Tuesday, February 2, 2016

And Greyhawk Complicates Things

If last Tuesday you bought a copy of Original D&D, today you can buy Supplement I: Greyhawk (links now go to the new DM's Guild, which is replacing D&D Classics) and complicate things.

Categorically, Greyhawk is when OD&D began to be recognizably Dungeons & Dragons. High Strength made you hit harder and more often. High Dexterity improves your armor class. There were half-elves, thieves, and paladins. Swords do d8 damage and daggers do d4, as fighting-men went to d8 hit dice and magic-users to d4s. Magic Missile and Web and 7th through 9th level spells all got introduced in Greyhawk. Beholders and Owlbears and Bugbears all came to be in this supplement. It is whence the Deck of Many Things. In short, the things that made D&D a recognizable brand come from this booklet, to a degree that is surprising in retrospect.

That said, OD&D plus Greyhawk is not a particularly good combination for gaming in 2016. A few Greyhawk elements are worth grabbing, such as the thief (Zach Howard at the Zenopus Archives put together a good reference sheet for the pre-Greyhawk version). If you want to run a game with OD&D roots that is classically D&D, a better bet is using the Holmes Basic book with the Cook/Marsh Expert book (the two blue books); the result will be cleaner and better organized. Greyhawk follows OD&D's sections literally, meaning that information such as thief abilities are scattered across a dozen pages of unrelated content.

Greyhawk's problem isn't that its material is no good; it's that its approach has been taken much further. AD&D, classic D&D, and most of their derivatives all take the material here and do more with it.  It's interesting as a historical artifact, but if your goal is to play OD&D, it works best as a snapshot of areas that could be expanded from the brown books.

It's interesting to see how much Greyhawk changed things. It touched on every aspect of the game, usually adding new layers of complexity. Ability scores, classes, races, combat system, spells, monsters, magic items - everything is added, and it becomes easy to see why it was named "Greyhawk" as the world is now much more Gary Gygax's. Once you have the idiosyncratic rules and creatures of the Greyhawk world, every setting starts to blend in with the next.

Once you remove that layer, OD&D's setting (which of course I've written about) becomes much more flexible. Each monster, spell, or magic item you choose to add does more to customize the game, because you're no longer fighting the now-entrenched Gygaxian assumptions. A beholder is interesting, but that's the kind of threat Gary's world features. OD&D has plenty of directions to go: there's Tolkienesque fantasy, classical mythology, Universal and Hammer films, '50s sci-fi/horror films, giant versions of normal animals, dinosaurs, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom, and several minor influences. Anything from fantasy, sci-fi, or horror is fair game, as are wholly new creations.

Empire of the Petal Throne is the furthest-reaching example of where this can go. A whole world constructed from the base up. But with OD&D as a basis, the referee doesn't need to create everything, and has a fairly stable basis for their variation. Using Greyhawk short-circuits this and leads back to the over-exploited, familiar soil.

I don't want this to be misconstrued. Greyhawk was where a number of classic ideas that have entertained people for decades got their origin, and deserves to be read as such. I just think that, as far as OD&D today goes, there is a sound creative reason to go back to the sources, and adding Greyhawk in is a distraction from that.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

OD&D: There Is No Substitute

You can now buy Original Dungeons & Dragons at D&D Classics. Specifically this is the 2013 reissue by Wizards of the Coast, which added new cover art to the OD&D booklets and cleaned up the typesetting (using the same Futura font).

At $10, you get the  three original  booklets in their final 7th printing form. This unfortunately removes the Balrog from the game, but you can find Zach Howard's Balrog Reference Sheet which includes the OD&D monster listing, the relevant rules from Chainmail, and all references to the Balrog that had been removed through the first four books of OD&D. So with that sheet you get back the original and best of the demonic beasts haunting the dungeons.

The rest of the references are just names. Ents became treants, hobbits became halflings, et cetera. There is no special need for a sheet, just have your players use the correct terms.

If you want a reference for the setting material implied in the booklets, I wrote The Original D&D Setting which is a modestly popular resource. Philotomy's Musings are a set of ponderings that you should read if you want to run OD&D, as they establish a good baseline set of items.

