Archive for March, 2010


looking for death in all the wrong places

Confession: I’ve spent a decent amount of time playing Dungeons & Dragons, but I’ve never fought a dragon.  Or a beholder.  Or  mind flayer.  Basically, if you look at a list of the fall-down-awesome D&D monsters, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered them.

if only that could be ME getting my brains devoured

Quiz time!  How many of these things have you encountered?  And, if you did, what happened?

  • Aboleth
  • Beholder
  • Berbalang
  • Black Pudding
  • Bulette
  • Demons (any – though my party met a Type V one time when I missed a session)
  • Devils (any)
  • Dragons
  • Drow
  • Githyanki
  • Kuo-Toa
  • Lich (though my party met one when I wasn’t around)
  • Mimic
  • Mind Flayer
  • Owlbear
  • Purple Worm
  • Rakshasa
  • Roper
  • Rust Monster
  • Salamander
  • Slaad
  • Umber Hulk
  • Xorn
  • Yellow Musk Creeper
  • Yuan-Ti

It’s a shameful, disgraceful list!  I’ve fought like a zillion freakin’ goblins, gnolls, stirges, and a gelatinous cube once or twice.   But I’ve never fought any of those.   Where the hell are the Mind Flayers?!

Part of the problem is that all these really great monsters are hiding out toward the end-game as juicy rewards to people who have put in the time, and I’ve never gotten past Level 7.  But dang it, Beholders are totally fucking beast!   Just throw one at us!  Make us run away!  Even if I get killed, I can die happy knowing that it was one of the greatest monsters in the history of RPG’s that killed me!  (Notice that a huge percentage of these things have crazy-ass ways to kill you, just like a James Bond villain is defined by his goofy weapon.)

I’m really hoping that, as Tavis’s campaign heads off into the Outer Planes and into the Underdark beneath Thracia, that we start encountering some of these guys.

Tavis, Eric –  hook a brother up with a grisly, trademark-related death!

And the rest of you – are these critters awesome to play against, or am I building them up too much by ogling the Monster Manual?  What were they like in play?


Cartography to Conjure By: The Beauty of Player Maps

If you’re going to have a complicated story you must work to a map; otherwise you’ll never make a map of it afterwards.

— J. R. R. Tolkien

I love a good map. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of reading too many fantasy novels in my youth; it seemed as though every book had its own map of some strange land — Middle-Earth, Witch World, Earthsea, the Hyborian Age, and so on. A good map is like a good setting: it tantalizes you with hints about the world while actually saying very little, leaving you free to imagine the place in whatever detail suits your fancy.

Few things in a game please me more than seeing a well-drawn player’s map of some part of the game world. The pleasure here is different; instead of teasing me with the mystery of the unknown, a player-drawn map turns a funhouse mirror on the original work. Viewed through someone else’s eyes, we see what the player found interesting by observing what they emphasized or overlooked. And any mistakes on the map turn into entertaining surprises as I wonder how they came to be!

I provided my players with a map of the surface works of my game’s megadungeon, the Chateau d’Ambreville. Tavis proceeded to sketch out the castle for himself, and followed this up by adding various notes based on the group’s reconnaissance of the area. Both maps are posted below for your entertainment!


Mastering Morale: Know When to Fold ‘Em

Conan wheeled, to see the girl standing a short distance away, staring at him in wide-eyed horror, all the mockery gone from her face. He cried out fiercely and the blood-drops flew from his sword as his hand shook in the intensity of his passion.

“Call the rest of your brothers!” he cried. “I’ll give their hearts to the wolves! You can not escape me—”

With a cry of fright she turned and ran fleetly. She did not laugh now, nor mock him over her white shoulder. She ran as for her life…

— Robert E. Howard, “Gods of the North”

When I played D&D as a kid, monsters had a habit of fighting to the death. After all, wasn’t that what they were there for? Realism—Gygaxian or otherwise—didn’t rank highly on our list of gaming priorities.

I got back into D&D in my early thirties, playing a heavily house-ruled version of Third Edition under a DM marinated in Second Edition tropes. Our enemies often fled or surrendered, but there were no rules for it; morale was a matter of DM fiat. Sure, it worked for our DM, but the effect wasn’t easily replicable.

