Sunday, October 13, 2019

Of spells and spell lists

Interesting discussion last night during and after our Rad Hack game. Jeremy had wanted to run a standard fantasy type campaign using The Black Hack 2E. Dean had created his character, and was complaining that there were only a few spells on the spell list to choose from. Jeremy and I have also been looking and talking about Ba5ic by Fr. Dave of the Blood of Prokopius blog. It looks pretty fun, we'd like to play it sometime, but we both want to experience it as a player and we need someone to run it for us! But again, in Ba5ic, there are only 6 spells per level. Dean was unimpressed.

We also had a bit of discussion about how spells have generally become less powerful as editions progress. It used to be, magic-users and clerics had few spells they could cast, but the right spell at the right time (and a bit of luck with saving throws) could win an encounter. And without "my precious encounter' syndrome, you'd just rack up the win and move on to more encounters. These days, [again, I know I've said this before] a lot of game design seems to be afraid of that, thinking the only "fair" way to win is by a hit point slog.

And we also had discussion of spell lists in 1E/2E which were expansive, and later editions which are also fairly expansive. So why are most OSR games limiting themselves to small spell lists?

I can only answer for myself, but my thought processes in only having small spell lists in Flying Swordsmen and Chanbara and Treasures, Serpents and Ruins goes as follows:

Partly it's nostalgia. I grew up playing BECMI. It had 8 spells per level for Clerics. 12 spells per level for Magic-Users. Druids in the Companion set added 4 spells per level to the Cleric list (but had a handful of spells that were alignment based taken away). It was enough spells back then. It is enough now. Or so I thought.

Partly it's an artificial conceit among some in the OSR that the only worthy rule-sets fit in 48, 64, or 96 or however many pages. Based on the page counts of the old TSR books. And while I found it a useful constraint for me to keep Chanbara to 68 pages, it's not really a requirement that I need to stick to for everything I do.

Partly it's that a lot of those AD&D spells, especially some Unearthed Arcana additions, just never seemed worth taking, to be honest. Some of them are so specialized that they'd only be used in very limited circumstances, and it's usually better to fill a spell slot with something more generally useful. Granted, if you are packing one of those specialized spells, and the situation comes up, you look like a genius for having it ready. But how often do you really need to cast precipitation or fire water compared to the number of situations where it's useful to cast sleep or cure light wounds?



So, as I look over my spell lists for TSR-East this morning, I'm thinking maybe I should expand the spell lists.

But I want to be careful doing it. I don't want to be like 5E, where there are lots of spells, but a good 1/3 or so are only useful in combat (and most are just variations on how to do damage). I want a variety of interesting spells that can be creatively applied to a variety of solutions.

Time to expand!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Black Hack Musings

Jeremy has been pushing for a series of one-shot games using variations of The Black Hack recently. He's been using the Rad Hack, a post-apoc version of the system, for a game recently and it's been a lot of fun. It is definitely a simple system. And that may actually be my problem with it. It may be TOO simple.

Now, this post is not meant as an attack on Jeremy, or on the Black Hack family of games, or David Black. It's just, like, my opinion, man. So abide.

That said, there are a few things about TBH that just don't sit well with me. I'm going to enumerate them here, and discuss a bit about why I'm not fond of these mechanics/systems. And once more, for the people who didn't read the above - I'm enjoying Rad Hack, and I don't think it's a bad game at all. It's just not my cup of tea.

So there are a few things that bug me. Two that I've already blogged about are armor and active defense rolls (also armor in this post).

The armor rules require a fair amount of bookkeeping and/or really break immersion for me. The Rad Hack's BTB rules just are weird. In any battle, your armor absorbs X amount of damage then stops working. But ten minutes later, in the next battle, it can again absorb X amount of damage (then stops working). Jeremy has switched to a system of straight damage reduction (but not the usage die suggestion I made in my post liked above).
 ________________________________
Again, I already posted that I'm not a huge fan of "active defense."* Supposedly it keeps players paying attention and allows them to take their fate in their own hands. Statistically, it doesn't matter if the DM needs to roll d20+mods against my AC, or I need to roll d20+mods against my AC to see if I'm hit. Making the players roll the monsters' attacks and the monster's saving throws for the DM I guess takes some pressure off the DM. But the DM still needs to be monitoring those rolls.

