Archive for January, 2010


Spellbooks Without Spells: A Vancian Variant

In a recent post, Tavis discusses Vancian magic, both in terms of Jack Vance’s original work and its translation into the familiar Vancian spellcasting found in D&D. I’ve done some tinkering with the magic system in my Red Box campaign. I hope that you, gentle reader, find something useful in this implementation that you can take away for your own game.


I: A Magic-User’s Own Idiom

In this setting, magic is idiosyncratic. One’s spells must take into account all the elements of one’s magical nature: one’s true name, the astrological signs ascendant at one’s birth, the peculiar alchemical affinities of one’s own blood, the entities that one’s magical lineage has pacted with, etc. Thus, no two magic-users employ the same version of a given spell.

To use computer programming as a metaphor, view each spell as a program and each magic-user as an operating system. Unlike the real world, no two of these operating systems are identical! Whenever one magic-user wishes to learn a spell from another, he must revise the spell so that it works on his “operating system”—his personal magical idiom. Still, it’s easier than researching a new spell from scratch.

II: Initiations and Pacts

This magic-user is performing an initiatory rite to add a new spell to his repertoire.

The power for spells comes from extra-planar sources: gods, demons, elementals, fairies, timeless arcane intelligences, etc. It is not enough to know the words and gestures of a spell. One must also perform an initiation into the mysteries of the spell, forging a pact with an extra-planar entity to power the incantation.

Such initiations are complex rites. The magic-user must draw intricate diagrams with pastes made from crushed gems, burn exotic woods and incense, don ritual garments sewn with gold and silver thread, and so forth. Whereas most of the time involved in performing spell research goes to devising the spell itself, procuring the components for the initiatory rite takes up most of the money. (When one acquires a “free” spell upon leveling up, this may be justified by one’s mentor or another friendly magic-user supplying the components needed to perform the initiation.)

Sometimes these rites are unsuccessful. They might not be devised properly or executed correctly. Hence the possibility of failure—even catastrophic failure—in spell research.

III: The Spells Themselves

Unlike the magics used by Rhialto the Marvellous, Iucounu the Laughing Magician and their fellow thaumaturges in Vance’s work, these spells have no volition; one does not struggle with them lest they wriggle out of one’s mind and into the world. But they are not simply “memorized,” either.

A spell is a matrix of magical forces that exists within the magic-user’s mind. In a sense, it is a single-use magic item, and it obeys similar principles in play. An enterprising magic-user might even find ways to strip away an opponent’s prepared spells, although it will take something more impressive than a mere dispel magic to do so.

For a good example, look at how spells are “hung” by Merlin of Chaos in Roger Zelazny’s second Amber quintet. “Then I spoke the spell, slowly and clearly, leaving out the four key words I had chosen to omit. … The spell hung before me like a crippled butterfly of sound and color, trapped within the synesthetic web of my personal vision of the Logrus, to come again when I summoned it, to be released when I spoke the four omitted words.”

IV: Spell Scrolls

A magical scroll is not simply a bit of writing. It is essentially identical to a prepared spell, except that instead of keeping the spell matrix inside her own mind, the magic-user binds the matrix to a roll of parchment. Now, instead of reciting the trigger words from memory, the magic-user reads them off the scroll—or gives the scroll to another magic-user, who can do the same.

V: Spell Valences

One does not simply cram spells into one’s head willy-nilly. They must be fitted together into lattices. As magic-users grow more powerful, they can accommodate increasingly larger configurations of spells.

Much like electron shells in an atom, each lattice contains a fixed number of spells of each level. Thus, a conjurer may encompass no more than two first-level spells and a second-level spell; the first-level spells may not be replaced by a second-level spell nor vice versa. Scholarly magic-users may refer to the nodes of the lattice as “valences,” a term shamelessly stolen from Sepulchrave’s Tales of Wyre.

These spell valences are of a fixed order of power and complexity. Thus, there are no “third-and-a-half level” spells.

VI: Spellbooks

A page from a wizard's compendium.

