Monday, May 2, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Procedures and Rules 1

Time to cast Resurrect Topic! Yes, it's been almost a year since I last posted in this Cover to Cover series, but if you've bothered to look, you'll see I just haven't done a whole heck of a lot of posting period over the past year. I'm not saying I'm back to regular posting, but I am going to give this series another shot and see if I can finish up the DM's book.

Procedures and Rules is a grab-bag section of various topics that DMs should be ready for, arranged in alphabetical order. The section is 8 pages long, and I'll try to cover two pages or so each post. Then we'll be moving on to monsters! But before I get ahead of myself, let's get down to this post, which covers the sections of Alignment Changes through Demi-Humans (special abilities).

Alignment Changes
Well, this section starts off right - alignment is how the player wants to play the character. And if you see that they are playing their character in a different way, take them aside or talk to them after the game, in private about it. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Then, however, we're told that if the player keeps playing "incorrectly" that the DM should tell them their alignment has changed, and penalize them in some way. And of course, to be fair, reward good alignment play by giving more XP, treasure, or making monsters easier to defeat. But of course if it's a curse or magic item like the Helm of Alignment Changing, don't penalize them.

Alignment's always tricky, especially these days after we've had over a decade of arguments ad nauseum about it on the internet. Now, I think if the player is playing a character differently than their alignment indicates, they probably should either rethink how they play or else change their alignment. And as a player, if the DM were going for a certain mood or style of game where his or her vision of alignment was different than mine, I'd be willing to change to the suggestion of the DM, after talking it over, if the DM didn't accept my reasoning for my alignment play.

I think level reduction or arbitrarily taking away magic items, as Frank suggests, aren't really the way to go, though. An in-game penalty, like a curse, that could be removed by "correct" alignment play or by a decision by the player to accept the new alignment might seem more fun and acceptable to me.

Sound advice. If there's an argument, try to resolve it quickly and get back to the game. If it can't be resolved, make a ruling for now, and get back to the game. Then hash it out later, after the game is over.

Charm Person Spells
We get some advice on this spell, but it all relates to the duration and what creatures can and can't be effected by it. And it's fairly cut and dry. Most problems I've seen with the spell over the years tend to deal with just how much or how little a charmed creature will do for the charmer.

The duration advice is something I've found useful, and used as a benchmark for other types of spells. If the target is highly intelligent the saving throw is repeated every day. If normal intelligence, every week. If low intelligence, every month. This is a useful benchmark for other lingering effects, with the ability score changed to fit the situation. A disease might weaken a character, but they get a saving throw every time period depending on whether their Constitution is high/average/low.

Frank lists the monsters in the Basic set that the spell should affect (and a note that the Expert and Companion sets will add to the list), but before that he explicitly states that it's up to the DM to decide, along with a few guidelines. It's implicit rather than explicit, but he's giving the starting DM permission to change things to suit the DM's campaign.

This section is something that I've read a lot about on various blogs and forums over the years. For beginning players, who don't yet know all of the tropes and expectations of the game, it pays to help them out with some suggestions like, "Do you want to search for secret doors?" Also, give them some automatic successes early on to encourage them to try things. As they get more experienced, stop helping them out this way. I know some DMs would just throw players out there and let them fail, but I've seen first-hand how this can sour new players to the game. I like to think I've learned from my mistakes. Honestly, this was one section of the book I should have paid more attention to when I was younger.

After the above, Frank mentions how on higher levels of the dungeon especially, deadly traps or monster encounters should be telegraphed by obvious clues. As you go deeper into the dungeon, the clues can become less obvious, and deeper still there may be places where there are no clues at all. As the players get more experienced, they will tend to ask for more details about the areas, trying to look for clues, so be ready to provide them (as Frank says, put them in the dungeon key).

Similar to the Arguments section above, this is really more about how to handle the players than how to run any aspect of the game. If the players complain, don't shut them out, hear them out then try to compromise if possible. Frank suggests modifying the rules or using optional rules.

We get an admonition about "game balance" here, though. Be careful what you tinker with, don't make the game too easy or the players will get lazy and/or bored. While I think the recent efforts of the OSR have shown how robust the classic D&D engine really is to handle all sorts of crazy variant rules, he does have a point about the "giveaway game" as he calls it, or the Monty Haul game as it's come to be known online (or did Gary use that term in some AD&D books?).