*Active defense has two meanings. One, the defense value is rolled each round, or each attack, against the attack roll. Very swingy. Not a fan of that, either. In TBH and hence in this post, the defense value is static (aside from occasional modifiers) but the player rolls avoidance rather than the monsters rolling to hit.

As a DM, I really shouldn't trust every player to be making their own rolls like that. I've played with enough players through the years who always seemed to make those crunch time rolls, and get plenty of natural 20s (although sometimes the dice are just like that, it's happened to me a time or two and maybe some of my fellow players suspected me of cheating too). As DM, if I roll, I know it's fair.

And as a player, it takes away some of the suspense. I don't know why it does. Until I roll in Rad Hack, I don't know if the monster hit me or not. But once I roll, I pretty much know right away. In traditional D&D (or other games) I'm in suspense until the DM announces the result. The time delay between the DM rolling and the DM announcing the result is exciting! Making the monsters' attack rolls for them just seems like more work for me. Again, this is just my personal
________________________________
Milestone leveling is another problem I have with the system. I've posted before about how I think the experience system is one of the most important parts of the game. Maybe THE most important part. Because it informs play. If activities A, B, and C gain you XP, then "good play" tries to maximize A, B, and C. Milestone leveling just says the game master will reward you with levels when they feel it's time.

And yes, a DM can set out a comprehensive set of criteria that result in gaining a level. And then players can try to manage their game play to meet those criteria as often as possible. Jeremy has been using sessions of play as the milestones, rather than basing it off of subjective criteria related to the in-game fiction. And the result? Dean and I are clamoring for him to run Rad Hack more often instead of all these one-shot experiments. Because the more sessions we clock, the faster we level in this game.

OD&D~AD&D gives you XP for monsters defeated but mostly for treasure. Optimal game play is about finding treasure. 2E BTB had a bunch of weird requirements for each class that meant unless everyone was playing the same type of class, there was no "optimal" game play. But I never played with someone who ran 2E experience by the book. Everyone just used the O/AD&D treasure/monsters system. Maybe spellcasters got some bonus XP for casting spells or thieves for picking locks, but mostly it was just fight the monsters and get the treasure. 3E and 4E focused on combat as the way to get XP. And it led to combat heavy games. TBH milestone system leads to...it's fuzzy.

__________________________________
OK, one last one. TBH uses the classic 6 ability scores (although the mecha hack game Jeremy sent uses only 4). And every roll is based on rolling a d20 under one ability score or another. It combines a universal mechanic (which IMO is not always the best way to model probabilities for various actions) with stat dependency.

It can be hard to play a non-combat character in many RPGs. But TBH (or at least the way Rad Hack is run by Jeremy -- again, not an attack, just explaining how I get my experience to base this off of) seems to actively punish you for having a character not optimized for combat. Again, part of this is the active defense system. If I have a low strength Cleric in D&D (and I did play one once), I'm not likely to hit often in combat. Fine. But with plate armor and shield, I'm well able to avoid the monster hits as well. But in Rad Hack, if I have low Strength (or low Dex in ranged combat), it makes my attacks less effective and the monster attacks MORE effective. And the armor only holds up so long.

__________________________________
So, there are my reasons why I don't think TBH is the game for me. It's still fun to play Jeremy's Rad Hack game. I'm invested in my character, Cybersys 842. And it's mainly this investment in the character, not any investment in the rules system, that makes me want to keep playing it.

In my first impression of Rad Hack (and TBH in general), the post linked above for active defense rolls, I said at the end I might try to make my own TBH variant. Now, though, I'm pretty sure I never will. The system, much like 5E, is fine for what it is, but it's just not what I want out of my games. I'm happy to play it, but won't likely DM it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

It's like a mini Christmas!

