Friday, May 27, 2016

Price reduction?

Sales have been sluggish for my printable paper minis available on DrivethruRPG.

I know part of it is that I just haven't had time to promote them. Part is that I haven't had time to make more sets. But could part of it also be the price is just a little too high? I mean, I'd think $5 for nearly 40 monsters wouldn't be a big deal. But maybe it is.

So, I'm reducing the price on the monster books to $3 each.

I mean, really, since these are ebooks, there's no stock to keep, no printing costs (other than the consumer's), and no labor involved other than my own. So I think I'll try a price reduction and see if I can sell a few more sets that way.

Thanks, by the way, to all the people who did decide they were worth spending $5 each. I appreciate your business. And once I get my dissertation out of the way, I plan to get more sets covering AD&D classes not in Basic D&D, as well as monsters from the Expert Set.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Taking of the Bridge of Bones

The Taking of the Bridge of Bones

Being a continuation of the journal of the stout-hearted Green Knight Jack Summerisle and companions various and sundry in the subterranean realms of Eberron known as the Kyber.

As luck would have it, we had survived an encounter with a foul, undead-summoning witch that seemed to have been locked in time, and had, to the best of our abilities, disrupted the eternal ritual that eldritch fiend was engaged in. Calling upon the power of the Greensong, I was able to detect the direction of a strange contraption known as a "cat bus" belonging to an erstwhile ally, and our party set off in caverns in that general direction.

A great shaking of the eberron left us trapped past a wall of stone, with no way to return the way we had come, and in pressing on, we [my companions being the resourceful Jade the Half-Elf Ranger, Rhea the Human Witch (who, while useful, I find distasteful for her ties to the Far Realms and her vulgar behavior), Mahlgoth the Orc Barbarian (a stout lad in a fight, if also uncouth), and the serious and taciturn Thia the Elf Storm Cleric (a more lovely companion than the previous two)] encountered a deep chasm, with a bridge of some monster's bones being constructed by ghouls.

A duergar covered in strange devices was the foreman of the expedition, and a strange human covered in dragonmarks (I've never seen anyone with more than one before, yet he seemed to have all the ones I had encountered in my travels and then some!), and an undead orc as a bodyguard. After a brief discussion, the bulk of our party remained out of sight while Rhea went to parlay. They rebuffed her attempts at a bargain, and so we engaged in combat to slay the foul enemies and cross in safety.

Cassius, my giant cave weta steed, delivered me into the fray, where I smote the undead orc, yet still it stood. Such unholy power as it possessed delivered unto me knowledge that this beast must fall lest it plague the lands of men, dwarves, elves, and all good creatures above, not to mention our gnome, rock man, and sundry other allies we had made below. Not only that, but the dastardly creature retreated from me, and shot me with a poisoned arrow, weakening me. Luckily, while I struggled with poison and an entangling weapon thrown by the duergar tastmaster, my brave companions made short work of the ghouls and set in on the orc and tattooed human, who was mumbling in an eldritch and insane language the whole time.

By the time I had recovered from being poisoned not once but twice, the orc was near to falling from Mahlgoth's huge axe and Thia's spells. But the dragonmarked one had cast some sort of spell to make the bridge come to life! And beyond that, Rhea had summoned a demon! While the demon was a distraction to the duergar, and was damaging the bridge, I knew I could not let it go free, and would need to slay it ere the battle was won.

But first, the dragonmarked mage was between me and the demon. As weapons and spells all seemed to be of limited use against that one, I picked him up bodily and pitched him over into the chasm. The bridge began to settle back into place, yet the mage still lived! What foul enchantments allowed it to survive such a fall I know not, yet he crept away to nurse his wounds. I expect to cross paths with that one again, some day.

The duergar taskmaster, likewise, seeing all of his cronies dispatched, fled the encounter. Having to put down the demon, we were forced to allow that one to escape. I only pray that likewise we shall cross paths again and I may deliver the justice of the natural world to the artificer.

