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 ...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Worldbuilding and the Reference Problem

A well-known episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, "Darmok," uses the concept of a race of aliens that eludes the Trek convention of a universal translator because they speak in metaphorical references to their history and mythology. Picard doesn't understand what they are talking about until the myth about uniting against a common foe is explained to him.

This closely resembles a problem that worlds built for fantasy roleplaying will naturally have. Unless the referee invents an elaborate cultural history and the players study it, there are very few ways to create symbols, signs or references that the players can put together on their own initiative. For instance, most people reading this would recognize the symbolism of a white rabbit, a mad hatter or the Red Queen, because Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are part of our shared cultural history. Puzzles, riddles or clues based on Carroll's Alice novels are something that a referee can use and reasonably expect players to figure out what they are doing. But not so for an arbitrary fantasy equivalent of the white rabbit.

One way around the problem is what I'll call the Tékumel solution. In the original Empire of the Petal Throne game, the assumption was that the players start off as outland barbarians entering into Jakálla for the first time. The elaborate culture only had to be detailed in broad strokes; specifics would be learned later in the campaign. Generally this works by having an elaborate history that exists, but is not known by the players or their characters. But until a substantial amount of information is revealed to the players, references are not something we can rely upon as drivers for puzzles and clues.

A second solution is to set everything on a fantasy Earth. Lamentations of the Flame Princess has chosen this approach; the game is now set in 17th century Europe, leaving it ripe for reference to real-world literature, myth and superstition. This solution works, but sharply limits the amount of worldbuilding we are able to do. You get Earth and all the baggage that comes with it, good and bad.

But I do see a middle ground that still allows players to understand references without resorting to either fantasy Earth or barbarians in Jakálla solutions — what I'll call the Deities & Demigods method. D&DG, like its predecessor Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, was not an encyclopedia of original deities, but rather a listing of real-world mythological beings, mixed with a smattering of common fantasy pantheons (Hyboria, Nehwon, and in early printings, Cthulhu and Melniboné) that referees could incorporate into their own campaigns. Inserting them into a fantasy world allows you to have real heroes, legends and deities accessible, and the attendant literary references.

None of this precludes having fantasy religion in the campaign as well. Real-world religions can be one pantheon among others, and it can also be incorporated in a way that's entirely appropriate to D&D: just like in the real-world middle ages, ancient paganism can be a thing of the distant past, that is nevertheless known as history to the characters. This is a good way of making it so that the PCs have about the same level of knowledge about your mythic references as the players do.

There are still challenges, such as the fact that the putative language the PCs are speaking is not really English and real English puns and jokes shouldn't work, but this is at least a framework I think can be useful for incorporating real-world mythology and creating puzzles, riddles, and other references that make sense to the players and their characters alike.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Monumental Chamber

The size of the Son Doong cave, in Vietnam near the border with Laos, is massive. Its largest chamber is 5 kilometers long and 150 meters wide. It has massive stalagmites 70 meters tall. Almost 500' wide and over 16,000' deep is almost unfathomable. But it makes me think about huge underground areas. (Technically Son Doong is not all underground; a hole has burst through its roof and there are plants growing in parts of it.)

There are two parts to what I'm going to define as a monumental chamber. First: a person standing at one point and using a torch cannot see the edges of the area. A torch occupies a circle 30' in radius, or about 2827 square feet. A 60'x60' room is the smallest such monumental area; at 3600 square feet it has around 1.5 times the square footage of an average house. The second criterion is that the monumental room has multiple entries in the dungeon key. A room that is huge but empty doesn't count.

A monumental chamber is a gripping idea to me, mainly because of its sheer scale. Frequently they will be much more than the average 10' high, and as often as not will have some support, whether in columns or through a stable structure like a dome. Vast caverns can shift elevation even within a single room; a manmade version of such might have several platforms linked by stairs. The monumental room is open to pedestals, megaliths, gaping chasms, cliffs, lakes, rivers, waterfalls – any of the geographical features you've always wanted to use in a dungeon but can't fit without making the room humongous.

Inhabitants, too, need not be single. Sure, you could fit an entire orc tribe inside of a sufficiently large chamber. But a truly large room could be home to multiple entities, particularly if it has niches, alcoves or other defensible areas. Perhaps humanoids come out to harvest mushrooms, or crystals, or some metal, while other creatures live in a secluded area. This is particularly potent if the chamber is very high and has multiple effective levels. Bats and stirges, among other types of flying things, are prone to live in the upper reaches. One idea I've always relished is giant bees with a hive up at the top of a chamber at least 50' high. Lower levels, a sub-floor or a body of water all create other natural divisions for multiple encounter types. The sheer size can encourage a whole miniature ecology.

Huge rooms can house multiple wonders as well. Natural features can be spectacular, as can megalithic sculpture and large-scale architectural designs. At the same time, you have some interesting options. If you've ever been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, you may have seen the Temple of Dendur – an Egyptian temple inside the museum. There's likewise a small Japanese temple in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Massive caverns can logically have multiple sub-caverns. A monumental chamber can be a dungeon room with other rooms inside it.

The monumental chamber is also a great way to link several different levels together. Entrances can be at multiple heights; a chute from one level, a landing leading down from another, a third on the same level as the floor, or a fourth with a chute or stairs leading down to a deeper level. They make great "crossways" of the dungeon where wandering monsters can come from a variety of original dungeon levels as well.

I feel that I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that dragons are naturals in such areas. A truly massive hoard needs a massive room to fit in. But generally I think that, especially in megadungeons, it pays to think big. (No, bigger than that.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Ready Reference: Mix-and-Match Humanoids

I've gone back and forth a lot about humanoids in D&D. The cursus honorum of kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls and bugbears is a tired set of clichés. On the other hand, D&D has a lot of resources dedicated to them and they are an archetypal part of the game. Demihuman bonus languages are based on the whole list of humanoids, and default encounter charts pretty much assume them. AD&D makes it even more severe; not having the humanoids basically eliminates the ranger's biggest bonus.

But they are still entirely too predictable. In the interest of alleviating that, here's a table that can give them a bit of variety. Any time there is a need for a low hit dice human-shaped creature in your games, use the table below to create a quick, appropriate humanoid.

