30 September, 2010

In Reference to Torneiement

Just a quick note: You would be hard pressed to go wrong here.
Literature of the Fantastic

29 September, 2010

Uh-Ohhh, It's Ma-gic

I never assume that there's only one way to cast spells in a setting. I know it would be more convenient if I did, and allowing multiple methods of magic might conceivably unbalance or 'mess up' the campaign in some way, but in my experience it's never done that. The main thing it's done is help remove the mundane from the magical.

I firmly believe that magic in any work of fiction, including an rpg, will always suffer if it's well known and understood. Quantification is the bane of imagination. There will always be those who clamor for all the mysteries to be revealed, however. For those, I offer... midichlorians.

I think Lucas was acutely aware of what he was doing. In Star Wars IV, Luke finally went to Ben and said he was ready to start learning. The next thing we see is some unspecified time after that. A certain segment of the viewers cried out in dismay. "I want to know what they did!" "I want to see what he taught him!" "I want to be a Jedi and learn the ways of the Force!" Well.. you can't learn the ways of the Force. It doesn't really work. It's made up. And the only thing you would have gotten if we had seen what Ben showed Luke is concrete confirmation of that extremely immersion-wrecking, mystique-busting fact. The clamoring never stopped, only getting louder and more pervasive. Then, I really believe Lucas set his jaw and said "fine! You want concrete? Then let me prove my point to you! Kazaaang! Midichlorians!" And I think the quantifiers got exactly what they deserved.

So, here we have the extremely well quantified and detailed magic system of DnD, particularly in 1st edition Advanced D&D and afterward. It's quantified for a reason, since it's part of a rules system. However, contrary to the proclivities of some, this concretism isn't self-justifying. Introducing the idea to players that more than just the one magic system they already know may exist and work pulls the rug out from under familiarity and stagnation, while at the same time leaving the foundation of reliability inherent to their current, well-delineated system. It kills midichlorians!

Players in my campaigns still start with whatever basic, default magic-use system is present in the setting. After some experience, they gradually learn there are other functioning systems out there. They may have started with Vancian or an elementary spell point system, but then the wider world of possibility opens. True-name magic ala Earthsea. Lovecraftian tomes that any can attempt to use, but at a terrible price. Spellsingers. Deal-making spirit binders. Leyline weaving. Artifact channeling. Rune-casting. The only real limits are the bounds of your literacy.

The trick then, of course, is to introduce it in a subtle way. The PC's actual first exposure might be dramatic indeed, but it needs to be handled in a way which won't lead to watering it down through proliferation within the campaign. For it to mean anything, it has to stay incredibly uncommon, weird, even alien. A wizard in the party may indeed be able to learn some of the fundamentals, even mastering a spell or two. However, there are two keys to this. One: it's going to take a long time, or exact a heavy toll. It took them years to finally become a lowly first level wizard in the first place, and this certainly isn't going to come to them overnight. If time isn't an appropriate commodity, then something else will have to give. Anyone can pick up the Book of Eibon and try their best to copy the formulae, but they're certainly not going to pass through that experience unscathed. Gold doesn't count as a heavy toll, either. This is the realm of insanities and permanently lost ability score points. Two: there usually needs to be a willing teacher. The wizards on Roke Island aren't going to trust just anyone, either.

So far in my own campaigns, the far more common occurrence isn't actually learning the new system of magic itself. Rather, they have picked up a few of the side-tricks these other, strange dweomercrafters use. This includes things like how to enchant valuable gems as spell storage receptacles (an idea from Mythus.) The main upshot of all these considerations is simply this. Don't wreck your campaign, but take away a bit of the certainty and banality from something that's supposed to be 'magical.'

The Troll

28 September, 2010

You Find a Magic Compass!

Blog ideas I'm currently juggling:

  1. Keep track of the security words I enter when posting to blogs. Invent a campaign element based on each.
  2. Highlights of my long-running milieu-prime campaign.
  3. Random lists in the spirit of the tables in the back of the 1e DMG.
  4. Installments of musings over the things that evoke DnD for me, such as the film Spectre.
  5. Quirky setting ideas which could serve as experiments, but that I would actually love to do, like OD&D Eberron.
  6. House rule ideas for various games, mostly DnD.
  7. New takes on old settings, or "you got your Cthulhu in my Greyhawk!"

