know what is behind them.
Thou shalt map like a motherfucker.
Thou shalt NOT get in any stand-up fights if you can help it.
Thou shalt talk first, then fight.
Thou shalt have the thief check EVERYTHING. (even though the rules give a lv 1 thief about a 1/8 chance of actually finding anything - how do they ever get to be high-level thieves?)

Also, we found the most amazing example of gamer OCD - the Vaults of Pandius.  If you ever want to run a Known World/Mystara sandbox - head over here - there is a generation of material available.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Good Timing!

Yowza!  Nice to read a much more comprehensive and well-thought out post on the structure of skills and skill tests than I had.

This mostly addresses the issue I have of slipperier slime at higher levels.  The conclusion that Mike makes is that slime is indeed slipperier, but not necessarily for higher level characters, but in fact for 2 different characters.

So my mutant skink with PP 30 and athletics and acrobatics will find the slime less slippery than your mutant buffalo with hooves and enormous size?  Not a bad solution, but it makes me do a lot of math on the fly, since I pretty much have to calculate where on the difficulty curve I want the roll to be for each roll.  But on the other hand, I could just use the number of ranks/bonus points that a character has in a skill as a general guide to how good they are at it, and use that to determine what their difficulty is as a flat d20 roll.

Actually, I like that, let's run with it.

And speaking of running with it, let's steal some more - this time from Vampire 2nd Edition.

I always liked how you combined 2 things, attributes and skills, to determine how good the character was at a given task.  So I will be asking characters for 2 numbers, attribute bonus and skill score, adding them together and using that number to determine how good the character is at the skill in question.  Based on that, I will determine what the player needs to roll on the d20 to succeed at the task.  Potentially the overall difficulty would also be modified by people helping and other factors (like, is somebody shooting at you).

Let's try an example and see if it works in concept.

Slinky the aforementioned Mutant Skink has a score of 4 in athletics (3 starting plus 1 bought with skills) and a modifier of +6 for PP, giving him a total of 10.  10 I would rank as pretty fracking great at a given skill, so to run across the slimy slime, he needs to roll a 7 or higher, giving him about a 70% chance of success.

Herbi the Buffalo, though - he has an athletics score of 4 as well (starting 3 plus 1 bought with skills), but only has a PP of 16, for a +1 modifer, plus he has a -2 because he has hooves.  Total score 3.  Which I would rank as intensely mediocre, but not pitiful, so he needs a 15 or better to run across the slimy slime.  About a 20% chance of success.

I think I like the basic idea.  It means that characters who are exceptional can have a reasonable chance of success at something even if they have no specialized skills in that regard, and characters who have such skills AND exceptional attributes have a very good chance of success at something, which is as it should be.

But this means that I have to rebuild the TMNT character sheet.  Which I was pretty much going to do anyways.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Skills in TMNT

OK.  I've decided I want to run a TMNT game.  But there are a few things about the Palladium system that I'm not in love with, and one of them is the whole % skill business.  I like a skill-based game, mind you.  I've kicked around with non class-based systems, and I tend to like them, but there are some issues with them.

The biggest ones, to my mind, are avoiding dead ends or useless skills, and maintaining a reasonable difficulty curve while leveling.

By the first I mean, there should be no useless skills.  And by the second I mean, you shouldn't have to have slipperier slime at higher levels.  You should just be better at dealing with slime.  But not so good that you never slip on slime - it's still more hazardous than dry floor.

I have also decided that I will make no major effort to address these potential issues of a skill-based system while reworking TMNT/Palladium.

Sooooo... how to deal with skills, if I'm not going to use a %-based system.  I want to use the existing body of TMNT skills, it represents a significant resource, and one that I'm not willing to throw out.  My inclination is to go with a difficulty-based d20 system. TMNT uses d20 rules already, so we're not that far off, and d20 is easy to convert into percentile chances, so it should be relatively easy to convert from a % system to a d20-based system.

I also want to rework the skill bonus structure, and the leveling structure to streamline things and hopefully build a reasonable difficulty curve.  I'd thought of using a "Target 20" idea for the rolling system, but I'm not sure it gives me enough flex on the math.  I'll be making a lot of decisions on the fly during the game, so I want a system that gives me lots of options.  I can do % chance converted to d20 in my head, and d20 is simpler for players.

My first thought on converting the TMNT skills to a base d20 system is to take the starting % chance on the skill, divide by 10 and round up.  That's the starting bonus for the skill.  Add a stat-based modifier and a dice roll and you should have a workable system...

But.  Doing that actually makes success in the skills much harder.  If you assume that 20 is the base difficulty, then each +1 on a roll represents a base 5% chance to succeed.  So taking a base 30% skill, making it a +3 modifier means that the player has to roll, theoretically, a 17 to succeed.  Which is really only a 15% chance of success.  Setting a base difficulty of 15 means that a +3 bonus represents a 40% chance of success.  A little closer to the starting point.  But it makes the math on the conversion harder.

Setting the base difficulty for most tasks at 15 works for me, the more that I think about it.  I expect characters at first level to have modifiers on most skills of between 2 (low) and 10 (high and/or exceptional stats).  I'm not sure yet if I want to have penalties on the roll, or higher difficulties for difficult tasks/conditions. Bears more thinking.  And I need to consider how I'm dealing with leveling.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On to TMNT

I'm trying to start a new IRL game, as my online game kinda fizzled, largely due to the fact that I have a 1-year old and not enough time to do all the things I want. And I'm lazy and hate network engineering, which is what I have to do to get Maptools running. So on to something different!

I want to try a TMNT After the Bomb sandbox. Inspired by the redoubtable Zak S. Who is purely the best gaming blogger working right now, in my opinion. I am always challenged and interested by his material. And always inspired as well, which is the important part.

So, TMNT... but. but, but, but. The Palladium system kinda blows. So I'm going to take a page from Mr Zak and beat on the rules a bit, and see if I can come up with something better.

First things first. Steal from Zak.

SCD. Out the Window. Just HP from here on out.

Stats - I like 4d6 drop the lowest. Stick with the extra d6 for 16 and over, and roll once more if you get a 6.

All stats will be capped at 30.

Initial skills - I like the roll d12 idea. I'm also going to allow players to have 2 wps, which can also include hand to hand skills. I'll also allow a bonus number of skills based on the character's IQ.

I'm going to keep the whole Bi0-E/Mutation system unchanged from the 2nd Edition of After the Bomb - it's the part of the system I like the most.

Next time - dealing with combat and leveling.