Monday, November 17, 2014

A Missing Link: A Miniature Megadungeon

(A brief edit to note: This is officially my 300th post on this blog. Wow.)

Zach Howard at the Zenopus Archives has managed to surprise us again, this time showing the original cross-section of Holmes's sample dungeon. Take a look and come back, I'll be talking about the hand-drawn image a good bit.

This little diagram is a master class in the "megadungeon in miniature." It condenses into 3 levels most of the principal ideas that underlie the Gygaxian megadungeon. There are multiple entrances, multiple connections between levels, different types of terrain, sloping passages, and generally everything you'd want from a complex dungeon, all in three neat levels. None of which is to disregard Tom Wham's great Skull Mountain diagram, but Holmes manages to do a lot with a few levels.

We come to two entrances on separate hills. This creates an interesting choice right off the bat. There might be something low-level like goblins or kobolds guarding the hillside entrance, but the descent into the mine is obviously the deeper way down. It's a good idea to let the rumor tables give a hint that the mine shaft to level 2 is a way down to more difficult monsters than the hillside cave.

In level 1 we're about equidistant from the two ways down. The level below the ladder has one of the long, gradual slopes that Gygax was fond of, and a party may reasonably be surprised when they go up a level of stairs and are still on the second level. Holmes's original wandering monster tables, drawn from Supplement I: Greyhawk, might give us a good idea of what kinds of threats lurk in each of them. Given how many humans with levels there are, it either suggests that the dungeon has a significant human faction, or is actively plied by rival adventuring parties. Either choice is interesting.

I really love those two carved-out areas by the mine shaft. They just have a ton of potential for mischief. As soon as I saw them I was envisioning a nasty monster swooping out as the PCs try to go down (or up) the ladder and causing all kinds of havoc. Or they could be rooms that are rigged with nasty traps, maybe something explosive, or a simple arrow trap that happens to knock the PC a long way down to the dungeon floor below. Or one of them could have a treasure visible, but a monster or a trap nearby that will turn the PCs' avarice into their undoing.

The third level's relative size suggests it should be a nice, big, sprawling level with lots of rooms and interesting tricks. Then there's the cave, and I have to admit if it had a lake indicated it'd be exactly after my heart. As it stands, the cave feels like it should really be the lair of a dragon as the culmination of the whole adventure (and a justification for the game being "Dungeons & Dragons"). It would really make the whole thing a summation of D&D in three levels.

It doesn't have the domed city and the great stone skull of Wham's drawing, but Holmes's original sketch points to a dungeon that can be played in the three character levels suggested by his rule book, and still give you the megadungeon experience. There's no reason the weird and cool stuff we've talked about previously can't be on these three levels, and Wham's drawing really only gives us an extra two or three true "levels" (counting 2 and 2A, the entrance cave as "one up", and the cave separate from the third normal dungeon level). What I think using a dungeon like this does is gives just enough of the complex elements without going into "megadungeon fatigue" that modern games often run into. By the time the players are bored with runs into the same dungeon, they're finished.

From that perspective, this is the missing link between the megadungeon and the smaller types that came to dominate the scene after the mid-1970s. You could describe this in a relatively short module but have months of play material come out of it. The only published dungeon that really comes close to this is Caverns of Thracia, whose reputation should tell you how great of a dungeon I think this could be turned into.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Percent Liar

(That's Lying Cat, familiar to fans of the comic Saga.)

I was looking at Arduin for a completely different post idea, and it always brings me back to the funniest statistic in that book: % Liar. Early printings of OD&D put this instead of % Lair. Rather than go along with the errata, Dave Hargrave made this a statistic of its own. The Air Shark, the first monster in the list, has a % Liar of "Too stupid to." And that, my friends, is Retro Stupid.

But % Liar is an interesting idea for a social mechanic (the kind of thing people always say OD&D doesn't have, even though it does). It fits with the aleatoric approach to the game, where random chance is allowed to determine certain key factors. Having a % chance that a monster will lie to you is a perfectly reasonable mechanic given the way that Contact Higher Plane has a veracity percentage to determine whether the result is true or not.

What interests me is that it creates an expectation that some monsters will be more trustworthy than others. Say a goblin has a 50% liar rating while a gnoll has a 30% rating (using the actual % Lair column just for a moment). The trustworthiness of the gnoll is an interesting bit of setting-building. What is it about gnolls that makes them less likely to lie? They are considerably more reliable than a coin flip, which is what the goblins are, but there's still a real chance that listening to them will land you in hot water sooner or later.

