Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chasing the Game Balance Chimera

So I've been thinking about game balance lately.  There are a few interesting ideas floating around in my head, but I don't really know how coherent this blog will be.  Bear with me.

First off, what do we mean when we talk about game balance?

In my 3E days, people usually talked about it as a way to gauge the relative power of each character class.  Was every race, class, feat, or spell equally worth taking?  Well, the answer really depended on your preferred style of play, but on the internet, particularly WotC's message boards and Enworld, most people seemed to think that 'balance' was achieved if every class could hold its own equally well in combat (and typically 'proven' by use of a mock gladiatorial combat between class A and class B).

4E's designers seemed to take this to heart as what the players wanted, and hence we get 4E's system where every class is more or less identical in form, with only slight differences in function, and almost every power is geared for combat.

I often argued, in those days, that real 'class balance' was irrelevant except in the case where the DM was going to pit the players against each other in gladiatorial combats.  What mattered was party effectiveness.  It didn't matter if the Druid could kick the Fighter's ass in a one-on-one battle, because that's not what the game was about.  What mattered was that in a dungeon or wilderness environment, were there reasons why you'd want a party with a good mix of classes, rather than everyone just playing CoDzilla (as they called the 'uber' Druid/Cleric character builds).  I was usually shouted down.

But really, both of those ideas miss the mark.  Game balance is all about making sure that players have interesting choices to make.  The fun of a game comes in finding out the consequences of those choices.  Here's what someone on says about imbalance in games:

There are many types of imbalances that can exist in games. All imbalances involve choice elimination or a lack of choices in some form.
  • Too Expensive/Weak vs Too Cheap/Powerful: Game choices usually have a game-cost associated with them, be it the loss of other choices, game money, or some other commodity. When one choice is either too expensive to be useful, or too cheap to not be the obvious choice, there is a clear imbalance, because one or more choices has been unintentionally nullified. Though his type of imbalance is by far the most common, it can usually be rectified by simple changes in either cost or basic effectiveness of the choice in question.

  • Player-Time Imbalances: Most play balance comparisons are based on the cost of various choices in terms of what the player must give up to choose a particular path. It is very easy to overlook the fact that a player must spend time executing the choice. In a real-time game, the player doesn't have infinite time in the game, so not only is time a resource, but it is a limited resource. In a non-real-time game, time isn't limited, but the player's time is! This imbalances is essentially another version of the too expensive/too cheap imbalance, except the cost associated with the choice is less tangible. A good example of this imbalance is present in Starcraft with the Zerg race. Although the Zerg race units are more or less balanced by cost compared to other races, they are much easier to produce and use in terms of player time. In large part due to this characteristic, the Zerg race was the dominant race in tournaments and competitions for roughly 6 months following Starcraft's release.

  • Imbalances Across Skill Levels: As players improve in skill, the relative effectiveness of game choices may change. If one choice is easy to use well, and another is extremely difficult to use well, then it follows that to an expert player, the relative effectiveness of the two options is very different than the same to a new player. This is a common trap for game developers, since most are closer to the "Expert" side of things, and as a result often lose sight of the new player. On the other end of this equation, is the fact that "evolving" gameplay with regards to skill is generally considered a good thing. It is important to be aware of this balance, and be aware of this phenomena in general.

  • Forced Disadvantage/Advantage: In a player vs player game, some sequences of actions or choices can result in one player being guaranteed an advantage over the other. In addition to satisfying the traditional definition of imbalance (one choice is clearly best), this situation also isn't fair. In a multiplayer game, unfair situations are best avoided, and are a crucial piece of the play balance puzzle.
As Roger the GS recently said in a reply to one of Trollsmyth's posts:

The tenets of the 90's that Old School blissfully ignores:

* Game elements must be carefully balanced in power.

* Downtime and player elimination are anathema.

* Quirky, idiosyncratic, or complicated approaches to mechanics should be streamlined.

* As kensanoni notes, rules should be complete and developed to cover every angle and loophole.
Roger's got a point, but I think actually there is more balance in Old School RPGs than is obvious on the surface.  Obviously Gygax and Arneson designed D&D in an era before 'game design theory' was really a field at all, but they had plenty of hands on experience with lots of games.  And I think it shows.  In Roger's defense, though, his main point is that the idea of what makes for a 'fun and fair' Eurogame board game doesn't make for a fun RPG.

I think the main reason this is so is that RPGs are NOT a competitive game.  They are cooperative.  In Chess or Settlers of Catan or Chutes and Ladders or Rune Wars, I'm out to win and to do that the other players have to lose.  In an RPG, I'm out to win, but I do so by making sure all of the other players also win (at least in most traditional RPGs, some of the indie games I've heard about are strangely confrontational).  My Fighter doesn't lose if the Thief picks the lock on the treasure chest or the Cleric turns the zombies or the Magic-User levitates to get the key off of the top of the spire.  And none of the other characters lose if my Fighter puts the hurt on the ogre.  We all win in those situations.

Let's look at those examples of game imbalances above in terms of Classic D&D (BX or BECMI/RC) vs. 3E (3.0 or 3.5, take your pick).

1. Too Expensive/Weak vs. Too Cheap/Powerful:  In Classic D&D, the classes are given differing rates of advancement, and a few (the demi-humans) are given minimum ability score requirements.  Those are the costs to play the characters.  And there are good trade-offs.  A Cleric has decent fighting ability, spell casting, turning undead, but has a lower hit die and Thac0 than the Fighter, has fewer spells per level and very few offensive spells compared to the M-U, and is limited in their magical weaponry (magical maces, war hammers, and slings are fairly rare by the book).  So they have some fairly good advantages, but also some drawbacks for that cheap 1500xp to level 2 price. 

Elves, to compare the most similar class, also get a combination of spells and fighting ability, but while they can't turn undead, they do get their elven abilities (infravision, secret door detection, immunity to ghoul paralysis), can use all magical weapons and attack as a Fighter of equal level, and has access to all the M-U spells (and magic items).  And they end up costing 4000xp to level up and require at least a 9 Int (if you're rolling randomly down the line, no guarantee). 

Is the Cleric too cheap and the Elf too expensive?  I really don't think so.  Both have slightly different roles but fill a similar niche in the party.  There are trade-offs and choices available to players that make both effective and worthwhile choices.

Now in 3E, all classes cost the same to level up (to facilitate their multiclassing system), and there are some minimum ability score requirements, but with the default method of generating the scores being 4d6-L, arrange to taste (or use point buy), that doesn't really prevent anyone from playing the class they want.  So all classes have the same cost.

The powers, then, are where they need to be balanced.  The 3E Cleric gets good fighting ability, spells, domains, turning undead.  They get a nice big spell list that goes up to Level 9, contains plenty of offensive magics along with all the heals and utility spells, and start casting from 1st level.  As was argued incessantly on the WotC boards, a properly buffed Cleric was a better melee fighter than the Fighter (although there is the problem of giving the Fighter a fair shot to either be attacking or powering up his own magic item buffs while the Cleric is doing his buffing, and the other problem of what's the Cleric going to be doing once he's used all his spells to buff himself for that one combat...).  And with comparable spell lists and the addition of Domain spells and spontaneous casting of 'cure' spells, the Cleric came out looking better than the Wizard often as well. 

This is one area where I think the much touted 'balance' of 3E failed, but Classic D&D is actually rather well balanced.  Not in regards to 'who would win' but in regards to 'which is the best class to play?'

2. Player Time Imbalances:  I'll try to keep this one short, I'm getting into JB length here!

In regards to player time, one of the biggest areas of comparison is with character creation.  Most 'in game' choices, exploration, role play, or the like will be the same in any system of RPG. 

In Classic D&D, whipping up a character takes about 10-20 minutes, and most of that time is pondering the equipment lists and/or choosing spells if you're a spellcaster.  Even for higher level characters being created on the fly, there's only a little extra time involved as the DM decides what, if any, magic items the character will have.

In 3E, character creation is actually (IMO) the whole point of the game.  It's fairly time consuming, as you consider what race, class, skills, feats, spells, mundane and magical equipment to choose.  Sure, it's fun (I DO enjoy the number crunching and fiddling and min-maxing it allows from time to time), but it does affect how the game is approached.

