Sunday, December 29, 2019

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker and Mandalorian thoughts

No, this is not a full review of either Episode IX or the first offering from Disney+. And I shouldn't have seen either property yet. Ep IX doesn't come to Korea for another week and a half, and Disney+ won't come for I don't know how long. But through the power of the Force (internet), I've viewed them.

And I WILL got see Rise of Skywalker on the big screen when it finally comes here. That's one reason for this not being a full review. Just a comparison. Will I subscribe to Disney+ when it finally comes to Korea? Based on the strength of The Mandalorian and my enthusiasm for the MCU shows they're gonna put out (especially the What If...? show!), probably.

So, both properties really market in Star Wars nostalgia for us older folks that have grown up with the original trilogy. I'm sure people who grew up on the prequel trilogy also find nostalgic stuff in the new film trilogy and the new show, but it seems to me that a lot of the nostalgia is for US.

Re. Rise of Skywalker: J.J. Abrams is, I think, overrated. He came back to "save Star Wars" from Rian Johnson and give fans what they wanted. And that's pretty much what the movie was. 2 hours of fan service. Was there a lot of cool stuff? Sure. Were there plot holes? Sure. It's Star Wars. It's space wizards doing space wizard stuff. But overall, I felt like the movie was just OK, and it would have been better if it had striven for something better than just fan service.

Looking back to Episode VII, I was just thrilled the first time I saw it in the theater. Star Wars was Star Wars again! Then, watching it again, it seemed just a bit too similar to what had come before. Episode VIII had a lot of problems, but what IMO Rian Johnson did right was set up a new paradigm for the Force. But J.J. did to Rian what Rian did to J.J. Can't say I'm too happy about that.

Re. The Mandalorian: Favreau knows how to tell an entertaining story. Yes, there's a lot of fan service as well. And yes, there were a few filler episodes that had cool stuff but could have been cut and the story would have been the same. But what Favreau is doing right that J.J. is doing wrong (again just my armchair director opinion) is that the fan service and nostalgia are mostly incidental to the story. A mention here. A background character there. A vehicle based on a toy. Occasionally part of a scene. But the story of Mando and The Child is its own thing. It's not stuck in the shadow of the movies.

I hope, in the future, when more Star Wars movies get made, that they take more cues from Favreau and Johnson than from Abrams.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Mini Six and Star Wars d6

I checked out Mini Six. And found a (possibly not legal? If not, sorry!) PDF of Star Wars 2nd Edition. I think Killing Machine and I played 2E WEG Star Wars when we were kids, but maybe it was 1E. I have vague memories of us playing either when we were in high school (in which case it would have been 1E) or my college years (when it could have been 1E or 2E).

Anyway, long story short, Mini Six looks like a good condensation of the d6 System for general usage, but I think I'll stick to actual Star Wars RPG for my future games.

I MAY take the Mini Six idea of static defense scores based on the die codes of the skills. Instead of rolling to dodge/parry an attack, it just figures out the difficulty number based on how many dice a character has in the skill. Similarly, instead of rolling Strength to resist damage, it just uses a flat damage reduction number.

Actually, I may keep the Dodge/Parry rolls, since they are optional and take up actions. But the static damage reduction thing I think I will definitely implement to speed things up.


On a related note, the season finale of The Mandalorian was pretty good. I won't be copying the plot in my games, but it did give me a few ideas I might use for SW RPG.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Muddling through WEG d6 Star Wars

Two days ago, Dean asked who was up for an impromptu game. Jeremy pitched a Marvel Superheroes game based on occult investigations, but it didn't really grab us. So I suggested (being all in on The Mandalorian and having now seen The Rise of Skywalker - review pending) a game of d6 Star Wars.

The rules have had a fan edit/remaster done recently, that includes lots of material from the more modern SW properties. And it's free. It's a long PDF, though, around 500 pages. And it's poorly organized. And I hadn't played WEG Star Wars since around 1990 or so, and we never played it that much back then. And I was never the game master.

But anyway, I gave myself a crash course in the rules, and came up with a scenario. I'd had the idea that the plot of Shaft (1971) would make for a good RPG adventure. And it worked out really well.

The characters:
Y'lenik, Caamasi Student of the Force (Dean)
Simon SBD-4, modified superbattle droid (Jeremy)
Oink the Hunter, Gammorean bounty hunter (Claytonian)
Teeto, Ewok (Parker)

On a Hutt planet, the Imperials are encroaching but there's also a Rebel resistance forming. The Hutt's daughter is kidnapped, and he demands/hires the PCs to rescue her.

The game didn't follow exactly along the lines of the plot of Shaft, although in a few ways it did mirror it. By the end of the session, the PCs had the Rebels leading a diversion attack on the Imperial garrison while they broke in the back to rescue the Hutt Princess, while gangsters waited with speeders outside for the getaway. More or less like the final act of Shaft.

For the players, it was pretty easy. The templates allowed them to get into the game quickly. One guy joined the game about 45 minutes in, grabbed the Ewok template, assigned points to skills, and he was in within 10 minutes.

There were only two small skirmishes against stormtroopers at the end during the rescue. Everything else was investigation, negotiation, and scouting. Which is just as well, because when the fights broke out, I realized after the session, I ran the system wrong. It still worked, but it wasn't quite right. None of the players had more experience with the system than I did, so no one noticed.

After the game ended, Jeremy suggested I check out Mini6, which is a cut-down version of the WEG d6 system. I may do that. The SW fan book has, as I said above, too much information. There are a lot of helpful explanations and examples given, and it's got all kinds of reference information. But it's all over the place. The game rules are scattered here and there, you'll read a section on character skills then there's a sample adventure, then back to game mechanics, then fluff about the SW universe, then more game mechanics, then another sample adventure, then...

Anyway, long story short, I'll try to put together another session or three of Star Wars in the coming months. It was a lot of fun.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Does it make the game more fun?

 As a DM, especially one who likes to toy with the game and make it my own, I constantly ask myself this question. If I'm going to add a new class or race, switch from race-as-class to race-and-class (or back again), if I'm going to reskin everything to make it feel like Asian fantasy or Star Wars or whatever, even if I'm just adding in some new monsters, the question that's always on my mind is:

Does this make the game more fun? 

And the question has more than one answer. Who's fun will the change enhance? Whose will it detract from?

In my current state of Treasures, Serpents and Ruins, I added Dragonborn and Changelings (Tiefling/Aasimar) because I started my West Marches game in 5E and those races were popular with my players. I'm not overly fond of either one, but removing them would make the game less fun for my players. So I made simple 1E/BX/BECMI style versions of those races.

Yesterday, a new player came to my game. She thought she'd play a Druid. But the stats she rolled didn't have a high enough Con score (a requirement for Druids in my game). In order to let her have her character which she would have fun playing, I let her change the score to the minimum needed. Problem solved, she had a great time.

The switch from 5E back to Classic (with heavy house ruling) was necessary for ME to have more fun with the game. Yeah, I lost a few players. But the ones that stuck around, and the new players that joined, are having a blast. And I am, too. I'm a lot more confident running the game, and prep for the game is much easier as well.

