Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Setting Questions: Sunday AM D&D

I'm starting a new campaign using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia that I'm calling, because of its timing, Sunday AM D&D. I want to use the 20 questions from Jeff Rients to define some of the basics of the kingdom of Pelyria.

1. What is the deal with my cleric's religion?

There are several clerical orders.
- Order of the Unconquered Sun - standard clerics, Lawful
- Order of the Bull Rampant - militant clerics, Lawful
- Defenders of the Silver Tree - nature clerics, Neutral
- Brotherhood of the Black Fist - secret order of unholy clerics, Chaotic

2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?

PCs start out in the town of Farwater on the west bank of Lake Dremen. The retired adventurer Joberd operates a general store that sells most typical adventuring euqipment, although weapons other than bows and arrows have to be bought from the blacksmith Treb.

3. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?

No one in Farwater makes platemail. The king's armorsmiths in Ardglas might be willing to do it but it would take weeks for the fabrication.

4. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?

Fen Pal of the Yellow Cloak is reckoned the mightiest, although Genten the Merciless in his tower to the north is considered far more dangerous.

5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?

Arris the Daring, a retainer to King Merik IV, is the greatest warrior. His castle in Westerlyn is home to an annual tournament that draws warriors from far and near.

6. Who is the richest person in the land?

Borin Lo is a powerful merchant prince with a palatial estate south of Lake Dremen.

7. Where can we go to get some magical healing?

Look for a cleric and hope you're of the right alignment. There's an Unconquered Sun monastery in the Fazren Hills.

8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?

As with #7 above. Several of these can also be cured by powerful wizards. Again: good luck.

9. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?

Magic-users are under the tutelage of a mentor until 4th level, and gain spells from them (as per Rules Cyclopedia). After that, they may go to Ardglass and attempt to pass the tests to join the Arcane College. There are practical and knowledge tests. If the MU passes, they get access to the College's library and higher-level spells, although there are very strict regulations on spells above 6th level. If they fail, they have to continue as hedge-wizards and fetch spells as they may from lost spellbooks and discovered scrolls. Many of these get up to 9th level and join the Alchemists' Guild.

Elves are of course different; after 4th level they need to perform a quest for the King of Elfland in order to gain access to their family spellbook, an heirloom passed down among generations. Sharing spells from this book with outsiders would be unthinkable.

10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

Ardglas, although some itinerant experts will pass through places like Farwater.

11. Where can I hire mercenaries?

If you go south to Valnesse, there are usually mercenary companies working there. They will hire men out at fairly normal rates.

12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?

Casting spells within Ardglas is strictly regulated. In most of Pelyria, casting spells is frowned upon but not illegal.

13. Which way to the nearest tavern?

There are several dockside bars in Farwater, notably the Old Salt, which has a rather hard reputation. The Sign of the Hippogriff is a decent place to grab an ale and you're not likely to get into a rumble. If you can snag an invitation, Zell Lefa hosts the best parties in town.

14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

Currently there is something of an influx of goblins making the roads unsafe at night. But if you want to become famous, there is word of a dragon in the Fazren Hills.

15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

The border with Valnesse was never stable to begin with, and that only got worse in Valnesse's recent civil war. Dorram Arel pressed an ancient claim on a border province and the conflict there has been back-and-forth for over a year.

16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

No. Aside from tournaments, horse racing is the phenomenon in Pelyria. (And there is a lot to be made on gambling.) Gladiatorial combat would be considered barbaric.

17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

The Brotherhood of the Black Fist definitely qualifies. There is also the Decanari, a secretive group of criminal organizations that has a generally bad attitude about things.

18. What is there to eat around here?

Farwater, being a lakeside town, eats a lot of fish. Mainly trout and catfish. The staple grains are barley and wheat, eaten either as porridge or as coarse brown bread. During the growing season, carrots and peas and onions are frequent additions. Pickled carrots are eaten throughout the winter. Fruits are quotidian - apples and pears and grapes.

19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?

There are ruins from the Acradian Empire that have ancient treasure.

20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?

There's a dragon in the Fazren Hills.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

First Thoughts: White Boxes

On a recent Lulu jaunt I picked up a small softcover called White Box because of its Stefan Poag cover. It's a revised version of Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. Both are pictured above with what I think are their best covers: the original S&W:WB by Pete Mullen and the new WB by Poag. Both books are pretty similar in size, and both are quite affordable. White Box is all of $5.99 in print. This is quite a contrast to the actual OD&D woodgrain box that just sold for $22,100 on eBay.

