Author Archive for James Nostack

01
Nov
13

super frog defeats gamma world

a gamma world party

business as usual

The other week, we ran Gamma World (2e) using the Serpent Temple – Lost Tombs by Mark Thomas from the 2009 One-Page Dungeon Contest.  I replaced the Lizard Men with Hissers (snake-headed dudes armed with golf clubs), turned the undead into robots, and otherwise just said, hey, have at it.

One player went for Pure-Strain Human (“Lomez,” whose name I kept mixing up with “Lomax” all night), another went for a Humanoid (“Sir Francis” the telekinetic), and one went the route of the Mutant Animal.  The Mutant Animal, Kyrmit, was through a freak of dice rolling, the most powerful characters I think I’ve ever seen.  He had flame-thrower hands, could create 10 duplicates of himself, vaporize enemies with a psychic pummelling, bounce damage he suffered back on its source, and read minds.  Kyrmit was, basically, a Level 20 Magic-User hanging out with some durable meat-shields.  (Lomez’s player proudly points out that he stabbed a monster for 1d6 damage, and figured out “laser scissors.”)

Given the enormous hit points of Gamma World 2e characters – (Con)d6 for most folks in a world where mundane attacks typically do approximately 1d6 damage – I started the characters off in Room H – dropped in by the Snake Priestess as a sacrifice to the horrific snake-abominations.  Which were almost immediately destroyed by 10 Kyrmits, telekinetic crushing courtesy of Sir Francis, and Lomez’s lone 1d6 damage.  The characters wandered around some, encountered some horrible-to-pronounce plant monsters, killed a Snake Priest, deciphered his mystical “paralysis rod” and “laser scissors,” and then went to the Hisser village to steal a boat to go home.

the escape plan goes awry due to a bad GM call

The gang ended up using telepathy to scope out the village.  Sir Francis used telekinesis to pick up an insanely poisonous barracuda-fish to slap enemies and kill them with one hit.  Lomez liberated a boat.  They were all about to get free, when – fearing that this was going too smoothly and I should increase the opposition – I had the Snake Priestess show up and Death Field (or Life Leech, I get them mixed up) pretty much everyone, and I think there was some kind of area-of-effect attack to kill everybody once they hit 1 HP.  This killed 2/3 of the party, plus 10 Kyrmits, but Kyrmit Prime was apparently invincible and, I think, escaped handily.

Sir Francis’s player took the death of his PC stone-faced, but Lomez’s player was visibly bummed out, and thought it was bullshit that the Snake Priestess could arrive at that location, at that time, and put a whammy on everyone in the way that she did.

And he was right.  I hadn’t drawn a map of the village.  I didn’t know the distance involved or how fast the Hissers moved.  (We had already established that the Snake Priestess had this nasty mojo, though.)  It turns out when you look it up in the book, a boat movies at speed “varies,” whereas the Hissers are pretty slow.  As narrated, the boat would have been out of range long before the Snake Priestess could get into position.  (The player didn’t point this out; I checked the rules and realized it couldn’t possibly have happened.)

So I ret-conned the last round, we had some carnage courtesy of the telekinetically wielded Death-Fish, and the three critters escaped to fight another day.  At some point it was decided that Kyrmit should have pants – he missed out on some nice treasure simply because he didn’t have any pockets – and thus an epic quest was initiated . . . to be followed up, someday.

gamma world: what is the deal

Gamma World looks like a weird game, and the design is even weirder than it appears.  In 2e, advancement is almost exclusively a question of getting better access to gear through social networking with the secret societies.  (Tavis advises that several of his characters back in the day used to play “icarus” with radioactive sites, trying to get just close enough to radiation to mutate further, without getting killed.)  Hit Point tallies are enormous, rendering a lot of conventional D&D-style weapons meaningless – though I didn’t check the more lethal ultra-tech items.  Mutations are clearly standing in for spells, but you don’t get  to change them each day, or (absent radiation) get new ones.

Most of the bestiary is full of critters with forgettable names, and who likely started as bad jokes in Ward’s home game (the badger-men who worship the University of Wisconsin mascot; bunny-men who turn things into bouncy rubber; etc.).

In effect, without a lot of inspiration and weird imagination, Gamma World seems to be mainly about the fun of rolling up an absurd character, and it’s kind of downhill from there.  I’ve never heard of a Gamma World game lasting more than a few sessions.

Obviously a big part of my problem with Gamma World is that gonzo isn’t my style of game (though I do appreciate it very much from afar).  I generally find pop-culture jokes really jarring in games like this, so you’re left with High Weirdness, which as a participant doesn’t give me enough to connect to, emotionally.  (I like Pendragon so much in part because the setting connects to my dude at so many different points, including his personality traits, his passions, his income, and his ambitions.)   A lot of the post-apocalyptic fantasy stuff that fed into Gamma World was long gone by the time I was a teenager in the post-Berlin-Wall 90′s.

I’m willing to give Gamma World a go – Jared makes a good point that Gamma World is kind of like “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: the RPG,” which may be a fruitful way for me to look at it – but it’s not a passion for me.

Tell me, people of the Internet: have you played in long-term Gamma World games?  What in the world were they like?  Reveal my ignorance and stupidity that I may stand corrected!

07
Jun
13

eating out with renfield

what’s he building in there? a slow cooker no doubt

I was at a holiday party with some folks at Tor a long while back, and the editors were telling me that (at that time) the big thing was the Supernatural Romance sub-genre, with Supernatural Tourism, Supernatural Buddy Comedy, and Superntural C++ Programming Manuals as close runners-up.  I guess this must have been around the time that Twilight hit the shelves and every book with a vampire on its cover was flying off the shelves.