Imagine my surprise, upon cracking open a copy of Red Box D&D, to discover a set of simple and straightforward morale rules! They tell you exactly how to determine when monsters decide to flee from combat. This has an enormous influence on play, both adding a valuable naturalistic element to combat and allowing the PCs unexpected victories.

A year and a half after starting my Red Box campaign, I decided to take a closer look at the details of the morale rules. Imagine my surprise at discovering that they aren’t quite that simple or straightforward. In fact, they’re both deeply mutable and—get this—completely optional.

At last the trolls broke and fled. Hotly did the elves give chase, cutting them down, driving them into the burning camp. Not many escaped.

— Poul Anderson, “The Broken Sword”

It’s right there in the section title: “Morale (Optional)”. You can completely ignore the morale subsystem, either determining for yourself when monsters flee or simply making them all fight to the death like the aliens in Space Invaders, and still remain completely within the rules.

If you do employ the morale rules, you still have a lot of control over how to use them. Check it out:

* The rules indicate that you should check morale after a side’s first death in combat and when half of the side has been incapacitated, but these are explicitly called out as “recommended times for morale checks.” You may decide that one or both of these conditions doesn’t apply to a particular group, replacing them with new conditions of your choice. E.g.: the Five Ogre Brothers check morale each time one of them dies, while Morgan Ironwolf’s Irregulars only check morale if their leader falls. You may also call for morale checks on the fly if the situation calls for it; green hirelings are liable to bolt upon encountering the eviscerated remains of a prior adventuring party, while a gnoll warband may flee in the face of a dramatic phantasmal force.
* The DM is free to apply pre-planned or ad hoc modifiers to morale checks. The rules recommend that such modifiers don’t exceed +2 or -2, but otherwise the referee has a free hand to apply such modifiers. Such modifiers are easily suggested by circumstance—or by the players. Are the monsters winning or losing? Do they think they can outrun the party? Are they driven to fight by habit, hunger, greed or a desire for revenge?
* It’s up to the DM to determine what a morale failure means. Do the enemies fall back en masse to a more defensible position? Do they scatter in terror? Or do they lay their arms down and surrender, throwing themselves on the player characters’ unlikely mercy?

Interestingly, aside from the general optionality of the rules, the only inflexible component is retainer morale. After an adventure, each retainer must make a morale check. A retainer who fails the check will never work for that employer again! Of course, this check can be modified just like any other morale check, so be nice to your retainers if you want to keep them.

Hoom Feethos was beyond all earthly help, and Quanga, now wholly the slave of a hideous panic, would hardly have stayed longer to assist him in any case. But seeing the pouch that had fallen forward from the dead jeweler’s fingers, the hunter snatched it up through an impulse of terror-mingled greed; and then, with no backward glance, he fled on the glacier, toward the low-circling sun.

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Ice-Demon”

Like a Bizarro-world equivalent of the Tenth Amendment, old-school rulesets reserve all powers to the DM that are not otherwise placed in the hands of the players. (This stands in sharp relief to new-school games which transfer much of this authority to the players.) As such, the DM should use the morale rules to supplement and enhance gameplay without letting them override one’s own understanding of the milieu. That gnoll is charmed? Let him fight to the death to defend his master. The enslaved goblins are trying to escape? Don’t roll a morale check to see if they keep fighting when you know they’re going to run away anyway.

Use the system. Don’t let it use you!


Tron Legacy and the Old School Revolution

I loved Tron as a kid. The script wasn’t anything to write home about, but the graphics got under my skin and into my dreams. The brilliant colors contrasting with dull grays and midnight blues, the alien angularity of the Recognizers, the trippy psychedelic whirl of the MCP, even the goofily bleeping “bit” that followed young Jeff Bridges around: they made computers seem interesting back when all we had to work with were TRS-80s.

Tron, like original D&D, was a seminal product. Cyberpunk literature and movies—Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix—drew inspiration from Tron’s computer world. And now, 28 years later, we have a sequel: Tron Legacy.

