Saturday, August 10, 2019

New Direction? (JOESKY Tax at the end)

I need to find some new blogging inspiration.

I've got a great face-to-face game going on (The West Marches).

I continue to play in Dean's 5E Eberron game, plus occasional games run by others via Hangouts.

I run two play-by-post games (my Megadungeon and a newer Isle of Dread game).

I'm playing in multiple play-by-post games on the same site that hosts the two games I run.

I've run some Caverns & Cowboys play-tests via Hangouts, and the system seems solid so far.

Chanbara continues to make a handful of sales every month, with occasional paper miniature sales as well. Definitely not going to get rich from DriveThru ever, but the little bit helps.

The only area of my gaming life right now that doesn't seem to be engaged is my desire to write stuff for the blog.

I could just continue to write posts about my actual play experiences, and posts to try and get more people to buy the stuff I'm selling. But that's not the most engaging, for me or the reader. At least for the play report stuff, Dean awards everyone bonus XP.

When the blog started up, I was writing all sorts of posts. Gaming nostalgia. Riffing on ideas in the OSR or other gaming circles. Creating content (Beast of the Week). Spitballing ideas and getting feedback on house-rule ideas. Discussing all sorts of gaming inspirations.

Then I started working on Flying Swordsmen, and promoting it. That led to working on Chanbara and promoting it.

And I had some serial posts, like my re-reads and reviews of TSR's Endless Quest books. And my Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover series.

I tried to get into game design theory discussion here, as it dovetailed with some academic research I was doing. But until I get back on that academic horse, I doubt I'll be doing much blogging about that stuff.

I need to figure out what to do with the blog relative to my current gaming situation and non-gaming interests, and time constraints. I'll keep you all posted. And when that inspiration hits me, I'm sure all my regular readers will know!

_________________________________________
And since you sat and read through that navel gazing, I'll pay my JOESKY tax (is that still a thing?) and give you some juicy tidbits of Caverns & Cowboys.

Based on the classless, d% resolution Star Frontiers system, C&C (yeah, Castles & Crusades already cornered that acronym, I know) divides skills into three Primary Skill Areas: Interaction, Combat, and Magic.

All characters choose one of the three PSAs for their character. They then start play with three skill-sets. One skill-set must be from the chosen PSA. One must be an Interaction skill (so Interaction PSA people must have two from that group of skill sets). The final skill-set can be anything.

Interaction skills are the most varied, as they cover pretty much anything outside of magic or combat. Each skill (really a skill-set) grants access to three or more subskills, each with a % chance of success that improves with more skill levels (from 1 to 6). Interaction skills are the cheapest skills to raise levels in.
Interaction Skills: 
Culture Lore
Dastard
Drover
Influence
Law & Justice
Mechanic
Medicine
Trailblazer

Combat skills are mostly for improving chances to hit with various sets of weapons. Only one, Fisticuffs, grants a few subskills (Rasslin' for wrestling, and Wallop for more frequent knock-outs) in addition to increasing chances to hit (and is the only one that increases damage).
Combat Skills: 
Archery
Artillery
Fisticuffs
Hurling
Long Arms
Melee
Pistols
Scatterguns

Magic skills are the odd-balls, not conforming to the standard Star Frontiers rules. Gaining a level in a magic skill grants access to four spells. Spell points are determined by an appropriate ability score, as is the chance of casting the spell -- which does not increase with level. Instead, gaining levels in the magic skill increases the potency of the spells. Magic skills are the most expensive skills to raise levels in.
Magic Skills:
Faith Healing
Mesmerism
Kabbalah
Shamanism
Voodoo

My play-testers really like the evocative nature of the magic skills, and say that they think the interaction skills cover most things they'd consider important in a Western themed RPG. Combat was also praised by them, since at low levels it's hard to hit your opponent (fairly realistic in that regard) so our shoot-outs in the games we've run have mostly been ended by clever use of Mesmerism from Dean rather than battles to the death.

It's coming along. I just wish my schedule made it easier to run more pick-up games (actually to plan for sessions so I can run the game) more often.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Man, Gygax could be wordy

I'm restocking parts of the Caves of Chaos that were previously cleared by a (slightly different) party in my West Marches game. Only one PC from that era of the campaign is still with them (although my son will be back in Busan in a little over a month and hopefully rejoining the campaign).

Anyway, I copy/pasted from the PDF of the module to a word processor, and I'm just deleting all these wonderful but extraneous details about the place. It's nice to have that detail there to help set the mood, or if the players start asking detailed questions. But in practice (at the table), I find it all just gets in the way of the important game elements.

So, stripping it all out. Saves paper anyway.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Taking of Nasty Canasta: Rustler, Bandit, Square Dance Caller

We played Caverns & Cowboys again last night and it was another fun session. Ken couldn't make it (which is too bad, he is up on the genre so he brings a lot to the game) but Jeremy and Dean were able to show up.

I threw out three hooks: protect a wagon train of settlers planning to go through hostile territory to a new settlement, try to eliminate a dragon for the local cattlemen's association, or track down the wanted criminal Nasty Canasta. They chose the third.

Savvy readers who had awesome childhoods or who are awesome parents may recognize that name. I stole the character from Looney Tunes (Drip-Along Daffy, where Daffy and Porky try to rid a "typical Western town" of said villain). And funnily enough, although I didn't plan it to go down this way, it actually did play out in a similar manner to the cartoon I stole the idea from!

I also got to try out a simple "stud poker" mini-game that can be played by rolling dice to determine how good your hand is and then betting on it. It's not perfect, but it's simple and worked well enough in practice. With a bit of tweaking it could be used to simulate other types of poker as well. And it fits in well with the Cheat subskill of the Dastard skill set (which both Jeremy's PC and the NPC Nasty Canasta had).

Another successful play test! Oh, and Jeremy has been making some art samples that I think look pretty awesome and will likely be licensing from him to help illustrate the book when I get it ready for publication.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

VR Battle Arena

After our end of semester faculty dinner, I went with three of my coworkers to play a VR FPS game called Battle Arena.

You get an Oculus Rift type headset, two pistols, and a circle to stand on. You teleport around the arena by aiming a gun at a platform and holding the trigger down for a second or two. You shoot by pointing the gun and shooting. Better weapons occasionally spawn in certain squares.

Other than the fact that teleporting from space to space is the only way to move (and options are limited), it's a lot like Quake or a similar FPS game (yes, I'm probably dating myself using Quake as my frame-of-reference game here...I don't play many video games anymore).

There were a few technical difficulties. My headset kept slipping, which made the screen blurry and I had to adjust with one hand (so stop shooting/moving). One of the other guys had trouble entering the game, so the second time the operator had to stop us and restart it so he could get in. Despite that, we played two games and had a lot of fun.

I ended up getting second place in the first match, third place in the second. Not bad for my first time playing, I think. The coworker whose idea it was to go there won both times, as he's played it quite a bit. When my son gets back to Korea, I want to take him there. I think he'll dig it.

There was another cooperative zombie killing game, but it was only a 2 player game and since there were 4 of us we didn't play it. Maybe next time.

And I can't wait for the fantasy adventure VR/AR games that are sure to come out in the near future! A cooperative dungeon crawl game with swords and wands of fireballs would be a lot of fun!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A disputed saving throw

Recently in a PbP game I run (house ruled Classic D&D), this situation happened.

Context:
The player in question is no stranger to older editions of D&D. He's been playing longer than I have (says he started in '79), and he's played most editions of the game although he mostly plays 5E now.

The game is set in my megadungeon.

To speed up PbP gaming, and to get a bit of rivalry/competition like I read about in the old days, each player runs their own party through the dungeon.

I make no bones about it being deadly. Only one person who signed up to play the game has managed not to lose a character, and that's because he quit as soon as he had his first encounter.

The Situation:
The player in question has his party (all still level 1, with 2 hirelings) exploring the ruins above the dungeon. There's a tower in part of the wall that opens up on two different courtyards at different elevations (it's a hilltop castle ruin with a sprawling dungeon beneath it). The party was at the middle level but didn't know that.

The party thief examines the door for traps, listens and hears nothing.

The player then says that his two fighters "barge into the room" and that the NPC hireling "is on their heels." This is even though, as I said, they heard no sounds from inside and had no reason to expect a creature inside. But if there was one, I guess they were hoping to surprise it.

What was really inside was a 3' wide landing (with no railing...it's a 400 year old castle ruin!) and a 20' drop.

My Ruling: 
If this were real life, there would be a good chance that they would not be able to halt their movement and plunge over the side. But I'm usually generous about these kinds of things. The clincher was that the player said the NPC was "on their heels."

If three dudes are charging through a doorway and there's only about 1 or 2 steps they can take inside before they fall, it seems logical to me that the third guy in would crash into the first two who had just managed to stop short. So I gave them all saving throws with a +2 bonus. Seemed fair to me.

The Result:
One Fighter made his save. The other failed. The NPC hireling failed. The PC was uninjured (9hp), but when I rolled 2d6, of course I got a 9! 0 is dead in this game. The NPC had 4hp and I rolled a 6. Also dead!

The Controversy:
Now I'm OK with how I ruled this situation. It's comical and sad that the fates did this. And it's not the first time this player has lost a PC. It's the third time. But he was apparently surprised and a bit upset at how the situation had unfolded.