Came home from work late (grading papers) and skipping the board game meet-up, but there was a package waiting at my door.

A week or so ago, I used some of my Chanbara/paper minis earnings to order some new miniatures. I hadn't ordered any in a long time (several years), and browsing, I saw that a company I've ordered from before, Red Box, had some new sets of fantasy minis in a line called Dark Alliance. Lots of them! (Other sets only labelled Red Box are historicals.)

I'm not actually using minis in my West Marches game, but if I start, I thought it would be good to have some more female adventuring types. And some of the new sets were Amazons. There were also some Cimmerians that looked cool. So I ordered them. Shipping to Korea was a minimum $35, so I figured what the heck! I got those two, plus some "half-orcs" that look nothing at all like Saruman's uruk-hai from the LotR films...no, nothing at all! Just coincidence! ;) And I saw they have some "fire demons" which again, any resemblance to balrogs, living or dead, is purely coincidental! And another company I've also ordered from before, Caesar, has some lizard man (sorry, lizard folk in these non-gender-specific times) figures as well. Didn't up the shipping cost, so I got them all.

 When I opened the boxes, here's what I got. The Caesar lizard-people were not on sprues, although a few had bits of sprue still attached. And their shields, and two poses' arms, were on sprues to be detached and attached to the minis. I'll get around to that some other day. All the Red Box minis were on sprues.

Obviously the two big guys are the (can't be called) balrogs. The blue are the Modern Amazons (looked the coolest of the various Amazon sets). Brown are the half-orcs. White (the color really resembles the old glow-in-the-dark plastic toys you'd get in cereal boxes back in the 80's) are the Cimmerians (Set 2, which I chose mostly because they have a wizard/shaman pose - farthest back in the picture below). The lizard-personages are still in the bag, in gray.

Now, Red Box doesn't have the crispest sculpts. I've ordered from them before (orcs for sure, maybe some others). I'm fine with that. When I'm gaming, I want figures that can represent PCs and monsters. They don't need to be works of art. But the first sprue of Cimmerians that I pulled out was so covered in flash. It looks pretty bad. Luckily, it was only that one sprue. And I think this must be a mis-labeling not just a bit of luck on my part. The Cimmerican box says "33 figures in 11 poses" and shows 11 poses on the back, but each sprue has only 10 poses. But, and here's where maybe I was lucky, there were 4 sprues. So I got 40 figures in 10 poses. 7 figures ahead, even though I'm one pose short.


I took one set of figures from each set off of the sprues this evening. Since I'm planning to use these for RPG gaming rather than war-gaming, and I'm not using minis at the moment, I figure there's no rush to get them all off the sprues. It's not like I've bothered to pain the Caesar "Adventurers" or the other sets (goblins, dwarves, elves) I'd bought from them, or the orcs and whatever else I'd gotten from Red Box a few years back. They're all still unpainted. One of these days...

Oh, and I should note -- if you're thinking about getting these, be warned. They're true 25mm scale. They're tiny next to a Reaper heroic scale mini. If you have lots of Halfling, Gnome, and Dwarf characters, you could use them together and they'd be fine. Those balrogs will still tower over a Reaper, though.

Monday, October 7, 2019

TSR-East Classes: Yakuza

I had intended to post this yesterday, to get each class out a day at a time. But I posted about character death and then was busy mucking around with the spell descriptions (doing a few updates, organizing, making sure I had all the spells on the lists...and I only got the 1st level spells completed).

So I mentioned this in the comments of my post giving an overview of the classes. The term 'yakuza' is only about 130-150 years old. And modern video games and film give many people the impression of yakuza as a modern thing. But the roots of the yakuza go back to two marginalized groups in feudal Japan, the tekiya (wandering tinkerers, carnies, merchants of shoddy goods) and the bakuto (gamblers). Tekiya were mostly burakumin (部落民 "the outcasts"), or eta. Because they were at the bottom of the social ladder and had few rights, they banded together for mutual protection. That later led to "protection" in the gangster sense, extortion, all that stuff. But they also were protectors of the commoners against excesses of the samurai. The oyabun-kobun social structure of the modern yakuza comes from the tekiya (and many modern yakuza still manage the festivals).