Having done what we could to destroy the bridge from the far side, and stopping a pursuit of us by ghouls on the side we had come from, we rested and then set out again, finally making it to safety after a day's march through the caverns. Our next step may be to find some way to defeat this ghoul-emperor, or perhaps seek out the prison where Jade's father lies prisoner.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Underground Railroad (rant-ish)

Several disparate influences coalesced in my head this evening, as I was on my way home from work, and I came to realize how to express verbally my distaste for "indie story games" of the Forge variety. Sure, I've talked about it before, and I always assumed it was the people I played with rather than the games. Now, I think it actually is the games. But, as Dav Pilkey says in his Captain Underpants stories, before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story...

Years ago, so long ago I can't remember if it was on an RPG forum, a blog, or where, I remember reading someone expressing the opinion that any player that wants to play a Paladin is tacitly giving permission to the DM to make them fall from grace. This esteemed sir or madam espoused this as an absolute. Any player who chooses a Paladin is asking for a fall, and any DM with a Paladin in their campaign is duty bound to make them fall at least once during their career.

Now, that's literally ridiculous. Literally, as in I shall now ridicule this idea.

Every player who plays a Magic-User (Wizard in newer editions) is asking the DM to take away their spellbook at least once during their career, and any DM worth his salt must take away the spellbook of any Magic-User that survives past the goblin warrens and giant rat tunnels of low level.

Every player who plays a Cleric is just begging the DM to take away their spellcasting ability due to an alignment issue. Often. DMs need to be on the watch for any potential slip by the Cleric's player to take away their spells and make them atone.

Every player who plays a Dwarf is fully expecting to be cast out of their clan-hold, beard shaven off, and exiled on pain of death. DMs will make sure every dwarven clan is a bunch of judgmental assholes in order to make sure that any adventurous upstart gets taken down a peg in this way.

Ridiculous, no? It shows such a lack of imagination, such a lack of narrative principle, to assume that just because some player wanted to play such a class/race wants to play out that tired, cliche story line every time they play the game. Sure, there may be rules in the books for what to do if it does happen, but that doesn't mean it's the only way a Paladin's (or MU, Cleric, Dwarf, whatever) story can play out. It's not how every character X's story should play out. To force this on the players and to assume it's with their consent just because they chose option X at character generation instead of option Y is a form of railroading.

Now, there should always be the risk of these things happening, but whether it does come to pass should depend on the player's choices in the game, rather than through a no-win situation engineered by the DM.

And that brings us back to indie story games.

You all know Ron Edwards's pet game theory, the Three-Fold Model (and his later Big Model, which was as far as I remember the same thing with more jargon to keep the newbs from acting like they understood it) of Gamist/Simulationist/Narrativist games. Said theory posited a triangle of three things that games can be, and the closer a game came to one of the vertices, the more pure it was, the better that game was. A good "gamist" game focused ONLY on gaming the system. A good "simulationist" game focused ONLY on recreating a "realistic" fantasy setting. A good "narrativist" game focused ONLY on providing a coherent story for the players. A game like D&D, despite its vast popularity, sits somewhere in the middle of the triangle of competing forces, so obviously must be a craptastically designed game, no matter how many people have years and years worth of fun playing it. If only they'd move to a game a the point of the triangle that best matches their interest, says the theory, they'll be having ever so much more fun.

Now, Edwards and the Forge heavily biased their community towards "narrativist" play. Edwards was always political about saying that gamists and simulationists could have their fun playing games their way, but in his opinion the narrativist way was the best way.

But you know what? Those story games have a BIG problem. The "best" of them are nothing more than railroads, similar to the type described above. No one's making you do X instead of Y, no one's pulling a quantum ogre on you in these games. You're free do do whatever you want! long as whatever you want is what the game is "designed to be about."

You can't just do anything you want in these games. If you play, for example, Dogs in the Vinyard (full disclosure, never had a chance to play it, but heard/read plenty), you can't escape the game's theme of dispatching justice to a small town in the Old West. Sooner or later, the game is going to force you to do just that. It's designed to bring these situations to a head so that your Mormon gunslinger can settle things the Mormon gunslinger way.