1d6 HD AC Move Morale Language Height Damage Special
1 1/2 7 60' 6 Kobold 3' Weapon-1 Small; hate gnomes
2 1-1 6 60' 7 Goblin 4' 6" Weapon -1 to hit in daylight
3 1 6 120' 8 Orc 6' Weapon -1 to hit in daylight
4 1+1 5 90' 8 Hobgoblin 6' 6" Weapon +1 to hit if chief present
5 2 5 90' 8 Gnoll 7' Weapon+1 Wield 2-handed weapons
6 3 5 90' 9 Bugbear 8' Weapon+1 Surprise on 1-3

The table above might produce odd results if you run too literally with it; you could easily have a 1/2 HD creature 8' tall. This would probably be a thin, wispy type of humanoid. Likewise, a 3' type with 3 HD could be stocky almost to the point of being barrel-shaped.

Of course, older D&D never had monster types without some kind of leaders. Only 3 HD humanoids should be considered truly independent. For the remainder, the following chart should be used.

1d4 Leader Bodyguards
1 9 HP / 2 hit dice 1-6: 6 HP / 1+1 hit dice
2 15 HP / 4 hit dice, +2 to damage 1/group: 8 HP, +1 to damage
3 22 HP / 5 hit dice, +2 to damage 1-4: 3d6 HP / 4 hit dice
4 16 HP / 3 hit dice N/A

If the above tables give "bodyguards" more powerful than the leader, this may call for a "Klingon promotion" for one of them.

Because I like you, here's another chart to determine how your new humanoids look.

1d6 Skin Pattern Coloration Head Shape
1 Smooth skin Solid (1 color) Red Human
2 Hairy skin Striped (2 colors) Orange Canine
3 Completely furred Mottled (2 colors) Yellow Feline
4 Scaled Different torso (2 colors) Green Porcine
5 Feathered Multi-hued (3 colors) Brown Serpentine
6 Exoskeleton Iridescent (2 colors) Grey Avian

So there you have it: quick replacements for humanoids that still fit in most OD&D, classic and advanced old-school games.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dark and Ancient Groves

The only temples in Germany were dark and ancient groves, consecrated by the reverence of succeeding generations. Their secret gloom, the imagined residence of an invisible power, by presenting no distinct object of fear or worship, impressed the mind with a still deeper sense of religious horror; and the priests, rude and illiterate as they were, had been taught by experience the use of every artifice that could preserve and fortify impressions so well suited to their own interest.
Anyone studying late Roman and Byzantine history has to come in contact with Edward Gibbon's epic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whether or not you actually agree with its basic premises. Despite some faults in his analysis, Gibbon was generally a remarkable writer and created some vivid pictures.

Gibbon's picture of the Germanic religion draws mostly on Tacitus, who of course was writing not as a disinterested observer but as a partisan for Rome. But the description strikes me as excellent fodder for a type of hexcrawl location. This was doubly confirmed when the picture I found when poking around for a good illustration was one of St. Boniface – the "Apostle of the Germans" – hacking down a tree dedicated to Donar or Thor (actually recorded as "Jove" but theorized as one or the other according to the interpretatio romana).

I generally see pagan religions as sitting outside of the cosmic conflict of law and chaos. The powers worshipped are ancient but are deeply of this earth. This fits squarely into the picture that we see of these "invisible powers" that were the residents of the Germanic groves. Gods of this world, as opposed to the cosmic deities, are similar to the chthonic deities of ancient Greek paganism, earthly deities, frequently associated with snakes and the underworld.

D&D does have one type of forest spirit associated with it, in the dryad. This is quite possibly going to lead to a PC being Charmed and led off from the party, never to return from the forest. I have rarely or never seen referees using this sort of encounter, but to me it strikes a tone of mystery and danger that is something a bit more than just damage. And it is fitting that dryads sit solely in the Neutral column of OD&D's alignment chart.

None of this is to say that forest spirits can't possess the threat of physical violence, but I really love the theme of losing a PC not just physically but spiritually to the forest. It's a fascinating way to make PC loss much more than something easily remedied by a Raise Dead spell (though other spells such as Wish may suffice). Perhaps the central tree of a sacred grove has such powers, and can ensorcel unwitting PCs – unless a Lawful cleric comes along and plays the role of St. Boniface.

What I find most important in this location is the way that they instantly convey a sense of dread by virtue of lacking a central cultic focus. Nature religion was generally not a hippie celebration of the earth, but a fearful and tentative glimpse of the supernatural. We see elements of this in the strange vision scenes of the History series Vikings, where characters often have powerful, even terrifying glimpses of the future. This kind of atmosphere should be fair game if PCs spend time in the groves, including weird and possibly unreal encounters with animals laden with symbolism and the like.

The fear that Gibbon saw at the core of ancient paganism is something that so often feels lacking in D&D's take on religion. These locations are excellent ways to change that.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Signs and Symbols

Recently I've taken to using the eight-pointed star as an explicit symbol of Chaos in my games. It fits very well with the idea that Chaos is an explicit "side" that you can be explicitly for or against, in a broad cosmic war of which factions in the campaign world are just general reflections. Chaos, as I use it, is a powerful force led by many demonic and strange Chaos lords, who are as often as not at cross purposes with one another, as symbolized by the eight directions of the Chaos arrows. It's good and Moorcockian and flavorful. I've had NPCs use it for decoration, including unholy symbols and tattoos.

This Chaos symbol comes from the influence of Swords & Wizardry, even though ultimately it's Moorcock's. S&W also has a circle for Law, which is different from Moorcock who used a single straight arrow. I like the circle, though, because it's an easy graffito. A Law circle can be drawn around the Chaos arrows, like the three downward-pointing arrows of the Eiserne Front were designed to counter Nazi swastikas.

I don't have a symbol for Neutrality that I like. Two wide horizontal bars might work for people who are "actively neutral" (that is, opposed to both Law and Chaos). The thing is, Neutrality in many ways is sort of a catch-all of unaligned, selfish, people aligned to the Earth, people who want a balance, and animals that don't have the intelligence to have an alignment.

But using the circle and the eight-pointed star has had me thinking about other symbols with clear resonances. The Elder Sign, whether it is the pentagram of Derleth or Lovecraft's "tree branch" that has five tines pointing off of a central line, is a classic symbol to ward off things that are not from this world. The Yellow Sign is a classic sigil that is immediately ominous. And I think players might revolt if they saw the Duvan'ku Dead Sign from Death Frost Doom. Or at least, if they know what it means.