Gambling was illegal, so bakuto were criminals. The bakuto also found it useful to band together to prevent persecution. The tattoo culture, including the iconic slipping off of one sleeve to show them off, comes from the bakuto.

So, on to my class. The base is obviously the Thief class, just as in 1E OA. I'm not using the percentile thief skills, though, just x in 6 chances for simplicity (my TSR-West does at the moment still use percentiles). My Yakuza, however, don't get the full complement. Just the traps/locks skills. What they get in compensation is magical tattoos at every even level. Yes, I borrowed the idea from the 3E OA Tattooed Monk PrC. And the tattoos give them access to all kinds of fun abilities, including more thief skills if they want.

Here's the class:

Yakuza (Gangster) AKA Fěitú, Ggangpei
Prime Requisite: Dex [13 +5%, 16 +10%]
Hit Die: d4 to 9th level, +2/level after
Arms: all weapons, light armor
Special Abilities: disarm traps, backstab, tattoos
Ninja Advancement
Level
XP
BAB
Abilities
1
0
+1
Disarm Traps, Backstab
2
1200
+1
Tattoo
3
2400
+1


4
5000
+1
Tattoo
5
10,000
+3
Backstab x3
6
20,000
+3
Tattoo
7
40,000
+3


8
80,000
+3
Tattoo
9
150,000
+5


10
300,000
+5
Backstab x4, Tattoo
11
450,000
+5


12
600,000
+5
Tattoo
13
750,000
+7


14
900,000
+7
Tattoo
15
1,050,000
+7
Backstab x5
Disarm Traps: A yakuza can locate traps 1-4/d6, and disarm traps or pick locks 1-2/d6.
Backstab: A yakuza that surprises an opponent or attacks from hiding gets a +4 bonus to the attack, and deals double damage if successful. The damage increases at 5th, 10th, and 15th level as shown on the Yakuza Advancement chart.
Tattoo: At every even level, the yakuza gets a tattoo which grants a magical ability. The yakuza must pick a tattoo from the list of yakuza tattoos below.
Bat: Gain infravision 60’ range.
Cherry Blossom: Disease immunity.
Chrysanthemum: Save vs petrification at +2
Dragon: Save vs spells at +2.
Island: Save vs wand or staff at +2.
Koi Fish: Breathe water 1 hour per day.
Lotus: Protection from evil spell, 1/day.
Monkey: Jump 20’ (long or high).
Moon: Hide (as ninja, indoors or outdoors) 1-3/d6.
Owl: Hear noise 1-3/d6.
Orchid: Detect magic spell 1/day.
Ox: Save vs petrification at +2.
Phoenix: Fire resistance (+1 to saves, -1 damage per die).
Pine Tree: Cold resistance (+1 to saves, -1 damage per die).
Skull: Save vs death ray at +2.
Snake: Escape shackles or bonds 1-2/d6.
Spider: Climb sheer surfaces 1-9/d10.
Sun: Heal double from resting.
Tiger: Immunity to fear effects.
Toad: Save vs poison at +2.
Turtle: AC +1
Wisteria: Save vs paralysis at +2.



Yakuza
Save Level:
1-4
5-8
9-12
13-15
Death Ray/Poison
13
11
9
7
Magic Wand
14
12
10
8
Paralysis/Turn to Stone
13
11
9
7
Dragon Breath
16
14
12
10
Rod/Staff/Spell
15
13
11
9

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Character death is becoming a feature of my game

Talking of my West Marches campaign, of course.

When I started it two and a half years ago, in 5E, there was early on an encounter with three 1st level PCs -- Thief and 2 Monks -- against ten or twelve skeletons. It was a near TPK. All of the PCs were down to 0hp. The skeletons moved on. Death saves ensued. Only one PC, the Thief, managed to survive.

I think there was one more character death early on before anyone reached 3rd level, but I don't remember exactly. There was a long span without many close calls even (but with two Clerics, a Paladin, a Bard, and occasionally a Druid in the party, they had lots of healing powers).

After most PCs had some levels, Dean's paladin (who was maybe 2nd level) was killed by will-o-wisps. The Deck of Many Things was employed in an effort to get a wish to revive him, and Ferret Jax was Imprisoned.

Jeremy's character in an online play session was charmed by dryads and never rescued. I think Brad's ranger may have also died facing sahuagin. 

So in nearly two years of 5E play, we lost three or four characters to death, and a couple more to mishaps.

Since I switched to Classic this past March, death has been a more frequent visitor.

Some new players were starting with low level PCs, and yes, deaths have been pretty common.

Nate lost both of his early characters in combat. Julian's Berserker tried a potion and it was poison - he failed his save. Someone else fell victim to the Deck of Many Things as well...maybe one of Justin's characters. There was the TPK a few sessions back (including Nate's 3rd character, the Muscle-Wizard).

Last night, in another online session, Jeremy's Fighter was killed by Dean's Fighter who was mind-controlled by an intellect devourer. And when he was released and Justin's Mage-Thief and Jeremy's backup Ranger were both hit by feeblemind but Dean's PC was freed, there was a pretty tense battle of low hit rolls and low damage results (Dean's Fighter is an archer with high Dex and low Str), lots of misses and whittling down hit points on both sides. Eventually Dean won and slew the second intellect devourer. So we avoided a second TPK.

While the game was fun in 5E, it was a lot less of a challenge for the players. These days, because death is a real possibility, I think the players are feeling like survival (with treasure) is a real victory. Especially when events like last night occur.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Spell Organization and Presentation

I know I've blogged about this before years ago, but I'm blogging about it again.

In the old days, spells were presented and described in lists separated by caster class, and also divided into sections by spell level. More modern versions of the game like to just stick them all on a big old alphabetical list.

The advantage of the latter system is that spells listed that way are in a general reference format. Especially when you have lots of classes that cast spells and there is a lot of overlap between the lists, it makes sense to do this. It saves space because spells don't need to be repeated. It's not hard to find that spell. Just look it up alphabetically.

I find though, that playing a spellcaster is more difficult this way. Presenting spells divided up by level allows me to easily focus on the beginning spells that are or could be available to my character without having to flip around through a bunch of random pages to compare my options. The old school way is a better learning tool. The new school way is more convenient for veteran gamers.

I've tended to stick to the old school method even though the games I've produced have really been targeted at veteran players. And I've noticed some other retro-clones go with the newer method of spell entry.

For TSR (West) at the moment I have the spells divided up the old school way. But if a spell is on another class list (Cleric default, then Magic-User) I don't write it up again. I have a note in the list of spells to look it up under the other class/level. Bards don't have any unique spells. Every Bard spell in TSR is either originally from the Cleric or Magic-User list. So it's probably pretty inconvenient for Bards, actually.

In TSR-East, especially with Mudang and Sohei sharing so many spells, I want to avoid this. So I'm going to be splitting the difference in TSR-East, and when I have time, re-editing my TSR house rules document in this way.

Spells will still be divided up by level, but all spells from every class will be lumped into that section together. All 1st level spells from every class will be presented together alphabetically.

There will be a bit of repetition. Hold Person and Dispel Magic, for example, are different levels for Clerics and Magic-Users (and my TSR-East classes). And I'll either have to include them twice or stick notes to look for them at the lower level spell list. I'll probably go ahead and list them twice, since the point is to be able to see all the spells of a certain level together.

Hopefully this will make the spells easy to learn, but also easy enough to reference when needed.

TSR-East Classes: Xia

The xia is the class I most want to try out (if I were a player) in this rule set. I mean, I want to try them all. I'd love to have someone else DM with these rules. And I'd probably be playing one PC for a bit, then getting them killed or retiring them so I could try another class and work through them all. But this would be my first choice.

The xia can be simply stated as: All of Flying Swordsmen boiled down to one character class.