You're not playing these games to make up your own story. The game designer has already predetermined the story for you. It's a railroad, but it's subtle. Hence the title of this post.

And the funny thing? Now that I've come to this realization, I get the feeling that I now "get" story games, and might actually be able to have fun playing one now. But for the time being, I'll stick to D&D and play-testing Chanbara.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Procedures and Rules 2

This post covers the next few sections of this grab-bag of game rules, from Dice to Higher Level Spells.

First off, we're told that the dice included with the Basic Set are all you need. While technically correct in that you can (and we did) play games with only those six dice, you and I all know that you always need more dice, right? It's like that first set in the box were free, and you just had to have more...and more...and more!

Now, I did spend many years playing with only the sets from the Basic and Expert sets, plus a few old ivory six-siders that belonged to my grandpa. And I've still got all of them, and still use them on occasion (most often when I'm DMing). I've got a nostalgic connection to those dice. But I've got LOTS more, and when I see dice in a shop I've got an urge to buy more. Maybe you do, too.

Anyway, we're next told that when there's a random result range, the DM can either roll or just select the desired amount. That's fine. No reason you must insist on everything being random. And we're told that it's also OK for the DM to roll the dice, reject the result, and decide on something different. Now, this will rub some people the wrong way, because the example given says if a character down to 3 hit points gets hit with a sword (1-8 damage) and could easily die, the DM can ignore the result and just announce 2 points of damage were dealt, giving the player a chance to retreat. I took this to heart as a boy, and would very often fudge results to keep PCs alive. Now, I'm less likely to do so. But I don't completely frown on the practice as some do. There are times when fun should trump the dice. Feel free to disagree, I won't think less of you.

And finally, rather uncontroversially, we are given notations about how to figure out what dice to roll for different spreads of numbers. 1-6 means roll 1d6, obviously, and 2-8 means roll 2d4 because 8 divided by 2 is 4, and 3-13 can't be divided, but if you take 2d6+1, you get that spread. Simple.

Personally, any more I like to just note down the range in die notation rather than the range.

This is a section that didn't have a big effect on me, and my games play differently than expected because of it. There have been plenty of blog posts in the past by others about these rules or the similar rules in OD&D, BX, AD&D and your favorite retro clones of above systems. Some doors are locked, but most doors are not locked but stuck. Monsters can easily open doors, while players always need to bash open the doors (with a 5 or 6 on 1d6).

I've had stuck doors in dungeons, but they are rare, and early on were usually randomly placed. Now, I put stuck doors in for a purpose. And if it's stuck, it's stuck for everything. In my game PCs can just open most doors. There's something in my that rejects the idea that doors don't stick for monsters but do for PCs (although I like some of the justifications for the rule that have come up on other blogs).

Regarding secret doors, we get told that anyone can look, with a 1 in 6 chance of success (reference the section on elf special abilities in the previous post), taking 1 Turn per 10' square area searched. And that secret doors cannot be opened unless found!
But come on, movies and Saturday morning cartoons have taught me that you can stumble upon them! So, these days I tend to note a secret door, and always the trigger, and let the PCs accidentally open the door if they mess around with the trigger. It's more fun that way.

Finally, we get a note about special doors that are one-way only, and can only be opened from the "wrong" side with a Knock spell.

Equipment Not Listed
The novice DM is strongly warned NOT to allow characters to buy anything not on the equipment lists. Why this section is worded so strongly, I'm not sure. But I heeded the warning as an 11 year old, not allowing anything to be purchased that wasn't on these lists until I got the Expert Set a year later.

I realize a novice DM might not grasp all the potential consequences of certain things being added to the list of stuff PCs can buy, but most of the time I can't really see problems with normal everyday sort of stuff (like a lot of the lists in the AD&D PHB).

Evasion and Pursuit
This is a fairly lengthy section, with a sort of "mini game" for how to resolve chases and escapes in the game. I've always liked these rules, although they rarely see play. If the monsters flee, I've found players usually just let them go. And players rarely decide to run away (sometimes to their detriment).

