Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thoughts on Spells Inspired by my Son

My son actually asked to play Dungeons & Dragons with me today.  He's still 4 months shy of his 6th birthday, so of course I had to do a fair amount of simplifying for him, but I ran him through the CYOA dungeon from the Mentzer Basic Players Manual (killing two birds with one stone, as that helps me prepare for the Cover to Cover post).

At first, he wanted to play a "wizard" so we rolled him up a Magic-User.  I briefly explained spells, and gave him Read Magic plus let him choose three more (one more standard, plus one for each point of Int bonus he had).  He chose Hold Portal, Light/Darkness and Ventriloquism.

Rather than explain the intricacies of Vancian spellcasting to him, I figured I'd just let him cast each spell once during the adventure, and let him return to town and rest up if he wanted to refresh them.  Turns out he died before he had a chance to cast a single spell, although he did take out a rust monster with the help of my wife's old Halfling PC from our gaming attempts from before our son was born (her Halfling is level 4 with a displacer cloak, +1 short sword, and a few other nice things).  Anyway, goblins then made short work of our wizard, who had a 6 Constitution so only 2 hit points. 

My son rolled up a Fighter and, with the help of Blossom the Halfling for combats (my wife was reading a book at the time, taking breaks to roll some dice when necessary), went on to trounce the dungeon, getting all the loot, dividing it with Blossom, then getting it all doubled by the magic mouth. 

Back to the idea that hit me.  Since I was going to let him use each of the 4 spells in his spellbook once each, I got to thinking.  What if, instead of preparing spells, a Magic-User, Elf or Cleric (Clerics will need spellbooks or prayer books or something in this version to make it work rather than access to all their spells) can cast each spell in their spellbook a number of times per day equal to their Vancian spell limits?

So a 1st level M-U can cast each spell in his/her book once per day (as above).  At 3rd level, with two 1st level and one 2nd level spells per day, each 1st level spell in the book could be cast twice, while each 2nd level spell could only be cast once.

Of course, 3E style limits of up to 4 per level per day might be a good idea, and my Level 15 cap instead of the BECMI level 36 cap would be necessary to prevent abuse.

What are the benefits?  Well, first of all a lot of the utility spells that rarely see play would see play.  Spell-casters move away from the tactical nuke/heal-bot mentality they engender.  Yes, as they gain lots of levels they can do that, but they would still have lots of utility magic to go around as well.  Gets rid of the "I cast one spell and am then useless" complaints of low level play.  Makes caster characters' main motivation to seek out magical books, libraries, or other casters in order to expand their repertoire. 

Drawbacks?  All those arguments about casters replacing Thieves become more tenable.  If you can cast Knock or Locate Traps several times a day without having to give up other (attack/heal) spells, might as well magic your way through such things than rely on a Thief's percentage chances.  Maybe in an OD&D/S&W game without the Thief this variant would work better. 

This is not an idea I'd want to use all the time, but for certain campaigns (or maybe as a replacement of the caster roll mechanic I'm using in Chanbara?) it could be fun.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Solo Adventure Part 1 Town Business

Continuing our read-through of the Mentzer Basic red box books, we get the beginning of the "choose your own adventure" style second adventure for the nameless Fighter.  Thinking about it now, I can see how well Frank is transitioning readers new to D&D into actual game play.  First we get a few snippets of evocative text in the Preface.  The First Adventure is all canned text with everything more or less predetermined. (I forgot to mention that you can actually die fighting the goblin in the Bargle encounter before Bargle charms you...otherwise all the fights are predetermined and after you take a certain amount of damage the monsters never hit again.)

This section of town business is like a cut scene, you've got no interaction at all, just a page to read.  But the solo adventure to come, being more like a CYOA book, gives you some real choice in the adventure, although it's more limited than a real game.  The "group adventure" in the DM's book is again CYOA style to a point, but the players have a lot of freedom to move around the ruins.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Needless to say, while these introductory/tutorial pages have little "replay value" in them, they do build nicely upon each other to ease people into the concepts and expectations of the game.