Sound stupid? Sound interesting? Help me juggle if you want :)

25 September, 2010

Why Can't I Get Better at That?

I think for a lot of players of the latest editions of "The World's Most Popular RolePlaying Game" (that cracks me up every time I read it) one of the big draws of the new system is skill progression. Sure, there's some sort of progression in most games of the type, regardless of edition, but this is advancement explicit to a specific, identifiable action. If all the combat tricks (for example) you try are just rolled into a big globular minute of summable action, then of course those tricks are all getting better as you go up in level. For a lot of players though, they want explicit quantification of this neat thing they can do.

Now, I have a lot of ideas about why they want that, and also about why they feel they're not getting the satisfaction they want from attempting to Do Things. For the time being, though, I'm going to wave past that. Instead, I'm going to propose what in some cases might prove to be a band-aid, or in some cases might actually end up adding a fun extra to the festivities. I think the best way to impart this might be an example:

Bernaise: Can I try to shield rush this guy in these crusty old rules from the 80s?
Troll: 70s..
Bernaise: Whatever man, I want to charge little-doghead-boy and Knock Him Down baby!
Troll: Sure, you can try practically anything. Just make a regular attack roll.
Bernaise: But what if I've practiced shield rushing things? What if I'm like.. Mr. Shield Rush?
Troll: Well, you haven't yet, so go ahead and give it a try. I think it would be stretching believability quite a bit to think medieval-style training would specialize to that fine a degree, but everything starts somewhere :)
Bernaise: If I do it all the time, is there any way I can get better at it?
Troll: A +1 bonus for anything is a pretty big deal in this game. A longsword does 1d6 damage, but that enormous zweihander does 1d6+1. And that little-doghead-boy has even less hit points than that.
Bernaise: It doesn't make any sense though, that if I'm constantly trying to trip people or shield rush them or jump over pits that I'd never get any better at it.
Troll: It does if your guy doesn't have any ability in that.. as I recall, you practiced and practiced and practiced to learn how to sing, and you still sound like sh..
Bernaise: Yeah, yeah, I know... but my character is a fighter, and this is a fighting thing.
Troll. Okay.. make your regular roll to hit. Every time you try to shield rush, whether it's a success or not, YOU make a checkmark or something, and keep track of it. Then let me know what the total is the next time you make a level.
Bernaise: Sweet!!! I'm successfully limiting my options to excel in an easily expressed specialty!! Woot!!
And there was much rejoicing. I think it can be seen to make a moderate amount of sense, and it shouldn't terribly unbalance anything. I think I'd probably do something like subtract his strength from 100 and want to see that many attempts at level-up time to give him a +1 shield rush, or some other effect, maybe a stunned opponent, a morale check or execute a 10 foot withdrawal, or various other possibilities.

Granted, I'd rather handle these things on the fly. I think they work better that way, and then both the DM and the Player can come up with something unique that really fits each specific situation. Of course, that means the DM has to take on the responsibility of making each fight or trap or parley a unique and specific situation, even just in how it's described. I think if a player is still having trouble expressing on-the-spot detail, but they do want to try, this can be a pretty harmless semi-solution. It's still completely specialised, and case-by-case, which I like.

Let me know if you can think of similar things a character might try learning, and how you might go about deciding whether they've learned it or not.

The Troll

24 September, 2010

He's Modulating! Help Him!!

The other day I mentioned my interest in exploring some of the classic old-school modules for D&D. When I first started playing, or DM'ing rather, we dove right into B2, Keep on the Borderlands. Between a myriad of activities, roleplaying and adventures at the Keep itself, plus our explorations of the Caves of Chaos, it took us a really long time to exhaust B2's possibilities. In fact, if I remember right, the group never did actually finish exploring the cave complex, instead heading off to explore other things in the world.

After we had been playing for a while, there was definitely a desire from other players to have a chance at being the DM. One of my friends picked up a copy of Palace of the Silver Princess, so our little group headed off across the map to where that was. We didn't even consider rolling up all new characters for his game, since we had characters for the game. He had asked me some advice so that he could tie back into something that had happened in the Keep, so we talked over a little connecting thread. Unfortunately, I had forgotten about it, and combined with his ingenious way of introducing it, I totally didn't see it coming. The result? I blurted out the answer as soon as I 'figured it out,' only to realise I'd just given away everything he'd asked me to keep quiet. Smooth.