My Take:
But really, he could have phrased his PCs' entrance to the tower in so many different ways that wouldn't have required the PCs to make saves to avoid falling. If he'd just said "We open the door," then I would have described the landing inside. He was careless in his orders IMO. And since this is Play-by-Post gaming, he had all the time he could want to decide how to phrase his post.

He seems to feel that I was setting up a "gotcha" moment, and not treating his characters as if they had any common sense. Well, I do make a lot of assumptions for the players in this game. I assume that thieves will be checking for traps when time allows. I assume that everyone in the party is trying to be as quiet as possible unless the player says otherwise. I try to assume competence on the part of the PCs. But in this case, I think an assumption of competence doesn't come into the picture.

Or maybe it's just that I'm a "Mel Brooks" sort of DM. He called it a Three Stooges moment. Either way, it's slapstick. And I'm fine with that. I guess he isn't.

He's not too terribly upset, though. He's still in the game, and rolled up a new Dwarf Fighter to replace the Human Fighter he lost.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Mountain Awakens

The Mountain Awakens
Being a continuation of the journal of the stalwart Jack Summerisle, Green Knight of the Eldeen Reaches, and companions various and sundry, as they complete their quest in the subterranean world of Pellucidar. 

My companions: Thia Moonbrook, elven cleric of life; Jade, half-elven ranger archer; Cankles, ogre barbarian; Flagan d'Gallandha, halfling monk; Yuv, dragonborn cleric of radiance.

We moved on to the final altar, which was in a room containing massive piles of sand. By holding the wand of the giant priest, we kept the sand at bay long enough to hear the altar's demand -- that we forswear all dealings with undead creatures. This we all promptly swore, and we were granted passage further into the temple.

The next chamber contained three sets of giant priestly cassocks. These enchanted robes requested three of our number to take on the mantle of eternal protectors of the temple. We considered this for a time, and when we refused, the robes attacked. The garments bound those whom they could grab tightly, and we fought against them with much violence, eventually defeating the magical frocks. We suffered some wounds, but none of our number succumbed.

Beyond this was the goal of our long quest. The Heart of the Mountain stood before us, but its form was elfin and delicate, not at all as Yuv had seen in his dreams. We called out, beseeching the great Spirit of the Mountain to awaken, but it heard us not. We readied the stone holy texts which we had recovered from Lungbarrow, the living mansion, and holy incense and offerings of the giantish wine. This attracted the notice of several spirit guardians.

We negotiated with the spirits, eventually succeeding in awakening the Heart of the Mountain. We then plead our case, and when the Spirit of the Mountain learned of the Ghoul Kingdom, and the Ghoul King's desire to summon demons to aid his conquest of the realms within the mountain, it took action. We were whisked down a deep pit, eventually feeling the odd sensation of switching from orientation for the world below to the normal world above which we had not seen for so many long months.

We arrived in the kingdom of the Stone People, the only ones not to have fled from the Ghoul King, and witnessed the destruction rained upon the ghouls by the Spirit of the Mountain. We will rest here with our allies the Stone People, then finally venture above. It has been so long since I have witnessed the sun and its warmth. It will be odd to finally return to the green lands above, where my heart yearns. I shall be singing the Greensong in the fields and forests before long. We have achieved victory, and now must seek out a new quest.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation

I finished Stranger Things season 3, and got back to watching old episodes of Star Trek on Netflix. I'd watched the first 3 (the 2-part pilot and the one where they all get 'drunk' and Data & Yar get it on) a few months ago, and for the past few days I've been watching more. It's interesting to see how in the first few episodes, the planet scenery was very evocative of TOS planet sets, but even just 7 episodes in, they've already improved the sets and effects.

The scripts are so far hit or miss. I think it probably will remain so for this season. I'd forgotten that the Ferengi were introduce so early in the series. Quark and family were such a big part of DS9 and I hadn't seen these older TNG episodes for so long that it had completely slipped my mind that they were an early addition to this series.

Tasha Yar's death should be coming up soon. It was a real shocker when the season first aired. She was one of my favorites back then. Yes, teenage me thought she was hot. Now, I'm really finding her to be not such the compelling character. She had potential, with her background as coming from a colony that had devolved into barbarism with rape gangs, which she escaped from. But it's not delved into deeply enough, and the character gets killed off before they really can.

It's not like they've really fleshed out ANY of the characters yet, other than Picard. It's forming, I can see it, but the writers were obviously working things out as they went, trying things to see what worked, and probably the actors were interpreting the scripts in interesting ways that the writers later picked up on and rolled with.

Still, despite a few wonky scripts and some cheesy sets/effects, these early episodes are holding up fairly well in my estimation.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The iron is hot

So my West Marches game is going really well these days with the influx of some new players (especially Justin, who ran the old Vaults of Ur game I used to play in and post about a few years back). And that's been giving me the impetus to get more areas of the map keyed.

Just this week, I've keyed about 25 new hexes. Not all of them have encounters, of course, and some are fairly simple encounters. But those hexes are two different regions, and each has a small dungeon in it. One of the dungeons is finished and ready to go. The other is a bit bigger and more complex, and I drew the map myself rather than repurposing someone else's map (which I often do, including for the smaller dungeon I did this week).

I finished up drawing the map for the larger dungeon today, and I've got ideas for most of the rooms in which I plan to place encounters. There are 33 rooms, so by the old BX/BECMI stocking table, there should be around 11 monster encounters, 11 empty rooms, and the other rooms split between traps/hazards and specials (5 and 6, we'll see how it goes). I know at least one special will be a monster encounter with WAY overpowered opponents who are not hostile (at least at first...if the PCs press their buttons, it's another matter).

Anyway, it has been a while since I'd keyed new areas on the map. I'm up to about 1/3 of the 520 or so hexes keyed, with about 1/6 explored by the party. They've been sticking fairly close to town recently, so it's not like it's pressing to get more areas keyed at the moment, but since I've got the inspiration to do it now, might as well!

Monday, July 8, 2019

Square Circle Retainers

Yesterday in my West Marches game, the players managed to complete the Bugbear Cave in the Caves of Chaos. Those of you familiar with the module will remember that...

Spoiler Alert if you've never played it!


...the bugbears have two prison chambers. In one of them is a renegade bugbear and a captured 4th level Fighter (or Hero). In the previous session the players managed to free the other prisoners. Yesterday, they freed these guys (after slaughtering the captured gnolls, who to be honest had it coming).

Now, I've been having a bit of eye trouble (an eye infection I had a few weeks ago seems to be lingering but of minor annoyance level) and I was having a bit of trouble focusing on the printout (I have the module in PDF, so printed it out for use at the table). 30 year old module with cramped typesetting, then scanned however many years ago and converted to PDF, then printed out doesn't make it the most readable.

The description of the human prisoner is also spread over two pages.

Anyway, I read the beginning of the description: huge and muscular, with a shaggy beard and wild eyes. I kinda glanced over the back side of the description while the players were asking me about him, and saw that he's a berserker who has a chance to "accidentally" strike the players if they fight alongside him.  But I didn't keep reading to the part where it says he'll betray the party the first chance he gets and abscond with the treasure.

Anyway, they were asking for his name, and how big he was compared to the party's Berserker (my homebrew version of the 3E/5E Barbarian for Classic D&D) and the Muscle Wizard (just a Magic-User, but with a 16 Strength and good Constitution as well). He's more muscular than both, with a Str 18. And the wild eyes and beard description made me think of Macho Man Randy Savage.

So, Randy the Savage he became. Oooo yeah!!! And he didn't end up hitting an ally during the next fight with fire beetles. But since he had no armor, when they found the shield +1 in the store room, they gave it to him. So he did abscond with some of their treasure. :D

Anyway, he's now an NPC in town who might be persuaded to accompany the PCs on future adventures.

TL/DR: I made an impromptu characterization of an NPC as a classic era WWE wrestler.

Last night, I was looking for wrestler-themed fantasy art. I've got a picture of Hulk Hogan as a Conan-style barbarian from somewhere (had the picture for many years). I've seen luchador fantasy before. But no one seems to be producing art showing WWF/WCW/WWE wrestlers facing dragons and zombies and whatnot. Curious.
Anyway, I now have a plan to turn a bunch of 80's/90's wrestling characters into NPCs who could become retainers. And they won't all be warrior types. Some will definitely be spell-casters!

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Review: Spider-Man Far From Home (spoiler free)

Saw Spider-Man Far From Home today. I liked it, overall. It was good, and had a lot of well-done humor in it, and some cool action scenes. If you're a Spidey fan or an MCU fan, definitely go see it.

And I promised to keep this spoiler free, but if you haven't seen Avengers: Endgame, though, DO NOT go see this movie until you've seen Endgame. Certain events (well, one in particular) casts a long shadow over this movie.

So as you've likely seen from the trailer, Peter Parker and his class (those who were blipped out by Thanos) are taking a trip to Europe during summer vacation. He thinks he can leave Spider-Man behind for a few months, but of course not. Nick Fury needs his help against elementals that are attacking. And Mysterio has come from another Earth to battle them.

