Archive for October, 2009


Less is More

To amplify something from a comment Tavis made:

 it’s taken a lot of on-the-job training for me to understand the old texts for what they are, rather than the assumptions I bring to them. Without a lot of intentionally trying to stick just to what guys like Gygax, Arneson, Bledsaw, and Jaquays actually wrote, the way I would have winged it would (I think) have been very unsatisfying & have missed the essential concepts of old school as a method, rather than an ideology.

 As a player I have a feel of danger, pace, and range of possibility based on memorized portions of the Players Handbook, DMG, and Monster Manual.  I struggle with my AD&D-based assumptions in two ways. 

 First, it is hard not to apply out-of-game knowledge in a way that violates what our characters would know [1].  This is role-playing 101; it is always hard to be mindful of what you should and should not “know,” especially in the heat of the moment.

 Second, related to what Tavis says above, AD&D and OD&D differ in a lot of minute details which contribute to the old-school “method.”  Those details accumulate and create a wholly different environment, where assumptions based on the AD&D ruleset are not only wrong, but can hobble the OD&D feel.

 One fine example is the different way magic swords are treated.  AD&D swords are most often undistinguished artifacts, nice to have but not necessarily game-changing.  OD&D magic swords are all unique, each having at a minimum an alignment and intelligence, and 60% having at least one special power, making them a watershed magic item for any party.[2]

 Another example is spell descriptions.  The OD&D spells as written are generally less restricted and more open to interpretation.  As a result they can be situationally more or less powerful and I think contribute towards a looser game, more open to possibility.  Some examples:

  •  The fifth-level cleric spell Insect Plague in AD&D causes 1 hit point damage per round, remains fixed where it was cast, and lasts one turn per caster level.  The OD&D version does no damage and only works above ground, but can be directed anywhere the cleric wishes, and lasts a day.
  •  Hold person in OD&D works as a powerful charm person spell, allowing the caster to order about and make use of the 1-4 creatures affected.  In AD&D, hold person simply freezes victims in place, much less useful.
  •  Magic-missile in AD&D automatically hits.  In OD&D, there is no magic-missile spell until introduced in Supplement I, where the text describes a “conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage to any creature it strikes.”  Given no other context but the OD&D books and Greyhawk, it is reasonable to rule that the M-U has to make a to-hit roll for a magic-missile, drastically changing the nature of the spell.[3]

 The accumulative effect of all the minute changes in the game seems to be an expanded range of what can happen – a given spell, item, or encounter can more easily cause a dramatic change in the fortunes of the party.  This can be the case in AD&D too, of course, but the tighter descriptions and increased detail make it harder to play the looser, pulpier, sword and sorcery game that OD&D arguably was, and the accidental application of AD&D rules can undermine the more free-wheeling play of OD&D.

 [1] A recent example from our white box game: upon learning that the nameless patriarch is piling wooden sticks by a door, we immediately realize he is planning to cast sticks to snakes.  With the possible exception of the one cleric in the party, would we have known that?

 [2] And wands!  In OD&D many of the detection and utility wands do not have charges, they may be used perpetually!  For someone used to jealously guarding the charges in, say, a Wand of Enemy Detection, this can change the nature of how a dungeon is traversed.

 [3] Which is exactly what Dr. Holmes did, specifically calling on pg. 15 to “Roll the missile fire like a long bow arrow (Missile Fire Table).”  It may be the original (but unwritten) intent was for the magic-missile to be unerring, since it was so specified (corrected?) in Moldvay on pg. B16, “It will automatically hit any visible target,” and remained so in Gary’s Players Handbook version.  Of course it could also have been an evolution of the spell based on play – only someone who played with Gary in those early games would know for sure how he treated the spell originally.  If YOU did, please weigh in.  The Mule wants answers!


dungeon of the green goat

How to Host a Dungeon is a solitaire game by Tony Dowler in which you build a megadungeon, step by step.

Our group has had a lot of discussion of this game, until Chris–a/k/a Greengoat–put together this awesome animated version, which omits the actual mechanics of the game at work to show you the fictional end result:

Part One – from the Primordial Age to the Terror of Grak:

Part Two: Reign of Grak and a Plague of Spiders:

First of all, recognize my man Greengoat’s amazing effort and great drawings here. And I’m really impressed at how he managed to turn the ebb and flow of the game into an imaginative and creepy story as several factions duke it out to control those caverns. Grak must be one of the most terrifying ogres around–going up against him would be absolutely dreadful.