There's even a sort of gambling aspect that could emerge from this; once PCs find a particular monster is fairly reliable, they could try to tap the well just enough, pressing their luck that this won't be the time the liar dice come up against them. The lies can also be subtle twisting of the truth, like the rumor about a trapped maiden in Keep on the Borderlands that is designed to trick PCs into "rescuing" the medusa.

This would work well with a two-column rumor table, where one side is true rumors and the other is false, misleading ones. Say a goblin has a 50% chance to be lying; you can roll it organically. If you roll a 1-10 on a d20, you check the corresponding entries on the "lying" table. If you roll 11-20, you check the "truth" table. Gnolls only check "lying" on 1-6. This lets the referee make the lies more varied; for instance, lies 7-10 might be more outrageous, as creatures prone to lie more often will have a tell. So lying rumor 6 might be that the room beyond the statue is empty, when it's actually an ogre's lair, while lying rumor 10 might say it is a dragon's lair.

NPCs could also have a % Liar. We could base it on their alignment; Lawfuls may only have a 5% chance, while Chaotics could be 40% or higher. In general it seems apt to align the percentage to alignment without getting totally out of hand, thus giving a game use to alignment aside from the ever-controversial alignment languages.

Obviously this system places a bit more of a premium on magic and items that help to detect lies versus truth. Finding out about the reputation of various creature types is also a highly useful piece of knowledge, as detailed above. If players know that it is more useful to negotiate with gnolls than goblins, it adds a new strategic dimension when they encounter the more "honest" creature type to parley instead of fighting.

Sure it's a typo, but why not ride it out and add an interesting dimension to D&D?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Diplomacy, D&D and Roleplaying

If you've never read it, it's worth going through Mike Mornard's question & answer thread on the OD&D forum - Klytus, I'm bored. Not just because I asked a bunch of the questions, but generally because it gives a good feel for how D&D worked when Gary ran it.

When I asked Mike about Diplomacy, he responded with this:
I played a bit of Diplomacy. More importantly, though, Gary and some of the others played a LOT. It shows in the role playing system of OD&D. There are those who say "there was no role playing in OD&D because there are no rules for DIPLOMACY or BLUFF or INTIMIDATE," etc. But in fact it was full of role playing and negotiation, just like Diplomacy. And like Diplomacy, if you wanted to Bluff, you BLUFFED. If you wanted to make a deal, you MADE A DEAL. Et cetera.
Later in the thread, he describes Gygax's NPCs:
Pretty much everybody. If you search online you can find Gary's story "The Magician's Ring." "Lessnard" is me, and yeah, that happened. That was pretty typical... his NPCs were greedy and opportunisitc to a fault.

Then you had more mundane stuff like blacksmiths covering swords with luminous paint and selling them as magic swords, and "angry villagers" keeping you from getting your money back.

Truthfully, his NPCs went beyond "will screw you if it profits them" to "will screw you unless not doing so profits them a lot."
You can find "The Magician's Ring" at Greyhawk Grognard, and it's as Mike describes. Now, I want to posit that the two quotes above are intimately linked. Diplomacy is a game that is infamous for its maneuvering and treachery, where making deals and then stabbing a partner in the back are the best strategy to win.

When you consider that many of the pioneering roleplayers were Diplomacy players, their style of roleplaying becomes much clearer. As I said in my last post, negotiation is a key aspect of dungeoneering in early editions as written, but was all too often overlooked in favor of the expedient of simply fighting.

The best evidence of this is B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Here is a scenario right out of the many Diplomacy variants: each humanoid group has its forces, every group can pretty easily kill the PCs, but with careful negotiation they can play one against the other. You could run an interesting Diplomacy-type game where each player takes the role of one of the faction leaders and tries to take on the other groups. There's also the cleric and his followers, who go along with the "backstabbing hireling" motif that we saw in "The Magician's Ring."

There's a tendency, particularly in America, to see diplomacy as something "soft," something you resort to when you can't get your way by brute force. Gygax had a keen sense for it, though, and understood it much better. I'm reminded of a podcast where Dan Carlin talked about how the ancient Romans viewed diplomacy as an offensive weapon. Done properly, you can disorient or even eliminate enemies without fighting them yourself.

I think this view of roleplaying has a lot to offer. If you play old school D&D as written, with the reaction table and hireling loyalty and so on, elements of it will come out naturally. And it offers a fun, playable alternative to people who think of role-playing primarily in terms of melodramatic play-acting.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What are D&D and the OSR? - A Couple of Reactions

A couple of quotes have made me want to write a kneejerk reaction. I don't like blogging from kneejerks but I think these make some good places to hang points I'd like to make.