So, getting back to the text itself, we have a little story where "you" use the treasure from the first adventure to buy better armor.  You banter with the armorer, try on some plate mail, bargain down the price, then pick it up a few days later.  After failing to find any companions for your next adventure, you set off to the caves again, once more on your own.

And what can the new player learn from this?  Well, first is that being well equipped for an adventure is part of the game, and that town business can involve role-playing, which can be fun.  Good armor is a trade-off of protection for speed/carrying capacity.  Your new plate armor is heavier than the chain, so you can carry less treasure, but you're more likely to survive with it. 

The usefulness of Charisma is shown again - but of course when we were kids, that lesson went somewhat over our heads and like many D&Ders we thought of Charisma as a "dump stat."  Of course, we used to roll ability scores in order like the book says, but we didn't worry too much about Charisma unless it was unusually high or unusually low. 

The idea of safety in numbers is again shown, as at the end of the vignette you try (unsuccessfully, of course) to find some other adventurers to accompany you. 

Yes, all of this is old hat to us veteran gamers.  It was new to me 30 years ago, and definitely helped me out in getting the tropes and expectations of the game [yes, I'm repeating myself]. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

We fail the quest

Last Saturday, we had yet another session of Justin's Vaults of Ur campaign.  Has this been going on for nearly two years now?  I'll have to check my records.

Anyway, last session we finished in the middle of Little Bear Carolly's trial by dream-quest in which we were all transformed into pole arm wielding bears.  This time, Jeremy couldn't make it so it was just Dean as Carolly, Alexei as Maya who was also accused, and me as Thomas the Visionary who was just along for moral support (which is interesting in that he lacks many morals with which to support them...).

We had to recover the MacGuffin...I mean the broken pieces of the Franklin Mint collectible plate with dogs playing poker.  We had one last session.  Three to go.  Then we could prove Elder Karl and Maya's innocence and expose the lies of the ogre partisans in Fort Low.

To get the remaining pieces, pixies who stole our weapons shrunk us down to 1' tall and sent us into a tree-stump dungeon.  We explored a bit, rescued the pixie they wanted us to rescue, found out that the mage who created the dogs-playing-poker plate was supposedly buried under the stump, and went back in to fight more spiders.

Just as we got into an inescapable situation, I (who had been drinking a fair amount that evening so I wasn't on top of my game) realized that when we took the pixie back out, we should have just had ourselves returned to normal size and then we could have dug up the mage's bones without having to battle spiders.  As Justin commented when I said this, it would have completely bypassed the dungeon.

As it was, we were trapped and poisoned by spiders and all of us died.
"Guilty!" "Guilty!"  "The vote must be unanimous, Jor-El."

Upon awakening, Karl and Maya were pronounced guilty, sentenced with exile.  Next session, all of our PCs, alternate PCs, and whatever NPC help we can scrounge up will be heading off through a portal into the wilderness on a continuing mission to find new life and new civilizations, kill them and take their stuff.  That's a Prime Directive that Thidrek can get behind.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Dice

There they are, those beautiful polyhedra we all know and love.  Notice that the non-Platonic solid d10 is not pictured.

Anyway, our next section in the Mentzer Basic Players' Book is a half page on dice.  It's written for a complete beginner.  It starts by explaining that dice is the plural of die.  That beginner.

Well, as I've mentioned before, it was written for, in modern parlance, complete noobs. 

Anyway, we get a description of each die, a bit of advice on how to roll and read the d4 in particular, how to get a d% by rolling the d10 twice, and how to get other dice combinations.

Dice notations are also explained.  This section also mentions how to calculate non-die ranges, such as d2, d3, and d5.

With the advent of the OSR, there's been a lot of discussion about this sort of "dice tutorial" appearing in game books.  Do we need it?  Can we leave it out?  What if someone picks up a retro-clone as their first RPG?  Do only experienced gamers tend to collect these modern, typically self-published offerings?  Are we somehow neglecting to grow the base with the next generation if we leave this sort of thing out?