Magic-users don’t generally have “spellbooks” in the sense we think of in D&D, with each page filled in with the specifics of a given spell. Instead, they have compendiums of magic: occult encyclopedias full of information, diagrams and formulae regarding alchemy, astrology, necromancy, theurgy, and all of the other recognized schools of sorcery. When preparing a spell, one pores through one’s compendium for the specific elements of the spell—the appropriate diagrams and formulae—and impresses the magical matrix of the spell upon one’s mind.

Some magic-users do take the time (one day per spell level) to transcribe the exact formulae involved in their spells, thus creating a “spellbook” much like the typical AD&D spellbook. Such spellbooks are often used by magic-users when traveling or adventuring, or to loan out when trading spells. Not every wizard the party defeats will have one, however, and if a PC magic-user steals or borrows one from an NPC, he must still research the spell to translate it into his own magical idiom and perform the necessary initiation.

A spellbook that only contains a few spells is much smaller than a full occult compendium, as it contains only a few specific formulae. Beyond a certain point, however, a spellbook becomes larger than a compendium, as a given occult chart or diagram may be repeated a dozen times for use in a dozen different spells. Thus, magic-users with large repertoires may not wish to rely on spellbooks!

One may attempt to prepare a spell from memory if one has neither compendium nor spellbook at hand. This is very dangerous! If one constructs the spell matrix with even one incorrect glyph or syllable, the spell will go awry. If one is lucky, it will simply fizzle when cast; worse, it may come out warped, backfire on the caster, or even provide an opening for an extra-planar entity to enter the world.


New “Red Box” in the Works

Looks familiar?

Wizards of the Coast has announced a new introductory boxed set for 4E. As you can see from the picture, the boxed set is red. And according to WotC’s twitter feed, they’re calling it the “Red Box.” (You may have to scroll down a bit to find it.)

What does this mean for old-school players? Possibly some confusion over the term “Red Box” in the context of Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe even a lot of confusion. What happens when you advertise a Red Box D&D game, expecting people of an old-school persuasion to show up, and you get players who’re expecting to play Fourth Edition? (Or vice versa?)


Making Vancian Spellcasting Concrete

Over at the Eiglophian Press, G. Benedicto has a noteworthy series of posts about Vancian crunch, which is being discussed over at Finarvyn’s OD&D boards. I fully agree that the way that Vance describes spellcasting is much more evocative and inspirational than its presentation in any old-school ruleset. This, and later quotations in italics, is from his short story “Mazirian the Magician,” published as part of The Dying Earth (1950) – not the sole Vancian source for the concept of prepared spells, but a good and convenient one:

Later, when black night lay across the forest, he would seek through his books for spells to guard him through the unpredictable glades. They would be poignant corrosive spells, of such a nature that one would daunt the brain of an ordinary man and two render him mad. Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells…. Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere.

I think that G. Benedicto’s impulse to “clarify what’s happening in the wizard’s study” is an excellent one, and that it can usefully begin with looking to Vance to help imagine what a magic-user is doing when he or she memorizes spells. However, I take issue with two of his assertions.

Here we see Jack Vance contemplating whether to release one of the many spells filling his brain to capacity, which would cause many-colored stabbing lines to split your blundering body in a thousand places.

First, I disagree that the number of spells a magic-user is able to prepare is one and the same as the number of spells in their spellbook from which they can choose when deciding which to memorize. The OD&D thread shows there are folks who play this way, and not without textual justification. Like any holy text worth its salt, you can find support in the Three Little Brown Books for just about any position you want to take! However, Vance seems clear that magic-users may know many more spells than they can fit in their brain at any one time:

…at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.

Second, I think that the use of the term “crunch” is ill-advised, and not only because some old-schoolers don’t know that this new-school term of art refers to game mechanics that quantify the narrative fluff. However, it’s possible for both crunch and fluff to be completely divorced from gameplay, and in fact it’s a rational economic activity for freelancers who are paid by the word to spend lots of time fluffily describing and crunchily quantifying things that the PCs will never actually interact with during the game.

