Tuesday, February 25, 2014

R.I.P. Mr. Ramis

Harold Ramis passed away.  It's a sad day.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: The Elf

The Elf character class only takes up one page in the book, although it does take up the full page.  The picture of an Elf, together with a Halfling, is on the facing page describing the Halfling class. 

What do we learn about elves as a D&D trope first of all?  The description draws heavily on both the elves of Tolkien and those of Poul Anderson (and possibly others), rather than directly from mythological or folklore sources.  Not having been exposed to either Tolkien or Anderson but having been exposed to plenty of myths, legends and fairy tales as a child, when I first read that "elf" was a class in the game, I thought of tiny fairy/pixie type creatures, or Keebler elves baking cookies in a tree/making toys for Santa at the North Pole.  Boy, was I happy to find out I was wrong!

We're told that Elves like to spend time frolicking in nature, love magic and artistically crafted items, and tend to avoid humans.  They're just a tad shorter than human normal, thin, and graceful.

As a D&D class, they are part Fighter (but not as tough) and part Magic-User.  It's not obviously stated, but the price you pay for versatility like this is advancement at half the rate of a Fighter. 

Elves get several special abilities.  I discussed infravision last post, with the Dwarf entry.  The text is just copy/pasted here. 

The languages an elf begins play knowing are Common, Elf, Gnoll, Hobgoblin, and Orc.  It can help to have an Elf and/or Dwarf in the party to be able to converse with many monsters.  This also gives Elves a slight leg-up with Charm Person spells as they are more likely to be able to communicate with charmed minions.  Elves need Strength and Intelligence for a Prime Requisite XP bonus, and to get the +10%, Int is favored, so they are just as likely as Magic-Users to have bonus languages from Int on top of the racial languages.

Elves have twice the chance to detect secret doors as other races, 2 in 6.  Of course, this is only half of the stated chance from OD&D, where Elves had a 4 in 6 chance and everyone else had the 2 in 6.  I don't know exactly why this change was put in.  Was it too easy to find secret doors?  Any more, I think it's better (more fun for the players, more fun for the DM) if the players DO find secret doors often.  I'm still using the by the book numbers in my infrequent megadungeon games, but I may adjust this in my house rules document. 

Elves are immune to ghoul paralysis.  This is one of the things that got me back into old school D&D gaming (thanks again, to Superhero Necromancer).  No explanation is given for this, although I now know that it comes from Chainmail, where the elf troops were not held paralyzed by undead troops if they came into contact.

Finally, as we all know, Elves can cast spells just like a Magic-User.  We're advised to read those pages (having previously been advised to read the Fighter section to get tips on playing a warrior-type PC).  What we're not told again is that advancement is slow.  I remember introducing several friends to the game, and almost always they'd want to play an Elf to get the "best of both worlds" effect.  Of course, since most of them never played more than once or twice with me during recess at school, it didn't matter that they had no chance to get to level 2.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: The Dwarf

Today, we start in on the demi-human classes with the Dwarf.  My brother's main character when we played back in the day was a Dwarf named Larry.  Later, his brother Gary also joined him as an adventurer.  My brother liked the Dwarf class a lot.  For a while, I couldn't remember actually playing a Dwarf back in our old games, but then I remembered I did play a Dwarf named Doli (also taken from Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles), but I don't think he lasted very long.  Either he bit it in some unremembered dungeon, or I lost interest and stopped playing him.  In AD&D I've played a few dwarf characters, but it's never been a race I've been particularly called to play.  I do use them fairly often as NPCs, though. 

So, what did Frank Mentzer have to say about the dwarf as a fantasy trope?

They're pretty much described as what has become the stereotype.  Take Tolkien and Snow White, mix well, there you go.  Short, stubborn, practical, hard-working, hard drinking, rowdy little dudes.  And their women-folk have beards, don'chaknow.

As a class, we're told that they should behave like Fighters, so go read the Fighter class entry for tips on how to play.  We're given a rundown of their basic abilities, including their restriction to small or "normal" size weapons.  Of course, it's not until much later, in the Masters set or maybe the RC that we finally get anything like weapon size categories.  The text itself prohibits two-handed swords and longbows.  Lances and pole arms are allowed (confirmation of the lance comes in the Expert Set, where Dwarves are allowed to make a charge for double damage with a lance).