Looking at my own offering, Flying Swordsmen, you can see that I split the difference.  I didn't include this sort of thing in the book itself, but there's a note directing readers to my blog, where I did write up my own little dice tutorial and "what is role playing?" bits for someone who happens to stumble across Flying Swordsmen without having ever played another RPG that uses polyhedral dice, and without someone more experienced to show them the ropes.  In the internet age, that seemed to be the best course for me and my publication.

But back in '83, when this set was being produced with the express purpose of getting it out onto mainstream retail outlets and into the hands of kids and adults who were not already part of the gaming scene, this sort of thing was absolutely necessary.

So I don't knock this section any points.  In fact, I give it full points for not leaving anything to chance - right down to the initial explanation of die/dice. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Your Character

The next three and a half pages of the Mentzer Basic Set's Players Book continue the tutorial, going over the character sheet and what everything on it means.  It repeats a bit of ground, going over your ability scores, hit points, and a few other things that the "Your First Adventure" section covered, and pretty much everything else that's on the character sheet.  A lot of the basics of play are covered here.

Again, it is written at a low reading level.  It was designed to introduce the concepts of RPGs in general and D&D in particular to kids who didn't have someone around to teach them.  It succeeded, but yet there were still areas in this section that I didn't get right for the first few years we played.  I guess I (like most 11 year old kids I suppose) didn't bother to go back and re-read sections I wasn't clear on, even though Frank explicitly told us to do so in bold print even. 

But then isn't that what the spirit of D&D is all about anyway?  Take what you don't understand and ignore it or make something up to fill the gap?  So we completely ignored the Constitution stat for a while (unhealthy adventurers?  Didn't make sense), rolled a straight d20 for abilities instead of 3d6 (rerolling 1s and 2s since we picked up on the minimum 3 score, but ignored the maximum 18 - and yes, my Fighter Gwydion did have a 20 Strength, thank you very much!  Our characters were the Spinal Tap amps of D&D.), and a few other things.

Getting back to the book, the section starts off talking about Alignment.  Before anything else, it gives us the info that Lawful equals friendly and helpful, Chaotic equals selfish and nasty (carefully avoiding using "good" and "evil" as the BADD/Jack Chick crowd were now paying attention), and Neutral is in the middle, sometimes selfish sometimes selfless.

We get a very important piece of advice next, always use a pencil.  Things on the sheet will change.  This has stuck with me, and I have belittled players before for using a pen.

Frank goes over each section of the character sheet, but because it's following the character sheet format, it can be a bit disjointed.  The information doesn't quite gel for me, reading it now.  Granted, this is just a primer, and more detailed information follows later.  We get explanations of basic game values (AC, hit points, level, the ability scores in a bit more detail, saving throws, etc.).

And on the back of the sheet we get info on magic items, normal gear, money, and experience points.  Frank points out in this last section that there is more XP to be gained from treasure than from killing monsters.  Even in the sample adventure, where Bargle charms and sleeps you and steals most of the loot you gather, you still come back with 200 xp from treasure and only 30 xp from monsters slain.  There's also advice that avoiding, treating with, and tricking monsters to avoid fights and get treasure without combat should be preferred.  I wish this advice had been repeated elsewhere in the rules, as I didn't go back and re-read this section often, unlike later parts of the book.  Our early games did tend to be hack-and-slash affairs.  Big monsters like dragons tended to inspire us to cleverness, but most creatures were just attacked on sight.

Overall, there are some gems of gaming advice here, and the basics are covered, but it didn't stick in my memory as well as the parts that were taught by doing (or at least done by proxy) in the previous section.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Two sohei walk into a haunted castle...

Last night we ran another play test of Chanbara.  Things are going well.  Dean and Alexei were the only two players available, and they are both playing sohei.  It made for an interesting experience, and helped us to find some fuzzy areas in the rules that need to be ironed out.
Little Sparrow the Sohei by Dean Flemming

Basically, I was going for OD&D levels of sparseness of spell and ability descriptions.  And we found out why the descriptions of such things have gotten longer and more legalistic over the decades first hand.  Now, I don't need to go to Pathfinder lengths to describe every little detail and proscribe every possible abusive case.  That last part is something individual GMs should be able to handle.  But I do need to be concise yet specific in the use of certain abilities.

