Friday, January 20, 2017

2017 Movie List

Last year, I don't think I got around to doing a post like this, and there were quite a few movies I wanted to see last year that I didn't have time to see. Well, the dissertation is finished. Next month I receive my diploma and I can start referring to myself as Dr. Laffey. Don't worry, I won't let it go to my head. Hopefully, I'll have more time to watch movies this year. Also, now that Son #2 is old enough to start day care in March, I'll be able to take in a movie or two with my wife. I've been mostly limited to stuff I can see with Son #1 the past two years, or sneaking off to see a movie solo while at work. Like me, my wife enjoys big budget sci-fi and fantasy movies, super heroes, and the like. And yes, I do enjoy more cerebral movies too, but when you're as pressed for time as I seem to be these days, it's usually popcorn fare that I want to watch for a bit of escapism, at least on the big screen. After the kids are asleep, if I'm not reading a book, working on some game stuff, or catching up on the Arrowverse or some Netflix or HBO series that's worth watching, I watch those sorts of movies.

Anyway, enough rambling. On with the list of films I think will be worth watching this year (not that I'll get to watch them all, and a few others that are currently under my radar may pop up).

January -- Nothing really grabs me this month. xXx might be something to watch if it's on cable TV or something. I enjoyed the first one well enough way back when, but not enough to keep up with the series.

February -- My son will likely want to see LEGO Batman, so I'll probably take him to see it. I'm more excited to see The Great Wall, which looks like Flying Swordsmen RPG the Movie. Matt Damon as a European mercenary in [Tang? Song?] China, battling an invasion of monsters from Mongolia? Count me in. And trust me, having foreign mercenaries in Medieval China isn't as far fetched as some people believe. Tang China was pretty cosmopolitan. There were Christian churches and Muslim mosques in the capital in the 9th Century. The Silk Road was active since Roman times, Marco Polo is just the most famous of the Western and Middle Eastern merchants who visited China in pre-Modern times.

Two movies look like ones I'd like to see in March. Logan, the possibly final Hugh Jackman Wolverine solo movie, looks bleak, and might possibly be the best X-Men universe film to date, if it lives up to the quality of the trailer. Fox's X-Men films have been hit or miss, but usually at least entertaining (and yet, none of them seem to live up to the potential shown in the old 90's Fox cartoon version). This one may be different. At least, I hope so.

The other is Kong: Skull Island. I love me some King Kong. I love lost world dinosaurs and stuff (Isle of Dread is a top module for me). I'm also always interested in Vietnam War movies. I grew up in the 80's, when it was popular in film and TV. My Dad had a draft deferment and joined the Peace Corps, but several of his friends served, and a few died. The war of my parents' generation has always fascinated me. Mash them together, and I'll go see the film, even if it may not be one of the best movie experiences of my life.

Again, nothing looks like a must-see in April, but in May there's probably my #1 must see movie for the year (yes, more than Star Wars!), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The first was just a super fun movie, and I'm excited to see the next installment. Also in May is Alien: Covenant. I love the Aliens series, and yes, after the first two they kinda became crap, but they're still guilty pleasures of mine. So I'll be watching this one if my wife and I can spare some time away from the boys (Son #1 is still not old enough for these films). Oh, and there's another Pirates of the Caribbean movie. They're fun films, usually. So while not a must-see, it's one to check out if time allows.

In June, there's the Wonder Woman film. I really hope this is good, but I've been disappointed by both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. I doubt I'll go see this one in the theaters, unless it gets some amazingly good reviews. Still, I hope it's good. I'd like to see DC comics doing well on the big screen the way they are on the small screen.

July brings us Spider-Man Homecoming. I liked Tom Holland's take on Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Civil War, so I'm hoping this will be a good, fun movie more like the MCU movies than the "Amazing" line of a few years ago. Also in July comes the first installment of Stephen King's The Dark Tower. It's not an adaptation of the books (which I love), it's a continuation. That seems like such an awesome idea, because the film makers and show runners have all the stuff in the books to use as reference, but aren't bound to slavishly follow the plot of the novels. If you've read the book series to the end, it makes total sense to do it this way. If you haven't read the books, they're up there among King's best work.

August and September have nothing catching my eye, but in October, there's the new Blade Runner 2049. I'm again optimistic about this one. Yes, it could just be a Hollywood cash grab, with no real effort put into making it good, but hopefully it'll tell a good story set in the Blade Runner future.

November brings us Thor: Ragnarok. Of the MCU movies, I've found the Thor movies to be a bit weaker than the others, but with Bruce Banner/The Hulk teaming up with Thor for this one, I'm optimistic. Also, it's Ragnarok, so you know things should be getting crazy in it. Also in November is Justice League. See my comments above about Wonder Woman. Same apply here.

Finally, in December, yes, we have Star Wars Episode VIII. The Force Awakens has a lot of problems, but watching it, I didn't really notice them. It was a rollercoaster ride with the feeling of the original trilogy (although a few too many call-backs/fan service). Rogue One was even better. Hopefully, Rogue One has raised the bar, and Ep. 8 will rock.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Creating Dungeons

Alright folks, I'm gonna power through the final sections of the Basic Set to wrap up the series in this post. About time, I know, right?

Creating Dungeons
Frank starts out this section of the book by defining a dungeon as "any place where monsters and treasures may be found. A dungeon is usually a group of rooms, connected by corridors. It could be a castle (new or ruined), some caves, or anything else you can imagine" (p. 46). I do like this definition, as it frees up the DM to go crazy and not worry too much about needing to stick to subterranean mazes (although those can be really fun). This is followed up with a reminder of the basic risk-reward scheme of the dungeon, the "level" where higher levels mean tougher monsters but greater rewards. It's a bit brief, but described in more detail below.

Types of Dungeons
This section is more about dungeon level orientation than type of location that could be used as a dungeon. Levels increase in number as you go down, or up, or farther from the entrance. Multiple entrances, especially entrances straight to higher levels, is a good thing. Frank closes the section suggesting to stick to traditional vertical dungeons at first, and gradually experiment, possibly after looking at a few modules.