John Wick said some dumb things in a blog post. But one of them is actually worth responding to.
The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying.
Which of course is nonsense. The term "role-playing game" was invented by people trying to describe what happened when they were playing Dungeons & Dragons. Any definition which doesn't include D&D is, prima facie, wrong.

But I'm going to submit that Holmes D&D – which definitely fits in the "first four editions" – is actually a really good roleplaying game, by Wick's criteria. You see, Holmes wrote on page 11 that monsters don't necessarily attack, but instead reactions should be determined on the reaction chart lifted from OD&D. Strictly speaking, this chart in OD&D is used to determine monster reactions to an offer made by the PCs, but Holmes changes it so that it refers directly to encounter reactions. This means that some monsters encountered in the Holmes edition of the game will be "friendly" and involve some negotiation. If the referee chooses to ignore that, it's not the D&D game's fault; it told the players to roleplay, right there in the text.

In fact, I would submit that this makes D&D a really good roleplaying game. Roleplaying is not just play-acting your character; it's negotiation as part of a strategy for surviving in a ridiculously lethal dungeon and getting out with treasure. By the book, in Holmes D&D, roleplaying is a required part of the game and, in fact, is a really good strategy. If you keep negotiating there is a 50/50 chance that you will get a positive result. The worst thing that can happen is that you're forced to fight.

Did people play D&D that way? A lot of them didn't. But a lot of people don't play Monopoly by the rules, either. It's just what happens when you have a really popular game. But D&D is distinctly a roleplaying game, even if you don't play it that way.

Then there's Ron Edwards, who makes a wonderful flamebait comment in an interview on the Argentine blog Runas Explosivas.
"Old school" is a marketing term and is neither old nor an identifiable single way to play (school).
In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens pithily described his use of old school as "a phrase generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young." It's part of why old school gaming has always been somewhat associated with the grognards, named after Napoleon's veterans who were infamous for grumbling, even to l'Empereur himself. People misunderstand "old school" to mean "the way that people played back in 197x or 198x" when it really means a re-emphasizing of certain "classic" tropes and ideas, including adventure design, mechanics, and play style.

The marketing aspect is interesting. I almost want to agree with it, in that it's primarily a label for people and products to denote that they are oriented to the "old school," but I disagree with its cynicism. The community aspect of the OSR, from blogs to G+ and the associated forums, has been probably more important overall than the marketing. You can bicker and argue over whether it's one single thing or a lot of things, but what you can't argue is that there are a lot of people in a network creating and consuming content.

Honestly the rest of Ron's interview isn't really worth much response. The OSR isn't that close to most Forge stuff when you get down to brass tacks. What happens in the game play experience is simply too different. Back in his heyday, Ron called the classic era of D&D a period of cargo cults, while I find it to have been far more creative and unrestrained. (That essay also contains his total misunderstanding of Gygax and Arneson, and application of the "Big Model" to their D&D.)

It's unfortunate, after eight years of doing this, that we are still at a high point of misunderstanding old school D&D from people who ought to know better. I've always found that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and old school D&D is a real thing, and in the OSR period it's been great roleplaying.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Copper Pieces on OSR History

Erik Tenkar has been writing guides to the OSR games out there. For his trouble, he's being accused of historical revisionism by the "RPG Pundit," a person who you may remember from "consultant-gate." Erik's post about it is here. I won't link to the Pundit's site but you can find the post by Googling his pseudonym.

The attack on Tenkar is based on the idea that the early / close retro-clones weren't really the font from which the old school renaissance came. Which is malarkey. The OSR became a single thing in 2009, when Dan Proctor made it one.

A history of the OSR can start in dozens of places. You can start in Dragonsfoot, with gamers who never really stopped playing AD&D or B/X D&D getting together to talk shop. Or you can start with Hackmaster, which put 1e back into print (albeit in a strangely modified form). Or with Castles & Crusades, which created a lot of the pressure for these games. Or you could look at Necromancer Games with its "First Edition Feel" and 3e reprints of Judges Guild products, or Goodman Games's Dungeon Crawl Classics series. Or you could look at WotC's early PDF releases, which included OD&D for a hot minute.