When I got back into rpg's near the end of the 80s, the group I started playing with was of the decided opinion that although modules might have their place, a real DM wrote his own material. I and others ran several separate groups, all populated by the same pool of friends. For one of my groups, I pulled out my old copy of B2 again, but entirely re-designed it. Kobold tunnels criss-crossed and went up and down in levels. High tunnels ran into low tunnels, with Indy-style mining bridges spanning the gaps. Populations of monsters skyrocketed. The gradual dell now towered canyon walls over the party's heads. And, of course, they got through even less of it than my old group.

Thus, my experience with modules was severely limited. No Slavelords were brought to justice. No giant chiefs were steaded. No green demon heads were fed with hapless henchmen. And we actually felt good about it too. Pssh! Modules.. bah! Those were for DM's who couldn't come up with adventures on their own! The only thing was.. I was curious.

Sure, it had started with included modules. That couldn't be helped.. they came as part of a package. But then I started buying a few.. not many, just a couple. I just wanted to read them. Just for a few ideas, that was all. Once I started though, I couldn't get enough. Soon, I had to have them all! With no internet, it was no easy task to figure out a complete list of every TSR module, let alone 3rd party adventures. But I had to read them, from cover to cover, fondly imagining running the adventure and all the twists and turns it might take, but never daring to actually present them to my group in play. They could never understand!

-> This is the interesting part <-

So what was it about modules that held such a fascination for me? I didn't realise until years later that reading a set of rules laid out by someone doesn't give nearly the view into their imagination that playing one of their adventures does. Whether its Gygax, Moldvay, or anyone else, the rules they've written can start to show you a bit about how they think, how they organise, but only by playing the modules they've done can you really meet the writer.

In trying to get back to the old ways, this is why playing the classic modules is even more important than which set of rules one uses. It's more than just taking a further step into nostalgia (I see nothing wrong with nostalgia, by the way,) it's getting into the true essence of these writers' imaginations. The stage and the theatre can be a wonderful place, but it's the script and the performance that really make the most difference.

Now when I think about what I really want to do in my game, one of the biggest things is to experience all the old classic modules. Not only did I miss the chance to play them until now, depriving my own sense of curiosity and completeness, but I also believe that an experience with the OSR isn't really complete without them. In much the same way, I know that to really enjoy Jim Raggi or any of the other designers of the current era, I can't just use their rules system. I really need to play their adventures.

20 September, 2010

What Accession, Pandelume?

The first thing we house-ruled in our Moldvay Basic game back in 1981 was wizard magic. None of us had read Vance, and the otherwise excellent Moldvay book was singularly reticent in providing a convincing argument for use'n'lose spellcasting. Thus, our initial attempts were overwrought and forgettable. Forgettable because.. well, I can't remember what we did.

Years later, I read The Dying Earth. I finally got the magic system. Not only did I get it, it was cool. It was intriguing. I could not only see why Gary had used it, but actually agreed with him.

So why tweak it? I'm a tweaker, it's what I do. The spells used by Turjan are arguably more powerful (iirc) than those available to the players of the Moldvay game, or any version in the earlier levels. It stands to reason that more powerful spells could easily have this effect on the mind, but should they all? Light? Magic Missile? Actually, I think that can be perfectly acceptable (as long as the DM provides appropriate accompanying flavour,) but the fact remains that the beginning wizard is severely limited in his options when compared to his comrades.

Although this can often be worked round when playing in-person, it's particularly a problem when running a game over a message board. A single day, to examine just one factor, can last upwards of a month in real-world time.