Good and Bad Dungeons
Here, Frank is defining a "good" dungeon as a logically constructed one, and a "bad" one as a random mismash of rooms, monsters, traps, etc. "A good dungeon is reasonable. Its design is carefully thought out, and the monsters and treasures are placed for a reason" (p. 46). Of course, he does admit in the next paragraph that a randomly generated dungeon could still be a good dungeon if it has some sort of theme tying the otherwise random encounters together, and monsters that should logically be found in that sort of location. He admits that the Solo Adventure isn't really a "good" dungeon, since it was designed to help new players experience a variety of game mechanics and situations, but with a few changes could be made better.

I'm not sure that I agree with Frank 100%. The random, nonsensical dungeon can still be a lot of fun. And since people have a natural desire to see patterns when none exist, players will often construct a more logical narrative from a random experience. Frank does mention that dungeons shouldn't just be places to fight monsters -- it should have other forms of entertainment like puzzles and RP situations as well. And on that I fully agree. If I just want to grind through some random monster battles, I'll go fire up Dragon Warrior on my NES emulator.

Step By Step
This is the heart of the section, as Frank gives a six step process to create a dungeon. Of course, the above description of dungeons and levels seems to assume a "mega-dungeon" setting, this step-by-step section assumes dungeons as one-shot type deals, made specifically for that adventure (like in many modules). This did color my early dungeon crafting. I stared out with fairly random multi-level caves, then moved on to smaller, mission-specific dungeons as I grew as a DM.

1. Choose a Scenario
By scenario, Frank means both a theme for the dungeon, and a hook to get the PCs to explore it. He lists several good rationales for adventure. The only flaw with the presentation is that it left me assuming that the DM would just provide the players with their motivation, rather than letting players dictate their motives and me as DM creating the dungeon in response. I think this must have been fairly common (maybe it still is) due to the number of "You've been captured by..." adventures DMs love to spring on players. Yes, I've been guilty of this in the past as well.

The scenarios listed are: Exploring the Unknown, Investigating an Enemy Outpost, Recovering Ruins, Destroying an Ancient Evil, Visiting a Lost Shrine, Fulfilling a Quest, Escaping from Enemies, Rescuing Prisoners, Using a Magic Portal, Finding a Lost Race.

I do like how a lot of these don't require the PCs to go in guns blazing to complete the objective. I really think something like this, slightly modified, presented as a "Reasons to Adventure" advice section in the Players Manual would have been useful. As I mentioned above, this section seems to assume the impetus for adventure is on the DM. "Hey players, I wrote up a dungeon. Wanna run through it?" rather than "Hey DM, we want to do this next time..."

2. Decide on a Setting
This gives us a short list of potential dungeons (expanded in the Expert Set to include wildernesses, but for here it's fairly traditional): Castle or Tower, Crypt or Tomb, Caves or Cavern, Ancient Temple, Abandoned Mine, Stronghold or Town.

That covers a good amount of adventuring locations, and provided me with enough fodder for dungeon creation for years.

3. Select Special Monsters
Before making the dungeon map, you should have a few ideas about what monsters live there. In other words, make sure there's some thematic monsters to face that are appropriate to the scenario and setting selected.

4. Draw the Map
There's some general advice on dungeon map drawing, starting with setting the scale, defining the general shape/style, and finally filling in the details. It references the dungeon symbols on the inside front cover of the book, and again these did help inspire me to create more interesting dungeon maps than simply a connected series of rectangular rooms and 10' wide corridors.

5. Stock the Dungeon
Fill up the map key! First place the Special Monsters and their treasures, then select or randomly roll for monsters and what not in the rest of the dungeon.

6. Fill in the Final Details
Now that you know what monsters are where, you can add details about dungeon dressing, sounds, smells, etc. Frank gives some good advice to keep it simple, as players get bored by excessive descriptions. Just give them the feel of the dungeon. This is one area I could improve on, personally, as I'm often a bit too sparse in my dungeon keys, and rely on improvising such things in play, which means I sometimes for get to give enough description, or useful clues for players to work with.

Frank also suggests making Wandering Monster charts for each dungeon to fit the scenario. I used to do this often, but more recently I've gotten lazy (with the exception of my Megadungeon). I need to make wandering monsters a more important part of the games I run, especially Chanbara. It (and Flying Swordsmen before it), lacks that in the rules.

Random Stocking
This section (and the original version in Moldvay's Basic Set which developed a very simple system in OD&D) has rightly received much praise from various old school bloggers over the years. It's a simple system of rolling two six-siders, one of which determines room contents, the other treasure. The OD&D version simply said roll a d6, with a 1-2 being a monster, anything else is an empty room. Another d6 roll then determines treasure (1-3 for monster rooms, 1 for empty rooms IIRC). The same basic system is presented here, but fleshed out (by Moldvay) so that:
1-2 Empty Room (1/d6 treasure)
3 Trap (1-2/d6 treasure)
4-5 Monster (1-3/d6 treasure)
6 Special (usually no treasure)

This means that, aside from intentionally placed monsters (and treasures), about one third of all rooms are inhabited, one third have dangers or oddities, and one third are empty. Approximately one third of all rooms will also have some treasure.

We get a Random Treasures Table for use with this system as well. In my early days, and even up until more recent years, I tended to ignore this table, and just use the Treasure Types tables. That meant that sometimes fairly small groups of monsters would be guarding fairly large treasures. Sometimes that's not a problem, but it does make monster encounters more of a lotto style. Using this Random Treasures table, small amounts of treasure will be found more often, and every now and then there will be a jackpot. From what I've read about modern game design, that's a winning method. When I revamp my Megadungeon, or if I go ahead and prepare the 5E Dragonlance game I'm thinking of trying to run, I'll probably use this table more often.