If the trailers are any indication, the new movie neatly integrates visual and auditory cues from successor products; for instance, the muted greens and oversaturated blues of The Matrix‘s computer world and real world are swapped around for Tron Legacy‘s real and computer worlds respectively. But these new elements are used in service of the original Tron‘s idiom.

This is an Old School Revolution movie.


The Spirit of the Staircase

Here are two things the title of this post does not mean:

  1. A celebration of the  stairs, as well as the pits, ramps, and chutes, plus elevator rooms and often teleporters, that give old-school dungeons their awesome verticality. If this was that post, I’d note that many ways to go up and down is as much an essential element of a great dungeon’s  interesting-to-explore and meaningful-decision-generating spatial complexity as branching loops and hidden areas (and often creates vertical loops and searches to find a point of entry to something you know is above or below but presents no obvious way to get there). I’d trace the early history of verticality, which very rapidly goes from the organically evolved (1970-71’s Blackmoor Dungeon, where the connections between levels are many and complex but were likely created by Arneson superimposing the sheet of graph paper for each new level he was designing on top of the previous one and deciding which staircases would or wouldn’t exit on this level) to the highly designed (1976’s Dungeoneer adventures, where the rise and fall of elevations nestle on the same sheet of graph paper like origami before it’s folded, and were likely created by merging one’s consciousness with that of a being from a higher-dimensional space). And I’d theorize that this spirit of the staircase evolved from actual play as an immediate consequence of  the mythic underground idea that the treasure and danger increase the further away from the surface you get.
  2. A new kind of incorporeal monster which can perceive you only when you’re changing elevation, presumably because it comes from another plane where either horizontalness does not exist or its projection into our realm is strongly tied to the Z axis.

No, this post is about the French phrase l’esprit du escalier, which means the clever things you only think of saying after it’s too late to run back upstairs and deliver them. (This post will also not be about the many awesome things that implies about French culture and trying to invent similar phrases to express the essence of fantasy cultures).

In last night’s game, our heroes caught G’ruk the Fishfinder, shaman of the lizardmen tribe in the Caverns of Thracia, alone and whacked him. (I’d say with extreme prejudice except that Chrystos, who speaks Lizardman, went to such great lengths to protest any possible anti-reptile discrimination.) One of the many grace notes in Jaquay’s creation is a wonderfully evocative list of the things Gruk is carrying, from the mundane (18 gold pieces, a human jawbone) to the appropriate (sacred rocks, divination sticks) and straight through to the mysterious (a bag of alum?).

That pouch is the focus of my esprit du escalier. So there are four little bags within G’ruk’s big belt pouch, right? The text says one of them has alum. Two are unspecified – I said bone dust and dried river mud, but in a minor instance of e. du e. I wish I’d made one of them the ochre he’d used to draw his stick-figure of the Lizard God. And one is a virulent poison in the form of an airborne powder that G’ruk would have thrown at his attackers to create a deadly 10′ by 10′ cloud if he had survived long enough to get a single action.

Well, remember what happened last time the party found four mysterious bags within a bigger container and reached into one of them? The party sure does! (Hint: Fight Bag.) So John Fighter cautiously drags G’ruk’s corpse into another room where it won’t be discovered by his fellow lizardmen; cautiously loots his body; and, one by one, cautiously shakes out the content of the four little pouches…

Often, when I know some horrible fate is about to be sprung on the party, I go around and ask everyone what they’re doing. And usually, my emphasis on where exactly they’re doing it causes a mad rush to declare that, as James put it, “I’m further away than the person who’s furthest away.”

But in this case, the fact that John Fighter was about to cut short his own noble future and that of whichever PCs happened to be closest was an entirely unexpected treat. So my reflex was not to laboriously and tellingly establish locations, but rather to get right to making adventurers die.  Everyone was spread out and doing the kinds of wipe-off-my-sword-and-consult-the-map activities that traditionally follow lizardman slaughter, so I decided there was a flat 2 in 6 chance that any given PC was within the cloud of powdered save-or-die. The dice said Obscura, Lotur, and Arnold.