With my recent interest in the 2004 game Vampire: the Requiem (haven’t hit half-life yet, unfortunately) I think I have invented THE BEST COOKING CHANNEL SHOW EVER.  Do you remember how in Dracula there was crazy old Renfield, who somehow concluded:

  1. Count Dracula eats humans
  2. Count Dracula lives forever
  3. If I eat humans, I will live forever
  4. Therefore I shall eat bugs

I propose a cooking show where “Renfield” travels to various picturesque cultures and eats their Scary Magic Food like a maniac – like a strict diet of nothing but this thing, whatever it may be – and at the end of the week reports whether he has gained magic powers.  ANTHONY BOURDAIN meets GHOST HUNTERS.

This is fucking bank.

05
Jun
13

the pulsating heart of AD&D

Skidoo, one of the regulars in our on-going Pendragon epic, wrote insanely awesome combat charts for how to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e) “by the book,” near as he can figure out.  Everything is explained in flowcharts.  Because Skidoo has done this, and has spent session after session watching his knight’s agenda go down in flames before the titanic incompetence of my own Sir Carabad, I must conclude that Skidoo is a masochist.  But a devilishly handsome one.

But the files are right here (36 meg PDF), and this is Skidoo’s explanation for what he’s done:

skidoo’s explanation for spending time away from his family

Hi.This is a combat flowchart for AD&D 1st Edition, by the book.  It attempts to include all the rules in the three core rule books (PHB, DMG, MM).Everybody playing AD&D 1E ignores some of these rules.  I wondered if it was possible to include all of them in a game, when I joined a campaign that attempted to play AD&D strictly by-the-book.  I created this flowchart to see how all the combat rules fit together, to see if it’s possible to play through combat with all the rules, and what that might look like.I admit it looks nuts.
This is not:
How to play AD&D.
How I play AD&D.
How you must play AD&D to play it right.
One other point:
Because a flowchart gives as much space to a rule that’s used 2% of the time as one that’s used 98% of the time, the format makes it look like there’s a lot of rules to deal with in every combat, when there aren’t.  Many of the rules would only come into play at higher levels.  Multiple attack routines are not an issue at low levels.  BtB psionics will hardly ever happen.
In a way, it reminds me of a heavily house-ruled Basic D&D game.  I imagine many DM’s combat resolution systems would actually look just as crazy if you laid them out like this.  It’s just that the decision points and sequences are so ingrained from years of play that they don’t have to think, “Okay now I’m noting all of the spells in order of # of segments” or whatever.
I don’t have a big philosophical purpose for doing this.  I did it just so I could get my head around how it (might) work.  Kind of like dissecting a frog.  Or drawing what I think the dissected frog looks like.  Use it as you will.  Please leave a message in the comments if you have a different reading of a rule, or know one that I missed.

Special thanks to DM Prata for his ADDICT document, to which this project owes a lot, especially the chart illustrating how multiple attack routines work.  And to the makers of the game.

when you meet the buddha, kill him and take his flower sermon

(These are my opinions, not Skidoo’s.)

What I fucking love about this chart is that, at least for me, it ends the OSR as a rabbinical quest for The True Game Text.  (I suppose the rabbinical quest to play the game “as Gary actually played it in the year ______” can go on indefinitely, until we get a bunch of people with Gygax Number 1 together to thrash out that beast.)  This is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Everything else is just monster descriptions, maps, and character classes, all of which are simply inputs to the engine which Skidoo has exploded out for study.  And, uh, frankly it looks kind of un-fun.

This chart also ends the Edition Wars, at least for me.  I never cared about that stuff as an adult, but as a kid, even though I was playing a game called “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” it was the Second Edition.  I had this sneaking suspicion key things from 1e, such as demon tits, had been left out.  But dugs of darkness aside, I think Skidoo has pretty much demonstrated why creating 2e was a good idea, even if you don’t like the specific game that emerged from that redesign process.  It probably explains why the OSR seems to love Labyrinth Lord / BX and games derived from it so much.

Also, for me, this document kind of ends the OSR as an outlook.  My earliest interest in the OSR came from the puzzling realization that, despite mucking around with it for years as a child and teenager, I had never actually played Dungeons & Dragons, to the extent that “playing Dungeons & Dragons” meant playing by the rules.  But what these charts show is that, very likely, nobody has ever played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by the rules.  Back in 2008-2009, there was a lot of reminding ourselves about “rulings not rules” and “if the rules have gaps, fill them in yourself,” and that kind of thing, as a rebellion against the comparatively rigid styles of 3e and 4e play.  But damn, man: the same problem of rigidity existed in 1979!  And people solved it the way people always solve it: by making up their own stuff to route around the bullshit: the hell with level caps and encumbrance rules.

In other words, no one has played 1e, 2e, 3e, 4e, or (likely) 5e by the rules.  Gaming didn’t need to be saved.  It had been saved the whole time. (“Saved” here of course isn’t meant to be taken seriously.)

The other thing I wonder about, when looking at these charts, is about the design process in RPG’s.  I am, despite playing D&D almost exclusively for 5 years, a Forge guy at heart, and I do believe that game design is important: it’s why I love B/X so much, for example.  But these charts, man!  When I was 9 years old, we had the super-simple Mentzer Basic rules, and we couldn’t be bothered to actually understand the text, or even read it.  We made up our own rules as we needed them, and then broke them.  Years earlier, however, poor Gary or Dave or Larry Schick or Mike Carr or Zeb Cook or whoever else, was slaving away on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e, with a zillion times more rules.  What’s the ratio of design effort in Lake Geneva to fun at your table?  I think us kids had a far better labor-to-fun payoff.  No matter how old you are, nothing beats Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time.  And maybe that’s what, in practice, the players of 1e figured out too.

05
Jun
13

you must be this lucky to play, part 2

“I’ll work up how to do the math for 4d6 drop lowest arranged, but not today.”  Well, that was more than a year ago, and I can’t say I’ve really devoted myself to the project.  Frankly, I have failed you, dear trio of readers: it was much easier to re-learn Java to solve this problem by brute programming force rather than to re-learn probability.  The University of Illinois Math Department will probably come ’round demanding that I return my diploma…

Anyhow, I worked up a crappy little program to handle 4d6 arranged to taste for one million characters.  Surprisingly, even with that many data points there’s a lot of random noise in the second decimal place and a moderate amount of wobble in the first decimal place.  But I ain’t running this beyond a million characters.