If a change to the rules, the systems, or the procedures of gaming make the game more fun for one or more participants, and don't significantly reduce the fun for other participants, then that's a good change to make. Even if it doesn't enhance the fun, if it makes things easier for some participants without reducing anyone else's fun, it's probably a good change.

Yes, "fun" is subjective, impossible to quantify and define in a satisfying manner. Yes, what seems fun now may seem less fun in the future. If the "fun" is decreasing over time, that 's just a sign to either go back to the way it was before, or else try something new again.

If you're thinking of making changes to your game, of course you should ask yourself "Is this necessary?"  If the answer is yes, keep going. But don't give up on the idea just because the answer is no. Also ask yourself next if it makes the game more fun. Only if the answer to both is no should you abandon the idea.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Because no one was asking for it...

I made a thing. A gaming jokey thing. Y'all love/hate the woman yelling at cat meme just like me, right? Well, wouldn't you like to have one with the cat as DM?

Blank one included so you can make your own. I made these using and submitted it there, but if you want to DIY or use another meme generator, the blank is available.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Making the Cut -- Monster Selection

I'm just about done adding monsters (stats and descriptions) to my big list for TSR-East.

Going through some of the books, especially the original OA, there are quite a few monsters of a similar type -- small, humanoid spirits dwelling on the fringes of society, and kept happy through offerings by the common folk. The Bajang, Nat, P'oh, and Shan Sao are all fairly similar. Sure, there are differences in MO and in abilities. But I don't think I need this many Asian versions of the Fair Folk. I've got plenty of other monsters. Two of these four is probably enough. Now I need to decide which two...

Being based primarily on the BX/BECMI monster lists, I have djinn and efreet. While mostly associated with Arabian Nights/Al Qadim, if you read the original version of Aladdin, it does take place in China, not Baghdad. And then I thought, why not add the Marid and Dao from MMII? But then decided not to. I can always use them if I want, but they don't need to be iconic members of the lineup.

As mentioned in my last post, I repurposed the rust monster for the Korean legendary bulgasari. That's not the only monster. A few I'd cut, like the harpy and minotaur, got put back in, but as the (again Korean) inmyeonjo [human-face bird] and yakman (not Korean), respectively. And the Korean bulgae (fire-dog, an eclipse explaining monster in the myths) gave hellhounds stats a new purpose.

Right now, I've got 348 stat blocks in the document or being prepared for insertion. I guess I should add two more to get it to an even 350. Maybe the Marid and Dao will make it after all, or one or two of the creatures from the Creature Catalog that almost got chosen.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Tale of Three Bulgasari

So I spent a bit of time refreshing myself on Korean mythical creatures. Most are pretty much the same as Chinese/Japanese ones, just with different names.

One that came up today (I went looking for it, actually, and learned something new) is the Bulgasari (also spelled Pulgasari depending on your Romanization system).

Now, in modern Korean, bulgasari 불가사리 means starfish. Just the aquatic animal.

But there was also a North Korean giant monster movie commissioned by Kim Jong-il in 1985 called Pulgasari (same spelling in Hangeul as the starfish). I was thinking I'd read up on the NorKo kaiju to include it in my game.

But then I discovered there is a mythical creature called the bulgasari 불가살이. Same pronunciation, but different spelling (and different Chinese characters if you look them up). This one means undying beast.

I found this wonderful little blog that stopped updating after only a few months. It tells of the mythical creature. It looks like the baku or shirokinukatsukami -- a bear's body covered in scales, an elephant-like head, a cow's tail, and tiger paws. It was immortal and ate metal.

Well, immortal is no fun for D&D, but eating metal? Guess how I'm reskinning the rust monster for TSR-East!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

What does a GM Guide Need?

I've completed my "players book" for Treasures, Serpents, and Ruins - East (and I really need a new name, unless I want to release regular TSR which is just another vanilla D&D retroclone which no one wants or needs...or just call this TSR when I release it). It's 32 pages with absolutely no fluff. I figure with fluff (class descriptions, descriptions of how to make a character, examples of play) it will be in the 42 to 48 page range. For my current purposes, this is enough.

Now I'm putting together a monster book. I've got my monsters from BECMI (minus some that don't seem to fit, modified others - chimera and griffons are part tiger instead of part lion, for example). I've got monsters from Chanbara. I've got monsters from Flying Swordsmen. I've got monsters from OA (minus the overlap among these three sources). I've got monsters that I wanted to add to Chanbara but didn't for space concerns. Not sure how many of this last group I'll actually add, because it's already an awful lot of monsters! BECMI has the Gargantua template, but I'll probably at least want to add a Kaiju template as well. And for eventual release, I'll want to add some introductory text to explain the entries, hit bonuses, calculating XP awards for modified monsters, saving throws, etc.

While I edit together the monster book I'm thinking of what goes in the GM's Guide.

And I had the realization today that I'm a lot like Gygax back at the beginning of the hobby. OD&D didn't have a lot of explanations or contextualization of the rules, because Gygax knew his audience. They were tabletop wargamers like him. They could contextualize just fine. It was only once D&D started to spread out beyond the wargamer market that things like the Basic Sets and AD&D became necessary to spell all this stuff out.

And I'm in a similar situation. I doubt anyone who's purchased Chanbara wasn't already an experienced gamer. Likewise, anyone who would purchase TSR-East from me is also likely to be an experienced gamer. They've got the context. Do I really need to spell it all out for them?

Sure, it can give some insight into how I run my games, and how I expect the moving parts to work together. But if I released a bare-bones GM's Guide, would it be a problem? Do I need to tell you how to create a dungeon or a wilderness? How to prepare interesting NPCs for encounters? Or do I just need to give you the systems, algorithms, and processes you need to run the game all on your own?

Bare Bones: 
Running the Game:
Exploration Turns
  • movement
  • searching/detection
  • adjudicating traps/hazards
  • encounters
  • reaction table
  • morale
  • interactions
  • chases/evasions
  • adjudicating special abilities/spells/etc.
  • combat round sequence
  • initiative
  • morale checks
  • adjudicating special attacks/spells/etc.
  • death and dying
  • healing
Wandering Monster Tables (dungeon/wilderness)
Hirelings and Specialists
Strongholds for High Level Characters
  • coins
  • gems/jewelry/special
  • magic items 
That's about all that's really needed, right? I could add more, of course, but that's IMO the bare minimum needed. Anything I'm forgetting that's absolutely vital? Anything above you think I could safely leave out and assume the players will just import systems/procedures from D&D?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Beyond the Secret Door - Rolling Protocols

So I've been in a drawn out conversation with Alexis of The Tao about whether or not all DM rolls should be in the open or not. The most recent exchange in the comments of my previous post.

One of the original examples I gave of why sometimes it's better for the game to keep some rolls secret is in the case of secret doors in an old school game.

The way I see it, there's a better choice analysis/trade off in old school D&D. Searching takes time, 1 Turn per 10' searched. And every Turn (or two Turns, depending on the rules used) the DM makes a wandering monster check. So every time players make a choice to search an area for secret doors is them gambling on facing the next low payoff random encounter.

Random encounters provide some monster XP, but rarely have any treasure worth scooping up. And they risk losing hit points, spells, flasks of oil, potions, magic item charges, etc. to deal with.