Final good advice of this section - don't be afraid to tell the players that you made a mistake, and that you're also just learning the game. For a new DM, there can be a lot of pressure to get things right. Performance anxiety can be tough. For my friends and I back in the day, though, we were so free-wheeling and loose with the rules that it never really became an issue. Surely we made a lot of mistakes, but we were still having fun. And when we did stop making the mistakes, and started using the rules as intended, we were still having fun so it was no big deal.

Creating Characters
Here we get the standard advice about "hopeless characters" as they're known in Gamma World. If a character has all low stats, nothing above a 9 or two scores below 6, roll up a new one. The dice can be finicky when you're only rolling 3d6 in order. However, it's still the DM's call whether a character would be viable or not. It's also explicitly stated that this is for beginning players, as more experienced players should be able to handle the challenge.

If a player wants to play a certain class but rolls stats for another, the DM can allow them to switch the prime requisite of the class rolled for the prime requisite of the class desired, but only one switch allowed. This became such standard practice with my old group back in the day that it was just to be expected that you'd get to make one switch if you wanted to. I allowed it, and so did my friends who also DMed sometimes. In these days of rolling 4d6 drop lowest, arrange to taste, or point buy, or standard arrays, this must seem archaic and as a straight jacket to playing the character you want (which Frank says earlier in the section we should allow). I still like it, as it tends to give more organic characters, and can be surprising and fun. Point buy/array just ends up being a utilitarian min/max analysis most of the time.

These were the heyday of the Satanic Panic, so this section is very explicit about using, if you wish - totally not required! - MYTHOLOGICAL deities for the characters to worship. But that all takes place off stage, never changes the game rules, and the deities NEVER interfere with mortal matters (except, if you wish, to explain how Clerics get their spells). But NEVER use real world religions that might offend a player.

This section did make me resist defining any sort of religious systems for my campaign worlds for a long time. Well, that, plus a very devout Catholic father (he never had issues with me playing D&D though) and a conservative, religious Midwest small town to grow up in. I did eventually add in a half-assed Zodiac based system that I took from some Atari game (Sword Quest maybe, the one with real prizes people could win and tie in comic books and stuff). I've actually been thinking of revising the Zodiac system, since I could easily key it to the Four Classical Elements and the three alignments. But that's a post for another day.

We get some advice for how to adjudicate each demi-human class's special abilities. One thing I took to heart from this section was to always roll the dice, even if there's nothing to find. Just to keep the players guessing. And it's good advice, unless you always roll in the open. But the reason for always rolling necessitates a secret roll, so if you always roll in the open (as some people suggest should be done) then you'll have to deal with losing some suspense when you roll a success in the open but have to announce that they find nothing.

Dwarves: They can detect various architectural features, and searching a roughly 30' x 30' area takes one turn per feature searched for. And the traps they can find are "room traps" like pits, falling ceilings, etc. I like the bit at the end, where if a player just says, "I'll check for all the dwarf stuff" you should remind them that it will take 4 turns (unless the area is small). That's at least two wandering monster checks...

Elves: We only get advice about searching for secret doors, but unlike the dwarf, the elf needs 1 turn to search a 10' square area of wall, floor, or ceiling. That's quite the investment of time just for a 2 in 6 chance to find a secret door. In practice, I always ended up just making one check per area (like with Dwarves, one roll per normal sized dungeon room). I found that requiring one roll per 10' searched discouraged searching for secret doors at all. Of course, back then I could have given better clues that there may be a secret door (see the Clues section, above).

Halflings: Halflings get two special abilities described, their hiding and their dodging ability. For hiding, we're told that they need to have something to hide behind. While it's implicit rather than explicit, I think the intention may have been to show that it's different from a Thief's Hide in Shadows ability, although it may be years of Robert Fisher interpretation of Thief skills clouding my memory of how we ran it back in the day. As for dodging, we're reminded that big monsters suffer a -1 penalty to hit a Halfling, but that the onus should be on the player of the Halfling character to remind the DM when facing big creatures. I know it's something we often forgot. 3E's simple +1 to all small characters' AC is much more elegant, since you never have to worry about remembering it as a DM, or remembering to remind your DM about it as a player.

Anyway, that's just slightly more than two pages of this section. Next time, I'll try to cover Dice through Higher Level Spells.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Some nice play test results

Last night, we play tested Chanbara again, this time with the group up to level 3. Dean, Michael and Alexei were running Kozuzume (Shukyo Shinobi/Taijutsuka), Oman Won Shinobi (Kuge Shinobi/Kagemusha) and Ringo Matsuoka (Buke Bushi/Samurai), respectively.