The World of Greyhawk has some good entrance runes, if a bit unique to its setting. But on a similar vein I think it would be really fun to start using the classic hobo signs around a megadungeon or wilderness sandbox type environment; obviously the railroad-related ones are no good but most of them would be an interesting way to make the PCs seem more like they're part of a larger world where they aren't the only adventurers about. Simple trail signs can also serve a similar purpose, though they're more likely in the wilderness.

Signs and symbols are also a great way to introduce a mystery into the campaign. Just throw an unknown sigil at the characters, and they will naturally investigate it – whether through a sage, or asking around, or what have you. These kinds of things are a good way to pique the curiosity of players.

I'd be curious about signs and symbols people have used in their own campaigns, and what the impact has been.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: The Silver Standard

Dungeons & Dragons, if you follow its basic logic, assumes lots and lots of gold is present in the world. No, more than that. Nope, higher. Gold coins are the basic economic unit, and weigh 1/10th of a pound (45.4 grams). Think of a silver dollar, which is 1 troy ounce (31.1 grams). Now, add 50% more weight and make it 3/4ths as thick, due to the relative density of gold and silver. That's the D&D gold piece.

Most clones don't fiddle much with the basic monetary system. Adventurer Conqueror King makes the gold piece 1/1000th of 1 stone. This is actually a bit light in "real" stone (14 lbs), but because ACKS assumes 1 stone is roughly equal to 10 lbs, this gives 4.54 grams per gold piece. That's equal to the Roman denarii pictured above, or the late Roman solidus that was the basis for gold coins for most of the Middle Ages. But it's still a gold-based economy, even if the gold requirements are significantly lower.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess switches to a silver standard, and gives 1 XP per silver piece. Silver pieces are 1/50th of a gold piece, which is probably a better approximation than 1/10th or 1/20th, although prices fluctuated drastically in history. It also eschews odd metals like platinum and electrum, to its credit. But it doesn't get weight very precise; the encumbrance system is kind of abstract, and 100 coins are an encumbrance unit. I would still

LotFP's silver standard has a lot of appeal for me, because it makes a chest of gold absolutely phenomenal. 40 GP? In a gold standard that's a rounding error, but in LotFP it's enough to get a fighter to second level. Even a few gold pieces are worth a lot more risk relative to the reward.

And at the same time I like to geek out a bit over ancient silver coins, which is heavily supported by a silver standard. They aren't just an encumbrance penalty to the PCs who have to haul them back, or loose change that get stuck between the couch cushions, but the basic unit of economic value that the PCs have to deal with. Even copper pieces aren't worthless: the infamous 2000 CP of Dwimmermount are worth 200 XP in LotFP.

By making gold extremely valuable and rare, the silver standard also lets you use different metals, like bronze or brass, and have some interesting variables in your coinage. Relative values can be fixed at various rates. Electrum (a gold/silver alloy) coinage was extremely rare, and platinum as a metal was unheard of until the 1500s. Billon was frequently used, famously in the gradual debasement of Roman silver coinage to bronze (the antoninianus or "double denarius" was the coin most associated with this).

Overall, I think that a hybrid of the ideas that find expression in LotFP and ACKS provide the best solution for coinage: the values from LotFP (1 GP = 50 SP = 500 CP) and the weights from ACKS (100 coins = 1 pound). It makes the denarius the model coin, as it should be.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: Interrupt the Spellcaster!

Most of the changes to the initiative system in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry and first edition Advanced D&D had basically one major goal: making it so that a spellcaster could be hit in combat and stopped from casting a spell. The rules for this got infamously complicated. The best way to start a fight at Dragonsfoot or Knights & Knaves Alehouse is to make some blanket statement about how 1st edition initiative really works. Unfortunately it's one of the more important things that OD&D, Holmes, Moldvay and the RC (I would presume also Mentzer) all lack in any way – by the book there is no way to interrupt someone who is casting a spell.

I think it's very important that this ability exist in the game. It takes spellcasters down a notch (often quite literally), but more importantly it can be the PCs' best line of defense against an enemy spellcaster. If you can't interrupt his Sleep spell, well, a low level party is screwed. Generally it's a good defense against casters being overpowering and gives parties a fighting chance, but I don't like AD&D's rather difficult way of achieving it.

Swords & Wizardry has a simple system. Spells being cast start at the beginning of the round, and go off on the caster's initiative. So if a spellcaster loses initiative and gets hit, this interrupts the spell. Easy peasy. There is a more complex method that involves taking a full round to prepare a spell, at which point the caster can be interrupted by damage, and once readied the spell can be cast when the magic-user is ready. Not quite as easy.

Adventurer Conqueror King expands this to damage or failed saving throws interrupting spellcasters. Lamentations of the Flame Princess puts more or less the same rule in different terms: if a character takes any damage in a round, they can't cast a spell after that. It's not a proper interrupt, but it serves basically the same purpose.

OSRIC has a cleaned-up interpretation of the AD&D rules, while BLUEHOLME, Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG just follow their Basic versions in neglecting this area.

The interesting choice here is how Swords & Wizardry and ACKS both assume that the spell is specifically interrupted and lost, while LotFP merely forbids spellcasting once damage is taken. The former approach is harsher on the magic-users, to be sure, and rooted in AD&D, where being hit can likewise cause spell loss. Neither proposes any kind of roll (such as a saving throw) to see if the spell can be kept; it is simply gone. I think this is a good compromise between the harsher S&W / ACKS approach and LotFP's method.

Another possibility I haven't seen explored much is that the attack causes a misfire of the spell. This is always a good excuse to pick your favorite "haywire spell effect" table and roll on it, to reflect the magical energies that have been let loose by the incomplete incantation. These should be used sparingly, and perhaps only have a certain percent chance (maybe 5%-10% per spell level) so that it doesn't devolve into complete unpredictability.

Whichever is your favorite, I think these are the most straightforward spell-interruption rules out there, and deserve consideration for any OD&D or classic D&D game.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Actual Play: Fun with Infravision and Alignment

Infravision in B/X is described explicitly as "heat-sensing sight." So I tend to play the sight of elves and dwarves as being very broad; only the ability to see vague shapes of heat, generally not making out anything of the details of a monster.

Which was fun with the first of two encounters my players had with velociraptors last night. The raptors showed up during the first watch of the evening, and had the players surrounded, but there were only three of the raptors. The party's elf and one of the clerics were on watch, so the raptors were considering them potential prey until the cleric shouted everyone awake. The raptors disappeared in a flash (I give them a very quick movement rate) and it seemed like a false alarm. At this point they still weren't really sure what the threat was, other than that it was three or four feet high but broad and very fast.

