Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Little Black Book: White Wolf Trinity

Some have leveled criticism at the OSR as being nothing but nostalgia. Many of them were 3E/Pathfinder fans. But well, what do you know, it's been so long that 3E is finally a source of nostalgia.

Over the weekend, my second boy (just shy of his second birthday) was opening the bedroom closets and various random drawers and pulling things out. These consisted of stored clothes, spare electronics cables and accessories, and some gaming stuff. I keep my board games, HeroClix, Magic: The Gathering cards, etc. in those closets. And among the various "finds" was this little black pocket notebook from my time in Japan, the years 2005-2007 to be exact:
 The notebook contained, among other mundane things such as notes on sister-city activities and planning things to do with my wife-to-be, lots of gaming notes. In fact, the first three pages are notes I took playing a game of Trinity (White Wolf's weird mutant street-level supers versus Lovecraftian freaks sci-fi game) with the Yamanashi Gamers.

I know that the notebook dates to 2005 because I joined this game the day after watching the movie Sin City in the theater. And my PC was heavily influenced by the film. Harlan was a big, tough, not necessarily so smart but clever private eye with extra-sensory perception (meaning he could project all five of his senses to distant locations - and yes, he spent time tasting many things he probably shouldn't have this way...).

There are three pages of notes from the sessions, and reading these does take me back!

The game was one of suspense, mystery and shifting alliances. Very noir. My PC fit right in. If I remember right, the final big battle against the abomination that was sucking psions' minds dry was pretty hectic but Harlan survived it, thanks to a rail gun and just being tough as nails.

Anyway, there are more notes, plans, and characters in this notebook, most from d20 system games with the Yamanashi and Ebisu gaming groups. I'll be sharing more over the next few weeks just to fuel that gaming nostalgia for the mid-oughts!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Quick Capsule Movie Reviews

I'm way behind on my movie reviews, and some of these movies are fairly old now, but oh well. Time is limited and my focus is on academics and family more than gaming or movies. I'm still watching movies, just not always blogging about them. So, here goes:

Ant-Man -- We were back in the States when we saw this one, so I got to take my son to see it along with my brother and his two kids. And we all loved it! It's a less serious MCU movie, but full of heart and it does fit in well with the other MCU films. And it really shows that Marvel is good at giving each major character their own style while still retaining a constant feel to their movies overall. I'd rate this as my #2 MCU film, personally, right behind Guardians of the Galaxy and before Captain America: Winter Soldier.

Cursing?: a little, IIRC but not much

The Martian --  I read the book early last year, and really really enjoyed it. And I think they managed to hit all the important plot points in the movie, and really got the feel of the situation and the characters. But it just wasn't quite as funny as the book was. Worth watching, but I'd recommend the book over the film. It's not a long read.

Cursing?: you bet your sweet patoot there's cursing

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Holy crap, they did a Star Wars movie right! It's not perfect. Some of the intentional call-backs to the original trilogy were sorta annoying and didn't seem to be there for any other reason than to make middle-aged geeks geekgasm. But the film was solid, the acting was decent, the sets and CGI were stunning, and the action was all I could have asked for! And Han's death (come on, surely that's not a spoiler any more) was really fitting, even if it did surprise me. I was going "Oh, no! They're not. Ah, they're not! Oh, wait, are they? Oh crap, they did!" in my head the first time I watched it (luckily the first time seeing it without my son, who asks about 100 questions per scene). I'm looking forward to the Disney handling of the series.

Cursing?: not that I remember

Fantastic Four --  Looked like crap, so I still haven't seen it. Maybe I'll torrent it some day. Maybe not. Fox, you're doing great with X-Men, but please, please please give F4 back to Marvel!

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice -- Man of Steel bored me, so I still haven't seen this one. Unlike F4, though, I do intend to watch it when I've got some free time.

The Hateful Eight -- Completely missed this when it came through Korean theaters. Something also to be watched when I've got some free time (probably before BvS, too).

Captain America: Civil War -- Finally, a movie I got to see! And it was good! I liked it better than Age of Ultron, and maybe, pending a repeat viewing, it might even bump off Winter Soldier from my MCU Top 3. Maybe. The ensemble cast didn't distract from the fact that this was a Cap film from beginning to end. And the cameos by Spider-Man and Ant-Man as the respective sides' "ringers" really worked well for me. And it's tangential, but it looks like the new Spider-Man series won't start with the origin story, thankfully! It was a fun popcorn movie that explored some deep issues at the same time. And I'm actually happy that it was quite different from the comics Civil War storyline.