If you've read the Swords & Wizardry Whitebox book before, White Box's contents are immediately familiar. Taking advantage of the original's use of the Open Game License, WB contains a lot of the S&W:WB text, though it puts it into a fresh and attractive layout. The internal art uses William McAusland's fantasy stock art, which you will find familiar, particularly from Labyrinth Lord. It's a funny feeling to see images like McAusland's mace-wielding cleric repeated, although slightly nostalgic for those of us who cut our teeth on 1990s TSR products, when pictures were in heavy reuse. Still, as a whole the look and feel of the book is a step up from S&W:WB, which felt like it was printed off of a word processor.

A Thief class sneaks into this game, with a simple "Thievery" die; this made its way from James Spahn's White Box Omnibus. It's an ultra-light solution to the thief class, fitting with the White Box approach, using a d6 roll for all thief skills. It starts off with a 2-in-6 chance, working its way up to 5-in-6 by 10th level. If this system seems simplistic, the probabilities wind up being favorable to the low-level thief. In White Box, 3rd level thieves have a 2 in 6 chance of performing a thief task, or 33%. No B/X thief at 3rd level has a skill over 30%. Likewise at 6th level, a 3 in 6 chance (50%) beats B/X's 45% chance to pick pockets or open locks. It's only at 9th level or so that thieves slip behind.

Mason expanded S&W:WB's hopelessly thin "Playing the Game" rules with a list of extra rules adapted from other sources. Overland movement from Delving Deeper makes its way in, as do the basic dungeon exploration rules (here credited to Douglas Maxwell, though I'm not sure where his rules are available). This goes a long way toward making White Box a more complete game than the Swords & Wizardry Whitebox version. Similar rules have made their way into other S&W iterations but S&W:WB has stayed in more or less the same form since 2010.

A few other rules make their way into combat, such as jousting (credited to John Stater from Bloody Basic) and a morale chart – the latter is not given specific credit but it's a fine and simple table. The rest follows, pretty straightforwardly, from S&W:WB. Curiously, the example of combat from S&W:WB has gone missing. I'm not sure how useful it was, as I wouldn't have read it if not for doing this overview. It's certainly not the densely written combat examples of Holmes D&D or the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

White Box takes the rest of the book fairly literally. The one change to spells is that an overlap in the tables for the Sleep spell is removed. There are more monsters, and a few monster entries are tweaked, but what you get is pretty much what you'd expect. Treasure follows the monster-based system in Swords & Wizardry, which is probably the only real disappointment for me; I'd have preferred if Mason could have brought over the stocking rules from Delving Deeper, but that would have been a bigger shift.

This is a complete RPG for $6 in print, and captures much of the earliest edition of D&D in 166 pages at 6"x9" size. It's a good update of Swords & Wizardry Whitebox, which has sat fallow for years, and if I may have liked a further-going revision, this one is welcome. I'd recommend it over the original, particularly in the Stefan Poag cover. The edits and updates make me feel better about it as a complete game that could be run by a referee with no experience with OSR or older D&D games.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Master Class in Refereeing

You should watch this interview with Dave Wesley, the inventor of Braunstein, the war game that led directly to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor and thence to Dungeons & Dragons.

Wesley describes how a refereed game changed his wargaming: once there was a referee, players could take ad-hoc actions. He describes how players in one wargame scenario decided to take apart a barn and use the timbers to build a bridge across a river to move their troops. And Wesley as the referee had to rule on how long it took the troops to deconstruct the barn and move the timbers. He also goes on with a few thoughts on how crossing rivers might work in a wargame, including randomly determining its depth and making rulings from there on what can go across.

This is an adaptation of the principles of free Kriegsspiel – the open war game method used in 19th century Prussia – based on Wesley's reading of Charles Totten's Strategos rules. (You can buy a facsimile of Strategos online now.) The historical progression that Wesley describes is logical and compelling; his desire for more complex refereed scenarios and his severe time constraints combined to create what would become Braunstein.

Wesley describes three basic things that make part of his rulings. First, there's the question of what he had decided secretly before the scenario; he may already know that the river is only a foot or two deep and cavalry and infantry can wade across (although artillery cannot follow). Second, there is random determination, where Wesley would throw a die to decide how deep the river is at this point. And third, his own knowledge often factors in, as he describes the results of the river's depth. There is no formal rule for this. so he comes up with appropriate descriptions.

He also describes a touch of classical irony that sometimes happens in gaming as well as war, where soldiers fought to take a bridge when they could as well have waded across. I'm sure this rings true for many referees.