Sadly, James pointed out that he’d specified that the magic user formerly known as Zolobachai was doing something with the altar, and as this was more specific than the usual “didn’t I say I was visiting relatives on another plane?” I was happy to let him avoid the cloud. Fortunately, John, Obscura, and Lotur all rolled such crap that not even the +2 bonus to saving throws decreed by the merciful Mr. Jaquays could save them. “Okay,” I said, “you’ve all been killed.”

However, late last night I realized a better way I could have pinned down the PCs’ location. Asking people where they are is a give-away, but people are used to me saying “It sounds like there are lots of things people want to do; let’s go around the table to make sure everyone gets a turn.” (The earlier parts of the session, which often kept the spotlight on one or two players, would have benefited from this approach, but I felt it wasn’t feasible when only one person spoke Lizardman or when traveling en masse through the unknown made it advantageous for one caller to direct the group’s movement).

In hindsight I wished I’d used a clever bit of misdirection: “OK, John Fighter is shaking out the bags; what’s everyone else up to?” The reason I wish I’d done this is not that James felt guilty about talking his way out of being in the cloud, when previous statements implied that Lotur had also been over by the altar. Using the dice to determine who might be affected kept me from worrying about being out to get anyone in particular, and I knew I wasn’t favoring James; if Greengoat himself had reminded me about Lotur’s stated actions at the altar, I would have let him off the hook. (I suspect Greengoat didn’t speak up because accidental poison inhalation during looting is entirely fitting for a PC named Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, and much as I love the character of Lotur I respected his desire to go out with a whimper).

No, I wish I’d slyly duped the party into telling me where they were standing because:

1) starting the go-round with a description of  what John was doing might have caused more PCs to gravitate over to him on the suspicion that he was about to find something particularly awesome, increasing the number of potential targets for G’ruk’s unplanned but effective post-mortem revenge. (This would have worked better if John wasn’t so unimpeachably righteous and unlikely to snarf treasure for himself).

2) when the poison killed them, the fact that they had just heard me point out in a casual way that John is shaking out the bag, what are you doing would have driven home their own culpability in their death and given them their own midnight regrets: of course, I should have known that dumping out a bag is as lethal as reaching into one!

P.S. As it turned out, one of the things Ookla’s character sheet brought into the campaign from another era of creation was three doses of anti-venom. Everyone revived by these made their “will survive adversity” rolls, so no casualties were lasting. Still, we’ve had a long a phase of expansion in which the party got lots of cool things (or, in Ookla’s case, was allowed to re-activate them as everyone else caught up to his level of bling), and I am now delighted to be whittling away these resources, one platinum liger at a time. (Newly acquired levitating 30′ long battle-drinker worm, I’m coming for you!)


D&D Was a Wargame: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

It’s common to see people saying that old-school games like Dungeons and Dragons (1974), or its new-school sequels like D&D 4E, or indie games like Burning Empires, are like wargames. In at least one case, that’s incontestably true: the covers of all three original D&D booklets announce that these are “rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns playable with paper and pencil and miniatures figures.”

However, the meaningfulness of drawing a parallel between any given RPG and “wargames” as an abstract, monolithic entity is hugely overstated. The genre of wargames encompasses enormous diversity in theme, content, and playstyle. Wargames have a considerably longer history than RPGs, and have undergone at least as much change over time. People who talk about something being “wargamey” based solely on their experience of the contemporary wargames industry are talking out their ass. If someone says “Yu-Gi-Oh and poker dice  are like RPGs; I know because I’ve seen people playing the Warhammer Fantasy RPG in my game store, and it uses cards and dice with different things printed on each face,” their ignorance is obvious because we’re familiar with the essential nature of RPGs, the diverse ways that can be expressed, and the ways its mass-market expression has changed over time.

I’m not a wargamer. My formative experiences were part of a gaming culture where Diplomacy, Starship Troopers, and Advanced Squad Leader were played alongside Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Stormbringer, and The Fantasy Trip, but I never really got into that side of things. Unlike RPGs, I wasn’t motivated to keep up with more recent wargame designs, or seek out and play predecessors like Little Wars. But having that interest in the roots of RPGs means that I’ve spent a couple of hours reading about the history of wargaming on the internet and going to  seminars at Gen Con 2008 (Dave Arneson’s on “My Fantastic Gaming Group” and David Wesely’s on Braunstein). Sadly, this is more than enough experience to dispel at least those commonly-asserted fallacies which relate to D&D and the specific wargaming culture from which it arose.

Wargames aren’t all about combat and death.

The game that was published as D&D grew out of the house rules Dave Arneson was using for his Blackmoor campaign. Although the combat system he used was adapted in part from the Chainmail wargame, the essential gameplay grew out of the Braunstein wargames refereed by David Wesely and, later, by Dave Arneson. Here’s how a participant in the 2008 recreation (which, sadly, I wasn’t able to play in) described the experience:

We then played a game that falls somewhere between a LARP, Diplomacy, boardgame and tabletop RPG. The players were given character roles, turn-based order sheets and some plastic WW2 miniatures to represent our units. After the initial rules explanation and set up phase, players spent the bulk of the game milling around in the hallway outside the room in various groups, negotiating with and plotting against each other. Each of the characters had hidden agendas that required us to betray someone, but we also had to work with others in order to achieve these. A few seemingly random crises events popped up as well, such as a smallpox outbreak and rumors of a looming invasion by Banania’s hostile neighboring state. At the end of the game, each player was asked to vote on who they trusted and distrusted the most. I tallied Dave’s spoken results up on a whiteboard so we could see who would have come out on top in the next government.

The essential concern of a wargame is conflict, but there’s nothing in the form that says what form that conflict has to take or what mechanics will be used to resolve it. One of the proponents of the fallacy that wargame = hack and slash says “the absence of skill system and rules pared back to basics for everything except combat, and a very abstract level of combat resolution, are hall marks of a wargamey system… that’s what you have to get if you return to that system.” Looking at the earliest D&D fanzines, it’s clear that the same people who were interested in this “wargamey” RPG were also playing a lot of Diplomacy, where the absence of any rules except a highly abstract combat system leads to… intensely social play centered around scheming, hidden deals, bluffing, and backstabbing.

Wargames aren’t all about moving figures around a tabletop.

Although players in the Braunstein recreation were given miniatures, they weren’t used (in the original, they tracked which characters were in the same location, like pieces in a game of Clue).  The Napoleonic miniatures campaigns Dave Arneson had been playing prior to Blackmoor had been exploring similar directions, using his power as referee to introduce an element of the unknown that tabletop battles could not. He talked about telling one player ““Wait, don’t set up your army just yet. Your situation is that coordination has gone awry; the force you were supposed to link up with wasn’t at the rendezvous point.” He’d take the player into another room and draw him a sketch of the area: “Here’s the river, here’s a road, here’s where you think the sound of cannons is coming from, figure out what you’re going to do while I go see what the other players are up to.”

This  is the kind of wargaming that the original D&D rules grew out of. Sure, you could find other wargames that feature tactical maneuvering of figures on a pre-published battlemap. But saying that D&D 3.5 or 4E is like OD&D because both are like wargames is like saying that Minneapolis is like New Orleans because they’re on the Mississippi River.

Wargames aren’t all about choosing between pre-defined options whose outcome is rigidly defined by the rules.

Arneson said that the first wargaming group he joined played with a kriegspiel developed as an officer training exercise by the Prussian military. Like many gamers past and future, they were drawn to using the most comprehensive, complex, and incomprehensible set of rules they could find. The fact that what they had was a bad and incomplete translation from the original German meant that anything a player tried to do could touch off an endless string of arguments about which rules applied and how they should be interpreted.

Arneson and Wesely eventually decided that what this group really wanted to do was argue and rules-lawyer. They wanted to play, so they formed a group of their own. Did they react to the everything-is-subject-to-interpretation environment fostered by the kriegspiel by choosing a system with more clear-cut rules? Many such options were available, polished and throughly play-tested efforts by Avalon Hill’s professional game designers.

Instead, what they choose to do instead was keep the parts of the rules they liked, but create the role of a referee to interpret them. Unlike a simple and clear-cut set of rules laid down in advance, the referee could provide flexible and intelligent adjucation of specific situations. Players could try doing anything  at whatever level of detail the group wanted to get into, and create new rules and modify existing ones as play demanded. Unlike interpretation by committee the referee’s decisions were fast and final.

This DIY hobbyist style of wargame play demanded many things of its referees, and downplayed the importance of purchasing new systems for doing different things. Not surprisingly, this is not the direction game publishers followed. Parallels between modern RPGs and modern wargames may be accurate because both reflect commercial pressures and contemporary tastes. That tells you  nothing about the kind of wargames that RPGs actually came from and the style of creative referee  adjucation and open-ended player freedom that both originally shared.

Wargames aren’t all about abstract gameplay instead of simulating the imagined world.

Giving the referee authority over the rules and how they were applied didn’t end quibbling about the outcomes of player actions in Arneson’s Napoleonic wargame campaigns. If anything, the promise of a referee whose adjucation could take into account everything you could imagine empowered quibbling about historical accuracy. Clearly, the muzzle velocity of a cannon in 1802 meant that my troops could not possibly be taking fire from an enemy position that far away! No, I can totally shoot you because this source it says that the new black powder formulation was available to elite troops on this front!

Arneson said that he was drawn to create a “fantastic medieval wargames campaign” because no one would be able to tell him what a dragon could or couldn’t do! Of course, anyone who’s ever heard RPG players argue about of the game implications  of the performance of longbow troops against mounted knights at Agincourt knows what became of this. Still, to say that D&D 4E players argue that of course an ooze can be tripped because the system is wargamey makes as much sense as saying that Silver Age issues of Dragon Magazine devoted so many pages to the aerodynamics of falling human bodies because the system was wargamey.

I don’t think that word means what you think it means. I think it means focused on social play, in which negotiations and alliances are as important as combat; enriched by, but not reliant on, tactical maneuvering of figures on the tabletop; allowed players to try anything they could think of; and emphasized imagination over rules as the key to figuring out what happened.


i’m going to hell for saying this…

…but I like Milius-Conan better than Howard-Conan.  By a pretty wide margin.  Everything about that movie is awesome.  But James Earl Jones is especially awesome.  And Mako is extra-especially awesome (in this and in all things).

If a movie has this in it, I am okay with trademark dilution


Knowledge is Power: Inquisitive Players and the Rumor Table

He had found Keshan, which in itself was considered mythical by many northern and western nations, and he had heard enough to confirm the rumors of the treasure that men called the Teeth of Gwahlur. But its hiding place he could not learn, and he was confronted with the necessity of explaining his presence in Keshan. Unattached strangers were not welcome there.

—Robert E. Howard, “Jewels of Gwahlur”

The earliest published D&D modules, B1 (“In Search of the Unknown”) and B2 (“The Keep on the Borderlands”) both contained rumor tables. Players rolled on the tables to see what stories their characters had heard about the dungeon. This information provided both color and context, giving the players something to keep an eye out for. These serve as what Tavis describes as “nudges”, offering the signposts that help keep a sandbox dungeon from being nothing more than a “Hall of 10,000 Identical Doorways.”

Of course, when you give clever players access to a few of these rumors, what do they do? They try and get hold of more rumors. This is only sensible! But what’s the point of rolling on a random table for rumors if the PCs are just going to pick everyone’s brain until they learn everything there is to know?

I’m a firm believer in the importance of meaningful choices in D&D and the consequences thereof. Deciding to track down more information about a dungeon seems like a great opportunity for choices and consequences. This, along with simple verisimilitude, demands that the PCs should be allowed to go to whatever lengths they desire to get more info than a rumor chart allows. But what choices do they have, and what are the consequences?

First, who do they ask?

  • Random bar patrons are cheap and easy sources for information, but they’re unlikely to know much, and what little they know is mixed with liquor and misunderstandings into a potent cocktail of misinformation.
  • Local gossips and rumormongers will know more, but given that their knowledge equals more treasure for the party, they’re likely to charge for the information, either in money or favors. They’ll also spread the word that the party is looking for information on the dungeon, because that’s what gossips do!
  • Scholars and sages are a good source for solid historical data, but they may live some distance away and will charge for their time even if they don’t have the information the party seeks.
  • Other adventurers who’ve been in the dungeon have the most accurate knowledge, but they also have the most to lose, as they’re competing for the dungeon’s resources; any gain on the part of the PCs is the NPC party’s loss. So they’re inclined to be secretive at the very least, and are likely to lie.