So that's the situation. Players suspect an area might (or even must) have a secret door. Do they want to spend time searching for it, possibly failing, and risk more wandering monsters? Or do they want to just move on to the next area? If they can see the results of the search roll (d20+ style player Perception skill rolls, or old school style DM rolls made in the open) they have less uncertainty. If they roll well but find nothing, the question is answered. If they roll poorly, they are in the dark. By keeping the roll secret, the players are always in the dark if no door is found, and the choice remains on the table.

Alexis pointed out that the DM rolling in secret was functionally identical to the DM rolling in advance to see if the secret door would even be found. And if so, why wouldn't the DM save themselves some effort and roll in advance, and if negative, not even draw/stock/create the contents beyond the door?

Now, I have been formulating ideas in my head for the greater question - should some rolls be kept secret from the players? But Alexis wanted this specific question addressed. And when he repeated the question in the comments yesterday, he actually gave me the answer I was looking for.

He further specified a situation in which a dungeon would be visited once and then forgotten (like in a lot of modern adventure path gaming). And I have to say, in that specific situation, he's not wrong.

For example, back in October/November of 2007 (or maybe it was 2006, after I got married but before my first son was born and we were still living in Japan, pretty sure it was 2007 though), I intended to run Ravenloft as a one-shot. It turned into a 3 or 4 shot. Before running it, to speed things along, I made a time chart and rolled all the random encounters and their reaction rolls in advance. Partly this was because according to the module, at certain times, Strahd will be aware of the PCs and attack or send minions to attack. But I also wanted to just save a bit of time in the session.

This resulted in a few interesting encounters. For one, I'd rolled spectres, but friendly reactions! And when that encounter came up, the party were resting for the night in the chapel (which they incorrectly thought was still hallowed ground and safe). Thinking on the spot, it's the chapel, the middle of the night, spectres, but not hostile. It was a ghostly Black Mass being celebrated. Creeped the players out, built up the proper Gothic mood, but also allowed them to avoid what could have been an adventure ending encounter if it had devolved into combat.

I mention that to point out that I'm not against the idea of the DM making some rolls in advance. There's a time and place for that.

But back to the secret door thing. In my answer to Alexis, I pointed out to him that in my current West Marches campaign (actually also true for my play-by-post megadungeon game on RPOL), players often decide to return to partially explored dungeons. And as players come and go, and characters die and get replaced, it's not always the same party exploring.

In a game like mine, players knowing there definitely ISN'T a secret door at a certain location becomes a form of metagaming. But if the players themselves aren't sure, then their characters are also unsure. And they remain with the trade-off of searching for the secret door and risking wandering monsters, or not.

Now, it should go without saying that whatever is behind the door shouldn't be vital to the success or failure of the adventure. If the only way to get to the BBEG or rescue the prisoners or escape the fiendish Bond villain deathtrap is to find the secret door, don't roll. If the players search, they find it.

But if the secret door is just a shortcut from A to B, or has some extra loot or nonessential but helpful clues or strangeness that would just make for a cool moment, whether they find the door or not is irrelevant. It's an Easter Egg. In that case, why should the roll be in the open? Perceived fairness of the DM is the only reason why someone would argue that it should.

I'd argue that DM fairness will be known by other things than by whether the results of some rolls are kept secret or not.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Skill Resolution

End of semester grading and some personal stuff have taken up a lot of my time. So not much blogging lately. And no real time to put together my final response to Alexis on why it's good to have some results of rolls secret from the players. It'll come eventually.

In the meantime, Jeremy was wanting to try a different game tonight -- Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, but everyone was busy or not enthused. No offense intended to the game designer, who is a cool dude. I, at least, am feeling mentally drained from wading through the research papers of ESL learners and didn't feel like trying to learn a new system tonight.

Jeremy shared a Questing Beast video review of SS&SS, and he mentioned that there is a "background" option to let you flesh out the three character classes more. Of course 5E also has that. And maybe some other game Jeremy was pushing recently (or he just bolted that on from SS&SS into something else maybe).

It got me thinking about how skills have been handled over the years. OD&D through the RC has set abilities for some classes (dwarf detection, elf secret door finding, halfling hiding) that is usually X on d6, where the default is either "can't do it" or 1 in 6 chance of success. Then there are Thieves with their % skill system completely unlike any other. And later, other things not covered by the rules were usually suggested to be done by a roll under an appropriate ability score (on a d20, 2d8, 3d6, 2d12, or whatever). With the exception of Thief skills that improved every level, these skills also didn't change over time (unless you found some way to raise/lower ability scores).

Of course, the ideal of unified mechanics (a bad idea for many games IMO) in 3E meant that skills needed to be handled with the same swinginess of combat, that flat d20 distribution plus modifiers. This was, IMO, a bad move. Unless you really focused your character build (ability score boosts, feats, magic items), your skill use was really unreliable. Especially since the DCs for skill checks tended to go up along with your skill levels.

But all this thinking (on my bus ride home this evening) reminded me of something I've been wanting to dust off and implement for TSR and TSR-East. AD&D's Secondary Skills table.
It seems, from the Questing Beast video review, that SS&SS does something similar to this, although a bit more free-form. You get to pick a background and whatever it is, if you're trying something related to that background, you succeed (or get a good chance to succeed on a roll).

When I was a kid, looking at AD&D for the first time, I thought this Secondary Skills system was too generic. I wanted discrete skills that could be applied, with defined mechanics for how to use them. After all, BECMI demi-humans and Thieves had that, in different ways.

But these days, I think the freedom to just negotiate what your character can do with the DM based on a descriptor like this is a good way to handle these things. We kind of did that when we were kids anyway without having a chart to roll on. It was often impromptu, and something that we just made up about our characters on the spot if it ever came up.

I had a Fighter named Falcon, and somewhere along the way his father's profession became important. I said he was a blacksmith. No reason, I just thought it sounded cool to have a blacksmith for a dad. From that point forward, Falcon was assumed to know a thing or two about smithing, including weapon/armor repair.

I really like that, and I think it's a much simpler way to add some flavor to the characters in an RPG than having to pour over skill lists and micromanage skill points or whatever. Complete 180 from when I was young.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Next Year's Project

My West Marches game is going well. I plan to continue it. And I've hinted a few times before about an "East Marches" game. I'm going to try and get this out sometime next year.

I've got the map. I've got an outline structure for writing up the campaign in a way that should be intelligible to anyone other than me (my West Marches notes are pretty sparse, because I only need enough written down to jog my memory of what the encounter, mysterious location, or lair is supposed to be about).

Of course, the map has 748 hexes (with six basic terrain types), and I've got 120 "locations" (in five types) marked on it. And there are eight zones of progressing difficulty.

So to make this happen, I need to have four to six wandering monster tables for each difficulty zone (one for each terrain type in that zone). I need to detail 120 locations that can be discovered/visited. I need to come up with hooks and rumors that will drive exploration. I need more monsters.