The parentheticals are the social class [Kuge - Nobility; Buke - Warrior Aristocracy; Shukyo - Religious; Noumin - Peasant; Chonin - Townsfolk (Artisan/Merchant); Eta - Untouchable], followed by character class [Bushi - Fighter; Mahotsukai - Magic-User; Shinobi - Spy] and Profile or specialization for each class. Taijutsuka are martial artists, Kagemusha are mystical ninja, and Samurai are samurai, obviously.

Anyway, since I'm doing accelerated advancement for this group (with normal play in a play-by-post game with other players), they leveled up to 3 for this session. And at level three, each profile gives the first choice of special abilities for each profile.

Thankfully, at least for the three profiles on hand, there wasn't an obviously superior choice. All three players considered both options as useful, then chose the one they felt best fit their character's personality/style.

Other than that, Michael suggested that the Kagemusha's spell choices, if they take the spell-casting special ability (he did) should be limited to spells thematically appropriate to a ninja rather than open to all Yamabushi spells. He purposefully limited himself that way, and at the end of the session it proved to be problematic (they had a problem a spell he had decided he wouldn't use would help solve) but he stuck to his decision and they will look for other means to that end.

I'd hoped for a bit of combat this session, but events worked out differently. I did manage to throw some good non-combat challenges their way, and the 2d6 background skill system I'm using continues to work well, as does the 2dX based Ninpo special Shinobi skill system. I'll probably run one more session at level 3 to get a bit of combat in (there was only one hit roll made the whole session, and that was to lob a persimmon at a monkey to get it to eat the fruit and drop a pouch of poison it had stolen). Hopefully in a few weeks.

In other news, my academic paper is finally ready for submission, but now it's time to start working up my study for my dissertation. So I expect posting to be slow for the mean time. I'll post when I can. Oh, and my super secret project RPG supplement text is nearly complete. Once it's done, I'll do a quick and dirty layout and start hyping it up.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Pumpkin and Spice and Things Not So Nice

Saturday night, Dean ran another session of his 5E Eberron game. One of the regulars, Brad, couldn't make it last week, so Dean scheduled this session for Brad and anyone else who could come. Michael and I were free, so we all joined in.

Rather than move the main story line forward, we all played alternate characters. Brad (normally playing Rhea the Witch) played is Human Fighter/Battle Master, Jackal. Michael played an Eladrin Rogue/Arcane Trickster, Cyara. I had my previous character, the Githzerai Fighter/Eldritch Knight Ryuden.

Cookie Gnomes (I missed the sessions where they were introduced, but that sort of thing is par for the course in Dean's world) sent us on a mission to the surface of the mountain (the main group is deep below) to investigate who or what had been waylaying travelers at night. We set out with a hammerheaded albatross and a giant smiley-face praying mantis as flying mounts, and started searching the mountains.

After a brief (thankfully!) encounter with mountain goat satyrs in a hot spring who gave us a bit of information but not a lot of help, we decided to set a trap for whoever. We made a false camp, with a pair of dummies by a fire, using mage hand occasionally to move them slightly. After a while, some snow-cats (as in mountain lions made of snow) attacked the camp, but we slew the first easily (a critical hit fire bolt spell from yours truly) and wounded the second enough that it fled for its life.

Still not sure that that was it, we set up a vantage point high up on a mountain top to see what we might see, as we suspected the thing was flying after investigating a decimated camp of halflings. And sure enough, we saw something flying out of the mountains that night. Hopping on our flying mounts, we sped after it, only to discover it was a pumpkin dragon.
Dean used this picture. Nice, isn't it? Art by Stanley Morrison
Cyara sent it a message, asking if it was friend or foe, and it replied something along the lines of "I'll make you serve my master." And that's how the fight started.

It wasn't easy. The pumpkin dragon's breath weapon was a steaming pile of goo that did damage and caused sleep (not sure if this was supposed to be Halloween, or Thanksgiving!). Yet somehow, we managed to come out on top and bested the creature.