Although Wesley focuses on the river scenario in this discussion, the lessons (and indeed, much of the ideas of free Kriegsspiel) are generally applicable in RPGs. One thing I think adventures benefit greatly from are details like the barn that properly motivated PCs can use to try and gain an advantage.

The other detail that Wesley gets into that applies in obvious and not-so-obvious ways to RPGs is when he talks about the persistence of details across games. While it's mostly obvious, the idea I particularly liked is using notoriety as a way of changing how a PC is perceived. Dave Arneson's bandit starts off as a no-name Mexican but once he blows up the bank there are "Wanted" posters plastered across the town. (Of course, it's also a delightful gaming story that he blew up the bank.)

The specific resolution that Wesley arrived at for a duel in the first Braunstein game (a simple roll-off where one participant had 3 dice and the other 2) is too simplistic for RPG combat, but most of the ideas can translate directly. Wesley is a brilliant referee and this is a great peek into his mind.

(The photo at the top of this article is referenced during the discussion.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Changing Face of the OSR

Yesterday the Swords & Wizardry Complete 3rd Printing Kickstarter launched. For reasons there has been talk about its cover:

The cover is a major departure from the last printing, which featured an Erol Otus original:

The Otus cover speaks strongly to me, but the change has me reflecting on the change in the OSR. We've gone from the original Labyrinth Lord:

To the art book that is Maze of the Blue Medusa:
Okay, that's enough showing pictures. I think it illustrates the basic point, which is that there is a shift afoot in the OSR away from old TSR and toward a very different and current aesthetic.

As much as I like the Otus cover for S&W Complete, it's a cover that ties the game back to TSR. As much as it's a fresh piece, it has intentional echoes of the cover for the Moldvay Basic box - and that leaves it in what is now effectively the OSR's past. Fewer and fewer OSR modules feel the need to consciously emulate TSR's look and feel, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess has been the leader here.

By severing the TSR connection, Swords & Wizardry has a chance to be its own game. I think that's particularly important for S&W to move forward, since effectively Frog God has just treated it as one of several options along with Pathfinder and 5e D&D. It doesn't have a strong identity, and if it could gain one outside of bog-standard fantasy, I think that would be a wonderful thing.

Look at the Kickstarter, by the way - the layout of the book is also getting a radical overhaul. I'm most excited for monster illustrations by Gennifer Bone, the artist who worked with Rafael Chandler on Lusus Naturae. Gennifer is one of the most exciting artists in the OSR right now, and I'd recommend you back her on Patreon.

It's kind of a funny coincidence to me that my recent game, set in the megadungeon I am slowly working on, used Swords & Wizardry Complete. More than any other OSR system, S&W really benefits from a strong vision on the referee's part, and I think giving the book a new look and adventures outside of the Gygaxo-Arnesonian tradition is a move toward that. LotFP, after all, is not far off from B/X D&D in the text of the rules but the actual play experience is far different. I'd like to see where Swords & Wizardry can go.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Open Source Roleplaying, and Success by Amazon

A recent industry report by the creators of Roll20 shows that the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game is a legitimately popular RPG, sitting between Pelgrane Press's 13th Age and Monte Cook's Cypher System in popularity. I've written in positive terms about BFRPG before, and I think it's a solid old school system. I still love its declaration of "This is OLD SCHOOL" even if I'd prefer a layout with a bit more pizazz. But BFRPG is smart in ways that other RPGs haven't thought about.

If you read the Project News page on the Basic Fantasy site, you will see that the game is constantly undergoing a process of being honed, re-proofed, corrected, and occasionally updated in very minor ways. It reads like a log of updates to a piece of software, right down to the release numbers and the idea of "release candidates" for print versions.

Basic Fantasy is, to my knowledge, the only RPG out there that is actually serious about the idea of being an open source RPG. You can literally download the Open Office document files that the rulebook PDFs (and the printed versions) are derived from, work on them, and if you want - make them your own. Swords & Wizardry has a single RTF document, but it's not the actual source of the layout for the print versions. Of course, this constrains the layout (see above), but it's a radically open concept in gaming.

The community recently leveraged this to create a Field Guide, a bestiary full of creatures both new and old. If you look at the amount of material between new classes, races, and additional/alternate rules, it's clear that there is a possibility for BFRPG to release a fairly thorough "Advanced" or "Companion" type of product with the ability to branch far beyond its four races and four classes. And since the rules are all modular, you can plug any of them into a game. And it doesn't even have to be BFRPG; it could just as well be Moldvay or Labyrinth Lord or LotFP.