In Classic, character death is a minor road block.  It's not something you need to by happy about, especially if you have invested a lot of time and effort in your character, but you can be back in the game in minutes.  In a sense, it's closer to the Eurogame idea that no player should be eliminated from play before the end of the game.  In 3E, if your character bites it, you've got the same anguish over the character you put so much effort into, but you also spent a few hours, potentially, crafting that character, and that's time wasted now.  And you're gonna have to spend quite a bit of time creating your replacement as well.

3. Imbalances Across Skill Levels:  Again, I'll try to keep this brief.

In Classic, there's a lot of player skill involved in the exploration phase of the game.  There are tricks to avoid traps and hazards, knowing what monsters to face and which to run from, etc.  There's a lot of learning within the game.  But the game mechanics themselves are fairly simple.  And once you've got the basics down, though, there are quite a few challenges that go out of the game (like how to defeat trolls with fire or to always keep a 'protection from evil' spell handy to avoid getting level drained).

In 3E, the basic game mechanics are even simpler (usually roll d20+modifiers vs. target number), but the corner cases and exceptions and what not are excessively large.  And then you've got to get a handle on the exploration phase of the game (which is similar, although many modules tend to follow the safe CR/EL of the intended party model, meaning success is nearly guaranteed, barring freakishly skewed die results).  And once you've got that all figured out, you start to learn that certain feats, classes, skills, magic items, etc. weren't all they appeared to be--all that choice you thought you had becomes no choice once you know what's worthwhile and what isn't.  There's the whole 'game mastery' issue lurking there.  That's fun for some people, but can be frustrating for beginners.

Personally, I don't think one or the other is better, per se, but I prefer the first, where you can get a handle on the system easily, then find challenges with the game play, rather than constantly being challenged by the system itself.

4.  Forced Disadvantage/Advantage:  I don't think this one actually applies to RPGs.  As I said above, RPGs are cooperative games, not competitive ones, so any time one player has an advantage or disadvantage, it's good/bad for the group as a whole. 

Alright, I've been writing this for about an hour now (minus time chatting with my wife when she came home).  That's all for now, folks!

Classics Appendix N: My Shelf's Version

Over at Quickly, Quietly, Carefully, Paul listed a version of "Appendix N" that only includes pre-1900 works.  It's a good list.  One of the bookshelves right next to my computer has a shelf with mostly classics, and a little bit of history.  It would make for a very odd campaign, I think, but here it is anyway:

Dante: The Inferno
The Song of Roland (trans. Goldin)
Njal's Saga (Penguin Classics)
Eyrbyggya Saga (Penguin Classics)
The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (Penguin Classics)
Laxdaela Saga (Penguin Classics)
The Mabinogion (Penguin Classics)
Early Irish Myth and Legend (Penguin Classics)
Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Classics)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin Classics)
Tacitus: The Agricola and the Germania (Penguin Classics)
Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul (Penguin Classics)
Homer: The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
Homer: The Oddysey(Penguin Classics)
Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia (Penguin Classics)
The Upanishads (Penguin Classics)
The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics)
Sun Tzu: The Art of War
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching
The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlusson
Bullfinch's The Age of Chivalry and Legends of Charlemagne
Beowulf (prose trans. Donaldson)
The Saga of the Volsungs (trans. Byock)
[one of my wife's photo albums randomly stuck in here--Not part of Classic Appendix N]
Ronner, John:  Know Your Angels [a 20th Century work, but full of angel/devil lore from antiquity to the present]
Roesdahl, Else: The Vikings
Eckert et. al: Korea Old and New: A History
The Taiheiki
Strange Tales of Liaozhai
Werner, E.T.C: Myths and Legends of China
Mitford, A.B. (Lord Redesdale): Tales of Old Japan
Immortal Poems of the English Language
[an out of place book: Moorcock, Michael: The Chronicles of Corum--I suppose adding this one in might be okay, even though it breaks the rules!]

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Limited Clerical Spellcasting: Feature, not Bug

A recent post at BX Blackrazor reminded me of one of the things I think is an important feature of TSR D&D, in all its forms, that was turned on its head in WotC D&D.

Clerics can wear armor, fight, and use spells (as can the Elf class in Classic).  Yet the Cleric has (again, in Classic) 8 spells per level, while the M-U gets 12 spells per level.

In BX, the Cleric gets up to 5th level spells (again, so does the Elf), while the M-U gets 6th level spells.  AD&D and BECMI allow up to 9th level spells for M-Us, but only 7th level spells for Clerics.

That's a bit of balance that I think is important.  Clerics (and Elves) can do both fight and cast spells, but they don't get to fight as well as the Fighter (with a lower Hit Die type, and limited weaponry for the Cleric and level limits and a high XP cost for the Elf), nor have as much spell casting oomph as the Magic-User (again, with the level limit blocking Elves, and with the generally smaller list, lower ceiling, and in Classic not getting a spell at 1st level for Clerics).

That's the sort of simple and intuitive trade-off I like.

Another boring Halloween, unfortunately

Yesterday (Friday here in Busan), as I mentioned, was my kindergarten's Halloween party.  My wife and son came with me to work, and my son especially had a great time!  He was alternately scared and laughing his ass off at all the other, bigger kids (although he's taller than a few of the 4 and 5 year olds).

Tonight, being Saturday, and with Halloween officially starting at midnight, there will be lots of dress up and drink and try to score type parties in the Kyungsung University area (the current hot party area for foreigners).  Some parties at PNU, and likely the Haeundae beach area as well. 

I won't be attending any of them, though.  Sucks to be a father of a small child. 

Back in Japan, before the little guy was born, my wife and I used to love to go to our local foreigner bar Halloween parties.  In fact, it was at one of them where we hit it off and became a couple.

But anyway, I really just don't have the energy to head out in costume for a night of heavy drinking.  Besides, my chances of getting laid if I stay home are 100%, and if I go out alone they drop to 0%.  So I'll be staying in tonight.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Endless Quest #16: The Dragon's Ransom

"You have been honored by being chosen treasure seeker to raise the ransom that must be paid to the Golden Dragon who stands guard over the Land of Oon.  But first you must face danger from fierce orcs, trolls, hobgoblins, and...what else?"  --from the back cover

The Dragon's Ransom, by Laura French, is not one of the best Endless Quest books, but it's close to the top.  Something about it really appeals to me, so much so that I've used the basic premise of the book in my own Silverwood Campaign.  A dragon guards the land, and while it protects the people, it demands tribute every month.  So the local authorities sanction adventuring parties to bring back loot to give to the dragon.

In this book, your character is a 13 year old Cleric named Leondal.  You're on your first adventure.  You can cast Detect Evil, Command, Remove Fear, and Cure Light Wounds.  Of course, as a kid, reading this before I'd seen the AD&D rules where Clerics get spells at first level and bonus spells for high wisdom, I thought young Leondal must have been at least 4th level--but how could this be his first adventure?  Anyway, don't worry too much about translating the game mechanics to the story.  They don't really follow so well.  Both spellcasters can pretty much use any spells at will in the book, but it doesn't hurt the narrative at all.

As Leondal, the very first choice you're given is to set out on your own, or to take along three companions who equal you in age: Drawg the Fighter, Pantel the Thief, and Kyrel the Magic-User.  Drawg is big and strong, but dumb.  Kyrel is small and weak, but can use Burning Hands and Comprehend Languages at will.  Pantel is a skilled Thief, but is reckless and thrill-seeking.  The first test of your wisdom--do you need an adventuring party or not?

Well, let's just say that if you don't, you get a surprise from a nasty beastie, or else you go back and take them along after all.  The big down-side to the book, might as well get it out of the way now, is that there are lots of choices that are non-choices in this book.  You make a choice, and it sends you back to make the other one, or both paths then end with a choice that is identical.  This happens quite a lot in this book.  Where some EQ books manage to make the adventure feel sandboxy by allowing you to explore and go back, The Dragon's Ransom feels much more railroady, at least for the first half.

On the plus side, though, this is one of the few EQ books I've encountered where you have a proper adventuring party, with all four of the iconic character classes.  And while you're just a 13 year old kid and so are your sidekicks, all of you are also competent adventurers.  Another plus is that while the first half of the book is quite linear, there are a lot of interesting encounters, including a side-trek to an orc lair where you can either complete your mission, die trying, or decide to give up and continue on to the hobgoblin lair that is your goal.

