Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Modules Worth Emulating

I was thinking recently about the new fifth edition of D&D, and how honestly I don't much care for its adventures so far. They are not strictly "railroads" in that players don't have to follow the plots to their conclusions, but they are a sequence of episodes that happen in a certain order, more or less no matter what the PCs do. And I don't like that model at all.

And the natural question is, what modules do I think are better models?

No reader of this blog should at all be surprised that I'll start with B2 Keep on the Borderlands. It's a natural choice, because it's the best module. I mean, there are other contenders, but certainly for low levels it's brilliant. The module can be attacked from almost any angle, but it works brilliantly. Hordes of kobolds? 1st level PCs possibly wandering into an encounter with an ogre? Death traps? Monsters right on top of each other? Gygax put it all in a sandbox and it all works.

B2 is brilliant because it presents a sandbox where every choice is possibly lethal. Simply fighting it out is rarely the right choice; PCs need to learn to explore, negotiate, trick and improvise. It's just big enough for the neophyte referee to not be overwhelmed, while giving the party truly free rein. There are several potential plots, or new ones can emerge through gameplay, but the module would work if you didn't pursue any of them, or added new plot lines in that were totally irrelevant to the existing rumor table.

Another great sandbox module is Better Than Any Man, the 2013 Free RPG Day module for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. BTAM is much more plotted than B2; in fact, the plot is iron-clad. The Swedish army is going to invade, and lots of people will die. But in context, this threat is nothing but a timer. Whereas in B2 the players can go back pretty freely to the Keep and recuperate, in BTAM they have an absolute need to finish the adventure in a certain time period or the sandbox goes away.

BTAM is dark, and disturbing, and has nasty stuff about sex. It also has great ideas, like an infinite repeating tower and several other interesting mini-dungeons. There are really only two that lead directly to the climax, but getting there is neither assumed nor a very good idea, to be honest. Instead it offers a number of very inventive locations to explore before the PCs should get out of Dodge Karlstadt while the getting is good. The timer of the looming Swedish invasion is a great way to encourage this without forcing it.

Then there's B1 In Search of the Unknown. It's Mike Carr's module that B2 was written to replace. B1 was solid, though: it provided the only extant module with a geomorphic level ("paper-thin" walls) and separated the rooms, the monsters and the treasure so that the referee had to place all of the enemies and loot logically. A good learning exercise, but it also greatly ramps up replayability. With certain exceptions like the room of pools, a referee who's run B1 multiple times can still be surprised when playing through it as a player.

The weakness of B1 is that the room descriptions are really long and overly mundane, and that it's not given over to randomness.

But Geoffrey McKinney fixed that with his Dungeon of the Unknown. I've spoken highly of this module before, and I'll do it again: DotU is a riff on B1 that provides new maps, and new monsters, including several monster generators. There are also weird encounter areas to be found. It's really quite stingy with treasure, using Geoffrey's idiosyncratic money types, but otherwise it's a great riff on what B1 did so well.

What's really interesting is that Dungeon of the Unknown is much more of a dungeon creation kit with a filled-in sketch in the back. I think that approach is something more modules should follow.

Then there's S1 Tomb of Horrors. It's the most infamous "tournament dungeon" and its actual tricks are pretty well known, especially the Great Green Devil Face. Despite its reputation, S1 does one thing very well: it gets PCs to do things that cause their own horrible deaths. You walk into the entrance? It collapses, you die. You pull the lever? You die. But it's always your fault.

What I love about Tomb of Horrors is how few monsters it has. It's one of the deadliest modules ever, but aside from a gargoyle and a demilich there just isn't much to fight. And that's brilliant. As I've said before, LotFP modules read as if James Raggi took this as an artistic manifesto.

Each of these is something I'd love to see more of in modules: the sandbox aspect of B2, the time pressure in BTAM, the modularity of B1, the kit format of DotU, and the non-monster threats of S1. Even those of us doing OSR modules could stand to go back through these and pick up a few of their ideas.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Everything Herein is Fantastic


I've been going through the "Better Living Through Clones" series of posts because of a basic realization about how I view Dungeons & Dragons. Fundamentally, the rules of the game are similar in any given version, but no single variation is precisely to my liking. The logical conclusion is to find the rules I like best, steal them, and use them on my own terms.