But I don't think the open source approach is the only reason for Basic Fantasy's spread on Roll20, which I suspect may reflect broader support than many people realize. Because Basic Fantasy RPG is able to spread through Amazon. When I pull up FATE Accelerated, I see this on the third page of the related items scroller:

The Basic Fantasy rulebook pops up all over the RPG recommendations on the Internet's largest store, and it's a complete RPG for only five bucks. It has 83 reviews and 73 of those give it five stars. When you look at it you also see a book of monsters and four adventure books, each of them under $4. BFRPG, the Field Guide, Adventure Anthology 1, BF1 Morgansfort, BF2 Fortress Tower and Tomb, and JN1 The Chaotic Caves combined cost only $23.96, and easily provide a weekly group with a year's worth of adventure. At $5, extra copies of the rulebook for the table are not an expensive luxury; each player could have the rulebook, even though they don't really need it.

I suspect that BFRPG has been quietly spreading old school gaming ideas through its placement on Amazon. And that's all to the good. Not everything in the OSR is loud and shiny and front and center; a lot of people are just playing straighforward RPGs that make a good time for them and their friends. Which is kind of humbling from the perspective of those of us toward the center of OSR circles.

Basic Fantasy has been continuously revised and updated, even if only incrementally, for almost a decade. It's a quality open source product and its community is doing as much as any publisher out there to build old school roleplaying. It is what it says on the box: a meat and potatoes old school experience. And it deserves more acclaim than I think it gets.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Reflections from AD&D

I ran another AD&D session last Saturday and it went well. I'm not going to summarize the whole game, but I do want to share a few impressions. None of these deserve their own post but together they make some observations I feel like sharing. This is spoiler-rich so my players may want to look away.

Logistics, or Sometimes You Need a Pack Goat

The players spent a lot of time on logistics. Since the temple they were exploring was up a mountain, with steps leading up to it, they couldn't bring their mule. This caused some rumination on alternatives, and the players discovered that the AD&D Players Handbook lists goats for all of 1 GP. So of course they decide that pack goats are a wonderful idea. Sadly they didn't go through with it, but it was filed away for future reference.

Since we live in a wonderful and strange world, there is a FAQ about pack goats. By my estimate, a goat should be able to carry 20-30% of its body weight, and goats tend to weigh about 150 lbs, so that'd be 30-45 lbs. Just in case you want pack goats in your game.

Also in logistics, the PCs spent a bit of time burying their coins in large metal boxes, which was interesting. Since I've used the Keep on the Borderlands so many times, PCs usually just leave money at the Keep's bank, so this was a new twist. They are lucky I'm not using the gold-spine books, because aurumvoraxes.

The Importance of Time

Some time had passed since the last time the PCs had gone to the temple. Their initial mission involved finding the priest who had gone to re-open it and his entourage. The PCs had left without finding where they were, so I decided that an aquazombie had found them instead. This led to some wonderful aquazombie encounters.

If you don't know what an aquazombie is, find Jennell Jaquays's superlative adventure "Night of the Walking Wet" from the old Dungeoneer zine. They are 2 HD creatures that replace living flesh with slime and communicate the disease with a successful unarmed attack (a save avoids this).

But I've found as a referee that I really enjoy making time count by having weird stuff happen in the dungeon when the PCs leave. After all, as Gary said, "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT. "

Dwarves and Elves are Useful

As a referee, it's much easier to describe Dyson Logos's maps if there's a dwarf involved. Since they have a great sense of elevation inside dungeons, you can just describe things to them directly - "You had gone up a hundred feet and you've come down about sixty." Makes perfect sense of things.

Elves spot secret doors a lot.

Thematic Unity and L'esprit d'escalier

I missed a few opportunities in my take on the water temple to thematically unify several elements of corruption. I wound up leaving it a mystery for the players, The aquazombies should have been tied to the corruption in the secret area of the temple, then I could have had something really cool going on. That's l'esprit d'escalier, stairway wit, the great example being George Costanza's "jerk store" comeback in Seinfeld. Players always figure out things in a better way than the referee does.

Of course that's what publishing a module lets you do, so I guess I have to get to work.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Initial Thoughts: Barrens of Carcosa

As with Carcosa Module 5, The Yuthlugathap Swamps, Barrens of Carcosa is a 32-page saddle stitched AD&D module by Geoffrey McKinney. You can buy the module on Lulu.