Room Contents
This section gives advice and suggestions for Traps and Specials indicated by the random stocking method described above.

We tend to think of D&D traps as killers (Tomb of Horrors casts a long shadow), but Frank is explicit that traps should not usually be deadly, or at least not always. He defines traps as "anything that could cause damage, delay or a magical effect to occur" (p. 47). He mentions that Thieves are good at finding and removing traps (failing to mention Dwarves' special detection ability), and that while an area may have a combination of traps, they shouldn't be too dangerous. "Deadly traps are not recommended until the 2nd level of a dungeon (or deeper) is reached" (p. 47).

He then gives us a list of types of traps, and some possible variations, and while many do result in damage, poison, etc. there are quite a few non-lethal traps as well. He lists out:
Blade (damage), Creature (attacks with surprise), Darts (damage, paralysis, poison, curse, etc.), Explosion (damage), Falling Item (damage), Fog (strange but non-damaging effects), Illusion (as phantasmal force), Light (temporary blindness), Pit (damage, or chute to lower level), Poison Gas (damage or instant death), Poison Needle (unspecified).

A lot of the fun of D&D, and many memorable encounters, are with specials, which Frank defines as "anything you place which is not normal, but is not a trap, monster or treasure" (p. 48). He provides a list of these as well:
Alarm (summons a monster, opens a door, or just makes noise), Illusion (a dungeon feature or creature is not really there), Map Change (shifting walls), Movements (shifting rooms), Pool (lots of strange potential effects), Sounds (moaning, screaming, talking, etc.), Statue (may be treasure, magical, alive, etc.), Transportation (hidden doors or stairs, elevators, magical portals, etc.), Trick Monster (examples are either variant normal monsters, or pun monsters), Weird Things (flying weapons, reverse gravity zones, shrinking/growing zones, etc.).

Basically, specials are there to add complications, mysteries, unexpected twists, or just plain old color.

Wandering Monsters
The final textual section of the book explains what wandering monster encounters are and what they are for, and how to run them. Having some monsters on the move makes the dungeon feel more alive. They also serve as a subtle reminder to players to keep things moving, although the book doesn't lay that out explicitly here.

Frank gives some advice on deciding when to have wandering monsters appear. Check once every two turns by rolling a d6. On a 1, wandering monsters appear. Noises, curses, or special areas may increase the frequency or probability of monsters appearing. Wandering monster numbers are typically less than a full room encounter, but the monsters rarely have treasure with them.

The inside back cover has wandering monster tables for dungeon levels 1 to 3, along with some Dungeon Master Reference charts (all saving throws, including for Fighters up to level 12 for use with monsters, and Monster Hit Charts up to 17+ hit dice).

For the Wandering Monster tables, there isn't much rhyme or reason to them. There are of course plenty of normal animals/giant insects, humanoids, some undead, and a few oddities on each level. While there are a few tough encounters on the first two levels, the third level chart does up the danger a fair amount with medusa, wererats and shadows making appearances. One handy thing about these charts is that it lists the page number on which each monster can be found in the book.

The back cover of the Dungeon Masters Rulebook gives us an index of both volumes, with entries listed as P# for Players Manual entries, and D# for Dungeon Masters Rulebook entries. It's pretty useful to have, but I don't remember using it that often. I read through these books so often that first year I had them that I was able to find anything I needed so easily for years afterwards. But it is nice to have a good index in the book.


And there you have it, folks! Mentzer Basic D&D, cover to cover. fin

Monday, January 2, 2017

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Explanation of Magic Items

This section starts with a paragraph on how to identify magic items: by experimenting with them. In other words, you need to risk exposing your character to curses or possibly death in order to be sure of your magic item's abilities. And you need to take the risk. If you have a hireling or retainer do it, they'll keep the item since they took the risk.

Of course, you could also ask a high-level NPC magic-user, but you'll need to fork out cash or complete some service first. This is a good thing, of course, because it provides a hook for adventure. If your magic item is cursed, it's a spur to adventure (at least until higher levels when a party Cleric or Magic-User can take care of that for you). If you want to take the safe (and slow) path of asking an NPC to ID the item, you'll need to complete some sort of adventure.

The next short paragraph just explains that some magic items are permanent and others temporary. Then, there's a slightly longer section on using magic items. Items that require concentration to make them function have a caveat that is important, but I often forget due to it not being a factor in more recent editions: when you use the item, "the user may not move, cast a spell, or take any other action during that round" (p. 42). Wands aren't like in Harry Potter, where they're a magical replacement for guns (or more accurately, Green Arrow/Hawkeye quiver of arrows). No John Woo stunts allowed.

Finally, we get a short explanation of charges in magic items. The rules say there's no way for the character to learn how many charges are in a charged item, but I always found this difficult to rule in play, especially since in the earliest days my two best friends and I co-DMed the same world. I've always just been open with players about how many charges were in their magic items. Not telling them makes them less cavalier about using them up, and while it might be kinda fun for them to gamble with their magic items, letting them know how many are left allows them to make informed choices about their use, which I think can also be fun (and probably more fun for the player). Oh, and there's a note that charged magic items cannot be recharged. I've recently overruled this for my games (not that it's easy to accomplish) because it can be a good spur to adventure if it's possible.

We get some basic information first. The 'plus' adds to hit rolls and damage rolls. Some of the swords get a better bonus against specific opponents. Weapon restrictions for classes still apply. Then, we get information on the two swords that can cast Clerical spells, with a note that other Cleric or Magic-User spells may be placed in swords. It's a nice way to let the Fighter, Thief, Dwarf or Halfling have a bit of magic. Oh, and then we are told that most magic swords are normal swords, but occasionally short swords or two-handed magic swords will be found, and the DM can select the type as they like or roll randomly.