And the hobgoblin lair (the second half of the book) is pretty interesting.  They're busy mining the hillside with their carnivorous ape pets, and the Pech slaves they captured when they took over the mine.  This means they've got a lot of treasure, and there are quite a few interesting ways to get that treasure once you're in the lair.  There are also some times you bug out with little to no treasure, and a few where you meet your end. 

All in all, I really like this book because of the fact that you've got a full adventuring party, your goal is treasure hunting (rather than taking down some BBEG or acquiring some macguffin item), and there are a lot of various D&D monsters to encounter.  All in all, it's a very D&D kind of book, even if the spellcasters don't follow the Vancian memorize and forget system of the game.

The art work is good.  You've got a decent cover by Clyde Caldwell (although it depicts a scene that isn't in the book).  The interior art, by Doug Chaffee, is nicely done.  It's detailed, evocative, and really shows the personalities of the four adventurers and their opponents.

Overall, this isn't one of the 'rock stars' of the EQ series, but it's a good solid entry and I really enjoyed it as a kid, and still found it interesting re-reading it as an adult.

Protagonist:  A competent but untested young Cleric on his first mission.
Sidekicks:  A dumb but strong Fighter, timid but powerful Magic-User, and a reckless but skilled Thief
Endings: A mixed bag.  Lots of good endings with little fanfare, quite a few neutral endings, and in the first half especially plenty of bad endings.
Art: Good.  Decent, if not quite relevant Caldwell cover, nice interiors by Chaffee.
Overall: Very Good

Halloween Party!

The kindergarten where I work is having its Halloween Party today. 

Taking my son there.  Should be fun!

But your regularly scheduled Endless Quest review will have to wait until this evening when I get home.

Schrodinger's Keys

I've been thinking a lot about my megadungeon, and I've come to one conclusion.  I like the idea that every locked door should have a key somewhere.  I don't like the idea of having to place, sort, and track all of these keys.  Seriously, with hundreds of rooms per level, that's a lot of potential locked doors and treasure chests and whatnot.

So, never one to shy away from a video game reference (especially relating to the old 8- and 16-bit machines), I'm going with a video game approach to keys.

Find a key in my megadungeon, and it's like Schrodinger's Cat.  It both is and isn't the key to any particular lock until the moment it's used in one.  Then it is the key to that lock (and disappears...).

I figure this will save me lots of hassles, and will also not screw over the Thief.  Thieves' Open Locks skill (and the Knock spell) become ways to save resources.  If a party has found three keys, but knows of several locked and unopened doors/chests, every time the Thief manages to successfully pick a lock, they've saved a key for future use.  And if the Thief fails, they can use a key they've found to open the lock anyway.

Keys would become another logistical resource management issue, rather than a headache of trying to remember if the key Blackwolf the Dragon Master took from the ogre in Level 3 Room 114 opened the door to the chest in Level 2 room 27 or the door to the Bone Cathedral in Level 7. 

Down side?  There go any sort of interesting locks/keys specials.  Or at least it makes them harder to pull off without hurting immersion.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I'm a PLAYER again!

David over at Tower of the Archmage has kindly started a new play-by-post game in his megadungeon.  I'm his first guinea pig, and I invited my friends from the Yamanashi Group to join us. 

My character in it is Findlug the Anchorite, a Lawful Cleric with a twisted body.  He's in the dungeons searching for a magical fountain that can cure his deformities. 

I never would have thought up a fun character like Findlug without the fun of 3d6 in order.

Str 13
Int 10
Wis 14
Dex 4
Con 7
Cha 11

That's right, folks, a Dex of 4, plus Con of 7.  So despite his great strength, this guy is slow, clumsy, and wooden, and none too healthy, either.  Kinda like Quasimodo mixed with Doc Holiday.  Except a Cleric who spent most of his life sequestered on a small subarctic ocean studying religious texts.

He's likely to die soon (with only 50 starting gold, half of which went for his holy symbol, he only has leather armor meaning he breaks even at AC 9!), but I'm hoping he doesn't.  Maybe one of these days, if he lives, he'll find that fountain that will bring him up just a bit higher in the Dex or Con...

Castlevania Monster: Grim Reaper

There's only a couple more days before Halloween, and with my light blogging of late, I'd hoped to get a few more Castlevania baddies converted to D&D, but this might be the last one.

So I figured I'd better make it the one monster that's been in EVERY CV game (at least that I've played, not having played any of the Game Boy releases and a few others here and there). Heck, not even Dracula makes an appearance in every game, but the good old Grim Reaper does (again, at least as far as every one of the games I've played).

So here's a shot at converting Death to a bad guy for D&D. Back when I was working on a version of a CV campaign for 3E, I did write up the Grim Reaper. He was pretty badass, too. But I never got to use him. I'll throw in those stats for comparison below. I spent quite a bit of time working it up to capture the feel of Death as he appears in most CV games within the d20 rules framework, and I think I got it. Just wish I had a chance to break him out before I'd quit running games under those rules.

Anyway, here's the Grim Reaper for Classic D&D (likely will work for AD&D as well with some minor tweaks):

Grim Reaper*
Armor Class: 0 (20)
Hit Dice: 12***
Move: 120 (40)
Fly 150 (50)
Attacks: 1 weapon or spell
Damage: 1d8 + special
No. Appearing: 1 (1) Unique
Save As: Fighter 12
Morale: 10
Treasure Type: H
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 3500
The Grim Reaper appears as a floating skeleton wearing voluminous black robes and holding a scythe. It is believed that it is the angel of death itself. The Grim Reaper is cunning, but is an implacable foe if it has decided it is time for its opponent(s) to die.
The Grim Reaper has the following special abilities: invisibility at will (as the spell), finger of death once per day (as the spell), and sickle swarm once every 3 rounds. Sickle swarm creates three whirling sickles that move and attack on their own. The sickles attack as 4HD monsters, do 1d6 damage each, and may be destroyed by weapon attacks (AC 7/13, HP 1). The Grim Reaper carries his famous scythe, The Reaper, detailed below.

The Reaper (Scythe +1, Slicing)
This long scythe (a two-handed weapon, dealing 1d8 damage) has a handle of blackened wood said to be taken from the heart of the World Tree itself. The blade is of white steel.
Slicing: The Reaper has a chance to kill opponents instantly. If a natural 19 or 20 is rolled on the attack roll, the opponent must Save vs. Death Ray or die. Even if the opponent makes the save, The Reaper deals triple normal damage. This ability does not affect Constructs or Undead. [from my Unique Magic Weapons document]

OK, that can be pretty scary for a party of typical Classic D&D characters. Here's the way I wrote him up for d20 (yes, very long stat block to follow):

The Grim Reaper (Death)
Level 15 Cleric Half-Fiend/Lich (Undead Outsider) Lawful Evil CR 19
S 18 (+4) D 18 (+4) C – I 17 (+3) W 23 (+6) Ch 14 (+2)
AC 24 HP 89 BAB +11/+6/+1 Saves F +9 R +9 W +15 Init +4 Speed 30’

Skills: Bluff +11, Concentration +18, Hide +12, Intimidate +11, Knowledge (arcana) +18, Knowledge (religion) +18, Listen +14, Move Silently +12, Scry +9, Search +11, Sense Motive +14, Spellcraft +21, Spot +14

Feats: Combat Reflexes, Improved Critical: Scythe, Martial Weapon Proficiency: Scythe, Quicken Spell, Silent Spell, Spell Penetration, Weapon Focus: Scythe

Resistances/Immunities: DR 15/+1, Turn Resistance +4, Acid and Fire Resistance 20, Immune to Cold, Electricity, Polymorph, Poison, Sleep, Paralysis, Stunning, Disease, Death effects, Necromantic effects, Mind-Influencing effects, Critical Hits, death from massive damage, and Subdual damage.