While my current game uses B/X, this is mostly accidental; I wanted to run B1 and started by asking for players for B/X, and have just kept going with it. I like the game, and it has some good rules that should be part of any referee's arsenal. I decided a while back to continue with B/X through the campaign's natural ebb and flow, and it's still going strong. I also intend to run some Metamorphosis Alpha once the Goodman reissue comes out.

But for the long term, my true love remains OD&D, and eventually I want to go back to it. Part of it is that D&D is an "ample framework" ripe for modification. This is why I've been slowly working through so many other games; I want to see tested ideas that can fit within the limits of this framework. EPT damage, for instance, is possibly the best way to do d6-based damage, while I like LotFP's trade-offs for extra offense or defense.

I've always felt it was a shame that so much emphasis has been placed on literal clones, with so many games having mild variations on Charm Person, Cure Light Wounds, the Sword +1, +3 vs Dragons and the orc. I prefer the approach of Geoffrey McKinney's original Carcosa, published as Supplement V. A couple of other Supplement Vs and a few Supplement VIs came out, but none were, like Carcosa, focused expansions of OD&D. I see creating such a "Supplement" almost like a medieval guild member's "master piece" – the work that proves that you've gone beyond a journeyman and come into your own.

An interview from ten years ago with Dave Arneson had a quote I found interesting:
Going into a fantasy world was actually again kind of a copout from my point of view. I didn't want people always coming up with some new book saying we just had to use because it was right and the old one was wrong. This was a fantasy world, so who could come up with anything to prove that he was lying or that a monster wasn't accurately represented?
This reminds me of the OD&D afterword, which this post's title is taken from:
In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?
Running OD&D doesn't actually require rules to be much different from running B/X or Swords & Wizardry, or really even from a "light" version of AD&D if you like it. It can work like any of those that you want. Instead it is a way to inscribe the quote above on your banner: everything is fantastic, and the game works as the referee wants it to work.

What's important about OD&D is that very, very little is actually systematic and regular or predictable in it. This was huge in Gygax's philosophy of game design, and has been rejected in modern RPG design in favor of unified systems. But the lack of systematic detail in OD&D allows the referee to add whatever works for a given problem. The wisdom of this is simple, and it ties into why I've been pillaging other systems for functional bits.

For instance, I think that having unified attribute modifiers is a mistake, because it constrains the system around those modifiers and makes it harder to borrow subsystems that use attributes differently. With OD&D, attributes are, for the most part, just numbers. You can add others, have them work however it works best for you, and not change the game much. I actually think it's very odd that so few people do basic things like expand the list of character attributes; agility, luck, perception, appearance are all possible choices.

This ability to borrow with zero chance of breaking or requiring significant adaptation is critical for the referee to be able to make the game just as the referee wants it. It's not simply a question of being rules light, since compared to Tunnels & Trolls, OD&D is actually pretty rules heavy. The game has to be rules-flexible. OD&D pretty much assumes you will be going and using your own systems (or another completely different system) for a lot of the stuff that happens outside of basic dungeon-crawling and hex-crawling, rather than trying to create a system that handles everything.

This is why I like reading and running other games. I find things that work, find things that I don't care for, and through experience I find and hone the game the way I want it. In the long run my goal is to have a D&D that is thoroughly mine to the point where I don't need a clone or new edition to run it; I'll just need my OD&D books and my house rules. I don't feel that I'm there yet, but I see that as the path a referee should aim for. In the long run my goal is to have what Gary Gygax described in a controversial editorial called "D&D, AD&D and Gaming" in Dragon #26 (June 1979):
D&D will always be with us, and that is a good thing. The D&D system allows the highly talented, individualistic, and imaginative hobbyist a vehicle for devising an adventure game form which is tailored to him or her and his or her group. One can take great liberties with the game and not be questioned.
For me, that's the reason that OD&D still matters, and why it's worth running when there are so many versions of the game that are perfectly playable as-is.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: Fighters & Combat


OD&D and classic D&D tend to have rather prosaic combat systems. Everything is neatly abstracted; there are a few well-known wrinkles, but really it's straightforward d20 rolls where Strength and Dexterity may be a factor, and fighters improve in blocks of 3 levels and don't get much else aside from hit points. Most clones do something about one or both.