Second, what are the consequences?

  • Information may be true, false, misleading or irrelevant. The more carefully the players choose their sources and the more money and favors they shell out, the more likely it is that they’ll get useful, accurate data.
  • The more people the PCs talk to, the more people will know what they’re up to and what they’re looking for. Rival adventurers may well try to beat them to their objectives or ambush them on the way out of the dungeon.
  • Depending on the nature of the dungeon and the town, some NPCs may simply be hostile to the prospect of adventurers digging up the place. Perhaps it’s a holy site, or the locals feel the treasure belongs to them and hope to recover it themselves, or too many farmers’ sons have gone to their deaths as hirelings. This can lead to trouble—even violence—between the party and the locals.
  • Some dungeons’ inhabitants have contact with the outside world. If the monsters’ traders and spies learn about the party’s inquiries, they can take advantage of that knowledge by spreading false rumors or arranging ambuscades inside the dungeon itself.

All of this is off the cuff, so I’m sure I’ve missed some obvious possibilities.

Do you use rumor charts in your dungeons? How have they worked out for you? What other mechanisms do you employ to deal with PC inquiries into the goings-on in the dungeon and in the rest of your milieu?


The Allison Conventions

In the comments to my post “Don’t Roll Your Hit Points Until You’re Hurt,” rafial suggests that the Old School Renaissance is recapitulating the process of house-ruling that led to the development of early like-D&D-but-not games like Runequest, and helpfully links to the Perrin Conventions that document an important step in that direction.

I feel that this mutation is a glorious thing and the natural next step in a movement that is well on the way to fully exploring all the possibilities of both retro-clones and even-more-back-to-basics-than-OD&D Arnesonian reconstruction. So my first thought was that to take part in this evolutionary leap, I’d need a manifesto like the Perrin Conventions! Modesty would ordinarily forbid me from naming said manifesto after myself, but if it’s good enough for Steve Perrin it’s good enough for me.

One of the things that’s remarkable about the Perrin Conventions is that, like the mutation that subsequently became AD&D, it emerged from a need to crystallize the creative ferment of houserules into a standard that could be used for tournament play between groups of strangers. Accordingly I think the character generation guidelines I just drafted for my middling-high-level Night of the Walking Wet midnight game at Gary Con II are, in combination with my hit point and magic armor rules, are a pretty concise statement of the way I roll at this point in time:

– Roll 3d6 in order for stats. Don’t calculate ability modifiers, except for # of followers; we’ll use house rules to assign descriptors that are used in place of bonuses. [OK, that looks like it’ll take another post to explain!]

Choose an alignment: Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. These are more like nationalities than moralities; people who have an opposite alignment will assume that you’ll be on the enemy side when the war for the next era of creation begins, but may be willing to work with you in the here and now.

– Choose a race. The options are human, hobbit, elf, dwarf, or anything else you want to make up. To do so, take an existing race as your model, look at the abilities it gets (you can use AD&D or the 3E SRD as a guide; the racial abilities are hard to extract from OD&D and Chainmail), and decide which ones you want to swap out for the similarly-powered ones of your choice. The benefit of being a human will emerge during play instead of being rule-bound, and derives from the fact that humans were created to be the dominant race of this age of creation.

– Choose which class or classes you want to invest 30,000 XP into. The options are fighting man, cleric, magic-user, or anything else you want to make up. To do so, choose an existing class as your model (using its advancement and saving throw tables), and swap out which abilities you don’t want for those you do. Fighters: use missile weapons, use magic weapons and other fighter-specific magic items, use heavy weapons, fight with two weapons, use a shield, use all armors, make multiple attacks against lower-HD creatures. Clerics: use medium weapons, use cleric-specific magic items, use a shield, use all armors, turn undead, cast clerical spells. Magic-users: use light weapons, use magic-user-specific magic items, cast magic-user spells.

– Invent a special ability related to your class. Examples for fighters would be making a free attack in a round during which you drop an enemy; for clerics, doing damage to undead equal to your turning roll as well as turning them; for magic-users, having a familiar.

– Invent one or two backgrounds for your characters. These will be what we’ll use to determine who can do things normally possible only for someone who has special training. If you want to pick locks, take a background as a burglar; if you want to prepare horoscopes, take a background as an astrologer. The more specific you are about what your background involved, the more generous I’ll be with adjucating its benefits. (Feel free to invent details; if you decide you were a sin-eater for the Church of the All-Consuming Ooze, such a church will thereby exist.)

– Invent your greatest magical asset. For fighters this is usually an intelligent magic sword; for magic-users this is usually your spellbook; for clerics it can be a repertoire of unique prayers, or a holy relic with powers like detect evil, etc. All spellcasters know/can access all the spells in the OD&D core (I can send you a list if necessary), plus any ones they invent as magical assets. These inventions can be imported from AD&D or other editions, or made up from scratch.

– Choose three other magic items from ones listed in OD&D/AD&D, similar ones of your own inventions, or imports from other games/other editions. In my games threats that the party couldn’t hope to face outright are often defeated or avoided through the use of weird magic items the PCs have on their sheet somewhere, so an item with creative uses may be more helpful than +5 armor.

– Roll up stats for as many followers as your Charisma score allows. These will all be first-level fighters (veterans), although you can trade 2 of them for 1 second-level fighter, or 4 of them for 1 third-level fighter, second-level cleric, or first-level magic-user.

– Give as much mundane equipment to yourself and your followers as you can carry, including up to 6,000 gp worth of portable valuables and another 6,000 gp worth of coinage. Note that 10 coins = 1 lb.

Many thanks to the many players and DMs of the New York Red Box, in particular Eric, James, maldoor, flyingace, greengoat, Chris, and Mike; the many contributors to the Finarvyn’s OD&D 74 boards, in particular Zulgyan, geoffrey, jamesm, jrients, and philotomy; and the folks I’ve been inspired by at conventions, in particular chgowiz, JimLOTFP, and Kaskoid: may your characters have close shaves and your dungeons be full of creatures hairy enough to be susceptible to Tarnu’s Collaring Coiffure.


arnold and the allosaur

I’ve been bad about blogging – I’ve got little to say these days – but let me tell you about my character… (And solicit your own tales of bravery!)

Last night, while exploring the Caverns of Thracia, my 4th level Magic-User Arnold Littleworth stared down an allosaurus which had just devoured our platinum robotic liger.

Like this but made of Platinum

Rest In Peace, Loki

(Yes, we have had a platinum robotic liger.  This is not the focus of the story.)

Two things are noteworthy about this encounter:

  1. The rest of the party all ran away in terror.  I won’t kid you, I wanted to run as well.  But to the true hero, glory matters more than life itself.
  2. I cast a spell I researched: Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation basically allows you to mingle with monsters until the boss shows up.  Thanks to some sloppy drafting on my part, it worked perfectly in this situation.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in the OSR that a Magic-User has researched a brand-new spell and cast it in play. (Though I’d be happy to be proven wrong.)

Not only has Arnold, also known as Zolobachai of the Nine Visions, traveled between two different campaigns, and been immortalized in print (entirely due to Tavis’s greatness) – but he is also Using Magic like a fiend.

What crazy, foolhardy tales of derring-do has your character been up to?  For me, this is the third or fourth time Arnold has risked crazy death:

  • Arnold – no weapons, no “good” spells – brained a Lizard Man with his frying pan in his first adventure, purely to save Colin Tree-Slayer’s life.
  • Arnold – again, no weapons or “good” spells – toppled a mind-controlling statue in order to save the party
  • Arnold swindled an 11th level Wizard into eating Giant Eagle dung, in order to lift a curse on his comrade, Sir Argus the Rat-Knight
  • The whole thing with the allosaur, yadda yadda old news

So although Maldoor is smarter, and Forager is more ingenious, and John is more noble, and Ookla is more sensible, and Chrystos is funnier–I think Arnold is hands-down the bravest and most gutsy.

Like this, but alive and smelly

Yes, I Defeated You (by just barely surviving)

I’d be happy to read tales of courage in the comments!

Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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