Attacks: Choose 1 or mix and match during a full attack action
Keen Dancing Scythe +5, hit +21/+16/+11 dmg 2d4+9, Crit 18-20/x4
Claw, hit +15/+10/+5 dmg 1d4+4 and paralysis (Fort. DC 19)
Bite, hit +15/+10/+5 dmg 1d6+4 and paralysis (Fort. DC 19)
Touch, hit +15/+10/+5 dmg 1d8+5 (Will DC 19 for ½ dmg) and paralysis (Fort. DC 19)

Special Abilities:
Rebuke Undead 5/day, Spontaneously cast Inflict spells
Death Domain: Death Touch 1/day (melee touch attack, roll 15d6, equal to or greater than target’s HP results in death)
Destruction Domain: Smite 1/day (melee attack, +4 to hit, +15 damage)
Darkvision 60’, Fear Aura (60’ radius, up to 5 HD must make a Will save DC 19 or suffer the effects of a fear spell), Paralyzing Touch (Fort. DC 19, permanent until dispelled)
Spell Like Abilities: (all cast at 15th level)
3/day: Darkness, Poison, Unholy Aura
1/day: Desecrate, Unholy Blight, Contagion, Blasphemy, Unhallow, Horrid Wilting, Summon Monster IX (fiends only), Destruction
Spells: 6/7+1/7+1/6+1/5+1/5+1/4+1/2+1/1+1 (typical prepared spells below)
Level 0: Detect Magic x3, Guidance, Inflict Minor Wounds, Read Magic
Level 1: Bane, Cause Fear (d), Command, Deathwatch, Divine Favor (+5), Doom, Protection from Good, Sanctuary
Level 2: Bull’s Strength, Darkness, Death Knell x2 (d), Silence, Spiritual Weapon x3 (Scythe)
Level 3: Animate Dead (d), Bestow Curse, Deeper Darkness, Dispel Magic, Helping Hand, Invisibility Purge, Spiritual Weapon (s)
Level 4: Air Walk, Discern Lies, Dispel Magic (s), Inflict Critical Wounds (d), Sending, Spell Immunity
Level 5: Break Enchantment, Circle of Doom (d), Flame Strike, Sanctuary (q), Slay Living, Spell Resistance (SR 27)
Level 6: Antilife Shell, Blade Barrier, Harm (d), Spiritual Weapon (q), Word of Recall
Level 7: Blasphemy, Destruction x2 (d)
Level 8: Create Greater Undead (d), Unholy Aura
(d) Domain Spell, (s) Silent Spell, (q) Quicken Spell

Magic Items: Keen Dancing Scythe +5, Ring of Blinking, Ring of Protection +5

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Haunted Keep! (Non-BX version)

Somewhere back when I was in high school, I finally got around to drawing up an adventure in The Haunted Keep on the Karamiekos map.  Since I'd started with Mentzer and had only ever had the slightest perusal of the Moldvay/Cook BX edition, I had never seen the sample dungeon in Moldvay's Basic book.

Which means, to my Castlevania inspired mind, my version of the Haunted Keep became the lair of a vampire.  And it was broken up into several sub-sections, each with a sort of 'boss' encounter, and a place to magically rest and recharge (just like how Castlevania levels end with that orb dropping to recharge your health after you beat the boss).  OK, maybe kinda lame, but the dungeon did have some pretty cool stuff in it, though.

Particularly, I'm fond of the castle's courtyard, which was a maze of semi-sentient thorn hedges.  You could chop your way through or try to fly over them, but you'd take damage doing so.

Maybe I'll get ambitious and type up the notes to go with these maps and make it into a downloadable PDF.  Don't think I'll have it done in time for Halloween this year, but oh well.

First, you had to make your way through the secret tunnels.

Then you had to go through the courtyard thorn maze.

Then you had to work your way through the crypts to get into the Keep.

Finally, you had the five levels of the Keep to deal with.

I remember that Killingmachine and I ran through this one night at his house. He played several of his PCs, and I ran several of mine to fill out the party. We had a blast, and I know we finally beat the vampire, and I don't think anyone got level drained too badly. :D

Skeletal Dragon, on the cheap!

Yesterday, Eli at I SEE LEAD PEOPLE wrote about the cheap dinosaur skeletons he found at a dollar store. 

I mentioned in the comments to his post I'd also found those toys in Japan, and using some of them cobbled together an undead dragon.  Here's the pic:

The body was a T-Rex, or maybe a duck-bill (Hadrosaur maybe?), the head is a Triceratops minus the frill, and the wings are from a Pteranodon.

Yeah, posting's been light

What can I say?  I'm still bummed about my radio show being canceled, and I've got a nasty head cold as well.  Don't feel much like blogging.

Lost 2 followers, though.  Oh, you fickle blog readers!  Anyway, don't worry, I'll be back.  Just give me time to adjust to my new schedule and get over this cold.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Endless Quest #8: Villains of Volturnus

"With only your electronic Compu-Pal, Ting, you must face the deadly dangers of the mysterious planet Volturnus."  --from the back cover

Villains of Volturnus, by Jean Blashfield, is one of only three, I believe, EQ books using the Star Frontiers game for its setting.  It's the only one of the Star Frontiers books in the series I've read, though I played a heck of a lot of Star Frontiers back in the day.

In this book, you're Kyiki, the son of a mining company president.  Dad's company is setting up mineral extraction sites on the world (so it obviously takes place sometime well after the module series), and you're hopping down to the planet with your Vrusk tutor Jak to check out the 'strange new world' that's got the Frontier buzzing.  Of course, before you get there there's some sort of problem and you need to abandon ship.  Your first choice puts you either all by yourself, or with Jak.

The book is somewhat similar to Pillars of Pentegarn, in that it allows you, in some cases, to double back to earlier points and make new choices.  That gives your exploration of Volturnus a bit of a sandboxy feel.  Aiding this is that there's not one overriding plot, either.  There are three main sets of villains: Sathar agents, space pirates, and traitorous mining employees who are going over to the Sathar side.  But you can have quite a few adventures on Volturnus without even running into any of these groups of baddies.

The book does a fair job of showing off the Volturnus flora, fauna, and sentients.  The Mechanon don't appear, and the Eorna only through their ruins and abandoned tech here and there, but the Ul-Mor, Edestakai, and Kurabanda are all there.  The fact that it does this, however, can kind of ruin the modules if you've never played them.  Ms. Blashfield also took a lot of liberty adding in plants and animals that don't appear in the modules because they're not in need of combat stats, which is fine.  That adds a new layer to Volturnus that a Ref could use if they wanted.

It falls fairly short of feeling like a Star Frontiers adventure, though.  Mostly because you're a kid again.  Luckily, your computer sidekick gets lost, taken away from you, or is just switched off a lot.  If you end up with Jak, he's a fairly interesting companion--he's sort of an absent minded professor, way to curious for his own, or your, good! 

Anyway, your mission in the book is basically just to find a radio so you can call Dad and have him rescue you.  There are a few places where you can get into fights (you've got a stun stick, and can find a cache of doze grenades in one path too), but mostly you're running, hiding, or exploring.  Nothing wrong with that, but my old group and I played SF heavy on the combat, so maybe that's colored my views.

The artwork of the book is okay.  The Elmore cover is not so exciting, but it is somewhat mysterious (showing off a bit of Eorna tech in one of the main branches).  The interior art is by Roslof.  While he stays fairly true to the way the races and tech are portrayed by Elmore in the Star Frontiers rule books, his pictures here are somewhat hit or miss.  Some are nicely done, detailed and evocative.  Others seem rushed and kind of bland.

Finally, quite a few endings are truly anti-climactic.  There's one where you're climbing a mountain through smoke and fog, think you should turn back, and the next step before you turn around you plunge into the crater of an active volcano...  And several are just, "you radio dad, and a few hours later his ship picks you up."  In some of the 'good' endings, though, you can save the day by defeating some of Volturnus's villains (or at least calling Dad, telling him where they are, and letting his corporate hired guns--likely your PCs--clean up the mess).

All in all, not the best book in the series, but not the worst, either.

Protagonist:  a kid (again) who is at least willing to adventure
Sidekicks:  your Compu-Pal Ting who doesn't do much, Jak your tutor, and or an Ul-Mor girl who may befriend you.
Endings:  Some interesting, some lackluster (both good and bad).
Art:  OK cover (Elmore), hit or miss interiors (Roslof)
Overall:  Decent

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

WotC really needs to get their numbers straight.