I also need to think of some sort of caster limit.  Chainmail roll to cast mechanics are working well as a means of working spells in play, but while in a wargame there's a limit to the amount wizards will be casting determined by the length of the "battle," there's no such limit in RPG campaign play.

Some sort of limit needs to be in place.  Now to figure out what.  I don't want Vancian spells per day by level, nor a spell point system.  But possibly a hard limit on spells per day regardless of level?  Or fatigue such as the Stars Without Number system strain mechanic?  Something else?

One proto-idea floating around in my head would be a system of diminishing returns for casting the same spell more than once.  So a caster would be able to cast each spell they know once per day at no penalty, but each additional casting of each spell would be at a penalty, have a cost, or cause some sort of hindrance.  Having to track it for every spell, especially at high levels, would get tedious, I think.

At the moment, I'm leaning toward a modified SWN system strain mechanic.

Oh, and the two sohei, both designed for hunting undead, did really well in the castle versus skeletons and jikininki, but had a hard time in a random encounter against a group of kama-itachi (flying sickle weasels).  Probably as it should be.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Your First Adventure

Pages 2 through 8 of the Mentzer Players Book contain the tutorial "adventure" that walks the nameless Fighter through some caves to encounter a few monsters, Aleena the Cleric, and the evil Bargle the Magic-User.

It gets slagged on a lot these days.  It's written for idiots!  It's a baby version of the game!  Blah blah blah.

Let me tell you something.  I'd read some Choose Your Own Adventure type books, some fantasy stuff like Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, and of course watched plenty of Saturday morning Cartoons, including the D&D Cartoon before I got this set.  But even then, I still had no idea how to actually play the game.  And this section taught me, in an interesting way, quite a few tropes of D&D play that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

It teaches you how to make attack rolls and saving throws.  It explains the six ability scores.  It lets you know what the different classes are, what they are good at and why it's good to have a variety of classes in a party.  It teaches you a bit about a few monsters, and some basic dungeoneering advice, like lighting, listening at doors, what are the good treasures, etc.  And it'll break your heart when Bargle slaughters Aleena with his magic missile.

Yeah, looking at it today, as experienced gamers, it looks like 7 wasted pages in the book.  But it served its purpose well with me back in the day.  I didn't have anyone to teach me the game, I just had these books.  And despite making quite a few mistakes early on (which didn't really matter, we were having fun and it was the spirit of the rules more than the RAW that matters anyway), I got it and was able to teach my friends from this.

Now, more recent RPGs, like the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, came with the learning to play tutorial in a separate booklet.  Actually, back in the day Star Frontiers also had a "basic play" 16 page booklet along with the 64 page main booklet.  It's a good idea.  But since they already had two booklets going in, I guess it made sense to have this in the Players' Book rather than have it and the CYOA-style adventure that comes next in a small booklet, the players' info in another small booklet, and the DM stuff in a bigger book.

Anyway, last word on this section is about the final section of the tutorial, "Winning."  Of course it tells you that there are no "win" conditions in an RPG, and that if you have fun, that's considered winning.  Even if you die.  You can always just roll up another character.  Still good advice, 30 years later.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ur-sine Adventures

After many many weeks (nearly many moons!), we finally got to play an adventure in Justin's Vaults of Ur campaign.

We'd left off in September with the arrest and confinement of Venerable Carolus (now leveled up and called Little Bear Carolly) and Maya the Elf, for the wanton slaughter of the Homesteaders.  Long story short, he was framed, man!

Well, the powers that be in Fort Low, being Lawful to a fault, don't allow humans to interfere with JUSTICE!  They use random chance to decide court cases.  And Carolly and Maya were sentenced to Trial by Anthropomorphic Spirit Journey.  We all got to come along!

Of course Dean was playing Carolly and Alexei was playing Maya.  Jeremy had Noctis the Orc, and since I'd said Thomas the Visionary (my backup 70's style pervy magic-user) was in Fort Low and willing to help out with Karl, I ran him instead of Thidrek.