What I find really inspirational about the Eiglophian post is is the idea that Vancian spellcasting can be made more vivid and compelling by providing more ways for it have a concrete impact on play. In the comments, Booberry suggests two great examples – first the suggestion that, by  increasing magic-users’ focus and mental discipline, potions and elixirs might increase the limit on the spells that they could cram into their brain, and second that the death of a magic-user might cause these spells to come shooting out again! (Some honest-to-goodness crunch is provided for the latter – at 0 HP, the M-U must save vs. spells to avoid all remaining memorized spells firing off at random. There’s no attempt at a pre-ordained blanket quantification of what this would mean ahead of time, which I think is wise.) G. Benedicto also suggests the awesome idea of memory-stealing substances.

Before I suggest some additional ways to give Vancian spellcasting a more concrete presence in play, let’s look at the existing game consequences of the idea.

  1. Memorizing spells takes time, concentration, and access to books. Of Mazirian, Vance tells us that “Midnight found him in his study, poring through leather-bound tomes and untidy portfolios“. Events in the game that disturb the magic-users’ study or deprive him or her to access to books will thus demonstrate the practical limits of Vancian spellcasting.
  2. Because preparation is lengthy and effortful, not every magic-user will have taken the effort to memorize spells on any given day. When Vance’s protagonist tells a Deodand “Answer my questions, and I undertake to feed you much flesh,” it sizes him up and replies “You may in any event, Mazirian. Are you with powerful spells today?” The fact that magic-users and knights both must gird themselves for battle, such that catching them unprepared gives an enormous advantage,  is highly significant to gameplay. (Note that by this analogy the 3E sorcerer, who never uses memorized spells, is as much a missed dramatic opportunity as a martial artist who fights only with his fists; the most awesome moment in many kung-fu movies is the point where the hero’s sword breaks and he continues to kick ass despite what would be a crippling disadvantage for a normal fighter.)
  3. The details of Vancian spellcasting determine when a magic-user is potent. “For all Mazirian’s magic he was helpless. The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain. In any event he could not have uttered the space-twisting syllables with that mindless clutch at his throat.” Being able to shut down a spellcaster with a silence spell demonstrates an aspect of the way magic works.

OK, now I will (finally) suggest some more ways that PCs could interact concretely with the concept of Vancian spellcasting during play. Many of these take their cue from the sense of spells as possessed of independent vitality and agency that comes from another story in The Dying Earth, “Turjan of Miir”:

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violet Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the solitude of the book. Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion.

  1. Memorizing the same spell more than once may cause the copies to fight in your brain. In the White Sandbox thus far I’ve discouraged this without further explanation, but on reflection I think it’s coolest to give players a choice between the reward of being able to end multiple fights with sleep and the risk of horrible Vancian consequences that are known but unlikely. At first glance it makes sense to have these arise while the spell is being memorized, but that tends to happen outside the focus of play. Players will be unhappy if dire consequences mean Blastum is found dead over his spellbooks before the day’s adventure even begins, while DMs will be dissatisfied if milder effects mean the adventurers just spend another day drinking in the tavern while their magic-user gets her mind untangled. I think it’s better if the ill effects come about at the time that one of the duplicate spells is cast. Perhaps there’s a chance that they have become stuck together and all come out at once when you utter the syllables hoping to release one of them, with unintended and likely adverse effects.
  2. Upon reading a magic scroll, the spell it contains floods into your brain and fills up all available space. If you have multiple empty spell slots, you inadvertently run the risks of memorizing duplicate spells. A lesser version would target only a single spell level, while a more versatile spell could put versions of itself into whatever level slots are open. An especially virulent version would replace the spells already memorized, either by causing you to forget them or by firing them all off randomly! This is a good way for DMs to have fun watching magic-users find creative applications for a spell too dangerous or whimsical for them to ever consider memorizing under other circumstances.
  3. A cursed scroll contains a previously undiscovered spell, the effects of which are tempting enough to entice magic-users to copy it into their own spellbook. This spell is unusually eager to flood into the magic-user’s brain, taking a tenth the normal time to memorize. It does indeed perform as promised when it is cast, but it becomes voraciously jealous when it is passed over in favor of other spells. Each time the magic-user prepares spells from that book and does not memorize the spell from the cursed scroll, over the course of the following day it copies its own runes over those of one other randomly selected spell in the book. Most likely, this is not discovered until the magic-user attempts to prepare one of the over-written spells.
  4. An arrow toxin causes magic-users to lose the discipline necessary to resist the pressure of the spells stuffed into their brain. For the next 1d4 rounds, they must  speak the syllables to cast one of their spells (of their choice or randomly determined, depending on the horribleness of the toxin), groaning with relief as each one is released from its confinement.
  5. Entering certain anti-magic fields causes some or all of a magic-user’s spells to escape from their confinement in his or her brain. This is not immediately apparent due to the suppression of the anti-magic field. When the effects of the field are removed, the result may be as if all the spells had been cast at once, or the spells may gain some independent existence of their own, such as the excellent concept of the living spell Keith Baker created for the Eberron campaign setting in D&D 3.5.
  6. A magical substrate such as an enchanted blank is so receptive a home for spells that on each round a magic-user views the page, he or she must make a saving throw to avoid having a randomly chosen memorized spell escape and take up residence in the new substrate. This could be a useful item for a magic-user who wished to simultaneously disable enemy spellcasters and enrich his or her own spellbook.
  7. A symbol or creature is so abhorrent to arcane principles that a magic-user in the presence of this provocation must make a saving throw each round to resist the demands of his or her memorized spells to be hurled at the offender. A magic-resistant character might want to paint such a symbol on a shield and draw fire away from more vulnerable members of the party (aka aggro, as K. Bailey’s comment here leads me to believe they’re calling it in these new-fangled graphical MUDs).

