Sunday, June 23, 2019

Had a good session today

In my West Marches game today, the players really took control and directed the game. And I had more laughs during the session that I've had in a while.

First, they debated following up an old rumor or just trying to explore some blank hexes. They decided to explore, but thought they should go back to town first (they had camped at an abandoned elven tree-fort which they reclaimed last session). Back in town, they got a new rumor which intrigued them. After more discussion, they decided to follow up the old rumor after all.

This brought them back to the Caves of Chaos. They cleared out the "Shunned Cave" (the gray oozes had already been destroyed by a previous party, so it was just the owlbear and some random giant rats to deal with). Because of some wounds, they decided to return to town AGAIN.

Then they returned to the Caves and explored the bugbear cave (which one of the players and his daughter, who didn't come today had partially explored before). They did a bit more exploration, managed to weaken the bugbear forces, and freed some prisoners. Thanks to a random comment from one of the players, the captured orcs in the bugbear prison turned out to be some of the orcs they had ransomed and released in the retaking of the elf stronghold in the last session.

They're hoping to sew division among the mysterious Horned Society. Warduke, first leader of the Caves of Chaos, was slain by a previous party, but a new leader is again trying to organize the caves. They also know there are two other Horned Society leaders, Kelek and Lareth. They're name dropping both to try and get the factions in-fighting.

I really like how this current group of players like to play. Makes running the game so much more entertaining for me.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fantasy Wimmelbilderbucher

Way back in April, Noisms was talking about wimmelbilderbucher, or books with lots of little details that you can pour over to find interesting things, like most Richard Scarry Busytown books, or the Where's Waldo (Wally) series of books. And he was wondering why there aren't fantasy themed books like this for adults.

I don't know. But today I picked up one for kids. Here are some pictures from it (taken with my phone, so not the best quality).
The Cover. Monsterland

The first few spreads introduce and name all of the monsters.

The rest of the book are spreads like these, with certain monsters to find on each page.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Gateway by Frederik Pohl - Campaign Idea

I picked up Gateway, a short sci-fi novel by Frederik Pohl, at the local library. I'm almost finished with it, and I've been thinking of how well it would work as the framework of a sci-fi RPG campaign.

The 100% accurate but completely gives the wrong impression of the book synopsis is: An AI psychiatrist treats a patient's PTSD.

Doesn't sound like a fun campaign, does it? I'd rather not play some sort of PTSD story-game. Instead, I'd take the story framework for how the guy got his PTSD and use that.

So some time in the future, Earth is a wreck. Overpopulation and rampant capitalism have destroyed the environment. The ultra-rich live in domed cities and have "full medical" which includes all sorts of treatments, organ replacements, etc. The VAST majority of humans subsist. Our hero grows up in the Nebraska food mines. They mine the shale oil and use it as food to grow bio-film which is then processed into food. But luck strikes and he wins the lottery.

Some time ago (in the story), colonists on Venus found an alien spacecraft. The guy who finds it manages to fly it, and it takes him to an asteroid orbiting the sun perpendicular to the plane of the celestial equator, which has been hollowed out with tunnels half a million years ago by aliens called the Heechee. This asteroid also has a thousand or so of their ships docked there.

It's possible to get the Heechee craft to fly, and they go FTL. But it's impossible to know where you're going. It flies on auto-pilot, there and back. Prospectors roll the dice, select a random destination, and head out to the stars. If they get lucky, they find a Heechee ruin and can bring back artifacts. No one knows what they are or what they do, but the Corporation will pay thousands or even millions of dollars for discoveries. Our hero wins the lottery, becomes a prospector, things he witnesses warp his already warped brain (the hellish life in the food mines already sent him to a year of psychotherapy as a teen). And now, as a rich successful former prospector, he lives a luxurious life of wine, women, and psychotherapy in the dome of NYC.

Great concept for a campaign. Stars Without Number would be a great system for this. I've never played Traveller, but it might work well, too, from what I've read about it. Something heavy and crunchy like StarFinder or Palladium could work too, of course, but if the campaign went all out with destinations that could have been safe half a million years ago but now are inside a red giant star or whatever, PC replacements might often be necessary.

I'd also want to increase the chances of finding artifacts, but reduce the reward amounts for finding them. As a story, the rarity of the Heechee artifacts is needed for dramatic tension. The protagonist spends a lot of time on Gateway (the asteroid launching area) fretting over whether he should actually go out on a mission or not. For a game, having players make PCs, go on a mission or two and find nothing, then get a dangerous planet or hazardous system and they just die would not be very fun.

It's mainly the idea of setting out on an alien craft to a random unknown destination that I like. I can imagine a d% table of system types, and then let the players roll the dice to see where they end up. Once they get there, they'd need to examine the system, find any celestial bodies with ruins, then search them for artifacts. Or if there are planets with life, or systems with unusual stars (pulsars, black holes, former supernovas, etc.) they could go for "science bonus" money instead of or in addition to artifact bounties.

Could be fun! But I'm still working on Caverns & Cowboys, so this idea will have to sit on the back burner for a while.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Caverns & Cowboys

This is an idea for a game I've had for a long time now. And apparently I discussed it mostly on G+ instead of here on the blog. I did a search of the posts here, and only found a few mentions of it.

So what is Caverns & Cowboys? Not hard to guess. It's a Western themed game, but also a fantasy dungeon crawling game. Or that was the original idea. I'd thought maybe run it with a combination of Go Fer Yer Gun (or later Tall Tales RPG) mixed with Labyrinth Lord/Classic D&D.

I even made this map as a bit of a trial at a Wild West setting that isn't part of our real world. Did I share this map before? Maybe. I know I shared it on G+ a few years ago (the image file shows I made it in 2017).
Anyway, I let the idea go for along time. Now I'm back on it. Only not using a D&D style OSR game.

A few weeks ago, I started adapting the Star Frontiers rules for a fantasy Western.

Why Star Frontiers? Well, for one thing it's a skill/level based system rather than a class/level based one. The skill system allows more flexibility to create characters that cover lots of different archetypes.

In SF, and in C&C (this iteration of it anyway), you gain a handful of XP each game session, and a few more when you complete an adventure. Then you can spend them to improve your character's base ability scores and skill levels. You can add new skills easily just by spending a few XP if you want, or you can save up to level up your existing skills.

SF has Military, Technological, and Psycho-Social skill areas. I have Interaction, Combat, and Magic skill areas. Yes, instead of Vancian magic, I'm going with magic as a skill. The spells are your subskills, and you have a limited number of spell points to use to cast spells. Gaining levels in the magic skills increases the potency of the spells but not the cost. There aren't really many flashy spells like lightning bolt or fireball, though. I tried to go with 19th century thematic magic types.

Interaction skills run the gamut from cowboy to lawman to doctor to engineer to criminal. I've got the most skills here (although Combat skills have quite a few as well). And while SF makes Military skills the cheapest to learn/advance, I've made Interaction skills the cheapest.

I've also converted a lot of monsters. I took the list from Holmes Basic. I removed a few (for IP or thematic reasons), and added some more (for thematic reasons).

I just need to get the rules for awarding XP and for placing treasure/monetary rewards written up, and I'll be ready to start play testing it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Traps: Are We Thinking About Them Wrong?

Recent discussion on Alexis's Tao of D&D blog seemed to relate to my recent post defending the labyrinthine dungeon layout used in many RPGs and video games. Alexis was writing about the treasure. Why is the treasure guarded in the dungeon? In his experience, his players, when they acquire vast treasures themselves, don't start constructing a trap/monster filled labyrinth in order to keep their funds safe.

I'll quote my response to Alexis and his response to me in full:

Dennis Laffey said...
I'm not sure if you read my recent post on my blog where I criticize a YouTuber for saying dungeons are stupid or not, but this post seems similar to it. The YouTuber was of the opinion that most dungeons should be the place where the BBEG keeps all his stuff. I disagree. And with regards to your point here, so does history.

Most royal treasuries, from my limited historical knowledge of the subject, were not secreted away in underground vaults guarded by traps and soldiers day and night.

And most secreted underground treasure hoards were not "someone's stuff." At least, not the stuff of anyone still alive. The treasures were grave goods interred with some king or other dignitary. Or were lost or buried in some natural disaster.

For most dungeons, the monsters really shouldn't have been placed specifically as guardians. The treasure was there, and the monsters decided that was a good place to move in after the people who buried the treasure there (or lost it) moved on.

Of course, why all the traps? That's still only logical in tombs, as they would be installed to deter grave robbers. In a lost city that was buried by an earthquake or swallowed by the sea but later belched back out again, all the traps don't really make sense.
Alexis Smolensk said...
Yes, why all the traps?

I've had player characters set up lairs for themselves. They do not fill these lairs with traps. Why do the monsters?
Why do the monsters build so many traps in the dungeons?

My question is actually, do monsters build the traps?

In the real world, where are traps encountered? Tombs such as the Egyptian pyramids and other pharaonic tombs sometimes had them. The tomb of Chinese emperor Qin (where the terra cotta army is) is suspected to have more treasures in it protected by traps. These days, though, we don't usually bury people with grave goods, so there's not much need for traps.

We do have other sorts of traps, though. Modern security systems include alarms and cameras (which are trap adjacent) and things like auto-locking doors or gates that close upon an alarm being triggered (which I would consider as actual traps). But these sorts of traps aren't everywhere. You see them in banks, high end jewelry stores, wealthy peoples' houses, and other places where there are things of value. Cameras and alarms have become much more common, though. Electrified fencing could also be seen as a form of trap, I suppose, keeping people out of (or in) a certain area.

