Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Master Class in Refereeing

You should watch this interview with Dave Wesley, the inventor of Braunstein, the war game that led directly to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor and thence to Dungeons & Dragons.

Wesley describes how a refereed game changed his wargaming: once there was a referee, players could take ad-hoc actions. He describes how players in one wargame scenario decided to take apart a barn and use the timbers to build a bridge across a river to move their troops. And Wesley as the referee had to rule on how long it took the troops to deconstruct the barn and move the timbers. He also goes on with a few thoughts on how crossing rivers might work in a wargame, including randomly determining its depth and making rulings from there on what can go across.

This is an adaptation of the principles of free Kriegsspiel – the open war game method used in 19th century Prussia – based on Wesley's reading of Charles Totten's Strategos rules. (You can buy a facsimile of Strategos online now.) The historical progression that Wesley describes is logical and compelling; his desire for more complex refereed scenarios and his severe time constraints combined to create what would become Braunstein.

Wesley describes three basic things that make part of his rulings. First, there's the question of what he had decided secretly before the scenario; he may already know that the river is only a foot or two deep and cavalry and infantry can wade across (although artillery cannot follow). Second, there is random determination, where Wesley would throw a die to decide how deep the river is at this point. And third, his own knowledge often factors in, as he describes the results of the river's depth. There is no formal rule for this. so he comes up with appropriate descriptions.

He also describes a touch of classical irony that sometimes happens in gaming as well as war, where soldiers fought to take a bridge when they could as well have waded across. I'm sure this rings true for many referees.

Although Wesley focuses on the river scenario in this discussion, the lessons (and indeed, much of the ideas of free Kriegsspiel) are generally applicable in RPGs. One thing I think adventures benefit greatly from are details like the barn that properly motivated PCs can use to try and gain an advantage.

The other detail that Wesley gets into that applies in obvious and not-so-obvious ways to RPGs is when he talks about the persistence of details across games. While it's mostly obvious, the idea I particularly liked is using notoriety as a way of changing how a PC is perceived. Dave Arneson's bandit starts off as a no-name Mexican but once he blows up the bank there are "Wanted" posters plastered across the town. (Of course, it's also a delightful gaming story that he blew up the bank.)

The specific resolution that Wesley arrived at for a duel in the first Braunstein game (a simple roll-off where one participant had 3 dice and the other 2) is too simplistic for RPG combat, but most of the ideas can translate directly. Wesley is a brilliant referee and this is a great peek into his mind.

(The photo at the top of this article is referenced during the discussion.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Changing Face of the OSR

Yesterday the Swords & Wizardry Complete 3rd Printing Kickstarter launched. For reasons there has been talk about its cover:

The cover is a major departure from the last printing, which featured an Erol Otus original:

The Otus cover speaks strongly to me, but the change has me reflecting on the change in the OSR. We've gone from the original Labyrinth Lord:

To the art book that is Maze of the Blue Medusa:
Okay, that's enough showing pictures. I think it illustrates the basic point, which is that there is a shift afoot in the OSR away from old TSR and toward a very different and current aesthetic.

As much as I like the Otus cover for S&W Complete, it's a cover that ties the game back to TSR. As much as it's a fresh piece, it has intentional echoes of the cover for the Moldvay Basic box - and that leaves it in what is now effectively the OSR's past. Fewer and fewer OSR modules feel the need to consciously emulate TSR's look and feel, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess has been the leader here.

By severing the TSR connection, Swords & Wizardry has a chance to be its own game. I think that's particularly important for S&W to move forward, since effectively Frog God has just treated it as one of several options along with Pathfinder and 5e D&D. It doesn't have a strong identity, and if it could gain one outside of bog-standard fantasy, I think that would be a wonderful thing.

Look at the Kickstarter, by the way - the layout of the book is also getting a radical overhaul. I'm most excited for monster illustrations by Gennifer Bone, the artist who worked with Rafael Chandler on Lusus Naturae. Gennifer is one of the most exciting artists in the OSR right now, and I'd recommend you back her on Patreon.

