Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Who Did Worldbuilding Advice Better, TSR or WOTC?

 Recently, there was a comment on JB's excellent B/X Blackrazor blog by Simulated Knave claiming that they found 1E AD&D lacked solid advice for interaction with NPCs outside of combat or for worldbuilding, something that the commenter found that 3E D&D/Pathfinder was better at. 

Now, I've played a bit of PF but it has been many years since, and I never had the books. I've only briefly looked at the PF 2E thing. So maybe the good folks at Paizo went above and beyond with advice for NPC interaction and worldbuilding. But I did play plenty of 3E/3.5 D&D, and I have those books on PDF still to reference. 

WAY back, I did also make this post about how OD&D has more pages of rules for exploration of the game world than for combat within the game system. The sixth post I ever made here. I think that's relevant to the discussion as a bit of context.

Let's examine Simulated Knave's claim. 

Of course, SK, if you're reading this, feel free to comment and let me know if I misunderstood your intent or points you brought up. It's always possible, and I'm open to having my mind changed on this front. 

Also, one last disclaimer. As most regular readers know, I'm a Frank Mentzer edited BECMI kid. That's my go-to D&D set. And Frank did a pretty good job (I feel) giving the budding DM advice on how to build the dungeon, how to build the home town, how to build the world, and how to set up the politics, and how to set up the planes of existence/powers that be/legendary artifacts* of the world all in an easily digestible format that provides just enough advice to get you going on each of these fronts without overwhelming. 

*Having only relatively recently acquired the Immortals Set, and still not having read and digested it thoroughly, I do have to admit that a bit more advice on creating planar adventures could be helpful than what's in the Companion and Masters Sets. 

But the claim by Simulated Knave was about AD&D giving "garbage" advice compared to d20 system games. 

So let's start with d20. 

3E etc. obviously have some simple and direct player facing rules for NPC interactions. There are skills for lying to NPCs, sweet talking with NPCs, trying to see if the NPC is lying to you, and so on. Bluff, Intimidate, Diplomacy, Sense Motive, Perform...are there anymore? Maybe I'm missing one or two. Roll d20+skill bonuses vs a set DC or the NPC's contested roll. 

Sure, it's simple, it's easy to remember, it's in the PHB so players can know the rules. But it doesn't always make sense. I don't care that you've got a +15 bonus to Intimidate, your Barbarian with the +5 greataxe is not going to make the Lich Lord, who commands the army of the dead outside the gate, tremble in his boots. I don't care what you say, or that you rolled a natural 20. Maybe try again after his army has been decimated and you've located his last phylactery. Then you might have a chance.

And yes, I know that d20 has advice to not allow a roll in that sort of situation, but I've seen plenty of players demand things like that over the years. 

What advice or rules does the 3E DMG (I found my 3.0 DMG before the 3.5 one, so I'm referencing that) have for interactions with NPCs outside of combat? 

Two pages on using the Leadership feat to manage sidekicks and cohorts for PCs, including a half page sidebar on animal companions. 

Then we've got a bunch of pages on NPC stat blocks (mostly combat stats). And a big section going over all of the combat rules, procedures, and so on. It's 25 pages long. 

Then there are a few pages on dealing with environmental dangers, which counts as world building advice. 

The next section is on skill and ability checks, so we get detailed rules on how each skill can be used, and example difficulties for them. This includes the various skills for NPC interaction mentioned above, of course. It's a little over 4 pages. Then we're on to saving throws and adjudicating magic. The second part could be considered world building advice. 

Now we get into the dungeon, wilderness, adventure and campaign creation advice. And it covers around 60 pages for all that. But with in that, it's not all world building advice. A lot of it is combat encounter creation advice. Or how to mechanically handle traps. Or dungeon dressing suggestions. Encounter tables. Random town generation. Advice on linking adventures and player goals into a coherent campaign. Not bad stuff, but a lot of it reads as very surface level to me. There are world building tidbits in there, but also a lot of combat encounter (or challenges requiring skill checks) explained, more so than there is advice on crafting a fantasy world. There is world building advice, as I say, but I don't find it as deep as SK seems to. Or maybe the 3.5 DMG or Pathfinder improved on this base. 

There is a section in all of this on running NPCs. Or rather, there's some advice on the stock types of NPCs you might include in an adventure or campaign, and advice on how to use them as allies or opponents. There are some rules for DCs to influence NPC attitudes. Some hirelings you could hire explained. 

After all this, there's the XP and treasure sections, some reference charts, and the index. 

So for NPC interaction, SK claims that 3E/PF provide the following: "What are the odds of sneaking past an NPC? Of stealing from them? Of convincing them of something? Of them knowing some particular fact? Of them existing at all in the particular town?"

3E does do these things. But AD&D gives you all of that, as well. It's different. Instead of giving you the NPC's Perception skill for the player to roll their Stealth score against, AD&D gives you the surprise round and the Thief skills for hiding and moving silently. AD&D has NPC reaction tables. In fact, they're more robust than 3E's. It's got modifiers for racial animosity, for example, in addition to general reaction rolls. How do you decide in AD&D that a particular NPC lives in a particular community or knows a certain thing? Well, that's called making a decision on your own, rather than rolling some dice. 

All of the NPC interaction that SK seems to laud in d20 systems is just a very mechanical functional take on interaction. d20 gives you lots of skills and difficulty numbers to beat, while AD&D gives you actual advice on crafting a medieval fantasy world (granted, a very specifically Gygaxian one) and lets you extrapolate from there how you want your NPCs to interact with the PCs. 

As for world building, I mentioned above that d20 gives you lots of lists of challenge ratings (how hard is it to climb a wooden wall vs a stone one, or how hard is it to pick that lock vs the lock over there), and a lot of surface level dungeon/world dressing. But everything is centered around making some sort of skill roll, saving throw, ability check, or...yes...combat. There's not a lot of fodder for interesting world building and organic, dialogic play. 

AD&D's 1E DMG has tons of pages of charts, lists, and what not to give flavor to the world. It's got lists of gemstones and flowers and their folk belief uses. It's got that random harlot table. 

There are 9 and a half pages near the front of the 1E DMG giving advice on NPC hirelings, retainers, specialists, and so on. Way more detail than 3.0. And yes, much of this is also mechanical. Will your spy complete their mission? How long will it take the sage to research your questions? How will the dwarven mercenary crew react to your Elf trying to hire them? But it's also a lot of extra information on running these NPCs as well. 

Anyway, I'm out of time so I can't dig for more examples right now. But they're there. 

Yes, there are a lot of combat rules in AD&D. There are a lot in 3E. But in my opinion, AD&D gives richer information on all of these things. Sure, it lacks really detailed stronghold development rules. But BECMI has them, so it was never a problem for me. Maybe that's a cop out, but it's true that a lot of gamers I know mixed and matched what they liked from the TSR editions to fill the gaps.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Phased Combat Round

I'm not sure why I keep the phased combat round from BX/BECMI in TS&R. I mean, I put it in the books because that's what the rules are supposed to be. But I rarely ever follow it. For a few sessions in my West Marches campaign, I tried using it strictly. I got lots of pushback from the players. And I felt it was more of a hassle than an aid to combat. So, I went back to my usual method of ignoring it.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, in Classic D&D, the combat round actions for a side are supposed to be resolved in the following order: 


Missile Fire



Now, this presents some interesting tactical/logistical challenges. If you don't move at the start of the side's turn, you don't get to move. Missile fire or a charge are the only ways to disrupt a spellcaster. You can't fire a missile and then duck back behind full cover. 

I suppose it would be easier if I did a Declarations phase with more detailed actions. But after years of playing newer editions, where each player has full reign on their PC's action to do all the moves, maneuvers, attacks, and bonus actions they like, players feel like when they state their intention, that's their action. 

If I have players make Declarations at all, it's just something simple like "I'll cast a spell" or "I'll run up and attack the ogre in melee" rather than their whole detailed plan of action. If I had them give more detailed plans, and took notes each round, then resolved things in the order above, that might make it seem more worthwhile. As it is, though, all that extra note-taking and adjudicating phases seems like a needless hold-over from D&D's wargame roots, where the referee was often given hand-written orders by the players for each turn, and then had time to sort things all out. 

At the D&D table, I'd rather keep things moving. 

I was thinking that the above phases would be useful for rounds where initiative between the monsters and the players is tied. If things are tied, all sides move (including charge attacks, attacks with spears set for charge, fighting withdrawal, and parting shots/attacks of opportunity on those that retreat rather than withdraw). Then all sides fire missiles. Then all sides cast magic (including magic items and specials like breath weapons or gaze attacks). Finally, all engaged characters that haven't taken an action yet can make their melee attacks. 

On rounds where initiative isn't a tie, each side just goes in the order they please. 

This is sort of like the AD&D system, where weapon speed factors (and maybe spellcasting segments?) are only supposed to come into play if initiative is tied. 

Next session, I'll maybe try this out and see how it goes. In the meantime, I'm considering if I should edit my TS&R books to get rid of the outdated Declarations and combat phases, and just write it up the way I actually play the game instead. It wouldn't be a big change, especially since people can download the rules for free.

Monday, September 18, 2023

I've been banned!

Yes, I have been banned. This is not an exaggeration to get clicks. But what I was banned from and why is pretty funny. 

I know I've mentioned it before, but I play play-by-post games on Role Play Online ( My new Gamma World game is there. 

So there's this guy who's been for years trying to get new players into his d20 Star Wars game. Years ago I sent him a request to join, but it was ignored (first red flag!). But he kept asking for new players to join, so recently I decided to try again.

This time, he responded, but he was pretty condescending towards me, thinking my request from three years ago (which was still there) was my current request to join. Three years ago, he was looking for a level 3 or 4 character to join an existing game. Now, he was starting over at level 1. I figured hey, no big deal. He may not be a native English speaker, and gamers can be quirky anyway. We got past that when I explained that he'd ignored me before. (This was the second red flag, but I pressed on.)

So he says he is basing this Star Wars game at the end of the Clone Wars, off of some video game I'd never even heard of. Dark something or other. It's Star Wars. The enemies use The Dark Side. There are Dark Troopers. Dark Jedi. Dark this, dark that. Pretty par for the course. I didn't bother to Google the game.

So he posted that he wanted players, and specifically, the party could use a Jedi Guardian, a Soldier, or a Fringer. 

My first idea was to play a Fringer (Outer Rim survival/tinkerer type class). He said a Guardian or Soldier would be better. 

So I thought, how about a Mandalorian soldier? He said no, because there is a Jedi in the party, and as far as he knew, Mandos and Jedi are old enemies, so they wouldn't fit together. I suggested that there's plenty of precedent in Clone Wars, Rebels (the whole series has two Jedi and a Mando as leads!), The Mandalorian... He hasn't seen any of that. He's seen the movies, and played some games. That's his Star Wars. Well, fine. No worries.

He suggests I play a Jedi Guardian instead. I don't really want to mess around with the d20 Force rules (which are clever in a way, but kinda suck in actual play) and just not in the mood for a Jedi PC anyway. I tell him that I'd rather stick to a Soldier. So he suggests I play a Wookiee or some other big strong alien type. 

I've never played a Wookiee before. I think, not being able to directly communicate with the others and having to use descriptions of my gestures/mood might be kinda fun. So I make a Wookiee Soldier, and I'm accepted into the game. 

But then he says, hey, why not play a Wookiee Jedi Guardian? Wouldn't that be cool? No thanks.

Then, I've made my PC. I take one of those useless but flavorful +2 to two skills feats. He's like, hey, why not take a combat feat? I say I'll get plenty of feats as a Soldier. This gives me a bit of flavor. He is dismissive, but whatever. Then he's complaining that I'm playing a Wookiee but didn't take a bowcaster. Honestly, the d20 rules for them are a bit suboptimal, and NOW he's worried about me going for an optimization choice instead of a flavor choice. Weird, but OK. 

Remember, I'd wanted to play a Fringer, a sort of jury-rigging rogue type PC, in the first place. 

Then I find out that EVERY PC and the DM PC (yeah, another red flag) can speak Shyriiwook (the Wookiee language). So my idea to have to play this guy who understands everyone but has trouble making himself understood is out the window.

So, my Wookiee is introduced, having been captured and frozen in carbonite, then rescued by the PCs. So I'm blind at first. Luckily, that doesn't last too long. But we're on an abandoned Star Destroyer (Venator I guess?) and there are bloody trails and remains of clones everywhere. Our DM PC is trying to lead us here or there, but players being players, we're trying to explore and investigate this. 

We finally get the GM to allow us to move where we want to go, and we're attacked by clone zombies. 

I am instantly turned off. I wanted to play Star Wars, not zombie survival horror. But I press on for a bit. 

First round of combat, one of the zombies bites my PC. It's a critical hit, meaning it goes to my Wound Points (actual damage hit points) instead of my Vitality (luck/wits/skill hit points). It's only 2 damage, though, and I'm a big tough Wookiee with 14 WP. But the GM is asking me, "Hey, you could take the 2 damage, or you could lose a limb. Wouldn't that be cool? You could get a cybernetic replacement."

Really? He wants me to gimp my character in the first round of combat, in a format where just getting through a round of combat can take days, in the off chance that some where down the line I'll be able to get a cybernetic replacement? Instead of just taking 2 damage? Weird. 

I didn't post for a bit because I was busy (it's a pretty slow game, the other players are equally slow to post), but he made a comment to me asking if I was still interested in playing. And I decided I'd had enough. I posted (publicly so everyone would know I was leaving) that I wasn't really interested in playing a zombie horror Star Wars game, and than I think I'll politely bow out. 

He replies in a derisive manner, saying that I must have known it was a zombie game because whatever Dark Something game he'd based this on is a zombie game. Remember that? Yeah. Still have no idea what that game is, and still no desire to Google it. And he was complaining that I'd wasted his time. Remember how he'd been trying to get players in this game for a long time? I replied privately that no, actually, I didn't know the game he was referencing, and that there was no hint at all in the game advertising he'd made that it was zombies in space. I tried to stay polite, and even thanked him for giving me the chance to play in his game.

This morning, I saw there was a private message reply. But I couldn't read it, because he'd banned me from the game. 

No loss there, though. I probably should have bailed during the weird demands of character creation. But I can say I've been banned from a game!

Monday, September 11, 2023

14 Years

Yeah, it's blog-versary day again. I started the blog 14 years ago. Recently, my posting has been erratic. Life is just too busy, and sometimes I feel like I've pretty much discussed all I need to discuss. But I want to keep plugging my games, and talking about my process for developing them. And I enjoy talking about my campaigns. And every once in a while, I think of something that might actually be useful to my readers. 

So I'm going to keep at it. But no promises about consistent posting. 

Yesterday, my TS&R Jade campaign had a session. It went well. The party realized they could follow up a rumor and also get close to an area of the map where one PC could try to achieve a personal goal, so they did both. They followed up the rumor and got some information about how to deal with a problem, and the player got part of what they wanted for their personal vanity project. So I think the players were happy. And with the "quest" lined up for next session, I think there will be some anticipation for it. But we've got to wait maybe 3 weeks for the next session. 

My PbP Gamma World game also started over the weekend. One or two players are much more frequent posters than others, and the slow posters took a while to get their characters created. But now we're off and running...well, it's PbP so not really running. But we're off. 

And my boys and I are enjoying Star Wars: Ahsoka, so that will likely get me to work on the Star Wars campaign soon. But real life is not giving me much time for that.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Back to the Grind, Plus Gamma World and Call of Cthulhu!

I'm in the final week of summer vacation. As a professor, I get a nice long summer vacation, but I'm actually usually busier during the vacation than during the semester. So I'm looking forward to things slowing down a little. Not too much, though. I've got a couple of composition (academic writing) classes this semester, plus a study I'm hoping to finish up by October for fingers crossed publication in December. But despite that, my schedule, and my boys' schedules, will be regular, so gaming should be more or less back on track. 

My TS&R Jade game has been going well. Yesterday, my boys and Denis were the only players, and they followed up on a rumor that took them to a location just beyond their abilities (if other players had been there, it likely would have been fine). But with some good strategy, a bit of luck, and negotiation, they managed to complete their objective (rescuing 3 kidnapped children from monsters) and only lost one henchman in the process. 

I haven't run Star Wars in a while. Steven, my younger son, has been asking when I will. And with the new Ahsoka series on Disney+ now, I'll likely fire up those Star Wars creative neurons and get something worked out soon. I need to get on the players, though. I gave them a bunch of leads after the last session, but the only feedback I've gotten so far was one player saying, "Yeah, any of those look fine." Gonna have to pester them a bit more.

Richard, a friend who played in my West Marches game back when I first started it up (as a 5E game), and who I've played with a bit in some of Dean's games, is starting up a new Call of Cthulhu game. We had a session 0 last Friday, and the first game will be this coming Friday. I rolled up a rum runner with a boat and skill at driving a car, so I'll be the party's wheels. We've also got a prizefighting boxer, an Italian anti-mafia spy, and an investigative radio reporter as our party. Should be fun!

On the play-by-post website I use (, I made a Gamma World game last October, but it's just been sitting there unused. I made a few last minute updates and changes (I'm running 1992 4th edition, but with some house rules and mutations from other editions/games, including some of the house rules I used in GamMarvel World a few years back) and opened it up for players. So far, I've had five players ask to join. Two of them are already rolling up their characters: a mutant webspinner (an insect) and a mutant armadillo. I'm hoping to recruit around 10 or 12 players, since RPOL games have a high attrition rate.

Oh, and my boys are still working on their airplane simulator! They've been working on 3D models this past week. If you want to support their efforts, please check out their GoFundMe page! Thank  you!

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Airplane Simulation!

 This is not a typical post for the blog, and it's not about RPGs, but it is about gaming and building the gamer community. 

Last week, I was away for a few days at an academic conference (my presentation went over time but better than anticipated, with lots of interesting questions from the audience after). While I was in Daejeon, my sons realized that my older boy's computer isn't quite good enough to suit the ambitions he has to create his own free-to-play yet high quality airplane simulator. So, they decided to start a GoFundMe! 

Here's the link. You can listen to Flynn & Steven explaining why they're doing this in their video, and read the description for even more details. 

Why am I posting it here? Well, obviously, I'm hoping some of my readers may be interested in airplane simulators, and/or interested in helping support the next generation of game designers. They've got an ambitious project, but they aren't asking for a crazy amount of money. Their goal is $5000 which they'll use to upgrade Flynn's computer and then spend a bit to pay for some assistance with coding and 3D modeling so they don't have to do it all themselves. 

It's not an RPG, but they are hoping to make an open world style game, where people can role play as pilots of commercial, cargo, private, military, and eventually historical aircraft. And if they manage to pull this off, they've also got ideas for more open world style games, possibly fantasy or sci fi themed, which would probably be of more interest to my blog audience. But I still bet there are plenty of aircraft aficionados reading this.

So, if you've got a few minutes, please click on the link and check out their pitch, and if you feel interested, pitch in a few dollars! Thanks!

Monday, August 7, 2023

Operationalizing Honor

Last week, noisms of Yoon Suin fame wrote a blog post about a "single class paladin campaign" except he's not really talking about a single class paladin game, he's talking about how to operationalize honor for RPGs in a way that will facilitate and motivate a game built around honorable heroes doing honorable things. He admits that various character classes could be used in such a game, as long as the game revolves around matters of honor and correct, heroic behavior, rather than typical D&D "adventuring" or "murder-hoboing" or what have you. Instead of everyone being the Paladin class, they all are behaving by a code of conduct and in service to some greater power.

I was definitely interested in what he had to say, as it's something I've had to deal with with only limited success in Flying Swordsmen and Chanbara. Yes, FSRPG includes notes about the xia code, and what is expected of a wandering martial hero in Chinese stories/movies. But that's it. The XP system is still revolving around defeating enemies (of any type) to gain XP, and doesn't stipulate that the combats need to be won honorably. And granted, there are anti-heroes or those that skirt the line in wuxia fiction, and they don't necessarily need to be penalized. 

I think I got a step closer with Chanbara. I re-conceptualized the carousing rules from Arneson's original campaign. But instead of saying you're spending your hard earned treasure on drunken debauchery and flashy displays of wealth until you're broke and need to go adventure again, it's explained as donating that hard earned treasure to your various lords, patrons, and clan to aid them in their endeavors. That's a step up from "hey, just role play it!" but I admit it still leaves something to be desired. Collecting the treasure is still a necessary step in play. If we're really wanting to make our campaign seem like the legends of King Arthur and Charlemagne, or of honorable samurai loyal to their lords and so on, "getting the treasure" seems out of place.

So, what sorts of rewards could we offer in a game that would encourage players to play Captain America instead of The Punisher? Galahad and Percival instead of Fafhrd and the Mouser? That's not an easy question to answer. 

So what's been done before? Marvel Super Heroes, the old 4 color resolution chart game from TSR, had a huge list of dos-and-don'ts that could earn you Karma points, or take them away. The 1E OA book also had a big long list of "honorable and dishonorable" actions, which earned or reduced honor points. 

I'm not a big fan of this method. For one, it's fiddly and arbitrary. It also requires everyone to be paying attention to a level of detail in the game that can hurt immersion. Finally, it polices play, rather than encourages it. XP for gold and fighting monsters encourages play. It tells players what the goal is, but not how to go about achieving the goal. Lists of "Thou shalt not..." doesn't give you a goal, it just mediates your choices in game. And giving a goal of "be honorable" doesn't spur action the way "get gold" does. 

I don't have a lot of history with the Palladium or White Wolf systems, but from what I remember, Palladium has a lot of strictures for keeping your alignment a la the MSH Karma and OA Honor systems, but I don't remember if that had an effect on XP or not. It's been a while since I've done anything with that system. 

For White Wolf, I haven't played Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, or Changeling. I've played Trinity and Street Fighter. In both of these games, at the end of a session (and the end of an adventure that takes place over multiple sessions), certain criteria are given or questions asked, and determine how much XP each character earns. This, I think, may be a better way to handle XP for the sort of "all paladin" game noisms wants to run. 

For those that don't know, players get 1 xp just for taking part in the session, and then additional points if they can demonstrate that their character learned or matured in some way, a point for good role play, a point for sticking to the character concept well, a point for heroism (at least in Street Fighter, which I have). If I remember, for Trinity there was one criteria for using your powers to aid the mission. 

This seems like the way to go to quantify honorable behavior to me. Make a list of criteria. The Chivalric Code. Bushido. The Way of the Jiang Hu. The Cowboy Code. Klingon Batlh. Probably best to keep it to under six tenets (the Cowboy Code as often shared on the internet these days has lots of pithy sayings that basically boil down to the same few concepts). At the end of a game session, go through each tenet and ask each player how they felt they upheld that tenet. Award chunks of XP for each tenet they upheld. 

Of course, WW games use XP as a spendable currency to develop skills and abilities, rather than a measure of progress in class level, but that can be adjusted. If someone wants to keep the D&D class & level paradigm, either adjust XP values needed to level up down (divide by 100, maybe?) or tie the amount of XP awarded by the criteria to the level of the character.