Here are PDF’s of the charts below, in case, like me, you have trouble reading the way WordPress formatted the diagrams below.

advanced dungeons & dragons, 1979

As was pointed out in comments to the earlier blog post, 1e apparently uses 4d6 Drop Lowest Arranged to Taste as its default method of creating a character.

Several of these stat requirements are not specifically identified in the class description, but rather called out in the ability score charts. For example, if you have a Strength of 3-5, you can only play a Magic-User. Thanks to Olivier Fanton for pointing this out.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Dr. Low, Arr.
Cleric Str 6, Int 6, Wis 9, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Druid Str 6, Int 6, Wis 12, Dex 6, Con 6, Cha 15 2.87% 73.51%
Fighter Str 9, Wis 6, Dex 6, Con 7, Cha 6 58.30% 99.80%
Paladin Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Dex 6, Con 9, Cha 17 0.10% 24.19%
Ranger Str 13, Int 13, Wis 14, Dex 6, Con 14, Cha 6 0.16% 29.46%
Magic-User Int 9, Wis 6, Dex 6, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Illusionist Str 6, Int 15, Wis 6, Dex 16, Cha 6 0.37% 35.82%
Thief Str 6, Int 6, Dex 9, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Assassin Str 12, Int 11, Wis 6, Dex 12, Con 6 6.39% 93.51%
Monk Str 15, Int 6, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 11, Cha 6 0.04% 13.15%
Bard Str 15, Int 12, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 10, Cha 15; Fighter 5, Thief 5* 0.00%** 1.59%

 

* = Before becoming a Bard, characters would have to survive through 5 levels of Fighter and then 5 levels of Thief, totalling around 28,000 XP, before beginning Bard training. From our five years of weekly play, that would require about three years, assuming the character didn’t get killed or super-killed in the meantime.

 

** = The odds of the 1e Appendix II: Bard is actually 0.0017%. That is, if you rolled 1 million AD&D 1e characters using 3d6, you could expect to see 17 Bards occurring in nature using 3d6 in order.  

unearthed arcana, 1985

Unearthed Arcana has a lot of alternate ways to generate character stats. I have ignored these alternate methods, as I have ignored everything else in this book. I leave rolling 9d6 or whatever as an exercise for severely bored readers.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Barbarian Str 15, (Wis 16), Dex 14, Con 15 0.14% 28.23%
Cavalier Str 15, Int 10, Wis 10, Dex 15, Con 15 0.03% 12.52%
UA Paladin Str 15, Int 10, Wis 13, Dex 15, Con 15, Cha 17 0.00%* 0.89%
Thief-Acrobat Str 15, Dex 16; Thief 5** 0.43% 35.74%

 

* = The actual number is 0.0002%, which means out of 1 million characters rolled up using 3d6 in order, a full 2 of them might expect to qualify for Paladin status in Unearthed Arcana rules.

 

** = Thief-Acrobat has to accumulate 10,000 XP as a Thief first. I don’t know how to assess how hard that is, but several players in the Glantri campaign have hit similar numbers after three years of play (and leaving many corpses of less-fortunate PC’s in their wake). 

 

dragonlance adventures, 1985

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Knight of the Crown Str 10, Int 7, Wis 10, Dex 8, Con 10 18.56% 97.94%
Knight of the Sword Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Dex 9, Con 10; Crown Knight 2 3.33% 84.90%
Knight of the Rose Str 15, Int 10, Wis 13, Dex 12, Con 15; Sword Knight 4 0.05% 27.60%
Tinker Gnome Gnome only*; Int 10, Dex 12 23.12% 99.90%

 

Note that, like the 1e Bard and the Thief-Acrobat, the Knights of the Sword or the Rose require you to advance in level to qualify.

 

* = The Tinker Gnome must first qualify to play a Gnome: Strength 6, Constitution 8, and a Wisdom no higher than 12; they also get a +2 to their Dexterity. These stat requirements and adjustments have been factored into the “Odds to Qualify” columns.

oriental adventures, 1985

Oriental Adventures explicitly says to roll 4d6 Drop Lowest Arranged to Taste as the way to create characters.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Barbarian Str 15, (Wis 16), Dex 14, Con 15 0.14% 28.28%
Bushi Str 9, Dex 8, Con 8 52.02% 99.98%
Kensai Str 12, Wis 12, Dex 14 2.28% 80.91%
Monk Str 15, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 11 0.04% 13.63%
Ninja-Bushi Str 9, Int 15, Dex 14, Con 8, Cha 14 0.15% 34.54%
Ninja-Sohei Str 13, Int 15, Wis 12, Dex 14, Con 10, Cha 14 0.01% 10.07%
Ninja-Wu Jen Int 15, Dex 14, Cha 14 0.24% 35.16%
Ninja-Yakuza Str 11, Int 15, Dex 15, Cha 16 0.02% 12.63%
Samurai Str 13, Int 14, Wis 13, Con 13 0.28% 31.98%
Shukenja Str 9, Wis 12, Con 9 20.57% 99.54%
Sohei Str 13, Wis 12, Con 10 6.08% 95.23%
Wu Jen Int 13 25.93% 35.16%
Yakuza Str 11, Int 15, Dex 15, Cha 16 0.02% 12.63%

 

 advanced dungeons & dragons, second edition, 1989

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition uses 3d6 in order as its default method to roll character attributes, but 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged to Taste, was listed as an alternate method that a lot of people seem to have used.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Fighter Str 9 74.07% 100.00%
Paladin Str 12, Con 9, Wis 13, Cha 17 0.13% 27.05%
Ranger Str 13, Dex 13, Con 14, Wis 14 0.18% 30.55%
Mage Int 9 74.07% 100.00%
Hard Specialist Stat 16 *, Int 9 4.63% 56.76%
Easy Specialist Stat 15 **, Int 9 9.26% 79.43%
Cleric Wis 9 74.07% 100.00%
Druid Wis 12, Cha 15 3.47% 78.28%
Thief Dex 9 74.07% 100.00%
Bard Dex 12, Int 13, Cha 15 0.90% 68.90%

 

* = The “Hard Specialists” are the Diviner, Enchanter, Illusionist, Invoker, and Necromancer.