It was a bit of a short session, but since we'd had a full (over time!) session the week before, that wasn't such a bad thing. And now we've got an extra layer of mystery to add to the current story line. Who is the pumpkin dragon's master?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Movie Review: Deadpool

OK, let's just get this out of the way first, since the blog title tends to get hits for people asking this question - is there "cursing" in Deadpool? A f*ck-load of it. Like, we're talking The Big Lebowski levels of f-bombs going off all over the place. Not to mention some graphic violence and sex scenes. Parents, DO NOT TAKE YOUR LITTLE KIDS TO SEE THIS!!! I left my 7yo at home and saw it by myself. It's Rated R for a reason.

Now that that's out of the way, did I like it? Quite a bit. Ryan Reynolds perfectly captured the quirky charm of Deadpool, his annoying wit, and his penchant for graphic violence very well. It's not a perfect movie, it's not high art, but then it never pretends to be that. And it is funny, and full of enough 4th wall breaks, silly fan service, and Easter eggs to keep Marvel geeks excited and talking about it for quite a while.

Now, there isn't a whole lot of plot (and there were one or two holes in it). We get a LOT of flashbacks to explain Deadpool's origin, but the actual "present" storyline only covers about two days' worth of action, and only for the most part the "action" parts of those two days. The flashbacks cover a lot of ground, and seemed to me to take up the lion's share of the run time.

As for the characters, as I mentioned Reynolds knocked this one out of the ballpark. He's forgiven for his part in that crap Wolverine movie (and Green Lantern). Of course, this film mocks both of those performances, and mocks them well! Colossus was a bit of a school-marm, which was a bit different from how I remember him from the comics (although it's been a while), he's a bit more naive like Colossus in the old FOX X-Men cartoon, but more annoying. Negasonic Teenage Warehead was the perfect moody teen foil to Deadpool's shenanigans. Francis could have been a bit better developed as a bad guy, though. He was pretty one-dimensional.

Overall, it was a fun, raunchy popcorn movie. One I'll be sure to rewatch in the future (and to not let my boys see it until they're much older!).

Oh, and like most Marvel movies these days, stay through the credits for a helping of shawarma.

[I'm pretty behind on movie reviews, but it may be too late to post about The Martian or The Force Awakens. Well, we'll see. I may do it anyway.]

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Stop ghouling around!

Being the continuation of the adventures of the illustrious Green Knight, Jack Summerisle (and companions various and sundry) in the mysterious Kyber Underground of the world of Eberron.

After setting sail upon the subterranean river once more, piloted by the stout Dwarven Storm-Cleric Thorvald Oakenspar, the companions found themselves out of the cavern of giant, undead mushroom-trees and into another large cavern with shuffling humanoid figures closing in on our craft. As I could detect the taint of undeath upon them, we landed our craft upon one shore and commenced to destroy them. I, along with the Outlander Orc Mahl-goth, led a charge while Oakenspar cast a spell to summon protective spirits and the indefatigable Elf Ranger Jade opened fire with his bow. I also took one down with a well-aimed shot from my crossbow before they closed to melee, and Mahl-goth, whose axe is larger than mine own, also found easy pickings among them. However, as they closed in on us, they began a fearsome moaning keen, which somehow ensorcelled myself and Mahl-goth, leaving us unable to act. Fortunately for us, Oakenspar's magic was more than a match for them, and after many died as a result of his holy weather magic, the remainder fled.

We took stock of our situation, and after a brief respite set out once again to try and find the cavern-kingdom of the ghouls, our sworn enemies. We did not find the ghouls, but a trio of undead rock elementals found us. As they attacked, our small craft was destroyed, yet through a combination of luck, skill, strength of arms and magic, we won the day. All of us being somewhat worse for wear after the encounter, it was decided that we would camp upon the shore.

In the morning, if morning it truly was in that timeless underground expanse, a strange sight came into view. It was a dwarf, apparently a merchant of sorts, riding a peculiar beast with the body of a hippo and the shell of a turtle. The fellow stopped and had tea with us, and we discussed what he had seen farther down the river. He warned us off of that direction, claiming to have lost all of his companions to the dangers ahead. We discussed what to do, and he suggested we might visit an enclave of strange gnomes nearby, or perhaps return to the rock elementals and tell them of the desecration of their kin. We thought to do both, visiting and trying to secure an alliance with the gnomes before heading back upstream to the rock-men.