Oh, and for the parents - is there cursing in the movie? Just a little. In fact, I can't really remember any swears in it. There probably were one or two, I just don't remember them.

_______
I've been sitting here for about 5 minutes after typing the previous sentence trying to think how to best phrase this. I liked Far from Home. It was fun, it was funny, it was exciting.

But...

You knew that 'but' was coming, right?

But there was something just a little bit off about the movie. Maybe it was that the big mid-movie twist was not at all a surprise (although the callbacks to previous MCU movies involved was fun). Maybe it was just that ANYTHING that followed Infinity War/Endgame was going to have some weirdness to it, and lack that emotional resonance of Endgame. Maybe that was it? It was just the MCU returning to normal after this very big abnormal event.

I did really like how they handled Mysterio, and the special effects of his powers was really cool. Spidey having a hard time accepting his position as a big-time super hero was good. Nick Fury and Maria Hill...what exactly are they doing? They aren't S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore, so what's up with their new organization? It isn't explained (and a post-credit scene with them adds more questions than it answers).

Maybe what's bothering me was that the highlight of the film was J.K. Simmons' cameo/return to the role he was made to play, J. Jonah Jameson.

I did like it better than Spider-Man: Homecoming, but again (like Captain Marvel) it's not going to jump up to the top-tier of my ranking of favorite MCU movies.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Test Run

Played some Caverns  & Cowboys last night with the guys on Hangouts/Roll20. There were a few minor issues, but mostly Dean, Jeremy and Ken had a positive reaction to the game.

There was a little bit of confusion with the different ability scores from D&D standard. I've based the system on the Star Frontiers d% system, so the ability scores and their abbreviations can get confusing. For example, in SF there is an ability abbreviated INT but it stands for Intuition, not Intelligence. LOG (Logic) is closer to D&D Int. Also, PER is Personality, but they kept assuming it was Perception.

Char gen is fairly easy as far as ability scores and skill selection, but buying equipment was the thing that slowed it down. Dean missed having "ready pack" options like in 4E and 5E D&D, so I may come up with some suggestions for that. Jeremy just copy/pasted my sample character's gear then added a few things he wanted, so that was fairly fast for him. Ken is a bit of an Old West history buff, so he was pleased to see the wide selection of gear available.

Anyway, Dean's suggestion of some sample starting packs would be a good idea to help people get into the game faster. Also, Ken (who played a doctor) noticed that I forgot to put medical kits and laudanum and other period medicines on the list. To be added. I should make sure other skill sets that need tools/equipment have them available as well.

The big departure from Star Frontiers is the magic system I cobbled together. I did some research on period mystical/magical belief systems (Jeremy appreciated this level of setting detail) and came up with some appropriate magical traditions. Using the SF skill system of one skill with discrete subskills as a package, each magical tradition is a skill and each spell is a subskill. They improve in potency as you level up the magical skill. Dean took Mesmerism as one of his starting skills, and put it to good use with a seance to gather information and later hypnotism to pacify a villain. So far, it didn't seem broken. The other traditions, and magic skills at medium to high level play still need to be tested, though.

The combat system worked well (I knew from Star Frontiers that it should). Chances to hit for beginning characters are low and there are more negative modifiers to attacks than positives, so there was a lot of missing by both sides. Dean was a bit put off by this at first, but since Ken and Jeremy were commenting on how this was more like a real firefight, where lots of bullets do miss unless you're really close to your target, Dean got on board with it. I know from experience that once those combat skills get up to around 3 or 4, combat gets a lot easier.

The scenario I ran them through was a simple one. Sheriff Bart of the town of Justice asked them to go to the smaller town of Liberty nearby and run off some bandits who had taken over the town. After a bit of haggling over the reward, they set out and on the way were ambushed by blink coyotes (blink dogs from D&D of course). They had trouble hitting the blink dogs, and took a lot of small bites. Finally, they wounded enough of the blink coyotes that the creatures decided to find easier prey and vanished. The party decided to head back to town to hire some extra guns to take on the bandits.

In town, Dean's character Schmitt performed his seance to contact a victim of the bandits and get some intel. They each also hired a rifleman to accompany them. When they got to Liberty, there were four bandits guarding a bridge over a creek south of town. They spotted the bandits, the bandits spotted them. Both sides took cover, and one bandit ran into town to alert the others. The firefight was fairly long, as I mentioned above, lots of missed shots (mostly due to range and cover penalties to hit). After five or six rounds the bandit leader, an ogre, appeared and charged across the bridge to attack with its spiked club. They did a good amount of damage to the ogre, but it nearly killed one of their hired guns before Schmitt could hypnotize it to sleep. Then, Sam (the hired gun of Jeremy's character Hezekiah) managed to roll a 01 and 02 to hit, which are knock-out rolls in the system. So two of the three bandits went down the same round as the ogre boss. The final bandit surrendered, and the other bandits carousing in town fled to the wilderness when they got the news.

When the ogre woke up, they questioned him (with a bit more hypnosis to make him talkative) and found their lair was a cave outside town. After securing the ogre with chains in a root cellar, they set out and found the lair, getting just over $1000 in silver coins, a potion, and a magic wand. On Hezekiah's orders, Sam drank the potion (the order was drink, not sip! Jeremy had maybe a little too much whiskey as we played!) and so had clairvoyance for an hour with nothing to view. :D Back in town, the sheriff of Justice arrived with a Justice of the Peace and they gave the ogre his trial, found him guilty, and hung him by his neck until he was dead.

So the scenario I sorta whipped up out of next to nothing worked well, and since the players were into the idea of D&D with Western trappings, it seemed to work out well. I think this little game has some promise.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Had a good session today

In my West Marches game today, the players really took control and directed the game. And I had more laughs during the session that I've had in a while.

First, they debated following up an old rumor or just trying to explore some blank hexes. They decided to explore, but thought they should go back to town first (they had camped at an abandoned elven tree-fort which they reclaimed last session). Back in town, they got a new rumor which intrigued them. After more discussion, they decided to follow up the old rumor after all.

This brought them back to the Caves of Chaos. They cleared out the "Shunned Cave" (the gray oozes had already been destroyed by a previous party, so it was just the owlbear and some random giant rats to deal with). Because of some wounds, they decided to return to town AGAIN.

Then they returned to the Caves and explored the bugbear cave (which one of the players and his daughter, who didn't come today had partially explored before). They did a bit more exploration, managed to weaken the bugbear forces, and freed some prisoners. Thanks to a random comment from one of the players, the captured orcs in the bugbear prison turned out to be some of the orcs they had ransomed and released in the retaking of the elf stronghold in the last session.

They're hoping to sew division among the mysterious Horned Society. Warduke, first leader of the Caves of Chaos, was slain by a previous party, but a new leader is again trying to organize the caves. They also know there are two other Horned Society leaders, Kelek and Lareth. They're name dropping both to try and get the factions in-fighting.

I really like how this current group of players like to play. Makes running the game so much more entertaining for me.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fantasy Wimmelbilderbucher

Way back in April, Noisms was talking about wimmelbilderbucher, or books with lots of little details that you can pour over to find interesting things, like most Richard Scarry Busytown books, or the Where's Waldo (Wally) series of books. And he was wondering why there aren't fantasy themed books like this for adults.

I don't know. But today I picked up one for kids. Here are some pictures from it (taken with my phone, so not the best quality).
The Cover. Monsterland

The first few spreads introduce and name all of the monsters.



The rest of the book are spreads like these, with certain monsters to find on each page.


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Gateway by Frederik Pohl - Campaign Idea

I picked up Gateway, a short sci-fi novel by Frederik Pohl, at the local library. I'm almost finished with it, and I've been thinking of how well it would work as the framework of a sci-fi RPG campaign.

The 100% accurate but completely gives the wrong impression of the book synopsis is: An AI psychiatrist treats a patient's PTSD.

Doesn't sound like a fun campaign, does it? I'd rather not play some sort of PTSD story-game. Instead, I'd take the story framework for how the guy got his PTSD and use that.

So some time in the future, Earth is a wreck. Overpopulation and rampant capitalism have destroyed the environment. The ultra-rich live in domed cities and have "full medical" which includes all sorts of treatments, organ replacements, etc. The VAST majority of humans subsist. Our hero grows up in the Nebraska food mines. They mine the shale oil and use it as food to grow bio-film which is then processed into food. But luck strikes and he wins the lottery.

Some time ago (in the story), colonists on Venus found an alien spacecraft. The guy who finds it manages to fly it, and it takes him to an asteroid orbiting the sun perpendicular to the plane of the celestial equator, which has been hollowed out with tunnels half a million years ago by aliens called the Heechee. This asteroid also has a thousand or so of their ships docked there.

It's possible to get the Heechee craft to fly, and they go FTL. But it's impossible to know where you're going. It flies on auto-pilot, there and back. Prospectors roll the dice, select a random destination, and head out to the stars. If they get lucky, they find a Heechee ruin and can bring back artifacts. No one knows what they are or what they do, but the Corporation will pay thousands or even millions of dollars for discoveries. Our hero wins the lottery, becomes a prospector, things he witnesses warp his already warped brain (the hellish life in the food mines already sent him to a year of psychotherapy as a teen). And now, as a rich successful former prospector, he lives a luxurious life of wine, women, and psychotherapy in the dome of NYC.