The PCs wound up going back to the ruined palace where they had previously slaughtered some toad-men. Some exploration got them to investigate the statue in the courtyard, which had certain stops in its direction where it pointed. Investigating one of them led to another encounter with the raptors, who were now defending their nests and not just being curious. I described their motion with some keys that echoed Jurassic Park. The players got out, with only the hobbit getting a scratch when he went to his backpack to try and get some meat to slow the raptors down.

Deciding to try their luck elsewhere in the ruins, the PCs checked out a small block of rooms. This time they found a corridor with some caltrops in it; had they gone in without being wary it would have been a bigger problem for them. Around the next corridor they did get hit by a crossbow trap, and while investigating it found that they had the interest of a big, menacing warrior type. The players' reaction to his weapon, a military pick that they later found out was aligned with Chaos.

Once they dispatched the warrior and his companions, they found more materials, including a letter written in Chaotic. This was translated for them by one of the Acolytes from the Caves of Chaos, who has been charmed by the elf and is being used as a makeshift henchman. It's been fun to sort of let the idea of "forces of Chaos" as a persistent, but not unified, threat; the way I interpret Chaos working in my world is that powerful Chaotic characters are in touch with patron deities, and each such leader is a sort of absolute tyrant who imposes their will on their underlings. So there is now someone in dungeons (not yet discovered by the PCs) under the ruin who has transgressed against the forces loyal to the Chaos god Arioch.

I was very happy to be able to play up the Chaos and dinosaur aspects of this ruin in one session. It's been interesting in terms of PC balance, too: although there are two fourth-level fighters, who can take a fair number of hits, the rest of the PCs were 1st or 2nd level this adventure. One of the clerics hit 3rd, as did the hobbit, which will make the rest of this particular adventure interesting.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Pulp Magazines Project

The kind of fantasy fiction best loved by many of us in the old school originated in the magazines popular in the early 20th century known as "pulps" because of the low-grade paper that they were printed on. Aside from the most assiduous collectors, most of us only read the pulp stories out of context, reprinted in anthologies or web pages that frequently lose the original artwork and never have the context - the editorials, the letter columns, the advertisements, and the other stories that surrounded them.

Fortunately, the Pulp Magazines Project fixes this for us. It's a terrific resource, collecting pulp magazines that have gone into public domain for one reason or another. It's fun to read and flip through these in PDF form (the "flipbook" reader is a bit annoying for me), and soak in the classic magazines.

Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories is a major touchstone in science fiction history; it basically created the genre, even giving it its name in the early form of "scientifiction." The site only has a handful of issues from Amazing's run, but still manages to capture its very early days and crucial material. It started with reprints, but pretty soon had seminal authors.

For fantasy fans, unquestionably the most important magazine here is Weird Tales. This was the magazine that was home to Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, and the literary circle around them – Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, Frank Belknap Long and Clark Ashton Smith. Howard committed suicide in June 1936, and Lovecraft passed of an illness in March of 1937; this happens to coincide with the period of Weird Tales that are on the Pulp Magazines Project archive. The loss of its two leading lights put Weird in hard times, and Farnsworth Wright left the magazine, which went under the stewardship of Dorothy McIlwraith. It had other worthy authors under McIlwraith, including Leiber, Kuttner's wife C.L. Moore, and Manly Wade Wellman.

It's worth reading Weird Tales closely, because it helps to put Howard and Lovecraft in context. Read in their context it's clear that they were the farthest-sighted of a like-minded group of authors. For instance, Seabury Quinn's occult detective stories featuring Jules de Grandin are quite clever and told in a gripping pulp fashion, but don't have the same level of transcendence as Lovecraft's work. Yet, side by side, we can see that Lovecraft was very much a part of this milieu.

Of course, you didn't think I'd let you get away without mentioning Planet Stories, did you? Of course not. This was very much not a pioneering magazine in the same sense as Amazing Stories or Weird Tales; the original sword & planet adventures had been published in The All-Story by Burroughs. But Planet Stories is where both Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury developed their tales of Mars, inspired of course by the Barsoom stories. Late in its run, Planet Stories also discovered a writer named Philip K. Dick, who published his first story there. Its pedigree did also include writers such as Asimov, Simak and another Appendix N writer, Frederic Brown. The emphasis on adventure didn't stop harder science fiction ideas.

I like these magazines for three reasons. First, they're full of great adventure stories. Modern genre fiction is too wrapped up in epics and has trouble just getting down to a good adventure where the protagonist is in trouble pretty much the whole time. You get it in the old, short novels that were often just several stories strung together by a thread of a plot, but it really is lacking in bigger and more complex novels.

Second, you wind up reading authors you wouldn't have otherwise. This is a great side effect of the anthology form, and it's more pronounced here. There are people in these magazines I've never heard of, but with a short story it's always worth giving them a try. Even anthologies are only preserving selected authors who appealed to the anthologist; reading the raw form of the pulps gets you some good obscure authors, and also some clunkers

Third, I am always fascinated by seeing these things in their original context. Advertisements of all sorts litter the pages; a sophisticated reader might filter them out, but it's worth pausing once in a while to drink in the environment where the stories we love originally appeared. Similarly all the letter columns, where curious readers inquire about stories and offer their opinions; it's a bit of a lost art nowadays. And of course those wonderfully pulp illustrations.

So there you have your weekend's reading, and perhaps for many weekends to come after that. Enjoy, and feel free to point out any great finds in the comments.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Don't Forget to Wear Your Helmet!

There's a famous anecdote about the British Army in the first World War. After the Brodie helmet (quite different from the medieval nasal helmet pictured here) was introduced, the incidence of soldiers with head injuries in the medical facilities increased dramatically. This shocked the British, who had introduced the helmets to decrease such injuries.

Of course, the reason for this is obvious. The soldiers who had suffered similar wounds before the helmets were issued had simply died, and not made it to the field hospitals. It's worth remembering that, as men went off to die a century ago, the meticulous war planning had not involved helmets, which had been a staple of warfare for the previous five millennia or so.

Helmets appear in the OD&D equipment list but are not mentioned directly in the rules. The Helm of Reading Magic and Languages lists a 10% chance of being hit and smashed, implying a like percentage chance of hitting the helmet generally. AD&D says that helmets are assumed, and if they are absent, there is a 1 in 6 or 1 in 2 chance (depending upon the intelligence of the foe) of targeting the unarmored head.