One thing I notice that's lacking is explicitly pointing out that Dwarves have amazing saving throw scores.  It's really their biggest advantage, IMO.  And it's something I never actually paid any attention to until much later.  Maybe my brother noticed it way back when?  Nah, I think he just liked the concept. 

For special abilities, we get a concise description of infravision (repeated on the next page for the Elf class).  If it's hot, it's red.  Cold, blue.  Room temperature, it can faintly be seen.  60' range.  Simple.

For the detection abilities, we're given a description of the things they can look for, but aside from traps (which is obvious) and to an extent sliding walls (how are they different from secret doors?), it's not obvious why sloping passages or new constructions would be relevant or not.  The rules were formed with the megadungeon environment in mind, but by the time these rules were written, the lair or scenario dungeon style was becoming more popular, so as a beginning DM I didn't take advantage of these abilities in scenario design. 

One last interesting note.  In the section on level titles, we're told to call the character Rolf the Warrior, not Rolf the Second Level Dwarven Fighter.  Yet the class is called Dwarf, not Dwarven Fighter.  And the level advancement table puts "Dwarven" before each of the Fighter level titles. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What's going on?

Last week, I finished up my revision of the Tricks, or special maneuvers mostly for shinobi type characters.  There are six categories: Acrobatics, Espionage/Sabotage, Infiltration/Escape, Ninjutsu (combat), Ninpo (special gear tricks), and Social Interaction.

Ninja characters have access to all of these.

Kagemusha have access to all but Ninpo, and instead get access to one category of Secrets, or magical special abilities (still need to revise those, that's the next step).

Taijutsuka (Martial Artists) get access to Acrobatics, plus combat oriented Maneuvers.

Soryo (Priests) get access to Social Interaction, plus magical Secrets.

This week, things have slowed down quite a bit on the RPG front.  My wife and I bought a new apartment and we move in next week, so lots of preparation for that.  I had a job interview last night - didn't get it, so I will keep working at the kindergarten, which is also moving to a new location at the end of the month.  Plus general end of the year class mini-concerts for parents, preparing for graduation, final evaluations of students, etc.  And it's time to get registered for my next semester of grad school.

On top of all that, I'm thinking about a short story (ninja related, since it's on my mind) that I might try to write this week or next.

If I get any more work done on Chanbara this month, I'll be sorta surprised, actually.  Either that, or the story will suck so much that I give up in frustration and go back to RPG design!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Thief

Another busy weekend kept me from posting this earlier.  Sorry to keep you all waiting.

The Thief class is controversial in some quarters.  Some don't like the percentile chances for skills (starting too low, they say), others don't like the "larcenous" type of character (stealing from the group causes in-character and out of character trouble), and some don't like the fact that they are frail at low levels and, they claim, useless at high levels (when magic can do the same job without the potential for failure).

But it has always been my favorite class to play.  And it was musings on the Thief that brought me back to old school D&D, especially (I know I've said this multiple times before), those of Robert Fisher.  So, with that said, let's take a look at Frank Mentzer's presentation of the class.

The initial description starts off by telling us that Thieves get by with their special abilities, and that Thieves are the ONLY characters that can open locks and find traps without magic.  That goes against the OSR conventional wisdom, one of the reasons some people ditch the class altogether.  It also tells us that while they can and do steal, it's best not to do so from other members of the party.

We get some good evocative description of the Thieves' Guild and a Thief's place in society (cue Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places").

Next, we get some solid advice on how to play a Thief.  Avoid melee combat.  Try to find ways  to make your special abilities useful.  Get a ranged weapon.  Remember that you can use your skills over and over, while magic spells only work once.  Sneaking around and using wits to stay alive is your goal, and it is a challenging one.

All in all, good advice.

The next page has a description of the various Thief Skills.  One interesting note right off the bat is that according to the book, the DM always rolls for the skill.  In my games, and those of many DMs I play or have played under, the player often gets to roll for many of these skills.  DM rolling allows for a fudge factor when opening a lock is critical to the adventure - yes, poor dungeon design, but if you're running a module you might not think to change it before hand.

Open Locks: May only be tried once per lock, and if you fail you need to gain a level before trying again.  Obviously this rule came about from Megadungeon style play, where you would have a chance to return and try to open a lock again after gaining a level.  Once the "quest" style adventures became more popular, it's no wonder Thieves fell out of favor compared to a Magic-User with a Knock spell.