Great concept for a campaign. Stars Without Number would be a great system for this. I've never played Traveller, but it might work well, too, from what I've read about it. Something heavy and crunchy like StarFinder or Palladium could work too, of course, but if the campaign went all out with destinations that could have been safe half a million years ago but now are inside a red giant star or whatever, PC replacements might often be necessary.

I'd also want to increase the chances of finding artifacts, but reduce the reward amounts for finding them. As a story, the rarity of the Heechee artifacts is needed for dramatic tension. The protagonist spends a lot of time on Gateway (the asteroid launching area) fretting over whether he should actually go out on a mission or not. For a game, having players make PCs, go on a mission or two and find nothing, then get a dangerous planet or hazardous system and they just die would not be very fun.

It's mainly the idea of setting out on an alien craft to a random unknown destination that I like. I can imagine a d% table of system types, and then let the players roll the dice to see where they end up. Once they get there, they'd need to examine the system, find any celestial bodies with ruins, then search them for artifacts. Or if there are planets with life, or systems with unusual stars (pulsars, black holes, former supernovas, etc.) they could go for "science bonus" money instead of or in addition to artifact bounties.

Could be fun! But I'm still working on Caverns & Cowboys, so this idea will have to sit on the back burner for a while.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Caverns & Cowboys

This is an idea for a game I've had for a long time now. And apparently I discussed it mostly on G+ instead of here on the blog. I did a search of the posts here, and only found a few mentions of it.

So what is Caverns & Cowboys? Not hard to guess. It's a Western themed game, but also a fantasy dungeon crawling game. Or that was the original idea. I'd thought maybe run it with a combination of Go Fer Yer Gun (or later Tall Tales RPG) mixed with Labyrinth Lord/Classic D&D.

I even made this map as a bit of a trial at a Wild West setting that isn't part of our real world. Did I share this map before? Maybe. I know I shared it on G+ a few years ago (the image file shows I made it in 2017).
Anyway, I let the idea go for along time. Now I'm back on it. Only not using a D&D style OSR game.

A few weeks ago, I started adapting the Star Frontiers rules for a fantasy Western.

Why Star Frontiers? Well, for one thing it's a skill/level based system rather than a class/level based one. The skill system allows more flexibility to create characters that cover lots of different archetypes.

In SF, and in C&C (this iteration of it anyway), you gain a handful of XP each game session, and a few more when you complete an adventure. Then you can spend them to improve your character's base ability scores and skill levels. You can add new skills easily just by spending a few XP if you want, or you can save up to level up your existing skills.

SF has Military, Technological, and Psycho-Social skill areas. I have Interaction, Combat, and Magic skill areas. Yes, instead of Vancian magic, I'm going with magic as a skill. The spells are your subskills, and you have a limited number of spell points to use to cast spells. Gaining levels in the magic skills increases the potency of the spells but not the cost. There aren't really many flashy spells like lightning bolt or fireball, though. I tried to go with 19th century thematic magic types.

Interaction skills run the gamut from cowboy to lawman to doctor to engineer to criminal. I've got the most skills here (although Combat skills have quite a few as well). And while SF makes Military skills the cheapest to learn/advance, I've made Interaction skills the cheapest.

I've also converted a lot of monsters. I took the list from Holmes Basic. I removed a few (for IP or thematic reasons), and added some more (for thematic reasons).

I just need to get the rules for awarding XP and for placing treasure/monetary rewards written up, and I'll be ready to start play testing it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Traps: Are We Thinking About Them Wrong?

Recent discussion on Alexis's Tao of D&D blog seemed to relate to my recent post defending the labyrinthine dungeon layout used in many RPGs and video games. Alexis was writing about the treasure. Why is the treasure guarded in the dungeon? In his experience, his players, when they acquire vast treasures themselves, don't start constructing a trap/monster filled labyrinth in order to keep their funds safe.

I'll quote my response to Alexis and his response to me in full:

Dennis Laffey said...
I'm not sure if you read my recent post on my blog where I criticize a YouTuber for saying dungeons are stupid or not, but this post seems similar to it. The YouTuber was of the opinion that most dungeons should be the place where the BBEG keeps all his stuff. I disagree. And with regards to your point here, so does history.

Most royal treasuries, from my limited historical knowledge of the subject, were not secreted away in underground vaults guarded by traps and soldiers day and night.

And most secreted underground treasure hoards were not "someone's stuff." At least, not the stuff of anyone still alive. The treasures were grave goods interred with some king or other dignitary. Or were lost or buried in some natural disaster.

For most dungeons, the monsters really shouldn't have been placed specifically as guardians. The treasure was there, and the monsters decided that was a good place to move in after the people who buried the treasure there (or lost it) moved on.

Of course, why all the traps? That's still only logical in tombs, as they would be installed to deter grave robbers. In a lost city that was buried by an earthquake or swallowed by the sea but later belched back out again, all the traps don't really make sense.
Alexis Smolensk said...
Yes, why all the traps?

I've had player characters set up lairs for themselves. They do not fill these lairs with traps. Why do the monsters?
Why do the monsters build so many traps in the dungeons?

My question is actually, do monsters build the traps?

In the real world, where are traps encountered? Tombs such as the Egyptian pyramids and other pharaonic tombs sometimes had them. The tomb of Chinese emperor Qin (where the terra cotta army is) is suspected to have more treasures in it protected by traps. These days, though, we don't usually bury people with grave goods, so there's not much need for traps.

We do have other sorts of traps, though. Modern security systems include alarms and cameras (which are trap adjacent) and things like auto-locking doors or gates that close upon an alarm being triggered (which I would consider as actual traps). But these sorts of traps aren't everywhere. You see them in banks, high end jewelry stores, wealthy peoples' houses, and other places where there are things of value. Cameras and alarms have become much more common, though. Electrified fencing could also be seen as a form of trap, I suppose, keeping people out of (or in) a certain area.

Also, in war, we use land mines, and sometimes guerilla forces use things like tiger traps (think Viet Cong) or the like. In general, we have decided that people don't deserve to be peppered with poison darts or threatened with decapitating sweeping blades for trying to knock off a jewelry store, so these sorts of traps that threaten death and injury seem to be limited to war zones.

According to the random dungeon placement algorithm in BX/BECMI D&D, one in six rooms not containing a planned encounter should be a trap. That's a lot of traps. I know, because I used that for my megadungeon.

I also have been using it for hexes in my West Marches game. But in a wilderness, a trap doesn't often make sense. Sure, there are a few locations that are basically a big trap. But for the most part, I interpret "trap" as a hazard. So pools of parasite infected water, lava flows, quicksand, rock fall hazards, and the like.

I think a lot of dungeons should be designed this way, too. We don't need to be limited in our imagination to pit traps and darts and the like (although that's fine, especially since these sorts of traps are pulpy fun). But "trap" can also mean just a hazard. The natural disaster that ruined the ancient city caused the walls, roof, or ceiling to be weak in this area, and may collapse. Crystals in the cave wall may reflect your lantern light back in your eyes and blind you. A room's acoustics may be such that monsters in another area will hear you and prepare an ambush.

Thinking outside the box, even a set of natural caves can easily have "traps" and yes, I'd allow a Thief or Dwarf to use their detect/disarm abilities to bypass the hazards, if they roll well.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Chanbara Paper Player Character minis


Right now, you can get a set of 44 Chanbara themed adventurers from my Fold-Up Paper Models series. It's available on DriveThruRPG at my Hidden Treasure Books store.


The ebook contains 4 each of the playable types in the game. And I don't just mean 4 for each class. No, it's 4 for each profile. You get Abarenbo, Kensei, Samurai, Onmyoji, Sohei, Kagemusha, Ninja, Soryo, , and Yamabushi.

And all for the low low price of $1.50.


Edit: ever have one of those nights when you're starting to doze off while writing and something nonsensical makes it out? Yeah, had one of those when writing this post last night. :D Trust me, the paper minis were completed before I started nodding off. They're fine! Sleepy me just thought it would be a good idea to write a post to promote them before going to bed.

To the Mountain's Heart

To the Mountain's Heart
Being an Excerpt from the Journal of Jack Summerisle, Paladin and Green Knight of the Eldeen Reaches, concerning his adventures with his companions various and sundry as they seek the Heart of the Mountain, moving from the Hollow World of Pellucidar back towards the Overworld of Eberron, in a quest to awaken the Heart of the Mountain and defeat the Ghoul King.

We pressed on into the bowels of the Temple, going down many flights of stairs, and passing under the surface. It boggles the mind to think that we are in truth headed up when we do so. We have been in the hidden world of Pellucidar for so long now seeking this very temple.

Within the temple, we first encountered a chamber with a large altar made of piled stone. Three guardian creatures, made of stone but resembling the creatures known as dinosaurs here in Pellucidar, greeted us. They asked us to pledge ourselves to always battle the demons. This was an easy pledge for all of us to make, as we have already aligned ourselves to that cause.