Also, in war, we use land mines, and sometimes guerilla forces use things like tiger traps (think Viet Cong) or the like. In general, we have decided that people don't deserve to be peppered with poison darts or threatened with decapitating sweeping blades for trying to knock off a jewelry store, so these sorts of traps that threaten death and injury seem to be limited to war zones.

According to the random dungeon placement algorithm in BX/BECMI D&D, one in six rooms not containing a planned encounter should be a trap. That's a lot of traps. I know, because I used that for my megadungeon.

I also have been using it for hexes in my West Marches game. But in a wilderness, a trap doesn't often make sense. Sure, there are a few locations that are basically a big trap. But for the most part, I interpret "trap" as a hazard. So pools of parasite infected water, lava flows, quicksand, rock fall hazards, and the like.

I think a lot of dungeons should be designed this way, too. We don't need to be limited in our imagination to pit traps and darts and the like (although that's fine, especially since these sorts of traps are pulpy fun). But "trap" can also mean just a hazard. The natural disaster that ruined the ancient city caused the walls, roof, or ceiling to be weak in this area, and may collapse. Crystals in the cave wall may reflect your lantern light back in your eyes and blind you. A room's acoustics may be such that monsters in another area will hear you and prepare an ambush.

Thinking outside the box, even a set of natural caves can easily have "traps" and yes, I'd allow a Thief or Dwarf to use their detect/disarm abilities to bypass the hazards, if they roll well.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Chanbara Paper Player Character minis

Right now, you can get a set of 44 Chanbara themed adventurers from my Fold-Up Paper Models series. It's available on DriveThruRPG at my Hidden Treasure Books store.

The ebook contains 4 each of the playable types in the game. And I don't just mean 4 for each class. No, it's 4 for each profile. You get Abarenbo, Kensei, Samurai, Onmyoji, Sohei, Kagemusha, Ninja, Soryo, , and Yamabushi.

And all for the low low price of $1.50.

Edit: ever have one of those nights when you're starting to doze off while writing and something nonsensical makes it out? Yeah, had one of those when writing this post last night. :D Trust me, the paper minis were completed before I started nodding off. They're fine! Sleepy me just thought it would be a good idea to write a post to promote them before going to bed.

To the Mountain's Heart

To the Mountain's Heart
Being an Excerpt from the Journal of Jack Summerisle, Paladin and Green Knight of the Eldeen Reaches, concerning his adventures with his companions various and sundry as they seek the Heart of the Mountain, moving from the Hollow World of Pellucidar back towards the Overworld of Eberron, in a quest to awaken the Heart of the Mountain and defeat the Ghoul King.

We pressed on into the bowels of the Temple, going down many flights of stairs, and passing under the surface. It boggles the mind to think that we are in truth headed up when we do so. We have been in the hidden world of Pellucidar for so long now seeking this very temple.

Within the temple, we first encountered a chamber with a large altar made of piled stone. Three guardian creatures, made of stone but resembling the creatures known as dinosaurs here in Pellucidar, greeted us. They asked us to pledge ourselves to always battle the demons. This was an easy pledge for all of us to make, as we have already aligned ourselves to that cause.

The next chamber contained two giant suits of armor and two strange masks. The masks spoke to us, asking us to leave behind all worldly possessions. We refused, and the masks and armor animated, then attacked. We battled hard, and destroyed the spirits animating the items. Unfortunately in the battle, my armor was disintegrated by the touch of one of the giant suits. Fortunately, after the battle, the very same suit of winged armor that I was battling changed its size down to fit my body, and I now wear it. I am struggling to learn how to operate the wings, but I get the feeling that I will have the hang of it soon.

The third chamber contained another alter and three stone bird creatures. They demanded that we each impart some of our vital life force and experiences, to become more like children in order to pass. Again, we refused, and battle took place. We were victorious.

The fourth chamber was ornate, with numerous artistic wall carvings and inscriptions. There were five strange vessels on or near the altar, making strange noises. While some companions were stunned by the sounds from the vases, Pelar the Blade-Singer poured sand in one to mute its insane mumblings. I inspected the altar and found that a second pledge, this time against the Far Realm, was needed. I of course quickly pledged, as the Greensinger sect is already dedicated to just that. Other companions followed suit, although it took much effort to get Jade to commit, as he was entranced by the mumblings.

As we take a quick break to rest up and catch our breath, Yuv, with his legendary lore, informed us that beyond the next door should be the final altar. Could it also be the home of the mountains? We shall see.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Another Defense of the Dungeon in D&D

Another video I watched from Shadiversity on Youtube is discussing why the standard, labyrinthine dungeon of gaming is unrealistic and impractical. Go ahead and watch it if you like.

Now, I don't disagree with any of the reasoning Shad puts forth for why a typical dungeon in RPGs and video games is unrealistic. Not necessarily in the order presented in the video, just the order I remembered them:

1. It's poor architectural design. Good design should make it easy to get from place to place. Dungeons are designed to force you to go through choke-points.
2. There's often a secret passage for the "boss" that you won't find until you've reached the inner sanctum, but if you could find it early would save you a lot of trouble.
3. It's poor defensive strategy to split your defenses among a lot of separate areas when the goal is to protect a centralized treasure vault.
4. Carving out an underground tunnel system is a lot of work, making it larger than necessary is wasted effort.

All very good points. If your goal is to make your game more "realistic" to improve suspension of disbelief, and these sorts of things are things that you can't suspend your disbelief of, then yes, super logically laid out fortresses with easy ways to get straight to the end, and concentrated defenses where they will do the most good are the way to go.

And Shad does mention several times that he understands that dungeons are this way in order to facilitate game play. Good for him. And his idea towards the end of designing a rational, realistic fortress and letting players design their own plan of attack like a heist or caper movie plot can be fun, but I wouldn't want this all the time.

I've already given a pretty good reason why an underground labyrinth might logically exist a few years ago, so I'll let that post stand as a rebuttal to #4. If you don't want to click the link, I compare a map of the Mark Twain Cave, created by nature, to a typical dungeon layout.

For the idea that it's a poor defensive strategy to spread out your defenders, well, yes, maybe. But in most fantasy worlds, there will be wizards casting fireballs and ice storms and whatnot. Put ALL the monsters in one big room, and that handful of area affect spells the wizard has are suddenly a LOT more powerful. It's much better to get the twenty orcs, three ogres, two owlbears AND the blue dragon in one fireball than to have to decide to use it on only one of these groups of monsters.

If you were a BBEG, would you really want to put all your monsters/soldiers in one area where more than half could be wiped out by one fireball? In the real world, would you station all of your soldiers where they could be targeted by one artillery shell or guided missile? Of course not. Grouping your forces may be a strong defense against a conventional attack with swords, bows and spears, but not against area-effect firepower.

When it comes to the secret passage that allows quick access to the end, I think it's actually a good thing. If players grumble because they didn't find it early on, well, that's either because they didn't look for it, looked in the wrong place, or the dice just weren't on their side this time. Finding and taking advantage of that secret passage is good game play. And he mentions computer games like Skyrim don't allow you to find it at all. That's on the game designers, not a fault of the dungeon itself.

Finally, we come to the first point on architectural design. Now, the occasional dungeon with a logical architectural design can be a good thing. A nice change of pace. I was thinking about making a dragon's lair dungeon with a long wide corridor from the entrance straight to the dragon's den for the foolhardy adventurers to rush to their doom. Side passages would be for servants, food storage, etc. I wouldn't want every dungeon to be this way, though.

I think Shad is missing out on a few key concepts besides just game-play factors. And yes, that is probably the main reason for the multi-room, labyrinthine dungeon layout. Finding the treasure is supposed to be the challenge of the game. But there are a few concepts that Shad seems to believe are important that may not be, or at least aren't always important. And I think he hints at one of the biggest reasons for a dungeon to be the way it usually is, but doesn't quite make the leap to realize its importance.

First of all, Shad puts a premium on realism. Understandable, as that's the whole point of his YouTube channel. Do research on historical arms and armor, then point out how fiction/film/games get it wrong. For me, anyway, I think that too much realism is just as shattering to the fiction of the RPG session as too little. Making everything realistic is impossible. We need game mechanics to elide features of reality that are just too difficult or unwieldy to use in a game.

I remember getting turned off of the PS2 game Metal Gear Solid 3 because of its attempts at "realism" that made things LESS realistic. In that game, when you were wounded, instead of the elegant but ridiculously unrealistic method of eating food to cure your wounds (tried and true in many games), you had to go into your equipment management screens and treat the wound the way a field medic would. Clean it, anesthetize the immediate area, use antiseptic, stitch the wound closed, more antiseptic, and bandaging. Realistic, right? But you could be in the middle of the boss fight, pause the action, perform minor field surgery on yourself, and then restart time and the boss is right where you left him. That threw me enough to ruin my suspension of disbelief, and then the hassle of needing to complete five or six steps when in previous games I had only one to solve the same problem made the game unfun and I never finished it. (Pretty sure I've posted about this before here on the blog, sorry for the repeat.)

The point is, trying to become more realistic in one area made the game even less realistic in another area.So there needs to be a proper balance between realism and elegance of mechanics.