 

** = The “Easy Specialists” are the Abjurer, Summoner, and Transmuter.

 

what have we learned?

First: that knowledge of calculus does not survive fifteen years of total disuse.

Second: wow, no wonder people like 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged!  The odds of playing a 2e Paladin jump from barely one-in-a-thousand to about one-in-four.

Third: 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged works on a “generosity curve,” for lack of a better term.  Slightly less than 60% of characters using 3d6 in order qualify to play a Fighter in 1e, but using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged this basically hits 100%.  That’s a 66% improvement in the odds to qualify.  But the 2e Bard, who occurs just under 1% of the time using 3d6 straight, is about 7000% more likely using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged.  And the freakish Unearthed Arcana Paladin, who occurs in 2 out of a million characters using 3d6 straight, occurs roughly 8900 times in a million using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged–becoming 445,000% more likely.  There’s a reason for this!  But I am now too dumb about math to understand why!

Fourth: the UA Paladin is still the hardest class to qualify for in terms of straight-up stats, but the 1e Bard is only twice as likely, and requires you to earn 28,000 XP before you can even show up for Bard College.  I think that’s got to be a huge filter, easily making the class 10 to 20 times harder to qualify for than stats alone would suggest.

Fifth: in the earlier blog post, it really looked like people back in the day had to cheat like crazy to qualify for some of those hard-to-reach classes.  That’s much less likely using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged.  Whether people still cheated on stat rolls or not, who can say. I sure did as a  kid, but we were using 3d6 in order.

 

22
May
13

half-life of gaming lust

After flirting with several different game systems lately, I am now conducting a scientific experiment: how long will it take for me to get sick of Vampire: the Requiem, and by implication, other games that I get momentarily infatuated with?  (The answer: I was fed up with the presentation and authorial voice instantly.  But maaaaaaybe there’s a game worth playing hidden in between the schlocky writing?)  I ask this because I was recently enamored of Star Frontiers and then Gamma World, only to have those feelings quickly dissolve within a few days.

star frontiers: what am I doing here, captain

Our group has been wrestling with science-fiction games for quite some time.  By New York State Law I am forbidden from playing Traveller, but it doesn’t quite seem to get a critical mass of interest from the other Red Boxers.  I know the Alternity system pretty well, but its spaceship combat rules are awful, character design takes forever, and I’m a perfectionist about designing a scenario in these types of system-is-everything games.  A friend wrote a beautiful hack of Starships & Spacemen that some of us used to play a joyous Star Trek rip-off, but he doesn’t want to run it any more.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I figured I’d check out Star Frontiers, given its TSR pedigree and remembering incomprehensible adds in Marvel Comics.  Frankly, I am not sure what Star Frontiers is about.  Apparently you’re like, the Away Team sent down to hex-crawl across alien worlds and zap things. Several of the modules take this approach, and the game’s tagline, “Exciting adventures on alien worlds!” seems to bear that out.

Somewhat awesomely, all of human knowledge has collapsed into thirteen fields of study, of which a full seven (54%) directly involve killing things.  (This amazes me mainly because in Alternity, the sci-fi game I’ve played most, there are like 109 skills, of which like 25 directly involve killing things.)  Also, the aliens aren’t described in much detail, but they’re fairly non-human, which is a plus in my mind.

Part of the problem with Star Frontiers, maybe, is that it is deliberately non-political science-fiction: that is, science-fiction that’s designed to be bland.  Star Trek‘s original series is infused with mid-1950′s techno-utopian thinking, Cold War tension, and late-60′s cultural concerns; the later iterations of the show tended to veer toward the police procedural genre, albeit ones where the police get trapped in caves a lot or date women who are actually disguised space-monsters.  Star Wars (the watchable movies, at least) is an admixture of Zen platitudes, anti-fascism, and perhaps a qualified rejection of the Industrial Revolution.  But those two are only the big sci-fi franchises in hindsight.  In the early 1980′s, there was also Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica and many other things besides, and it feels like Star Frontiers was just trying to fit in with the crowd rather than stake out new territory.

Certainly some people love the hell out of this game, enough to create a deluxe, high-quality remix of the rules with better art.  I do find it curious, though, that a company like TSR / Wizards has never tried to squeeze more juice out of this game.  Maybe the Williamses wanted the company to start fresh with Buck Rogers XXVc or something.

gamma world: that’ll do, pig

After quickly growing bored with Star Frontiers, I got into Gamma World very briefly after Tavis was kind enough to run me through a goofy little half-scenario in which my twice-super-intelligent pig, Boss Hogg, who I imagine is the Samuel L. Delany of post-apocalyptic Hazzard County, helped some benighted villagers understand the mystery of witch-fruit (“it’s really a tuber”), found them a robot-obstetrician to help with their appalling infant mortality rate, and fed pig-slops to a smelly toothless hobo, just like the real Samuel L. Delany would.

Gamma World 2e (which is kinda the Moldvay equivalent of the 1e rules) looks like a lot of fun, precisely because it’s what disappointed me about Star Frontiers: you’re some weird freak rollin’ around in an “alien” world.  Why this appeals to me in Gamma World but disappoints me in Star Frontiers is a mystery, and probably unfair.

I mainly fell out of love with Gamma World when I realized it seemed to be D&D with a facelift: modern-day ruins instead of medieval ones, tons more hit points, and an unchanging list of magic spells mutations.  To whatever extent D&D is a game about managing your resources wisely, this seems less true Gamma World in the main (though I guess you’d have to ration your D batteries pretty carefully).