Should you want more monsters, there is a compilation here. I would recommend spending some quality time over at Finarvyn's Original D&D Discussion forum in general as it has lots of ideas for things you can do with OD&D.

There is no substituting for the original booklets. Read them; check out the supplemental material; read them sideways if you have to, but by all means, see what the original game had to say. And play it - for its simplicity as well as its richness.

Follow its procedures for dungeon stocking, and you'll find that the dungeons Gary was looking to create are very different from the ones most gamers are used to. Get into its simple exploration rules and you'll find the heart of how the game is meant to run. Run your encounters with its reaction tables and there's a whole social game that is so easily ignored. Construct combat on its basis and it quickly becomes clear that this is not a game for fair fights (or, unless you ignore morale, a game where every fight is to the death). This is a brilliant game. Enjoy it.

It is lightning in a bottle and while plenty of other games are enjoyable, nothing will ever substitute for the original work that started this hobby.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Learning from Nature: the Mechanics of Traps


A fascinating article in the Atlantic describes the mechanism of the Venus flytrap as scientists have studied it. It's a great description of the Venus flytrap's mechanics, which through evolution shows how an unthinking plant can hijack the instinctive survival response of an animal. Its process is instructive in how we can think about trap design.

First, the trap is appealing. A fly comes along because it smells something sweet. By making itself attractive the flytrap uses the appearance of other plants around it as an offensive weapon. Since the fly can't tell immediately that it's a trap, it comes in to inspect. Only then is it doomed. This is a good principle for elaborate traps in D&D. PCs are always looking for treasure. Appearing to present a treasure is a good way to present a trap, but not the ideal way.

D&D players aren't, no matter what some referees may tell you, as dumb as flies. A trap that's simply too obvious, such as a chest of shimmering jewels and gold coins unguarded in the middle of a room, will be regarded with the utmost paranoia. It's obviously a trap. A really great baited trap is one that looks like hidden treasure. It's hidden in a secret compartment or panel that can be found by careful PCs. Such a subversion is cruel, but sometimes the best way to spring a trap on players is to make them work for it.

Second, the trap has error-checking. It only closes when two of its cilia are brushed. This is a wonderful principle for mechanical traps: the trap is not triggered on the first pass. The primary reason for this is to avoid false alarms, as described in the article. This is good and pragmatic. But with a D&D style trap, there is a further benefit where the party is drawn deeper into the trap before it springs. A simple pit or arrow trap will kill only one member of a party, but it is reasonable for trap designer to aim for multiple kills. And it may also be a way for monsters (or clever PCs) to avoid a trap by letting it reset after the first trigger.

There are two good ways to implement this principle with a D&D trap. One is to require a single trigger to be pressed more than once, such as a pressure plate that activates a two-step process. The first step cocks the arrow and the second fires it. The other is to have two separate triggers, one that starts the trap process and a second that finishes it. Either can work and both are nasty surprises.

Third, the trap imprisons without killing. This can be useful in a faction dungeon where the monsters might prefer to question a member of a rival group spying on their territory rather than killing them. The victims of such a trap become useful bait or can be traded in a prisoner exchange. This can lead to a tense period where the PCs have an opportunity to try to escape before the monsters who set the trap come to check it. Or the designer may have abandoned it and the trapped characters are stuck until a wandering monster comes along.

A trap that doesn't kill outright is extra fun if it affects only a single PC. The rest of the group simply sees the lead PC go missing and isn't sure exactly where they are, while the trapped character has to deal with their predicament on their own. It presents the immediate dilemma of how much effort to spend on saving the trapped character. And as noted about the factions above, such a PC may be a bargaining chip that stops the rest of the characters from barging in and killing a monster group.

Fourth and most brutal, the trap makes its victim kill itself. The fly's struggles against its captivity doom it. Standing still would be the best policy, but it goes against their instincts. This can be copied in straightforward ways, such as by having the character trapped so tight that they can't struggle to get out without impaling themselves on a spike, or puncturing a container of poison gas or acid. It could also be a question of physics, if the trap is suspended more than 10' above the ground. Even a simple quicksand type of trap, where struggling to extract yourself actually pulls you in further, does a great job with this principle.