Cursing?: yeah, some

X-Men: Apocalypse -- I just saw this one the other day, and I liked it a lot. There were a few problems with the film (poor pyramid design, Apocalypse disarming the nations of the world -- sorry, that's a bit spoilery, but it's not plot essential), but for the most part it really worked for me. I like how they introduced most of the new characters, and how everything looked mostly (the "desert outside Cairo" looked like a 1960's movie set). And the after credits teaser has me excited for the next installment (I assume that's for a new X-Men film not the next Wolverine film, as the villain they tease isn't really a Wolverine baddie). Fox and Bryan Singer, keep up the good work!

Cursing?: Magneto drops an F-bomb when he first meets Apocalypse, other than that I don't remember any.

Up next? Probably the new TMNT film since my son wants to see it (I'd skip it otherwise).

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Procedures and Rules 3

This post is the third of four covering the alphabetical rules reference section of the Frank Mentzer edited "red box" Basic D&D Dungeon Masters Rulebook. This post covers Hit Points to Morale.

Hit Points
What do you, as a novice DM with, it is assumed, novice players do when one of them roles low for hit points? Frank gives us three options to consider: keep the number rolled, reroll if the result was a 1 or 2 (although consider carefully allowing this for the MU and Thief), or don't roll and just take maximum HP at level 1 and start rolling from level 2.

Well, I always preferred #3, and so did my friends. It was our standard practice long before it became the default rule with the advent of 3E. I've played in games with option 1, and it was satisfying, too. Of course, one game I had a cleric with only 1 hit point, but never got into combat before the campaign quickly fell apart. So it didn't matter. But we've had plenty of casualties at low level even with automatic maximum hit points that it never seemed to be an issue in my games.

Being proficient in one second language (Japanese, although it's getting a bit rusty) and working on a third (Korean, slowly), but retaining a passing familiarity with some basic Spanish and French from my early years, and being a language teacher, this section plays right into my expertise. Yet, like many of you (and many SF/F books, TV and movies), this is an area that doesn't actually get used much in play.

Anyway, Frank's advice is to make a list of languages in the campaign (a list of 20 is given, convenient for random rolling) and let any human characters with high intelligence to select languages from that list, or else as the DM assign them languages. It's interesting that he only notes this is for human characters. Demi-humans of course have their lists of extra languages in their class description. Was the intention that they only get those languages, and don't get extra due to high intelligence? Do demi-humans get them all automatically, or are these just short-lists for them to choose from? And do halflings not get bonus languages at all? That would be odd, since Halfling is one of the 20 languages listed.

We always gave Dwarves and Elves the bonus languages listed automatically, and extra if they had high Int. Yet, as I mentioned above, we rarely had linguistic barriers in our early games. Sure, every now and then someone would remind me that they spoke such and such, but if they didn't, the monsters usually seemed to understand Common. Yes, lazy. And it's had a bad effect on my gaming to this day. It makes the parlay option harder, and Charm Person, and lots of other fun things can happen due to language barriers. Something I need to work on, anyway...

Looking at the list of languages, there are a few odd ones. Doppelganger, for instance, is a language choice. You'd think since doppelgangers mimic humans and demi-humans that they'd just speak Common (and maybe a demi-human language or two). Gargoyles also have their own language, which implies they're less magical constructs like in later editions (and maybe in AD&D?) and a living, if magical, being, like in that 90's Gargoyles cartoon show. Medusa is also a choice, and an interesting one. I have only rarely seen anyone talk to a medusa, unless the medusa was in disguise in order to surprise the party. And of course, the medusa then spoke Common. Number 20 on the list is "other human tongue" which of course there should be a multitude of, not to mention a multitude of dialects and branch languages. But then the rest of the list, aside from Minotaur and Dragon, are humanoid types, so you do get a bit of that. Are Orc, Gnoll, Kobold, Goblin, Hobgoblin, and Bugbear all related, like the Romance languages, coming from a common root language? Is Ogre or Giant that root language? Or is Goblin the root? Is Pixie related to Elf, Dwarf and Halfling? If you're a language nerd like Professor Tolkien or (to a lesser extent) myself, you could have all kinds of fun with this, and there are interesting implications for the implied setting of the "Known World" (although we won't get the "Known World" until the Expert Set and Isle of Dread).

The DM is encouraged to customize the list, and make up more languages that will fit the world (even suggesting that "Rock Baboon" language of hoots and growls might be learnable by a PC if they chose) the DM wants to run, and thinks will be useful in the campaign. And for the newbies, there's the "thank you Dr. Obvious" note that you don't actually need to create artificial languages for the game. Even as an 11 year old first reading the rules, I never thought I'd need to do that. So, a bit too much hand-holding in this section, but otherwise a lot of good stuff to think about a half column segment of the text.

The very first sentence of this section is explicit - ANY character can try to listen for noises. It's not a skill limited only to thieves and demi-humans (although they're better at it). There's an idea that common sense should trump game mechanics. I know, how could anyone think otherwise? Well, it happens. I may have mentioned this before, but once in a Pathfinder game, I told the DM I wanted to search the bed. DM asked me to roll. I rolled a 1 (and didn't have skill ranks, just a small Wis bonus to the roll). Even though the module states there was a bag of treasure hidden under the bed, the fact that I rolled poorly meant the DM decided my character failed to look under the bed while searching it. In that instance, common sense failed to trump game mechanics.

Unless a character is deaf, there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to listen for noises. Now, there's only a 1 in 6 chance to hear anything that would give a clue about what's beyond the door or down the corridor for Clerics, Fighters and Magic-Users. 2 in 6 for demi-humans and low level Thieves, better chances for higher level Thieves. But that's to detect a subtle clue or hint. If there's something loud going on behind the door (an orc thrash-party or lizardman orgy or whatever), you probably don't need to roll at all (although the rules don't say that...).

Getting back to what the rules do say, everyone needs to be as quiet as possible while doing it. No moving around. So if you want to listen, you can't be doing it while someone's casting a spell, or someone's searching for traps or secret doors or something like that. It doesn't give a time listed for the listening attempt, but since it's similar to the mechanic for searching for stuff (x in 6 chance), and it's for listening for subtle clues, I think a DM is within his or her rights to say it takes a Turn. In the "action economy" of classic D&D (to borrow the term from newer editions), that's a significant choice. Yes, listening may allow you to get the drop on what's ahead, but you run the risk of wandering monsters and use up resources like spell durations and torches/lanterns when doing it. For the game aspect of the game, it's really important. As Gary told us in the AD&D DMG, YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF ACCURATE TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT. More free-form play between monster encounters does make the game go faster, but there's something to playing it by the book, too. Not every important decision needs to be about how to kill the monsters. Making getting there and back again full of interesting choices also makes the game fun.

Giving Magic-Users Spells
This section is obviously out of alphabetical order, and it's also using a subheading (bold typeface the same size as the text). The Table of Contents (I checked) lists this section as "Magic-User Spells" and deals with giving initial spells and the other subheading, "lost spell books" is below. Looks like either an editorial mistake or someone intentionally removed the main heading for layout reasons.
The only illustration in this section
This section gives us advice on dishing out spells to starting players of Magic-Users or Elves. It's assumed they have an NPC teacher, who gives them spells, although it's stated as up to the DM whether or not to play out this master as a character or not. We didn't bother early on to do so, but these days I like the ability to have an older, more experienced NPC for low level characters to get advice, spell casting, or quests from. Anyway, more implied setting. You don't just know magic, you're a student of magic learning from a master.

We're given some sound advice here. By giving starting spells out this way, the DM can control what magic is allowed in the game. It gives the example of Charm Person. If you don't want to deal with this spell, don't give it out to the players as a starting spell (and by implication to NPC spell casters or on scrolls). That flies in the face of modern gaming sensibilities, where players expect carte blanche access to anything and everything in the rules at all times. But it's an important tool for a DM to build their campaign their way.

All beginning MU/Elf characters get Read Magic as their first spell. It's important, as it is the key to getting more spells (by finding scrolls or other spell books). In recent years - since I began my megadungeon project -  I've started adding spells hidden here and there throughout dungeons. They may be carved into walls, in arcane patterns in a tapestry, etc. Trying to reward the players who bother to memorize Read Magic. The search for more spells can be a great incentive to adventure!

For magic-users, the second spell (and you start with two) should be one of the powerful ones: Charm Person, Magic Missile, Shield, or Sleep. This way, the player will feel they have something to contribute. Elves, on the other hand, can get any old spell, since they can also function as Fighters, and have their special abilities. Makes sense, but it seems like most players of Elves also want Sleep or Magic Missile as their first spell. Most players seem to be given their choice of spells these days. One of these days I'd like to run the game by the rules, with me as DM deciding what spells they get to start.

The next paragraph tells us that utility spells (Frank calls them miscellaneous spells) like Floating Disc and Hold Portal make good "third spells" for when the MU reaches 2nd level.

Finally, it's mentioned that if there are more than one MU in the group, they should have different starting spells. They're both going to want Sleep, I'm sure, if they're experienced players. Newbies given a choice often go for Magic Missile, in my experience. Good advice, of course, as it adds variety and gives the group more options.

Lost Spell Books
I was just going on about this the other day. Anyway, we have a brief section saying that basically, if this happens (and it might, nothing implying it should, in reference to my previous post) the player is severely penalized and likely won't be having fun until they get a new book. But if it happens, make it a reason to get out there and adventure! The master (or whoever is replacing it) will require a quest or service! Or it will cost money (that you maybe don't have) so go adventure and get some! Or you can borrow the money, but will have to adventure to pay it back!

More implied setting - no one will lend you a spell book if you don't have your own.
The message to the inexperienced DM, while subtle, is strongly there. This setback for the player is an opportunity for you, the DM, to make the game more fun for everyone. Yes, it's a challenge for the player to not have their book, or to have only the beginnings of a new book with limited (or different from their normal) spells. But it's a chance to make things interesting. Just don't drag it out too long or it will lose its fun.

This section gives some general advice on mapping, as it's hard for players, especially new players. Frank gives us four pieces of advice:
1. Describe things as accurately as you can, and let the players know if you've made a mistake.
2. Be consistent in the order of your descriptions, and be sure to hit the major points (room dimensions, exits, creatures, other contents). He gives a few terms useful for mapping corridors.
3. Have a "standard description" of hallways and typical features. It saves time, and when something isn't "standard" it alerts the party that things are different.
4. At first, keep the dungeon layouts simple. Even for experienced gamers, twisty passages and unusual shapes slow down the game.

Pretty solid advice, really. These days, since I mostly play online via Google+ Hangouts, we use the online white board Twiddla for maps and images, and as DM I usually just draw the map to speed up play. And of course, for small encounter dungeons or quest dungeons, a map may not be so necessary. Mapping is most useful for megadungeon style play, when you may be returning over and over again to the same location. But that was the expected norm in the early days, rather than what's come to be the norm today.

Morale (optional)
The classic D&D morale rules are simpler than those found in AD&D, and a bit more elegant IMO. Of course, here they're listed as optional for the beginning DM. Personally, I think that may be a mistake making them optional. It's a bit complicated seeming at first, but it's not really so bad. And because we didn't use it in our earliest games, and we had bad influences from video games (where the bad guys never run away), every monster encounter that turned into a fight became a fight to the death. And that's not the best way to play the game.

Morale is easy in this game. Every monster has a morale score between 2 and 12 (while there are a few 12s, I don't remember any monsters with morale below maybe 5 or 6). Roll 2d6. If the score is equal to or lower than the morale score, the monster continues to fight. If over, it breaks and runs or tries to surrender. Monsters with a morale of 2 never fight, those with a morale of 12 always fight to the death once combat starts.

For single monsters, check morale twice. When it first takes a hit, and when it's down to only 1/4 hit points remaining. It's usually the first one where I forget to check morale, to be honest. Especially for big monsters like dragons or giants.

For groups of monsters, check twice as well. Check when the first death happens on either side (emphasis in original), and when half of the monster group has been killed or incapacitated.

These rules are pretty awesome, actually. Many animals may flee when they get damaged, and even intelligent creatures are likely to rethink combat if they get hurt. And in a group, the first death on either side can be a reason to rethink what's happening. If it's on the monster side, they may want to cut their losses after that first one goes down. If it's on the PCs' side, they may be thinking, "oh shit, they're gonna be pissed now!" or else be thinking, "We got one, time to fall back and regroup while they deal with their downed comrade."

I read a great interview with a former Viet Cong soldier. He said their main tactic was usually just kill or wound one U.S. soldier, then get out of there before any of them got killed. Because they knew the U.S. troops would stop to deal with that casualty, and wounding was actually better than killing because it slowed down the whole group. From that perspective, this makes sense. Monsters may try to whittle down a party through attrition, while preserving as many of their numbers as they can.

The next subsection is about Retainer Morale. This is determined by your Charisma score (and you thought it was a dump stat!) and checked whenever one of these two conditions applies: 1. the retainer is ordered to do something dangerous while the party is in less danger (no, that never happens...) or 2. the retainer is reduced to 1/4 hit points remaining. That's fairly badass, when you think about it. I mean, unless you're telling your retainers to open every door, stick their hands in green devil faces or sample your potions for you, they're not gonna run from combat unless they're in danger of immediate death (although since most have only 1 hit die, if they survive a single hit they're likely going to be checking morale right away, or dying in combat).

Adjustments to Morale Checks is the next subsection. It gives a guideline of adjusting the morale check from -2 to +2 depending on situational factors, like a death on the PC side may boost monster morale, but flashy magic may lower it. Up to the DM to decide.

Results of the Morale Check tells us what happens when monsters break morale. Usually, when DMs actually use morale, they tend to treat it as a route, with the monsters just running away. However, Frank mentions that the monsters may use a retreat or a fighting withdrawal, and if that's not possible, surrender. I've never seen a DM play a loss of morale treated as a fighting withdrawal, where the monster party just tries to disengage but stays wary of the party. And that's including myself, of course. Something to think about, especially in cases where the morale check was caused by the party suffering a casualty, or for more organized, militant, or tough monsters.

Intelligent monsters that surrender, the book mentions, usually offer to provide treasure, either their own or as ransom. I know B2 Keep on the Borderlands has notes on what happens if the PCs get captured by some of the humanoid tribes, but I don't remember any notes in any modules about what sort of treasures monsters might offer if they surrender. And of course, being of Irish descent, I'm reminded of tales of the leprechaun, who will offer you their treasure if you promise to let them go, but use any and all means to not actually deliver on the promise. Again, monsters surrendering sounds like an opportunity to make the game more fun, rather than simply having every fight be a battle to the death like we're playing some computer RPG. However...

Surrender: despite having just given us some interesting tidbits about monster surrender, we have a subsection of the morale rules saying that of course, neither side needs to accept a surrender, or even "stop fighting long enough to listen" (p. 20). However, the paragraph then goes on to remind the DM to use common sense, and play the monsters as they should be played, having them flee from hopeless battles.

And that brings us to the end of this post. I'll try to get the fourth post about this section of the rules up sometime next week, covering topics from Multiple Characters through Turning Undead.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Price reduction?

Sales have been sluggish for my printable paper minis available on DrivethruRPG.

I know part of it is that I just haven't had time to promote them. Part is that I haven't had time to make more sets. But could part of it also be the price is just a little too high? I mean, I'd think $5 for nearly 40 monsters wouldn't be a big deal. But maybe it is.

So, I'm reducing the price on the monster books to $3 each.

I mean, really, since these are ebooks, there's no stock to keep, no printing costs (other than the consumer's), and no labor involved other than my own. So I think I'll try a price reduction and see if I can sell a few more sets that way.

Thanks, by the way, to all the people who did decide they were worth spending $5 each. I appreciate your business. And once I get my dissertation out of the way, I plan to get more sets covering AD&D classes not in Basic D&D, as well as monsters from the Expert Set.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Taking of the Bridge of Bones

The Taking of the Bridge of Bones

Being a continuation of the journal of the stout-hearted Green Knight Jack Summerisle and companions various and sundry in the subterranean realms of Eberron known as the Kyber.

As luck would have it, we had survived an encounter with a foul, undead-summoning witch that seemed to have been locked in time, and had, to the best of our abilities, disrupted the eternal ritual that eldritch fiend was engaged in. Calling upon the power of the Greensong, I was able to detect the direction of a strange contraption known as a "cat bus" belonging to an erstwhile ally, and our party set off in caverns in that general direction.

A great shaking of the eberron left us trapped past a wall of stone, with no way to return the way we had come, and in pressing on, we [my companions being the resourceful Jade the Half-Elf Ranger, Rhea the Human Witch (who, while useful, I find distasteful for her ties to the Far Realms and her vulgar behavior), Mahlgoth the Orc Barbarian (a stout lad in a fight, if also uncouth), and the serious and taciturn Thia the Elf Storm Cleric (a more lovely companion than the previous two)] encountered a deep chasm, with a bridge of some monster's bones being constructed by ghouls.

A duergar covered in strange devices was the foreman of the expedition, and a strange human covered in dragonmarks (I've never seen anyone with more than one before, yet he seemed to have all the ones I had encountered in my travels and then some!), and an undead orc as a bodyguard. After a brief discussion, the bulk of our party remained out of sight while Rhea went to parlay. They rebuffed her attempts at a bargain, and so we engaged in combat to slay the foul enemies and cross in safety.

Cassius, my giant cave weta steed, delivered me into the fray, where I smote the undead orc, yet still it stood. Such unholy power as it possessed delivered unto me knowledge that this beast must fall lest it plague the lands of men, dwarves, elves, and all good creatures above, not to mention our gnome, rock man, and sundry other allies we had made below. Not only that, but the dastardly creature retreated from me, and shot me with a poisoned arrow, weakening me. Luckily, while I struggled with poison and an entangling weapon thrown by the duergar tastmaster, my brave companions made short work of the ghouls and set in on the orc and tattooed human, who was mumbling in an eldritch and insane language the whole time.

By the time I had recovered from being poisoned not once but twice, the orc was near to falling from Mahlgoth's huge axe and Thia's spells. But the dragonmarked one had cast some sort of spell to make the bridge come to life! And beyond that, Rhea had summoned a demon! While the demon was a distraction to the duergar, and was damaging the bridge, I knew I could not let it go free, and would need to slay it ere the battle was won.

But first, the dragonmarked mage was between me and the demon. As weapons and spells all seemed to be of limited use against that one, I picked him up bodily and pitched him over into the chasm. The bridge began to settle back into place, yet the mage still lived! What foul enchantments allowed it to survive such a fall I know not, yet he crept away to nurse his wounds. I expect to cross paths with that one again, some day.

The duergar taskmaster, likewise, seeing all of his cronies dispatched, fled the encounter. Having to put down the demon, we were forced to allow that one to escape. I only pray that likewise we shall cross paths again and I may deliver the justice of the natural world to the artificer.

Having done what we could to destroy the bridge from the far side, and stopping a pursuit of us by ghouls on the side we had come from, we rested and then set out again, finally making it to safety after a day's march through the caverns. Our next step may be to find some way to defeat this ghoul-emperor, or perhaps seek out the prison where Jade's father lies prisoner.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Underground Railroad (rant-ish)

Several disparate influences coalesced in my head this evening, as I was on my way home from work, and I came to realize how to express verbally my distaste for "indie story games" of the Forge variety. Sure, I've talked about it before, and I always assumed it was the people I played with rather than the games. Now, I think it actually is the games. But, as Dav Pilkey says in his Captain Underpants stories, before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story...

Years ago, so long ago I can't remember if it was on an RPG forum, a blog, or where, I remember reading someone expressing the opinion that any player that wants to play a Paladin is tacitly giving permission to the DM to make them fall from grace. This esteemed sir or madam espoused this as an absolute. Any player who chooses a Paladin is asking for a fall, and any DM with a Paladin in their campaign is duty bound to make them fall at least once during their career.

Now, that's literally ridiculous. Literally, as in I shall now ridicule this idea.

Every player who plays a Magic-User (Wizard in newer editions) is asking the DM to take away their spellbook at least once during their career, and any DM worth his salt must take away the spellbook of any Magic-User that survives past the goblin warrens and giant rat tunnels of low level.

Every player who plays a Cleric is just begging the DM to take away their spellcasting ability due to an alignment issue. Often. DMs need to be on the watch for any potential slip by the Cleric's player to take away their spells and make them atone.

Every player who plays a Dwarf is fully expecting to be cast out of their clan-hold, beard shaven off, and exiled on pain of death. DMs will make sure every dwarven clan is a bunch of judgmental assholes in order to make sure that any adventurous upstart gets taken down a peg in this way.

Ridiculous, no? It shows such a lack of imagination, such a lack of narrative principle, to assume that just because some player wanted to play such a class/race wants to play out that tired, cliche story line every time they play the game. Sure, there may be rules in the books for what to do if it does happen, but that doesn't mean it's the only way a Paladin's (or MU, Cleric, Dwarf, whatever) story can play out. It's not how every character X's story should play out. To force this on the players and to assume it's with their consent just because they chose option X at character generation instead of option Y is a form of railroading.

Now, there should always be the risk of these things happening, but whether it does come to pass should depend on the player's choices in the game, rather than through a no-win situation engineered by the DM.

And that brings us back to indie story games.

You all know Ron Edwards's pet game theory, the Three-Fold Model (and his later Big Model, which was as far as I remember the same thing with more jargon to keep the newbs from acting like they understood it) of Gamist/Simulationist/Narrativist games. Said theory posited a triangle of three things that games can be, and the closer a game came to one of the vertices, the more pure it was, the better that game was. A good "gamist" game focused ONLY on gaming the system. A good "simulationist" game focused ONLY on recreating a "realistic" fantasy setting. A good "narrativist" game focused ONLY on providing a coherent story for the players. A game like D&D, despite its vast popularity, sits somewhere in the middle of the triangle of competing forces, so obviously must be a craptastically designed game, no matter how many people have years and years worth of fun playing it. If only they'd move to a game a the point of the triangle that best matches their interest, says the theory, they'll be having ever so much more fun.

Now, Edwards and the Forge heavily biased their community towards "narrativist" play. Edwards was always political about saying that gamists and simulationists could have their fun playing games their way, but in his opinion the narrativist way was the best way.

But you know what? Those story games have a BIG problem. The "best" of them are nothing more than railroads, similar to the type described above. No one's making you do X instead of Y, no one's pulling a quantum ogre on you in these games. You're free do do whatever you want!

...as long as whatever you want is what the game is "designed to be about."

You can't just do anything you want in these games. If you play, for example, Dogs in the Vinyard (full disclosure, never had a chance to play it, but heard/read plenty), you can't escape the game's theme of dispatching justice to a small town in the Old West. Sooner or later, the game is going to force you to do just that. It's designed to bring these situations to a head so that your Mormon gunslinger can settle things the Mormon gunslinger way.

You're not playing these games to make up your own story. The game designer has already predetermined the story for you. It's a railroad, but it's subtle. Hence the title of this post.

And the funny thing? Now that I've come to this realization, I get the feeling that I now "get" story games, and might actually be able to have fun playing one now. But for the time being, I'll stick to D&D and play-testing Chanbara.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Procedures and Rules 2

This post covers the next few sections of this grab-bag of game rules, from Dice to Higher Level Spells.

First off, we're told that the dice included with the Basic Set are all you need. While technically correct in that you can (and we did) play games with only those six dice, you and I all know that you always need more dice, right? It's like that first set in the box were free, and you just had to have more...and more...and more!

Now, I did spend many years playing with only the sets from the Basic and Expert sets, plus a few old ivory six-siders that belonged to my grandpa. And I've still got all of them, and still use them on occasion (most often when I'm DMing). I've got a nostalgic connection to those dice. But I've got LOTS more, and when I see dice in a shop I've got an urge to buy more. Maybe you do, too.

Anyway, we're next told that when there's a random result range, the DM can either roll or just select the desired amount. That's fine. No reason you must insist on everything being random. And we're told that it's also OK for the DM to roll the dice, reject the result, and decide on something different. Now, this will rub some people the wrong way, because the example given says if a character down to 3 hit points gets hit with a sword (1-8 damage) and could easily die, the DM can ignore the result and just announce 2 points of damage were dealt, giving the player a chance to retreat. I took this to heart as a boy, and would very often fudge results to keep PCs alive. Now, I'm less likely to do so. But I don't completely frown on the practice as some do. There are times when fun should trump the dice. Feel free to disagree, I won't think less of you.

And finally, rather uncontroversially, we are given notations about how to figure out what dice to roll for different spreads of numbers. 1-6 means roll 1d6, obviously, and 2-8 means roll 2d4 because 8 divided by 2 is 4, and 3-13 can't be divided, but if you take 2d6+1, you get that spread. Simple.

Personally, any more I like to just note down the range in die notation rather than the range.

This is a section that didn't have a big effect on me, and my games play differently than expected because of it. There have been plenty of blog posts in the past by others about these rules or the similar rules in OD&D, BX, AD&D and your favorite retro clones of above systems. Some doors are locked, but most doors are not locked but stuck. Monsters can easily open doors, while players always need to bash open the doors (with a 5 or 6 on 1d6).

I've had stuck doors in dungeons, but they are rare, and early on were usually randomly placed. Now, I put stuck doors in for a purpose. And if it's stuck, it's stuck for everything. In my game PCs can just open most doors. There's something in my that rejects the idea that doors don't stick for monsters but do for PCs (although I like some of the justifications for the rule that have come up on other blogs).

Regarding secret doors, we get told that anyone can look, with a 1 in 6 chance of success (reference the section on elf special abilities in the previous post), taking 1 Turn per 10' square area searched. And that secret doors cannot be opened unless found!
But come on, movies and Saturday morning cartoons have taught me that you can stumble upon them! So, these days I tend to note a secret door, and always the trigger, and let the PCs accidentally open the door if they mess around with the trigger. It's more fun that way.

Finally, we get a note about special doors that are one-way only, and can only be opened from the "wrong" side with a Knock spell.

Equipment Not Listed
The novice DM is strongly warned NOT to allow characters to buy anything not on the equipment lists. Why this section is worded so strongly, I'm not sure. But I heeded the warning as an 11 year old, not allowing anything to be purchased that wasn't on these lists until I got the Expert Set a year later.

I realize a novice DM might not grasp all the potential consequences of certain things being added to the list of stuff PCs can buy, but most of the time I can't really see problems with normal everyday sort of stuff (like a lot of the lists in the AD&D PHB).

Evasion and Pursuit
This is a fairly lengthy section, with a sort of "mini game" for how to resolve chases and escapes in the game. I've always liked these rules, although they rarely see play. If the monsters flee, I've found players usually just let them go. And players rarely decide to run away (sometimes to their detriment).

The rules themselves are not necessarily very elegant, but they are practical and fairly simple. If monsters flee and characters pursue, compare movement rates. If the monsters are faster, they escape. If the party (or faster members of the party who don't stay with the main group) are faster, they can catch the monsters. Likewise, if the PCs run, they can escape if they are faster.

The standard reaction roll is used to determine if monsters pursue or not, with modifiers based on how damaged they are, and their intentions. If a monster has been slain, they get a -2 to the roll. If the PCs failed to land any hits, the modifier is +2, and if the monsters are after the party for some reason, the modifier is +3. A 9 or better means pursuit. Every 5 rounds, make the check again to see if the monsters continue the chase.

Where it gets interesting is the rules for dissuading pursuit. PCs can drop food or treasure (depending on the type of monster) and there's a 50% chance the monsters will stop and take the offering (1-3 on 1d6).

I also like the fact that it's explicitly stated that during pursuit or evasion, no mapping is possible and it's very easy to get lost. In small dungeons, that's not likely to happen, but in a larger lair dungeon, or a megadungeon, it's an important factor to consider for the players.

I also like the rules for Length of Pursuit (mentioned a bit above). The general guideline is that monsters won't pursue for very long, only 1 to 2 hours! That's sort of a long time, actually. But of course, that's really the time the monsters will search for the PCs after they get away. And it's also stated that they could continue searching for up to a day, maybe longer, if the PCs have taken something valuable from the monsters.

Again, I've only rarely gotten to use these rules, but the potential for fun gaming is there. Monsters tracking a party that fled from them, and popping up again and again in the dungeon (or the wilderness, although there are slightly different rules for that in the Expert Set) could be a lot of fun, in the right type of environment.

Higher Level Spells
This section provides three second level Cleric spells and three third level Magic User spells for use with NPC high level casters (or monsters, like dragons, although this isn't stated in this section). They may also be found on scrolls.

We get the Cleric spells Bless, Hold Person, and Silence 15' Radius, and the MU spells Dispel Magic, Fire Ball, and Fly. We also get charts for 4th and 5th level Clerics and 4th through 6th level MUs/Elves spells per day.

I'd need to check to see if the descriptions are exactly the same in the Expert Set or not, and years of playing multiple editions means I don't always get all the details of certain spells right, but there are one or two interesting things to note.

For Silence 15' Radius, it's stated that the spell prevents anyone inside the area from making noise, but does not prevent sounds made outside the area from being heard. This makes it a good tactical spell for a party, as it can be used to shut down enemy spell-casters (the typical use) OR to make the party more stealthy. It lasts 9 Turns in this book (that may be different in Expert), which is pretty long.

The Fly spell also has an interesting note. The spell has a randomized duration, 1d6 Turns, plus 1 Turn per level of the caster. The Expert Set may be the same as this, but maybe it's the RC version or the AD&D (or 3E?) version that is a little different. Here in the Basic Set, it states that only the DM knows the duration, the player only knows the possible minimum and maximum duration. It's implied that you could get in trouble being up in the air when the spell ends, although it doesn't state it explicitly. I'm pretty sure some other edition(s) state that you just slowly drop to the ground when the duration ends. Personally, I like this version better, as it gives the players a bit of a "press your luck" choice when using the spell.

Other than these two spells, though, there's not much of interest in this section.

Next post, I'll cover Hit Points through Morale.