Swords can, of course, be cursed. There's a 15% chance any sword will be cursed (roll 1-3 on d20). The cursed sword will appear to be the type rolled until used in combat. According to a strict reading of the rules, no matter what type was rolled, as a cursed sword it will be a sword -1. It doesn't mention if special powers, like additional bonus vs. specific types or spell casting ability still functions, but the implication is that they don't. One thing I have often overlooked is that a cursed sword, once uncursed, reverts back to the type rolled originally. Getting a cursed sword isn't screwing the player over that badly, as they can go on a quest to remove the curse, and then have whatever sweet swag they were expecting to have. Delayed gratification is a good thing, right?

Other Weapons
 This is a short section, as other weapons pretty much follow the rules for magic swords. For players who do prefer other weapons besides swords, there is a small silver lining (I mentioned in the previous post how the chances to get other magic weapons are much lower than swords). Other magic weapons are only cursed 10% of the time (1-2 on d20).

There is a chart for magic armor that is somewhat unnecessary. Since only armors of +1 value are given in this set, though, instead of explaining how the plus lowers your AC, there's a chart that shows the AC for non-magical armor, magical armor, and an encumbrance adjustment for wearing magical armor. The encumbrance adjustment is really the only useful part of the chart once you move beyond the Basic rules. And since shields can get a +1 or +2 enchantment, Frank had to explain the system for magical AC adjustment anyway. Maybe the chart is a hold-over from the days when the Chainmail combat system was standard, and AC had a slightly different meaning.

Cursed armor works similarly to magic weapons, in that a cursed item is -1 (adds 1 to AC). There's a slightly higher chance to get cursed armor than other weapons, but slightly less than magic swords (1 on d8).

There's a bit of description of potions first, then we're told how long they last (typically 7-12 Turns), and only the DM should know for sure. If you want to ID a potion, take a sip. To activate the potion, chug it! Also, unlike in AD&D (1E for sure, maybe 2E as well), there's no fun potion miscability table, just a note that if you drink a potion while another is in effect, you get sick for 3 Turns (no save) and neither potion has any more effect. Healing potions are exempt from this as they have no duration.

The potion of diminution is interesting in that it specifies that while shrunk down you cannot damage creatures bigger than 1' tall (you're not Ant-Man). It doesn't specify how you damage small creatures like that (roll damage normally? Do minimum damage?), nor does it mention hit point adjustments. It does say it will negate a potion of growth, so there's one exception to the "no mixing potions" rule.

The potion of gaseous form is specific in that gear is not made gaseous. It also notes that while gaseous you are AC -2 and only magic weapons or spells can harm you.

The potion of growth, unlike its counterpart above, does let you know that you deal double damage while giant size, but your hit points don't change. The exception to the sickness with potions of diminution is noted again here, as well.

Invisibility potions have an interesting optional rule which if you're going to use it for this potion, you might as well use it for others as well. At the DM's option, players may split the potion into six doses which each have effect for 1 Turn. That's nice for setting up an ambush, or group escapes.

Finally, potions of poision, even if just a sip is taken, can cause instant death! Yes, you get a save, and similar to the previous advice on poison, there's a note that the DM can have the potion deal damage instead of causing death instantly.

We get a bit of description of scrolls and how they function. There's a not that only spell-casters of the appropriate type can cast spell scrolls, but any character can use a Protection scroll or treasure map... but this forgets that characters of low intelligence have trouble reading, or can't read at all.

For spell scrolls, there's a 25% chance the scroll is for Clerics, otherwise it is for MUs and Elves. The scroll can have one to three spells, and at this level the spells may go up to third level (due to there being some higher level Cleric/Magic-User spells in the book. Especially for MUs/Elves, since they need to collect spells for their spellbooks, this is a good thing, because it adds a bit of tension to having a scroll and never using it so that it can be added to the spell-book later, or use it when it may be of help.

Cursed scrolls affect you just by looking at the scroll, so unlike magic swords, weapons and armor, the removal of the curse does not revert the scroll to a beneficial magical one, it just ends the effects. There are some curses suggested, and the fourth one is level drain "as if struck by a wight" with a note to avoid using this item in a situation where the characters are 1st level as level drain would kill them.  I think if this were the curse, I'd give a saving throw or something. Even a poison potion allows a saving throw.

Protection Scrolls are one of my favorite magic items. I'm not sure why, but I think it's the fact that any (literate) character can use them, and they have some useful effects. There are only two in the Basic Set, Protection from Lycanthropes and from Undead. There are more in Expert (don't remember off hand if the Companion Set added any), and even more in AD&D (Unearthed Arcana/2E at least). They create a 10' diameter -- as a kid I interpreted it as radius, but it says "10' across" (p. 44) -- moving circle of protection that prevents a certain number of creatures from entering. The number affected is rolled randomly, though, so if you roll low, or there are just a lot of that type of creature, some can get through. Still, when fighting lycanthropes or undead, preventing the whole pack from mobbing you is still not bad, although keeping them all away is best.

One thing that is unclear is how to rule the effect if there are more than one type of the creatures together. So if there are werewolves (1-8 affected) and weretigers (1-4 affected) together, do some of both get hedged out? Only the weaker? Only the stronger? DMs can determine it as they wish.

Treasure maps -- I mentioned before how I think these are kind of out of place -- may lead you to normal or magical treasure. You as DM should also prepare treasure maps ahead of time, which is a good idea, if you have plenty of prep time and your players really need accurate visuals. Frank suggests that foreign languages may be used on the map to make it difficult to read the map without magic.

Anyone who's read or seen Aladdin or The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings knows what the first section tells us: that the ring needs to be worn on a finger to have an effect. The game does explicitly tell us that you're limited to only one ring per hand, two total, or they all stop functioning (except a cursed Ring of Weakness). Also, anyone can use a ring.