But this can be used in more devious and subtle ways. Efforts to escape can let the players, who again are still smarter than flies, outthink themselves. Elements of the trap itself may be unstable or unsafe, or designed in a misleading way. What looks like it will open a door actually operates a hidden ballista, or opens a chamber above full of heavy rocks. You can go way too far in this direction and wind up in Grimtooth's Traps, but I think there's a lot of fun trap design short of that.

I love the concept of the Venus Flytrap. It's an elegant and simple life form, and does its work without even the simplistic thought patterns of the fly, but it does something very intricate and involved. Its principles can lend a lot to any trap in your dungeon, whether you pick one or all four.

Oh, and don't forget the simplest way to apply lessons from this article in your dungeon: giant Venus Flytraps.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Tao of the Empty Room


The dungeon stocking table in OD&D results in 5 out of every 9 rooms being empty. (We're excluding rooms stocked by the referee.) These rooms have no monsters and no treasure.

I've written before that empty rooms are critical for spacing and timing in OD&D. The question that we have to ask, though, is how empty they should be.

Of course, some of these rooms will be trap rooms. Those are good, noble, and deserve their own separate post. I will make one side observation about traps here: pit traps in OD&D only trigger on 1 or 2 in 1d6. A pit trap that has PCs have passed over without it opening can be even more dangerous than one that is fresh, because the PCs think that nothing is there. But here we are mostly talking about the empty ones.

Sometimes rooms should be empty of anything at all. This is a useful reminder to the referee that the dungeon is a mythic underworld. Not every square inch of the underground needs a rationale. In logistical terms this also allows the referee to use rooms that only appear to be empty. When they turn out to contain traps or secret treasure, the reward is all the better.

James Maliszewski wrote about the mystique of the empty room. Every turn in a dungeon is a use of resources runs the a risk of wandering monsters. Timekeeping being important, such empty rooms become tense situations.

But not all empty rooms have to be devoid of everything. When you have members of a dungeon faction in an area, nearby empty rooms can create a more "lived-in" feeling. This could mean, for instance, that there is a second area where denizens spend their time. Monsters might even split their time between the area that the map key indicates for them and an ostensibly "emtpy" room. This also makes it possible for PCs finding the empty room first to get a clue of what is up ahead.

There could also be structural reasons for the room to be empty. A room noted as empty on the key might, for instance, have a large pool of standing water. Perhaps it is unsound, with cracks in walls or floor. Anyone who has been through a home inspection can think of many reasons a room for a room to want for occupants. Mold, mildew, even just something with an unbearable stench makes for a good excuse.

If your dungeon has tinkering monsters, the room could house a partial or failed construction project. A bunch of bricks might have been removed from the wall or ceiling. There may be the discarded makings of a fortification. This is a good excuse to give fodder for clever PCs to make attacks on monsters.

Another interesting trick is to use a room that is only mostly empty. Such a room might have architectural interest that provides hints to the history and nature of the dungeon. It can also have one of several physical features typical of underground areas. A fun one is to have a spot where it is possible to see or hear what is happening in an adjacent room. Perhaps there is a loose stone, a pipe, or a spot where the acoustics just work out.

Remnants make a great feature of the mostly empty room. A discarded wine skin or broken weapon implies that the PCs aren't the only adventurers who have been in the dungeon. Broken or torn and generally useless items are classic red herrings. They also present opportunities for the referee to place vermin and insects that don't merit a proper monster entry. Even non-poisonous insects can make for a great creepy underground experience. (Such vermin can later appear in monsters' stew-pots as a fun callback.)

The condition of empty rooms is one of the most useful ways to give out information about the dungeon. The condition of its floor can hold crucial information about what lives in the dungeon and where. One floor may be dusty and another well-trodden. A particular path may bear the marks of frequent traffic, especially when clawed feet walk across stone.

A fun variation is to feature graffiti on the walls. Scratched or painted writing and pictures are another excellent source of hints. For an extra twist, consider having graffiti on the ceiling to reward players who think of checking above their PCs' heads.

There is also the opportunity here to make the dungeon get weirder the deeper the PCs go in it. If the first few levels are a bit more quotidian, you can change things up with empty rooms that seem more Stygian and have stranger features. The random noise table from the 1e DMG is a great resource for unexplainable sounds. Likewise, air currents deeper underground and shifts in temperature or humidity become ominous.