It's kind of a funny coincidence to me that my recent game, set in the megadungeon I am slowly working on, used Swords & Wizardry Complete. More than any other OSR system, S&W really benefits from a strong vision on the referee's part, and I think giving the book a new look and adventures outside of the Gygaxo-Arnesonian tradition is a move toward that. LotFP, after all, is not far off from B/X D&D in the text of the rules but the actual play experience is far different. I'd like to see where Swords & Wizardry can go.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Open Source Roleplaying, and Success by Amazon

A recent industry report by the creators of Roll20 shows that the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game is a legitimately popular RPG, sitting between Pelgrane Press's 13th Age and Monte Cook's Cypher System in popularity. I've written in positive terms about BFRPG before, and I think it's a solid old school system. I still love its declaration of "This is OLD SCHOOL" even if I'd prefer a layout with a bit more pizazz. But BFRPG is smart in ways that other RPGs haven't thought about.

If you read the Project News page on the Basic Fantasy site, you will see that the game is constantly undergoing a process of being honed, re-proofed, corrected, and occasionally updated in very minor ways. It reads like a log of updates to a piece of software, right down to the release numbers and the idea of "release candidates" for print versions.

Basic Fantasy is, to my knowledge, the only RPG out there that is actually serious about the idea of being an open source RPG. You can literally download the Open Office document files that the rulebook PDFs (and the printed versions) are derived from, work on them, and if you want - make them your own. Swords & Wizardry has a single RTF document, but it's not the actual source of the layout for the print versions. Of course, this constrains the layout (see above), but it's a radically open concept in gaming.

The community recently leveraged this to create a Field Guide, a bestiary full of creatures both new and old. If you look at the amount of material between new classes, races, and additional/alternate rules, it's clear that there is a possibility for BFRPG to release a fairly thorough "Advanced" or "Companion" type of product with the ability to branch far beyond its four races and four classes. And since the rules are all modular, you can plug any of them into a game. And it doesn't even have to be BFRPG; it could just as well be Moldvay or Labyrinth Lord or LotFP.

But I don't think the open source approach is the only reason for Basic Fantasy's spread on Roll20, which I suspect may reflect broader support than many people realize. Because Basic Fantasy RPG is able to spread through Amazon. When I pull up FATE Accelerated, I see this on the third page of the related items scroller:

The Basic Fantasy rulebook pops up all over the RPG recommendations on the Internet's largest store, and it's a complete RPG for only five bucks. It has 83 reviews and 73 of those give it five stars. When you look at it you also see a book of monsters and four adventure books, each of them under $4. BFRPG, the Field Guide, Adventure Anthology 1, BF1 Morgansfort, BF2 Fortress Tower and Tomb, and JN1 The Chaotic Caves combined cost only $23.96, and easily provide a weekly group with a year's worth of adventure. At $5, extra copies of the rulebook for the table are not an expensive luxury; each player could have the rulebook, even though they don't really need it.

I suspect that BFRPG has been quietly spreading old school gaming ideas through its placement on Amazon. And that's all to the good. Not everything in the OSR is loud and shiny and front and center; a lot of people are just playing straighforward RPGs that make a good time for them and their friends. Which is kind of humbling from the perspective of those of us toward the center of OSR circles.

Basic Fantasy has been continuously revised and updated, even if only incrementally, for almost a decade. It's a quality open source product and its community is doing as much as any publisher out there to build old school roleplaying. It is what it says on the box: a meat and potatoes old school experience. And it deserves more acclaim than I think it gets.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Reflections from AD&D

I ran another AD&D session last Saturday and it went well. I'm not going to summarize the whole game, but I do want to share a few impressions. None of these deserve their own post but together they make some observations I feel like sharing. This is spoiler-rich so my players may want to look away.