Alignment and Misalignment

Alignment tableD&D’s alignment system has been causing problems for DMs since its inception. This is, in part, because no one can seem to agree on how it works.

If you’re playing by the book, arguments and confusion over alignment is an issue because even at low levels, one’s alignment has measurable impact on game play. There are alignment languages, the effects of the protection from evil spell, and—perhaps most importantly—the significance of alignment when dealing with intelligent magic swords. So unless you want your session to devolve into an argument over whether a PC can wield that +3 sword without taking 1d6 damage per round, it’s important to get these things straightened out before play begins.

Are alignments descriptive or prescriptive? If a player writes “Chaotic” on his character sheet, is that an acknowledgement of the character’s leanings or a statement of intent that will drive the character’s actions? The Moldvay Basic rules suggest both; one’s alignment is a “way of life,” but it merely provides “guidelines for characters to live by.” If the DM thinks a character isn’t being played in accordance with her alignment, he may either suggest that the player change the alignment or impose a “punishment or penalty,” but he cannot actually declare that the character’s alignment has changed.

Whether it’s prescriptive, descriptive or both, alignment can lead to problems:

1) “I’m just playing my alignment.” Many players mark their characters as Chaotic, Evil or Neutral as an excuse for antisocial behavior. Then they murder your PC, steal all of your gold or simply abandon you to die at the bottom of a pit. On the flip side, players who denote their characters as Lawful or Good may then go on to play the Morality Police and shut down the rest of the party’s efforts at muddling through the morally gray areas of the adventuring world. This behavior is justified—after a fashion—by a prescriptive reading of alignment. Sadly, even good-natured players can succumb to this error; choosing an alignment that seems interesting, they follow its prescriptions only to find that this spoils the fun of other people at the table.

2) “I’m not evil, I’m just misunderstood.” Conversely, some players perceive their PCs’ alignments very differently from the DM and/or their fellow players. Typically this involves a Neutral (OD&D / BD&D) or Chaotic Neutral (AD&D) character consistently demonstrating selfish, deceitful and cruel behavior. More dramatically, I still remember how the first session of one failed D&D game I ran several years ago devolved into a twenty-minute argument with the player of a paladin over whether it was appropriate Lawful Good behavior for her character to use poison or torture.

StormbringerCommon solutions to these problems involve either removing all mechanical support for the alignment rules, so that they’re simply descriptors that the rest of the group can ignore, or by cutting alignment out of the game altogether. But this isn’t wholly in the spirit of our exploration of old school play—and more to the point, it doesn’t help us play around with Moorcockean tropes involving sentient magical artifacts swaying our characters towards Chaos, Law or Neutrality!

My current take on alignment in the Glantri Red Box game is that most people are Neutral; they’re concerned with their own personal interest and that of their loved ones, and are not prone to grand gestures of altruism or treachery. On the whole, they prefer Law to Chaos because an orderly society benefits them more than it stifles them. The Lawful and Chaotic alignments are generally the province of ideologues, priests, madmen and the champions of supernatural forces.