The rules themselves are not necessarily very elegant, but they are practical and fairly simple. If monsters flee and characters pursue, compare movement rates. If the monsters are faster, they escape. If the party (or faster members of the party who don't stay with the main group) are faster, they can catch the monsters. Likewise, if the PCs run, they can escape if they are faster.

The standard reaction roll is used to determine if monsters pursue or not, with modifiers based on how damaged they are, and their intentions. If a monster has been slain, they get a -2 to the roll. If the PCs failed to land any hits, the modifier is +2, and if the monsters are after the party for some reason, the modifier is +3. A 9 or better means pursuit. Every 5 rounds, make the check again to see if the monsters continue the chase.

Where it gets interesting is the rules for dissuading pursuit. PCs can drop food or treasure (depending on the type of monster) and there's a 50% chance the monsters will stop and take the offering (1-3 on 1d6).

I also like the fact that it's explicitly stated that during pursuit or evasion, no mapping is possible and it's very easy to get lost. In small dungeons, that's not likely to happen, but in a larger lair dungeon, or a megadungeon, it's an important factor to consider for the players.

I also like the rules for Length of Pursuit (mentioned a bit above). The general guideline is that monsters won't pursue for very long, only 1 to 2 hours! That's sort of a long time, actually. But of course, that's really the time the monsters will search for the PCs after they get away. And it's also stated that they could continue searching for up to a day, maybe longer, if the PCs have taken something valuable from the monsters.

Again, I've only rarely gotten to use these rules, but the potential for fun gaming is there. Monsters tracking a party that fled from them, and popping up again and again in the dungeon (or the wilderness, although there are slightly different rules for that in the Expert Set) could be a lot of fun, in the right type of environment.

Higher Level Spells
This section provides three second level Cleric spells and three third level Magic User spells for use with NPC high level casters (or monsters, like dragons, although this isn't stated in this section). They may also be found on scrolls.

We get the Cleric spells Bless, Hold Person, and Silence 15' Radius, and the MU spells Dispel Magic, Fire Ball, and Fly. We also get charts for 4th and 5th level Clerics and 4th through 6th level MUs/Elves spells per day.

I'd need to check to see if the descriptions are exactly the same in the Expert Set or not, and years of playing multiple editions means I don't always get all the details of certain spells right, but there are one or two interesting things to note.

For Silence 15' Radius, it's stated that the spell prevents anyone inside the area from making noise, but does not prevent sounds made outside the area from being heard. This makes it a good tactical spell for a party, as it can be used to shut down enemy spell-casters (the typical use) OR to make the party more stealthy. It lasts 9 Turns in this book (that may be different in Expert), which is pretty long.

The Fly spell also has an interesting note. The spell has a randomized duration, 1d6 Turns, plus 1 Turn per level of the caster. The Expert Set may be the same as this, but maybe it's the RC version or the AD&D (or 3E?) version that is a little different. Here in the Basic Set, it states that only the DM knows the duration, the player only knows the possible minimum and maximum duration. It's implied that you could get in trouble being up in the air when the spell ends, although it doesn't state it explicitly. I'm pretty sure some other edition(s) state that you just slowly drop to the ground when the duration ends. Personally, I like this version better, as it gives the players a bit of a "press your luck" choice when using the spell.

Other than these two spells, though, there's not much of interest in this section.

Next post, I'll cover Hit Points through Morale.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Procedures and Rules 1

Time to cast Resurrect Topic! Yes, it's been almost a year since I last posted in this Cover to Cover series, but if you've bothered to look, you'll see I just haven't done a whole heck of a lot of posting period over the past year. I'm not saying I'm back to regular posting, but I am going to give this series another shot and see if I can finish up the DM's book.

Procedures and Rules is a grab-bag section of various topics that DMs should be ready for, arranged in alphabetical order. The section is 8 pages long, and I'll try to cover two pages or so each post. Then we'll be moving on to monsters! But before I get ahead of myself, let's get down to this post, which covers the sections of Alignment Changes through Demi-Humans (special abilities).