Barrens has no art aside from the cover piece by Luigi Castellani. It suffers more acutely than Yuthlugathap Swamps from the print quality with the color hexmap on the back; since most of the hexes are a tan color, the numbers are almost completely illegible. You more or less need to reference nearby hexes to have any chance of figuring out what the number on a tan or yellow hex is.

The last page of each module notes that four more Carcosa modules will be forthcoming as well as sixteen "Wilderness" modules. This is a rather ambitious plan, to be certain!

In terms of its content, Barrens of Carcosa is a step above the Yuthlugathap Swamps, and I'd suggest reading it first. Not having to go through quite so many lizardman strongholds means that there is more room for the weird content that Geoffrey specializes in. There are many more villages and generally more humans in the Barrens, including a few small jungles and a modest desert.

The Cthulhu Mythos looms much more present in Barrens of Carcosa. There are several Great Race appearances, multiple cults, and the excellent City of Pillars ruled by Alhazred himself (and, of course, a copy of the Necronomicon). This last area is implied to be an area worthy of its own module detailing both the city and the dungeons of Alhazred below.

High technology themes also come back into the setting here, with a few powerful technological areas. One small village goes into orbit periodically, and there is a powerful Overmind in a corner of the map. It was a relief to see that this theme is still present, although not very thoroughly so. I found the suggestion that the orbital village's technology doesn't work outside of its hex really disappointing, the kind of "only in this area" effect that cheapens modules.

Fewer of the hexes are concerned with learning magic-user spells, although there are still a few of these. There are a decent number of Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, and many are connected in some way to an adjoining hex. One strength of these modules is that a solid minority of the entries have clear ties to another location. A couple even reference the hexmap in the original Carcosa book.

There are some deliciously double-edged encounters in this book, particularly the Logician (hex 2811) and the village of Ullcha (hex 3001). These go much beyond the simple theme of threats and have both wonderful and horrible things in them. I won't go into detail, because you should read about them yourself.

The hex description format feels more claustrophobic in Barrens than it did in the Swamps. There are more entries where a full monster write-up would be useful; for instance, the giant scorpions in hex 3209 would have been welcome as a Monster Manual type of entry. And there just isn't enough given in the write-ups for either the Orbital Unit or the City of Pillars; either would require a great deal of prep by the referee before players stumbled into them.

It becomes increasingly clear that Geoffrey's art-free interiors are a weakness of the offering. One of the main reasons is that a good idea is hard to find again when flipping through the module. Illustrations, even fairly crude ones, provide solid mental references to remember where a stand-out piece of content was. The organization, which relies solely on hex number (there are no page numbers), tends to compound this in the modules. It also would help in the case of Geoffrey's unique creatures, which are always freakish and benefit from the pen of an illustrator, as seen in Isle of the Unknown.

Not having any art or any text outside of the hex descriptions (plus the brief overview of Carcosa at the start) also severely limits the modules' ability to offer unique details. There are almost no unique "magical" items, although there is an Elder Sign or two. No spells are present except ones already found in the AD&D Players Handbook, which is deeply disappointing for a setting that had previously taken a totally iconoclastic approach to magic. This makes them really difficult to slot into an existing Carcosa campaign with sorcerers instead of magic-users.

(I do know from the original Carcosa and the Psychedelic Fantasies modules that Geoffrey tends to put things out in this format; but information design has come a long way in the OSR and it is a step backward to have a plain layout with no art. And it's particularly painful after the LotFP releases.)

I also have a small quibble about the treasure present. Despite the general lack of hard currency or sources thereof in Carcosa, treasure listings tend to feature standard AD&D coinage (copper, silver, electrum, gold, platinum), and sometimes uses four or five coin types. This is a minor annoyance but it does not feel right for a weird setting. Defining one coin type and sticking to it would have been more in keeping with the tone of Carcosa.

I also find the division of the books into four modules distracting. Each covers a hexmap in some detail, but it doesn't feel appropriate to have them broken down in the way they are. There is no progression through the four modules, and vanishingly few references to other modules in the text. A unified index for the four books would really have helped. One has the sense that the division is to follow a pattern rather than out of necessity.

To be clear, these are my reservations with a book whose content I find very strong. I offer them primarily because I think it could have been really an incredible product if Geoffrey had chosen to do these as a follow-up to the LotFP Carcosa tome, using the same system, with a crowdfunding campaign allowing lavish illustration throughout a single hardcover book. There are some great ideas in these modules and they are worth picking up, but they're a step backward in a lot of ways from the releases that have been done through LotFP.

If you like Carcosa-style hexcrawls, this is definitely worth the $12.99. There are a lot of encounters in this book that are worth the cost of admission, and as with many products like it this can be mined for details in a campaign that doesn't strictly follow Carcosa.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Initial Thoughts: The Yuthlugathap Swamps (Carcosa)

While I don't really do a lot of reviews, particularly because for RPGs I think playtest reviews are more useful than "I read this" reviews (excluding Bryce Lynch at, who has objective criteria and does a heroic number of reviews). But I think Initial Thoughts are a good way to put forward my first impressions of a product, and it's a good way to indicate that my thoughts might change over time.

The Yuthlugathap Swamps is one of four first edition AD&D modules released by Geoffrey McKinney (all four are on Lulu here) for his Carcosa setting. Originally released as a very controversial OD&D supplement in 2008, Carcosa got an extremely deluxe release from Lamentations of the Flame Princess in 2011. These don't require either.

It's rather confusing that Geoffrey called this "Carcosa Module 5." He's said that his goal is to re-release the hex map for Carcosa in four more modules following the same format. Eventually modules 1-4 will detail the original map, and 5-8 detail the four map quadrants due south of it.

The new modules are first edition AD&D modules and assume that you have the first four AD&D books. It works better if your copy of Deities & Demigods has the Cthulhu mythos; if it doesn't, you might want to look here. If you are used to Carcosa following an OD&D or LotFP type of system, this will require a bit of adjustment. The adventures repeatedly reference AD&D monsters (in Yuthlugathap, primarily Lizardmen and various slimes and oozes) and spells in a way that previous Carcosa material did not.

In terms of presentation, it is bare bones. Each module has a color cover image in a style generally reminiscent of old TSR modules. There is a hexmap on the back, printed in color. Unfortunately the map is not reproduced in black & white on the interior; this would have made the numbers easier to read. As it stands, some of them are almost totally illegible. The interior is two-column text laid out pretty much like Geoffrey's line of Psychedelic Fantasies modules. There are no interior illustrations, and there is a lack of page numbers.

After a brief overview, the module consists of a series of hex descriptions. A lot of the entries for the Yuthlugathap Swamps are descriptions of Lizardman strongholds. There is a clear rivalry between the various tribes that is set up in a huge, deadly web of conflict. Characters can get involved in this, and the module could probably be used as the basis for a Diplomacy-like scenario with players taking the parts of various lizardman tribe leaders.

Human tribes are scattered mostly to the east, some pretty good and one quite horrible. There are a number of dinosaurs and Spawn of Shub-Niggurath scattered around the swamps as well. The Spawn are always given some kind of unique twist. A few aren't at all malevolent or even very harmful to human life.

Then there are the really weird areas, which are solid gold. These are the kind of things Geoffrey excels at, and they're evocative and flavorful. Some give wondrous boons, including a number that teach magic-user spells. Others give horrible banes. My favorite reference is that there is a Pillar of Tsathoggua that involves the geas spell (a nod to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Seven Geases"). The Ghost-Lights are a great twist on the traditional Will o' the Wisp, with various odd effects from contact such as having to eat more or becoming amphibious and needing to be submerged in water daily.

All of the entries are solid. There's not much here by way of space aliens and technology, which I think is a function of most of this module being swamps; peeking ahead, Barrens of Carcosa seems to have more technological wonders. Sorcery seems to have been either left in the northern part of Carcosa or simply not mentioned in favor of AD&D magic use. This is jarring for those who are accustomed to either OD&D or LotFP Carcosa.

At the going rate, there are definitely $12.99 worth of ideas in this module. A bunch are really wonderful. You could do an interesting hexcrawl in the godforsaken swamps of Carcosa or adapt a number of the locations to a different setting. I'll be doing a similar Initial Thoughts entry at least on Barrens of Carcosa.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Megadungeons and Artifacts

I've started working on a megadungeon again, and as such I've been thinking about them lately. (It was initially called the Red Keep dungeon, but since I realized I'd cribbed that unintentionally from A Song of Ice and Fire, I'm just going to call it the Castellan Keep dungeon. Yes, it's set beneath a ruined version of the Keep on the Borderlands.)

This thread on the OD&D forums had me look back through Monsters & Treasure. Toward the end of that booklet is a short list of artifacts: a Teleportation Machine, separate Crown, Orb & Scepter for each class, and the Stone Crystallization Projector. The latter is obviously the fun one, although whether it's a crystallization projector that turns things to stone, or a projector that crystallizes stone, is up to an individual referee's imagination. Eldritch Wizardry, of course, added the whole array of now-familiar artifacts to the game. They are the best treasures that D&D has ever come up with, but are rarely presented in games because they're so powerful.

It strikes me that the deep levels of a megadungeon are possibly the most natural resting spots for artifacts. After all, if the Invulnerable Coat of Arn or the Sword of Kas is just sitting within 600' of the entrance point of a dungeon, why hasn't someone already come along and taken it? If there are a dozen layers of dungeon and monsters between it and the surface, well, that makes a bit more sense. Especially if the artifact is Lawful and the monsters are Chaotic and can't use it. Or the artifact is Chaotic and the monsters do use it.

Deciding that an artifact is in a megadungeon adds a powerful thematic element, and a fascinating high-level motive for characters to keep questing. When you get to the level full of wild boars, the idea that there are secrets beyond simply lots and lots of monetary treasure in the dungeon becomes a relevant question. "We have to keep pressing on or we won't find the Spear of Longinus!" Well, it's worth a thought, anyway.

The PC party doesn't need to be the only group trying to get to the artifact, either. If there's a rival party trying to make their way toward a given artifact, it can create a time tension that can otherwise be missing in the megadungeon environment. One of the truths of D&D is that it's a more challenging game when there are time constraints and a PC group can't simply go rest after every major fight. Another way to bring time-pressure is to tie an artifact's effect to a particular temporal or astrological event. Perhaps the door to the room containing it only opens on a certain day, or when the stars are right, etc. There are a lot of options here.

A megadungeon environent also adds a potential solution to the power dilemma. For one reason or another, the artifact may not be removable from its present location. One very good reason for this is to simply make it too large to physically move, or tied into the physical environment. If the artifact is a statue that grants Wishes or a Fountain of Life, but you can no more take it out of its current room than you can remove the room from the dungeon. That is to say, sufficiently clever players will find a way.

Magical limitations can also stop the artifact from being removed. There are parts of the Holy Grail myth, my favorite being the climax to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, that make it so the Grail simply cannot be taken out of the cave where Jones finds it. That's a shame, too - imagine the good it could do to the medical community. But such are magical artifacts, at least until you find that Wish granting statue and use it to change the rule about no removing the Grail.

Artifacts being part of the megadungeon are a strong support of the theme of the dungeon as a mythic underworld. By their nature, artifacts shape and change the setting around them in ways that are not entirely logical. Following this logic, the referee might even think of the artifacts as part of what "powers" the megadungeon and keeps it weird. Of course, this requires the kind of artifacts that you can't remove, or otherwise the dungeon would go away, or change fundamentally.

Once PCs reach the artifacts in a dungeon, in some sense they should be changed forever. Galahad ascends to Heaven once he finds the Grail. It's not entirely out of the question for PCs who've found a dungeon's deepest and greatest secrets to go to another plane (or another planet). Even the chute on level 13 of Castle Greyhawk, tongue in cheek as it may be, takes the character who's traversed its depths to a new world. Other changes might include some innate ability or physical sign of change.

As a general rule, it's worth taking a lesson from Dungeon Crawl Classics and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, both of which have lots of effects that permanently alter characters, and building such changes into a megadungeon's "big" features. It fits within the mythic underworld theme as well.

The choice of artifacts might seem like an odd place to start fresh musings about megadungeons, but it's not. I think that, to the contrary, deciding what lies deep beneath is a great way to build the dungeon in ways that lead organically to it. If you know that level 12 is going to have the Holy Grail, you can begin to put allusions to Arthurian myth in your dungeon, and so on with other themed artifacts. Players will get more out of the dungeon if it seems to be leading somewhere rather than just being a massive underground zoo. That's not to say that the megadungeon is plotted entirely in advance - it shouldn't be - but its big ideas should be informing it from the word "go."

Photograph by Locutus Borg (José-Manuel Benito Álvarez). CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Actual Play: "Leave No Stone Door Unturned"

Yesterday, I began what I'm hoping will be a long-term monthly first edition AD&D campaign set in the borders of a medieval-ish kingdom on the edge of a set of weird mountains, with a few twists and very little of your classic AD&D monsters or treasure. It went reasonably well, though I'll have to get used to navigating the AD&D books.

As a note on system choice, it comes from a feeling that the long-term campaign interests are best served by AD&D, but letting a lot of the cruft associated with that system fall off. It can be useful but a lot of it can be simplified, particularly things like training or initiative. Developing good DMing reflexes and then letting players follow through, in my opinion, is a bigger deal than the specific system that is up front.

One rule twist that I thought was fun is that I've adapted the general sensibility of Dungeon Crawl Classics's "Mighty Deed of Arms" to a natural 20 in combat. It just gives things a bit more of an edge, having that possibility of imposing a disadvantage on your foe, either giving a penalty or costing them an action - that sort of thing. It also gets the player into the description of the event. I also think it's a great way to respond when players want to do something cool but very difficult, they can just roll for it and at least have a shot.

The party started off with two clerics, and considering the adventure seed was to investigate a formerly-abandoned temple that a cleric had gone to re-found, the PCs wound up well motivated. I asked the players to explain how the PCs know each other, which I like as a setup for a campaign a lot better than "hey, you meet in a tavern."

The adventurers were quite cautious approaching the temple, which was on the side of a mountain, and getting up and into it with care. They followed a path that took them to a set of stairs that actually went back into the open mountain air (this was riffing on a very interesting Dyson Logos map that I'll share at some point when it wouldn't be a spoiler) and back in.

A side chamber on the way, though, provided a diversion that changed the venture completely. The dwarven fighter who was taking point had the bad taste to look at a water nymph bathing in a pool - and proceeded to fail his saving throw, rendering him instantly blind. I had been curious how the encounter would turn out, and it turned out to be very interesting indeed. Since he'd had to go up stairs to see the nymph, the positioning stopped anyone else from having to look, and they got him back down the stairs and figured out about the whole blindness.

The dwarf's player was quite game about this and remarked a few times that he should be playing with his eyes shut. It was an interesting experience DMing for a character with blindness, because of course as a referee you are primarily describing the visuals of the world, what the characters see – and suddenly you're having to think of the imagined world in a different way. The dwarf took up torchbearing duties in place of the ill-fated hired torchbearer, and the party soldiered on.

Up in a room at the top of the stairs they found a pool with some very large lobsters in it. I based the stats on a monster I've always meant to use, Matt Finch's tunnel prawns, and that AC 4 proved a really tough thing for the PCs. After a couple of successes, the party began to lose the fight. Out of an initial party of five (two clerics, a halfling thief, a dwarf fighter, and an elven magic-user) plus the torchbearer, they lost the halfling, a cleric, and the torchbearer. The elf, the blind dwarf, and a cleric who had been on death's door managed to retreat. The others died in the lobster room and became lobster chow.

The PCs decided to go a long venture back to a larger city where they found a temple of Dagda, the god of both clerics. The cleric in service at the temple had a 9 on his reaction roll and decided to help the PCs out, and got the high priest, who heard their story and I rolled a 12 on the reaction roll. This was too good to pass up - I decided he was the uncle of the cleric who'd been lost, he was deeply grieved, and so moved that he wanted to help the PCs. He cast Cure Blindness on the dwarf and proceeded to give the PCs healing potions and get replacement characters for the other players, who returned to the temple.

With the new group the party moved back to the temple, only to find that the initial doors had been shut - which had been wide open when they came there before. They found their way up via a Spider Climb spell and some rope, and got their revenge on the lobsters. The last two of the initial six broke morale and went into another room. Soon after they heard a commotion.

The new room led to men with scimitars hacking at lobsters, who the PCs helped by killing the lobsters. Their boss claimed to be a merchant, but was haughty and ill-treated the surviving cleric; when the dwarf wanted to get them out he used Magic Missile and the fight was on, but the PCs won this one readily.

That was about wrap-up time for the night; the PCs made off with some treasure that the lobsters were guarding, and the merchant/wizard's money. There were two fatalities but a good share of money went to the newly composed party (adding a half-elf cleric/ranger and an elven magic-user/thief). There's still exploration to be done but the PCs got a chunk of the way through first level, the hard way.

AD&D worked well for the game, and it ran mostly like I expect things to run, except that a few things were percentile where I'd typically call for a d6 roll. There's nothing wrong with that, and the feel and flow are not hard to fix to what D&D has taught me. The lobsters were tougher than I expected, and the combat with them had a lot of swings and misses on both sides. But it was a fun, interesting game and I like the transition over to AD&D. I'll try to do a few posts on specific differences that I find interesting between the systems.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ready Reference: Curiosities in a Bandit Lair

Curiosities Found in a Bandit Lair (1d20)

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An OSR Heresy: On Healing Potions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snake oil image by Wesley Fryer, CC-BY

Sunday, April 24, 2016

On the Character Sheet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 29, 2016

Actual Play: ReQuasqueton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

And Greyhawk Complicates Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

OD&D: There Is No Substitute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Learning from Nature: the Mechanics of Traps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Tao of the Empty Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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