I plan to make this fairly generic "old school" but primarily for Chanbara. So I'll use Chanbara monsters, and Flying Swordsmen monsters (that aren't already in Chanbara), and probably 1E OA monsters that aren't in either of those games. And some monsters from BX/BECMI (lots of normal and giant animals, giant insects, and general monsters that might as well be in an Asian fantasy setting as a European one). I'll probably need to include  full stats for the monsters for DM convenience.

Oh yeah, and I'll need to write up the "home base" including several Lieges for Chanbara (or just as patron NPCs for other system games). 

So this will be a pretty big book, actually. I figure the difficulty zones should allow for some overlap, and take characters up to at least "name level" if not higher.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Role Playing, Metagaming, and Differing Opinions

Interesting video on metagaming. I recommend that you skip the first 45 seconds of cheesy acting and just get to the topic.
First up, Luke gives his definition of role playing. It seems to me that he puts a lot of emphasis on the amateur thespian aspect of role playing. That's fine. Good to know where he's coming from. I tend to disagree. That is one way of role playing. But besides getting into the head of a fictional personage, role playing can also simply be acting out the assigned functional role within the adventuring party (by race/class chosen). He mentions the stereotypes (barbarians smash, rogues stab...shouldn't this be sneak?, wizards cast fireball), but to me his tone seems a bit dismissive of this functional level of role playing.

Anyway, then we get his definition of metagaming. Using any knowledge the player has instead of knowledge that the character has available.

I have no quibbles with this definition. However, it makes metagaming impossible to avoid. Unless the DM and players have sat down and discussed for hours in minute detail every experience the character has had, every story they've ever heard, etc. how can we really know what the character knows aside from the limited information given by the DM when setting scenes?

Yes, there are ways to roll the dice to see what a character knows. But is the player or the DM tracking the results of each of these rolls? Some may. Most don't, in my experience. So it will be inevitable that a player will need to use some knowledge that they possess that their character doesn't from time to time.

Around the 3:19 mark, he starts talking about Perception checks to find a secret door. If the player rolls it, and rolls low, the player knows there could still be a secret door there. Asking another character to check is a form of metagaming, because if you had rolled high and failed, you'd be confident that you don't need another PC to check as well. [Relevant to the yet unfinished discussion on secret or open die rolls.]

At 6:40, he begins his discussion of whether metagaming is good or bad. First he gives the extreme views: any metagaming at all completely ruins the game, or meh, metagame away.

After saying metagaming everything is fine if the DM/group is good with that, it violates the concept of role playing. Here, I'll disagree. From what I've read, Gygax and Arneson didn't really care one way or the other how "in character" the players were in their original Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns. And clever thinking by the player was something to be rewarded. I could be interpreting what I read wrong, but the amateur thespianism that Luke seems to believe is the heart and soul of role playing was not part of the hobby in the beginning. So when he claims that metagaming is not the way the game was intended to be played, I think he's off. A certain level of metagaming is expected.

Now, Luke goes on to say that he does think some metagaming is acceptable (around the 8:45 mark). And funnily enough, I think he's got it backwards here, too. He says that players knowing that encounters are balanced for them is a good thing, because otherwise they'll run in fear of unknowns. My West Marches group has been a lot more cautious since they met a wight that killed one PC and drained another before they took it down. And in my opinion, this has enhanced the game for them. They need to approach encounters carefully, see what they can learn, and flee if necessary. And they're not completely afraid of everything. Recently, groups have charged in to an intellect devourer lair in one session, and stuck around to defeat an aboleth after they learned it wasn't just a trio of nixies in the river. It hasn't made them afraid, it's made them cautious, which is a good thing.

At 9:25 we get his next acceptable form of metagaming, which is letting PCs adventure together when they probably shouldn't. Like the paladin and assassin in the same group. Now, AD&D didn't allow this to happen. By the book, the paladin would refuse to join the group unless the assassin was left behind. Modern games ease up on the restrictions, meaning this form of metagaming is only necessary in these editions. I'll actually agree with Luke on this point, though. I never did like the overly restrictive AD&D alignment interaction rules. If an assassin's talents are useful, and a paladin's talents are useful, why not have them team up? Their interactions about how to approach the adventure will hopefully liven things up rather than be a drag.

Next point -- why not form a large party? Why not hire hirelings and retainers to help increase the party size? And all I think is, that's smart play, and not at all metagaming. The fact that there is strength in numbers is something any character in any sort of world should realize. And in old school play, it's just what's expected.

From around the 10:50 point, he gives his solution to the metagaming problem. First, pick your battles. Solid advice. Even if we disagree about what is good metagaming and what is bad metagaming, knowing when to stop it and when to let it slide is good advice. Because, as I said above, it's nearly impossible to avoid metagaming by the strictest definition because it's impossible for us to know everything that our character knows.

We also agree that we need to remember that this is a game. And while he thinks "having fun" is paramount, I think a big part of the fun of D&D is figuring out a challenge presented in an encounter. And often that involves a clever idea which is a form of metagaming. This could be assessing a tactical situation in combat, or finding a non-standard use of a spell or magic item, or whatever. It's highly likely that the player is considering the situation as a whole in these instances, not through the lens of their character's in-game knowledge and intelligence.

Finally, I like his proposed solution to the metagaming problem. No matter where you fall on the "metagaming is bad" spectrum, having a conversation with the players and letting them try to justify the metagaming is a good idea. And since it's just a game, letting the player have the final decision about whether to metagame or not is probably a good thing, too.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Gaming the System and New Editions

I read this article today. It starts out with a dude gaming the system in Jeopardy, and moves on to the general implications of gaming systems. It was nothing really new, but interesting nonetheless. Especially how it matches up with D&D in particular but RPGs in general, and the desire to push out new editions every few years to "clean up the system" (and make more money).

Spells in D&D are a prime example of this, as they're one of the easiest ways for players to think up creative uses to solve problems laterally. OD&D spells were so vaguely defined that DMs and players had a lot of latitude. And players would discover that certain spells allowed "exploits" in encounters. Some exploits later became codified in the rules. Casting light or darkness at a creature's eyes blinds them being explicitly allowed in BECMI, is an example of this in practice.

Others were seen as a problem and got nerfed. Haste originally only sped up movement rates (apparently) but then in later editions also gave more attacks. But since this was seen as too powerful, in AD&D it caused a penalty every time it was cast (aging the recipients). Although later, in 3E, the penalty was removed. In 5E, a weaker penalty (exhaustion) was put into it.

Sleep is another example. In OD&D/Classic, it affects a certain number of hit dice of creatures, no saving throw. In AD&D, if affects a variable number of creatures by their hit dice (on average less than in OD&D/Classic), but still no saving throw. 3E returns it to a set roll for hit dice affected, but lowers the roll (from 2d8 to 2d4) AND it gives them a saving throw when they're first affected. In 5E, the spell affects a certain number of hit points of creatures (and with the inflation of hit points in this edition, this severely reduces the number of creatures affected), and gives them a saving throw each round! Sleep is the go-to spell in Classic D&D. It's the "get out of this encounter free" spell. In 5E, they made the spell so weak it's not even worth considering. Might as well just crank out another damage dealing cantrip...