On the way, we thought to do a good deed. A giant, mutated frog was attempting to eat some wee folk. After chasing it away, however, the wee folk, who we learned to be unseelee brownies, taunted us and cast harmless but annoying spells upon us. We left them be, and found the ancient crystal-studded city of the gnomes. These gnomes were a strange lot, having survived the horrors of life near the ghoul kingdom, and were suspicious at first. After telling of our tale, our plan to form an underworld alliance, and how we had faced ghouls, duergar, and other foes, they grudgingly accepted our offer of an alliance, providing we could bring other races down to aid their defense of their hold.

Now, we await our chance to return to the caverns above, to once again entreat the rock elementals to join our cause.


Yep, another session of Dean's Twisted Fairy Tale Eberron campaign, now in 5E!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Middle Earth Mood

I recently came across this idea about the true nature of Tolkien's enigmatic Tom Bombadil on G+ the other day. Apologies for whoever posted it there, I couldn't find it again in a (lazy and quick) search of my G+ feed. Go read the link, it's not long. Then come back.

Did you read it? No? Need a tl/dr? The author claims Bombadil must be some sort of evil spirit who controls the Old Forest and Barrow Mounds, and only appeared as a cheerful jolly fellow to keep the hobbits from just running away.

When I shared the link with my D&D buddies, Dean posted this much better thought out and possibly correct theory of Bombadil. This one's a LONG read, in fact I'm still not 100% through it yet. If you've got time, though, and are interested in this sort of thing, I recommend it.  tl/dr? Bombadil is an incarnation of the Song of the Ainur (and Ungoliant is the incarnation of Melkor's Discord).

Regardless, the first link got me to pondering running a game of D&D in Middle Earth. Not MERP (don't have it, have never played it) but good old D&D. I remember years ago James Mishler had a blog about his BX game set in Middle Earth. This would be (if I ever get around to it, maybe after the Chanbara play testing if this idea is still on my mind) a more-or-less standard D&D game, just using the maps and NPCs and trappings of Tolkien's work.

So an alternate universe Middle Earth, in other words. I think my guiding concept would be that either Morgoth was cast out but never imprisoned/chained, or else escapes. Or maybe the war against him ends in a draw, and he's still deep in his fortress, breeding monsters and plotting? Due to his influence, many other evil spirits enter Middle Earth, creating all kinds of monsters (as you'd expect in D&D) and the Valar send more than just five Wizards to combat them. In the past, I'd thought of using the Second Age (the Silmarillion stuff) as a more "legendary, heroic" sort of Middle Earth for D&D. Now, I'm thinking the good old War of the Ring time frame might be fine. It's more familiar to me and any potential players, although they'd have to be warned that this is not just a railroad Dragonlance style "play out what happened in the book" thing. Maybe I'd start the campaign in the time-frame of The Hobbit? Still considering that.

Anyway, with more powerful fallen Maiar than just Sauron in the world, there would be plenty of stuff for players to do besides try to destroy the One Ring (although I suppose they could take up that quest if they want!).

Would I run it with BX/BECMI slightly modified? That's tempting, and most likely the simplest way to do it. But I'd also consider using 5E. The ability to modify the subraces and backgrounds to fit Middle Earth, and with certain races and classes excluded or limited, it could work. It would be a lot more work for me to prepare that, though.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I love a good map

Hand drawn by me.
This is the map I drew for both my current G+ Hangouts Chanbara game, and my play-by-post Chanbara game. I think one problem I had when trying to run Flying Swordsmen was that I created a huge China-sized China equivalent empire for the game to take place in. And each area/province had only a short paragraph describing it. X1 Isle of Dread was my model in this. While in general I prefer that as it gives the GM plenty of space to make the world their own, it also didn't have a "default home town/area" like Threshold and the Grand Duchy of Karameikos as detailed in the Expert Set book.

So for Chanbara, I'll be both giving a broad overview of the setting, the Jade Islands, as well as providing a bit more detail on Enzan Province and the immediate surroundings. While this will make the book longer (I've given up my plans to try and fit everything into 64 pages, but I'm pretty sure it will come in at 96 pages or less), it will hopefully also give GMs and players a bit more utility.

I haven't detailed most of the adventure worthy locations on it yet, but I have two or three already done or in the works. I also tried to include more fantastic locations than I normally do, but I know it could still use a few more. Of course, the white space on the map contains many small villages, shrines, and other unmarked locations, so there's plenty of room to fit more in as I think them up -- for my own game. For GMs who want to run Chanbara and use my default setting, that space is up to them to fill!

Now I need to get back to work on the wilderness random encounter tables.