The next chamber contained two giant suits of armor and two strange masks. The masks spoke to us, asking us to leave behind all worldly possessions. We refused, and the masks and armor animated, then attacked. We battled hard, and destroyed the spirits animating the items. Unfortunately in the battle, my armor was disintegrated by the touch of one of the giant suits. Fortunately, after the battle, the very same suit of winged armor that I was battling changed its size down to fit my body, and I now wear it. I am struggling to learn how to operate the wings, but I get the feeling that I will have the hang of it soon.

The third chamber contained another alter and three stone bird creatures. They demanded that we each impart some of our vital life force and experiences, to become more like children in order to pass. Again, we refused, and battle took place. We were victorious.

The fourth chamber was ornate, with numerous artistic wall carvings and inscriptions. There were five strange vessels on or near the altar, making strange noises. While some companions were stunned by the sounds from the vases, Pelar the Blade-Singer poured sand in one to mute its insane mumblings. I inspected the altar and found that a second pledge, this time against the Far Realm, was needed. I of course quickly pledged, as the Greensinger sect is already dedicated to just that. Other companions followed suit, although it took much effort to get Jade to commit, as he was entranced by the mumblings.

As we take a quick break to rest up and catch our breath, Yuv, with his legendary lore, informed us that beyond the next door should be the final altar. Could it also be the home of the mountains? We shall see.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Another Defense of the Dungeon in D&D

Another video I watched from Shadiversity on Youtube is discussing why the standard, labyrinthine dungeon of gaming is unrealistic and impractical. Go ahead and watch it if you like.

Now, I don't disagree with any of the reasoning Shad puts forth for why a typical dungeon in RPGs and video games is unrealistic. Not necessarily in the order presented in the video, just the order I remembered them:

1. It's poor architectural design. Good design should make it easy to get from place to place. Dungeons are designed to force you to go through choke-points.
2. There's often a secret passage for the "boss" that you won't find until you've reached the inner sanctum, but if you could find it early would save you a lot of trouble.
3. It's poor defensive strategy to split your defenses among a lot of separate areas when the goal is to protect a centralized treasure vault.
4. Carving out an underground tunnel system is a lot of work, making it larger than necessary is wasted effort.

All very good points. If your goal is to make your game more "realistic" to improve suspension of disbelief, and these sorts of things are things that you can't suspend your disbelief of, then yes, super logically laid out fortresses with easy ways to get straight to the end, and concentrated defenses where they will do the most good are the way to go.

And Shad does mention several times that he understands that dungeons are this way in order to facilitate game play. Good for him. And his idea towards the end of designing a rational, realistic fortress and letting players design their own plan of attack like a heist or caper movie plot can be fun, but I wouldn't want this all the time.

I've already given a pretty good reason why an underground labyrinth might logically exist a few years ago, so I'll let that post stand as a rebuttal to #4. If you don't want to click the link, I compare a map of the Mark Twain Cave, created by nature, to a typical dungeon layout.

For the idea that it's a poor defensive strategy to spread out your defenders, well, yes, maybe. But in most fantasy worlds, there will be wizards casting fireballs and ice storms and whatnot. Put ALL the monsters in one big room, and that handful of area affect spells the wizard has are suddenly a LOT more powerful. It's much better to get the twenty orcs, three ogres, two owlbears AND the blue dragon in one fireball than to have to decide to use it on only one of these groups of monsters.

If you were a BBEG, would you really want to put all your monsters/soldiers in one area where more than half could be wiped out by one fireball? In the real world, would you station all of your soldiers where they could be targeted by one artillery shell or guided missile? Of course not. Grouping your forces may be a strong defense against a conventional attack with swords, bows and spears, but not against area-effect firepower.

When it comes to the secret passage that allows quick access to the end, I think it's actually a good thing. If players grumble because they didn't find it early on, well, that's either because they didn't look for it, looked in the wrong place, or the dice just weren't on their side this time. Finding and taking advantage of that secret passage is good game play. And he mentions computer games like Skyrim don't allow you to find it at all. That's on the game designers, not a fault of the dungeon itself.

Finally, we come to the first point on architectural design. Now, the occasional dungeon with a logical architectural design can be a good thing. A nice change of pace. I was thinking about making a dragon's lair dungeon with a long wide corridor from the entrance straight to the dragon's den for the foolhardy adventurers to rush to their doom. Side passages would be for servants, food storage, etc. I wouldn't want every dungeon to be this way, though.

I think Shad is missing out on a few key concepts besides just game-play factors. And yes, that is probably the main reason for the multi-room, labyrinthine dungeon layout. Finding the treasure is supposed to be the challenge of the game. But there are a few concepts that Shad seems to believe are important that may not be, or at least aren't always important. And I think he hints at one of the biggest reasons for a dungeon to be the way it usually is, but doesn't quite make the leap to realize its importance.

First of all, Shad puts a premium on realism. Understandable, as that's the whole point of his YouTube channel. Do research on historical arms and armor, then point out how fiction/film/games get it wrong. For me, anyway, I think that too much realism is just as shattering to the fiction of the RPG session as too little. Making everything realistic is impossible. We need game mechanics to elide features of reality that are just too difficult or unwieldy to use in a game.

I remember getting turned off of the PS2 game Metal Gear Solid 3 because of its attempts at "realism" that made things LESS realistic. In that game, when you were wounded, instead of the elegant but ridiculously unrealistic method of eating food to cure your wounds (tried and true in many games), you had to go into your equipment management screens and treat the wound the way a field medic would. Clean it, anesthetize the immediate area, use antiseptic, stitch the wound closed, more antiseptic, and bandaging. Realistic, right? But you could be in the middle of the boss fight, pause the action, perform minor field surgery on yourself, and then restart time and the boss is right where you left him. That threw me enough to ruin my suspension of disbelief, and then the hassle of needing to complete five or six steps when in previous games I had only one to solve the same problem made the game unfun and I never finished it. (Pretty sure I've posted about this before here on the blog, sorry for the repeat.)

The point is, trying to become more realistic in one area made the game even less realistic in another area.So there needs to be a proper balance between realism and elegance of mechanics.

Secondly, Shad seems to be around 30-ish, so I'd guess he probably started RPGs in the 3E era, or maybe 2E AD&D/White Wolf era. He seems to take a lot of things that were popular back then as a given for game design. He mentions several times that to him, a "dungeon" should be a villain's base and why would a villain want to have to go through the ogre's chamber and around the flaming flying dagger trap every time he wants to nip out for a coffee or a pizza?

My question for Shad is, why do you assume that every dungeon is some master villain's lair? Some dungeons are, yes. And they would be better off to at least conform somewhat to Shad's cries for realism in dungeon layout. But not every dungeon is a lair. Some are just caverns. Some are tombs. Some are treasure vaults. And some...well, we'll get to that in a moment. Not every dungeon should have a BBEG lurking at the end. Not every dungeon needs to be a livable space. That's not written anywhere in any D&D book I've ever read. In fact, several of them are explicit that most dungeons are NOT.

Finally, here's the part where Shad almost gets it, but not quite. He mentions, around the 12:15 mark, that illogical dungeons are almost set up as if it were designed as a challenge. That someone wants the adventurers to get the treasure, but only if they prove their worth. But why would someone do that? It's illogical! [Setting aside the fact that in the real world, that's exactly what DMs are doing!]

Enter the realm of the dungeon as mythic underground. Modern fantasy obviously had its roots in mythology. Tolkien, Anderson, Howard, Moorecock, Dunsany, Morris... Lots of early fantasy writers drew on mythology and transformed it. There are plenty of blogs out there about using the dungeon as a sort of otherworldly zone where mortals can challenge themselves and prove their heroic worth. And yes, it can be seen as a handwave to explain away things like why there are no orc babies or what do the dragons eat when there are no adventurers to snack on. But it also gives the game a sort of resonance and weight that can be very impressive and immersive for players.

If the dungeon is a mythical underworld, rather than part of the normal, real, rational world, then Shad's idea is exactly right. The dungeons exist, put there by the gods or the Cosmic Forces of Law and Chaos, or whatever explicitly as a challenge to would be heroes. Are you strong enough to overcome these monsters? Clever enough to avoid falling victim to the traps? Wise enough to navigate the maze of passages without depleting your resources? If so, then congratulations! You win the treasure!

As Shad mentions, any sane evil overlord would want to protect their wealth, not offer it up as a challenge for the worthy. But we've already established that Shad's preconception of a dungeon as primarily a BBEG lair is already clouding his judgment on this issue, and that's why he fails to make the cognitive leap to the mythic underworld concept.

If the dungeon is the setting for a Campbellian hero-journey, then of course it should be set out this way. Every choice of pathways is a lady-or-tiger dilemma. Every encounter is there to challenge one or more aspects of your character. And yes, it is purposefully created to be difficult but not impossible to succeed.

If, like Shad posits, all of your dungeons follow the strictures of good architecture, all are bases for some BBEG or another, and all are defended in the most logical way, you can never achieve this sort of mythic resonance in your sessions.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Movie Review - Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I went and saw this today. Here's what I thought about it.

First of all, was there cursing in the movie? Yes, a fair amount, including from the pre-teen daughter character. Parents be warned. [Because 'curse' is in my blog title, I get hits from parents wondering how much swearing is in the movie.]