Secondly, Shad seems to be around 30-ish, so I'd guess he probably started RPGs in the 3E era, or maybe 2E AD&D/White Wolf era. He seems to take a lot of things that were popular back then as a given for game design. He mentions several times that to him, a "dungeon" should be a villain's base and why would a villain want to have to go through the ogre's chamber and around the flaming flying dagger trap every time he wants to nip out for a coffee or a pizza?

My question for Shad is, why do you assume that every dungeon is some master villain's lair? Some dungeons are, yes. And they would be better off to at least conform somewhat to Shad's cries for realism in dungeon layout. But not every dungeon is a lair. Some are just caverns. Some are tombs. Some are treasure vaults. And some...well, we'll get to that in a moment. Not every dungeon should have a BBEG lurking at the end. Not every dungeon needs to be a livable space. That's not written anywhere in any D&D book I've ever read. In fact, several of them are explicit that most dungeons are NOT.

Finally, here's the part where Shad almost gets it, but not quite. He mentions, around the 12:15 mark, that illogical dungeons are almost set up as if it were designed as a challenge. That someone wants the adventurers to get the treasure, but only if they prove their worth. But why would someone do that? It's illogical! [Setting aside the fact that in the real world, that's exactly what DMs are doing!]

Enter the realm of the dungeon as mythic underground. Modern fantasy obviously had its roots in mythology. Tolkien, Anderson, Howard, Moorecock, Dunsany, Morris... Lots of early fantasy writers drew on mythology and transformed it. There are plenty of blogs out there about using the dungeon as a sort of otherworldly zone where mortals can challenge themselves and prove their heroic worth. And yes, it can be seen as a handwave to explain away things like why there are no orc babies or what do the dragons eat when there are no adventurers to snack on. But it also gives the game a sort of resonance and weight that can be very impressive and immersive for players.

If the dungeon is a mythical underworld, rather than part of the normal, real, rational world, then Shad's idea is exactly right. The dungeons exist, put there by the gods or the Cosmic Forces of Law and Chaos, or whatever explicitly as a challenge to would be heroes. Are you strong enough to overcome these monsters? Clever enough to avoid falling victim to the traps? Wise enough to navigate the maze of passages without depleting your resources? If so, then congratulations! You win the treasure!

As Shad mentions, any sane evil overlord would want to protect their wealth, not offer it up as a challenge for the worthy. But we've already established that Shad's preconception of a dungeon as primarily a BBEG lair is already clouding his judgment on this issue, and that's why he fails to make the cognitive leap to the mythic underworld concept.

If the dungeon is the setting for a Campbellian hero-journey, then of course it should be set out this way. Every choice of pathways is a lady-or-tiger dilemma. Every encounter is there to challenge one or more aspects of your character. And yes, it is purposefully created to be difficult but not impossible to succeed.

If, like Shad posits, all of your dungeons follow the strictures of good architecture, all are bases for some BBEG or another, and all are defended in the most logical way, you can never achieve this sort of mythic resonance in your sessions.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Movie Review - Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I went and saw this today. Here's what I thought about it.

First of all, was there cursing in the movie? Yes, a fair amount, including from the pre-teen daughter character. Parents be warned. [Because 'curse' is in my blog title, I get hits from parents wondering how much swearing is in the movie.]

I wasn't so impressed with Godzilla (2014). Kong: Skull Island (2017) was pretty fun, though. I was hoping this movie would be more in the vein of Kong, but instead it was more like Godzilla.

The plot revolving around the human characters was stupid, pointless, and terrible. Of course, you don't go to these kinds of movies for the human drama. But they wasted a lot of time on it for no payoff at the end. The main family's drama was cliche and the resolution was forced. Dr. Serizawa's plot was minimal. And they didn't give him an eye patch, again. What's up with that, Watanabe Ken? If Samuel L. Jackson can rock the eye patch in the MCU, you could do it too! Zhang Ziyi's character(s) are hinted at having a plot arc, maybe in the next movie. [And I didn't even recognize that it was her...I had such a crush on her 20 years ago circa Crouching Tiger/House of Flying Daggers.]

The monster plot? It's actually better. Dead simple, but better than what they came up with for the humans. But we don't get to see enough of it. And that's what we come to these movies for! Pacific Rim gave us lots of giant robots punching giant monsters. And monsters punching back. Here? We get lots of quick cuts to fights and long cuts away to the humans. I'd definitely have edited this thing differently. Or was the CGI too expensive? There's something to be said about guys in big rubber suits...

Anyway, the fact that it did have a big monster tag-team battle at the end made it better than Godzilla (2014), but a lot worse than Kong: Skull Island.

I'd advise you to wait for streaming/rental service to watch it. The critics are right, it's not quite a dud, but I left the movie theater not really feeling excited or satisfied by it.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Response to Esper the Bard's 5E Class Rankings

I mentioned a few posts ago that this YouTube video rating the 5E classes was worthy of a response. While I've moved away from 5E as a DM, I still enjoy it as a player, so I think it's worth my time to consider what Esper thinks, why he thinks it, and point out where I agree or disagree with him.

First of all, here's the link to his video. Feel free to watch it now and come back here, or read this first and then watch his video (or alternate between the two!) as you like.

My first impression of his video was one of mild annoyance. First off, he has his tiers of ranking based on Guns n Roses songs which is fair enough. But his decision of where each class goes on that tier system is vague. He has a rating system with five criteria for evaluation. But he NEVER explains what these are. The first sign of a weak taxonomy system or ranking system is a failure to explain HOW you're classifying or rating whatever it is.

Now, granted, anything like this sort of video will, 99% of the time, boil down to post hoc justifications for the presenter's subjective opinions. But a carefully defined rubric of evaluation gives justifications for the subjective judgments and helps the audience with their own evaluations of the material.

I had to go looking at some of Esper's other videos to find his criteria spelled out in his ranking undead video. I didn't watch the whole video, just long enough to get his criteria.

So before I dive into the meat of the Character Class ranking video, I want to discuss this rubric a bit.

Mechanics apparently means a variety of combat options. Note that the description gives the highly subjective descriptors "interesting" and "fun." The undead video gives a picture of a camel vs a beholder as examples of low and high mechanics. Ignoring the fact that camels, as real world animals, are a low level threat at best while beholders are among the most powerful creatures in the game, I get what he's saying here. He thinks a simple attack roll/damage roll is boring, while having a dozen options to choose from each round is interesting.

Style is completely subjective. There's no way around this. Appearance and tone? His example pictures are a giff (I think that's the name - a Napoleonic monocle wearing hippo man from Starjammer) as low style and a roaring balor demon as high style. So goofy and unusual is lame, "metal" is cool. Got it.

Roleplaying is one that makes sense for rating monsters -- how high is the potential that you could have social interaction with the monster? His pictures are an ochre jelly and a lammasu. Obviously, you're going to fail to convince the ochre jelly that 'you're actually the telephone man come to fix the line so please let us into the treasure vault' with a Persuasion check or any amount of role play at the table. As a rating for character classes, though, I'm still mystified about what this is actually supposed to measure.

Lore seems to be a rating of not just how much total description of the monster there is, but its precedents in real world myth and legend. His example pictures are a carrion crawler (low lore) and a medusa (high lore). Since 2E went all out on monster lore for just about everything, it's hard for me to figure out if he's comparing in-game lore or real-world lore for monsters, or if again it's just a smokescreen for "I like how this monster is described, but not that one." And again, for character classes, I'm not sure how it translates exactly or how it's different from Style or Roleplaying.

Flexibility would seem to be a mechanical evaluation of the monster/class and how different you can make them within the rules. He gives pictures of a poisonous snake as low flexibility, and two elves (one a mage, one a warrior) as high flexibility. But I'm still a bit baffled when it comes to character classes. How is this different from Mechanics? Personally, I think flexibility has a lot to do with player creativity and ingenuity. I've seen plenty of "flexible" spellcasters who just spam fireballs and magic missiles all day long. And we've all had to deal with the player who thinks a cleric should be a walking cure wounds dispenser. Anyway, Esper seems to equate "lots of options to choose from on the character sheet" with flexibility...which is pretty much the same as his Mechanics category above.

So, we really have two categories for rating the classes, according to Esper:
  • Do the game rules give this class lots of options to choose from? (Mechanics/Flexibility) 
  • Do I think it's cool to play this class? (Style, Roleplaying, Lore)
So, on to his ranking.

The only bottom tier (E) option according to Esper, is the Fighter/Champion. And basically it's there because he sees this class option as a "long, long road filled with basic attacks" and nothing else. Well, if as a player of a Fighter/Champion you don't get creative, sure, that's possible. But a creative player will be looking at the rules (there are more things to do in combat in 5E, I mentioned the whole long list of allowed actions in my post the other day), not to mention equipment that could be used to make encounters more interesting. Sure, any other class could do those things, too, but since they have all these built in options to choose from, how often will they take advantage of them? When it comes to style, Esper sees this class as a blank slate...which is bad somehow. I guess being able to style the class any way you want is too much work for a 5E player these days? I shouldn't be snide. But really, he says there's no lore attached. I'm looking at just about all of human mythology/legendry/history and seeing all sorts of inspirations. I guess if it didn't come from Gygax as filtered through 3E and then 5E, it doesn't count.

Now, granted, the Champion is fairly plain and simple. It's not "sexy" but that's kind of the point. The Fighter throughout D&D history has not been a "sexy" class. But it's still one of the most common because it's effective and fun.