Just about every clone breaks up the 3-level bands for fighters and improves the fighter's to-hit chances at either 2nd or 3rd level, if not both. The groups are never exactly even, but tend to improve the to-hit every level or two. This makes 2nd and 3rd level a bit easier than their OD&D / classic D&D counterparts, but generally in a useful way. Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord both have varied charts that are generally applicable here.

Swords & Wizardry has a very simple rule: fighters get 1 attack per level against creatures with 1 HD or less. It makes fighters much better when fighting orcs or goblins, but I have never really liked how it doesn't scale at all. In a d6-based damage system, I prefer Empire of the Petal Throne to S&W here.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess improves fighters at the cost of every other class, making it so only fighters improve their to-hit probabilities. I don't like that approach, specifically because I think fighters shouldn't improve at others' expense. There are some good combat options, though: pressing an attack (+2 to-hit for -4 AC) and its opposite, defensive fighting (-4 to hit, +2 to AC). These are good alternatives to the Holmes parry, which requires the full attack for a small bonus to AC.

Adventurer Conqueror King does a couple of interesting things as well. Fighters and dwarves get bonuses to damage by level, with fighters having (Level/3, round down)+1 points of bonus damage. It's so simple I actually missed it in previous read-throughs of the rulebook. ACKS also allows a Cleave attack. This is similar to the 3e D&D Cleave feat, so the fighter moves on to the next foe within 5' after killing the previous one. The number of such attacks is limited by level (or level / 2 for clerics). I like the idea in general, but I'm not enamored of the 5' space which tends to be a 3e contrivance.

Each of these rules adds interest to combat or makes the fighter more effective without making the system noticeably more complicated. I tend to like the ACKS Cleave for variable damage, with or without its damage, better than S&W's OD&D-based 1 HD rule because of the scaling. LotFP's press and defend, meanwhile, are straightforward and I like the tendency to give up 4 points to gain 2.

One other thing that's worth mentioning is Dungeon Crawl Classics, with its Mighty Deed of Arms. I like this idea generally but it's so bound to the action die system (a Deed succeeds if the action die is 3 or higher) that I'm not sure I'd use it. But it does make me think: what about using it as general inspiration for critical hits? (As opposed to the critical charts in DCC, which remind me of Player's Option: Combat & Tactics for 2e.) A natural 20 gets some bonus action in addition to the normal damage roll. I've been using a flat +2 but something like a disarm or called shot might feel more appropriate.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Looking at a Real "Megadungeon"

Hat tip to Dave Younce on G+ for sharing this link.


This is a terrific article that looks at a massive megadungeon abandoned Roman quarry / NATO bunker beneath the Netherlands and Belgium. You go into one nation and come out in another. There is a brilliant description of what it was like to navigate the underground tunnels:
Most corners were roughly 90 degrees, but only roughly. Going through the caves was an exercise in left and right turns every 50 feet or so. Navigation was helped by street names. Unlike in the USA, where streets are numbered on a sort of grid pattern, these were zigzag streets. My office on Main Street and J Street, so if I got lost I would just keep walking until I came to either Main or J, and join it. If I went the wrong way, eventually the street would peter out either at the perimeter or a T-junction, and you would just turn round and go back the other way.
This massive complex was built from limestone, and was soft enough to cut with a chainsaw; the bunker was a "black hole" where everything that was brought in was thrown out in one of the underground landfill sites.