One of the reasons I like the empty and mostly empty rooms so much is that they avoid the "fantasy IKEA" effect. Excessive rooms full of stored stuff takes away the mystique from the dungeon. I also don't like it because generally I prefer when the dungeon is well scavenged. A room that was once a dining room shouldn't have a table in good shape; it should either have rubble or nothing in it.

A critical fact about empty rooms is that, in a living dungeon, they don't need to stay empty forever. Putting monsters in a room that players have already explored and found empty is the best payoff for having empty rooms. A group of monsters that wasn't finished off the first time might change addresses, or a new monster might move in. Given the 5 of 9 ratio, there should be more rooms available than taken, so the dungeon can make a complete change through play. This is one of the factors that keeps drawing me to the megadungeon idea.

The title of this post implies its central idea: the Tao of empty rooms matters. Letting a dungeon room stay empty can be more rewarding than you'd think.

Monday, December 28, 2015

On Goblins and Gnomes


I was looking at some 19th century sources on goblins and fairies (basically the same thing) because Gus L's takedown of The Lost Mine of Phandelver at Dungeon of Signs is so harsh on goblins. I was trying to find some material for a different take on the goblin, when something hit me.

Open any classic D&D book, from Holmes on to the Rules Cyclopedia, or open the Monster Manual for 1e AD&D. Look at Goblins. Now look one entry back (in the MM, just skip the entry for "GOAT, Giant"). That entry will be Gnomes. Every single number for Gnomes and Goblins will be within 1 point of the other. Gnomes have AC 5, Goblins have AC 6. Gnomes have 1 HD, Goblins 1-1 HD. In Moldvay and later versions of classic D&D, Gnomes have 8 Morale and Goblins have 7 Morale. In AD&D, Gnomes speak the Goblin language. In each version, we find that they even have similar (though not identical) leaders, even with similar morale boosting effects in Moldvay. Not to mention, they are both chthonic humanoids somewhere between 3' and 4½' tall.

The implication should be clear: these are the same monster.

I mean, what real differences are there? Gnomes have beards? Goblins are a bit uglier? Alignment? A point of AC and a single hit point? A point of morale? Gnomes are fond of crossbows? All that is minor details. Goblins and gnomes are more like each other than they are like other monsters. More important, it gives things an interesting hook. It's simple to merge the two and differentiate them by alignment and disposition. Goblins are now like gnomes but Chaotic or Lawful Evil in alignment. You can even keep the terms "goblin" and "gnome" and the respective languages.

I picture the merged creatures as favoring classical gnomes. The evil "goblin" versions may be uglier because of association with Chaos, or because they live in the Dungeon-as-Mythic-Underworld, but they should look basically similar. Since goblins have an antipathy to dwarves, perhaps they don't keep beards, but I think visual cues should be subtle to make the merger meaningful.

Twentieth century fantasy literature drew extensively on the fairy tales collected in the 19th century. These were far from precise in terminology. "Goblin" is one of several catch-all terms that referred to pretty much any of the diminutive, chthonic creatures, whether we are referring to mine spirits such as the Welsh Coblynau or domestic brownies. "Gnome" isn't any different. The idea that gnomes are somehow separate is an invention of Gygax.

Once you recognize that goblins and gnomes are the same monster in D&D, a few things happen. First, the dynamic of encounters with short humanoids will be different. Just because a creature is about 3½' tall, doesn't mean that it is always good or evil. This creates an ambiguity that games with short humanoids otherwise lack: you can no longer tell at a glance whether a creature is a friend or foe.

Second, the idea that gnomes have an affinity for illusions is a natural fit for goblins. It's a downright nasty twist to add goblin spellcasters with access to Phantasmal Force. A goblin lair is a dangerous place, and adding illusions can give them some bite. It becomes a place where you cannot trust anything, which adds a distinct layer of classical fairy lore. If the idea doesn't appeal to you on its own, watch Jim Henson's film Labyrinth.

Third, it justifies the existence of gnomes. As written, there's no reason to ever use gnomes. You can always do the same thing with dwarves or halflings, and do it better. But once you make gnomes and goblins the same monster, there's a reason to put them in a dungeon. Neutral gnomes/goblins are a great faction to add to the dungeon mix, with just enough potential for nastiness to make them interesting.