I still wanna play that pig, though.  Boss Hogg, Edible Consultant, has a lot more adventures left in him.

i hope vampires are not too stupid

Over the weekend I got hopped up on old Tomb of Dracula comics, and took down my old unplayed copy of Vampire: the Requiem down from the shelf.  So my experiment started on Sunday night and I’m waiting to see when I get tired of this thing.  That way, whenever I fall into the grip of some new gaming passion, I will know to wait _____ days before taking it seriously.

I am not, and probably never was, part of the target audience for Vampire: the Requiem.  I don’t like horror movies, LARPing, or freeform role-play twiddle-twaddle.  I hate the book’s padding and fake-ass lingo.  I strongly doubt that whoever called it “Modern Gothic role-playing” had read The Castle of Otranto.  This book is not meant for me.

On the other hand, I really, really dig the idea of what a pain in the ass it would be to only be active at night.  I can barely get my shit done in 18 hours; now I’ve only got 12?  Man, what if I want to check out some Isaac Asimov book from the library and it closes at 5 p.m.?  Can’t see no animals at the zoo.  Can’t see no kids on the playground while strolling around.  Can’t renew my drivers license at the DMV; can’t pick up Amazon boxes at the post office.  Plus, every night you gotta drink blood instead of having a toasted cheese sandwich or whatever.  This is not enough to make me all emo and mopey, but it would be an interesting problem to have for few sessions.

Stripping down the game to the basics, it seems that what you’ve got is a game about extremely territorial cannibal-folks with magic blood-powers, who more or less hate each other but any big move would set off a gang war apocalypse.  There’s also some stuff about enslavement and addiction, and a risk of growing insanity, which has to be carefully managed to avoid being disabled for years or decades.  It looks like there’s a playable game lurking in there, if you can avoid the pretentious nonsense.

I expect my interest will fade by the end of the Memorial Day, but we’ll see.

20
Mar
13

an “oriental” adventure

I’m using “oriental” in scare quotes because my partner is Chinese and keeps rolling her eyes when she sees that word.  But y’all know what I’m talking about.  Last night, with very little prep, I ran a kinda dumb scenario based on OA1: Swords of Daimyo for half of our Pendragon crew (Skidoo, stop looking after your family and come back!)  Alas, while it did feature ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, there were no giant robots or love-smitten beetle-accessories.

a nice day for a . . . white wedding

The unstoppable forces of TANAKA Toru (poetry-loving samurai lord of Bingo Village, notorious for its unbelievable hidden treasure caches) and WATANABE Yuki (financially ruined Bushi and master to the strange hairy gibberish-speaking forest gnome Konando) combined to thwart a wedding!

A wedding of eeeeeevil!

Or, at least, a wedding involving a heartbroken suicide returned as a horrible demon of insanity, a clan of ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, and more court intrigue than could easily be displayed on a relationship-map. Plus, burning buildings! A pavillion tent with one entrance but three exits! Psychic duels! A display of incredible archery! “Furious” urination! An attempted seppuku! Sake! Sorcery! And a litany of similes as inexhaustible as the ocean’s waves!

Poor Tanaka was driven insane, Watanabe kept encouraging the bridegroom to kill himself, and stout-hearted Konando rang a gong like a gong-ringing monkey-dwarf to wake up a priest who actually did the hard work of banishing the demon to save the day.  But he is only a priest, and everyone knows that glory goes to the warriors.

some half-assed prep

Before I had a scenario in mind, one of my players rolled up a down-on-his-luck Bushi character of very low-class origins.  When the Oriental Adventures Monthly Events table indicated that there was to be a Momentous Wedding . . . well, you gotta get Toshiro Mifune to that one somehow, don’t you?

By complete coincidence, this player had named his Bushi after one of the loyal vassal families of Niwa Hirotada, shugo-daimyo (military governor) of Miyama Province.  So I figured some comical fop had gotten the names confused and would deliver an wedding invitation for this dude.  And since, under the Oriental Adventure rules, he would constantly be smacking into serious negative reaction modifiers when hobnobbing among the aristocracy, hijinks would probably ensue.  And they did!

So, dig it:

  • NIWA Hirotada = military governor, head of Niwa family, more or less decent guy
  • IGI Tajima = civil governor, a sinecure position; mostly collects taxes and gives grief to the rival Niwa family
  • EBISAWA Ryu = head of the Ebisawa family, traditionally loyal retainers of the Igi clan . . . buuuuuut, Niwa Hirotada has offered his niece in marriage to
  • EBISAWA Saberu = son of Ryu; engaged to Niwa Hirotada’s niece; just had a heartbreaking affair with
  • WATANABE Minori = princess of the Watanabe clan which is traditionally loyal to Niwa.  Committed suicide when Saberu called off their elopement.

So what’s going on in political terms is that Niwa Hirotada is peeling off the Ebisawa family’s loyalty to the Igi clan. If anyone had known that Saberu was already having an affair with a girl of the Watanabe family (loyal to the Niwas) it might have accomplished the same result, but nobody knew, it all came to tragedy, and Saberu is kind of a mess.

Minori’s ghost comes back as a Con-Tinh, sort of an evil dryad demon of insanity, haunting the cherry-blossom Shrine of Taro the Poet, where Saberu will be married to Niwa’s niece.  She is supernaturally disappointed in Saberu, and plans to possess the spirit of his bride and have them commit a lover’s suicide.

Meanwhile, someone else has hired a clan of Spider-Man suited ninjas to kill young Saberu.  All signs would seemingly point to the civil governor Igi, who is mad that the Ebisawa clan is breaking up with him, but there are actually several other possibilities based on the political situation in Swords of the Daimyo.  I hadn’t really figured out who is responsible, except that blaming Igi was probably too obvious to be true.

It turns out that a second player arrived, created a Samurai loyal to the Niwas and a friend of the Watanabe clan, so that was handy for the purposes of exposition.

The adventure consisted of mostly improvised social encounters as the players gradually pieced the social and political puzzle together, and fended off various assassination attempts and supernatural events.

Major adversaries included the Con-Tinh ghost of Watanabe Minori, three unnamed 5th level Ninjas (a Ninja/Sohei priest with 10 first-level followers; a Ninja/Wu Jen who impersonated a member of the entourage and attempted to poison Saberu; and a Ninja/Bushi who was going to kill Saberu on his wedding night with a sword he’d stolen from the PC Bushi), a group of drunken Were-Bears who kept breaking into a village’s rice-warehouses looking for sake, sarcastic fop Igi Sanekata, and various other stock-character NPC’s.

what worked

The Yearly, Monthly, and Daily Events charts in Oriental Adventures are good stuff, well worth stealing.  For the last five years, my exposure to D&D has consisted very largely of dungeon-delving per the ethos of the OSR revisionist/purist movement.  The idea of running a D&D wedding scenario struck me as irresistibly ludicrous, and it was.

Swords of the Daimyo has a complicated political situation, but that’s actually pretty good in a court intrigue scenario.  The trick is to present that stuff in bite-sized pieces.  In this case, I took the description of Muroto Village from the gazetteer, figured the political situation there would easily tie into the Marriage Event, and bang, the political stuff fell into place immediately.

The rules for Psychic Duels were used, mainly because I wanted to force it in somehow.

Though this scenario was written up perfectly straight-faced–it’s a bummer, basically–the players brought their usual farce and a good time was had by all.  One player couldn’t stop boasting about his secret treasure caches, while the other was busily trying to pretend to be an aristocrat (or hide from people who recognized him).

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the preposterous Korobokuru barbarian, Konando (originally inserted as a henchman for the Bushi PC), who didn’t speak Fake Japanese and nobody else spoke his dialect, so he mostly communicated in gibberish.  Some interesting facts about Konando emerged during play:

    • If his master is a sleep, Konando will wake him by tugging on the left big toe to signal supernatural danger, or the right big toe to signal ninjas
    • Konando is a skilled woodsman, passable dancer, and terrible cook
    • On formal occasions, Konando wears a big pile of furs, to the point where he looks like Captain Caveman
    • Though Konando cannot understand the content of a haiku, he can count meter very well; furthermore he finds blank verse intolerable
    • The word for “ninja” in the Korobokuru dialect is “Los Banditos Malvados!!

what did not work as well

I’m not great at improv.  If the players had said, “Screw this wedding, let’s just hang out in the city instead,” I did not have anything planned.

I was under an extremely tight time crunch, which is why I did virtually zero prep.  As a result, I defaulted to 2e Wizard spells for the Wu Jen ninja instead of using spells from Oriental Adventures, of which there are many and they are not obvious.  (Quick: what does “drowsy insects” do?  Answer: I thought it made guys like Mothra real tired, but it turns out creates a cloud of mosquitoes who put people to sleep.  Who knew?)  Anyway, even with “standard” spells this guy was a pretty devious assassin.

The Iaijutsu, or fast-draw, rules only give you a +1 bonus to surprising your enemy (on a 1d10 roll), which isn’t enough to be worth a proficiency slot.  (Maybe in OA surprise is done on a d6?  Still, lousy benefit.)

You really do need non-weapon proficiencies, or some way of adjudicating courtly nonsense, when your characters aren’t slogging through a dungeon all day.  The OA/2e proficiency system is kind of a kludge.

in summary

Swords of the Daimyo is quite worthwhile as a gazetteer, as I suspected.  Dungeons & Dragons can be hacked to do Fake Japan, and it was fun, but it’s not a particularly elegant fit.  On a player’s advice I’m reading through Bushido (only $18 for a print copy!) which seems interesting (if not for all the dang early 80′s derived scores nonsense).  Bushido apparently doesn’t come with a local setting (maybe I missed it); you could probably drop Swords of the Daimyo in there and get something quite worthwhile.

15
Mar
13

OA1: Swords of the Daimyo

In the other post, Sam Curry comments that OA1 is one hell of a module.  He’s right.  I confess I don’t read a lot of OSR blogs.  Maybe someone has talked about OA1: Swords of the Daimyo before and I missed it.  But I suspect that, like many classic D&D modules, you can’t praise it enough, and it certainly deserves to rank up there with The Keep on the Borderlands, Night’s Dark Terror, and The Vault of the Drow.  If you don’t know this one, you should.  It’s an extremely well done wilderness hex-crawl.  David “Zeb” Cook comes through in a major way here.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this thing for more than two years, but I really wanted to play/run it first, and that never quite got off the ground.  Still, better late than never.  Hopefully someone can use this thing with the class summary charts

the province book: hell yeah

Swords of the Daimyo comes in two parts: the Adventure Book, which is terrible, and the Province Book, which is amazingly good.  Briefly, we get a run down on the Miyama Province, a politically important region in Kozakura (“Fake Japan”).
The first twelve pages of the Province Book contain a sketch of Kozakuran politics, which is basically a four-way struggle for power between the Emperor, the Deputy Emperor, the Shogun, and the Deputy-Shogun.  The prominent families in the Miyama Province are aligned with these imperial factions, and they’re all scheming against each other for influence.  If only there were some ruffian adventurers to take care of dirty work with plausible deniability–or a group of noble heroes to sponsor in a way that brings glory to your house…
(These same twelve pages include some boring stuff about climate, trade resources, etc.)
It’s the last twenty pages, though, where the Province Book really kicks ass.  A gazetteer of the Miyama Province, the Province Book provides several adventure hooks, and provides a hex-by-hex view of the setting in large terms.  Here is a typical entry:

1124.  Stone-Icicle-World.  At the base of the mountains, hidden in the deep woods, is a narrow, rubble-clogged cave mouth.  This is the entrance to a vast series of caverns that underlie all of Miyama Province and more.  Although the exact location is unknown to the general population, there are a few hengeyokai and korobokuru who can guide one to the site.According to local legend, Stone-Icicle-World is the place where O-Miyama-no-Mikoto, a local deity, entered the Realms of the Dead to visit his mother.  The caverns are believed to extend for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles beneath the earth, magically reaching even into other planes and dimensions.  It is also said that the caverns are filled with all manner of horrible creatures, although this is somewhat uncertain as few tell tales of this subterranean region.