Logistics, or Sometimes You Need a Pack Goat

The players spent a lot of time on logistics. Since the temple they were exploring was up a mountain, with steps leading up to it, they couldn't bring their mule. This caused some rumination on alternatives, and the players discovered that the AD&D Players Handbook lists goats for all of 1 GP. So of course they decide that pack goats are a wonderful idea. Sadly they didn't go through with it, but it was filed away for future reference.

Since we live in a wonderful and strange world, there is a FAQ about pack goats. By my estimate, a goat should be able to carry 20-30% of its body weight, and goats tend to weigh about 150 lbs, so that'd be 30-45 lbs. Just in case you want pack goats in your game.

Also in logistics, the PCs spent a bit of time burying their coins in large metal boxes, which was interesting. Since I've used the Keep on the Borderlands so many times, PCs usually just leave money at the Keep's bank, so this was a new twist. They are lucky I'm not using the gold-spine books, because aurumvoraxes.

The Importance of Time

Some time had passed since the last time the PCs had gone to the temple. Their initial mission involved finding the priest who had gone to re-open it and his entourage. The PCs had left without finding where they were, so I decided that an aquazombie had found them instead. This led to some wonderful aquazombie encounters.

If you don't know what an aquazombie is, find Jennell Jaquays's superlative adventure "Night of the Walking Wet" from the old Dungeoneer zine. They are 2 HD creatures that replace living flesh with slime and communicate the disease with a successful unarmed attack (a save avoids this).

But I've found as a referee that I really enjoy making time count by having weird stuff happen in the dungeon when the PCs leave. After all, as Gary said, "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT. "

Dwarves and Elves are Useful

As a referee, it's much easier to describe Dyson Logos's maps if there's a dwarf involved. Since they have a great sense of elevation inside dungeons, you can just describe things to them directly - "You had gone up a hundred feet and you've come down about sixty." Makes perfect sense of things.

Elves spot secret doors a lot.

Thematic Unity and L'esprit d'escalier

I missed a few opportunities in my take on the water temple to thematically unify several elements of corruption. I wound up leaving it a mystery for the players, The aquazombies should have been tied to the corruption in the secret area of the temple, then I could have had something really cool going on. That's l'esprit d'escalier, stairway wit, the great example being George Costanza's "jerk store" comeback in Seinfeld. Players always figure out things in a better way than the referee does.

Of course that's what publishing a module lets you do, so I guess I have to get to work.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Initial Thoughts: Barrens of Carcosa

As with Carcosa Module 5, The Yuthlugathap Swamps, Barrens of Carcosa is a 32-page saddle stitched AD&D module by Geoffrey McKinney. You can buy the module on Lulu.

Barrens has no art aside from the cover piece by Luigi Castellani. It suffers more acutely than Yuthlugathap Swamps from the print quality with the color hexmap on the back; since most of the hexes are a tan color, the numbers are almost completely illegible. You more or less need to reference nearby hexes to have any chance of figuring out what the number on a tan or yellow hex is.

The last page of each module notes that four more Carcosa modules will be forthcoming as well as sixteen "Wilderness" modules. This is a rather ambitious plan, to be certain!

In terms of its content, Barrens of Carcosa is a step above the Yuthlugathap Swamps, and I'd suggest reading it first. Not having to go through quite so many lizardman strongholds means that there is more room for the weird content that Geoffrey specializes in. There are many more villages and generally more humans in the Barrens, including a few small jungles and a modest desert.

The Cthulhu Mythos looms much more present in Barrens of Carcosa. There are several Great Race appearances, multiple cults, and the excellent City of Pillars ruled by Alhazred himself (and, of course, a copy of the Necronomicon). This last area is implied to be an area worthy of its own module detailing both the city and the dungeons of Alhazred below.

High technology themes also come back into the setting here, with a few powerful technological areas. One small village goes into orbit periodically, and there is a powerful Overmind in a corner of the map. It was a relief to see that this theme is still present, although not very thoroughly so. I found the suggestion that the orbital village's technology doesn't work outside of its hex really disappointing, the kind of "only in this area" effect that cheapens modules.

Fewer of the hexes are concerned with learning magic-user spells, although there are still a few of these. There are a decent number of Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, and many are connected in some way to an adjoining hex. One strength of these modules is that a solid minority of the entries have clear ties to another location. A couple even reference the hexmap in the original Carcosa book.

There are some deliciously double-edged encounters in this book, particularly the Logician (hex 2811) and the village of Ullcha (hex 3001). These go much beyond the simple theme of threats and have both wonderful and horrible things in them. I won't go into detail, because you should read about them yourself.

The hex description format feels more claustrophobic in Barrens than it did in the Swamps. There are more entries where a full monster write-up would be useful; for instance, the giant scorpions in hex 3209 would have been welcome as a Monster Manual type of entry. And there just isn't enough given in the write-ups for either the Orbital Unit or the City of Pillars; either would require a great deal of prep by the referee before players stumbled into them.

It becomes increasingly clear that Geoffrey's art-free interiors are a weakness of the offering. One of the main reasons is that a good idea is hard to find again when flipping through the module. Illustrations, even fairly crude ones, provide solid mental references to remember where a stand-out piece of content was. The organization, which relies solely on hex number (there are no page numbers), tends to compound this in the modules. It also would help in the case of Geoffrey's unique creatures, which are always freakish and benefit from the pen of an illustrator, as seen in Isle of the Unknown.

Not having any art or any text outside of the hex descriptions (plus the brief overview of Carcosa at the start) also severely limits the modules' ability to offer unique details. There are almost no unique "magical" items, although there is an Elder Sign or two. No spells are present except ones already found in the AD&D Players Handbook, which is deeply disappointing for a setting that had previously taken a totally iconoclastic approach to magic. This makes them really difficult to slot into an existing Carcosa campaign with sorcerers instead of magic-users.

(I do know from the original Carcosa and the Psychedelic Fantasies modules that Geoffrey tends to put things out in this format; but information design has come a long way in the OSR and it is a step backward to have a plain layout with no art. And it's particularly painful after the LotFP releases.)

I also have a small quibble about the treasure present. Despite the general lack of hard currency or sources thereof in Carcosa, treasure listings tend to feature standard AD&D coinage (copper, silver, electrum, gold, platinum), and sometimes uses four or five coin types. This is a minor annoyance but it does not feel right for a weird setting. Defining one coin type and sticking to it would have been more in keeping with the tone of Carcosa.

I also find the division of the books into four modules distracting. Each covers a hexmap in some detail, but it doesn't feel appropriate to have them broken down in the way they are. There is no progression through the four modules, and vanishingly few references to other modules in the text. A unified index for the four books would really have helped. One has the sense that the division is to follow a pattern rather than out of necessity.

To be clear, these are my reservations with a book whose content I find very strong. I offer them primarily because I think it could have been really an incredible product if Geoffrey had chosen to do these as a follow-up to the LotFP Carcosa tome, using the same system, with a crowdfunding campaign allowing lavish illustration throughout a single hardcover book. There are some great ideas in these modules and they are worth picking up, but they're a step backward in a lot of ways from the releases that have been done through LotFP.

If you like Carcosa-style hexcrawls, this is definitely worth the $12.99. There are a lot of encounters in this book that are worth the cost of admission, and as with many products like it this can be mined for details in a campaign that doesn't strictly follow Carcosa.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Initial Thoughts: The Yuthlugathap Swamps (Carcosa)

While I don't really do a lot of reviews, particularly because for RPGs I think playtest reviews are more useful than "I read this" reviews (excluding Bryce Lynch at, who has objective criteria and does a heroic number of reviews). But I think Initial Thoughts are a good way to put forward my first impressions of a product, and it's a good way to indicate that my thoughts might change over time.

The Yuthlugathap Swamps is one of four first edition AD&D modules released by Geoffrey McKinney (all four are on Lulu here) for his Carcosa setting. Originally released as a very controversial OD&D supplement in 2008, Carcosa got an extremely deluxe release from Lamentations of the Flame Princess in 2011. These don't require either.

It's rather confusing that Geoffrey called this "Carcosa Module 5." He's said that his goal is to re-release the hex map for Carcosa in four more modules following the same format. Eventually modules 1-4 will detail the original map, and 5-8 detail the four map quadrants due south of it.

The new modules are first edition AD&D modules and assume that you have the first four AD&D books. It works better if your copy of Deities & Demigods has the Cthulhu mythos; if it doesn't, you might want to look here. If you are used to Carcosa following an OD&D or LotFP type of system, this will require a bit of adjustment. The adventures repeatedly reference AD&D monsters (in Yuthlugathap, primarily Lizardmen and various slimes and oozes) and spells in a way that previous Carcosa material did not.

In terms of presentation, it is bare bones. Each module has a color cover image in a style generally reminiscent of old TSR modules. There is a hexmap on the back, printed in color. Unfortunately the map is not reproduced in black & white on the interior; this would have made the numbers easier to read. As it stands, some of them are almost totally illegible. The interior is two-column text laid out pretty much like Geoffrey's line of Psychedelic Fantasies modules. There are no interior illustrations, and there is a lack of page numbers.

After a brief overview, the module consists of a series of hex descriptions. A lot of the entries for the Yuthlugathap Swamps are descriptions of Lizardman strongholds. There is a clear rivalry between the various tribes that is set up in a huge, deadly web of conflict. Characters can get involved in this, and the module could probably be used as the basis for a Diplomacy-like scenario with players taking the parts of various lizardman tribe leaders.

Human tribes are scattered mostly to the east, some pretty good and one quite horrible. There are a number of dinosaurs and Spawn of Shub-Niggurath scattered around the swamps as well. The Spawn are always given some kind of unique twist. A few aren't at all malevolent or even very harmful to human life.

Then there are the really weird areas, which are solid gold. These are the kind of things Geoffrey excels at, and they're evocative and flavorful. Some give wondrous boons, including a number that teach magic-user spells. Others give horrible banes. My favorite reference is that there is a Pillar of Tsathoggua that involves the geas spell (a nod to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Seven Geases"). The Ghost-Lights are a great twist on the traditional Will o' the Wisp, with various odd effects from contact such as having to eat more or becoming amphibious and needing to be submerged in water daily.

All of the entries are solid. There's not much here by way of space aliens and technology, which I think is a function of most of this module being swamps; peeking ahead, Barrens of Carcosa seems to have more technological wonders. Sorcery seems to have been either left in the northern part of Carcosa or simply not mentioned in favor of AD&D magic use. This is jarring for those who are accustomed to either OD&D or LotFP Carcosa.

At the going rate, there are definitely $12.99 worth of ideas in this module. A bunch are really wonderful. You could do an interesting hexcrawl in the godforsaken swamps of Carcosa or adapt a number of the locations to a different setting. I'll be doing a similar Initial Thoughts entry at least on Barrens of Carcosa.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Megadungeons and Artifacts

I've started working on a megadungeon again, and as such I've been thinking about them lately. (It was initially called the Red Keep dungeon, but since I realized I'd cribbed that unintentionally from A Song of Ice and Fire, I'm just going to call it the Castellan Keep dungeon. Yes, it's set beneath a ruined version of the Keep on the Borderlands.)

This thread on the OD&D forums had me look back through Monsters & Treasure. Toward the end of that booklet is a short list of artifacts: a Teleportation Machine, separate Crown, Orb & Scepter for each class, and the Stone Crystallization Projector. The latter is obviously the fun one, although whether it's a crystallization projector that turns things to stone, or a projector that crystallizes stone, is up to an individual referee's imagination. Eldritch Wizardry, of course, added the whole array of now-familiar artifacts to the game. They are the best treasures that D&D has ever come up with, but are rarely presented in games because they're so powerful.