The ring of animal control is (for me at least) an overlooked gem of an item. Maybe I just never had a PC that acquired one, and if any of my old players did, they never took advantage of it. I know I haven't had any rolled up in my recent dungeons or other adventures. The ring lets you control 1d6 normal animals or a single giant animal, as long as they're in sight, for up to one turn. That can take care of a lot of deadly encounters with especially poisonous creatures with little or at least lessened risk to the party. The down side is no movement while concentrating on the control. Also, the rules are worded a bit unfairly -- only one 1/2 hit die giant rat could be controlled, while 1d6 sabertooth tigers or cave bears could be controlled by a strict reading. And when you get dinosaurs in the Expert Set... Obviously some DM judgment is required.

There's not really much to say about the rings of fire resistance, invisibility, or protection +1. The first two work like the spells (fire resistance permanently, invisibility once per turn), and the ring of protection +1 adds to AC and saving throws continually. Nice, but nothing unusual about any of them.

The ring of water walking leaves me with one question (and of course, it's up to individual DMs to decide the answer). The description says "The wearer of this ring may walk on the surface of any body of water, and will not sink" (p. 44). How is that controversial, you ask? Well, what about other non-water liquids? Can you cross a river of vinegar or a pool of oil? If you have glass slippers could you cross acid? Can you pour some water over a pressure plate, then walk on the spilled water without setting it off? Lots of potential for fun with this one!

The cursed ring of weakness is last. It lowers your Strength to 3 within a few rounds, and lasts until the curse is removed. And unlike magic swords/weapons/armor, removing the curse doesn't revert it to a useful magic ring. I may add other cursed rings that affect other stats, or maybe just roll randomly what ability score gets drained, or have it affect the Prime Requisite, because most of the time a Magic-User or Thief with this ring isn't usually overly burdened, except that they can only then use one useful ring at a time. A ring of feeblemind, or ring of sickliness would be a fun change up every now and then (although magic rings being rare, compared to other items, and there being lots of types especially by the Companion Set/RC tables, they wouldn't come up often).

Wands, Staves and Rods
This is the only class of magic item that doesn't have any cursed items (at least in the Basic Set...I'll have to check if later sets add some). We get a bit of description of all three types of item, and a note that at least for the items presented here, only MUs and Elves can use wands, only Clerics can use staves, and anyone can use a rod. Also, wands will have 1d10 charges only when you find them.

Wands of enemy detection (and later the enemy detection ability of intelligent swords in the Expert Set) always seemed like a fairly useless item to us when we were kids, because (as I've mentioned countless times in this series over the years), most monsters would just attack in those early games. However, there is an ability of this wand that actually makes it super useful even after combat starts -- hostile invisible creatures get lit up, so everyone can see where they are. Hidden creatures like thieves or troglodytes also appear.

The wand of magic detection is a great item to have, as it frees up a spell slot, or speeds up identification of magical loot, and occasionally can be used to confirm that locks/traps/strange things are magical or not.

Wands of paralyzation are nice, they shoot a ray 60' long, 30' wide at the end, and anything in it must save vs. wands or be paralyzed for one whole hour. If there were a spell that had the same effect, it would probably be 4th level, or maybe 5th, since Hold Person, which affects 1 to 4 humanoids only, is 3rd for a magic-user. In fact, compared to Hold Monster, this wand's effect would maybe be a 6th level spell... And here it is in the Basic Set.

The staff of healing is nice and simple here (it gets optionally much more complicated in the Companion Set). It can cast cure light wounds on any number of creatures, each once per day. Any army or settlement's Cleric would probably go to great lengths to secure one of these items, as it can take care of most of that community's injuries without resorting to spell slots.

The snake staff is another (for my old group at least) overlooked gem. It's a staff +1 in melee (and we get melee stats for a staff here before it's provided on the weapons lists in Expert), and on command changes into a snake that automatically (no save) ensnares the target of man-size or less. While it does have hit points in snake form, and becomes non-magical if killed, that's a pretty good way to take a creature alive.

The rod of cancellation is the item any character can use, and none of them want to! Why? Because it turns what would otherwise be your magical loot into a non-magical item. Kind of a last resort, unless you're using it to remove an unwanted cursed item. This description does give us the concept of "Touch AC" which was enshrined in 3E. To hit an item with the rod in combat, you only need to hit AC 9 (unless, as Frank notes, the item is currently being wielded, which should provide it a lower AC).

Miscellaneous Magic Items
In general, I'm also a big fan of miscellaneous items, many because again any class character can use them (at least of the ones here in Basic), and they all provide some fun effects, some of which can only be achieved through these items.

The bag of devouring is technically a cursed item, although there are no restrictions like being forced to keep it. It appears to be a bag of holding, but if you leave items in it for too long (7 to 12 Turns), the items disappear. So once it's determined that this is a bag of devouring, you need to empty it out once per hour and refill it. Unlike the bag of holding, however, it doesn't list a maximum weight limit (although many DMs would likely imply one from the bag of holding's limit). A strict reading, however, gives unlimited capacity, but just the need to empty it and refill it once per hour.

As just mentioned, the bag of holding has a size/weight limit of what can go in it listed here, and it tells us that when full the bag only weighs 600cn (so the same as a loaded large sack). Unlike in AD&D, there's only one size bag to worry about. A must-have item for any adventuring party, and since it's available from the Basic levels, it's somewhat likely a party may end up with one or two before they get too high in levels.

A crystal ball is (again, for me) another underused item. While it only works 3 times per day, it can give you an idea of what's happening anywhere you want to look. Great for scouting or spying.

The elven cloak and elven boots are nice, in that they make you almost (2~6 on d6) invisible and (2~10 on d10) silent, respectively. Great for sneaking around and surprising enemies. It makes me wonder about other sorts of demi-human attire that could be found with magical effects...halfling cravats, dwarven caps, gnomish knickerbockers...

Gauntlets of Ogre Power give you an 18 Strength. If you already have an 18 Str, they're more or less useless to you, although they do allow you to punch creatures for 1d4 damage at a +3 bonus to hit. Again, later editions have added other items to increase other stats, and that could easily be copied for Classic D&D based on the rules presented here.