As far as names go, “Stone-Icicle-World” kills “the Underdark.”

 

In broad strokes, Miyama Province has three major population centers.  Tamanokuni is the provincial capital, prosperous but beset by feuding yakuza gangs, samurai rivalries, and religious squabbles, while the noblemen plot to wheedle more money out of the shogunate which they can dispense to their underlings to buy loyalty.  Kuda, the former capital, is a large city across Kobawan Bay from the horrors of Kuroijo Castle, where the demon-master Aga wrought untold horrors more than eight centuries ago.  Okahira, to the north, is relatively isolated and has fallen under the control of a Shou Lung (“Fake Chinese”) wizard who is using a figurehead governor to hide an invasion force.
Lurking around are several bandit camps, a ninja village, your obligatory ruins and abandoned mine shafts, and wilderness monster lairs.  There are numerous shrines–including one where a blind saint is teaching fake-Buddhism to a gaggle of goblins.  The former shogun has gone into retirement at a heavily fortified monastery, though he still receives messages from court and continues to meddle in high politics.

 

Numerous villages exist, most plagued by problems which their (naturally) incompetent or corrupt mayor cannot or will not solve.  One of the cool things about the Province Book is that administering your lord’s villages, and making sure the mayors are doing their jobs properly, is an important responsibility for a mid-level samurai.  The idea seems to be that a campaign could be run as an itinerant 7th level Samurai & Friends, roaming around between the daimyo’s manors to make sure everything is cool, bumping into weird stuff on the road and hoping to winter at one of the more comfortable towns.

not everything is perfect

While I’ve said nice things about this product, the Adventure Book that comes with it is . . . well, it’s not good, but it’s 1986 TSR, so you probably shouldn’t expect too much.  It contains a trio of railroaded vignettes which lack all interest.  It does contain eight pre-generated 1st level characters, and maps of typical buildings.

The Province Book’s political situation is a little too complicated for my taste–and much of it happens off screen or by proxy through families in Miyama.  The wilderness encounters are often flavorful, but some could stand to have stronger hooks.  (That said, there are so many laughably corrupt, or slovenly, or undisciplined, or sacrilegious NPC’s that role-playing these doofuses would be a lot of fun, even if there’s no dungeon to loot.)

Also there is a town named Bingo.

how can this be an OSR blog without the occasional C&D letter?

So the problem with Swords of the Daimyo is that the versions available on the secondary market often don’t have the maps.  Let me fix that for you.  Wizards of the Coast, when you put this stuff up for sale again, I’ll gladly take down these scans which are offered solely to help those who have legitimately purchased this on the secondary market.Miyama Province NEMiyama Province, SouthwestMiyama Province SEMiyama Province, NorthwestMiyama Province NWMiyama Province, SouthwestMiyama Province SW

27
Feb
13

charlemagne in action

charlemagne1

Our regular Pendragon crew could not play on Friday night, so I spruced up some one-page dungeons and ran a session of Charlemagne’s Paladins for Skidoo, whose Pendragon character Sir Hervis is the terrifically accomplished straight man to Sir Carabad the Schlimazel.

Running 1:1 D&D is rough going for the player. Skidoo grabbed a pre-gen, Lady Odelia, a dual-class Thief 5 (ex-Cleric 5) and a bunch of 3rd level Fighter henchmen, and set off for adventure, before realizing that a lone Thief and her gang of henchmen are in for a world of trouble.

Briefly: Charlemagne’s court enchanter, Maugris, had a prophetic dream about the city of Avignon and the future of Christendom, and asked Lady Odelia on behalf of the King to pacify the surrounding lands.  Avignon and the territory between it and the Pyrenees was  known back then as “Septimania,” which sounds like some Labor Day-related car sale event.

But in the late 700′s A.D. Septimania had a lot going on, in terms of D&D settings. About forty years prior, Charles THE HAMMER Martel practically stomped the whole region into the dirt when the local Visigoths, led on by promises of assistance from the Moors, wouldn’t submit to him. So the place is littered with ruins, the local population is nominally Christian but there are still lots of pagan traditions and cults (variants on Saxon deities, who were variants on Norse gods), there are barbarian and Moorish raiders from the Pyrenees, and towns like Marseille get a fair amount of trade.  Narbonne is in the process of becoming a center of learning and religious toleration, with lots of strange folk mingling. To the southwest, the dangerous Moors; to the southeast, the treacherous Lombards.

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex (French people, point out what I got wrong!)

Anyhow, Odelia wasn’t too keen on spreading the King’s influence, but did want to help the locals simply for the sake of doing good deeds, so she traveled down to Avignon by riverboat. Along the way she hoodwinked some Ogres who had set up a toll, and negotiated the release of one of her men from mischievous Nixies. During the journey she became increasingly fixated on finding the bandit stronghold of Scarlet Jacques, whose depredations had alarmed the locals.

(Of the one-pagers I had brought with me, this stronghold was the one I had not stocked—and, it turns out, had not brought the map after all. Naturally it was the plot hook the player wanted to pursue…)

Anyway, so Odelia set off into the foothills of the Alps, and ran into five Hill Giants who she had to let pass by.  She interrogated a desperate merchant who had escaped from Jacques’ alpine fortress: there are at least 150 bandits, a pagan priest, and a magician of terrible power: far more than a Thief and six knights could handle. Regrettably descending back into civilization, we had to stop when a flock of Wyverns carried off half of Odelia’s henchmen and another poised on a rock above her, daring her to make the first move…

what worked

This felt exactly like any D&D game ever played. Some overland hex exploration leading to encounters solved through lateral thinking (she was a Thief after all), and just GM’ing what the dice told me would happen. My only deviations from the 2e rules were using the B/X wildness encounter charts, because I didn’t have the Monstrous Compendia on my iPad.

what didn’t work

Odelia in theory had access to Cleric spells, but the casting time problem–everything in Charlemagne’s Paladins takes ten times longer to cast–meant that it was pretty hard to plan ahead given the extremely random nature of overland travel in the game. I suspect that this is something that could be overcome with some thought and more exposure to the spell list.