After imbibing some potions, we entered the Dream Quest forest as Soldier Bears.  We had to readjust stats, using a variant of Pendragon stats where Strength became Gentle/Savage, with a 3 being a bonus for Gentle but penalty for Savage and 18 vice versa, and all the other 5 ability scores split into dual system as well.  As with the Hill Cantons monster stats, we each had 2d6+2 hit points (Swords and Wizardry).  [Justin is trying it out for a possible future Arthurian game using this setup.]

We actually started out in a home under the name of Sanders.  We grabbed pole arms (much discussion of Gygax's fascination with them, some posting of pictures followed), with Carolly taking a glaive-guisarme, Thomas taking a Bohemian ear spoon, Maya taking a bardiche, and Noctis taking IIRC a pole axe. 
Wandering in the forests, we were attacked by swine-men, trapped and escaped an ogre's clutches, and then confronted by My Little Pony unicorns and told that in addition to the ogre's pendant we'd need four more tokens to beat the accusers (our former henchmen), escape and prove Karl's innocence.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mentzer Basic: Cover to Cover

Do I have time to spend on a big long blogging project?  Not really, but if I keep it simple and my sections brief, I can try to get a post up every week or so without disrupting my academic readings and related writing.  Or at least I hope so.  We'll see.

My 40th birthday is coming up in about a month, so it was 29 years ago that I first received my Mentzer red box Basic D&D set for my 11th birthday.  Yeah, I'm one of the pup kids in the mid-80's who taught himself how to play with the "kiddie version" of the rules rather than the original set or AD&D.  And I'm still basically playing those rules today (liberally stealing what I like from other editions and games).  So, I'm going to go through those old booklets again, reading cover to cover and seeing how they look to my old eyes, and reminisce about how I first felt about them, or at least as much as I can recall.

Mentzer Basic: Cover to Cover
Front Matter: Preface, How to Use this Book, Acknowledgments, Dedication, Table of Contents

The preface is of course by Frank Mentzer.  Aside from the overuse of the exclamation mark (he was writing for kids like me, after all), this easy to overlook text does a good job of laying out the basics of the game.  I've seen people struggle (myself included) to explain just exactly what an RPG is, yet Frank does it succinctly and well here.  He starts with a bit of image invoking in-character text, mentions books and movies and how they're nice but wouldn't it be nice if it were your story?  Then he goes on to give the basics of D&D - there are no end conditions like in other games, it's cooperative, and all you really need are the rules in your hands, a few friends, and some time.

Note to self, use this text with newbies in the future instead of yet another of my long, rambling attempts to explain the game.

Frank ends the preface with yet more evocative text, and I do remember reading that as a kid, and being drawn in by it.  Hell yeah, I wanted to be that strong, golden-haired warrior about to go into a dragon's lair. 

How to Use this Book
This is more of a practical section.  If you're a player, you'll want to read the sample adventure in this book, and let your friends also read it before you play.  It's better to have someone who can teach you the rules, but if you don't have someone to do that, one of you should read the other book, for Dungeon Masters, so they can fulfill that role.  This set contains all of the basic rules of play, and will take characters up to 3rd level, with the Expert, Companion and Masters sets for higher level play up to 36th.

Once you know what you're doing, this is extraneous text, but of course for kids getting this box set of a game you'd heard about - from older kids, from the TV show, from ads in comic books and such - it was sure helpful.

A big long list of names, alphabetical, including of course Arneson and Gygax.  A brief thanks to Donald Patterson and Harold Johnson, who introduced Frank to D&D at the end.

Nothing really to say about this.  Some names I recognize, some I don't.

Frank mentions that the original rules were intended for die hard hobby gamers, and that this set keeps the same spirit but in a format that nearly anyone can understand.  Dedication of course to Frank's good friend, founder of TSR, and co-creator of the game, E. Gary Gygax.

Table of Contents
Edit: I'll add hyperlinks to sections as I review them.

The Player's Book is divided up into:
Center Pull-Out Sheets
There are some subdividsions I didn't list.  I'll likely divide future posts around these headings, maybe using some of the subdivisions if necessary to keep posts short.

So, not the most thrilling start to the series, but then this is cover to cover.  Gotta get these boring parts out of the way, I guess.