When the alignment of a PC actually has an impact on play—such as through the acquisition of an intelligent magic sword—I’ll use the alignment on the character’s sheet as an indicator of the player’s intent, but if the written alignment is a serious mismatch for how the character has been played, I’m ready to declare that the written alignment is, in fact, incorrect. This is a tricky approach! I believe that it requires the DM to give the player every benefit of the doubt. To do otherwise would be terribly unfair; there’s an enormous amount of subjectivity here, and it can be arrogant and offensive to elevate one’s own opinions about a character over the opinions of that character’s creator.

(And when it comes to magic swords, I’m perfectly happy to allow a sudden alignment change to match the sword if the wielder is willing to swear allegiance to Law or Chaos. And that’s where those punishments and penalties come in…)


Recent Events in the White Sandbox, Explained: Ontussa the Sphinx

Like a proud father at his son’s elementary school graduation, James recently shed a tear of pride over the fact that the New York Red Box campaigns have matured to the point where our online discussion is so ingrown and byzantine that after missing a bunch of sessions it no longer makes a lick of sense to him, despite Zolobachai’s status as one of our original pioneers of the Caverns of Thracia (and James’ as founder of the Red Box).

Ontussa: Take a picture, it'll last longer.

Is it really as hard to understand recent events as it is to assemble IKEA furniture using the original Swedish documentation? No, not at all; everything makes perfect sense and is crystal clear when seen in the proper light! I have merely been remiss in my duties as explainer of the campaign, and will seek to remedy this lapse in a series of posts. To start with:

EVENT: The sphinx Ontussa has developed a powerful erotic fascination for certain members of our party. Khrystos seeks a herb reputed to be a feline aphrodisiac in the hills near the Stronghold of the First Principles, and while Lotur is too troubled by his temporarily fatal immersion in a water elemental to bathe in the ordinary sense, he has been observed using spirits of wine to perform daily ablutions that are not at all usual for him.

EXPLANATION: Ontussa revealed herself recently to be not merely a coin-operated dispenser of information, but a tragic victim of the necromancer Ashur Ram. What a cruelly ironic fate for a sphinx, forced to answer questions instead of posing riddles! (The parts about hanging out waiting for people to come by and eating them if they make the wrong move are immutable.) Of all the ways a NPC could take independent action to endear themselves to the party, giving back a jewel they’d just handed over in payment is high on the list. Perhaps it is this glimpse of her hitherto unsuspected personality that has won the hearts of our PCs.

More likely, it is the more-than-a-glimpse of the feminine attributes of her human half which have been on display all along. True, the campaign features other, non-bestial female NPCs like the charming Philomena and the provocatively-named Maxsielle the Evil High Priestess, and even actual female players like Emurak, White Rose, and thistlyn. But did any of them appear topless in the AD&D Monster Manual?

You might say “no, but neither do they have the hindquarters of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and a reputation as a merciless man-eater.” (That last might not be true of Maxsielle.)  Still, the eagerness with which I would embrace lobster-headed Blibdoolpoolp argues that having your image burned into adolescent retinas will overcome a great many obstacles to love.


Announcing the 2nd Annual Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday

I’m pleased to announce that on Saturday, March 27th we will be celebrating Dave Arneson’s seminal contributions to adventure roleplaying by getting together and playing games in his honor!

This date is chosen to fall at the conclusion of the International Traditional Gaming Week, organized by TARGA, the Traditional Adventure Roleplaying Game Association. The week begins on March 21st with GaryCon II, which I’m also excited to be part of; I’m very happy to have the ITGW bracketed by events remembering these two sadly departed heroes of the polyhedral dice.

Thanks to the generous support of the Compleat Strategist, we will be meeting in the gaming space of their New York location:

11 East 33rd Street (between Madison and Fifth Avenue)
New York, NY 10016

Games will begin at noon and wrap up at 5, to allow time for cleanup before the store closes at 6.

I’m hoping we will once again have a variety of games, since Arneson’s legacy reaches beyond Dungeons and Dragons and encompasses all of us who like to get together with friends and imagine that the fate of our imagined adventures will be determined by the roll of a dice. If you’d like to run a game, just send an email to with the title of your game, the minimum and maximum number of players, and a brief description. I’ll post mine in a week or two as an example.

If you’re in travel distance of NYC, I hope to see you on 3/27/10! If you’re too far-flung, why not run a local event during the International Traditional Gaming Week? Let me know what it is, and I’ll add it to the list of ITGW events.


The Die is Cast: Random Tables for Fun and Profit

Random tables are a big part of the flavor of old-school D&D. Early editions of the game are packed with all manner of charts, tables and sub-tables to determine random results for treasure, wandering monsters and more. Who can forget the Potion Miscibility Table or the Harlot Encounter Table? There’s even a set of tables for randomly creating an entire dungeon! Gary Gygax clearly loved making tables, and I’m finding that it’s still a fun thing to do.

Why would you want to use a randomizer for anything other than task resolution? One good reason: Impromptu tables give the DM an opportunity to be surprised by what’s coming up, just like the players.

Example: At the end of a previous session of my Glantri game, the medium Erwan Roparzh was captured by orcs while the rest of the party fled. I wasn’t sure what would happen to Erwan, but it was important to resolve. Aside from the party’s interest in rescuing him, we’d already determined that as a part of his special ability, his death would unleash a demon. If he died and the demon emerged, that would have a big impact on what resistance the party faced on their return.

So I scribbled up a table:

What happens to Erwan Roparzh? Roll 1d4:

    1: He is killed on the spot. The demon comes forth! 4d6 orcs are killed. Roll 1d4. (1: Troll kills demon. 2: Troll and orcs drive demon into wilderness. 3: Troll is defeated and hides. 4: Troll is killed.)
    2: He is kept prisoner; they are fattening him up for a feast! 50% chance that Gnormok, the goblin trader, leaves the area with Erwan’s spellbook.
    3: He escapes in the confusion. Orcs are dumb!
    4: Gnormok buys him from the orcs and takes him south to be sold as a slave.

I rolled a 1: the ideal result for the party! The orc tribe lost 17 orcs that day and their pet troll was badly burned. This had an enormous affect on play! I also got to be pleasantly surprised; I like it when the party does well, but I don’t like to feel that I’m making it too easy.

The second reason for making up your own tables may be a more important one: Impromptu tables help to keep the DM from getting into a rut.

For instance, if I’m not paying attention, my NPCs tend to be wary and taciturn. So I use the NPC random personality trait charts found in modules B1 and B2. Now, if the roll indicates that a hireling is Cheerful, Talkative (which comes up a lot), Friendly or Trusting, well, now I have to play the NPC that way. The game world feels a little more real, play has more variety to it, and I don’t have to do any pre-planning to break out of my rut.

This may sound like a lot of effort. But you don’t need to write complicated tables or even memorize all the weird charts in the back of the 1e AD&D DMG. Odds are that you already make up your own tables in your head!

For instance, you may roll a die during combat to see who a monster attacks. (“Okay, I’m rolling a d8. Boarface is shouting at the beast to attract it’s attention; it attacks him on a 1-4. Gaël just hit it with a torch, again; it attacks him on a 5-7. And Albrecht the NPC happens to be standing in range, so it attacks him on an 8.”) You haven’t written anything down, but you’re still using an impromptu table!

In last night’s session, when the party entered the ruined town of Mienville in search of loot, I needed to know where Erwan’s demon went after it chewed on the orcs. As per Robin’s Laws, I could have thought deeply about which options were the most interesting, most likely, most surprising, and so forth, and balanced all of the factors to see what would work best for the adventure. But I wanted to be surprised, and I didn’t want to stop the game while I calculated the options. So I rolled a d8 to see which part of the town it had wandered into (1=north, 2=northwest, etc). Quick and easy, and when the PCs didn’t cross paths with the demon, I didn’t feel that I was being soft on them.

That’s a good feeling!