Find Traps: Again, only one roll per trap.  Because I've taken to using this as more of a "trap sense" ability in my games (with descriptions of search procedures by any character likely to find a trap and this skill as a back-up), any more I do the rolling, although I have been giving repeat rolls if the trap isn't noticed and isn't set off, but the Thief returns to the area again.  Back in the day, I and other DMs I knew always asked the player to roll this one.

Remove Traps: And again, only one roll allowed per trap.  Nothing said about traps going off if the roll fails.  I remember keeping to the one try rule in our early games, but later when, thanks to the influence of AD&D, we instituted a chance for the trap to go off if the roll failed badly enough, I allowed re-rolls.  Press your luck!  Of course, knowing how a trap is triggered and what it will do allows for creatively springing the trap without harm to the party in many cases, so rerolls aren't vital.

Climb Walls: Obviously, this skill has a built in failure penalty, falling.  But then this skill also starts out with a high chance of success.  One thing I'd forgotten is that falls during a 10' climb (i.e. falling 5') cause only 1 point of damage, no roll needed.  One other important point is that the description does specifically say that this ability is for climbing steep cliffs, sheer surfaces, etc.  Implying that other characters can engage in other types of climbing.  Of course, it's not until the Expert Set IIRC that it's spelled out explicitly that this is so. 

Move Silently: Always seems successful to the character.  Because the DM rolls, the player won't know until the monsters react to the character.  Of course, in play failure tends to get described as stepping on a twig or something slapstick happening, so the player knows it's a failure.  But then the player is quite often making the roll, as well, so they do know the result already. 

Hide in Shadows: Ditto of Move Silently.  Also, it specifically says that movement is possible, but not attacking.  I interpret that to mean remaining hidden after an attack, as being hidden in shadows is one of the best ways to set up a backstab attempt.  Also, the wording is a bit vague (hiding in shadows or "neutral concealment"), but it does imply that the Thief isn't hiding behind anything and is instead using darkness and camouflage to hide, and anyone can hide behind the curtains or a box.

Pick Pockets: Do so at your own risk.  There is a penalty for failure other than not getting whatever it was you were after.  Fail by more than double your chance to succeed, and the mark catches you.  Fail by less than double and you're prevented from success but not caught.  But if you get caught, you could be in trouble.  The example given has the PC trying to steal from an NPC retainer.  I wish a better example had been given of trying to pick a monster's pocket, to show how the skill could be used to aid the party rather than just the Thief's bank balance.

Hear Noise: This roll is on a d6, so that it integrates smoothly with normal listening checks (1 in 6 for other human classes, 2 in 6 for demi-humans).  Of course, the book doesn't say that.  It just tells you that you can listen at doors or for approaching footsteps, and don't bother trying it during a loud battle.

After describing the special abilities, we get a brief bit on how to use them properly.  The player needs to look for a situation where they can be used, and simply says to the DM, "I want to X."  The example given of improper use shows that it's pointless to try and hide in shadows when the monsters have already spotted you.
And why is this thief wearing chain mail?
Finally, we get a description of Backstabbing.  Aside from the mechanics, I think it's pertinent to read the example, which has a DM making a judgment call about whether the Thief can try a backstab or not.  And a note at the end that in battle, there's no need to "move silently" as battles are noisy, but if no battle is happening it may be necessary to gain the backstab bonus.

Next time, we start on the demi-human classes with the Dwarf!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tomb of Tedankhamen Presents: March Madness Non-D&D OSR Blog Challenge

Blogging/gaming/expat-in-Asia-studying-for-a-PhD buddy Tedankhamen has fired a shot across the bow of the current D&D 40th anniversary blog carnival dealio.

In March, he's looking for bloggers (and actually not just OSR types, as he says) to take up a challenge to answer a question a day about non-D&D RPGs.

Ted has posted his March Madness Non-D&D OSR Blog Challenge over at his Tomb blog.  Go ahead and go read it there, although I'll also copy the questions here in this post.

This, for me, is a wonderful idea.  I, like most of the bloggers I follow, focus on D&D in its various forms, or in the simulacra/clones which IMO are still D&D.  And yes, I consider Flying Swordsmen and Chanbara to be D&D, I just don't have the legal authority to put those two words with an ampersand between them on my games.  You may draw the line closer to home, that's fine.  My point, and really Ted's point, is that we don't spend enough time posting about other games we've played. 