There were literally dozens of things contributing to an old school explosion in the mid-2000s. The RPG Pundit bizarrely chooses to look at two oddball projects. One, Mazes & Minotaurs, was an attempt to imagine what D&D might have been like with an ancient Greek flavor. The other, Encounter Critical, was an attempt to pawn off a fake late '70s RPG. EC has had some influence on the OSR, because Jeff Rients loves the thing. But I've never detected any real influence coming from M&M, and as someone who minored in ancient Greek and Roman history in college, I would be able to tell.

The problem with looking at it from the influences is that events like the OSR are not unitary things. No single event happened and then the OSR was on; it was more that several things were happening in parallel, and they only happened to be grouped together later. The old school buildup wasn't a single powder keg; it was several smaller fires that later merged, and later still drifted apart in ways.

But the most important events were the publication of BFRPG and OSRIC, because they changed things fundamentally. Once BFRPG and AA#1 Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom were in print, there were now rules and adventures resembling those of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with no apologies, no parody elements, no conversion to 3e or a "modernized" system. RPG products that were old school as a badge of pride.

OSRIC and BFRPG were fundamentally different. OSRIC was something of a fig-leaf, a system designed to be indistinguishable from AD&D so that you could use modules for OSRIC with your AD&D books with no conversion. There was no assuption that people would play OSRIC; in fact, there were at least 20 modules released before it was available in print. BFRPG, by contrast, was a community project meant to be played, B/X with a light clean-up to a few rules.

What was important was that the barrier was breached in the summer of 2006, and that's when the flood of material that we can now identify as part of the OSR started to happen.  The Hoard & Horde spreadsheet by Guy Fullerton makes it abundantly clear that things changed significantly at that exact point in time. Any history that doesn't frankly say that before BFRPG and OSRIC there wasn't what we identify today as OSR publication, and afterward there is, is being revisionist.

The derisive mentions of "clone-mania" and "Talmudic" interpretation of rules and Gygaxian minutiae make it quite clear what the Pundit's revisionist agenda is. He doesn't like the wing of the OSR represented by that play style, that sticks close to the old games instead of remixing them and re-imagining them. Ironically this misses a big chunk of the point of OSRIC and BFRPG, which has always been to get adventures and support material out there for these older systems. There are three hardback collections on my shelf of Advanced Adventures collections; each contains 10 complete OSRIC modules. BFRPG just released a book of adventures in print. Neither gives much of a damn about history or precise accuracy.

BFRPG wanted to get people playing old school B/X style games again, and it succeeded. OSRIC wanted to get new support material for original AD&D, and it succeeded. These are admirable goals, rooted in actual play and the continuity of a gaming community that are worthwhile in themselves. The OSR should be proud to say these games are where our prehistory ends and our history begins.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On the Buying and Selling of Magic

(A small note: Apologies about my prolonged dearth of posts. I simply haven't had a mix of time and blog-worthy posts in a while. I'm gearing up for some things and hopefully that changes in the not too distant future.)

I wrote briefly in the past about dungeon markets. Erik Tenkar today asked about magic shops and I think that the question deserves a bit of exploration.

On a gut-check level, the idea of a magic item store is revolting to me. The thought that you can walk into a store, lay down gold, and buy a magical sword that fits exactly what you need goes against everything I actually like about fantasy gaming. Magic items ought to be rare, treasure, hoarded and not given up lightly. And that really governs the question for me. But the proliferation of items in D&D modules does raise a need for some economy of the things.

As I've mulled it over, I think my objection to magic item shops is really an objection to making procuring magic items something that is simple, safe and reliable. You should not be able to walk into a store, lay down your money, and walk out with a Sword +3, Frost Brand as easily as buying a pair of boots. I'd say at minimum, two of the three elements of safe, simple and reliable should be removed from the equation.

The Troll Market approach I outlined previously is a good way to take away the safe element. Magic items are not necessarily being bought and sold in the safe parts of a well-off town. They are being sold by disreputable humans, or even by monsters straight-up. (This is a good excuse for why so many monsters in modules have magic items that they're not actually using – can't damage the goods.) PCs are not necessarily safe, or require certain difficult conditions to avoid violence. This can also remove the simple element, since the market will not always be there at the PCs' leisure. It could move, and require new challenges to find again. I really like the idea of some of this taking on a sort of "black market" vibe.

Reliability is trivially easy to fix: with magic, there are no guarantees. Sure, the sword shows up as magical when you cast detect magic, but how do you know whether it has the purported properties? It could be cursed, or it could be substantially different. Unless you're willing to blow a charge, how are you certain that the item is a Wand of Fireballs? And it's a very dangerous proposition to test even if you are willing.