Thus, on the third week of play, along with the induction of the other week-three house-rules I detailed yesterday, I put up the following:
As of today, all magic-users may employ cantrips. These are minor magical effects, usable without recording any related formulae within the spellbooks of the thaumaturge. Neither do they take up any specific space within the mind of the mage.
Cantrips are not so much specific spells, but rather a general minor magic, which effect is determined at the time of use. The effect may cause damage, but no more than 1d2. It may also cause the recipient to make an ability check or saving throw to avoid some inconvenience, such as dropping a held item or tripping. Any attempt to affect the items or clothing of a target, such as igniting a flammable material in the possession of another, will also allow the victim a saving throw vs. spell to entirely negate the effect.
In most cases, no more than 5 pounds of weight can be moved, and generally only to a maximum distance of 10 feet. It can affect a flat area of 10 square feet or less, or a volume no more than a cube 1 foot per side. Most effects will last no longer than an hour, with some lasting only 1 turn. However, extremely minor effects, such as a subtle change in colour, might last indefinitely, as would the removal of dust, grime or dirt from an object or individual.
Cantrips may be used only once per round, and then only if enacting the magic is the only action taken. Sustained effects, such as floating a small object, may be maintained as long as the magic-user can continue concentration.
The variety and nature of the effect is limited only by the imagination of the employing wizard.
We'll see in the coming weeks whether this will cause any problems, and I'm including in that any sense of an alteration in the tone I'm trying to shoot for with the game.

19 September, 2010

That 70s Game

Around the middle of August of this year, I began something that can also be seen as an experiment. I say 'also' because the main purpose isn't experimentation or simulation. It's also not just an exercise in nostalgia. The overarching purpose is simply having a good time. However, it's a wonderfully nostalgic and experimental good time that simulates the journey of Dungeon's & Dragons through the 1970s.

The basic premise was to begin playing a game using only the 3 original Little Brown Booklets first published in February of '74. The first supplement, deceptively (to later enthusiasts) entitled Greyhawk, was first published 13 months later. Therefore, the additional material from this booklet will be incorporated (perhaps not in toto) 13 weeks after the beginning of play. The remaining supplements would come in at the same rate, with weeks between adoption standing for months between publication.

However, the LBBs weren't used in a vacuum. Modification and addition were not only encouraged, but actually required to cover all the strange and unusual things players thought of doing. Improvisation during a game to deal with some unforeseen contingency led very naturally to precedents that a group would continue to site in similar situations. A lot like British Law, from what I understand, interestingly enough. To simulate the proliferation of these house rules, the plan was to begin gradually introducing accretions from Whitebox. Why not just our own house rules? It's a game run via message board on a website, so it's nice to be able to have a concrete, objective, individually accessible reference. Plus, there's information about it on the web, so it's wonderful to be able to just stick a link in a post instead of trying to refer to some past idiosyncratic ruling.

A few days ago, three weeks into the campaign, our first few accretions accrued:

  • The Whitebox attack matrices, for determining hits. (these may be identical to the LBB.. I honestly didn't look)
  • The Whitebox rules for turning undead.
  • The slightly variable damage values for different weapons.

I should say also that even before the first pixels had a chance to dry on the page, a handful of house rules popped up like mushrooms after a nice rain. I'm certain these aren't unique to our little game, but I'd never thought about them in precisely the way I did, or came up with precisely the results we did this time. This intrigues me no end, because I've been making house rules for D&D for 29 years. D&D is evidently an incredibly unique experience, which never occurs the same way twice. I've even heard it's a big-time nerd thing, but I've honestly never experienced that.. anyway...

Here are the little mushrooms that popped up. Some of them can be traced directly to Philotomy's, which I internally picture as a wonderfully ancient and dusty little bookstore, with an appropriately ancient and dusty little wizard wandering around inside.

  • Wielding a weapon in each hand gives the sole benefit of adding +1 to your attack role. Pure Philotomy's genius.
  • Helmets are conspicuous only in their absence, as per Philotomy's.
  • A wizard's first spell book has all 8 first level spells in it.
  • A pint flask of oil will burn for 6 hours in a normal lantern. Real modern lamp oil will burn for about 36 hours per pint, but it also won't make goblin flambé.
  • You have to make an attack roll to hit a prone foe.
  • You can try things like a shield rush in combat, just use a regular attack roll and we'll decide what happens based on how you describe what you try.
  • The most substantial house rule to date, the addition of wizard's cantrips.. worthy of it's own post, probably tomorrow.

It seems to be going really well so far, and my hopes are high for more unique and interesting developments. I've also incorporated my desire to (in my case) experience some of the most classic and iconic modules, but I'll discuss that in a later post.

The Troll