The next tier up (D) again has one subclass, the Barbarian/Berserker. His evaluation is that mechanically it has a few more options than the Fighter/Champion, but will still just be looking to make lots of normal attacks each round. He gives it high points for style (because bulging muscles are cool, I guess?) but says there's no lore or built in RP hooks for the class. So again, apparently we have our difference of Style with Roleplay/Lore. Style means "I think the art looks cool" while RP/Lore means WotC gave me my character concept for me (and I like what they gave me, but this part is in parenthesis because it only becomes obvious later).

Moving up to the next tier (C) we get a few: Fighter/Battlemaster, Barbarian/Totem Warrior, Fighter/Eldritch Knight, and Ranger/Hunter

The Battlemaster is as lame as the Champion, but gets more mechanical tricks. It apparently is visually more appealing (one step higher than Champion on Style) I guess because the art is more dynamic than the motionless 3E Fighter pictures used with the Champion section? And having the ability to define your character with mechanics to back it up is apparently what Roleplay/Lore is about in this case, instead of just role playing to define your character.

The Totem Warrior is better than the Berserker because...the rules for the totems are better than the rules for berserking? And apparently having these semi-magical abilities gives you more to base your RP on than being a warrior who goes crazy in battle.

The Eldritch Knight, he says, could have been in B tier because 1/3 wizard, but being 2/3 fighter is lame. Because all it does is fight. (Um, if that's the case, why are 2 of 5 criteria based solely on your ability to fight?)

To be clear, he's talking about the "revised Ranger" variant which he praises, so by the book Rangers are probably down with the Berserker in D tier. He gives the Hunter good points for combat and exploration mechanics, but says the RP/Lore is limited. How? I'm still not sure.

Anyway, Esper says that all of the above classes/subclasses lack for mechanical flexibility and/or RP hooks hard coded into the class.

Moving up to B tier, we get the Monk (all subclasses), Ranger/Beastmaster, Paladin (all subclasses), Rogue (Assassin & Thief).

Monks have lots of unique mechanics that he likes. Loves, even. But unfortunately, they are low on RP potential. Because he's never seen anyone create a more interesting Monk background than the default given by the book. So here's one of my biggest criticisms of this video. Monks are apparently sucky roleplay options because of how the book suggests they are played. But moving forward, classes like the Paladin or Bard get high marks for being played the way the books says you should play them.

Beastmasters are sucky Rangers, but having an animal is cool and metal. So bonus points.

Paladins are cool because they have a hard-coded RP story in the class (which is why Monks suck).

Rogue, at least the Assassin and Thief subclasses, get high ranks for style (cool dark edgy art), and real world lore is cool (from Han Solo to Jack Sparrow)...although real world lore for lower ranked classes was ignored. Apparently not having spells is enough to limit these edgy scoundrels to B tier because...

Tier A, the top, the best of the best! Here we have the Rogue/Arcane Trickster, Warlock, Druid, Wizard, Sorcerer, Cleric, and at the top the BARD!

This is getting long, and you can basically boil this down to A tier (aside from Rogue/Arcane Trickster who are at the bottom of the tier) are full spellcaster classes. That's it, folks. According to this video, spellcasters are where it's at! Even though he seems to again waffle on the "real world lore/game lore" thing. And is inconsistent about what constitutes good hard-coded RP hooks and what doesn't.

Probably no surprise that a guy who calls himself Esper the Bard puts the Bard class at the top of the chart.

So what can we learn from this? If you want to actually rate classes, come up with some sort of well-defined criteria for the ratings and explain your ranking system in detail. Offer up arguments to defend your rating with specific examples or some sort of data, rather than "I just like this."

OR, from the beginning, just tell us straight up, these are the classes ranked by my personal preference of what/how to play and what seems cool to me, and give up the pretense of some sort of objective ranking system.

Trying to mush the two together leads to disappointment in your audience.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Inspiration from an unusual source

This was spammed in my comments five times. It would actually make a good hook for a modern supernatural/horror/investigation type RPG scenario. (Actual email address changed so they don't still benefit from their spam.)

Are you tired of being human, having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes, Do you want to have power and influence over others, To be charming and desirable, To have wealth, health, without delaying in a good human posture and becoming an immortal? If yes, these your chance. It's a world of vampire where life get easier,We have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich, You will assured long life and prosperity, You shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness, Stronger and also very fast, You will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk, This is an opportunity to have the human vampire virus to perform in a good posture. If you are interested contact us on

6/13/2019 update
And another vampire wannabe spammed my comments, including this post!  These vampires have better grammar, but worse posture. Select your vampire plan carefully.

Vampires is not at all like in the movies or books. Sure, I understand. You are young you have the whole world open to you. You can be anything that you choose if you apply yourself and try hard to work toward that goal. But being a Vampire is not what it seems like. It’s a life full of good, and amazing things. We are as human as you are.. It’s not what you are that counts, But how you choose to be. Do you want a life full of interesting things? Do you want to have power and influence over others? To be charming and desirable? To have wealth, health, and longevity? contact the Vampires Lord on his Email:

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Action Economy is a Bad Concept

I was watching a video on YouTube where a guy was evaluating the 5E classes from worst to best, as he saw them. I may watch it again and write down some comments/criticisms of it, as he has some rather vague criteria and his reasoning for why certain classes are good is also cited as a reason why at least one class is bad in his opinion. I won't link the video yet. If I do critique it, of course I'll link it then.

As I was watching it, I was trying to figure out how he was rating each class. And really, it boils down to three things: how versatile is the class, how "cool" did he find it to role play, and how well did it take advantage of the "action economy."

The concept of the action economy is a relatively new one in D&D, but it's been around in games like the Palladium system for a long time. If you pretty much stick to OSR blogs/forums, you may not be familiar with the term. The action economy is the idea that characters can take X actions in a turn, and if they don't take full advantage of these actions each round in combat, they are letting the side down by being inefficient.

In 5E, on your turn each round you can move your speed, perform one "action" and possibly perform one "bonus action." I think you can get one "free" object interaction as part of the move and/or attack, like drawing a weapon or opening a door. And during other players' or the monsters' turns, you can get one "reaction" per round.

5E of course has a predefined list of possible "actions" one can take. And yes, scare quotes because you can't just do any old action you can think of. Well, you can, but whatever it is it will fit into one of the predefined categories of action in the book. That list is: Attack, Cast a Spell, Dash, Disengage, Dodge, Help, Hide, Ready, Search, Use an Object. (Higher level warrior types get an ability called Extra Attack which lets them make more than one attack when they take the Attack action but it counts as just one "action" for the action economy.)

Bonus actions are not to my knowledge ever listed out precisely, because they are basically exceptions to the normal rule. If a class ability, racial ability, or spell grants you a bonus action you can take it. Otherwise, you get no bonus action. Monks, for example, can always make an unarmed strike as a bonus action IF they take the Attack action. At 2nd level, Rogues can always choose to use a bonus action to Hide, Disengage, or Dash. Clerics who cast Spiritual Weapon use a bonus action to make the hammer attack.

Reactions take the place of "attacks of opportunity" in 3E. And they aren't always just attacks, although some are. Many are class abilities that let you avoid or reduce damage (Monks can deflect arrows, Rogues can reduce damage from one attack, Wizards and Sorcerers can cast the shield spell).

In good old D&D/AD&D, you don't have to worry about all this. Everyone can move and do one thing on their turn. Much simpler. And in a fight, not every character in the party was expected to do something each round.

The action economy does add a layer of tactical complexity that many people enjoy. I understand its appeal. The problem is that the action economy seems to be one of the main considerations people like the guy who made the video I referenced above have for rating both the classes of 5E but also how people play the game.

If you don't take full advantage of the action economy, if you don't take a class that makes use of bonus actions and reactions, if you squander your turn, it's seen as letting down the side. Not pulling your weight. Being lame and useless. Totally sucking at the game.

It all comes back around to the fault WotC had when they created the game. It's all about combat.

The by the book primary source of XP awards are for combat. Most character abilities are designed to help you in combat. Most spells are designed to help you in combat. The action economy is designed to help you optimize combat.

Computer RPGs are all about combat because it's still difficult to program into a game the sort of freedom you get with a tabletop RPG. Why WotC decided to limit their design of 5E to mimicking a computer RPG is beyond me. I mean, shouldn't they have learned their lesson from doing that with 4E?

OK, I feel like I"m starting to ramble. It's getting late. Let me wrap this up.

The concept of an action economy is fine in and of itself. It does add a level of tactical variety to the game, which many people like. And yes, it can be fun to take advantage of it. But what started as a tool to add variety and fun has become a yardstick or straight jacket on the game. Too many people are looking at and evaluating game mechanics and more importantly game play based primarily on how well a class or build takes advantage of the action economy. Bonus actions are not seen as a bonus, they're seen as a necessity. And the attitude I'm seeing more and more is that if your character isn't taking advantage of bonus actions and reactions as often as possible, you did something wrong or are playing wrong.

It's valuing system mastery over immersion and creativity, prioritizing optimal combat efficiency over playing your character. That's why it's bad for the game.

The Deck of Many Things returns!

Last October, I threw my West Marches players into Castle Ravenloft for fun (they weren't trapped by the mists, they were transported home at the end of the session) and while in it, they found The Deck of Many Things. No one dared use it at that time.