Alignment Changes
Well, this section starts off right - alignment is how the player wants to play the character. And if you see that they are playing their character in a different way, take them aside or talk to them after the game, in private about it. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Then, however, we're told that if the player keeps playing "incorrectly" that the DM should tell them their alignment has changed, and penalize them in some way. And of course, to be fair, reward good alignment play by giving more XP, treasure, or making monsters easier to defeat. But of course if it's a curse or magic item like the Helm of Alignment Changing, don't penalize them.

Alignment's always tricky, especially these days after we've had over a decade of arguments ad nauseum about it on the internet. Now, I think if the player is playing a character differently than their alignment indicates, they probably should either rethink how they play or else change their alignment. And as a player, if the DM were going for a certain mood or style of game where his or her vision of alignment was different than mine, I'd be willing to change to the suggestion of the DM, after talking it over, if the DM didn't accept my reasoning for my alignment play.

I think level reduction or arbitrarily taking away magic items, as Frank suggests, aren't really the way to go, though. An in-game penalty, like a curse, that could be removed by "correct" alignment play or by a decision by the player to accept the new alignment might seem more fun and acceptable to me.

Sound advice. If there's an argument, try to resolve it quickly and get back to the game. If it can't be resolved, make a ruling for now, and get back to the game. Then hash it out later, after the game is over.

Charm Person Spells
We get some advice on this spell, but it all relates to the duration and what creatures can and can't be effected by it. And it's fairly cut and dry. Most problems I've seen with the spell over the years tend to deal with just how much or how little a charmed creature will do for the charmer.

The duration advice is something I've found useful, and used as a benchmark for other types of spells. If the target is highly intelligent the saving throw is repeated every day. If normal intelligence, every week. If low intelligence, every month. This is a useful benchmark for other lingering effects, with the ability score changed to fit the situation. A disease might weaken a character, but they get a saving throw every time period depending on whether their Constitution is high/average/low.

Frank lists the monsters in the Basic set that the spell should affect (and a note that the Expert and Companion sets will add to the list), but before that he explicitly states that it's up to the DM to decide, along with a few guidelines. It's implicit rather than explicit, but he's giving the starting DM permission to change things to suit the DM's campaign.

This section is something that I've read a lot about on various blogs and forums over the years. For beginning players, who don't yet know all of the tropes and expectations of the game, it pays to help them out with some suggestions like, "Do you want to search for secret doors?" Also, give them some automatic successes early on to encourage them to try things. As they get more experienced, stop helping them out this way. I know some DMs would just throw players out there and let them fail, but I've seen first-hand how this can sour new players to the game. I like to think I've learned from my mistakes. Honestly, this was one section of the book I should have paid more attention to when I was younger.

After the above, Frank mentions how on higher levels of the dungeon especially, deadly traps or monster encounters should be telegraphed by obvious clues. As you go deeper into the dungeon, the clues can become less obvious, and deeper still there may be places where there are no clues at all. As the players get more experienced, they will tend to ask for more details about the areas, trying to look for clues, so be ready to provide them (as Frank says, put them in the dungeon key).

Similar to the Arguments section above, this is really more about how to handle the players than how to run any aspect of the game. If the players complain, don't shut them out, hear them out then try to compromise if possible. Frank suggests modifying the rules or using optional rules.

We get an admonition about "game balance" here, though. Be careful what you tinker with, don't make the game too easy or the players will get lazy and/or bored. While I think the recent efforts of the OSR have shown how robust the classic D&D engine really is to handle all sorts of crazy variant rules, he does have a point about the "giveaway game" as he calls it, or the Monty Haul game as it's come to be known online (or did Gary use that term in some AD&D books?).

Final good advice of this section - don't be afraid to tell the players that you made a mistake, and that you're also just learning the game. For a new DM, there can be a lot of pressure to get things right. Performance anxiety can be tough. For my friends and I back in the day, though, we were so free-wheeling and loose with the rules that it never really became an issue. Surely we made a lot of mistakes, but we were still having fun. And when we did stop making the mistakes, and started using the rules as intended, we were still having fun so it was no big deal.