The Helm of Alignment Changing is a cursed item, and once put on can only be removed with spells or other curse removal means. And it changes your alignment, randomly, to one of the other two. But since there are no alignment restrictions in Classic D&D, it's more of an annoyance than an actual hindrance.

The Helm of Telepathy is a nice item. While you need to concentrate (which means not moving or taking any other actions), you can have a mental conversation with any willing creature, even if you don't share a language. You can also snoop on their thoughts without having to send a message, if they let you or fail a save.

The medallion of ESP, on the other hand, is kind of a chump version of the helm. You can only read thoughts with it, and you have a 1 in 6 chance to broadcast your own thoughts to everyone in range instead of reading the target's mind. If you have a choice, take the helm over this one!

Finally, there's another staple item many parties crave, the rope of climbing. Like the elven cloak and boots, it takes its inspiration from The Lord of the Rings. It can also hold up to 10,000cn weight, but I don't remember regular rope giving a weight limit. I'll have to look it up later. Still, that's pretty good, as you can use it to climb (of course), grab items that are out of reach, and several other uses.

And that's it for magic items. Next up, Creating Dungeons, which will probably get divided into two posts, with the end matter (back cover) being included in the second post. Two more to go and this series is finished.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Magic Item Subtables

For the magic item subtables in the Basic Set, first you should roll a percentage die to determine the type of item, and then a d20 on the particular item type table. Since the magic item type table has everything in increments of 5%, I'm not sure why it's not also a d20 table. Maybe to keep it compatible with the d% tables for each type in the Expert Set later?

Anyway, one in four items will be a potion (25%), one in every five magic items is going to be a magic sword or a magic scroll (20% each), one in ten will be another sort of weapon or magical armor (10% each, although, as we shall see, armor is sometimes two magic items), and one in twenty will be a magic ring, wand/staff/rod, or miscellaneous item (5% each).

Swords are pretty much the most popular weapon from the get-go anyway, but if you want to be all cool and stylish and use another weapon as your go-to weapon at character creation, by the book at least, you're probably going to switch to using a sword later on, just because magical swords are so much more common than other types of magical weapons. Magical swords are twice as common as all other types of weapons put together. [Of course, what DM hasn't had a player with a stylish but (usually) suboptimal choice of preferred weapon, and not thrown them a bone and had them find a magical version by DM fiat rather than waiting for it to come up by random roll, if ever?]

Anyway, moving on to the specific subtables, the first of course is swords. There are eight types of swords, and there is a 40% chance to get a plain old sword +1 (although at these levels, it's not yet a 'plain old' magical weapon), a 55% chance to get a sword +1 with an ability of some kind, and a 5% chance to get a sword +2. The possible special abilities are a sword +1/+2 vs. lycanthropes, a sword +1/+2 vs. spell-users, a sword +1/+3 vs. undead, a sword +1/+3 vs .dragons, a sword +1 light spell 1/day, or a sword +1 cure light wounds spell 1/day.

Other weapons could be 10 arrows +1 (20%), an axe +1 (10%, either type I suppose), a dagger +1 (15%) or +2 (5%), a mace +1 (15%), 10 quarrels +1 (15%), a sling +1 (5%), or a war hammer +1 (15%). If you're a Basic level character who uses a spear, club, or pole arm, you're out of luck until level 4. It's also interesting that there are no magical bows or crossbows, only their ammunition, but there's a magical sling rather than ammunition.

For magical armor, there are six types of armor to be rolled: leather +1 (20%), chainmail +1 (25%), plate mail +1 (10%), shield +1 (30%) or +2 (10%), and the above mentioned set of chainmail and shield, both +1 (5%). So you've got a half a percent chance to get two items instead of only one when rolling for magical treasure. And really, most parties are going to split that magical armor and shield up if it gets discovered, unless the party unearths a fair amount of magical treasure in one go.

There are eight types of potions: diminution (20%), ESP (10%), gaseous form (15%), growth (15%), healing (20%), invisibility (5%), levitation (10%), and poison (5%). So, healing is the most common, and poison (thankfully) the least common type. And a nice spread of abilities. Growth and strength have the ability to double melee damage, and growth obviously has some other benefits and drawbacks. Gaseous form, diminution, growth, levitation, strength and invisibility are useful "getting around obstacles" abilities.

For scrolls, there can be scrolls with 1 spell (20%), 2 spells (15%) or 3 spells (5%), a curse (10%), protection from lycanthropes (15%), protection from undead (15%), a treasure map to 1~4k gold (10%), or a treasure map to a magic item (10%). I'm not personally fond of having treasure maps as "magic items." I'd much rather just leave maps laying around when I think it's appropriate, and give out actual magic items when I roll them. But that's just me.

There are six types of magic rings: animal control (15%), fire resistance (25%), invisibility (10%), protection +1 (25%), water walking (15%), and weakness (10%). Half of all rings at this level of play will be protective, three have utility powers, and one is cursed. Not too shabby a spread of powers.

There are three wands, two staves and one rod on the lists: wand of enemy detection (30%), wand of magic detection (25%), wand of paralyzation (15%), staff of healing (15%), snake staff (5%), and rod of cancellation (10%). Back in the day, I used to think the "detect X" wands (and later in the Expert and Companion Sets magic swords) were kinda lame. Now, being older and wiser, I like them a lot. They allow a clever group of players to scout out information about dungeons that can help them to level uneven playing fields (or tips scales in their favor) before entering combat, or to get the gold without a fight.

There are ten different miscellaneous magic items: bag of devouring (10%), bag of holding (15%), crystal ball (5%), elven cloak (10%), elven boots (10%), gauntlets of ogre power (5%), helm of alignment changing (10%), helm of telepathy (15%), medallion of ESP (10%), or a rope of climbing (10%). There are actually some powerful items here, for low level play. And since they become much more rare in an Expert level game, it's nice to be able to find them at low levels. Of course, unlike some of the other treasure types, there are two cursed items on the list, while each other type of item called. 