Based on wuxia movie heroes and villains like FSRPG and Dragon Fist before it, this is the class to play if you want to be like Jet Li's Swordsman or anyone in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or...you know the rest. I based them on the Elf class in BX/BECMI, since they're a little bit fighter, a little bit magic-user. I did make a few changes. First of all, the spell list is very limited. There are only four levels, and six spells per level. The spells I picked were (taking the idea from my player Nate's idea for a muscle-wizard) ones that either boost melee ability (offense or defense) or provide mobility (for those jumps and fighting on bamboo branches and flips and whatnot). There are only two or three other types of spells, and all ones that seem appropriate (Remove Fear, and the reverse Cause Fear, for example).

I also plan to include a sidebar encouraging players and DMs to customize a Xia's spell list. For example, switch out some spells of your choice with the needle spells from Flying Swordsmen for a needle-themed xia. Or if you wanted to emulate the ninja powers of the Eight Demons of Kimon from Ninja Scroll, switch out some spells to give them those themes.

Besides spells, the Elf powers (find secret doors, immunity to ghoul paralysis, infravision) are out. Unarmed martial arts damage is in. They're also limited to light armor only. And they've got that expensive level advancement of the Elf class, too. But they're not limited to level 10.

I may still make a few modifications. I might go ahead and give them 5th level spells, since the Elf gets them. I'd need to decide what 5th level spells are appropriate to the theme, though. It gets harder as you go up in level. I might up the hit dice to compensate for the reduced armor. Just ideas right now, I'm actually pretty happy with how this class looks on paper.

So here's the class:

Xiá (Gallant) Yusha, Yongbyeong
Requirement: Int 9
Prime Requisite: Str and Int [13 +5%, 16 +10%]
Hit Die: d6 to 9th level, +2/level after
Arms: all weapons, light armor
Special Abilities: spells, unarmed damage, multiple attacks
Xia Advancement
Level
XP
BAB
Abilities
1
2
3
4
1
0
+1
Unarmed d6
1
2
4000
+1


2
3
8000
+1


2
1
4
16,000
+3


2
2
5
32,000
+3
Unarmed d8
2
2
1
6
64,000
+3


3
2
2
7
120,000
+5


3
3
2
1
8
240,000
+5
2 Attacks
3
3
3
2
9
360,000
+5


4
4
3
2
10
480,000
+7
Unarmed d10
4
4
3
3
11
600,000
+7


4
4
4
3
12
720,000
+7
3 Attacks
5
5
4
3
13
840,000
+9


5
5
5
3
14
960,000
+9


6
5
5
3
15
1,080,000
+9
Unarmed d12
6
5
5
4
Spells: A xia can cast a number of spells of the levels shown on the Xia Advancement chart each day. The xia must prepare their spells in advance, but may select from any spells of appropriate level from the xia spell list.
Unarmed Damage: A xia fighting with their unarmed strikes or with improvised weapons deals 1d6 damage with the attack. The damage increases at 5th, 10th, and 15th levels as shown on the Xia Advancement chart.
Multiple Attacks: A xia may attack twice per round at 8th level, and three times per round at 12th level. 



Xia
Save Level:
1-3
4-6
7-9
10-12
13-15
Death Ray/Poison
12
10
8
6
4
Magic Wand
14
12
10
8
6
Paralysis/Turn to Stone
14
12
10
8
6
Dragon Breath
15
13
11
9
7
Rod/Staff/Spell
15
12
11
9
7

Xia Spells

 
Level 1

1. Protection from Evil
2. Quinggong
3. Remove Fear
4. Restore Ki
5. Shield
6. Strength

Level 2

1. Bless*
2. Detect Invisible
3. Kusanagi
4. Levitate
5. Mirror Image
6. Resist Fire

Level 3

1. Dispel Magic
2. Elemental Ward
3. Fly
4. Haste*
5. Striking
6. Wind Dragon

Level 4

1. Demon Weapon
2. Dimension Door
3. Elemental Form
4. Fury of Battle
5. Polymorph Self
6. Protection from Magic