The assumption of helmets is part of the way that Dave and Gary both played. No particular rules were made for them, because they were an inherent part of the protection given by armor. But this is inelegant; if you lose your helmet, or have taken it off (say, to listen at a door), or foolishly choose not to wear it, the referee has to use the kludgy system from AD&D every time an enemy takes a swing at you. And that's rather annoying.

The simple thing to do is just to knock a point off of the AC of each armor type and say that it comes from the helmet. This increases the value of the helmet significantly, equal to the shield, and a character with a helmet and shield would be AC 7. I really like this because it gives helmets their due without forcing some huge systemic change, or even an extra roll; it sits neatly in the rules as they already are.

If this reduces the value of leather armor, I can only see that as a good thing. Leather is not very good material for armor, and only came back into fashion once guns were more common. Once any peasant with a gun could shoot clean through a suit of plate armor, there was no longer any reason to spend weeks or months painstakingly crafting it or a small fortune buying it. You might as well just wear a thick leather coat (the buff coat) on the chance that a sword blow might be turned by it.

So there you go: helmets in D&D. They're already important, you're just recognizing it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Rolling the Dice

"Don't ask me what you need to hit. Just roll the die and I will let you know!"
- Dave Arneson.
One area where I find a surprising amount of diversity in gaming is in how, exactly, the dice are rolled. More specifically, some referees roll the dice in front of their players, or even have the players roll pretty much all the dice.

This couldn't possibly contrast more with how Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson ran their games. Arneson narrated from behind a screen that physically blocked the players from seeing him. Gygax hid behind a file cabinet. Players didn't know the dice rolls they were making; hell, they didn't know the basic rules of the game. Everything that didn't appear on their character sheets was a mystery.

In my games, I sometimes ask for a specific roll - "roll for initiative" or "roll to hit." But frequently I'll just ask for a d6 or a d20 roll, with no indication of why the player is rolling. I find this works best with the attitude of "rulings not rules," as I may have simply made a determination of a percentage, or a chance in 6, or a roll-under-stat roll, or one of a dozen other simple ways.

During exploration, I roll a few dice per turn, mostly six-siders. The function of these dice vary; sometimes they're the Eye of Sauron that indicates wandering monsters, or rolling to see if the PCs hear anything or notice secret doors; other times I'm rolling on some arbitrary chart or just rolling a die and seeing what comes up if I need to make some random decision. None of this would work with open rolls.

Running this way, I find that the dice – for me as a referee – perform a sort of oracular function. Most of the time they produce a sort of low-level background randomness, but sometimes their results turn out something that combines with PC interaction to be sublime. One die roll can transform a whole evening of play. That's part of why I am very much in the "let the dice fall as they may" camp.

On the other side, I look at it simply: if you get into a situation where we have to roll the dice, your PC's life is in the hands of the dice gods. Again, the dice fall as they may; you may win glory or die in ignominy. Fortuna is not always a lady.

One of the best parts of this approach is that it lets me borrow tons of stuff from different sources. On any given game night, there is a stack of books on my desk (or table on the rare occasions when I get to run in person) ranging from the Ready Ref Sheets and the 1e DMG to a list of 10-20 other books I keep mainly for the charts and tables. Part of my vision of D&D is that I don't have to be bound by any particular edition beyond keeping the rules for PC stuff fairly straightforward and stable. That's part of why I like my current B/X game: I can borrow anything I like, but the players have simple and well defined rules for their characters.

And of course that means killing other games / editions and riffling their pockets for spare change, hence my current project in looking at the clones.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: Death and Dying

Continuing my journey through D&D's recent clones, looking for good rules that I can grab without needing to run them as a whole, we come to a topic that arises an awful lot in old school gaming: death.

Original D&D had death at 0 HP. Per various reports, one of the distinguishing features between Arneson and Gygax is that the former had no Raise Dead type spells in his campaign, while the latter's players always Raised a fallen comrade. Gygax's AD&D changed the tables where going to 0 (optionally as low as -3) meant you "bleed to death" until -10 HP at the rate of 1 per round. It also introduced my least favorite part of the death and dying rules, "binding wounds" as a form of emergency first aid that suddenly saves characters. It does have the wrinkle that hitting -6 will cause some kind of permanent wound.

Labyrinth Lord and BLUEHOLME kill you dead when you hit 0, no questions asked. Which is fair; it's also what the classic versions of the game they emulate do. OSRIC likewise follows AD&D with the countdown to -10.

Swords & Wizardry does the same, but there's a house rule suggested with negative HP (1 lost per round) up to character level, which doesn't really help low-level characters much but could save a higher-level one who ran into bad luck.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess tinkers with the AD&D system. 0 HP does not cause death, but unconsciousness; -3 is a mortal wound and causes death in 1d10 minutes. Instant death is at -4 hit points. It's not quite clear if there are any bleeding out processes going on; I actually don't think there are, but I'd be willing to be corrected.

Basic Fantasy RPG says that 0 HP is death but presents a couple of optional rules: enabling Raise Dead spells, allowing save vs. Death Ray to survive for 2d10 rounds, or the traditional AD&D "you don't actually die until -10 HP" rule. It offers a variation where the maximum negative HP equals the PC's Constitution score.

Adventurer Conqueror King System has an elaborate "mortal wounds" table that, based on a d20 roll (modified by a variety of factors) and a d6 roll, determines exactly what kind of wound you sustained. This offers a good variety of results that aren't instant death, and gives some potential dismemberment or disfiguration as a result of brushes with death.

While it says it's not a clone (and technically really isn't), Dungeon Crawl Classics does have two mechanics for 0 HP not quite killing a character. One is that on the round a character hits 0 HP or the round after it, the PC can be healed. The other is the "recovering the body" check where it turns out via a Luck roll that the PC isn't quite dead. So that's two last chances. (As long as you're not a 0 level schmuck in a funnel. In that case, you're just dead.)

None of these match what I currently do: I roll 1d6, subtract any negative hit points the character takes, and the result is the number of rounds it takes for the character to bleed out. If this total is 0 or less, it means that instant death has occurred. Magical healing is possible during this window.