Sorry, WotC, I've had Gamma World 4th Edition for years now.  Find another name for your new game, please!

(Yes, I realize this will have absolutely no effect on WotC.  Just throwing it out there.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Fold-up Paper Minis

Last year, with one of my classes at the kindergarten, we used some of the WotC downloadable paper mini terrain/building pieces to make a Halloween Castle.

This year, a buddy sent me a link from Facebook to a page with printable fold-up paper Halloween monsters.  Just printed up a bunch on card stock for my kids to make today.

Here's the link.

Monday, October 18, 2010

One of the most annoying monsters Castlevania, at least. 

Sorry to disappoint Jeff, no duck/dragon thingies, back to the Castlevania monsters for me!  And I present the dreaded Medusa Heads!

Medusa Head
Armor Class: 1 (19)
Hit Dice: 1*
Move: Fly 90 (30)
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 2d4 + petrification
No. Appearing: 3-24 (3-24)
Save As: Fighter 1
Morale: 10
Treasure Type: L
Alignment: Chaotic
Medusa Heads are floating humanoid heads with writhing snakes for hair.  They fly in erratic patterns, making them hard to hit, but also limiting them to only attacking every other Round.  A victim bitten by a Medusa Head must Save vs. Turn to Stone or be petrified, with all equipment carried, for 1d4 Turns.  After that time, the victim returns to normal.  Medusa Heads sometimes carry gems in their mouths.  It is unknown why they do this.
[Some DMs may wish to count Medusa Heads among the Beholder-kin.]

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Board Game Group back?

Tonight, despite the fact that none of the regulars besides myself were able to attend (Dave and Pat were busy, Alex sprained his ankle, and Steve was sick and enjoying the medicine doctors had prescribed him), we had a good board game night.

Three of the students at the adult English school where I work weekends came, as well as one friend from the radio station.  So we had 5 players, 4 of them new to Eurogames.

We played Catan twice.  No surprise, I won the first game.  Everyone picked up on the strategies quickly, though, so in the second game I was mostly shut out.  No one would trade with me if they had another choice on their turns, and nobody would trade with me on my turns (mostly).  And it was a neck and neck game.  At the end, Min-gu had a Development Card that he could play for a point plus nine points already, so it was a race to shut him down.  Just before he got that last turn, Rob improved one settlement to a city and built two roads, taking the Longest Road card from Mingu and putting himself at 10 points to win the game.

Lots of fun, and they're all up for more in the future.  Now we just need to worry about scheduling...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Star Frontiers Version of Appendix N

Taken from the back of the Star Frontiers Alpha Dawn Expanded Game rulebook:

Asimov, Isaac -- Extraterrestrial Civilizations
Bylinsky, Gene -- Life in Darwin's Universe
Dole, Robert -- Habitable Planets for Man
Feinberg, Gerald, and Robert Shapiro -- Life Beyond Earth: An Intelligent Earthling's Guide to Life in the Universe

Anthony, Piers -- Macroscope
Anderson, Poul -- Ensign Flandry series
Asimov, Isaac -- Foundation trilogy, I, Robot, The Gods Themselves
Asprin, Robert -- The Cold Cash War
Bester, Alfred -- The Stars, My Destination
Blish, James -- Cities in Flight
Bradbury, Ray -- The Martian Chronicles
Brown, Frederick -- What Mad Universe
Brunner, John -- Stand on Zansibar
Budrys, Algis -- Rogue Moon
Chandler, Bertram A. -- Commodore Grimes series
Clarke, Arthur C. -- Rendezvous with Rama, The Fountains of Paradise
Clement, Hal -- Mission of Gravity, Close to Critical, The Nitrogen Fix
de Camp, L. Sprague -- Krishna series
Dick, Philip K. -- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Dickson, Gordon -- Dorsai series
Drake, David -- Hammer's Slammers
Farmer, Philip Jose -- Riverworld series
Garrett, Randall -- Starship Death
Goulart, Ron -- many short novels
Haldeman, Joe -- The Forever War
Hansen, Karl -- War Games
Harrison, Harry -- Bill, the Galactic Hero, The Stainless Steel Rat, Deathworld series
Heinlein, Robert -- Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Herbert, Frank -- Dune series
Laumer, Keith -- A Plague of Demons, Retief series, Bolo series
LeGuin, Ursula K. -- The Left Hand of Darkness
Lem, Stanislaw -- Solaris, The Cyberiad
Longyear, Barry -- Circus World
Niven, Larry -- Ringworld, Ringworld Engineers, Tales of Known Space
Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle -- The Mote in God's Eye
Norton, Andre -- Star Rangers
Pohl, Frederick -- Gateway
Pournelle, Jerry -- The Mercenary
Russel, Eric Frank -- The Great Explosion
Saberhagen, Fred -- Berserker series
Silverberg, Robert -- The Man in the Maze
Simak, Clifford D. -- City
Smith, E.E. -- Triplanetary, Space Patrol, others in the Lensmen series
Stapleton, Olaf -- Last and First Men
Vance, Jack -- Big Planet, The Gray Prince, Tschai, Planet of Adventure series, Demon Princes series
Van Vogt, A.E. -- The Weapon Shops of Isher, The Silkie, Voyage of the Space Beagle
Varley, John -- The Persistence of Vision
Zelazny, Roger -- Lord of Light

More Training

Woke up thinking that some morons might mistake my Classically Trained image for the new 4E box, but I guess if they do the joke's on them.

Anyway, what better way to start the morning than by Google Image searching various D&D/AD&D covers and making these so we can all proudly display our vintage?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Classically Trained

I'm sure many of you have seen these sweet T-shirts and caps with the phrase above and a picture of the old NES:

I've seen alternate versions with a NES controller, and even some versions featuring Atari 2600, Coleco, and Intellivision for the really Classical gamer.  Been thinking of picking one up one of these days.

Anyway, my earlier post about Atari's Adventure made me want to come up with this:

I can make versions with the 3LBBs, Holmes, or B/X if anyone'd like.  Just takes a couple minutes in the GIMP.

Update!  For those coming here by Google Search, here's the continuation! All TSR D&D editions.

Really Old School Monster

Taking a small break from Castlevania monsters to bring you one of the oldest of old school video game monsters, for D&D:

Many of you are, like me, old enough to remember this guy.  What a pain in the butt he was!

Robber Bat *
Armor Class: 4 (16)
Hit Dice: 2*
Move: Fly 150 (50)
Attacks: 1 grab
Damage: nil, see below
No. Appearing: 1 (1-4)
Save As: Fighter 1
Morale: 6
Treasure Type: Special
Alignment: Neutral
XP: 25
Robber Bats are nasty pests that tend to follow adventurers in order to steal their loot.  They have large black bodies, with a 10' wing span.  Normally encountered singly in dungeons, they do not attack adventurers to kill them, but instead attempt to steal magic items or treasure.  If they hit an opponent in combat, instead of dealing damage, their inherent magic causes the most powerful magic item the target possesses (or most valuable non-magical item if no magic items are carried) to be drawn to the Robber Bat, who then flies away at top speed and drops the item in a random location.
There are rumors that adventurers with nothing of value have been picked up by the beasts and dropped in random dangerous locations. 
Robber Bats are not particularly powerful, but magic weapons or spells are needed to damage one.

Endless Quest #11: Spell of the Winter Wizard

 Update: Nov. 3 2020 (yeah, election day!)

Thanks to a comment from Maaz received today, I re-read this review. And I realized that this book may have a big impact on LGBTQ+ youth, who are possibly its intended audience. The coding of the protagonist as androgynous but sorta female, the definitely gay coded elf, many transformed characters who are physically one thing but mentally another... I just want to post this to say that compared to 10 years ago when I wrote this review, I have a better understanding of LGBTQ+ issues, and I'm trying to be a better ally. I'm not going to edit what I wrote 10 years ago, but if I seemed dismissive of that community, and of a book that I can now see is obviously intended to give them some subtle representation, I apologize.


"Warzen, the evil Wizard of Winter, has cast a spell of ice and snow over the Land of Eternal Spring.  You must rescue the captive Wizard Alcazar and stop Warzen...if you can!  His army of orcs and boars is mighty and his magic is powerful!"  --from the back cover

Book 11 in the Endless Quest series looks pretty good.  The Elmore cover is cool, and the back cover text sounds like your standard EQ adventure hook.  Unfortunately, this one is a real let-down once you crack it open.