A few sessions later, Dean's paladin was slain. They decided to use the deck, hoping to get wishes to restore him. Two characters pulled cards, and all were bad (a Minor Death attacked then the Sorcerer lost all magic items; the Thief was imprisoned on his first draw). No one else has dared to use the deck since.

Until today.

Two new players (a married couple, I teach English camps with the husband during summer and winter vacations) joined us today. They rolled up a Human  Cleric (the wife) and a Human Berserker (the husband, obviously - and yes, my homebrew "barbarian" is called a Berserker).

They had a few old rumors and I gave them a few new ones. They decided to follow one of the new ones. They found what they were looking for quickly, but weren't able to get it because the medicinal mushrooms grew all around an owlbear's nest. And they were worried that one of the level 1 or level 2 PCs would die. So they went back to town to research options for dealing with owlbears without getting into melee, and possibly capturing it - as a fellow in town is known to pay good money for captured curiosities.

While in town, we mentioned that the Deck had been discovered. And after I mentioned Alexis's post about the Deck from last week, they decided why not? The worst that could happen would be having to roll up a new PC.

So Julian drew 3 cards. He drew Star (+2 to prime requisite, Con in his case), Balance (changing his alignment from Neutral to Chaotic), and Knight (gain a 4th level Fighter henchman...and yes, his character is only 1st level).

Marie also decided to draw 3 cards. She drew Flames (gaining the enmity of a devil or demon...since she's a Cleric she was happy, declaring this "Instant back-story!"), Gem (gaining 20 jewelry or 50 gems, she took the jewelry...which is funny because she rolled the minimum of only 30 gp as starting gold!), and Sun (gain a miscellaneous magic item -- an amulet vs scrying, and 50,000xp!). I decided in this case to ignore the no more than 1 level gain at a time rule as this shot her up to 7th level in one go.

Seeing these results, Don decided to have Phil, his Halfling Ranger, draw as well, but only 2 cards. He got Comet (defeat the next monster you meet and instantly gain 1 level), then Rogue (a henchman turns against you...and while he doesn't yet have a personal henchman, last session, they did hire three retainers to accompany them on their adventure, so one of the two survivors now hates Phil).

They headed out into the Marches again, and the first encounter was with 3 goblins...but who had potentially friendly reactions. Phil didn't want to start a fight, so he asked for a careful wording of the card. It says "Defeat the next monster you meet to gain 1 level." He challenged one of the goblins to rock-scissors-paper, best 2 out of 3. He won the first, the goblin won the second, and he won the third! So he shot up to 3rd level (he was getting close already but it's still a nice boost for him).

Later, they encountered two wights. The wights drained a level from Sir Tom of the Deck (the new henchman), but then Eygwynn used her new 7th level Turn Undead ability to vaporize the two wights. So it all worked out in the end!

Fun stuff, everyone was having a ball, and now I've got some hooks for fun things to throw their way in the future. Julian and Marie are DEFINITELY coming back next session.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Come on, WotC!

I'm sure you've seen this video. It's obviously making the rounds of the Gamosphere.

If Renault Brazil can make an awesome commercial like this, I think you know what to do, WotC. Hollywood's all about the reboot/modernization of old 70's/80's properties right now. Get Hazbro to make a deal with Disney or Time/Warner or someone and make this happen as a big budget feature film! With the current film culture of big budget CGI spectacle and cashing in on Gen X nostalgia, this should be a no-brainer.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

1E OA has a surprising amount of character options

I am making plans to continue my paper miniatures line with characters for Oriental Adventures.

I made lists of all the race and class combinations. And man, the way the Hengeyokai work, I'm going to have to create a LOT of minis to cover every option!

There are 12 or so animals that are the base form of a hengeyokai, and they have normal human, hybrid and animal forms. I figure for marking their position on a battle mat, the hybrid or animal forms are enough.

There are four classes that Hengeyokai can choose, luckily. Only four. And a few animal types must be evil so can't be Shukenja, and a few must be chaotic, so can't be kensei. None must be lawful, so any Hengeyokai can be a Wu Jen. And Bushi have no alignment restrictions.

I usually do male and female versions of each (the animal form will just get one and you can hand wave any sexual dimorphism in the species). So that's 12 regular animals.

Hybrid forms, however, will require:

24 Bushi (12 male, 12 female)
20 Kensei (10 male, 10 female)
18 Shukenja (9 male, 9 female)
24 Wu Jen (12 male, 12 female)

That's an awful lot of hengeyokai. Especially since for many of them I will need to modify a picture of a human with an animal's head to make it work. There are some public domain pictures of Japanese anthropomorphic animals, but not enough.  Even if I only did one hybrid form of each class for each animal type, it's still 55 total pictures including the animal forms.

And for humans, I was planning to have two of each sex for each of the ten classes. One of each sex for Korobokuru for each of their five classes. And Spirit Folk - luckily I don't think there's that much difference between the three types visually, so just one of each sex for each of their four classes. If I did one for each type of Spirit Folk, that would triple that number.

So if I went whole hog (1 male and female of each class for Hengeyokai hybrids plus animal forms, 2 male and female of each class for Humans, 1 male and female of each class for Korobokuru, and 1 male and female of each class for each type of Spirit Folk), this book would have 172 miniatures in it.

That's a bit of work there. Might take a while. Even if I limit the Hengyeyokai and Spirit Folk, and only provide one male and female each of the human classes, it's still 93 miniature images I need to create.

In the mean time, I listed out the class options of Flying Swordsmen and Chanbara. That's easier to do since everyone's human. A lot of these can do double duty when I get around to the OA set, although I may mix it up a bit to give people more value for their money spent if they buy both. Especially for classes like the samurai where I have tons of pictures that work. Spell-casters and martial artists may get recycled out of necessity, however. We'll see.

I've got all the pictures selected for the Chanbara set. Some are pictures I used in the book, but not all of the book pictures make for a good miniature image. There are two male and two female images for each class/profile in Chanbara. So I should be able to get this book out soon. And I should be looking at the monster lists, too...

Sunday, May 19, 2019

It's not your DM's job to provide you with a story

I've been in a bit of a lull this weekend, not really motivated to work on my research. So I've been wasting a lot of time on YouTube. This video popped up on my recommended list today. I've seen a few videos from this guy before, and while focused on 5E, he's given me a few things to think about with regards to the game.
I have a few issues with this video, though, and so, since this seems to be the way debate happens on the internet, I should actually be making my own YouTube video, sampling bits of this one, and then giving my rebuttal or interpretation, or explaining how my philosophy differs. But I'm just going to write up my thoughts here instead, since my web cam is busted. I guess I could use my phone camera to do it - it's better quality than my web cam anyway. But I'll just write my ideas here anyway.

His "simple dirty tricks" to run a successful RP session are:
0. Have a goal for the session (this is more of a general bit of advice he gives)
1. Introduce a backstory NPC (AKA a new NPC related to a PC's backstory)
2. Introduce a third party (to complicate the RP with a new agenda)
3. Set the PCs up for a fall (a bait and switch/manipulate their emotions gambit)
4. Create a moral dilemma for the PCs (orc babies, anyone?)
5. Introduce a new ally or enemy (how this is different from #1 is...the new NPC is not related to a PC's backstory, how it's different from #2 is...I'm not exactly sure, unless the "third party" in #2 is completely neutral in whatever conflicts are going on)

My first impression is that aside from one of the "dirty tricks" (#3), I wouldn't consider any of these to be dirty tricks. But with the nature of click-bait titles, I'll let that slide. He needed to jazz up the title to get people interested. And in my case, it did work.

So, first of all, his idea to "have a goal for the session" seems to imply that the DM knows and is planning for an RP session. My philosophy of GMing any more is to never have a goal for the session as GM. It's the players' responsibility to come up with goals for the session. If they decide to just hang out in town chatting up NPCs, THAT is apparently the goal they have come up with for the session.

That said, if the players do opt to RP the entire session instead of exploring or hacking & slashing, his five bits of advice of things to throw into the session to liven things up aren't all bad.

#1 seems to imply coming up with a "backstory NPC" off the cuff. While that's certainly possible, I've found through the years that throwing in an already established NPC works better. We've already got an idea of the NPC's character, and the players may familiar with the NPC's attitudes, goals, etc.

I did this intuitively as a kid. My best friend's main Fighter had a 3 Charisma, and tended to piss off otherwise friendly and helpful NPCs. If we were in a long RP session, I could usually find a way to work in one of the "Caric's Enemies Club" to the game and have some fun interactions with an established NPC.

#2 seems to again be premised on the idea that the DM is running the players through some sort of predetermined story. Having multiple factions that the players are free to oppose or try to ally with is great. And if there's a lull in the dungeon delving, it is in fact a good time to introduce new factions to the players. If you're trying to run the players through some kind of specific plot (whether it's predetermined or just heavily guided to try and steer things a certain way), this is actually a good way to derail that story! The players may find the new faction more engaging than the current allies/enemies, and want to totally switch gears. I'm actually all for that. But I don't think that's what the guy in the video intended.

#3 can be a real dick move, if not done right. And the guy making the video does warn you not to overuse this idea. The problem I see with it it, if you don't plan this ahead of time, it won't have the emotional payoff you're hoping for. And if you do plan it ahead of time, and are just waiting around for the players to disengage from the exploration and talk to the NPCs for a session, it will feel contrived when you trot it out. Now, if you're running them through some sort of story, and you know you'll have a break in the narrative, yeah, this would be a good time to use something like this. But if you are just providing a game world for the players to explore, this sort of thing should come up naturally as part of the in-game cause/effect of player actions/reactions. It's not the sort of thing that should be planned and "sprung" on the players just to try to manipulate them emotionally.