Fourth, there is a great amount of 19th century folklore that works with this view of goblins/gnomes as chthonic fairies. For instance, British Goblins by Wirt Sikes is a good guide to Welsh fairy lore, and the merged creatures that we get from goblins and gnomes can fit a lot of the stories within. The Coblynau (Welsh mine-spirits) are one of several examples of creatures that can be used as inspiration for gnomes. The pranks and demands of British goblins are good ways to make goblins more than one-dimensional bags of HP to be killed.

I think this is a simple solution to a dilemma that I've seen in OSR circles for years now. There is a need for straightforward dungeon factions in the best tradition of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. But after 40 years of the goblin being abused as an entry-level monster, there is some understandable goblin fatigue. This brings them close to their folkloric roots and I think changes the way things work without losing an iconic monster to overuse.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Old School Renaissance in 2015 and Beyond


2015 is coming to an end, and that means it's time to think about what happened this year and what lies ahead for old school gaming in 2016.

Metamorphosis Alpha is the big revival of the year. Going from a couple of stray releases to a full-blown product line is impressive. The MA renaissance will continue next year when Epsilon City is released. Our stout Warden commander, Jim Ward, got through a rough bout in the hospital and had a successful Gofundme. Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls also hit this year, a significantly expanded and updated version of the T&T game.

The big intriguing question for next year is what will happen with Runequest 2. The republication of Chaosium's classic RQ rules is wrapping up a very successful Kickstarter campaign with promises of it becoming, once again, a full-blown campaign line. Tied directly to Glorantha, this effectively puts the kibosh on decades of attempts to make RQ generic, and also has promise to make a classic rule set a major part of today's RPG scene. Part of its interest is that RQ is deliberately not Gygaxo-Arnesonian fantasy.

Consider something. Between online print-on-demand releases and reprints, it's been possible over the last few years to get OD&D, AD&D, T&T, Metamorphosis Alpha, Empire of the Petal Throne, Traveller, many Judges Guild products, and next year Runequest legally in their unadulterated original forms. Effectively the way people gamed in the 1970s is immediately accessible. That's not an unimpressive feat. I think the OSR has had a wide impact in this, and it's something to enjoy.

Goodman Games is in fine fettle. They released a Monster Alphabet that was almost a side question to their constant flow of Dungeon Crawl Classics products and their wave of reprints. DCC has brought the boxed set back with Chained Coffin and Peril on the Purple Planet, and is about to go to new levels of excess with the 4th printing. Joseph Goodman has found a niche, found its spending level, and is pushing its buttons like a maestro.

The up and comers are worth talking about. Autarch, whose saga with Dwimmermount threatened to delay its Adventurer Conqueror King, released an excellent sandbox module with The Sinister Stone of Sakkara and is putting forward a Lairs & Encounters book in Kickstarter that promises awesome stuff. These guys are hitting their stride.

White Box is also having a day in the sun as a highly adaptable platform, with White Star and White Lies released this year and more to come. It's far from perfect but has created a flurry of activity. S&W White Box is also back in active and solid support. My hope is that this is more the legacy that Swords & Wizardry has rather than as a kid sidekick to Pathfinder for Frog God's releases.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess rocked the world by winning ENnies and then failed to release anything new other than T-shirts. Which means that 2016 is primed to be an absolutely humongous year again. The number of products that Raggi owes everyone is high and the individual projects are promising. Also, Geoffrey McKinney is going to release four hexcrawl modules for his excellent Carcosa setting around Spring 2016. Geoffrey's new work will be AD&D compatible.

Several companies, including Goodman and Frog God, have tried to make old school 5e happen. Nobody's made any splash whatsoever. FGG's books (Quests of Doom, Book of Lost Spells, Fifth Edition Foes) are quality but haven't created a distinct space. Neither have Goodman's Fifth Edition Fantasy modules. They sell but are sort of absorbed in the generic 5e 3PP space, which is primed to be won by products from people like Sasquatch Studios and Kobold Press. The "O5R" is effectively on life support.

This year's big winners, though, are small presses doing their own thing via Lulu and OneBookShelf (DriveThruRPG/RPGNow). Yoon-Suin is hands down the best old school product of the year, and Fire on the Velvet Horizon is a full and worthy answer to the gauntlet that Zak S. threw down with A Red & Pleasant Land. Richard LeBlanc (Creature Compendium, Basic Psionics Handbook), Simon Forster (Book of Lairs), Kabuki Kaiser (Castle Gargantua) and the White Box crew, particularly James Spahn (White Box Companion, White Star), have been crushing it. I am really impressed by the work of all these people and a half-dozen more, and I'm extremely pleased that DIY self-published products managed to take the initiative in a year that easily could've been under the shadow of 5e and LotFP's mega-year in 2014.

The Zines keep coming too. This has been a fun year, including the innovation of the one-page zine. It's still mostly clustered around the same suspects as last year, but there have been a few additions. I keep a collection in Google+ called Zine Alert! that people should follow. I have a standing personal policy to both buy and promote any handmade old school zines offered, so if you plus me on the post or message me with it I'll spread the word.

The old school gaming scene rocked in 2015. Personally I got to play MA, OD&D, B/X D&D, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and DCC RPG. Hopefully I'll be able to add White Star to that soon as I'm rather jazzed by the recent Star Wars film. LotFP set the bar high in 2014, and I think small press and DIY rose to the challenge admirably. I hope to see more like it in 2016. Good gaming!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Appendix N and the Solar System


Much more of Appendix N occurs within the Solar System than people commonly think.

A significant chunk of the Appendix is what I would call antediluvian fiction. This is works that occur ostensibly on Earth, but in an age before known history. Presumably the future of these settings is some cataclysm that results in the modern positions of the landmasses. This may not be the flood of Genesis, but it may as well be; and "antediluvian" generally fits the world view of these works. These include significant influences on D&D such as R.E. Howard's Conan series and J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, all works that were meant to happen on our earth. Dunsany's The Gods of Pegana also fits in this category.

Following this is historical fantasy. There are elements of this in Anderson's work, Lest Darkness Fall, the earliest Fafhrd & Gray Mouser story ("Adept's Gambit" is set in Tyre, not Lankhmar), some of Norton's fantasy work and most of the Swords Against Darkness stories. There are also elements of historical fantasy in Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar. Howard wrote historical fantasy as well.

Then there is modern fantasy. Burroughs (Tarzan and Pellucidar), Merritt, and the Lovecraft stories not set in the Dreamlands are all contemporary. So are Wellman's Silver John stories, or some of Howard's writing such as the El-Borak series.

Following this are the two flavors of future fantasy set on our earth. Post-apocalyptic works cover entries such as Norton's Daybreak 2250 AD, Lanier's Hiero's Journey, and St. Clair's Sign of the Labrys. Were that not enough, dying-earth works such as, well, The Dying Earth and World's End are set far, far in the future. This motif recurs in the Hawkmoon series by Moorcock and the Book of Swords by Saberhagen.

The next ring is the planetary stories, which any reader will know are dear to my heart. Burroughs and Brackett and Weinbaum all wrote compellingly of Mars. By a weird coincidence, neither the planetary work of Lin Carter (Jandar of Callisto) nor of R.E. Howard (Almuric), both set outside the Solar System, are mentioned in the Appendix.

The last group are set in worlds explicitly connected to our Earth. The fantasy world of Three Hearts and Three Lions, that of The Compleat Enchanter, the Elfland of The King of Elfland's Daughter, Leiber's Nehwon, Moorcock's Eternal Champion multiverse, the world of Blue Star are all at one time or another either sending people or ideas to our world.

Almost none of Appendix N is set in a "proper" separate fantasy world like those often seen in D&D. Yet the default assumption of so many games is exactly that, of a world disconnected from ours but somehow similar in major ways. At best there are hints that it is either a far-future post-apocalypse of our world or an antediluvian version of it.

This is a thing that bugs me the most about great chunks of D&D and similar fantasy. I don't think it's an accident that so much of this work keeps ties to our earth, whether for reasons of myth, or details, or a touch of irony. It's deeply weird that a game where, for instance, The Moon Pool is meant to be a significant influence, we so rarely see PCs like those in The Moon Pool, who are closer to Call of Cthulhu investigators than D&D PCs.