I wasn't so impressed with Godzilla (2014). Kong: Skull Island (2017) was pretty fun, though. I was hoping this movie would be more in the vein of Kong, but instead it was more like Godzilla.

The plot revolving around the human characters was stupid, pointless, and terrible. Of course, you don't go to these kinds of movies for the human drama. But they wasted a lot of time on it for no payoff at the end. The main family's drama was cliche and the resolution was forced. Dr. Serizawa's plot was minimal. And they didn't give him an eye patch, again. What's up with that, Watanabe Ken? If Samuel L. Jackson can rock the eye patch in the MCU, you could do it too! Zhang Ziyi's character(s) are hinted at having a plot arc, maybe in the next movie. [And I didn't even recognize that it was her...I had such a crush on her 20 years ago circa Crouching Tiger/House of Flying Daggers.]

The monster plot? It's actually better. Dead simple, but better than what they came up with for the humans. But we don't get to see enough of it. And that's what we come to these movies for! Pacific Rim gave us lots of giant robots punching giant monsters. And monsters punching back. Here? We get lots of quick cuts to fights and long cuts away to the humans. I'd definitely have edited this thing differently. Or was the CGI too expensive? There's something to be said about guys in big rubber suits...

Anyway, the fact that it did have a big monster tag-team battle at the end made it better than Godzilla (2014), but a lot worse than Kong: Skull Island.

I'd advise you to wait for streaming/rental service to watch it. The critics are right, it's not quite a dud, but I left the movie theater not really feeling excited or satisfied by it.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Response to Esper the Bard's 5E Class Rankings

I mentioned a few posts ago that this YouTube video rating the 5E classes was worthy of a response. While I've moved away from 5E as a DM, I still enjoy it as a player, so I think it's worth my time to consider what Esper thinks, why he thinks it, and point out where I agree or disagree with him.

First of all, here's the link to his video. Feel free to watch it now and come back here, or read this first and then watch his video (or alternate between the two!) as you like.

My first impression of his video was one of mild annoyance. First off, he has his tiers of ranking based on Guns n Roses songs which is fair enough. But his decision of where each class goes on that tier system is vague. He has a rating system with five criteria for evaluation. But he NEVER explains what these are. The first sign of a weak taxonomy system or ranking system is a failure to explain HOW you're classifying or rating whatever it is.

Now, granted, anything like this sort of video will, 99% of the time, boil down to post hoc justifications for the presenter's subjective opinions. But a carefully defined rubric of evaluation gives justifications for the subjective judgments and helps the audience with their own evaluations of the material.

I had to go looking at some of Esper's other videos to find his criteria spelled out in his ranking undead video. I didn't watch the whole video, just long enough to get his criteria.

So before I dive into the meat of the Character Class ranking video, I want to discuss this rubric a bit.

Mechanics apparently means a variety of combat options. Note that the description gives the highly subjective descriptors "interesting" and "fun." The undead video gives a picture of a camel vs a beholder as examples of low and high mechanics. Ignoring the fact that camels, as real world animals, are a low level threat at best while beholders are among the most powerful creatures in the game, I get what he's saying here. He thinks a simple attack roll/damage roll is boring, while having a dozen options to choose from each round is interesting.

Style is completely subjective. There's no way around this. Appearance and tone? His example pictures are a giff (I think that's the name - a Napoleonic monocle wearing hippo man from Starjammer) as low style and a roaring balor demon as high style. So goofy and unusual is lame, "metal" is cool. Got it.

Roleplaying is one that makes sense for rating monsters -- how high is the potential that you could have social interaction with the monster? His pictures are an ochre jelly and a lammasu. Obviously, you're going to fail to convince the ochre jelly that 'you're actually the telephone man come to fix the line so please let us into the treasure vault' with a Persuasion check or any amount of role play at the table. As a rating for character classes, though, I'm still mystified about what this is actually supposed to measure.

Lore seems to be a rating of not just how much total description of the monster there is, but its precedents in real world myth and legend. His example pictures are a carrion crawler (low lore) and a medusa (high lore). Since 2E went all out on monster lore for just about everything, it's hard for me to figure out if he's comparing in-game lore or real-world lore for monsters, or if again it's just a smokescreen for "I like how this monster is described, but not that one." And again, for character classes, I'm not sure how it translates exactly or how it's different from Style or Roleplaying.

Flexibility would seem to be a mechanical evaluation of the monster/class and how different you can make them within the rules. He gives pictures of a poisonous snake as low flexibility, and two elves (one a mage, one a warrior) as high flexibility. But I'm still a bit baffled when it comes to character classes. How is this different from Mechanics? Personally, I think flexibility has a lot to do with player creativity and ingenuity. I've seen plenty of "flexible" spellcasters who just spam fireballs and magic missiles all day long. And we've all had to deal with the player who thinks a cleric should be a walking cure wounds dispenser. Anyway, Esper seems to equate "lots of options to choose from on the character sheet" with flexibility...which is pretty much the same as his Mechanics category above.

So, we really have two categories for rating the classes, according to Esper:
  • Do the game rules give this class lots of options to choose from? (Mechanics/Flexibility) 
  • Do I think it's cool to play this class? (Style, Roleplaying, Lore)
So, on to his ranking.

The only bottom tier (E) option according to Esper, is the Fighter/Champion. And basically it's there because he sees this class option as a "long, long road filled with basic attacks" and nothing else. Well, if as a player of a Fighter/Champion you don't get creative, sure, that's possible. But a creative player will be looking at the rules (there are more things to do in combat in 5E, I mentioned the whole long list of allowed actions in my post the other day), not to mention equipment that could be used to make encounters more interesting. Sure, any other class could do those things, too, but since they have all these built in options to choose from, how often will they take advantage of them? When it comes to style, Esper sees this class as a blank slate...which is bad somehow. I guess being able to style the class any way you want is too much work for a 5E player these days? I shouldn't be snide. But really, he says there's no lore attached. I'm looking at just about all of human mythology/legendry/history and seeing all sorts of inspirations. I guess if it didn't come from Gygax as filtered through 3E and then 5E, it doesn't count.

Now, granted, the Champion is fairly plain and simple. It's not "sexy" but that's kind of the point. The Fighter throughout D&D history has not been a "sexy" class. But it's still one of the most common because it's effective and fun.

The next tier up (D) again has one subclass, the Barbarian/Berserker. His evaluation is that mechanically it has a few more options than the Fighter/Champion, but will still just be looking to make lots of normal attacks each round. He gives it high points for style (because bulging muscles are cool, I guess?) but says there's no lore or built in RP hooks for the class. So again, apparently we have our difference of Style with Roleplay/Lore. Style means "I think the art looks cool" while RP/Lore means WotC gave me my character concept for me (and I like what they gave me, but this part is in parenthesis because it only becomes obvious later).

Moving up to the next tier (C) we get a few: Fighter/Battlemaster, Barbarian/Totem Warrior, Fighter/Eldritch Knight, and Ranger/Hunter

The Battlemaster is as lame as the Champion, but gets more mechanical tricks. It apparently is visually more appealing (one step higher than Champion on Style) I guess because the art is more dynamic than the motionless 3E Fighter pictures used with the Champion section? And having the ability to define your character with mechanics to back it up is apparently what Roleplay/Lore is about in this case, instead of just role playing to define your character.

The Totem Warrior is better than the Berserker because...the rules for the totems are better than the rules for berserking? And apparently having these semi-magical abilities gives you more to base your RP on than being a warrior who goes crazy in battle.

The Eldritch Knight, he says, could have been in B tier because 1/3 wizard, but being 2/3 fighter is lame. Because all it does is fight. (Um, if that's the case, why are 2 of 5 criteria based solely on your ability to fight?)

To be clear, he's talking about the "revised Ranger" variant which he praises, so by the book Rangers are probably down with the Berserker in D tier. He gives the Hunter good points for combat and exploration mechanics, but says the RP/Lore is limited. How? I'm still not sure.

Anyway, Esper says that all of the above classes/subclasses lack for mechanical flexibility and/or RP hooks hard coded into the class.

Moving up to B tier, we get the Monk (all subclasses), Ranger/Beastmaster, Paladin (all subclasses), Rogue (Assassin & Thief).

Monks have lots of unique mechanics that he likes. Loves, even. But unfortunately, they are low on RP potential. Because he's never seen anyone create a more interesting Monk background than the default given by the book. So here's one of my biggest criticisms of this video. Monks are apparently sucky roleplay options because of how the book suggests they are played. But moving forward, classes like the Paladin or Bard get high marks for being played the way the books says you should play them.

Beastmasters are sucky Rangers, but having an animal is cool and metal. So bonus points.

Paladins are cool because they have a hard-coded RP story in the class (which is why Monks suck).

Rogue, at least the Assassin and Thief subclasses, get high ranks for style (cool dark edgy art), and real world lore is cool (from Han Solo to Jack Sparrow)...although real world lore for lower ranked classes was ignored. Apparently not having spells is enough to limit these edgy scoundrels to B tier because...

Tier A, the top, the best of the best! Here we have the Rogue/Arcane Trickster, Warlock, Druid, Wizard, Sorcerer, Cleric, and at the top the BARD!