Creating Characters
Here we get the standard advice about "hopeless characters" as they're known in Gamma World. If a character has all low stats, nothing above a 9 or two scores below 6, roll up a new one. The dice can be finicky when you're only rolling 3d6 in order. However, it's still the DM's call whether a character would be viable or not. It's also explicitly stated that this is for beginning players, as more experienced players should be able to handle the challenge.

If a player wants to play a certain class but rolls stats for another, the DM can allow them to switch the prime requisite of the class rolled for the prime requisite of the class desired, but only one switch allowed. This became such standard practice with my old group back in the day that it was just to be expected that you'd get to make one switch if you wanted to. I allowed it, and so did my friends who also DMed sometimes. In these days of rolling 4d6 drop lowest, arrange to taste, or point buy, or standard arrays, this must seem archaic and as a straight jacket to playing the character you want (which Frank says earlier in the section we should allow). I still like it, as it tends to give more organic characters, and can be surprising and fun. Point buy/array just ends up being a utilitarian min/max analysis most of the time.

These were the heyday of the Satanic Panic, so this section is very explicit about using, if you wish - totally not required! - MYTHOLOGICAL deities for the characters to worship. But that all takes place off stage, never changes the game rules, and the deities NEVER interfere with mortal matters (except, if you wish, to explain how Clerics get their spells). But NEVER use real world religions that might offend a player.

This section did make me resist defining any sort of religious systems for my campaign worlds for a long time. Well, that, plus a very devout Catholic father (he never had issues with me playing D&D though) and a conservative, religious Midwest small town to grow up in. I did eventually add in a half-assed Zodiac based system that I took from some Atari game (Sword Quest maybe, the one with real prizes people could win and tie in comic books and stuff). I've actually been thinking of revising the Zodiac system, since I could easily key it to the Four Classical Elements and the three alignments. But that's a post for another day.

We get some advice for how to adjudicate each demi-human class's special abilities. One thing I took to heart from this section was to always roll the dice, even if there's nothing to find. Just to keep the players guessing. And it's good advice, unless you always roll in the open. But the reason for always rolling necessitates a secret roll, so if you always roll in the open (as some people suggest should be done) then you'll have to deal with losing some suspense when you roll a success in the open but have to announce that they find nothing.

Dwarves: They can detect various architectural features, and searching a roughly 30' x 30' area takes one turn per feature searched for. And the traps they can find are "room traps" like pits, falling ceilings, etc. I like the bit at the end, where if a player just says, "I'll check for all the dwarf stuff" you should remind them that it will take 4 turns (unless the area is small). That's at least two wandering monster checks...

Elves: We only get advice about searching for secret doors, but unlike the dwarf, the elf needs 1 turn to search a 10' square area of wall, floor, or ceiling. That's quite the investment of time just for a 2 in 6 chance to find a secret door. In practice, I always ended up just making one check per area (like with Dwarves, one roll per normal sized dungeon room). I found that requiring one roll per 10' searched discouraged searching for secret doors at all. Of course, back then I could have given better clues that there may be a secret door (see the Clues section, above).

Halflings: Halflings get two special abilities described, their hiding and their dodging ability. For hiding, we're told that they need to have something to hide behind. While it's implicit rather than explicit, I think the intention may have been to show that it's different from a Thief's Hide in Shadows ability, although it may be years of Robert Fisher interpretation of Thief skills clouding my memory of how we ran it back in the day. As for dodging, we're reminded that big monsters suffer a -1 penalty to hit a Halfling, but that the onus should be on the player of the Halfling character to remind the DM when facing big creatures. I know it's something we often forgot. 3E's simple +1 to all small characters' AC is much more elegant, since you never have to worry about remembering it as a DM, or remembering to remind your DM about it as a player.

Anyway, that's just slightly more than two pages of this section. Next time, I'll try to cover Dice through Higher Level Spells.