I digress with this discussion of spells, though. They make a good example of how the people in charge of shaping each edition try to use it to eliminate the "loopholes" and "exploits" that, like the linked article above talks about, are technically allowed by the rules, but seem to be "unfair" to players when they see them used.

But players trying to exploit the system, in some senses, is actually a form of good play. Sure, the CoDzilla and Pun-Pun of 3E were examples of bad exploitation. I'm sure 5E has its own (although they explicitly took steps to try and limit this). Not all exploits are created equal, though. I think what determines the perception of the exploit is heavily dependent on what's seen as the goal of play.

If exploration is viewed as the main purpose of the game, and treasure acquired is the measure of success (old school style), then any exploit that is used to avoid a risky combat (a sleep spell, grabbing treasure then teleporting away, a save-or-die spell that takes out the dragon in one round) is a good thing! It's only when combat is prioritized, and "fair" combat is considered to be the hit point slog-fest (like 5E does) that these exploits are seen as unfair.

One last point: companies putting out new editions of their games every however many years is also a sort of exploit. They claim to be fixing the system to remove these loopholes and end the unfair exploits. But there are always loopholes and unfair exploits. They type just changes. The companies are exploiting our desires for "shiny and new" and our fears of being left out of the group to keep their profits rolling in. Not blaming them. They need to keep making money if they want to stay in business. Just something we should keep reminding ourselves of when the splatbooks hit the fan.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Oft Ignored Encumbrance

It's time for me to start paying better attention to encumbrance rules. Ever since the beginnings of my D&D play with the Basic Set, I've more often than not eyeballed or flat out ignored encumbrance rules.

Time for that to change. Yes, keeping track of the weight of every arrow carried is tedious. But there is a purpose.

Several sessions ago, the party discovered another magic shield. Now, in my TSR house rules, I have small and large shields (+1 and +2 to AC, respectively, and yes, if you don't remember I use ascending AC). The shield was in the Caves of Chaos, written with Basic D&D rules, where a shield is a shield is a shield. The players asked if it was large or small, and since the rules assumed a +1 shield bonus, I said a small one.

The players discussed. If a magical small shield +1 has the same mechanical benefit of a non-magical large shield, what's the point?

And at the time, I didn't think of the fact that magic armor is MUCH lighter. That allows you to move faster or carry more treasure. I really just remembered that rule this morning.

But the magic armor being lighter only makes a difference if the DM is enforcing movement rates based on encumbrance. Something I've NEVER been in the habit of doing. I've almost always gone with the simple abstraction presented in the Basic Book of basing it by the armor type worn. And I'm also not always the best at making sure the characters are hindered by carrying capacity limits.

It's one of those areas of the game which is "not fun" but the logistical challenges of extracting wealth from subterranean ruins is worth the hassle. In one play-by-post game I'm running, I do have the players worry about encumbrance and logistics, and it's worth the effort. Pool of Radiance is also forcing me to deal with encumbrance.

Time for me to step up my game.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Game Theory: Dice Complicate Things

This is a follow up post to this discussion of why some rolls should remain secret from the players, and this brief summary of information states in Game Theory.

Again, I'm far from an expert in Game Theory. If I make some mistakes, forgive me. The following is based on my understanding of the theory.

Game Theory uses mathematical models to explain, and hopefully predict, human decision making. It sets up scenarios and tries to use logic, modeling of all permutations, and probability to create these models, and many of the models show optimal game states called equilibria. A state of game equilibrium is the optimal moves for one or both players in the game.

As mentioned in the post on information in games, sometimes one or both players have imperfect or incomplete information about the game state, and so a Call to Nature (or assigning probabilities of any possible move happening) is made.

Now, Game Theory isn't designed to predict outcomes of things like common games. It's really about creating hypothetical situations to model real world decisions. So from what I've read, the Call to Nature is used as infrequently as possible. It's possible, though, if I keep studying GT, that more advanced models do include constant randomness in the game model. If so, I haven't gotten there yet.

Rolling dice is a Call to Nature. But in a GT model, it's a theoretical position discussing the possible outcomes or permutations of the model based on the probabilities assigned.

In an RPG, the dice are a Call to Nature, but they also are also an unknown. Until the dice are rolled, we can know the probability of a result, but no player or game master knows what the outcome will be until the dice are rolled.

In a pure diceless story-game, there are no Calls to Nature. Players can enjoy a state of perfect information. Every move made by every player is in the open.

In an RPG involving random number generation (by dice, card, or what have you), the game state may be perfect if the game master has no secret information that the players do not. Usually, though, the GM will know some things about the game state that the players don't, resulting in an Asymmetric state of information.

The dice, though, are the great equalizer. Players and GMs alike are in a state of Imperfect information. In a way, the dice could be thought of as a player in the game as well as the GM and players. And no one knows what moves the Call to Nature Player will make. You can't predict their strategy (unless you game with loaded dice). You can know the probability of any particular throw, but the result will always be a surprise.

How this affects things, and why keeping some of these throws secret will have to wait for another post, though. I'm out of time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Not sure what to make of this

Sorry to get political on a gaming blog, but I need to address this.

Earlier in the year I put out the Chanbara Characters paper minis set on my DrivethruRPG store, Hidden Treasure Books. Now frequent blog readers will know that I'm terrible at self-promotion. It's my Midwesterner background, maybe, or my introversion. If people want what I'm offering, great! I'm happy to provide it. But I don't go posting about them all over the place, all the time here, or in barely semi-relevant comments on others' blogs or forums. If they become relevant, I might bring them up.

Needless to say, I don't check for feedback or reviews as often as I should. The paper minis line has only gotten one review anyway (positive), and all of the feedback about Chanbara was here, aside from one comment on Drivethru asking about the print version when only the PDF was available.

I did check the other day, and found that a guy named David B had posted this:

Customer avatar
David B June 10, 2019 12:33 am Asia/Tokyo
Why did you not give them Japanese skin tones or did you not want to lose the opportunity for some virtue signalling 
I posted a response there, but probably this David character will never check back to see it, since I missed his comment for five months. So David B, if you're reading this and would like to further explain yourself, please feel free to chime in in the comments. 

My response to this was to laugh, honestly. I was pretty up front about the creation process of the paper minis here on the blog. So I'm guessing this guy isn't a regular reader. I'm a pretty poor artist. I never really developed my talent in art. I don't try to create the art myself. I take public domain images and modify them using GIMP. Sometimes that's just cropping out all the background to leave the character. Sometimes, if it's a black and white original, I colorize it. Sometimes I modify them to add weapons/armor or modify the pose a bit. Mostly though, it's selecting the figure I want from the original and deleting the rest. 

Now, with my Basic Adventurers set (see how I did that! Product placement!), I did go to some effort to make sure there were equal male and female figures, and that there were a variety of skin tones depicted. Many years ago, a Filipino friend I was gaming with took a look at my minis and asked me, in all seriousness, "Why are they all white?" And my only answer was that, being white myself, and thinking of Medieval fantasy as typically European-coded, they were all white. Then I stared painting more variety on my minis.
It doesn't hurt me in any way to be more inclusive. And if customers appreciate having some choices for fantasy characters that look more like they do (or a chance to use a figure that very much does NOT look like they do), great! Win-win, right?

With the Chanbara set, though, I was collecting Japanese public domain art, and some vintage photographs (also public domain). I didn't need to colorize anything, as they were already in color. The vintage photos were already colorized. 

The range of skin tones found in the Chanbara Characters set are the range of skin colors depicted by actual Japanese artists of the 17th through 19th centuries. In other words, most of these figures are of Japanese subjects as painted by actual Japanese artists. The rest are photos of Japanese people (colorized by someone other than me).
And this David B person, since his location lists him as Asia/Tokyo and assuming that he really is posting from somewhere in Asia, should realize that East Asian peoples actually do have quite the range of skin tones. I have students here in Korea who are just as pasty white as my Celtic/Germanic-heritage white ass (one who's even paler!) and some who are so dark they could almost pass for African-heritage. And that's not counting the fake tan "ko-gyaru" in Japan. I'm talking about the soccer club boys or track girls who spent a lot of time out in the sun. 

So I'm stumped as to why David B, if he is actually in Asia and not just using a VPN to make it look that way, wouldn't know this.

I'm also wondering why he thinks I'm "virtue signalling" by this. Makes me think he's just another one of those incel alt-right asshats on the internet, pissed off that someone, somewhere, is doing things without the express purpose of pissing people off. Or even worse, that he's crypto-fascist and doing his own virtue-signalling to his Aryan brothers on one of the most obscure items for sale on DriveThru. Like I've literally sold 4 copies of this thing. That's all. 
Now that sounds pretty bad. And I don't like to make wild assumptions about people like this. So David B, if you are reading, please prove me wrong in the comments. I'd love to know what your motivation was for posting that comment. Were you actually offended in some way? Are you (needlessly) defending Asian people from some perceived slight? Are you virtue signalling to the Regressive Right? Or did you just feel ripped off because you're one of those 4 people who spent your buck-fifty on this thing and weren't satisfied with it?

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Information in Game Theory

This is the first post in a series responding to Alexis's comments on my Secret Roll post. I don't have time to write up a full reply today, so I'll just get this out there as a grounding for my thoughts.

Let me also preface this by saying I'm nowhere near an expert in Game Theory. I've done some light reading on the subject. My notes here come from reviewing Rosenthal's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Game Theory (2011).

There are four basic states of information in Game Theory: perfect, imperfect, incomplete, and asymmetric.

Perfect Information: all players are aware of all moves made by all other players up to that point of the game. For example, in chess, you can see the board, all the pieces, and every move you have made and every move the opponent has made is done openly.

Imperfect Information: One or more players know the possible moves that could be made, but don't know the exact move that has been made until after they make their move. Rock-Paper-Scissors is an example. You know what move you will make. You know possible moves your opponent may make. You won't know the outcome until the moves have been made already.

Incomplete Information: One or more players has imperfect information and also cannot be sure what sort of player they are up against, what strategies they favor, or the value the other player(s) place on outcomes. Poker is a good example of this, as a good poker player will try to hide their preferred strategies to more effectively bluff.

Asymmetric Information: One player has perfect information while the other player(s) has incomplete information. This sounds to me a lot like the typical DM/player distinction.

Rosenthal suggests that imperfect information games are the most interesting theoretically. "[T]he truly interesting games involving human interaction are games of imperfect information" (p. 84). However, game theorists can turn games of incomplete/asymmetric information into games of imperfect information by using a "call to Nature" or assigning a probability to each possible unknown move or unknown strategy choice in these situations.

It seems like Alexis is saying D&D works best when it's an imperfect information game. Players know the moves that they and the DM have made, but don't know the outcome until the dice are rolled. But once they are rolled, we're in a situation of perfect information until the dice need to be rolled again.

What I'm suggesting is that occasionally, incomplete or asymmetric information situations, where the player is forced to make a Call to Nature to determine the best strategy, can be a good thing.

More later.

Rosenthal, E.C. (2011). The complete idiot's guide to game theory: The fascinating math behind decision-making. New York: Alpha Books.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Secret Roll

I know there are a lot of bloggers and blog readers who favor rolling all the dice in the open. The original West Marches campaign, which I'm not faithful to 100%, also was for open rolls by the DM.

Now, I've come to believe that in combat, yes, the rolls should be open. Fair combat rolls, observed by everyone, lead to fewer complaints when things go pear-shaped.

But sometimes, rolling in secret as a DM for non-combat tasks is a good thing.

Searching for secret doors is a trade-off. There's not guaranteed to be a secret door where you're searching. And even if there is, you're not guaranteed to find it due to the roll. And each search takes a Turn, so the more searching done, the more chances of wandering monster encounters that suck up resources. In this case, if the roll is in the open and a result proves that there is no secret door (1-2 on a d6 for an Elf, 1 on d6 for anyone else, with no door found), the party knows to stop expending resources. But if the result is a mystery, they don't know if there is no door, or if the dice just weren't on their side (and chances are they weren't).

And now, they have to make a choice. Risk a wandering monster check to roll again? Or move on and potentially miss some treasure or a shortcut through the dungeon.

Now, I can understand the rationalization in the above situation that a successful roll where there is no door means the party gets definitive evidence that there is no door. So rolling in the open isn't so bad for that. But the suspense and measuring of odds of keeping that roll secret is more interesting to me.

Similarly, Thief skills are rolls that I, having learned from Mentzer's rules where he advises such, think the DM should roll in secret. Again, it adds to the suspense at the game table. And it's a situation where, as DM, if you were going to fudge the roll anyway, you might as well just tell the player straight up that conditions are such that they succeed automatically.

I mean, no one complains when a DM tells the Thief player, "Sorry, there just aren't any shadows to hide in here." Or if a door is barred rather than locked, so it can't be picked (although a clever Thief can work around a barred door too...). If the situation is such that failure is guaranteed, I don't see many players complaining. So if success is guaranteed, the DM should just tell the player that without bothering to make a roll. 

Just like players, the DM shouldn't have to roll unless the outcome is uncertain. And while certain rolls like monsters' attacks, damage, and saving throws most definitely should be rolled in the open, occasionally there are still times when it is better for the game experience for the DM to keep the roll secret from the players.

IMO, YMMV, all that jazz.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

A New Take on Demi-Human Level Limits

This is an idea I've had before, but a quick search of my blog makes me think I've never posted about it before.

So we all know that AD&D had some pretty severe level limits on demi-humans, which Unearthed Arcana and then 2E relaxed. Classic D&D is a bit more generous than AD&D 1E, but you're limited to the race-as-class system. 3E got rid of them altogether and they've remained gone through 5E.

You're probably thinking now, "Thank you Captain Obvious."

I still haven't reverted my Treasures, Serpents, and Ruins house rules to race-as-class (which I'm still considering, but less strongly right now). So my races have limited options for what class they can take, and level limits a la AD&D.

But there's this idea that keeps floating around in my head: What if the level limits only apply to multiclassed characters? 

So TSR classes go up to level 15. Humans have no limits in any classes. Demi-humans do. And unlike AD&D, the highest any demi-human is allowed to go (with the right race/class combination) is level 12. This is to honor the fact that the BX/BECMI Dwarf class maxes out at 12th level. AD&D, as you probably know, allowed most demi-humans unlimited advancement as Thieves.

Well, my idea above would be to allow single-classed demi-humans to reach pinnacles of  power just like a human. It's only when they multi-class that they need to worry about the level limits.

Of course, then some people will ask, why play a human then, if they can't multiclass, and you could get the demi-human abilities along with unlimited advancement as a single-class character?

Well, I do give humans two advantages: dual classing, and Survivability which allows them to roll for hit points with advantage (roll twice, take the higher number). So far, the hit point thing has been a key selling point for the race.

Anyway, it's just an idea that's been rolling around in my head. Not sure if I will implement it or not. We'll see.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Fey Planet

A while back, I was reading an article about a new exo-planet that was discovered, and scientists think that it may be in the Goldilocks Zone, but tidally locked. That got me to thinking what conditions on a planet like that would be.

The planet orbits its star, and rotates perpendicular to the axis of rotation. In other words, it would appear from a fixed point in space to roll along its revolution. If you are on the planet, one side constantly faces the star, and the other side constantly faces away. Habitable zones, if there were any, would be along the equator. The day side would mostly be too hot, and the night side too cold.

So any life on the planet would likely be in the perpetual twilight/dawn of the equatorial zone.

And THAT sounds a lot like the Realm of Faerie as described by Poul Anderson in Three Hearts and Three Lions.

And THAT sounds like a great setting for a sword-and-planet style game!

The fey kingdoms inhabit the Twilight Zone (OK, probably need a better name than that to prevent endless Rod Serling impersonations). Sunward, the land gets drier and hotter as it gets brighter. The Sun Lands are an inhospitable desert, with a molten sea rumored at the center. Only the fiercest and toughest of desert-monsters can inhabit even the fringes of this land. Nightward, the land gets sparser and colder as it gets darker. The Night Lands are inhospitable glaciers, with a massive ice mountain rumored at the center. Only the fiercest of arctic-monsters can inhabit even the fringes of this land.

There is no night and day. Time is kept by the moons (this planet should have more than one) and the procession of the stars through the sky. "Days" or hours would be kept by the rising of certain constellations in the sky.

Sounds like a cool setting for either straight D&D fantasy, or for a sword-and-planet style mix of tech and magic.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Giving Credit to Robert Fisher

Recently I've been going back to Robert Fisher's old posts on his Classic D&D (or was it OD&D) campaign from many years ago. Reading these was a big part of what got me back into older editions of D&D.

Looking at them again now, I realized that my "big idea" for energy drain the other day was actually just Robert's idea from a dozen years ago or so.

So thanks (again) for the idea Robert! It obviously stuck with me somewhere in the back of my mind.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Why are stirges gluttonous?

Having dealt with stirges in some games recently as both player and DM, and in Pool of Radiance (still playing it!), I was wondering today why they will suck you dry if allowed

Mosquitoes don't do that. Ticks definitly bloat themselves, but detach before they pop themselves. I assume leeches do as well. So should stirges.

Idea: once a stirge has drained more than double its hit points, it detaches and flees to spawn.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Gold Box: Pool of Radiance

I've known for a while that the old TSR Gold Box DOS game Pool of Radiance was available for play online. I finally checked it out last night, and played around with it a bit more today.

I played it, and the first of the Dragonlance Gold Box games in college. Back then, we just messed around with it, except for one friend who really got into it and played through all three Dragonlance games (there were three, IIRC).

I remember having fun with the character creation and customization more than anything. Yes, it looks so primitive by today's standards. Even by the standards of 1988 (when the first game was published) I think it looks a bit blah. But I was thrilled that I could remake my own D&D characters in the game. Of course, we quickly realized that you could just max out each character's stats, and why not? The game is tough enough as it is.

Playing it now, I'm finding my way back into it, but there are a few things I'm probably missing by not checking out the manual. Like I once combat starts, monsters can lose morale and flee or surrender, but there's no way for my characters to do that that I can see. I haven't tried moving "off the board" yet, maybe that would do it.

And I'm thinking of restarting. I realized that a party of six Half-Elf Fighter/Cleric/Magic-Users might be optimal. Slow advancement, but lots of cure light wounds and sleep spells. Maybe one Fighter/Magic-User/Thief, because I'll probably need a thief later on.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Halloween Seasonal Monsters

Wow, that's a generic title! There are tons of monsters in D&D that fit the Halloween season.

But I'm going way back for this one.

The "pumpkin-head" bugbear.

I've got a Jack-o-Lantern monster (from my old Beast of the Week series), but I'm thinking that in my upcoming session of West Marches, I need to throw in some of these guys. Pumpkin-head bugbears. The group has fought regular bugbears before, but I think this time I'll throw in this twist and see what happens.

I don't remember if it was someone's blog, or maybe one of the D&D themed videos I was watching on YouTube, but recently someone was complaining about the overuse of bugbears in modules. Well, slap a pumpkin head on them and I think there's less reason to complain about them appearing so often.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Random Energy Drain thought

Nearly a decade ago (wow!) I suggested an alternate way to handle undead's energy drain (and swords of life stealing etc.) would be to let the PCs keep their level, and all the spells/day, chances to hit, saves, skills that come with it. They just lose the hit die and associated hit points that go with it.

I never did implement that idea.

Now, I've got another idea that is also worth considering. Energy drain doesn't sap levels, but it does sap XP. So a 6th level Fighter that is energy drained drops from however much XP they had to 24,000xp (half way from 5th to 6th) but keeps the hit points, fighting ability, and saves of a 6th level character. It just takes them a lot longer to level up to 7th. Getting level drained again would drop them to 12,000xp, halfway between 4th and 5th. And if they get down to halfway between 1st and 2nd and get energy drained again, they die and rise the next night as undead themselves.

The penalty is pretty big, but retaining all the level abilities would allow them to keep adventuring with their companions. Also, with my rule of "you keep your level when you die and roll up a new PC" it would work better.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Plus Carousing -- Reinforcing XP for Treasure

I really shouldn't be doing this, but I made a hex map for an East Marches exploration game for TSR-East. I'm still not done with the rules (although getting close, since it's pretty much just BX/BECMI stuff beyond the classes/spells, and monsters).

In my current West Marches game, using my TSR rules, there's XP for monsters, XP for exploration, and XP for treasure earned.

In Chanbara, there's XP for gold donated to your liege. The idea, if you haven't checked out Chanbara (and you should, it's pretty cool!), is to reinforce the idea of duty to your lord/organization, which is something that I think makes Asian themed gaming a bit different than the wild-west style of normal D&D.

And I just had this epiphany. Give XP as I do in my normal West Marches game. Explore new hexes? XP. Find interesting locations? XP. Fight monsters and defeat them? XP. Bring back treasure? XP. But also, when the players spend that treasure in the home base on potions and scrolls, enchanting weapons or armor, hirelings and henchmen, magical research, or just blow it on carousing, they ALSO get XP. So getting the loot and spending it gets double of just hoarding it.

Benefit? For the players, they level up faster if they choose to do so. For me as DM, it's easier to tempt them with hints of treasures, and things like bandits/thieves/ninja that steal loot, or rust monsters that destroy treasure, become bigger worries.