Looking back on my own gaming career, I haven't played that many other games, really.  It's mostly been D&D.  Or other TSR/WotC offerings like Star Frontiers, Gamma World, d20 Modern.  But I've played a few other games for short periods, including some narrative/indie games and plenty of home brew systems, including my own very un-D&D Presidents of the Apocalypse.  So I should be able to work out some interesting answers to the questions.

I'm not sure if I'll manage to get to post once for each question Ted's offered up, or get through all of the questions in March - I've already got my Mentzer cover to cover series going, plus Chanbara development updates taking up most of my blogging currently.  The new semester also starts in March, which means lots of time spent on academics rather than gaming.  But I hope to eventually answer each of the questions Ted poses in his challenge:

March Madness 31 day Obscure Game Blogging Challenge
1 What was the first roleplaying game other than D&D you played? Was it before or after you had played D&D?
2 In what system was the first character you played in an RPG other than D&D? How was playing it different from playing a D&D character?
3 Which game had the least or most enjoyable character generation?
4 What other roleplaying author besides Gygax impressed you with their writing?
5 What other old school game should have become as big as D&D but didn’t? Why do you think so?
6 What non-D&D monster do you think is as iconic as D&D ones like hook horrors or flumphs, and why do you think so?
7 What fantasy RPG other than D&D have you enjoyed most? Why?
8 What spy RPG have you enjoyed most? Give details.
9 What superhero RPG have you enjoyed most? Why?
10 What science fiction RPG have you enjoyed most? Give details.
11 What post-apocalyptic RPG have you enjoyed most? Why?
12 What humorous RPG have you enjoyed most? Give details.
13 What horror RPG have you enjoyed most? Why?
14 What historical or cultural RPG have you enjoyed most? Give details.
15 What pseudo or alternate history RPG have you enjoyed most? Why?
16 Which RPG besides D&D has the best magic system? Give details.
17 Which RPG has the best high tech rules? Why?
18 What is the crunchiest RPG you have played? Was it enjoyable?
19 What is the fluffiest RPG you have played? Was it enjoyable?
20 Which setting have you enjoyed most? Why?
21 What is the narrowest genre RPG you have ever played? How was it?
22 What is the most gonzo kitchen sink RPG you ever played? How was it?
23 What is the most broken game that you tried and were unable to play?
24 What is the most broken game that you tried and loved to play, warts and all?
25 Which game has the sleekest, most modern engine?
26 What IP (=Intellectual Property, be it book, movie or comic) that doesn’t have an RPG deserves it? Why?
27 What RPG based on an IP did you enjoy most? Give details.
28 What free RPG did you enjoy most? Give details.
29 What OSR product have you enjoyed most? Explain how.
30 Which non-D&D supplemental product should everyone know about? Give details.
31 What out-of-print RPG would you most like to see back in publication? Why?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Tricksy Tricks

Well, I finally got to work revising the Chanbara ninja/martial artist/priest special abilities called Tricks.

Too many of the previous draft Tricks were combat oriented, since I started with the Flying Swordsmen Martial Arts Maneuvers.  So I cut a lot of them and am coming up with new ones that aid in infiltration, espionage, acrobatics, social interaction, and special use of ninja gear.  Plus a few for ninjutsu combat - but only a few.

I'm much happier with this set.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: 1st and 2nd level MU spells

Getting right into it this week, looking at pages 39-42 of the Players Manual, the descriptions of MU spells.  If I skip a spell, it's because I didn't find anything worthwhile to comment on.

Level 1 Spells:

Charm Person - this is actually a long description with fairly succinct directions on what the "charm" effect is.  The charmed creature will defend the caster from any dangers.  Full stop.  If you speak the same language, you can give it other orders, but it may resist depending on its nature.  Charm is not mind-slavery, but it is a free bodyguard at least. 

I like how the description of the spell gives some general ideas about what sorts of creatures can be charmed, then says figure out the specifics by trial and error!  Don't see that at all in modern game design, which is a shame. 

Floating Disc - back in the day we gave this spell a lot more utility than I've seen most people give it.  It depends on how you interpret the line "The floating disc is created at the height of the magic-user’s waist, and will always remain at that height."  Will it always remain at the height it was created at?  If so, you could use it as a floating bridge to cross chasms.  Will it always remain at the height of the magic user's waist, moving up and down when you go up stairs?  Climb on and get a free lift to a high place, or hang over the edge to get a free ride down, as the disc moves up and down trying to get to where your waist is now. 

