Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ready Reference: Curiosities in a Bandit Lair

Curiosities Found in a Bandit Lair (1d20)

  1. A deck of playing cards with a second ace of spades.
  2. A pair of dice, one weighted to the 6, one weighted to the 1.
  3. A neatly folded piece of parchment with a picture of a naked woman.
  4. A good wool coat.
  5. A bottle of local rotgut whiskey, half-full.
  6. A talley stick that, in the right village, can be exchanged for a goat.
  7. A small stone that, on close inspection, contains a trilobyte fossil.
  8. A small glass bottle of a musky cologne.
  9. A small bag with dried mushrooms of mild psychedelic effect.
  10. A sewing kit with bone needles and thread.
  11. A collection of painted flat discs used for playing a board game.
  12. A small manual on sword fighting (stances, strikes).
  13. An intricate wood carving less than 6” long.
  14. A pipe and attendant smokeable stuff (usually tobacco or marijuana)
  15. A hard piece of cheese wrapped in cheesecloth.
  16. A wooden flute or recorder.
  17. A double sided wooden comb.
  18. A pet weasel that will be loyal to a master who feeds it meat.
  19. A spinning top.
  20. A seditious political tract.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An OSR Heresy: On Healing Potions

When 3e D&D was the system du jour, the one idea that I could not abide was the magic item economy. The ability to go into a shop and buy a magical weapon or item drained the sense of wonder from the game. It took one of the issues that had always existed in D&D, the obsolescence of magic items, and codified a system around it. The result was a game that assumed players would buy magic items as part of a "build." Rejecting this idea did a lot to help unite the early OSR.

5e D&D generally didn't have the magic item economy, but it did have a healing potion on the equipment list. I've seen pushback against this in OSR circles, which find 5e healing too plentiful and easy. But on reflection, I find that I like the idea of a healing potion being a standard bit of equipment.

Part of the explanation for this is that I don't like the spell Cure Light Wounds. If it seems like an odd pet peeve, it comes down to the fact that I dislike the idea of a cleric as a healer. Dave Arneson's group introduced the cleric not as a medic but as a vampire hunter. OD&D didn't even give the class a spell until second level. But once the cleric gets there, he is on healing duty until he's done. AD&D compounded it by adding bonus spells, chaining the cleric to curing throughout combat.

I also don't like how Cure Light Wounds works with the hit point system. Hit points were a great innovation, allowing a quick, abstract method of combat that doesn't need hit locations and the like. But magical healing seems to fight against that abstraction. The 2-7 hit points (or 1-8 if you go with AD&D) restored by Cure Light Wounds don't represent physical wounds, so why are they healed this way?

The final flaw in CLW is that it just doesn't feel very magical. On the contrary, the high level Heal spell strikes me as how divine healing should work. It gives sight to the blind, cures disease, and repairs all physical injuries. It feels like a proper miracle. CLW feels like it's invoking the divine for a reason confined to the game world.

Healing potions are a lot like Cure Light Wounds: a magic item brewed only to restore a few hit points. They also exist in the same conceptual space as +1 Swords, where the effort to create them does not seem justified, and are correctly criticized as lazy treasure. But they have a clear strategic use, especially in parties without a cleric healer.

This is where alternative methods of brewing potions become interesting. A healing elixir doesn't have to be magical per se. An alchemist might distill it in his laboratory, a decoction that helps balance the humors. Or an herbalist can brew it as a mix of legitimate medicine, stimulant, painkiller, and psychoactive herbs. There are as many examples as there are real-world attempts to create medicine.

Having such brews in your game introduces several interesting variables. PCs have to be sure of the reliability of their potions. Depending on the quality and reliability of the source, there might be a 5%-25% or higher chance that a potion is a dud. The PCs might not detect this until it is too late. There is even an excuse to introduce literal snake-oil salesmen into the game, an aspect that too often seems to be missing. Equipment is too reliable and straightforward in D&D generally. The world is more interesting for the hucksters and con artists.

Beyond simple duds, a bad potion could be harmful. This might be a straightforward harm or any type of poison the referee can dream up. And there's a whole array of possible side effects even when they work. Just think of medicines in the real world. They could make you drowsy, give you nausea or diarrhea, or make you paranoid or anxious. Alchemical elixirs or herbal concoctions can follow suit. And the effects can be broader and weirder: changes to skin color, hallucinations, even minor magical effects such as floating or glowing.

I also think that alchemy itself is a valuable addition. It is a rich pseudoscientific framework full of interesting bits and bobs for your game world. Its symbols and ideas are great for framing an underworld environment. And the search for rare alchemical ingredients is a fine excuse to delve into unknown labyrinths. Healing elixirs are one logical step on the ladder to the philosopher's stone.

Alchemy also leads to other pseudosciences, such as astrology, which is too often overlooked in fantasy. There are rich symbols and ideas, and they can even work in conjunction with healing. An elixir might be most effective during a certain phase of the moon or while a certain constellation is highest in the sky. The idea of alchemy and astrology are natural for a pseudo-medieval world. All too often, fantasy seems to have a thoroughly modern worldview.

But elixirs don't have to be alchemical at all. They can instead be from any source, and in fact this can be true in the same campaign world. One might be from an alchemist, the second from an herbalist, and the third harvested from a rare plant deep in a jungle. The potential origins of healing elixirs offers room for a tremendous deal of variety. It makes the paltry d6 healing potion look pale by comparison.

The last bit of utility to squeeze from elixirs is that they are great gold sinks. D&D PCs always need more things to make the choice of how to spend gold pieces interesting. If a single d6 worth of healing costs 100 GP, that will take up a good chunk of treasure at low levels.That's worth something.

If they make healing too freely available, this kind of healing elixir offers enough benefits to offset it. And it certainly beats out Cure Light Wounds.

Snake oil image by Wesley Fryer, CC-BY

Sunday, April 24, 2016

On the Character Sheet

My general preference in RPGs is for character sheets that can be written on a sheet of lined paper. It's not that detailed or beautifully crafted sheets are wrong per se, but I like being able to take out a blank sheet of paper and write up a PC. Which is just my way of explaining why I put a picture of notebook paper on this post.

At a local mini-con, Legacies Game Day, I played a few games (Traveller, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Mutants & Masterminds) and so I got a few character sheets. The Traveller ones were spare to the point of parody: they contained what service the character had been in, the UPP, and the skills. We picked and added various equipment.

The DCC sheets were full pages, and had fun things written on them. Probably the biggest strength of DCC as a game is the way it provides lots of little hooks for players to role-play and improvise solutions to the problems that the judge presents. It also makes you look for things to do with oddball treasures found; in the post-apocalypse world we were playing in, I got a lot more mileage than you would think out of a fire extinguisher.

It's had me thinking of how well a few things on a character sheet can act as prompts for players. The first thing is when you look at the old equipment list – from the ten-foot pole to chalk to wolfsbane, even the fairly quotidian list in OD&D and other classic versions of D&D can provide a spark in the right mind. There are, after all, 101 uses for a 10 foot pole, right? Iron spikes are a good candidate for creative applications, but inventive players create all kinds of havoc. There's a reason, after all, that Holmes D&D has rules for setting things aflame with lamp oil. (My next dungeon might have a fire extinguisher in it.)

A little further afield is Zach H's list of OD&D backgrounds. Inspired by professions and monster listings in the original game, it's a very clever way to differentiate PCs. It also has shades of 5th edition, which has more in-depth versions. If you want to find a list of good 5e backgrounds I'd suggest Courtney Campbell's blog. They work fine outside of the 5th edition game, and Campbell's are more exciting than the ones in the Player's Handbook.

5e also has an excellent trinkets table. Probably the best thing in the PHB, it's a list of strange and wonderful things that a PC starts with in their possession. A good referee can find ways to tie these into larger mysteries. An enterprising one might also make their own background item table, tied into their personal milieu.

DCC has its own list of previous occupations, but they have a tendency to be genre-inappropriate. For the most part, sword & sorcery heroes are not former gongfarmers who sought their fortune in deep dungeons. Zach's OD&D occupations feel more suitably heroic. I do agree with DCC's method of random generation, though, because it slots well into a game with fairly high lethality at low levels. Its extra items are often the best bits, and encourage creative play more than its occupation bonuses.

Interesting bric-a-brac doesn't have to be limited to character generation, of course. The adventure can always use some detail items that most parties would ignore, but in the right hands can be a gold mine of ideas. This is useful when the PCs come to a storeroom or similar area. Stonehell provides a good example of a chart for such a room (level 1A, room 32, chart B). The "searching" table in the Ready Ref Sheets or any comparable table will also do for such areas.

In the dungeon, items of questionable utility can be easy red herrings. I'm against using too many of these, unless there is a good reason. But the obvious utility nature of an area can help with this. Once players have access in-character to supplies and time, results may vary.

Embracing these extra items on the character sheet can do a great deal of good in terms of roleplaying and improvisation in play. To me, that's worth more than a whole character sheet full of mechanical bits and bobs that tell the player what their character can or can't do.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Actual Play: ReQuasqueton

Things have been quiet here because, well, they've been quiet in my gaming. I haven't been actively doing much by way of hangout gaming, but I got to run some games for other folks I know who drafted me to run an old school D&D game in Philadelphia.