The other thing that didn’t work was having a solo adventurer engage in overland travel, even with a retinue of meat shields. A lot of really horrible monsters live in the mountains, and it was a minor miracle that Odelia survived for over a week of game time.

charlemagne: a cool guy

All the stuff that King Arthur gets credit for, like unifying a diverse kingdom and establishing order after a long period of chaos, conquering Europe, trying to instill a moral code among the warrior class, and encouraging culture and learning–Charlemagne actually did that stuff, though of course this was the work of generations beginning with his grandfather Charles THE HAMMER Martel and continued by his father Pepin the Short. From (very biased) accounts Charlemagne seems like an extremely talented and interesting person.

charlemagne: also, turned into a dick for propaganda purposes

As we discussed prior to play, so much of our society’s imaginative life is focused on the idea of “good” violence. It’s a very problematic concept, and I’m sure it’s been part of human nature since the dawn of time, but Charlemagne did “good violence” on a scale never before seen in Europe, particularly against Muslims.

Charlemagne’s own attitudes toward Muslims appear to be complex and historically contingent: the disaster at Roncevalles started because he was willing to make an alliance with one group of Muslims against another faction.

But a few centuries later, during the Crusades, people looked to Charlemagne’s battles against the Moors as a kind of propaganda tool to inspire everyone to go to the Holy Land and slaughter people. The chansons de geste, which are at the heart of the Matter of France, were composed during this time.  For the next thousand years, whether fighting crusades, colonizing the New World and Africa, holding various ideological revolutions, World Wars, Cold Wars, and now Terror Wars, world history has been shaped by Western Civilization’s seemingly endless appetite for “good violence.”  And for Europe, the big proof-of-concept was Charlemagne, at least as perceived in propaganda.  (And again, this is probably not unique to the West, but they ended up in a position to indulge that appetite fairly often.)

Basically, in 2013 your attitude about legendary Charlemagne killing hordes of legendary Evil Muslims is going to be shaped by our own experiences of “good violence” in our modern crusade.  I haven’t resolved how I feel about using these themes in the game.

23
Feb
13

“oriental adventures” class summary charts

“My cossack asks the Leprechaun, ‘Why did you sabotage that aqueduct?’”

The other day Zak was talking about how come nobody seems to use 1985′s “Oriental Adventures” rules, written by David “Zeb” Cook with material from François Marcela-Froideval.  I think it’s an interesting effort, and one I’ve always been intrigued by, but (among many other problems) the book suffers from some truly bad organization and editing.  If I’m remembering correctly, Cook has said he was bascially handed Marcela-Froideval’s manuscript on Friday and told, “Have this thing ready to publish on Monday.”  That’s not the correct deadline, but it’s that type of story, where publication date had been set way in advance of when the manuscript was actually ready.  And it shows.

Anyway, what the hell: I spent a long time compiling all the information about the “Oriental Adventures” into a set of charts which hopefully are easier to use than the book itself.  I was thinking mainly for use with AD&D 2e but I guess you could port it to whatever you like.

21
Feb
13

charlemagne: by the cross and the sword

Image

Yes: Christopher Lee recorded a heavy metal album in which he pretends to be Charlemagne.

Because I’ve been enjoying Pendragon so much, I became curious about how to adapt a historical low-fantasy environment to Dungeons & Dragons.  Turns out dudes already beat me to it twenty years ago with HR2: Charlemagne’s Paladins.  I’ve been messing around with this book, and it is weird.  

The sourcebook groups its rules options into Historical (pretty close to reality), Legendary (pretty close to most European epic tales), and Fantasy (pretty close to D&D-style fantasy).  Under the middle-of-the-road Legendary set of rules, everybody’s human, and the only available classes are the Fighter, Paladin, Cleric, Thief, and Bard. 

Even more critically, spells are very tightly restricted in terms of subject matter.  Bards get Illusions, Enchantments, Conjurations, and Divinations only; (Christian) Clerics get Healing, Divination, Protection, and a tiny percentage to cast some other spells.  So right there, nobody is tossing fire ball to vaporize a horde of angry Visigoths, or teleporting from Aix-la-Chapelle to Roncevalles to send Roland some reinforcements.

But even more importantly, spells take “one unit” longer to cast.  So a spell with a “casting time” of 4 segments, now takes 4 rounds; a spell that takes a turn to cast now takes an hour; etc.  (The book doesn’t say it, but presumably the compensation is that the durations are similarly extended.)  This has the effect of turning spells into ritual type performances, which is kind of cool.  But it also means that it’s almost impossible to cast spells in the middle of combat.  Magic is something you plan ahead of time; it’s not your “oh dang we need immediate crisis control” toolbox

As an experiment, I’ve been playing “solitaire” by running some sample characters through a randomly generated dungeon.  Unsurprisingly, with the spell-casting classes crippled, the Fighter dominates.  The game is still playable, and even still recognizable as Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s definitely a “Gladys Knight & the Pips” thing going on. 

(In fact, this is exactly how things go in Pendragon: in 4e, you could play a magician or a miracle-worker, but what you can do is so limited that you really should be playing a knight instead.)

The whole thing makes me wonder what the idea was behind the Historical Sourcebooks.  “It’s the D&D you know and love!  Minus the races, the classes, most of the magic, most of the monsters, and all of the really cool treasures!  Doesn’t that sound fun?” 

To me, it kinda does, actually: there’s a viable sub-set of D&D in here.  But I think the audience for it is likely very small.




Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2014
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
282930  

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,030 other followers


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,030 other followers