Simplicity can be adjusted by making it very difficult to find a specific type of item. Sure, you can grab a Potion of Healing from a high-end alchemist/wizard, and you might be able to track down Arrows +1 if you know where to look, but it should be a lot more of a pain to find a Sword +1, +3 against Dragons. Even if you buy into the magic item economy idea, that doesn't mean that absolutely anything is available easily. And like anything a PC is trying to find, specific items make for terrific adventure seeds.

Another factor to consider in all of this is how magic items react to each other. Having a lot of magic items in one place might not be a completely safe proposition. Too much magic could mean that a magic-item bazaar might create a wild magic area, where spell effects happen entirely at random, and it's dangerous to Detect Magic or Identify, causing havoc with reliability. A store that had every type of magical sword and potion available might run into reasons to roll, say, on the 1e DMG's potion miscibility table, or problems when two intelligent swords decide they don't like each other.

Of course, you can solve all of that by just saying "no" when players want to do buying and selling of magic items. But if you decide to run with it, I think all kinds of interesting problems can be created. Just don't make it simple, safe and reliable.

Monday, August 25, 2014

How Not to Write an Adventure

Jason Paul McCartan at OSR Today wrote a short link to an article from a site called RPG Knights that alleges to give advice for how to design adventures. Unfortunately, it's really not. The advice given is a recapitulation of Freytag's pyramid (in a modified version slightly different from the above, where the rising action is temporarily interrupted), the dramatic structure you learn in middle school, without significant insight into how to make it into an RPG adventure.

This kind of adventure writing is lazy, bad and everything that should be avoided both by referees and by writers creating modules for RPGs. If you've already written the plot, the PCs aren't the protagonists; they are just along for the ride. And that sucks.

In a well run roleplaying game, the elements of Freytag's pyramid (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement) arise organically out of player choice. Plotting them in advance prevents this from happening; if your climax requires that a certain character be in a certain place at a certain time, well, the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley*.

An RPG adventure needs something completely different. It's a type of writing that is totally different from writing a screenplay or short story, since the referee is not an author and doesn't know what the protagonists will do. So it should be no surprise that the elements needed are totally different as well.

The main responsibility of the adventure is that it becomes plot when PCs are exposed to it. This requires it to have potential conflict, or the seeds of conflict, within it. This doesn't need to be anything fancy; it's just another way of saying there should be monsters and/or NPCs standing between the PCs and what they want. A dungeon will often do this literally, for instance by having the quintessential orc and pie. If the PCs decide they want pie, that instantly transforms into conflict between the PCs and the orc. Nothing fancy is required, and it can be as detailed or simple as the referee prefers.

Conflict can be between factions, or between NPCs, or simply with the PCs. The more complex your potential conflicts are, the more ways that adding PCs can make the plot go pear-shaped. What is critical is that nothing ever be indispensable. There can be no NPC who can't be killed, no monster that must get away from a fight, nothing that the PCs need to find or know or do that will stop the adventure cold.

Everything else, really, is optional. A dungeon with monster and treasure keys is a baseline for a solid adventure. But there are a few different elements that help a good adventure.

  • Background. This can be revealed through exposition, items, and dressing. The real shame of a lot of professional adventure writing is that it has extensive background that is not revealed to the PCs organically through the elements in the module.
  • Methods of discovery. Ways to reveal background and information about the world and their enemies to the PCs are helpful. This can be through books, talkative NPCs, visions of the distant past, or many  other strange and odd ways to show the world to the PCs. Rumor tables are a classic method for revelation and point up the key fact that they are not necessarily reliable
  • Physical obstacles. Sticking a chasm between the PCs and a goal, or making an adventure location particularly dangerous to approach, are good ways to add to the conflict without reference to more NPCs or monsters. Traps, of course, are a personal favorite.
  • Dynamic world elements. A good adventure has elements, usually random, that can happen throughout the adventure so that it is not static. For instance, a random encounter table indicates that events outside the PCs' adventures are happening, and it is not necessarily a good idea to respond to all of them. Other examples include timed changes to the setting, such as the Swedish Army that will be coming soon in Better Than Any Man.
Again – none of this relates directly to plot, and if the players want, no story other than "PCs go in, get gold and leave" needs to be told in the game. Each of these points can be covered whether the adventure is a good dungeon crawl or a solid city adventure where a sword is never drawn and a spell never uttered. What's important is that the adventure be open-ended and have several potential forks, because no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and no plot survives contact with the PCs.

* The English for this line from Robert Burns's Scots poem "To a Mouse" is usually given as "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry."