Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Well, posts have been slow, and I'll show you why...

Yep, we've got a new baby!  And yes, I'm reading him The Hobbit even though he's not even a month old yet.  Never too early to start.  I actually wish I'd done this when our first son was born, but in the moves from Japan to Korea to the U.S. and back to Korea, I got rid of my old paperback copy, and by the time I finally got around to ordering the hardback edition seen above, my son didn't want anything to do with a story that didn't have big bright pictures on every page.

Anyway, I'm not sure when I'll get back to work on Chanbara (I've got ideas, just not much time to work on them) or to running the Isle of Dread game.  Especially since I've got the final semester of grad school classes starting soon, and then a dissertation to tackle. 

I also came up with an idea for a Flying Swordsmen set of adventures using the 5-Room Dungeon format, thanks to using some of them for the Hi/Lo Heroes game I'm running with one of my private English students. 

Anyway, enough blathering about me.  If you're also on Google+, check out +Jez Gordon's Anti-GenCon events this weekend.  Lots of online games to play (and not just OSR stuff) this weekend.  I won't have the time, I figure, but hey, you might!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

You've come into possesson of a map...

Last night we started off our 5E Isle of Dread game.  I had three players, Jeremy as Mr. Jones the Drow Fighter (criminal background), Michael as Quaiblar the Elf Rogue (scholar background) and Prester John the Human Cleric (soldier background). 

We realized after the game that we didn't get a few rules right, and some of the play test options we used may not be balanced against some of the stuff in the Basic Rules pdf, but it was pretty fun.  5E has new school mechanics but an old school feel to the way it plays, like several of the retro-clone games out in the OSR.  While it's mechanically more streamlined, it also feels very similar to 3E in the way it plays.  I think I'd agree with the online consensus that it meshes 2E adventure/design philosophy with 3E mechanics philosophy.

In the adventure, our three heroes (well, the drow is actually evil, which is a refreshing change and the reason I allowed a drow to be played - never want to see another Drizzt clone at my table again!) found a journal and map by R.B. telling of the Isle of Dread, the friendly inhabitants in the southern peninsula, the Great Wall, the dangers beyond, and rumors of a "city of the gods" and a "great black pearl of the gods" to be found there.  The map had the coastal areas and the friendly peninsula mapped out.  This was enough to get them preparing an expedition.

They each hired an NPC warrior to accompany them, bought supplies and wampum for trade (yes, the politically correct police can come and arrest us, insensitive stereotypes were abused in this game), and set sail.  A week later, they arrived at the Isle of Dread.  They successfully navigated past the reefs and made landfall at Tanaroa village next to the wall.

The villagers were friendly, and the chief Mira of the Hawk and zombie mistress could both speak Common, so they were able to trade a bit, get some information, and prepare to head out past the Wall.  Just as they were about to head out, there was a commotion in the village.  Some of the natives were informed by arrow-message from a boat that Chief Mira's brother and his men were taken prisoner by pirates, and would be sold into slavery unless they were paid 500gp. 

Well, our intrepid heroes took up the challenge and decided to borrow some outrigger canoes to start sailing west around the coast, looking for the pirate camp while their ship sailed around the peninsula to meet them.  The first day they made landfall on a rocky coast and spent the night in the ship, with the elf and drow taking turns at watch up on land.  Quaiblar discovered a raw gemstone in the cliff and took it. 

The next day they continued around the coast, moving out of the jungle area into some volcanic wastes.  That night, while on watch, Mr. Jones heard the distant sound of simian growls and hoots, and while distracted a giant spider attacked.  This spider shot beams of energy at him before he was able to take it down with his whips.  Quaiblar joined him, and they found another spider in the lair, which hit Jones with a web attack, but Quaiblar was able to take it down with his bow and then a sneak attack.  No treasure, however.

The day after the ship caught up with them, and they all set sail at a faster pace.  That night they made landfall on a small volcanic island where a starving baboon attacked, but was easily dispatched.  While serving it up for dinner, Jones commented that it tasted like human (he's also been constantly surveying the natives, trying to decide which ones will make good slaves if he can convince some to return to the mainland).  Well, the sailors didn't take kindly to talk of eating manflesh, and were going to murder the Drow, but Prester and Quaiblar stepped in to prevent it. 

Another day's sail brought them around several more small islands and another reef.

The next day, early, they sailed past an uncharted bit of coast and found the pirate camp.  At first they thought it might be only natives, but the three warriors Mira sent with them to rescue her brother made it obvious through sign language.  Hoping that no pirates were up early and on watch, they continued to sail past.  After a brief discussion about whether to sail around that island or continue on to the next and camp until dark (drow being disadvantaged in daylight), or to try and just pelt the camp with arrows, they decided to beach on the next small island and return at dusk to battle the pirates.

And that's where we called it for the night.

The Isle of Dread update adds in some ideas for linking the various adventure locations on the island, which is useful. 

As I expected, the plentiful self-healing of this edition (hit dice spent during short rests, total healing during long rests) meant that the PCs were always at full health. 

The cleric didn't get much combat action this game because the encounters were random and at night while the elves were on watch, so he never had to cast a spell or swing his mace. 

Character generation was more involved than Classic or AD&D, but also a bit more evocative, as mixing backgrounds, motivations, and personality bits can give characters a little more flair before they enter play.

Monster ACs are low, and both the Fighter and Rogue are optimized for combat.  The battles were quick and far.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Casting off for the Isle of Dread - All Aboard!

Getting ready to run my Isle of Dread game using the new D&D (5E, Next, whadeva).

I'm going to try to run the game straight: 1d10 damage cantrips, long and short rests, overly precise terminology and all.  Obviously there are a few things I would change about the game already without having played it.  How do I know I'd like to change them and that changing them would make things better?

Well, let's start with 30 years of gaming experience.  I know what kind of game I like, and I can see that certain mechanics would tend to lead the game away from that.  Still, 5E is workable and flexible, and best of all WotC finally is putting out an edition that allows itself to be modified and fiddled with.

So I'm gonna try to run it straight just to see how it plays.  Maybe it will surprise me, how nice it is to have PCs at full (or nearly full) power every encounter.  Maybe "movement cost" terminology won't bug the crap out of me once we start to play and just remember to divide speed through difficult terrain.  Maybe at-will Venger fireballs will be a nice touch (actually, I don't mind Venger fireballs, I just think d10 is a bit too high for an at-will cantrip's damage).

Anyway, the important thing is that I'll be running Isle of Dread, and I've got all kinds of interesting ideas to spice up the island a bit.  Plus, having both the original and the new version to draw on (and other modules I could slip in) means I can hopefully get more mileage out of this little sandbox module.

First game will be either this Friday or Saturday, depending on everyone's schedules.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Games in the Planning Stage

So, reading over the 5E Basic pdf (still only about halfway through, actually), I decided to give it a try.  Since it's pretty darn close to the play test packets (I assume the NDA is no longer valid...or maybe it will be until all the core books are out, but anyway nothing in this blog post should constitute a breach), I'm going to allow options (races, classes, backgrounds, etc.) from the last open play test packet along with the stuff in Basic.

Now, for an adventure, luckily the play test packet again comes to the rescue.  We shall play...
Yep, that's right.  There's a 5E conversion of the module in there.  We used this little sandbox adventure so much as kids, I still remember lots of it by heart.  There have been a few changes in the conversion, which is a good thing.  I've been reading through it, and have some ideas for a few more.

Of course, getting this game going with the regular Saturday night crew may take a while, since I'm still not finished with reading over the rules of the game (or the module update).  And to my knowledge no one has created a character, although a few players have a few ideas.  And I need to figure out how much cash/magic they should have as starting 4th level characters.

And that's not all, folks!  One of my current private English students, an upper elementary school boy, has been asking me a lot about RPGs and how they differ from CRPGs.  So tomorrow, we're going to play a bit of Jeff Moore's Hi/Lo Heroes, with a Percy Jackson and the Olympians theme, using a One-Page Dungeon Contest entry and a couple of 5-Room Dungeons.  Assuming we make it through char-gen and rules explanations quickly, that is.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Adventuring Rules

It's been a month since my last post in this series.  My apologies.  The end of the grad school semester, the approaching birth of our second son, an extra project for one of my professors, the release of the first bits of 5E, and Arrow Season 2 conspired against me the past month.  At least with regard to posting about Mentzer Basic.

This section, about 1 1/3 pages, covers some general advice on game systems and exploration within the game for new players.  And it's one of those gems of a section that really seem pitch perfect to me to explain certain concepts to a new gamer.  It gives solid advice about game mechanics, but just enough hints about "in-game" activities to get the player thinking creatively.

The first sub-section is on equipment, and explains what certain items on the equipment list are, and what they can be used for.  These are the sorts of tips that you could pick up from other players if you begin playing with an experienced group, but if everyone is new no one might think to try. 

One interesting note in this section is that Frank suggests poking things with a 10' pole might eliminate a surprise check.  I've had games in the past where even poking something suspicious with a pole didn't prevent surprise, but I will try to remember this one going forward.  It also just made me realize as I typed this, that the standard "traps are set off on a 1 or 2 on 1d6" rule from Holmes (and Moldvay?) is really a surprise check.  Again, note to self to remember this.

The next section on time explains game turns and rounds, the distinction between game time and real time, and that sometimes the DM will skip to the exiting bits.  Also, many every-day or common sense actions should just be assumed.

Related closely is the next section on movement.  We get general movement rates explained (per turn, per round, running per round, unencumbered and encumbered speeds).  At the end of the section, sort of easy to forget, especially for the DM, are rules for exhaustion.  After running for 20 rounds (the book says 5 minutes, but that should be 30 rounds; 20 rounds is just over 3 minutes), characters will need to rest for 30 minutes (3 turns).  Fighting while exhausted results in a +2 bonus to monsters to hit, and a -2 to hit and damage for you. 

Listening is the next section.  Good advice for new players.  Listen at doors.  Listen down hallways.  Gather what clues you can so you can make informed decisions.  However, it's explicitly stated that everyone gets one shot at listening in any instance.

Light is next.  Tinder boxes are explained.  The pros and cons of torches and lanterns are explained.  Light can ruin chances to surprise monsters.  Elf and Dwarf infravision is given a bit more detail about the sorts of things you can and can't see.

Doors.  They come in two types, normal doors which may be easily opened, stuck and in need of bashing, or locked.  Secret doors may be the type we usually think of, with hidden switches and sliding panels, or they may simply be concealed normal doors.  Reading this reminds me that I use too many "secret" doors and not enough concealed doors in my dungeons. 

The next section is on traps.  Some basic types are explained.  Pit traps are listed as the default option, although poisoned chests and doors, blade traps, and poisoned needles are also mentioned.  Searching for traps is listed as less time consuming than searching for secret doors (from the previous section).  Secret door searches cover a 10'x10' area in one turn, while a trap search covers a 20'x20' room or 20' stretch of corridor (shouldn't that be a 40' stretch of corridor?) in one Turn.

Wandering monsters are explained, and a warning is given that they are nuisances best avoided, especially as they rarely have treasure. 

The next section covers using miniature figures to represent characters, suggesting that if they are used, they can be used to show marching order.  Of course, "Official DUNGEONS & DRAGONS(r) figures are available."  Graph paper or a vinyl mat are suggested to be used for mapping the dungeon, and the final small section suggests this should be done at a scale of 1 inch = 10'.

My reaction on re-reading this, is very positive.  I remember getting ideas about equipment uses from this when I first read it, and it also boils down some of the game concepts that players will want to be familiar with (Dungeon Masters need to know by heart) such as time, movement, and perception.  In general, it gives a new player most of the information they will need to play smart and keep their PC alive during exploration phases of the game.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Not all orcs are created equal

So, most of the people who read this blog probably also read certain other blogs in which over the past week or so there has been a big debate about whether Darwinian "survival of the fittest" as it's commonly misunderstood should apply to fantasy world orcs due to the laws of probability and statistical analysis.

The math has been covered several times by several blogs, and I'm not going to repeat it here.  Suffice to say that those orcs with more hit points are more likely to survive multiple rounds of combat than those with low hit points.

Now, does that mean that high hit point orcs should be more common than low hit point orcs?  It's logical that the veterans are more likely to be high hit point orcs.  But the argument ignores several factors, one of the most important one is that casualties tend to be replaced.

There will be (as I mentioned in comments on another blog) young orcs out on their first raid, wimps and shirkers finally forced to fight, not to mention the fact that some orcs you meet may have already taken a wound (assuming they are so bloodthirsty and battle-hungry) or may just be exhausted or sick or simply have fortune not smiling upon them that day.  Which if you go by Gygax's words in the AD&D DMG, are all perfectly fine ways of explaining why an orc has only 1 or 2 hit points (if it ever really needs explaining).

Now, we all know that Alexis, who started this, loves to track all sorts of things behind the screen that happen in his game world.  And trying to figure out logical consequences of actions as they would apply to his game world is his thing.  That's fine.  Nothing wrong with that.  But I know in my games, and I assume many others, I'm not tracking orc populations in the world.  All monsters exist in a Shroedinger's dungeon until encountered by the PCs.  So I see no need to try and explain why some orcs have only a few hit points and some have more.

I think the real meat of the issue, though, is not the number crunching.  It's your conception of what an orc actually is.  OD&D through 2E drew on Tolkien (the primary source for the orc in D&D), in which most orcs are small, weak, cowardly, and devious.

Most of the above orcs will fight, but they don't look like they're necessarily much stronger or tougher than humans, do they?   Some are, but not all of them or even most of them.

These guys, however, look like they've had the weaklings weeded out of their numbers.

So, what's your conception of an orc?  Is it of a hulking GW/Blizzard/WotC D&D (but not MTG) orc?  Then by all means, go along with Alexis and make sure most of them have above average hit points.

If you think they're more along the lines described by Tolkien and most older editions of D&D, then go ahead and let them have that flat 1 to 8 hit point distribution.

But please, even if you're Alexis, please don't try and track individual hit points of orc populations within your made up world.  I don't think that there's much fun to be had by that.  Orc activities, migrations and raids, sure.  Track those things. Those can make the game awesome.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Of Coins and Coinage

Medieval Japanese currency has been on my mind lately.  For Flying Swordsmen, with its emphasis on crazy kung fu action over adventuring for treasure, the simple system of Dragon Fist, tael (gold) and fen (copper) was good enough.  So far, in Chanbara I've just switched the names to ryo and zeni.

But looking at one of my history books on Tokugawa Japan, there's a convoluted system that's full of flavor but would likely be a bookkeeping nightmare in play.

Early on, the Japanese just imported coinage from China (and possibly Korea).  Later, the shogunate began to mint coins.  But local daimyo were also able to mint their own coins for their provinces.  And there ended up being three separate currencies.

Gold coins were the ryo (mentioned above), the bu (1/4 a ryo), and the shu (1/4 a bu or 1/16 a ryo).  One ryo was enough to buy one koku of rice, about 5 bushels/180 liters, considered enough rice to feed one person for a year.  Samurai salaries were calculated in koku of rice.

Silver coins were the monme and the kan (1000 monme).  The official exchange rate with the ryo was 50 monme to the ryo, later raised to 60 monme to the ryo.

Bronze/Copper coins (zeni) were the mon and kan (1000 mon).  The official exchange rate with the ryo was 4000 mon.

--the above taken from Nakane, Chie and Oishi, Shinzaburo, Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan (1990), English translation edited by Conrad Totman.

Now, part of me thinks it would be fun to have all of these different coins floating around in Chanbara, but just getting the names straight might be tough enough for many players, let alone trying to remember all of the conversions.

So I think I'm going to just use some of the names as analogous to D&D coinage. 

*Platinum piece = oban (a large gold disk used for savings rather than as currency), only the oban will be worth about 20 ryo as with a silver kan, rather than the standard 5gp to 1pp.
Gold piece = ryo
Electrum piece = bu?  Not sure if I'll include this one
Silver piece = monme
Copper piece = zeni

That should make things easier.

Now to figure out how I want to do treasure tables, and revise prices on the equipment lists...