This is getting long, and you can basically boil this down to A tier (aside from Rogue/Arcane Trickster who are at the bottom of the tier) are full spellcaster classes. That's it, folks. According to this video, spellcasters are where it's at! Even though he seems to again waffle on the "real world lore/game lore" thing. And is inconsistent about what constitutes good hard-coded RP hooks and what doesn't.

Probably no surprise that a guy who calls himself Esper the Bard puts the Bard class at the top of the chart.

So what can we learn from this? If you want to actually rate classes, come up with some sort of well-defined criteria for the ratings and explain your ranking system in detail. Offer up arguments to defend your rating with specific examples or some sort of data, rather than "I just like this."

OR, from the beginning, just tell us straight up, these are the classes ranked by my personal preference of what/how to play and what seems cool to me, and give up the pretense of some sort of objective ranking system.

Trying to mush the two together leads to disappointment in your audience.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Inspiration from an unusual source

This was spammed in my comments five times. It would actually make a good hook for a modern supernatural/horror/investigation type RPG scenario. (Actual email address changed so they don't still benefit from their spam.)

Are you tired of being human, having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes, Do you want to have power and influence over others, To be charming and desirable, To have wealth, health, without delaying in a good human posture and becoming an immortal? If yes, these your chance. It's a world of vampire where life get easier,We have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich, You will assured long life and prosperity, You shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness, Stronger and also very fast, You will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk, This is an opportunity to have the human vampire virus to perform in a good posture. If you are interested contact us on Vampirelord666@emailaddress.com

6/13/2019 update
And another vampire wannabe spammed my comments, including this post!  These vampires have better grammar, but worse posture. Select your vampire plan carefully.

Vampires is not at all like in the movies or books. Sure, I understand. You are young you have the whole world open to you. You can be anything that you choose if you apply yourself and try hard to work toward that goal. But being a Vampire is not what it seems like. It’s a life full of good, and amazing things. We are as human as you are.. It’s not what you are that counts, But how you choose to be. Do you want a life full of interesting things? Do you want to have power and influence over others? To be charming and desirable? To have wealth, health, and longevity? contact the Vampires Lord on his Email: Richvampirekindom@emailaddress.com

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Action Economy is a Bad Concept

I was watching a video on YouTube where a guy was evaluating the 5E classes from worst to best, as he saw them. I may watch it again and write down some comments/criticisms of it, as he has some rather vague criteria and his reasoning for why certain classes are good is also cited as a reason why at least one class is bad in his opinion. I won't link the video yet. If I do critique it, of course I'll link it then.

As I was watching it, I was trying to figure out how he was rating each class. And really, it boils down to three things: how versatile is the class, how "cool" did he find it to role play, and how well did it take advantage of the "action economy."

The concept of the action economy is a relatively new one in D&D, but it's been around in games like the Palladium system for a long time. If you pretty much stick to OSR blogs/forums, you may not be familiar with the term. The action economy is the idea that characters can take X actions in a turn, and if they don't take full advantage of these actions each round in combat, they are letting the side down by being inefficient.

In 5E, on your turn each round you can move your speed, perform one "action" and possibly perform one "bonus action." I think you can get one "free" object interaction as part of the move and/or attack, like drawing a weapon or opening a door. And during other players' or the monsters' turns, you can get one "reaction" per round.

5E of course has a predefined list of possible "actions" one can take. And yes, scare quotes because you can't just do any old action you can think of. Well, you can, but whatever it is it will fit into one of the predefined categories of action in the book. That list is: Attack, Cast a Spell, Dash, Disengage, Dodge, Help, Hide, Ready, Search, Use an Object. (Higher level warrior types get an ability called Extra Attack which lets them make more than one attack when they take the Attack action but it counts as just one "action" for the action economy.)

Bonus actions are not to my knowledge ever listed out precisely, because they are basically exceptions to the normal rule. If a class ability, racial ability, or spell grants you a bonus action you can take it. Otherwise, you get no bonus action. Monks, for example, can always make an unarmed strike as a bonus action IF they take the Attack action. At 2nd level, Rogues can always choose to use a bonus action to Hide, Disengage, or Dash. Clerics who cast Spiritual Weapon use a bonus action to make the hammer attack.

Reactions take the place of "attacks of opportunity" in 3E. And they aren't always just attacks, although some are. Many are class abilities that let you avoid or reduce damage (Monks can deflect arrows, Rogues can reduce damage from one attack, Wizards and Sorcerers can cast the shield spell).

In good old D&D/AD&D, you don't have to worry about all this. Everyone can move and do one thing on their turn. Much simpler. And in a fight, not every character in the party was expected to do something each round.

The action economy does add a layer of tactical complexity that many people enjoy. I understand its appeal. The problem is that the action economy seems to be one of the main considerations people like the guy who made the video I referenced above have for rating both the classes of 5E but also how people play the game.

If you don't take full advantage of the action economy, if you don't take a class that makes use of bonus actions and reactions, if you squander your turn, it's seen as letting down the side. Not pulling your weight. Being lame and useless. Totally sucking at the game.

It all comes back around to the fault WotC had when they created the game. It's all about combat.

The by the book primary source of XP awards are for combat. Most character abilities are designed to help you in combat. Most spells are designed to help you in combat. The action economy is designed to help you optimize combat.

Computer RPGs are all about combat because it's still difficult to program into a game the sort of freedom you get with a tabletop RPG. Why WotC decided to limit their design of 5E to mimicking a computer RPG is beyond me. I mean, shouldn't they have learned their lesson from doing that with 4E?

OK, I feel like I"m starting to ramble. It's getting late. Let me wrap this up.

The concept of an action economy is fine in and of itself. It does add a level of tactical variety to the game, which many people like. And yes, it can be fun to take advantage of it. But what started as a tool to add variety and fun has become a yardstick or straight jacket on the game. Too many people are looking at and evaluating game mechanics and more importantly game play based primarily on how well a class or build takes advantage of the action economy. Bonus actions are not seen as a bonus, they're seen as a necessity. And the attitude I'm seeing more and more is that if your character isn't taking advantage of bonus actions and reactions as often as possible, you did something wrong or are playing wrong.

It's valuing system mastery over immersion and creativity, prioritizing optimal combat efficiency over playing your character. That's why it's bad for the game.

The Deck of Many Things returns!

Last October, I threw my West Marches players into Castle Ravenloft for fun (they weren't trapped by the mists, they were transported home at the end of the session) and while in it, they found The Deck of Many Things. No one dared use it at that time.

A few sessions later, Dean's paladin was slain. They decided to use the deck, hoping to get wishes to restore him. Two characters pulled cards, and all were bad (a Minor Death attacked then the Sorcerer lost all magic items; the Thief was imprisoned on his first draw). No one else has dared to use the deck since.

Until today.

Two new players (a married couple, I teach English camps with the husband during summer and winter vacations) joined us today. They rolled up a Human  Cleric (the wife) and a Human Berserker (the husband, obviously - and yes, my homebrew "barbarian" is called a Berserker).

They had a few old rumors and I gave them a few new ones. They decided to follow one of the new ones. They found what they were looking for quickly, but weren't able to get it because the medicinal mushrooms grew all around an owlbear's nest. And they were worried that one of the level 1 or level 2 PCs would die. So they went back to town to research options for dealing with owlbears without getting into melee, and possibly capturing it - as a fellow in town is known to pay good money for captured curiosities.

While in town, we mentioned that the Deck had been discovered. And after I mentioned Alexis's post about the Deck from last week, they decided why not? The worst that could happen would be having to roll up a new PC.

So Julian drew 3 cards. He drew Star (+2 to prime requisite, Con in his case), Balance (changing his alignment from Neutral to Chaotic), and Knight (gain a 4th level Fighter henchman...and yes, his character is only 1st level).

Marie also decided to draw 3 cards. She drew Flames (gaining the enmity of a devil or demon...since she's a Cleric she was happy, declaring this "Instant back-story!"), Gem (gaining 20 jewelry or 50 gems, she took the jewelry...which is funny because she rolled the minimum of only 30 gp as starting gold!), and Sun (gain a miscellaneous magic item -- an amulet vs scrying, and 50,000xp!). I decided in this case to ignore the no more than 1 level gain at a time rule as this shot her up to 7th level in one go.

Seeing these results, Don decided to have Phil, his Halfling Ranger, draw as well, but only 2 cards. He got Comet (defeat the next monster you meet and instantly gain 1 level), then Rogue (a henchman turns against you...and while he doesn't yet have a personal henchman, last session, they did hire three retainers to accompany them on their adventure, so one of the two survivors now hates Phil).

They headed out into the Marches again, and the first encounter was with 3 goblins...but who had potentially friendly reactions. Phil didn't want to start a fight, so he asked for a careful wording of the card. It says "Defeat the next monster you meet to gain 1 level." He challenged one of the goblins to rock-scissors-paper, best 2 out of 3. He won the first, the goblin won the second, and he won the third! So he shot up to 3rd level (he was getting close already but it's still a nice boost for him).

Later, they encountered two wights. The wights drained a level from Sir Tom of the Deck (the new henchman), but then Eygwynn used her new 7th level Turn Undead ability to vaporize the two wights. So it all worked out in the end!

Fun stuff, everyone was having a ball, and now I've got some hooks for fun things to throw their way in the future. Julian and Marie are DEFINITELY coming back next session.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Come on, WotC!

I'm sure you've seen this video. It's obviously making the rounds of the Gamosphere.

If Renault Brazil can make an awesome commercial like this, I think you know what to do, WotC. Hollywood's all about the reboot/modernization of old 70's/80's properties right now. Get Hazbro to make a deal with Disney or Time/Warner or someone and make this happen as a big budget feature film! With the current film culture of big budget CGI spectacle and cashing in on Gen X nostalgia, this should be a no-brainer.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

1E OA has a surprising amount of character options

I am making plans to continue my paper miniatures line with characters for Oriental Adventures.

I made lists of all the race and class combinations. And man, the way the Hengeyokai work, I'm going to have to create a LOT of minis to cover every option!

There are 12 or so animals that are the base form of a hengeyokai, and they have normal human, hybrid and animal forms. I figure for marking their position on a battle mat, the hybrid or animal forms are enough.

There are four classes that Hengeyokai can choose, luckily. Only four. And a few animal types must be evil so can't be Shukenja, and a few must be chaotic, so can't be kensei. None must be lawful, so any Hengeyokai can be a Wu Jen. And Bushi have no alignment restrictions.

I usually do male and female versions of each (the animal form will just get one and you can hand wave any sexual dimorphism in the species). So that's 12 regular animals.

Hybrid forms, however, will require:

24 Bushi (12 male, 12 female)
20 Kensei (10 male, 10 female)
18 Shukenja (9 male, 9 female)
24 Wu Jen (12 male, 12 female)

That's an awful lot of hengeyokai. Especially since for many of them I will need to modify a picture of a human with an animal's head to make it work. There are some public domain pictures of Japanese anthropomorphic animals, but not enough.  Even if I only did one hybrid form of each class for each animal type, it's still 55 total pictures including the animal forms.

And for humans, I was planning to have two of each sex for each of the ten classes. One of each sex for Korobokuru for each of their five classes. And Spirit Folk - luckily I don't think there's that much difference between the three types visually, so just one of each sex for each of their four classes. If I did one for each type of Spirit Folk, that would triple that number.

So if I went whole hog (1 male and female of each class for Hengeyokai hybrids plus animal forms, 2 male and female of each class for Humans, 1 male and female of each class for Korobokuru, and 1 male and female of each class for each type of Spirit Folk), this book would have 172 miniatures in it.

That's a bit of work there. Might take a while. Even if I limit the Hengyeyokai and Spirit Folk, and only provide one male and female each of the human classes, it's still 93 miniature images I need to create.

In the mean time, I listed out the class options of Flying Swordsmen and Chanbara. That's easier to do since everyone's human. A lot of these can do double duty when I get around to the OA set, although I may mix it up a bit to give people more value for their money spent if they buy both. Especially for classes like the samurai where I have tons of pictures that work. Spell-casters and martial artists may get recycled out of necessity, however. We'll see.

I've got all the pictures selected for the Chanbara set. Some are pictures I used in the book, but not all of the book pictures make for a good miniature image. There are two male and two female images for each class/profile in Chanbara. So I should be able to get this book out soon. And I should be looking at the monster lists, too...


Sunday, May 19, 2019

It's not your DM's job to provide you with a story

I've been in a bit of a lull this weekend, not really motivated to work on my research. So I've been wasting a lot of time on YouTube. This video popped up on my recommended list today. I've seen a few videos from this guy before, and while focused on 5E, he's given me a few things to think about with regards to the game.
I have a few issues with this video, though, and so, since this seems to be the way debate happens on the internet, I should actually be making my own YouTube video, sampling bits of this one, and then giving my rebuttal or interpretation, or explaining how my philosophy differs. But I'm just going to write up my thoughts here instead, since my web cam is busted. I guess I could use my phone camera to do it - it's better quality than my web cam anyway. But I'll just write my ideas here anyway.

His "simple dirty tricks" to run a successful RP session are:
0. Have a goal for the session (this is more of a general bit of advice he gives)
1. Introduce a backstory NPC (AKA a new NPC related to a PC's backstory)
2. Introduce a third party (to complicate the RP with a new agenda)
3. Set the PCs up for a fall (a bait and switch/manipulate their emotions gambit)
4. Create a moral dilemma for the PCs (orc babies, anyone?)
5. Introduce a new ally or enemy (how this is different from #1 is...the new NPC is not related to a PC's backstory, how it's different from #2 is...I'm not exactly sure, unless the "third party" in #2 is completely neutral in whatever conflicts are going on)


My first impression is that aside from one of the "dirty tricks" (#3), I wouldn't consider any of these to be dirty tricks. But with the nature of click-bait titles, I'll let that slide. He needed to jazz up the title to get people interested. And in my case, it did work.

So, first of all, his idea to "have a goal for the session" seems to imply that the DM knows and is planning for an RP session. My philosophy of GMing any more is to never have a goal for the session as GM. It's the players' responsibility to come up with goals for the session. If they decide to just hang out in town chatting up NPCs, THAT is apparently the goal they have come up with for the session.

That said, if the players do opt to RP the entire session instead of exploring or hacking & slashing, his five bits of advice of things to throw into the session to liven things up aren't all bad.

#1 seems to imply coming up with a "backstory NPC" off the cuff. While that's certainly possible, I've found through the years that throwing in an already established NPC works better. We've already got an idea of the NPC's character, and the players may familiar with the NPC's attitudes, goals, etc.

I did this intuitively as a kid. My best friend's main Fighter had a 3 Charisma, and tended to piss off otherwise friendly and helpful NPCs. If we were in a long RP session, I could usually find a way to work in one of the "Caric's Enemies Club" to the game and have some fun interactions with an established NPC.

#2 seems to again be premised on the idea that the DM is running the players through some sort of predetermined story. Having multiple factions that the players are free to oppose or try to ally with is great. And if there's a lull in the dungeon delving, it is in fact a good time to introduce new factions to the players. If you're trying to run the players through some kind of specific plot (whether it's predetermined or just heavily guided to try and steer things a certain way), this is actually a good way to derail that story! The players may find the new faction more engaging than the current allies/enemies, and want to totally switch gears. I'm actually all for that. But I don't think that's what the guy in the video intended.

#3 can be a real dick move, if not done right. And the guy making the video does warn you not to overuse this idea. The problem I see with it it, if you don't plan this ahead of time, it won't have the emotional payoff you're hoping for. And if you do plan it ahead of time, and are just waiting around for the players to disengage from the exploration and talk to the NPCs for a session, it will feel contrived when you trot it out. Now, if you're running them through some sort of story, and you know you'll have a break in the narrative, yeah, this would be a good time to use something like this. But if you are just providing a game world for the players to explore, this sort of thing should come up naturally as part of the in-game cause/effect of player actions/reactions. It's not the sort of thing that should be planned and "sprung" on the players just to try to manipulate them emotionally.

#4 shouldn't be something the DM forces on the players. The DM should always be giving them situations where they have choices to make of a moral or ethical nature. But I can't, as DM, force the players to engage in the choice as a dilemma. That depends on the player's mentality and how they envision their character.

In my experience, since RPGs are NOT the real world and the consequences aren't real to the players, they will happily take a situation that might actually be a dilemma in real life and easily choose to do one thing or the other. A writer can decide that Hamlet can't decide whether avenging his father or not betraying his king is the morally correct action. As a DM, all I can do is dangle the situation in front of the players. Whether they decide to ignore their father's ghost, run straight to the throne room and draw steel, or spend days moping around fretting about the decision is out of my hands. It's my job to take their decision and roll with it, and play it out.

And if there is a dilemma, it's usually not every character fretting over the possible courses of action. It's a debate between PCs that have made opposite decisions. And they will happily debate it out in character (and sometimes out of character too) while I just sit there and listen.

#5, as I noted above, isn't really any different than #1 or #2. They're all basically trying to spice up an RP session by throwing in more NPCs to interact with. And that's fine. If the players have decided to hang out in town and do research, pursue personal goals, or just have a laugh, the more and more varied types of NPCs they have to interact with, the better. This point just suggests a different type of NPC to throw at the players compared to the first two "dirty tricks."

So looking at the specific points offered, yes, these are usually good ways to spice up role play encounters. In fact, they would mostly work even if it's just an encounter, not an entire session. The problem I have with the video's premise is that it expects the DM to be providing some sort of coherent narrative for the players to move through. That's not the DM's job. The DM should set the stage. The DM should be reactive to the actions of the PCs more often than they should be actively trying to "move the plot" of the game.

If the DM plans for an RP session, and prepares one of these "dirty tricks" to use, but the players aren't in the mood for an RP session and would rather get on with the adventure, then it's going to be a dull or frustrating session for everyone.

So budding DMs, don't force it. If you find your players in the mood for some heavy RP instead of exploration/combat, remember these "tricks" as things you can do when things seem to slow down and you need to add a bit of spice. Just don't force them upon your players.

Inexperienced players, force it! If you're in the mood for role play, role play away! If you want to explore or get in a fight or whatever, let the DM know that's what you want to do.

The best RP sessions aren't pre-planned or forced. They just happen spontaneously.