More on magic item descriptions tomorrow (at least I hope tomorrow, by the end of the month at least!).

Monday, December 19, 2016

How to Succeed in RPGs

Starting next week, I'll be doing winter workshop classes for my university. My morning workshop is the ever-popular "Screen English" where we watch movies and talk about them. My afternoon workshop is "Improving Conversation through Role Play" which, you guessed it, means I'm playing D&D with the students who sign up.

Last year it was a bit of a bust, so I'm taking steps to make it easier to grasp, more fun (I hope), and also helps my students improve their English more. One thing I did was simplify the character sheets. There's no combat information on them other than their hit points and what weapons/armor/spells they have. There is some physical/mental/social description of each PC, and general exploration chances (like finding traps, secret doors, foraging for food, etc.). Also, each class's special abilities are listed, including a set array of spells, once per day each, for the spell-casters.

Another is to make a list of Achievements (like in modern video games) which should help them both to get an idea about the sorts of things that happen in D&D, but also give them goals to achieve in the game.

Finally, I just wrote this short description of what role playing games are all about, and some questions that the students can ask when they are stuck for information about what to do. I'm copying it here:

How to Succeed at Role Playing Games

What is a role playing game (RPG)? It's a type of shared story-telling game. One player is the referee (usually given a specific name for each game, in D&D the referee is called the Dungeon Master or DM), who plays the part of the imaginary world, and also applies the rules of the game and judges success or failure of actions. Each other player plays a single character (player character, or PC) and had nearly complete control over that character. Together, the referee and players tell a story, using the rules of the game and dice to determine how the story plays out.

How do you play? The referee describes the scene, and the players describe their characters' actions. The referee plays the parts of non-player characters (NPCs), monsters, and the world itself (weather, environment hazards, etc.) and decides what actions they will take. For actions that are simple or easy, the action happens unless the referee decides there is some reason why it would not (starting a fire may be easy, unless it is in the middle of a storm). For actions which may succeed or fail, dice are rolled to determine success or failure.
Once the players are content with a scene (called an encounter), it finishes and they move on to the next one, usually because of their choices. A connected series of encounters is called an adventure and a connected series of adventures is called a campaign. Players play the same character in a campaign, and as they meet the goals of the game, they get experience points (XP) and level up, gaining more power, more abilities, or more options – until the character dies. Then the player makes a new character to continue playing.

What is Dungeons & Dragons (D&D)? D&D is the oldest commercial RPG, first published in 1974. It is a fantasy game (other games are sci-fi, horror, mystery, pulp adventure, martial arts, post-apocalypse...) where the PCs live in a world with medieval technology, magic, and monsters.

What should my PC do in a D&D game? There are three main activities in D&D: exploring the game world, interacting with NPCs and monsters, and combat. The goal of the game is to defeat monsters and earn their treasure. Both defeating monsters and gathering treasure give XP, but usually more for treasure. Smart players try to get treasure with as little risk as possible.
When you have an encounter with an NPC or monster, you have several options, but usually players choose one of four: don't interact/run away, talk to the NPC or monster, attack the NPC or monster, or wait and see what the NPC or monster does first. Not every monster is going to try to kill or eat you, and likewise not every NPC is going to want to help you.

You said I could do anything in the game. I have too many options! What should I do? If you're ever not sure about what to do, you need to start asking questions to the referee and other players. The fun of RPGs comes from exploring unknown areas, having encounters, and surviving (although it can sometimes also be fun when your PC dies!).
Good gaming is about making choices. You need to be able to decide on the size of the risk involved in an action against the size of the reward you may gain. In D&D, staying in town can be fun, because you can interact with many interesting NPCs. But it is safe, and XP rewards are small. In the wilderness or a dungeon (dangerous places), there is more danger, but also greater XP rewards for success. Similarly, some monsters are less dangerous but have small treasures, while other monsters, like dragons, are powerful and very dangerous, but have very large treasures! Deciding on the amount of risk you wish to take for the amount of reward you think you will earn is part of the game. If you can't make a choice, try asking the DM some of the questions on the next page.
Using Your Senses
  • What can I see?
  • Can you describe what ____ looks like in detail?
  • How big/heavy/etc is _____?
  • Do I hear anything?
  • What does this place/thing smell like?
  • How does the air feel? (hot, cold, humid, dry, charged with energy, etc.)
  • I touch ______. How does it feel?
  • Can you describe _____ again?

Checking the Environment
  • What kind of area are we in?
  • How many ways in and out are there?
  • Where can I go from here?
  • What kind of things are there in this area?
  • Does anything seem strange or out of the ordinary here?
  • How far can I see?
  • How much light is there here?
  • I want to search for ______. What do I find? (secret doors, traps, clues, etc.)
  • How far is it to ______?

Checking Your Knowledge
  • What do I know about _____?
  • I want to know more about ______. Where can I go to learn more?
  • Who can I ask about ______?
  • Do I feel like I can I trust this information? (or trust this NPC, or book, etc.)
  • Did we learn anything about this before? [Taking notes can help with this!]
  • Would my PC know how to ______?

Taking Actions
  • I want to try to _____. Can I do that?
  • What are my chances to ______?
  • If I fail to _____, what will happen?
  • What can I do to stop the NPC/monster from ______?
  • Can I _____ before the NPC/monster does ______?
  • Can I _____ on my turn? (this may be more than one action!)
  • If I _____ [plan], could I _____ [action you want to succeed]?
  • Does my PC see or know of any way to _____?

Remember, the game is about making choices, and to do that, you need to know your environment and what is happening in it! Ask questions when you are stuck.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Gaming as an Ex-Pat Part 3 (Final)

Here it is, the final post I made on Facebook, when asked by an acquaintance to describe how different it is trying to play/run games in Korea compared to back home. Yeah, I blathered on for a long time before actually answering her question. She dug it, though, and then wanted to take a look at Flying Swordsmen, so I consider that a win.