I used Dyson Logos's ReQuasqueton map, which was his riff on the classic module B1 In Search of the Unknown. I wrote up my own concise version of Quasqueton that was similarly taking B1's concepts and developing them rather than following it literally. This is what the resulting player map looked like:

Since it was a one-shot and started at level 1, I decided to use Holmes Basic. The decision was really assisted by the excellent work Zach H. has done with Holmes Ref, a great series of one-page utility tables for Holmes Basic D&D that, particularly his recent character creation worksheet that gives a concise one page guide to rolling up a PC.

The crew started out balanced: two fighters, a cleric, a dwarven thief, and a magic-user / torch holder. I used hints of the battle in the entrance to Quasqueton as in B1, which gives a nice sense of danger. Tarrying at the entrance attracted wandering skeletons, which were turned and then pursued and beaten. The lack of any duration of turning makes the mechanics kind of wonky when players decide to kill the monsters anyway; I decided that turning lasts at least a turn, and the result was that the PCs pursued the monsters through a length of hallway.

They missed a room I was really hoping they'd pick up on, but did at least give the cavern section a brief go. The result was probably for the best, as the dwarf decided not to check out the bioluminescent fungus in the cavern beyond.

A tea service in one room was suitably freaky, with the cleric's player acting ultra-paranoid as one of the fighters ate one of those little cucumber sandwiches (they looked fresh and produced no ill effects). The teapot was eventually used as ammo against more skeletons in the following room, while the magic-user had considerable success using chairs as one-time improvised weapons; he did so well that he hauled a chair around and used it as a prop going forward.

Standard d6 damage in Holmes may seem like weak tea, but I do love the flexibility it allows. Maces, daggers, chairs – the variety is fun. I think the main issue isn't to add variable damage but to give monsters d6 hit dice (as the first edition of Holmes implied) and allow fighters bonus damage, and link it to high Strength: d6+1 for fighters with Strength 14 or better, d6+2 if they have Strength 18. Not only does it make the fighter a better class, it also gives the Strength spell something useful to do.

Eventually the PCs wound up fighting berserkers. Now, berserkers are to me like the booby prize of old school D&D. You put them in thinking, "Oh, this will be interesting." But then you put them in and you remember that berserkers just fight. They never break morale, they never negotiate, no prisoners is written into the description. It makes them one-dimensional, which is nice for "bad guys" but kind of bland for a dungeon that needs interesting factions. Forget the berserkers, use actual Norsemen instead.

The design of the rooms in ReQuasqueton wound up with a period where the dwarf was dead (he wanted to negotiate when he had succeeded in using Move Silently and gotten a full surprise round on three of the berserkers) and one fighter was holding a door with the rest of the group behind him. It wound up going better once the PCs took the room inside, but only because my dice stopped rolling over 10 and couldn't even hit the magic-user. So the PCs took a decent haul out with only one fatality.

One move I particularly enjoyed was one of the fighters trying to use her spear against two opponents in one round. I told her if she got a 20 on the die roll I'd let her make a second attack; she actually got a 19 and then rolled 6 damage on an opponent with just 2 HP left, so I let her get a point of damage against the second berserker. With older D&D combat I really find encouraging things like that, but leaving it at a fairly hard difficulty, makes life more fun.

ReQuasqueton is a solid map. It's got some nice long corridors without turning all mazy and geomorph-ish like the original. And since it basically invites a similar riff on B1 when populating the dungeon, it allows you to make it a good classic dungeon romp without duplicating the original. Running it with two players who'd DMed In Search of the Unknown worked out well; they recognized broad strokes but didn't know the map in advance. I enjoy the concept of a "module riff" and would have fun doing the same with B2.

Going back to Holmes really felt like the right move in this game, and it worked like a charm. It's light and really close to classic D&D without being hard to reference like OD&D can be in play. While it needs some tweaks and adjustments, it's actually the version of D&D I'd probably most recommend that a referee runs as a go-to for games that really need to have that classic "D&D" feel (as opposed to OD&D which is its own thing and has a different purpose, as a basis for freestyling rather than a complete package).

One note – it's always worthwhile to tell the player of the magic-user a few things, like the fun of torch-holding, the utility of lamp oil as Molotov cocktails, and the power of the Sleep spell. Although I really enjoyed the turn toward WWE style use of chairs from the player. If you don't, you're not taking the journey with me. Picture the stereotypical D&D wizard. Now he's going all WWE on skeletons. Yeah. That's just fun and there's no apologizing.

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.