The option that is most tempting to me is the ACKS table. It's certainly the most inventive of the lot, and offers a lot of great gory possibilities. The problem is that the rules for how it applies are a bit complicated; I'd be tempted just to roll on it with 1d20 + Con bonus - negative HP. The ACKS way of figuring exactly what percentage of HP you are below 0 is just too fiddly for me. My own house rule is not far from either LotFP or DCC, and I like elements of both. It really requires some more thought as to which is most stealable.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: The Cost of Armor

As other people are talking about the new edition of D&D, I want to start taking a look at the way that different classic clones handle things. Generally it will focus on finding things that are tweaked by the clones in ways I like. I'm starting with the cost of armor.

In original Dungeons & Dragons, leather armor costs 15 GP, chain costs 30 GP, and plate costs 50. Given that PCs rolled 3d6x10 for starting gold, it was a given that most fighters would be able to afford plate armor. (It's not plate mail. That's a mistake of 19th century writers that Gary propagated into the 20th and 21st. Mail is chain armor.) After an adventure any PC should be getting it. Encumbrance is really the only reason to use chain or leather.

Holmes kept the OD&D prices, while Moldvay moved it up a bump: leather is 20, chain 40, and plate 60. Mentzer and the Rules Cyclopedia keep this distribution. AD&D adds a whole bunch of armor types, many of them mythical or silly (such as studded leather and ring mail). Leather is only 5 GP, while chain goes up to 75 and plate to 400 GP. This meant that most fighters started with such ahistorical armor such as studded leather or ring mail, or if they rolled well they could afford scale armor or mail.

(And yes, I'm being pedantic, but there is no evidence that ring armor was actually used; it's mostly a misinterpretation of medieval depictions of mail, or chain armor, which is not called "chain mail" because that's redundant. And putting metal studs in a leather coat is a fashion choice, and would have no defensive value.)

What's fascinating is that clones tend to lean toward AD&D's side of the armor prices, even if they don't have all of the variations, but not in any standard way. Basic Fantasy uses 20 for leather, 60 for chain and 300 for plate. Labyrinth Lord is 20/150/600, and adds in several AD&D types to fill the gaps. LotFP uses silver, but charges 25 for leather, 100 for chain, and 1000 for plate. Swords & Wizardry uses 5 for leather, 75 for chain and 100 for plate, adding in the mythical ring armor for 30 GP. BLUEHOLME uses what are in its case the Holmes prices: 15/30/50, and Adventurer Conqueror King follows Moldvay with 20/40/60.

For most of these, the result is that starting fighters will wear chain and carry a shield (generally equivalent to AC 4). But Dexterity can improve AC, in most of these up to AC 1 – a step better than OD&D even allows – and with AD&D style bonuses, even AC 0. OD&D and Holmes conversely have AC 2 fighters and clerics wearing plate armor unless they're really poor, or really need to be sneaky.

After a lot of experience, I find myself in favor of the higher prices. PCs start with 3d6x10 GP or some number around that in most of these versions of the rules; I know Labyrinth Lord goes higher with 3d8x10, one of its many quirky switches that is there to avoid actually being a photocopy of Moldvay and Cook/Marsh. Despite the cheap cost in B/X, as a sop to at least minimal realism I require six weeks for the manufacture of a suit of plate armor; it was a difficult and time-consuming process that involved fitting the plates precisely to a cast model of the eventual wearer. (So don't gain weight!) Actual medieval armorers could take months fitting plate armor together, but if your life depends on it, aren't you going to want it as well made as humanly possible?

OD&D implies that it takes an armorer (100 GP / month) a month to make a suit of armor, or two with assistants, yet the armor only retails for 50 GP; maybe it's a loss leader? If we extrapolate from this, the Basic Fantasy prices are actually pretty on the money, while Labyrinth Lord's are a bit inflated. Generally I find this setup preferable, because it focuses on core armor types and doesn't add in a bunch of fake ones that Gary Gygax pulled from inaccurate 19th century sources.

Dexterity makes it possible for a mail-wearing 1st level fighter in BFRPG to be as survivable as his plate-wearing OD&D cousin. BFRPG also exaggerates the weight of armor a bit less than OD&D does, which is another point in favor of its equipment list. I'm sure there were Renaissance suits of ceremonial plate armor that weighed around 75 lbs (as in OD&D), but a well made suit shouldn't really be much over 50 lbs (the weight in BFRPG). This, of course, does make enforcing encumbrance rules important, but that was always supposed to be a mitigating factor of different armor types.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

OK, so it's a little wet ...

The galerias romanas (Roman galleries) in Lisbon, Portugal are one of the harder architectural marvels to get into. A crack in one of the galerias means that the underground ruins are accumulating groundwater, and most of the year, they are flooded. Every year, the ruins are painstakingly drained (the process takes a full month) and visitors are allowed to enter for about 3 days. The rest of the year, the water is allowed to stay, at about 3m depth (10').

Which is a fun way to transition to talking about water in dungeons. Homeowners know all about the tendencies of underground spaces to accumulate water; we've invented sump pumps, French drains and all sorts of systems to reverse this tendency. But in dungeons it's a fascinating obstacle that I've thought about for a while now.

The first thing you have to decide about water is whether it is flowing or stagnant. If it is flowing underground, there must be some source: a river, spring or aquifer that is feeding the body, and a corresponding outlet. If there were no outlet, the body of water would continuously rise. (This is certainly a possibility: an extremely slow rising body of water, fed at a rate of well less than half an inch per year.)

Stagnant water has been deposited by some source and is not continuously refreshed. This is extremely dangerous to humans, since stagnant water is a breeding ground for disease and bacteria. Contact with a pool of such water should require some kind of appropriate disease checks; suitable rules exist in Blackmoor, the Dungeon Master's Guide and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Drinking it is even more dangerous.

After that the next decision is depth. Water becomes a different type of obstacle depending on the depth. A foot deep permits more motion than two; three might be navigable for humans but is swimming territory for halflings. Deeper than that becomes a serious problem, if not totally impossible to cross. Water, of course, ruins most of the things adventurers carry; waterlogged boots can get mildew or mold, and generally become useless, while soaked torches or spellbooks are useless. Swords and armor will rust if not properly cared for. And swimming while in armor is basically impossible. Watch the video if you don't believe me – heck, even if you do believe me, it's a great experimental video.

Other factors can also be interesting: temperature, current, or brackishness. For instance, clear, cool water is very different from hot mineral spring water. In a dungeon near the sea, some water may be salty and undrinkable. And it could be very dangerous if the water has a strong current, pulling adventurers along with it as they try to navigate it. Varying any of these can create unique environments and pose certain challenges.

Now that we've put water into the dungeon, comes the payoff: all the water monsters in D&D are fair game. From sharks to sahuagin, from ixitxachitl to aboleths, and any kind of new monsters based on fish or whales or anything else you like, you've now got a reason to use these in dungeons. A long-standing version might have a blind cave version of the classic lake monster archetype, or vicious schools of piranha, or pretty much any cave swimmers you might imagine. It's a rich environment for monsters that aren't typical. And let's not forget about amphibians, arthropods and the like.

Of course where there are monsters, there is also treasure. This can be a bit tough to figure out. In chemically pure water, basically, copper, silver and gold should be relatively unaffected by corrosion. (In fact, copper coins in fresh water should tend to reduce the bacterial load.) The problem is that water is not pure and contains other minerals and compounds that will interact with metal. It could also complicate things if the coins are not pure metal. Seawater will corrode copper and silver coins, but leave gold fairly intact. Only acidity, introduced by the breakdown of wood or the general condition of sandy soil, would pose much of a danger to gold coins. The most dangerous thing would be an untreated wooden chest containing them.

Most gems will not be water soluble and should survive pretty well in tact. But iron is toast even if it gets minor exposure, as are most books or scrolls (leather parchment will be ruined and the ink will dissolve), and pretty much any wooden objects that aren't covered with tar, pitch or some other sealant. Magic items are the referee's call; it would be interesting to find a shining steel blade in a rotting leather scabbard and with a ruined handle, but the blade and tang in tact. Potions may or may not leak, which could have very interesting results – say, a wizard's laboratory where several potions have mixed together to form ... well, pretty much anything you want.

Water complicates everything very nicely. Spells will be interesting, from Sleep (does it turn into an effective Drown?) to Lightning Bolt and others. A Fireball might boil some of it. And of course there are many interesting spells and items that only work under water.

Given all these possibilities, it's a disappointment that there aren't more modules and books dealing with flooded environments. It's definitely something I keep intending to explore. I hope this inspires other referees to do the same.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On the Starting Player Character

I recently got into a discussion of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories, and particularly where to start when reading them, on Google+. The apparently natural place to start is the first volume, which depending upon which release you are reading, will be Swords and Deviltry or Ill Met in Lankhmar – either way, with "The Snow Women," "The Unholy Grail" and "Ill Met in Lankhmar." Unfortunately, that's a terrible way to read the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. You're well over 100 pages in before you actually get to Fafhrd and the Mouser interacting. It puts me in mind of modern Hollywood, which is obsessed with telling and re-telling "origin stories" because they follow a predictable pattern. It's a really bad one with Leiber's characters, who are at their best once they've actually gotten together. Reading the Lankhmar books in order denies you the good parts for most of the first book.

It happens that I started reading Leiber with the 1996 release of Lean Times in Lankhmar, and more or less began with the titular story. I wanted to read their origin stories because I knew who they would become. And of course, Leiber didn't start with "The Snow Women" or "The Unholy Grail" or even "Ill Met," but rather "Jewels in the Forest," set after Swords and Deviltry.

A starting OD&D fighting-man has the level title of "Veteran." I like that; it implies that he or she has been through a war and survived. They are not farmboys, and have some training and idea of what they're doing. (Dungeon Crawl Classics changes this, which I think is odd.) But given the way the game is set up, we don't know if they are going to survive.

What I've found through play is that pre-written background doesn't mean anything. This is because of a principle that writers are expected to bear in mind: the story you are telling should be the most exciting and important thing that has ever happened to the character. A background made up for a PC before the start of play is, of necessity, not that interesting; after all, they never got any experience points for it.

This is why fan fiction and prequels tend to be markedly inferior. If the earlier story was the most exciting thing that happened to the character, things that happened before tend to be less exciting by definition. Even characters with serial adventures tend to have a best episode or two, compared with which everything else is simply lesser work.

Interesting player characters in my games have always been the ones that emerge in the midst of play. No amount of background has ever really fixed that. Improvisational roleplaying creates character traits that were often totally unexpected. You can't bake that into the character by writing a story of what happened to them beforehand. The best examples I've seen tend to be people who start from very broad strokes and only become more specific in the heat of the game.

Really, I think this is a big part of why D&D's class system has been so enduringly popular: it gives players a good basis to create adventurers from whole cloth, and then let them gain more definition as the game goes on. Maybe a background story will be appropriate when they hit 4th level and become a "Hero" – just as I only appreciated the origins of Fafhrd and the Mouser once I'd read their adventures in Stardock and Quarmall. But at the start, I really find they're not needed, and only distract from defining the character in play.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Other Free Basic Rules

A lot of people are going to get a set of free basic rules today. I want to encourage people to check out Basic Fantasy RPG, which is a totally open-source project and is completely, 100% free. BFRPG has been free since 2006, and is a clone of B/X without race-as-class.

There are a lot of clones that have come after BFRPG, including the more B/X-like Labyrinth Lord, but I've always liked BF's straightforward split of race from class. It does a good job with the straightforward nature of ascending AC, and breaks up characters into narrower bands for gaining to-hit bonuses, which makes everyone slightly better at fighting. But it doesn't get into the comically high armor classes of 3.x. And if it gets rid of 1 XP per gold piece of treasure as a rule, it's listed as an optional rule and is easy to restore.

What was important about Basic Fantasy when it first appeared in 2006 was simple: here was a game that declared, with capital letters, "This is OLD SCHOOL." That was awesome. It was a shot across the bow: this was saying that the old school play that had been dismissed in favor of the new "latest and greatest" was a valid way to play the game. And in 2006 it was considered more or less acceptable to dismiss and ridicule the way that people had played D&D in the '70s and '80s as being primitive and/or foolish.

Basic Fantasy has had great community support, and J.D. Neal's modules are excellent takes on the standards created by B2 and X1. There are supplements to add whatever you like to BFRPG, and plenty of free resources from the community. The second bold move on the BFRPG cover was to put a disclaimer: "Don't Buy This Book!" By making BF totally free, Chris Gonnerman created an atmosphere where the game's fans have given generously and openly. I think that's an awesome thing for him to have done.

A third thing was accomplished by BFRPG that isn't usually recognized: it was the most compact single-volume version of the game when it came out. Basic Fantasy is only 154 pages when you include the index and Open Game License. That's quite an accomplishment. Labyrinth Lord is about 19 pages shorter, but that's still no mean feat. Both are also in more readable fonts than the Basic and Expert rulebooks, hence the longer page counts.

If you wanted to run a basic game tomorrow, Basic Fantasy has all the tools you could want. If you already know the rules, it's also worth checking out the adventures and supplemental material. I particularly like The Chaotic Caves, a B2-style module that would be fun for people who've played the original Keep too often and know all its secrets.

Ready Reference: What Kind of Mushroom Is It?

There aren't a lot of plants that grow naturally in caves and underground locales. This is generally because plants, as a rule, require light. But where there are moisture and food (which may include fecal matter), it is possible for fungi of various sorts to grow. (Conveniently for hexcrawlers, they grow in forests as well.) Mushrooms are great and interesting things, and can have all kinds of effects when introduced into the human body. This chart is for when PCs find mushrooms, and maybe do something about it.

(For the curious, the mushroom on the left is the death cap, the most toxic mushroom for humans; the one on the right is the fly agaric, which causes hallucinations.)

d100 Description
01-30Harmless but inedible. The mushroom is too tough to eat or indigestible, but trying it will not make a human sick.
31-35Bioluminescent. These mushrooms are neither edible nor poisonous, but they give off light. It only illuminates 2' from the mushroom but they will be visible from as far away as 120' if there is a clear line of sight.
36-55Edible but not incredible. This type of fungus has nutritional value, and eating enough will give some basic semblance of nutrition, but it tastes bland and spongy. They can be gathered and sold for 1 GP per pound.
56-59Delicious. Not only edible, but tastes very good, cooked or not. In town these can be worth up to 10 GP per pound of mushrooms.
60Rare gourmet mushrooms. These are the finest mushrooms, or perhaps truffles. They are extremely rare and nobles or merchants will easily pay 100 GP per pound.
61-75Mildly poisonous. These mushrooms cause retching and vomiting; a character failing a saving throw will be disabled for 2d6 turns while they deal with the effects.
76-80Extremely poisonous. A character who eats these and fails a saving throw versus poison will die. Success entails 2d6 turns of retching and vomiting.
81-90Psychoactive. A saving throw against poison should be made; the result determines how much control the character eating the mushroom has. They will experience hallucinations, visions, perhaps even synesthesia, but if they make a saving throw they can act normally through the experience. Failure means the character is inactive for 2d6 turns. Each mushroom can sell for 10-20 GP in town.
91-00Magic mushroom. The mushroom is literally magical. Suggested effects include growth up to 50%, shrinking up to 50%, healing 1-3 hit points per mushroom eaten, invisibility, bioluminescence, growing mushrooms, polymorphing into a random animal, or reversing any of these effects.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Magic and the Sense of Wonder

A linkbait list from io9 recently listed the "20 Most WTF Magical Items in Dungeons & Dragons." It's pretty typical of the genre; you can find it here. But it happened to have an excerpt that I found intriguing.
The Wand of Wonder — as in, the Wand of Wondering What The Luntic That Made This Thing Was Thinking Of. When used, it performs one of 20 completely random functions, which can include 1) a powerful gust of wind, 2) 600 butterflies appearing out of nowhere, 3) shrinking the wand holder, and 4) making leaves grow on the target for some reason. Say you were a soldier. Would you bring a gun that would randomly fire bullets, water, or 600 freaking butterflies into battle? Exactly.
I didn't like the article, but this helped me put my finger on something that has long bothered me generally in D&D about magic, namely that, overall, it's very utilitarian and not often sufficiently wonderful. A magic wand, by my lights, shouldn't be as reliable as a gun.

The one area where D&D really nails this is the magic sword. OD&D magical swords are all unique, with personalities and special abilities, and offer a rich experience for the fighters who use them. This is done with some fairly simple charts, and worked into the alignment system pretty seamlessly. The artifact system in Eldritch Wizardry is also good at this, and creates unique items, but these are top-flight, one in a campaign type items. Magic swords, meanwhile, are things that might exist in fairly normal campaigns below the highest levels without blowing things out of proportion.

Spells, meanwhile, tend to be quite mundane and utilitarian, almost to the point where they are simply a given in the rules. And this is to the detriment of the sense of wonder that the game wants to create. So, I've been thinking about ways to rectify this. I think the magic sword approach, expanded somewhat, is perhaps the best way to enhance the spell list, by giving each copy of a spell some "personality."

The first thing I thought of with relation to this is psychedelia. The picture above by Tim Callahan shows a hallucinating wizard, and is one thing I've long felt was missing. Psychedelic experiences of various sorts have long been a part of magical rituals, particularly using naturally-occurring hallucinogens such as "magic mushrooms." This is a good way to give a spell some really interesting material components; maybe an ESP or similar type of spell requires the caster to use some hallucinogen; the working out of the spell is simply an extension of the hallucination. Or maybe othe spells require an altered state of mind in order to cast them at all. Of course, this always carries the danger of a "bad trip."

But magic-users can't be tripping all of the time. Some spells, particularly non-combat spells, can be made up into rituals that take a while to perform. This is hinted at with the magic circle of Protection from Evil as written; it's a solid way to add thematic requirements to spell-casting and make the magic-user more interesting, particularly if there is some chance of the character botching the ritual to cast the spell. Divination spells combine well with rituals of traditional real-world divination, such as casting bones to come up with a result.

Another fairly obvious spin is alchemical. Dave Arneson's concept, which I've discussed before, of spellcasters needing to prepare a spell in advance smacks of their being alchemical in nature. This can work well with even our more combat-oriented spells such as Sleep or Fireball coming out of some mixture of powerful alchemical components. A Sleep spell effectuated in this way might take the form of a sleeping gas, for instance. It also allows the possibility that spells have been pre-cast and sat for centuries; perhaps the magic has gone a bit awry in that time.

There are dozens of types of practice that you can mingle with the existing spells of D&D. For instance, some types of magic are purely verbal and rely upon magic words or true names. Others could use sympathetic magic, using a bit of hair or a fetish to cast a spell like Charm Person that feels very much like a lot of love spells.

What I think is key is coming up with a way that each spell learned is somehow different from any other spell. These methods can be combined in various interesting ways. One magic-user's spellbook may have a recipe for an alchemical Sleep spell while another's contains a formula that commands sleep, and a third may be an elaborate hypnotism-like ritual. Once this is determined, the spell is now something quite different, not just a powerful thing that the magic-user does but something very special all on its own.

It's a bit of a wrinkle, but I think it's something I want to craft some house rules around. I'm curious how it would work out in practice.