I arrived in Korea and in less than a month was a new father (my wife wanted to be close to her family when she gave birth, and she's a Busan native). So for that first year or so, I didn't get any gaming in. Soon, though, I met some guys named Josh, Alex, Pat and Steve who were interested in playing board games. We'd meet once a week or once every two weeks in Seomyeon to game. After a year or so, we started occasionally playing RPGs instead of board games. A few more people were interested, so we ended up with more players including a few Koreans, and running several short campaigns.

I ran Classic D&D. Josh ran 3E. Dave tried to get a d20 Conan game going, but it didn't gel. Alex tried the same with RIFTS. Eventually Pat got the 4E books, so we gave that a try. Josh picked up the 4E version of Gamma World, and we gave that a try.

During this time, I was working on my Dragon Fist retro-clone, which I titled Flying Swordsmen. Eventually I had it ready, so we played some Flying Swordsmen too. It's an odd feeling to run your own game at first. I felt this pressure to "get it right" since it was my own game. Presidents of the Apocalypse was just this little goofy game where everyone tried to be as silly as possible, but Flying Swordsmen tries to emulate Chinese wuxia fantasy martial arts using essentially D&D rules. I think I pulled it off well, but there were a few little things about it that bugged me (mostly because it was a retro-clone copying another game, so some design choices were out of my hands).

Then, as happens in ex-pat circles, people moved away. New people came in. I found myself next in a Pathfinder group run by a guy named Brian, along with one or two other people from the first group. Around the same time, Pat and Bill were putting together the Busan Bored Gamers group, so I feel like that group is a direct descendant of our Seomyeon group.

When the PF game finally finished, I ended up without a face-to-face group to play with, but through Google+ Hangouts (popular with gamers, especially the OSR), I ended up in a group run by Justin in Pohang. Thanks to the power of the internet, we've got members in other places besides Korea. A few Aussies played early on, and a Scottish guy has been a regular in our various G+ games ever since. Justin ran Labyrinth Lord (BX D&D clone) for a long time, then tried Stars Without Number (BX D&D rules for sci-fi gaming) for a while.

I ran a few Classic D&D games. Jeremy ran a wide variety of his home-brewed games he was trying out. Dean started a 4E game, which attracted a few different players, who aren't really into the OSR stuff. Now Dean's game is 5E, and still going strong. We've tried a few other things here and there over the years, too.

Because Flying Swordsmen got good reviews but I wasn't satisfied with it, I started working on my current project, Chanbara (fantasy feudal Japan set to basic D&D rules). I've been play-testing it now and then with this online group, and it seems to hold up pretty well. I'm hoping to release the game soon (real world concerns have delayed it, though).

As far as gaming supplies, I haven't really found much I need to buy anymore. I've got tons of dice and minis. Rulebooks can be downloaded in pdf form or ordered from Amazon (and sometimes Whatthebook). Since most of my gaming takes place online, there's not a lot of need for extra stuff. Also, I'm primarily a player instead of primarily a DM these days, which also reduces my need for stuff. All those minis I collected in Japan are locked in a cabinet where my baby can't get to them.

In a few years, though, I plan to be gaming with my boys, and putting all those gaming supplies I don't use now to good use!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Gaming as an Ex-Pat Part 2 Addendum

I originally was going to post both this and the main "part 2" post together, then decided not to. Somehow, I just saw, Blogger posted the draft backdated. So if you've already read this, apologies.

Gaming in Japan Addendum: Miniatures

I forgot to mention this part, which was one of the cool things about living in Japan. I mentioned that in my first location, there weren't a lot of places to get gaming material. In the second place I lived, Yaman
ashi, I was able to amass a sizeable miniature collection in interesting ways.

As I mentioned, Yellow Submarine in Tokyo had Reaper Minis, so I did buy a small number of minis there. But Japan has so many other ways to get fantasy/sci-fi minis that work for gaming.

First of all, there are random collectible miniatures that you can buy in many stores, including most convenience stores. In the years I was there, they had several series of mythological creatures, both Western and Eastern. So I have rubberized plastic minis of dragons, griffons, chimera, unicorns, pegasi, and Greek/Norse gods that work well for giants from the Western mythology series, and bakemono, tengu, oni, and so on from the Eastern series.

There are also series of figures based on games like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy and Pokemon, comics like Devilman, and things like that that I picked up over the years. You can find them here in Busan, in limited numbers, at places like Art Box.

Then, there are the cola promotion figures. Every now and then, there are promotions to sell Coke or Pepsi, where they have a randomized figure in an opaque cellophane package around the neck of 500ml bottles of soda. Back when the Star Wars prequels were coming out, I collected lots of Star Wars bottle toppers. The ones in the stores were from the Prequels, of course, but if you collected enough of the inserts and payed a small fee, you could send away for sets from the original trilogy (which I did, although I wasn't able to get all of those sets). In other years, there were Final Fantasy VII and VIII figures, Lupin the Third figures, Dragonball characters, and even Lego minifigs. I collected many.

If that weren't enough, in my town there was this resale shop. They'd buy just about anything for pennies and then sell it for dollars. Clothes, books, CDs, sports equipment, toys, games, and of course they had a section devoted to all of these sorts of little collectible minis I've been describing. I'd go there fairly often and add to my gaming collection.

I also got into HeroClix, and would buy lots when I was home on vacations, so if I ever want to run a Marvel or DC supers game, I've got the figures for it!

Oh, and one more thing! Daiso (those of you in Busan are familiar with the chain, it's from Japan) in Japan sells (or sold, at least) little green army men, and also similar sets of pirates, knights, cowboys & Indians, ninja, construction workers, police/fire/rescue figures. Have sets of all of them, as well. They work great as NPC figures.

So while I don't feel like minis are a necessity for RPGs, I do enjoy using them, and Japan was a great place for collecting a variety of minis for gaming.