“F1: Bag of the Feeble Condemned Old Man” Kills Orc and Pie, Takes its Stuff

Perhaps you had to have been there, but for those who were this was uniformly hilarious. In our last White Sandbox session, Greengoat’s character Lotur, aka the Sniveling Cur, aka the Slayer of the Patriarch, got himself into an unusual predicament. From Oban’s recap:

This way to Fight Bag, courtesy of Maldoor

Lotur, meanwhile had descended to the next chamber, and found a chest containing five small sacks. He picked them up and examined them; when he placed his hand into the last, he vanished, leaving the bag lying alone on the chest. The rest of the party regrouped, and went in search of Lotur. Ookla managed to follow his tracks, and the group concluded that Lotur must be in the sack.

The tomb was systematically looted, and everyone returned through the pool to the Thracian caverns and from there to the Fortress of First Principles. Patriarch Zekon examined the bag, and [discovered that] it was made to absorb two individuals and compel them to fight to the death. The winner would emerge. He suggested a prisoner could be used as Lotur’s release and found a weak, old man in the prison who was already sentenced to death. The man was armed and sent into the bag. After only a few moments, the mouth of the bag twitched and grew, and Lotur emerged, victorious.

Old-school Dungeons and Dragons is justly famed for its mini-games, and what came to be known as Fight Bag is the greatest of them all. Now, through the design skills of the talented Sternum, you can bring all of its excitement and pathos (“But I don’t want to go in the bag,” said the querulous prisoner) into your own campaign! Simply print and enjoy the PDF at this link: Dungeon Module F1: Bag of the Feeble Condemned Old Man.

Warning: Liquids drunk while reading this module may be expelled from your nose. Failure to expel said liquids may be due to well, you had to be there.

The only flaw in this otherwise perfect module is that I deserve third billing at best, behind Merle Davenport whose adventure in the September, 1976 issue of the Dungeoneer fanzine created Fight Bag and Sternum who did all the text, maps, and layout for F1.

While I’m explaining jokes, here’s Monte Cook’s classic Orc and Pie adventure referenced in the title.


the whip and the signpost

Nobody wants to go to work on Monday.

Happy New Year!

Two thoughts on Tavis’s post about signposts:

It’s tempting to turn every social invitation into a deadly trap and every xeno-infested world into a political negotiation, but when I do I have to remember that these false signposts are frustrating the players’ ability to steer towards the kinds of play they want.

False signposts suck.  If you end up juggling your professional and personal schedules to afford a night of gaming, hoping that tonight’s the night you finally Go To The Royal Ball, it is maddening to get into a sword-fight in the palace steps with the Royal Bouncer.   I’ve seen entire campaigns designed on a false signpost: “Okay, make a crew of awesome starship officers!  Okay, for your first adventure your awesome starship blows up and you’re now on a caveman planet with Stone Age gear.”  Arrrrgh.

I’m not saying the GM should never impose a plot twist, but if there’s an implicit social contract there should be at least a gesture toward honoring it.  Let us get into the Royal Ball first, hobnob for a bit, and then have the sword-fight.  No GM idea is clever enough, and no dice roll is privileged enough, to trample over the social contract with your friends.

The challenge is that even if I know what kind of play the group wants, as a sandbox GM I eschew the ability to deliver it.

This is an honorable sentiment, but in my view a GM shouldn’t be completely hands-off.  An adventure is simply characters’ attempts to overcome adversity.  In a sandbox game, the players may choose which adversities to face (and their ambitious meddling may create additional adversity), but without adversity there’s no game.

Someone has to hold the whip in his hand and lash the players’ backsides until they run.  No running without the whip!  Players, like all people, seek to avoid risk whenever possible.  They might crawl slowly toward an objective, peeking under every stone along the way and arguing for hours about whether to turn left or right.  When we’re talking about high-level abstraction–Should we help the king, or overthrow him?–that kind of deliberation is vital and important.  But if it’s happening all the time, then there’s not enough urgency in the game.  Deliberating != dawdling.

In Dungeons & Dragons, there’s a built-in adversity by the very nature of the setting: you’ve got Wandering Monster checks, so simply standing still is fraught with danger.  But once you get out of the dungeon, players can lose focus.  It’s important to crack the whip!  You don’t have to force the players in any particular direction, but it’s good to keep them moving.

PS.  I’ve been remiss in blogging lately.  I’m going to try to write shorter, better things than I have been.

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2010

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