Hold Portal - a variable duration, 2d6 Turns.  I like that, and think more spells should have variations in duration (other than X turns/rounds + 1 per caster level).  This comes from early exposure to the Wizards, Warriors & You books, I think. 

Light - we're already exposed to the offensive use of the spell, blinding creatures.  I guess it had become SOP for many players by '83.  And the range is 120', that's fairly considerable, since I think most times it's cast it's on the immediate area.  I'm now thinking of uses for signalling or distracting by creating a light far away from the group...

Magic Missile - again, with the debate over duration, 1 Turn or 1 Round?  The spell duration line says 1 round here, but reading the text, it moves with you and can't be touched, implying a longer duration.  But again, at high levels, a 36th level MU could create 15 missiles per spell, and memorize it nine times, casting them all before entering some room and sending them all blasting at once at any creature, auto hit, no save, for damage that could take out anything in the game.  Of course, you do have the pesky problem of actually making it to 36th level...

Protection from Evil - this spell doesn't provide a lot of extra protection numerically, but it can sure be a life-saver.  Enchanted creatures (here defined as those only damaged by magic weapons, nothing about controlled, charmed or summoned creatures) can't touch you until you attack (anything, not only the creatures being hedged out).  This means you can walk right through a room of gargoyles or spectres without damage. 

Shield - shorter duration that Pro. Evil, but a whopping AC 2 vs missile weapons and AC 4, not bad, against hand to hand attacks.  And it gives a saving throw if targeted with magic missile spells. 

Sleep - the powerhouse spell of level 1, and it's also got the random duration.  Of course, as the description suggests, sleeping creatures can be instantly slain, and that never takes more than the minimum 4 Turns... 
In my earliest days, the 4+1 HD limit (that of ogres) made me conflate the restrictions of Sleep and Charm Person, so that only humanoid creatures that could be charmed were affected by this spell, not animals or other monster types.

Level 2 Spells:

Continual Light - as Light, only double the area and brighter...but NOT as bright as daylight, so it won't cause penalties for orcs, etc.

Detect Evil - as with the Clerical version, it detects intent to harm the caster.  It also detects "evil enchantment" which could only mean cursed items, right?  That could take some of the fun out of the game right there.  At least from a DM's perspective.  As a player, I think I'll start using this on new magic items discovered before their use and see what my DM thinks!

Invisibility - wow, a whopping 240' range!  Again, I've usually only seen this spell used short range, on the caster him or her self.  I can think of some useful possibilities for that, and my current MU character actually has this spell, unlike Detect Evil...

ESP - the garbling side effect is underused, IMO.  If there are two or more creatures in range in the direction concentrated on, it takes twice as long to zero in on the mind you wish to spy on. 

Detect Invisible - nothing related to the write-up worth commenting on, really, but just a thought I had the other day while walking on the street and my son was making up super powers for himself.  If someone could see all invisible things, wouldn't they be blinded by air?  Best not to overthink the magic spells.

Knock - I like the note at the end, that if a door is barred and locked, both will be opened.  Basically, cast this and that puppy is coming open. 

Levitate - you can carry an unencumbered companion while levitating.  Cast Floating Disc as well (depending on how you rule it, see above), and two or three more companions can ride that (up to 500 lbs), and a party can slowly ascend or descend some hazard. 

Locate Object - we NEVER used this spell back in the day.  I have no idea why, as I now realize it is one of the most useful spells for dungeon delving period.  As long as you know what you're looking for in the dungeon, anyway...  It does have an unfortunately shot duration, though.

Mirror Image - I don't know why, but this is my favorite 2nd level spell.  Most NPC magic users I create will have this spell. 

Phantasmal Force - a potentially devastating spell, if used creatively, or useless depending on how big of a jerk the DM is.  I tend to encourage creative use of illusions, but my players rarely use the spell.  There's a caveat in the spell that rarely gets enforced IMX, that if the caster has never seen the thing they're making the illusion of, the victims get a bonus to their saving throw.  Of course, I've also had players try to work into their back stories world travel so they can always pull out the "of course I saw it as I traveled through Kreblachistan with the caravan when I was 0-level..."

Web - I just did the math, 48 Turn duration is 8 hours.  Wow.  And I just noticed that burning webs inflict 1d6 damage for two rounds, which I've also always used for flaming oil, although the rules, I believe, say 1d8 per round for oil.  I may have gotten the two mixed up early on.

And there you have it, folks, my thoughts on reading through the MU spells in Mentzer Basic.