The BLDGBLOG link doesn't show much of what this place looks like, but it provides links to some photosets that do. Here they are in a clean format that doesn't block right-clicking:

Talk Urbex - N.A.T.O Quarry
flickr (Behind The Signs) - NATO Quarry
28 Days Later forum - N.A.T.O Quarry, France.
28 Days Later forum - Nato Quarry, Paris Suburbs May 2011
Urban Ghosts - Urban Explorers Discover Corroding Military Vehicles in Abandoned Subterranean Bunker

It's fascinating how wide these corridors are; many are 20' or wider, but even the narrower pathways are anything but claustrophobic. You could easily have full, programmed encounters at any point in the dungeon, regardless of whether it was an "office" (cleared out room) or not. The stairs down are dizzying. And when you find a pile of rocks like this, it only raises the question of what is lurking beneath it.

One of my favorite parts in the quote above is that there were "street names" in this labyrinth. It just seems like a very organic way to tackle a labyrinth; of course, in a fantasy world these "names" might not be written in a comprehensible language for the PCs, but rather a series of sigils or unreadable characters that the players have to figure out are in fact used by the denizens to navigate. And the idea that "streets" are not straight makes sense if there is any defensive value to the layout, as anyone who has driven around Washington, DC can tell you.

The manmade-but-not-worked nature of the stone also has a lot of potential. Since it is relatively soft, it's a great material for laying in secret doors or cutting out niches in floors, walls and ceilings to hide treasure. Tunnels – the kind beloved of kobolds or giant rats – are pretty easy to dig, and PCs can even do some small-scale mining. And I love the idea of ladder rungs right in the stone.

Of course this is just one example of a large structure built underground, but it has some really great ideas for what things look like when people build things beneath the earth.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Indispensable Game Books


Sorry I haven't posted much lately. I've been doing a lot of reading, and busy at work, and at home; I actually have a long-ish post that I've been working on for a bit.

In lieu of a more substantial post, I thought it'd be interesting to note the books that I try to have on hand when I am preparing and running games.

  • B2 Keep on the Borderlands. The PCs use the Keep as a home base.
  • Ready Ref Sheets. This should go without saying.
  • Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook (1st edition, 3rd printing). In case I want to reference any rules or spells left out of Moldvay.
  • The First Fantasy Campaign (1st printing). In case I want to reference any rules; the Blackmoor Dungeon is my fallback if I have absolutely nothing else to run.
  • Metamorphosis Alpha (Print on Demand reprint). For mutations and science-fantasy goodness.
  • Empire of the Petal Throne (Different Worlds reprint). In case I want to use T├ękumel rules, monsters, or items.
  • Mythmere's Adventure Design Deskbook, Volume II - Monsters. Obvious.
  • The Random Esoteric Creature Generator. Same.
  • Moldvay Basic D&D Rulebook. I'm running B/X, so it makes sense.
  • Cook/Marsh Expert D&D Rulebook. As Moldvay above.
  • The Dungeon Alphabet (non-expanded edition). For the charts.
  • Dungeon Masters Guide (1st edition, 2013 reprint). For the charts.

Since I play D&D mostly via Google Plus these days, there's also a copy of OD&D within arm's reach as well, and one of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. But they're generally not in my prep list, and I would very rarely consult them during a game.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Wrath of God(s)


In the course of a D&D campaign, clerics pray to their gods for miracles as a daily matter of course. That never really has much of an impact on the campaign, although the AD&D DMG does advise the referee to deny certain spells that are appropriate to the deity. At the same time, they are often interfering in areas where (generally evil) deities' interests are involved.

Active involvement of deities in an RPG campaign should, as a matter of principle, be somewhat rare. The gods are infrequent meddlers, and their interaction with a human should be one of the major points of that human's lifetime. But that doesn't mean that deities should just ignore their worshippers in some semi-deist laissez-faire. Gods, particularly angry ones, do tend to intervene. And when they show their wrath, look out!

The Hebrew Bible is great for this kind of thing. I mean, the Ten Plagues are the most famous, but it's simply full of wonderful divine judgment from the Mark of Cain to the earth swallowing up Kozah and his followers (Numbers 16) to the children who mock the prophet Elisha and are mauled by two she-bears (2 Kings 2), not to mention the Flood or Sodom and Gomorrah. Pagan deities did their part as well; the Greek Hera was a great vengeful deity.

As a rule of thumb, the chance of a cleric getting the attention of a deity should be fairly low. I would suggest that at most, spellcasting has a percentage chance equal to the spell's level of attracting divine attention. Once your god is paying attention to you, you've got a problem if you don't act appropriately; this may take a harsh or subtle form of warning, depending on the god's nature. Characters who do particularly well by their god's ethos when thus under the divine eyes should be rewarded, just as failures punished. It is best if the player doesn't realize what's happened except that their cleric is having all sorts of odd things occurring around them.

But a really good way to anger gods tends to be when you mess with their favored priests and prophets. One can hardly forget the precipitating crisis of the Iliad, when Chryses petitions Apollo to punish the Achaeans for stealing his daughter Chryseis, and Apollo punishes the Achaeans with a plague, caused by his arrows. (That's an idea for a hell of a magic item, while you're at it: plague arrows.) A grievous wrong, even the death of the priest, can be the justification for a god's direct intervention in an opponent's life.

One thing we can learn from mythology, if nothing else, is that a god's wrath must be propitiated. Think of the main action of the Odyssey, which is caused when Odysseus blinds Poseidon's son, the cyclops Polyphemus. It takes a decade for him to get home, and all his men are killed in the doing. One way for the referee to have fun with this is to create a cleric as an enemy, who is a favorite of his deity. When the PCs kill him, the cleric's god unleashes some curse on the PCs. It would not be fair to simply kill them, but giving them a potentially lethal burden or inconvenience makes for a great source of further adventure.

Turning away the wrath of an evil god may be fodder for any number of quests. The favor of a good god is one way, although it comes with its own perils. Sacrifices may be unacceptable for good characters, and they may need to simply live out the period of being cursed by a dark god. It seems particularly fitting; if not quite Appendix N, Karl Edward Wagner's Kane strikes me as a great example of a character living out such a doom. PCs in a D&D campaign can do well to learn a thing or two from that.

Again, I want to emphasize: these should be rare events. Too much involvement makes gods into over-active superhumans. But there is a mythic feel that I don't think a lot of D&D gets to that can be fixed with a touch of divine wrath.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Slime Molds

This is an idea that is very visual, so I've included a bunch of pictures.


D&D has long thrived on the ideas of slimes, molds, oozes and jellies. After listing monsters taken mainly from fantasy fiction, folklore and myth, OD&D finished off with the "clean-up crew," the famous infinitely dividing black pudding, deadly green slime, spore-bearing yellow mold, and the big amoeboid horrors like ochre jelly and gray ooze.


Slime molds are a great template for creating your own variations on the clean-up crew. They're an excellent fit for dungeons because their natural habitat is anywhere that is dark and moist, preferably with excess organic matter (like dung or carrion) for them to grow on. They share a life cycle where a fluid mass consumes what it needs before turning into a fruiting body, which then lets off spores that will start the process again. You usually don't see it until it gets into this later stage. Some of them almost form a slug-like body while moving toward better locations for feeding.


The varieties of these life forms are pretty impressive. They were often confused with fungi, which some of them superficially resemble, but they are not such. Visually the slime molds are often quite colorful; several of the most common such molds are obnoxiously yellow in color, but some are actually iridescent. Their bodies sometimes resemble vomit, or other times are distinct fungoid objects. It can be totally unsuspected, and easily confused for something harmless - or harmful - depending upon the referee's wish.


Slime molds are great because they can have all of the qualities of your classic clean-up crew; poison, acid, paralysis, and other similar nasty effects can all readily result from contact. Depending on the coloration they can be a nasty surprise when PCs step on them. But they have one characteristic that makes them endlessly fascinating: they're not readily killed. Slime molds often come out in moist weather, and go away when it dries up, but there is no real "thing" to kill. Hacking them apart will, at best, get spores on you.


There is something weirdly inhuman, almost Lovecraftian, about the way that slime molds spread ooze-like from place to place and are totally immune to most of the things that PCs would use to destroy monsters. The potential for molds to lay spores that sit dormant, whether in a backpack or article of clothing or similar place, that will grow back and return relentlessly. There are shades of "The Colour Out of Space" if the spores spread and are seen by a farmer who thinks they're nothing more offensive than dog vomit ...