In this book, you are Omina, a child (yeah, strike one) and niece [it's never explicitly stated you're a girl, but the artwork and characterizations are definitely feminine] of the once great, now sick Alcazar, Wizard of Spring.  His enemy Warzen, the Wizard of Winter, who is a big burly guy with a crazy hillbilly beard and an army of boar-riding orcs, comes and captures the sick Alcazar and you're left to rescue him.

You get two basic options at the start--go after Warzen to rescue Alcazar, or try to find some help.  Armed with a poker from the fireplace (lame!) and a magic whistle that you can use once as a 'get out of jail free' card, you set out.

Now, the second major failing of the EQ series, the annoying sidekick, takes an interesting turn, and it's one of the few good things about this book.  If you set off after Warzen, your cat--now polymorphed by Warzen's spell into a reindeer--may accompany you if you choose.  If you go for help, you get a talking moth for a companion.  Neither companion is overly moralistic, and you can choose not to take them with you if you like.  The moth, however, is suffering at the hands of an abusive relationship with the lepidopterist (see below), and you need to show her what a beautiful snowflake she really is.

The book is populated by a bizarre list of NPC 'helpers' you meet along the way.  There's a fussy and obsessive lepidopterist, a snake-oil alchemist, a very gay elf named Fluffergrund, a sailor polymorphed into a clam with big gold teeth...  And aside from Warzen's orcs on boars, monsters in the book include flesh-eating flowers, bleeding trees, an orc ghost, a witch, 'quagbeasts' whatever the heck they are, and the ghost of an orc Warzen tortured to death.  There's potential for some cool encounters here, but since you fight things off with a poker if you fight at all, and mostly just run and hide, it's kind of uncool.

One of the most annoying things about the book is how often it funnels you into the 'Etaknon' section of the book.  Usually, if you blow your magic whistle you end up there.  Some other paths also lead to Etaknon.  Etaknon is an island populated by hippy halflings who want to keep you doped up with funky fruits so you never leave, but if you insist they'll take you to the beer-belly sporting 'hero' ThorTak, who will take out Warzen and rescue Alcazar for you--but at the cost of forcing you to learn a heavy handed moralizing lesson.  ThorTak's more than willing to blast Warzen to smithereens with a meteor swarm spell if you just ask, but then keeps you prisoner until you've learned to be peaceful.  Of course, if you ask him to take out Warzen peacefully, you get what I assume is supposed to be the best ending, where he polymorphs Warzen into a daffodil then sends his hippy halflings to rescue Alcazar.

The other 'best' ending involves getting the aid of the poncy elf (and he seriously is poncy), and the frost giant riding a white dragon seen on the cover (who are actually another wizard and his pegasus, again polymorphed by Warzen) to help you.

The final strike against this book is the artwork.  The Elmore cover is cool, but the interior art, by Jeffrey R. Busch, is simplistic and not very inspiring, especially compared to the artwork in Dungeon of Dread or Light on Quests Mountain.

Overall, this is a very weak entry in the Endless Quest series.  There's very little action, mostly just oddball situations that don't feel very D&D to me at all.  It's more like it's trying to be a mix of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "Alice in Wonderland" only lamer.  It's one that I read a few times as a kid, hoping to find some cool stuff, then never read again (unlike some of the others, which I would reread from time to time even after I'd found all the endings).  The kid I was tutoring and having read the EQ books also didn't like this one, and after one reading (he got sent to Etaknon early, thankfully), he didn't want to try other paths.  There's not much to pull out of it for your games.  Unless you're a completionist and want a collection of all EQ books, don't bother with this one.

Protagonist: A young girl who runs away from everything, and dies if she ever tries to fight.
Sidekicks: A talking bashful moth, or a cat polymorphed into a reindeer, both optional.
Adventure:  Bizarre and not so interesting.  Some paths lead you to a quick ending, others are long and circuitous, leading to the same ending you could have gotten to early.
Endings:  Moralizing in the extreme for the good endings, and somewhat counter-intuitive for some of the bad endings.  Trying to be a hero can get you killed or captured.
Art:  Nice Elmore cover, uninspiring interiors (Busch).
Overall:  Poor

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Castlevania Monster: Phantom Bat

Here's another Castlevania inspired D&D monster for your Halloween gaming pleasure.  It's the first boss in the original game, and it's appeared in quite a few other CV titles over the years.  It's the Phantom Bat.

Based on the Mobat from the AD&D Monster Manual 2/AD&D 2E Monstrous Compendium, but with a twist.

Phantom Bat  
Armor Class: 2 (18)
Hit Dice: 6
Move: Fly 150 (50)
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 2d4
No. Appearing: 1-8 (1-8)
Save As: Fighter 6
Morale: 8
Treasure Type: C
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 275
Phantom Bats are giant semi-intelligent bats with a 15' wing span.  Despite their size, they are agile fliers, using their natural sonar and speed to fly fast and avoid obstacles and attacks.  If caught in cramped conditions where they may not fly, a Phantom Bat is considered AC 7 (13).  Phantom Bats often swoop to attack.  Instead of biting, they ram opponents on a swoop, inflicting 4d4 damage and requiring the target to Save vs. Paralysis or be stunned for one round.  Because of their silent flight and ability to navigate in pitch darkness by sonar, they surprise on a 1-3 on d6.
Phantom Bats have one more special ability.  Once per Turn, they may Screech.  All those within 20' of the Phantom Bat must Save vs. Paralysis or cover their ears in pain, being unable to attack for 1d4 Rounds.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Presidents of the Apocalypse

I haven't really been in such a great mood lately.  My radio show was canceled (next week will be my last on the air), and my wife and I are scrambling to fill in the void that loss of income will create (radio pays fairly well here in Korea).  Part of that void filling resulted in me starting a new tutoring job, teaching for 2 hours Wednesday nights.  Just got back from it a little while ago.  Fairly beat.  But I've got that itch to put something up here on the blog.

Well, enough personal woes.  We'll manage things, and maybe next season I'll get a new radio show (and hopefully one of the producers will find a spot for me once or twice a week on another show in the meantime).

When I've got nothing else to post about, I feel like posting some Brad Neely video.  This one, his famous Washington, inspired my buddies and I in the Yamanashi Group to try to make our own RPG (using Forge-y type game mechanics, but completely Stupid on the Rients scale) called Presidents of the Apocalypse.

[video NSFW but completely awesome]

Basically, you create a character based on some historical personage, roll a bunch of random abilities/items (we had three tables of silliness, Body, Mind and Tech) then went on silly adventures fighting post-apocalyptic versions of whatever (one adventure involved Shat vs. the Hoff with us choosing sides, then finding out Clarence Carter and J-Pop starlets Morning Musume were the real villains, another involved a 40'tall mecha piloted by mutated Kim Jong-Il and 80' tall Ghandi).

The game itself never really worked, but it was always fun to break it out for a night of silliness.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dust, wind, dude! Meta-puzzles in your game.

I've been writing up lists of ideas for special areas, puzzles, traps, and other ways to challenge players in order to get keystone treasures in my megadungeon.  I figure, if these treasures are important enough to give out rumors of them, and make them into the objectives of exploration, most of them had better be a bit harder to find than just laying there as part of the ogre's pile o' loot.

Most of my ideas are fairly 'in game' or things that would be part of the environment of the dungeon, or things that would be fair tests of character knowledge.   Some, though, are purely things that the players may know or be able to figure out, but would actually be impossible (or nearly so) for a character from a medieval fantasy world.

References to pop culture, music, literature, and the like are things that just would be beyond the pale of your standard D&D character.  I've got no problem putting these sorts of things in my dungeon, but I know some players out there don't like them.  I think they're fun, though, and as long as it's fun, I don't care.

I'm kind of curious, how many of the folks reading this blog (or I guess realistically, how many of the dozen or so of you who actually post comments after reading) mind these sorts of player knowledge puzzles, and how many find them annoying or counter-verisimilitudinous?