If that’s your bag, check the game out. I figure each of the “rooms” that Greengoat refers to is actually a modest dungeon level or sub-level in D&D terms.  (Dowler includes a free version of the game as a download, though the full PDF is only $5.)

From my take on How to Host a Dungeon, it’s a pretty nifty little bugger, both in concept and in execution. The layout and interior art are both absolutely wonderful. There are places where I wish the rules were better edited: certain aspects don’t exactly line up completely, but anyone accustomed to the make-it-up-as-you-go DM’ing style of OD&D is surely used to smoothing over contradictory or unclear rules. A second printing would make the game absolutely irresistible, but even with a few flaws in communication, How to Host a Dungeon is solidly entertaining purchase.

Tavis or Eric – when do we mount an expedition to the doleful Dungeon of the Green Goat?


sign of the green goat

We have business cards! Specifically, one thousand business cards.  This means I have 999 more business cards for Dungeons & Dragons than I do for my professional life.  C’est la vie!

Chris, also known as Greengoat, whipped these suckers up on the Red Box forum; here’s the small version:

And then he contacted a printer and got a thousand of the little guys printed up on really heavy stock for a bit under fifty dollars plus postage. We pooled our money together and paid him back; Greengoat foolishly turned down a chance to make a profit on this deal, which is a pity because the cards themselves are very beautiful. Here’s my stack, but we literally have hundreds more…


Now the question is, what do we do with one thousand Dungeons & Dragons Club business cards?  Other than feel superior to those of you who don’t have cards of your own, that is…


4E D&D and the megadungeon sandbox

A while back folks at EN World were posting about using 4E to run a megadungeon sandbox, and I thought it’d be appropriate to revise and repost my comments there for a couple of reasons. First is the Mule’s mandate to carry loads of treasure and supplies wherever adventurers go, be it old school or new. Second is our collective experience with Paul Jaquays’ Caverns of Thracia, which Grognardia recently called as close to a published megadungeon as anyone’s ever gotten. Finally, having been paid to write some first- and third-party stuff for the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons emboldens me to gas on about it for free.

Here are what I see as the elements of the old-school system (rules, assumptions, etc.) that are essential to the play style that thrives in and around a megadungeon:

– Experience points are awarded primarily for finding treasure and surviving long enough to bring it out of the dungeon. The XP you get from killing something is more or less trivial compared to what you get from looting its lair.

– Wandering monsters are a constant hazard with a fixed and more-or-less known to the players rate of random occurence, so that the decision to search every cranny is balanced against the risk of an unplanned encounter of unknown lethality. There’s little guarantee that each fight will be carefully balanced to be overcome by the adventuring party once they expend some fraction of their resources. Even on the first dungeon level, you might encounter something that’s way too powerful for you to fight head-on.

– Magic items are mysterious (there’s no easy recourse to the identify spell or an arcana skill check) and as likely to be a bane as a boon (e.g. cursed items, intelligent swords with conflicting agendas, etc.).

The reason that these are important to the megadungeon is that the dungeon is supposed to be an intrinsically dangerous environment, at best a constant impersonal hazard and at worst an enemy in itself. Mapping is essential because nothing is worse than losing your way back to the surface. Your initial focus isn’t clearing out every room for experience like in a CRPG (although that may happen over time); the megadungeon should be about going in, exploring, and making strategic choices (do we open the door with the spooky noises, or push on further; at what point will the depletion of our resources, from HP to torches, force us to turn back given that we’re likely to face a number of wandering monsters just trying to return to safety), balanced against the certain knowledge that you’re surrounded by things that will kill you dead if you’re not both careful and lucky.

If killing monsters is the main source of experience as per the 4E rules-as-written, there’s going to be a strong incentive for the players to treat each encounter as the next step towards leveling up, rather than a potentially much-more-lethal-than-expected hazard that’s better negotiated using brains rather than brawn. To run a 4E megadungeon I’d eliminate or sharply reduce the XP award from monsters, replacing it with XP from treasure awarded (or quests if you want to be a little less old-school).

This ties into the wandering monster issue – if the PCs are noisily bashing down doors, you want the resultant increased risk of a wandering monster to be a punishment, not a gift of XP. This is especially true because the random factor might make the gift a trivial gimme – fire beetles! – or a Trojan horse – trolls! – so again it’s important for the players not to have a system-reinforced expectation that monsters are there to be killed. The other 4E problem with wandering monsters is that combat takes so much longer than in the old-school. You want the fire beetle encounter to be a punishment for foolhardy play in that it dings the PCs by a few hit points, not in that it forces the players to wade through an hour of dull (because ultimately unchallenging) melee. Mike Mearls’s Keep on the Gaming Lands has a post describing a system for wandering monsters in 4E that’s insightful (even if my experience suggests that even an encounter a few levels lower will still eat up more time than I think dealing with a wandering monster ought to), while his skill challenge for sneaking through the steading of the hill giant chieftain promises to do some of the things I’d want wandering monsters to do (impede the PC’s ability to move around the dungeon unimpeded).

Finally, magic items are a problem because one virtue of the megadungeon is that it’s entirely up to the players which direction to head, making it hard for the DM to place the items magic items 4E expects the PCs to find at level-appropriate moments. And the expectations that creates in players is counter to the old-school feel; a cursed item should be like “well, I invaded someone’s house and caught athlete’s foot from the shoes I stole, I guess that’s what I deserve” instead of “these shoes I got for my birthday have a fungus?!?” What I’d do is to abstract out magic item enhancement bonuses, similar to how it’s done for NPCs. When you hit second level, choose one item (armor, weapon, implement, etc) to receive a +1 enchantment bonus, which is conceptualized as just another benefit of increased experience; it’s that you’re better with your sword, not that your sword started to glow. At third through fifth levels, choose another item; at sixth level, one item gets bumped to +2; and so on. The strange and custom-created items you find in the dungeon will contribute the other aspects of 4E items (e.g. item powers), and since players are reassured that the PCs will keep up with the expectations built into the system, they ought to be a lot more open to items that have unknowable / undesirable / unreliable “special” effects.


If You Build It, They Will Come

After running my players through slightly modified versions of three pre-written dungeons (the Blue Box Basic introductory scenario, B2: The Keep on the Borderlands and B1: In Search of the Unknown), I finally wrote up a single page dungeon scenario—a total dungeon crawl with nary a visible trace of Gygaxian naturalism—and ran four of my players through it. They got halfway through the dungeon in their last session and are excited at the prospect of tackling it again!

A few lessons I’ve taken away from the experience of creating and running a small dungeon level:

1) Writing your own boxed text is no substitute for remembering it. I built the first room in the dungeon around a magical trap, then added enough other details—a magic mouth, doors that lock themselves, and monsters emerging from doors masked by illusions—that I forgot to deploy the trap! I wound up relocating the trap to another room, so the idea wasn’t wasted, but there wouldn’t have been any problems if I’d written my notes in a less florid manner, or simply re-read them more thoroughly before starting play.

2) It’s great to devise unusual phenomena in your dungeon, but you need to think through their effects during the design process. Last session’s dungeon included a maze with invisible walls (credit goes to Infocom’s Sorcerer) which also hid objects behind them. Thus, while you could see the outer (non-invisible) walls of the room, you couldn’t see the monsters stalking around inside the maze. But I didn’t consider that this would also affect the PCs, so that as soon as the party turned a corner, the people at one end of the marching order would be invisible to their fellows!

3) When designing tricks and traps, there’s no sure way to predict a party’s level of caution. The same players can shift from paranoia to recklessness and back again at seemingly random intervals. As a referee, sometimes you just have to roll with the party’s actions and see what happens.

All of these lessons apply to pre-generated dungeons as well, particularly the first. But it’s worth noting that designing the dungeon yourself may not, in and of itself, provide additional insight into the place, nor does designing it with your players in mind assure you that they’ll react like you expect them to.


hard science-fiction ain’t easy

So, what I’ve been doing instead of blogging is cheating on my girlfriend with my ex.

I’ve been in an eighteen-month relationship with OD&D.  It’s a pretty open relationship, but I’ve been led astray lately.  During a trip back to my hometown, I bumped into my old Alternity game notes, and I can’t stop thinking about the game I haven’t thought about in four years.

I mean, it has some very obvious faults: it’s a mid-1990’s traditional role-playing game that doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  It keeps insisting that it’s not D&D in space–after Spelljammer, who can blame it for trying to avoid that reputation?–but all of the implementation strongly reinforces that misconception.  (“You enter the Space-Dungeon and Giant Space-Spiders attack!”)  But hey, I was a mess in the 1990’s too, so I’m not one to cast aspersions.  Mainly what I’m curious about is to check the game out to see it for what it really is, and what it does well.

Broadly speaking Alternity’s about “being there.”  It’s a universal mechanic, skill-system based game where all the skills have fiddly little pieces designed to interact with the fictional environment: “These characters are from another culture, so trying to haggle with them would be a 2-step penalty, except you know one of them pretty well which is a 1-step bonus, and you have several ranks in the appropriate Etiquette sub-skill, so I’m going to say that it all evens out.  Go ahead and make your Bargain roll for the hyperdrive, no modifiers.”  There’s a lot of attention to figuring out local planetary environments, along with rules for drowning and falling as well as rules for all kinds of jumping.  (Those are links to different games.)

So I got to thinking about what kind of adventures would be interesting from this perspective, and before too long got wrapped up in describing a hard sci-fi colonization dystopia, wherein a nearby colonized world descends into chaos, and the players are on a humanitarian mission (of dubious integrity) to rebuild the place when ZAMMO! ADVENTURE OCCURS!

This led to a lot of hard work trying to figure out why you’d want to colonize another planet to begin with.  And then I had to play around with some nifty 3-D rotating star maps and databases.  And read stuff about atomic rocket ships and the habitable zone of the galaxy.

Once you get a planet, you’ve got to think about how to terraform it or (perhaps more plausibly) genetically engineer colonists to fit that environment.  Alternity actually has decent-enough rules for genetic and cybernetic alterations to baseline humans, so it’s nice to create plausible mutants and cyber-soldiers.

And I tried to figure out, from the principle of mediocrity, how far away intelligent alien life must be from us (I’m guessing 2.6 out of every 100,000 star systems contain “intelligent” life.)  And then worrying about the Fermi Paradox.

And obviously none of this shit is really very important, because it’s all about the Adventure and dealing as possible with the whole house of cards toppling down once the players arrive on the scene, which is where all the fun stuff really happens thanks to the verisimilitude and immersion-stuff.

But basically, for the last week or so I’ve been wallowing in all this science stuff and figuring out how to implement it in this silly old game.  It’s kinda interesting but it’s also a huge headache: I’ve put just enough time into it to realize I still need to put in a lot more time, and the whole thing would play out in 4-6 hours anyway, and based on what I remember the game would be fun but not that much fun to justify the effort.

And then, when I’ve been doing this for about a week or so, Eric (who I haven’t told any of this to) says, “James, have you heard about Diaspora?  It’s this brand new hard sci-fi game about renegade space colonies.  It’s got a free SRD on the web.  Shall we play sometime?”






Deeper Themes

A recent Grognardia post about Tolkien and Howard proposes that “as the years have worn on, [RPGs have] become more focused on surface elements of their supposed inspirations than on their deeper themes.” Commenters on the post discuss whether RPGs need or benefit from deeper themes, and a different guy called James suggests:

Players & DM’s will create their own thematic elements. Hopefully, there will be some synergy here, but, an amusing exercise might be to ask your players, after a year or so of play, how they would describe the deeper elements within the campaign.

I’ll bite! I think the amusingness is supposed to come from the match or lack thereof between what the DM sees as the themes and what the players do, so let’s have our DMs wait to weigh in on the themes until the players have had a chance. Here, though, are what I’d identify as the themes of Eric’s Glantri campaign:

– Mortality. Arguably this is not unique to Glantri, but is the theme of any old-school campaign that starts at first level. Nevertheless, our experience of play is shaped largely by the extreme transience of the adventurers involved.

– Belief. This relates to mortality in the usual way religions do; also in that it creates the need to regularly introduce new cleric PCs, which makes “what is the nature of your faith” an oft-asked question, and that the cult of the Boss is all about meeting an untimely end. The existence of that cult has also provoked interactions with other Glantrian religions, further exploring this theme.

– Family history. This is the one that seems to most emerge from Eric’s side of the screen rather than ours. As a player, though, I’ve been intrigued and impressed by the way that doors in the Caves of Chaos are marked with crests of different branches of the D’Amberville family, for example. So far this theme hasn’t been used much by players, although the arrival of Francois’s brother as a PC may change that.

Do y’all agree or disagree with these, and what do you think are the themes of the White Sandbox or James’ With Great Power game?

(We might need to have the ‘what is a theme’ conversation too.)

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009
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