It strikes me that the deep levels of a megadungeon are possibly the most natural resting spots for artifacts. After all, if the Invulnerable Coat of Arn or the Sword of Kas is just sitting within 600' of the entrance point of a dungeon, why hasn't someone already come along and taken it? If there are a dozen layers of dungeon and monsters between it and the surface, well, that makes a bit more sense. Especially if the artifact is Lawful and the monsters are Chaotic and can't use it. Or the artifact is Chaotic and the monsters do use it.

Deciding that an artifact is in a megadungeon adds a powerful thematic element, and a fascinating high-level motive for characters to keep questing. When you get to the level full of wild boars, the idea that there are secrets beyond simply lots and lots of monetary treasure in the dungeon becomes a relevant question. "We have to keep pressing on or we won't find the Spear of Longinus!" Well, it's worth a thought, anyway.

The PC party doesn't need to be the only group trying to get to the artifact, either. If there's a rival party trying to make their way toward a given artifact, it can create a time tension that can otherwise be missing in the megadungeon environment. One of the truths of D&D is that it's a more challenging game when there are time constraints and a PC group can't simply go rest after every major fight. Another way to bring time-pressure is to tie an artifact's effect to a particular temporal or astrological event. Perhaps the door to the room containing it only opens on a certain day, or when the stars are right, etc. There are a lot of options here.

A megadungeon environent also adds a potential solution to the power dilemma. For one reason or another, the artifact may not be removable from its present location. One very good reason for this is to simply make it too large to physically move, or tied into the physical environment. If the artifact is a statue that grants Wishes or a Fountain of Life, but you can no more take it out of its current room than you can remove the room from the dungeon. That is to say, sufficiently clever players will find a way.

Magical limitations can also stop the artifact from being removed. There are parts of the Holy Grail myth, my favorite being the climax to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, that make it so the Grail simply cannot be taken out of the cave where Jones finds it. That's a shame, too - imagine the good it could do to the medical community. But such are magical artifacts, at least until you find that Wish granting statue and use it to change the rule about no removing the Grail.

Artifacts being part of the megadungeon are a strong support of the theme of the dungeon as a mythic underworld. By their nature, artifacts shape and change the setting around them in ways that are not entirely logical. Following this logic, the referee might even think of the artifacts as part of what "powers" the megadungeon and keeps it weird. Of course, this requires the kind of artifacts that you can't remove, or otherwise the dungeon would go away, or change fundamentally.

Once PCs reach the artifacts in a dungeon, in some sense they should be changed forever. Galahad ascends to Heaven once he finds the Grail. It's not entirely out of the question for PCs who've found a dungeon's deepest and greatest secrets to go to another plane (or another planet). Even the chute on level 13 of Castle Greyhawk, tongue in cheek as it may be, takes the character who's traversed its depths to a new world. Other changes might include some innate ability or physical sign of change.

As a general rule, it's worth taking a lesson from Dungeon Crawl Classics and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, both of which have lots of effects that permanently alter characters, and building such changes into a megadungeon's "big" features. It fits within the mythic underworld theme as well.

The choice of artifacts might seem like an odd place to start fresh musings about megadungeons, but it's not. I think that, to the contrary, deciding what lies deep beneath is a great way to build the dungeon in ways that lead organically to it. If you know that level 12 is going to have the Holy Grail, you can begin to put allusions to Arthurian myth in your dungeon, and so on with other themed artifacts. Players will get more out of the dungeon if it seems to be leading somewhere rather than just being a massive underground zoo. That's not to say that the megadungeon is plotted entirely in advance - it shouldn't be - but its big ideas should be informing it from the word "go."

Photograph by Locutus Borg (José-Manuel Benito Álvarez). CC-BY-SA 3.0