Monday, October 11, 2010


It's always nice to get packages in the mail. This morning, before I left for work, two boxes of books arrived. One small one had Lankhmar Book 7, The Knight and Knave of Swords. The larger one had a bunch of kids' books for my son.

Then when I got home, the package from my mom had arrived. In it were some presents for my wife and son, and the Endless Quest books I'd ordered. They're in nice condition--better than some of the ones I've had for years. So all in all, I'm happy about that. Makes up for some of the crap I had to deal with over the weekend.

How do you open that secret door?

Over on Dragonsfoot, several of us contributed ideas for methods to open secret doors.  It's good to have ideas for this sort of thing.  Just rolling the die is kind of boring.  This way, they may learn the door is there (by searching or a die roll) but not be able to open it, open it by accident, or learn of the method by rumors or hearsay in town, and need to search to find the door!

Some of these ideas work well for special, non-secret doors to special areas as well.

List contributed to by myself as well as DF posters Rath Denacht, Serleran, Wilowisp, and Mike.

-depress stone/brick on wall/floor
-move lever
-pull book
-pull rope/chain
-slide small statue or part of large statue
-pull/turn torch sconce
-speak the password ("open sesame")
-Insert small item into XXXX.
-Pour liquid.
-Use some element (fire, air, earth, etc etc).
-Specific magic spell.
-Secret symbol worn (ring, amulet, crown, etc etc).
-Hidden lock.
-Answer riddle.
-certain number (or pattern) of knocks on the hidden panel
-with finger, trace a certain symbol (or pattern) on the hidden panel
--opens automatically at certain natural conditions (full moon, high or low tide, high noon, during a thunderstorm, etc.) or similar unnatural conditions created by magic
--device in nearby area opens it (through a method described above)
--pushing or pulling on the door (!)
--touching it with the appropriate body part (forehead, toe, buttocks...I'll stop there)
--playing/singing a certain song
-depress stone/brick on wall/floor: This; but, the stone/brick/ or floor is actually sentient, and the door only opens if you indeed manage to "depress" them. Players have to use Chr to convince them that noone likes them, they're only a silly ol' brick noone cares about, thery're really ugly compared with other, prettier bricks, Etc...........
-move lever: Same idea, but now the PCs must somehow inspire the lever's enthusiasm!
-Insert a key
-Knock on it
-Cast knock on it
-It opens by itself randomly 1/6 of the time (check once per turn)
-The door opens automatically in complete darkness, but closes instantly at the slightest light
-The door has a demon's head carved on it. You have to stick your hand in the mouth and feel around to find the catch.
-The door has a weird insignia carved on it. If you kiss the symbol the door opens
-The door is an illusion but seems real to every test. You have to disbelieve and just walk through it; if you try to walk through it, save vs Spells to see if you succeed.
-There is a bookshelf nearby. Pull a certain book halfway out to open the door.
-Swear at it.
-The door has a face with a magic mouth. You have to talk to it, but the door is (1) aloof and proud, (2) asleep and narcoleptic, (3) cooperative but hard of hearing [mishears what you say], (4) easily distracted, (5) a flippant prankster, (6) thinks it's smarter than you are, (7) believes it is a magic mirror and tries to imitate you, (8) only opens for monsters, (9) lonely and wants to talk for 1-6 turns before letting you go, or (10) believes it is a dragon and the supreme ruler of this level, demanding treasure and respect, except its breath weapon is merely halitosis. Thus you have to convince or trick the door into opening.
-The door is outlined in what appears to be purple crayon. You have to find a purple crayon and draw a handle on the door to open it.
-The door has a rusty nail sticking out of it. You have to prick your finger on the nail and draw a drop of blood.
-The door is an unusual kind of mimic. If you put a day's worth of rations nearby, it will leave its post temporarily to go consume them, then return.
-Pull a lever in a different room.
-The door only opens when a humanoid is killed in this room.
-The door has a hemisphere with three holes on it, arranged like a face: two above, one below. It opens if you put your fingers in the holes as if picking up a bowling ball.
-Coin operated door.
-Security door: if you put on the previous owner's robe and ring, it opens at a touch. Otherwise it does not open at all.
-Only opens for bearded characters. (It was made for gandalf by a dwarf)
-Only opens when moonlight shines on it. How to get moonlight into a dungeon is the problem.
-You have to pull on it, but the handle is gone leaving only a couple of bolt-holes.
-Door is hinged horizontally: push against the top and it lays down like a drawbridge.
-Door is hinged horizontally: push against the bottom and it opens upward.
-Door slides upwards like a gate. You have to jam something underneath and pry it upwards.
-Door is plastic like taffy. You can push through veeeryyy sloowwly, taking a full turn (for each character) to ooze your way through it. If a wandering monster shows up when you are halfway through, you are essentially paralyzed.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Some Ghosts for Halloween

Having grown up playing Gauntlet in the arcades and Castlevania at home, I've always liked the idea of weak but plentiful ghosts that the heroes can strike down with a couple of blows, and without the need for magical weapons.  Basically, immaterial skeleton/zombie level undead baddies.

But of course the ghosts that appear in the AD&D DMG and Companion Set/RC are not what I'm looking for.

So here's a monster write-up for some weaker cannon-fodder ghosts.

Restless Spirit
Armor Class: 5 (15)
Hit Dice: 1* to 3*
Move: Fly 90 (30)
Attacks: 1 touch
Damage: 1d6
No. Appearing: 3-12 (3-18)
Save As: Fighter 1-3
Morale: 12
Treasure Type: U
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 13, 25, or 50

Restless Spirits are animated remnants of souls that are constrained to the mortal realm. They have only the faintest of intelligence, and seek out living beings to feed upon. They are immaterial, and may pass through solid matter such as walls, floors or ceilings to attack. As undead creatures, they are immune to sleep, charm and hold magics. Restless Dead are turned as follows: 1HD as skeletons, 2HD as zombies, 3HD as ghouls.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Endless Quest #12: Light on Quests Mountain

"On an earth made hostile by nuclear war, you and your tribe live a primitive, danger-filled existence.  Now you must prove your readiness for adulthood by undertaking a perilous quest."  --from the back cover.

Light on Quests Mountain, by Mary L. Kirchoff and James M. Ward, is another solid entry in the Endless Quest series.  It's one of two (to my knowledge) books set in the Gamma World game setting.  In it, you are Ren, a young pure strain human, and you have two companions, the lizard boy Sars and the monkey boy Chark.  The three of you graduate school, are given metal spears (a real treasure to your barely above the Stone Age tribe), and sent on a journey to Quests Mountain to prove you are ready to be considered adults.

In addition, there have been mysterious lights seen on the mountain top lately.  The village elders want you to investigate them if you can.  And personally, you're wondering what happened to your older brother who went on his quest a few years ago and never came back.  For your sidekicks, scholarly Sars wears glasses because he's nearsighted, and he's afraid of the dark.  Reckless Chark is afraid of nothing--except water.  He can't swim, and hates to get wet.

The book is divided into three main sections.  When you set off on the quest, you can go through the Green Lands or the Sand Lands.  If you survive your path, you'll make it to Quests Mountain and have a chance to succeed on your quest to learn the source of the lights.  This allows for a lot of Gamma World craziness to be thrown into the book, but for the most part it doesn't get silly.

There are of course some endings where you and your companions meet your doom, some where you return semi-successful, some where you return in shame, and a couple of good (or good enough) endings. 

Having Jim Ward as a co-author was a good idea on this book.  The book really captures the feel of Gamma World.  In fact, when I finally bought a copy myself, the 4th edition book from the early 90's, I was surprised that the default starting tech level was Renaissance firearms, tricorn hats, and the like.  I like the default of the book, and earlier editions of Gamma World, that your society is still primitive, and you need to really fight to survive.

Now, as to the major failings of the EQ series, this one skirts them nicely.  Your character and companions are young and untested, but competent explorers, good in battle, and know enough about the world you live in.  Sars and Chark bicker similar to that of Fox and Owl in Pillars of Pentagarn, but because they actually contribute to the adventure, it's not so annoying. 

Finally, the artwork of the book is great.  The cover is by Keith Parkinson, and the interior art is by Steve McAfee.  It think McAfee does a great job of conveying the claustrophobic feeling of caves, the wildness of the Green Lands, the stark emptiness of the Sand Lands, and the general oddball and mysterious feel of the post-holocaust earth.