Drawbacks? None that I can see. Characters who are hoarding their wealth are likely going to spend it eventually.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

TSR-East spell expansion

Based on previous discussion, I have expanded the spell lists for Treasures, Serpents, and Ruins East.

Actually, the Mudang and Sohei remained as previously posted. The Wushi, however, gained a lot more spells. There were formerly 12 spells at each level (in line with BX/BECMI). Now, levels 1-3 have 16 spells each, and levels 4-5 have 14 spells each. Level 6 remains as it was with 12.

The Xia still has only six spells per level, but since they're based on the Elf class but can advance to 15th level (my maximum for any class), I decided they need to get some 5th level spells after all. So I added six 5th level spells for them.

For the Wushi, I added the needle and scarf spells from Flying Swordsmen, and a few other attack spells, but mainly tried to add more utility magic for them. I came up with one brand new spell which I'm kicking myself for not having thought of years ago. It's called Thousand Li Horse, based on the famous mounts from the Three Kingdoms. It's a 4th level spell that summons a magical steed (yes like the mount and phantom steed spells) but it can carry you 1000 li (300 miles) in one day.

For the Xia, I had to make up two of the six spells for them, since there weren't enough spells existing in AD&D, OA, Flying Swordsmen, or Chanbara at 5th or 6th level that fit their theme (mystical martial artist). I did give them Finger of Death, the reversed Raise Dead (reverse form only) to simulate the dim mak or five fingers of death or whatever high level "poke your opponent and they die" type technique you like. Touch only, of course, unlike the Cleric/Mudang/Sohei version.

The Xia's new spells are Aura of Courage (reverse to Aura of Fear) which gives bonuses to hit/saves to allies (reverse lowers morale and penalizes saves for enemies), and Cheat Death which resurrects (revives from poisoning/petrification/etc) the Xia at the end of the duration if they die while the spell is in effect.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Funhouse and the Tactical Dungeon

I will come out and say it. I'm a fan of funhouse dungeons. Some people just groan. Some people can't suspend their disbelief. Some people feel like it's the DM (or module designer) springing 'gotchas' on them. But I personally love the zany, goofy, and the straight up bizarre in dungeons.

I've been trying to add more of that to the West Marches, especially now that I'm keying zones that are three or four bands of difficulty from the home town. Yes, there are tougher monsters. And there are more monsters per encounter. But the farther you get from town, the crazier I want things to get. It's a fantasy game after all!

I finally figured out what to do with a certain famous dungeon map from an early TSR module. I won't say which since I know a few of the players read this blog. Sorry guys! What I've decided to do is make it a funhouse. But not just any sort of funhouse. Dungeons like Quasqueton have their weirdness, but a lot of mundane as well. The Tomb of Horrors (it'll get placed in the Marches someday, but much farther from town than the areas I'm working on now) is a bunch of puzzles with deadly consequences but pretty much all funhouse style.

What I'm hoping to do is make this dungeon more of a carnival of crazy, a place where the monsters are there to challenge you to strange contests instead of to combat, where "traps" are more like weird fantasy game shows, and where the "special" bizarre encounter is pretty much every room on the map. I am a Mel Brooks DM after all!

The purpose of a funhouse dungeon is, in my estimation, two-fold. One, it lets the DM flex their creative muscles. Not needing to worry about ecology or economy or social tensions frees the DM up to think about what would make the game more fun. Two, it provides a challenge for the PLAYERS, not just for their ability scores, skills, and collected magical spells/items/powers. Sure, players could choose to fight their way through the funhouse, but they're choosing to miss a lot of the cool stuff that way.

I remember many years ago, maybe on the old WotC forums, maybe on Dragonsfoot, people debating funhouse dungeons. There was a consensus among the posters (which makes me think it was more likely WotC forums in the 3E days rather than Dragonsfoot in the early OSR days) that funhouse dungeons, or any sort of encounter that relied on the PLAYER'S creativity or knowledge was bad design. The proponents of immersion in setting and character thought this was the ultimate no-no. How could you say you were role playing if you were solving problems as yourself rather than as your made up persona?

Well, I think they were wrong. There's nothing wrong with letting your personal player knowledge, creativity, and problem solving skills help you out of an encounter in an RPG. If you have a clever or creative idea, and it circumvents an encounter or a die roll, GOOD!

I find it funny that some players* find the idea that I might use my real world knowledge to defeat a Grimtooth style trap without rolling any dice to be "cheating" but will happily use real world knowledge to help them in tactical battle situations. They will happily design a squad of adventurers that execute amazing levels of tactical brilliance against monster combat encounters, even though their characters don't all have a military background -- using their real world knowledge. They may also engage with the rules to such an extent that they are always making "optimal" choices for how to engage the game mechanics -- using their real world knowledge. They make plans to engage in social encounters, manipulate NPCs, and find methods to get what they want through role play -- using their real world knowledge.

Why is it suddenly a bad thing if my crazy idea saves us from having to go toe-to-toe with a gorgon or dragon and likely losing a character or two?

Why is designing a series of encounters where combat should not be the preferred method of resolution a bad thing? It's not "fair" to the players who aren't good at coming up with the sorts of ideas that will get you through the dungeon? Well, is heavy tactical play fair to the player who just isn't good at tactics? Sure, in tactical play everyone gets to roll the dice and fortune plays as big a part as planning. That does even things out. Even with a great tactical plan, you'll fail if the dice screw you over. And thinking of it that way, isn't an outside the box resolution, the kind that is expected for a funhouse dungeon encounter, a superior way to engage with the game? If your tactical expertise is still limited by the chance outcomes of the dice, isn't avoiding the dice through your player smarts the better way to resolve the situation? I think so.

Small squad tactical infiltration dungeons are fun, don't get me wrong. I enjoy that sort of thing, too. But don't dump on the funhouse dungeon. It's challenging different player skills than the tactical assault, but both are challenging the player.

*I was going to say a lot of players, but this was a few people on a message board thread, so I probably should not the vast majority of gamers feel this way, I have only anecdotal evidence that a small but vocal number of gamers felt that way like 10 to 15 years ago.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Of spells and spell lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to expand!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Black Hack Musings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

It's like a mini Christmas!

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

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

I'm not actually using minis in my West Marches game, but if I start, I thought it would be good to have some more female adventuring types. And some of the new sets were Amazons. There were also some Cimmerians that looked cool. So I ordered them. Shipping to Korea was a minimum $35, so I figured what the heck! I got those two, plus some "half-orcs" that look nothing at all like Saruman's uruk-hai from the LotR, nothing at all! Just coincidence! ;) And I saw they have some "fire demons" which again, any resemblance to balrogs, living or dead, is purely coincidental! And another company I've also ordered from before, Caesar, has some lizard man (sorry, lizard folk in these non-gender-specific times) figures as well. Didn't up the shipping cost, so I got them all.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 7, 2019

TSR-East Classes: Yakuza

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

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

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

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

Here's the class:

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

Backstab x3


Backstab x4, Tattoo


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

Save Level:
Death Ray/Poison
Magic Wand
Paralysis/Turn to Stone
Dragon Breath