#4 shouldn't be something the DM forces on the players. The DM should always be giving them situations where they have choices to make of a moral or ethical nature. But I can't, as DM, force the players to engage in the choice as a dilemma. That depends on the player's mentality and how they envision their character.

In my experience, since RPGs are NOT the real world and the consequences aren't real to the players, they will happily take a situation that might actually be a dilemma in real life and easily choose to do one thing or the other. A writer can decide that Hamlet can't decide whether avenging his father or not betraying his king is the morally correct action. As a DM, all I can do is dangle the situation in front of the players. Whether they decide to ignore their father's ghost, run straight to the throne room and draw steel, or spend days moping around fretting about the decision is out of my hands. It's my job to take their decision and roll with it, and play it out.

And if there is a dilemma, it's usually not every character fretting over the possible courses of action. It's a debate between PCs that have made opposite decisions. And they will happily debate it out in character (and sometimes out of character too) while I just sit there and listen.

#5, as I noted above, isn't really any different than #1 or #2. They're all basically trying to spice up an RP session by throwing in more NPCs to interact with. And that's fine. If the players have decided to hang out in town and do research, pursue personal goals, or just have a laugh, the more and more varied types of NPCs they have to interact with, the better. This point just suggests a different type of NPC to throw at the players compared to the first two "dirty tricks."

So looking at the specific points offered, yes, these are usually good ways to spice up role play encounters. In fact, they would mostly work even if it's just an encounter, not an entire session. The problem I have with the video's premise is that it expects the DM to be providing some sort of coherent narrative for the players to move through. That's not the DM's job. The DM should set the stage. The DM should be reactive to the actions of the PCs more often than they should be actively trying to "move the plot" of the game.

If the DM plans for an RP session, and prepares one of these "dirty tricks" to use, but the players aren't in the mood for an RP session and would rather get on with the adventure, then it's going to be a dull or frustrating session for everyone.

So budding DMs, don't force it. If you find your players in the mood for some heavy RP instead of exploration/combat, remember these "tricks" as things you can do when things seem to slow down and you need to add a bit of spice. Just don't force them upon your players.

Inexperienced players, force it! If you're in the mood for role play, role play away! If you want to explore or get in a fight or whatever, let the DM know that's what you want to do.

The best RP sessions aren't pre-planned or forced. They just happen spontaneously.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Static Damage - Not a Fan

D&D 4E used static damage for monster attacks as the default, with a rolled range (of which the static amount was the average result) as optional. If I remember right, it was also supposed to be the default for player attacks as well, although none of the DMs I played with used it on the player side.

5E continues to support this idea. Although spells and monster attacks are given a die range to roll, the average result is presented first in the monster stat blocks.

I think it takes a lot of the fun out of the game.

Zak Smith is persona-non-grata in the OSR these days (and we won't rehash why here, that's not the point and any comments defending or dissing Zak will be deleted), but he did have a good post I remember defending the Classic D&D group initiative system. In that system, you roll for each side in the combat each round to see who goes first. His defense of it was that the rolls not only add variety/unpredictability to combats, they also work at building group cohesion and keep attention focused on the events unfolding at the table. And I think he was right.

Set initiative (3E through 5E style) makes things a bit easier for the DM to manage at the table. But as a DM and as a player, I've noticed that after a player takes a turn, they know they've got quite a while to wait before their next turn, especially if they're not in a position to be attacked by the opponents for that round (archers, spellcasters, hiding stealthy characters). And there are enough distractions in this modern world (smart phones, new web browser tabs, etc.) that we can turn to while we wait that it can leave players a bit out of the loop at times. Group initiative focuses the whole group during the initiative roll, and it tends to last longer no matter which side goes first.

Set damage for monster attacks isn't exactly the same, but I believe it was implemented for a similar purpose - to make things easier for the DM. But it has the unintended side effect of making combat less interesting. If the damage for attacks is set, I know exactly how many hits my character can take. If it's random, I am forced to make assessments of the situation, and gamble based on how likely I am to get hit, how much potential damage the monster might deal (maximum and minimum), and how lucky I feel. It makes each round of combat feel more visceral and engaging. As a DM, it sure gets players' attention if you announce a monster has hit a certain character and then grab one or more dice to see how much damage was inflicted. Simply announcing "You were hit for 6 damage" is not so compelling.

Dice rolls add variety and uncertainty. That unpredictability makes the game fun. That's why we use them. Many mechanics that are designed to reduce the number of die rolls may save some time, but I feel the loss of player engagement isn't worth the time that's saved.

(Yes, there was a recent in-game situation involving set damage dice in a game I played in, and no, the details aren't important.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and the Thief Class

This is the first of a series of posts looking at classic cinema and mining it for elements that may have inspired elements in D&D.

According to Peterson's Playing at the World (2012), the Thief class was developed by players at Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, CA in 1974. They shared the concept with Gygax, who wrote up his own version and published it. There's no mention of what the original concept was like mechanically, but Gygax's published version is what we had from OD&D through 2E. Weak in combat, without spells, but with percentile-based unique skills that could be used more or less at will.

Plot Summary (spoiler warning...if that's necessary for a movie nearly 100 years old)
The Thief of Badgad (1924) is a black & white silent movie starring Douglas Fairbanks as the titular thief (he goes by the name Ahmed when he's pretending to be a prince, but it's not stated if that's the character's actual name or a pseudonym). The thief plies his trade in the streets of Bagdad, and one day decides to rob the Caliph's palace. But while doing so, he sees the princess and falls in love with her. Shortly thereafter, several princes arrive to woo the princess, and the thief pretends to be a prince to try and kidnap her. But a prophecy tells the princess that the thief is the man destiny has chosen for her, and she falls in love with him. She devises a plan to test the princes. Whichever returns with the most unique treasure will win her hand. We see the thief go on several adventures to win a magical chest with a dust that creates whatever he desires. This is interspersed with scenes of the Prince of Persia (fat and lazy, nothing like the video games) finding a flying carpet, the Prince of the Indies prying a magic crystal (crystal ball) from the eye of a giant idol statue, and the Prince of the Mongols acquiring a golden apple that cures poison. The Prince of the Mongols left spies in Bagdad and with the other princes, and secretly amasses an army. When he fails to win the princess with the magic apple, his soldiers mount a sneak attack and take the city. The thief arrives just in time, uses his magic dust to create a huge army, and attacks the Mongols. Using a cloak of invisibility, he gets into the palace and manages to stop the Prince of the Mongols from abducting the princess on the magic carpet. Huzzah!

As you can tell, if you've never seen it, it's a very D&D sort of movie, made 50 years before D&D was released.

The following are moments where I noticed something in the film that seemed like something in a typical D&D game. I started out only recording what seemed like the classic Thief Skills in action, but later took notes of anything vaguely game-like. Time stamp markers are based on the free version of the film available here. The run time is 2 hours 20 minutes.

2:07 Right at the beginning, we see the thief picking pockets.
5:25 He doesn't climb sheer surfaces, but the thief uses a strategem to climb to a balcony to steal some food. He makes a pulley from a long sash looped over the balcony railing and tied to a donkey which pulls him up.
6:55 The Magic Rope of Ispahan, made from witch's hair in a djinni cave. A rope of climbing. After some hijinks, the thief steals it and uses it later.
13:56 We see him picking pockets again
22:30 We see that in addition to guards, the Caliph uses tigers and an ape to guard the palace.
23:30 The thief's "evil companion" forms a cloak into the shape of a jar to hide while the thief enters the palace. Not quite Hide in Shadows, but hiding in plain sight.
24:20 The thief moves silently through the palace of the Caliph.
26:06 The thief uses his wits to open the treasure chest. He doesn't pick the lock with thieves' tools, but he does use some wits to get the key (attached to a guard's belt) into the key hole.
30:00 Another case of not quite "hiding in shadows" as the thief hides under a blanket at the foot of the princess's bed.
38:11 and again at 50:45, we see the thief scaling trees with ease. Again, not quite "climb sheer surfaces" but there is an awful lot of climbing in this movie.
1:10:42 We see a secret door, as the princess has the thief smuggled out of the palace before he's imprisoned.
1:19:37 The thief goes to a mosque where he had earlier insulted the worshipers. The mullah forgives him, much like the atonement spell.
1:20:12 A royal alchemist consults a gigantic spell book, turning pages by magic.
1:23:38 The "Mountains of Dread Adventure" begins. This card marks the start of a LOT of D&D-like action in the movie, and a much faster pacing of the film.
1:24:14 The thief (and the audience) are warned of "devouring flames, foul monsters, shapes of death" ahead.
1:24:14 The thief is given a talisman and told to use it on the center-most tree in the Cavern of Enchanted Trees.
1:26:32 The thief enters The Valley of Fire, and has to jump many pits with flame bursts coming out of them.
1:27:59 The Prince of Persia's men go to the Bazaar of Shiraz and discover the magic carpet in a shop whose owner obviously does not have access to a detect magic spell. The Prince buys the carpet for cheap.
1:29:59 In the Valley of the Monsters, the thief has to battle a dragon/dinosaur that breathes smoke. He kills it by stabbing its vulnerable belly.
1:31:09 In the Cavern of Enchanted Trees, the thief uses the talisman to awaken the central tree. It's sort of like a treant, but smaller. This may have been inspiration for the Wood Golem in Classic D&D. After getting a map from the tree, the thief fights a giant bat.
1:33:42 The Prince of the Indies has a servant climb a giant 6-armed idol (Climb Sheer Surfaces).
1:34:01 The servant pries the gem out of the idol's eye (familiar image, right?) then falls to his death.
1:35:22 The Prince informs us that the gem is in fact a "magic crystal"
1:35:56 The Old Man of the Midnight Sea sails the thief out to the middle of the sea. Does he give the thief a water breathing spell?
1:36:32 The thief retrieves a star-shaped key from an underwater chest.
1:37:33 The thief fights an underwater spider
1:38:41 Sirines/Nixies tempt the thief to stay with them (and he definitely either has water breathing or there is air in their undersea lair) but the thief thinks of the princess and saves vs spells.
1:40:54 The thief reaches the Abode of the Winged Horse and rides off into the sky on the pegasus (there is a tale in The 1001 Nights about a winged horse like this).
1:41:04 This winged horse sequence includes more climbing.
1:41:49 The Prince of the Mongols arrives at the island of Wak (Japan?) to visit a court magician and a secret shrine.
1:43:31 The Prince of the Mongols' henchmen find a secret door and claim the magic apple.
1:44:34 The henchmen use a "snake staff" (a staff with an intricate cage containing a poisonous snake at the top) to poison a fisherman. His poisoned body turns dark - is it from the poison, or is he turning to stone? The magic apple restores him to life.
1:47:03 The thief reaches the Citadel of the Moon. A ghostly dwarf gives a warning that the silver chest is hidden by a cloak of invisibility (elven cloaks in D&D are obviously taken from Tolkien, but the same idea is here first, under a different name).  The thief retrieves the cloak and the magic chest.
1:49:00 The Mongol slave girl poisons the princess (on the Prince of the Mongols' order). The princess fails her save vs poison.
1:51:25 The Prince of the Mongols convinces the Prince of the Indies to use the magic crystal, and they see that the princess is poisoned. Then the Prince of Persia uses the magic carpet to fly the three to Bagdad, and the Prince of the Mongols uses the magic apple to neutralize poison on the princess.
1:55:27 The thief uses the (dust of creation?) in the magic box to create a horse (create monsters or summon animals), fancy new clothes (change self), and some bread (create food & water).
2:01:17 A Mongol soldier backstabs a Bagdad guard.
2:02:52 More backstabbing by the Mongol invaders as they launch their sneak attack.
2:03:09 Lots of Mongol soldiers Climb Sheer Surfaces to get up the wall of the palace.
2:07:59 The thief arrives at the gates of Bagdad and uses the dust in the magic chest to summon soldiers ... and then more ... and still more ... and many, many more.
2:14:06 Blocked by Mongol soldiers, the thief uses the cloak of invisibility to sneak into the palace.
2:14:37 The thief "backstabs" the Prince of the Mongols and his men while using the cloak of invisibility, and rescues the princess.

Judging from all of this, I'd say it is plausible that this movie (and some others I'll be viewing later, including the 1940 remake) may have exerted an influence on the development of the thief class. I say this especially due to the picking of pockets early in the movie. I don't remember Bilbo Baggins, Cugel the Clever, or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser often picking any pockets, if at all. There are some stories where F&GM climb things, but again it's not something they do all the time. So the Thief class's climb skill may also have been an influence taken from this movie.

This is a very speculative post, but it was a fun thought exercise and it may inspire a few people to watch this really fun old movie if they haven't before. I'd also say that with modern special effects/CGI, this would be an excellent time for Hollywood to try and remake this movie. But with the live action Aladdin coming out soon, and the animated Aladdin lifting characters and situations heavily from the 1940 remake, I doubt that will happen soon. Hollywood would probably mess it up anyway.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Looking for D&D inspirations in Classic Films

Alexis over at the Tao of D&D was writing about his thought process leading to him implementing a system of cross-class weapons training. Along the way, he mentioned the classic Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood, and how many younger gamers have probably never even seen it. Well, I've seen it. Have it on DVD even. And it got me thinking of one of MY favorite classic films, the 1924 black & white silent movie The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks.

Since it's a public domain movie, it's free to watch online. If the poor quality is a problem for you, well, there is a remastered version, but apparently commentary and a new score was added in order to renew the copyright on it, so you'll have to pay for it.

Anyway, I started re-watching it this evening, and taking notes of elements of the film that seem similar to things in D&D. I know Gygax only listed fantasy fiction as inspirations for the game, but he didn't come up with the idea of the Thief class originally. So maybe, just maybe, this classic film may have led to some of the inspiration for the class. Obviously the published version owes a debt to Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, and Cugel the Clever. But it seems plausible that The Thief of Bagdad may also have played a part in inspiring the class.

I kept getting interrupted though, so I'm only halfway through the movie and starting to nod off a bit. I'll finish it tomorrow and post up my notes.

And I may make this a thing. I have the 1940 remake on DVD, which is fairly different (and Disney ripped it off hard when they made Aladdin back in the 90's).  And there are a lot of old films, whether from the silent film era or talkies, black & white or color, that I've never seen. Seems like a series of posts that would be good for me. I can rewatch some old favorites, and also take the time to watch some of the classics that I've still yet to see.

So thanks Alexis, for the roundabout inspiration.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Strength Bows

Thanks to the suggested videos algorthms of YouTube, I discovered this series of videos on Medieval weapons and armor called Shadiversity. I'm no expert on the subject, so I don't know if this guy is just another blabbering blogger or if he knows his stuff, but some of what he's talked about concerning misconceptions of ancient and medieval weapons and armor matches things I've read or seen elsewhere, so maybe he's alright.

In the video I linked, he talks about bows [starting around the 17:30 mark, if you want to skip ahead to the bow segment], and how in lots of RPGs and fantasy games, they get bows wrong. Bows, he claims, aren't weapons for weak but agile characters. Crossbows are better for those sorts. Bows, to be most effective, require strength. Having done some archery when I was younger (one of those things I keep telling myself I'd like to get back into but always put off for another day), he's right. The fiberglass recurve bow I had as a kid launched the arrows relatively slowly. Hunting bows or military bows would need to be a lot more powerful to be useful. For target shooting, my old bow is fine (still have it back in the States, my boys get it out now and then). If I actually wanted to kill a dragon or some such, I'd need a lot stronger bow. Which would mean I'd need to develop my upper body strength a lot more (or use the modern "cheat" of pulleys for mechanical advantage).

3E had compound bows that could be made to deal extra damage if you were a strong character. 2E had them as well. I think that might be something for me to work back into my house rules. Besides, I've always liked the idea of a Thief with a crossbow over a Thief with a short bow anyway.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

In Media Res

I've been playing in a West Marches game (5E D&D) on for several years now. It was the inspiration to run my own West Marches game, which I started also in 5E but recently switched to Classic D&D.

In September 2017, a player in that online West Marches game decided to start a game, also 5E, of the new Ravenloft adventure. I signed up. We created characters and started playing.

Now, if you've ever played by email or play by post (PbP), you know how slow it can go. And this Ravenloft 5E game was no exception. I'm OK with the slow pace. I can take my time, consider options, ask questions, before posting my moves.

This game, however, started up and then fizzled out. The DM dropped it for a bit, then decided to start it up again. I was willing to keep going, but the DM wanted to start at the beginning again. So we did. A few new players replaced some that disappeared.

And then it started to fizzle again. A few players dropped. A few new players joined. Luckily, this time the DM didn't make us start over from the very beginning again. Still, it's slow going and the new and old players in the game haven't really gelled as a team yet.

I think...and yes, I could be wrong about this...the problem is not with the players or the DM, it's with the way the module is structured. It's trying too hard to avoid railroading us into the Mists of Barovia.

We started out in whatever forgettable Forgotten Realms town. Survivors of a caravan attacked supposedly by werewolves are brought to town. We question them, and find discrepancies in their testimony and they claim to come from Barovia, a land no one's heard of before. They have coins no one's seen before. We investigate the site and find the remains of the caravan and potential signs of werewolves. We follow the trail into the woods. We end up at the Gates of Barovia.

And then the game resets. We're back at the podunk town. We have to roleplay the mystery again. And it pretty much goes the same way as before. And it breaks down as we're investigating the site of the attack.

As I mentioned above, this time we get some new players and new characters and just ret-con them in and now we're at the Gates of Barovia again.

Now, PbP is a slow format, but it took us a year and a half to do all that. I'm not surprised that many players keep losing interest. The module is trying really hard to give us the illusion of free will, but here's the thing. The module isn't being plunked down in an existing campaign. It's a game specifically for running this adventure. And when we either defeat Strahd or die trying, the game will conclude. I can see why all that intro mystery stuff would be important for running the module in an ongoing campaign, but in this case, it would have been a lot better if the DM had just started us in Barovia, giving us a summary of how we'd gotten there. We could have rolled with it and gotten to the meat of the module already.

And thinking back, way back, in the 3.5 days there was a Ravenloft module put out. And someone was running a game of it on RPOL that I joined. And after we made our characters, we did start in Barovia. The problem with that game was that it was just a constant series of battles with zombies as we tried to get to the village and once we got to the village, it was overrun with more zombies. I wanted Gothic horror, not zombie apocalypse, so I lost interest and quit the game before it got too far.  But at least I wasn't put through a bunch of useless RP scenes that were virtually predetermined before we got to the zombie fights.

When I ran the original I6 Ravenloft module (12 years ago now? Wow!) for some friends, it was just that. So I stared them with the letter and after reading it had them arriving in the village. It went well.

I think there's something to be said for cutting to the chase and just starting the adventure where the action is. The Basic Set has adventures starting just at the door (or cave mouth) of the dungeon because that's where the fun is. I think it's a good way to start IF you already have buy-in from the players. Yes, there are some adventures where the wilderness travel and whatnot to get to the dungeon is the point. But many times, it's just a waste of session time and isn't engaging for the players. Much better in cases like that to just cut to the chase and start them where the action is.

Nearing the Heart of the Mountain

[A lacuna exists in the extant manuscript of the Journal of Jack Summerisle. It is unknown how much is missing, but compared to the previous entries, much has changed.]

The Journal of Jack Summerisle
Being a record of the exploits of the renowned Green Knight of Eldeen Jack Summerisle, and companions various and sundry, in the strange subterranean world of Pellucidar deep beneath the surface of Eberron. 

The great walking mansion Lungbarrow crumbled to ruin behind us. It had gotten us close to the Giants' Temple, but just how close we were not sure. Our time in the sentient residence had been interesting and full of challenges. Now, we were once more cast out into the vast midden heaps of the ruined giant city.

Rhea the Witch had performed a ritual to create a shelter for us, and we settled in for a well needed rest. Unfortunately for our intrepid party of adventurers, one of the sentient trash-creatures disturbed us in our rest. It was in the form of a stegosaur. Cankles the Ogre Barbarian, Jade the Elf Ranger and myself exited our shelter to destroy it or drive it away. Luckily, a few well-placed blows from my axe and Cankles' club, arrows from Jade's giant bow, and magical assistance from Yuv the Dragonborn Cleric of Bahamut ended the creature's unnatural existence. Yuv, however, was unable to recover the use of his prayers.

Jade scouted the area and found another place to camp. Rhea had slipped into a catatonic state and could not revisit her ritual, so we set a watch. Mine own watch was first, and as I stood guard I heard the approach of more trash hounds, scavengers that posed an annoyance more than a threat. I roused Jade and Cankle and we devised a plan to lead them off or at least confront them away from our camp to allow Yuv the rest he so badly needed. The plan went off well. Cankle distracted them while Jade killed one with his bow. The hounds decided not to interfere with us, fleeing as fast as they could.

The rest of the evening passed without incident until near morning. A giant passed our camp, playing its odd music on her flute. Those of us on guard duty were unaffected, but Yuv slipped into the magical trance while he slept. He dreamed, and that ended up to our benefit. The dragonborn saw the way to the Temple, and that we were near. Once we roused him, we set out and soon discovered the ruins of the Temple of the Mountain's Heart.

The temple was built like an inverted pyramid, with a deep pit leading into the earth (and strangely, up towards our surface homes although in this upside down world it appeared to lead down). There were a myriad of steps leading down the pit, but there was also the temple proper. Thinking there might be somewhat of use within, we decided first to explore this ruin before seeking out the Heart of the Mountain.

Inside was dust, decay, traps and magical guardians. We battled our way through the guardians, deciphered ancient Giantish texts, and discovered some golden religious implements. Judging by some of the images carved into the walls, we may need to offer up a sacrifice to the Spirit of the Mountain if we can awaken it. It seems strange that this long quest to seek the Mountain's Heart may soon be over. I just pray that the Ghoul Kingdom which was threatening the various peoples of the Mountain has not already fulfilled its goal of conquest, and that we can save the allies we have made above in the Kyber underworld and on the surface. After a brief rest here, we will set out again.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Gaming: Art or Science?

[This is a lot longer and more rambly than I intended when I started, but I come to an interesting insight at the end.]

There is an interesting discussion going on over at BX Blackrazor. JB brought up the idea of trying to certify gamers as competent game masters. It's not a crazy idea. However, to move forward with the idea (assuming this is something the gaming community would want), we should have a discussion about just what gaming IS and specifically, what is game mastering. And how can we measure or evaluate it?

JB's post mentions an old Dragon Magazine article suggesting giving players and DMs XP for the amount of gaming they've done "by the campaign" by which most of us would consider "an adventure" in modern thought. That's certainly one way to quantify gaming.  Of course, for older gamers, trying to look back on decades worth of game time is hard to do. I've been gaming for about 35 years now. Of course there were stretches when I didn't game.  There have been times when I've been the GM and times when I've been only a player. And I didn't keep records. At best I could only give an estimate of the number of game sessions I've played (and again, how to break each into its own adventure...or "campaign" as the original writer not easy).

I could go through my old dungeon maps/adventure notes. I've got most of them still. A lot are crap, but we had fun with them. But I know some of the dungeons were used multiple times by different groups of adventurers. And there are modules that I own and have run, many of them at least twice. Some more than that. And then there were game sessions I ran that were just sort of free-form/improvisation (we especially did a lot of that with Star Frontiers games, playing them almost like a board game with RP elements). So I could come up with an estimate. A low-ball minimum would be feasible.

Estimating the maximum would be hard. During school time (when we were kids) we mostly played on weekends. But we didn't play every weekend. But sometimes we'd play on weeknights (especially once my little brother got interested and it was just me and him). And during the vacations, especially those nice long American summer vacations, we'd play a LOT more. But not regularly. As an adult, and especially over the past 10 years of blogging, I've got a much better record of my gaming activity. But I don't blog about EVERY game I run or play in.

And this brings me to my current point of consideration. Is simply number of "campaigns" run the best way to measure these things? As I pointed out to JB in the comments, the proposes system could be read as considering an entire megadungeon campaign as equal worth to a one night 5-room dungeon. It obviously needs some fine tuning. How else can we measure game mastering?

Number of hours spent GMing (again, not something I could calculate accurately anymore)
Number of players who have participated in my games (this would be easier for me to calculate, but isn't the most reliable measure - a guy who's been running for the same group for 40 years consistently would have a much lower number than a guy who's run multiple game sessions at conventions for the past 3 years).
Number of dungeon levels/scenarios/wildernesses/campaign settings created (and again, we've got the fuzzy issue of just how to compare a small effort meant for a single session to a massive effort intended for multiple sessions)
Amount of XP awarded to players (but then we need to account for Monty Haul play, or people who give holistic XP awards, or people who usually run one-shots at conventions, etc.)

There are of course more ways we could quantify game mastering. But we're still left with a big question, should we? Is GMing a science? Or is it more of an art? Should we be creating surveys to gauge player satisfaction and motivation to play (called "affect" in social science terminology)? Is the subjective nature of aspects such as "fun" and "engagement" and "motivation" something we can really measure and compare? And more importantly, should we be trying to measure and compare these fuzzy aspects of our shared imaginings?

Alexis over at The Tao of D&D recently went on a spot-on critique of 5E D&D and its philosophy that any old Joe Schmoe can DM just by throwing more (level appropriate)  monsters and treasures at players following the guidelines in the 5E DMG. For the record, I do still enjoy 5E for what it is and what it allows, but it's not designed as a means of challenging game masters to improve in their craft, it's designed to try and do it for you.

It's fairly typical modern thinking. We see it in education a lot. Some academic (typically but not exclusively) comes up with some way to measure or improve educational progress. And some bureaucrat (typically but not exclusively) comes up with a way to implement that idea in a way that ignores both larger social context but also local classroom context. And we end up forcing our kids to do some counterproductive activities to satisfy our government masters to get funding at the expense of actual educational goals.

Cynicism aside, there's this belief among many people these days that if we can just find the right way to operationalize some activity and quantify it, then we can increase efficiency/productivity. Science will save us. But the world, for the most part, doesn't operate that way. Different systems interconnect. Focusing on one area to the exclusion of others can be detrimental to the overall outcome. And efficiency isn't always the most important goal to strive for in an activity.

Documents like Matt Finch's Old School Primer and a lot of the discussion I've read over the years on blogs and forums online seem to view game mastering (and game playing) as more of an art. It resists easy quantification. It means different things to different people. Experiences are qualitative, not quantitative. And like any art, one can hone their craft to become better at it, mostly through practice - although study does help. Education, especially language education (my field) is very similar to this. You become a good teacher not by learning all the most efficient and productive teaching methodologies and classroom practices and implementing them - although knowing this stuff helps. You become good at it through experience. Knowing when to use certain methodologies and when not to, having a wide array of experiences with a wide array of students, empathy for and good communication with students, and of course good old trial and error. Game mastering, in my opinion, is much the same.

So when WotC puts out games like 4E and 5E and tries to do it all for you, just remember that they're looking at things not from a desire to make the games better and to make the people who play the games better. They're looking at it from a marketing perspective. "How can we get more people to buy more D&D stuff and make us more money?" Gygax, in a lot of his earlier writings especially, approached it from the angle "How can I help make people better game players and game masters?" and it was great for the gaming community but not so good for business at TSR. And latter TSR Gygax often sings a different tune about "only using OFFICIAL (A)D&D PRODUCTS" in your games. Post-TSR, he seemed to go back to offering insight and advice to help gamers improve their games.

And now I'm sitting here wondering if I've finally cracked the Old School/New School code without even trying!