Overall, you've got a good book which showcases the game it comes from well, provides an exciting adventure into the unknown, and avoids the flaws that many of these books fall into.  It has good, meaningful decisions, doesn't have moralizing and annoying sidekicks, and presents a competent if unseasoned team of adventurers. 

Protagonist:  Young, inexperienced, but with great potential.
Sidekicks:  A pair of mutant animals who are also competent adventurers rather than just annoying burdens on your adventure.
Adventure:  A trip into the unknown, with lots of variety and interesting situations.
Artwork:  Excellent, really brings the setting and the characters to life.  Cover by Parkinson, interiors by McAfee.
Endings:  One best ending, several good endings, and a variety of bad endings.
Overall: Excellent

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Do you want to live forever?" Immortality in the Game

I've never used the Immortal Rules that Frank Mentzer created.  Heck, it's only recently that I even had a look at them on .pdf, and I've never read them all the way through.

I doubt I ever will.

But recently, in his review of JB's BX Companion (sold out, by the way, congrats JB!), James Maliszewski mentioned in passing that he doesn't like the idea of quests for immortality in his games.  I believe he said it doesn't fit the source literature he prefers.

I enjoy the same S&S stuff James does, but I also had a lot of my early gaming inspired by mythology of various sorts.  And there, the idea of the quest for immortality stretches back as far as Gilgamesh.

Not to mention Hercules being granted immortality as the fruits of his labors, Qin Shi Huang Di (first emperor of historical China in the 3rd century BC) and plenty of Taoists searching for it, Egyptians mummifying their pharaohs, Norsemen trying to die heroic deaths so they could live on as einherjar at least until Ragnarok, and the twisted immortality sought by some vampires. 

Not to say that Chevsky is wrong--it's purely subjective whether this sort of thing should belong in your game or not--but I think there's plenty of inspiration from real world sources that it should be an option.

Besides, what the heck else is there worth doing at levels above 30?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Zero Sum Gaming Redux

Thinking about my post, and the comments I received, I came to this conclusion, which I think states my point a bit more succinctly.

TSR D&D has an unstated but implied 'goal' of the game--exploration.  Leveling up is a reward within the game, but not the main point of playing.  Leveling up helps you with exploration, but careful play at low levels will result in successful exploration without levels.

WotC D&D has an unstated but heavily implied 'goal' of the game--leveling up.  Exploration results in some rewards, but it's not the main point of playing.  Gaining that next level so you can continue your 'character build' is the point.

I think that boils it down to the essence.  3E and 4E are about the metagame exercises.  That's where the fun supposedly lies.  That's why you don't need a sense of advancement or greater power as you level up, because what they think is fun is deciding how to customize and improve your character as you level.  It's about the destination rather than the journey. 

Lots of people like that.  I'm not one of them.

Older editions are about the journey.  How you get there is where the fun is, and the rewards are just that--rewards, not a goal unto itself.

I think this ties in with my earlier posts about XP for activities outside of combat, and character motivations, and all that.  Also, with my idea that the 'special abilities' of most high level characters ARE their magic items--the rewards of exploration in game, assuming most old school campaigns don't have magic shops in every town.

Hmmm, my nice simple post to clarify things now turns into something I need to think about a bit more...

Tooting my own horn?

I usually don't talk about my radio show on the blog.  The blog's for my hobby, and my radio show is a) for kids, b) for non-English speakers.  I assume the vast majority of people reading this blog (aside from a few people who seem to get directed here by search engines to my Ninja Week posts maybe) are adults and English speakers.

Anyway, there's a Korean social networking site similar to Facebook or Myspace called CyWorld, and a blogger there was writing about my show.  One of the Korean portal sites has my face up on their main page because of that blog.  Kinda cool.

Here's the blog.  Of course if you don't speak Korean, you can try an online translator to see what they're saying.

And I guess since I'm mentioning it, might as well plug our radio station.  You can listen to it worldwide over the internet.  Busan e-FM radio.  My show's called All Aboard English, and like I said, unless you're a kid and/or learning English as a second language, it likely won't be too interesting for you. 

Also, for the next 10 days, during the Pusan International Film Festival, we're taking a break for special PIFF shows.  So if you want to listen live, wait until Oct. 18th, 10:00 AM Korea time.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Zero Sum Gaming

Back in July, Noisms, of Monsters and Manuals, posted about how D&D is about ambition, if you're looking at it from an 'indie gamer/GNS' type way.

I think this holds true for the TSR versions of the game, but definitely fails in the WotC versions of the game.

I think it all boils down to the leveling mechanics compared to the game world.  In old school D&D, you have to struggle to level up, but when you do you see a noticeable increase in your powers.  You get more hit points, better saving throws, more spells, better at class skills.  And that's not even factoring in the magical loot you may acquire. 

Higher level characters in OD&D, Classic D&D, and AD&D fight better, make more saving throws, and just have more power (both personal and social) than lower level characters.  Sure, there are bigger monsters to fight, and challenges still for those high level characters, but there are rewards to that ambition to achieve those heights of power. 

In d20 D&D, you really don't get that reward for your ambition.  You get more powerful, but the challenges scale with you.  Yes, there's a certain logic to higher level spellcasters' spells being harder to save against compared to lower level ones.  Yes, there's some benefit to being able to increase a kobold up to 10th level to challenge the 10th level party. 

But where's the sense of achievement?  You get better at making saving throws, but the DCs of the things you need to save against increase at the same pace.  You get more hit points and better at whacking stuff, but so do the goblins and feral/half-vampire/fiendish/anarchic gelatinous cubes. 

It really does feel like the CRPG grind.  No matter how good you get, the opponents are still just as good, the battles as hard (against the same opponents even!), and it's still just as hard to disarm that trap or ensorcel that enemy.

I haven't played that much of 4E, but I've seen enough to make me think it's the same.  We were playing The Keep on the Shadowfell, and the 'boss' of a cave of kobolds was a goblin.  With over 100 hit points.  And this was an opponent for 1st level characters!

The scale has changed, but it's really just the same as in OD&D, only instead of doing 1d6 damage and being able to take that goblin down with one or two hits potentially, weapons only do 1 point of damage, so you need to whack that goblin leader 10 times to take him down.

And it seems again (from my limited experience, I could be wrong here), that 4E is again designed to 'move the goal posts' as you advance in level. 

There's no real reward for advancing in level with that kind of system.  You don't get better in any real sense, things just get more complex.  You've got more powers and abilities to play with, but since the opposition is that much tougher, you're still struggling just as hard to overcome them, but having to manage that much more stuff in game. 

You're adding complexity only.

I wonder what's the appeal of that sort of game.  Sure, you level up and get more powerful, but does it really feel like you're more powerful in play? 

In older editions, you fought goblins at lower levels and they were a challenge, then as you get higher you face things like owlbears and displacer beasts, and they are a challenge but goblins are a piece of cake.  Then you get higher, and dragons or giants become the main challenges, and those displacer beasts don't seem so hard any more.  And eventually your Monty Haul DM throws you up against Orcus and Tiamat together and you blow through them easily.

But with 3E/4E, you could be facing those goblins all the way up, if the DM so chooses.  And it's just as hard to defeat them at 15th level as it was at 2nd.  And you've got to spend long amounts of time going through your huge lists of powers, magic items, and spells to defeat those 15th level goblins, when at low levels you could actually manage everything well enough in your head.

I just don't get it.  Where's the reward?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Oriental Accents: Kakegawa Castle

Haven't done an OA post for quite a while now.  Time to put up something!

Here's a map I made of Kakegawa Castle, in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan.  I've been to this castle, and one of the brochures I picked up there had floor plans of the place.  Of course, I turned it into an adventure location.  I ran the adventure with the Evansville Group in the short 1E/2E hybrid OA game I ran for them.  They had a mission to assassinate the lord of the castle, a Kensei, and preferably do it stealthily.  They were doing fine, until one of the ninja, who'd climbed the roofs to get to the top of the donjon used a nage-teppo (hand grenade) to take out some guards!  Despite the alarm being sounded, they managed to off the sword master and escape. 

Quite a while back, I decided to re-do the map as a computer image.  Here's what I came up with: