Archive for July, 2010


Funky Blank OD&D Character Sheet

Front page

Back page

As promised when I posted long ago about my 4E character sheets, here are my OD&D sheets. I made these at the very beginning of the White Sandbox campaign, when both my mastery of GIMP (lots of the sheet involved literal cutting and pasting) and understanding of what kind of things would be desirable to have on a sheet were in their infancy. If I were doing this again, I’d want to give more room for special powers, include a worksheet for detailing the attributes of custom classes (by listing those of the fighting man, magic-user, and cleric and having players circle which ones they chose or what they replaced them with), and also incorporate a “paper doll” for showing where equipment is carried and which of it might explode.

You are invited to download .jpg versions of the front page and back page from, which hopefully are of sufficient quality for printing.


Braunstein at Gen Con: Let’s Play Like It’s 1967 at 1200 Hours, August 5th, 2010

Ben Robbins heralds the news that Major Dave Wesely will be at Gen Con this year & willing to run Braunstein I for interested parties. He urges you to check this out, and following the links in that post will do more to convince you than I possibly could.

(Except, maybe, to say that Ben is the architect of the West Marches and you should give mad props to the folks who command his respect!)

(Or to point out one reason I’m glad I took his advice to learn at Wesely’s feet in 2008.)

I’m here to convince you of something more specific – that the time when you, I, and other interested parties meet in Indianapolis on Thursday to compare schedules should be between 2 and 4 pm, and that the time we find to re-enact the original 1967 Braunstein scenario should be on Saturday between 12 and 4. That is all.

EDIT: These are just the times I’m personally available, which is why I’m pimping for them. In his reply to my email Maj. Wesely suggested a Thursday planning meeting and mentioned that last year’s game was on Saturday afternoon, but I think his schedule with the National Security Decision Making Game is more flexible than mine.


Advocating for Original D&D on the Canon Puncture Podcast

Something that Mule readers may find interesting, should they wish to stop being readers for a little while and become listeners instead:

A while back I did an interview with Rich Rogers, aka Orklord of the Canon Puncture podcast.  It’s part of a series called Game Advocates, in which people talk about what they get out of one of their favorite RPGs. Mine was #99 in the series; previous entries feature all manner of cool folks providing practical insights about their RPG experiences.

The podcast is half an hour, and Rich and I spent at least as much time talking afterwards. He’s a very enjoyable conversationalist with a lot of enthusiasm for roleplaying games, and I think it would have been cool to have captured some of that discussion as well. I was very interested to hear about his experiences with old-school games (specifically Labyrinth Lord, if I recall) and expand together on the themes I sketched out during the formal interview portion.

Nevertheless, what’s here is a pretty rapid-fire summary of how I see the evolution of OD&D, why the 1974 edition in particular is worthwhile as an inspirationally incoherent collision of the Arnesonian and Gygaxian approaches, and how its framework of dice-based improv can result in fun and surprising gameplay. For those who have played OD&D with me, I’ll be interested to hear whether you think the way I describe things here matches your own experience of what we do. For those I haven’t played with yet, this is probably a pretty good indication of what it’d be like to hear me interrupt the game and go off on a tangent for thirty minutes while you wait for your turn to act.


Guilds Responsible for Manning Medieval Krakow’s Defensive Towers

Boy, that's a lot of towers.

In Krakow I visited the Barbican, which is one of the surviving structures of the defensive wall that was built to surround the Old City from the 13th to 17th centuries. From what I remember of the exhibit there, towers were placed in this wall about 40 meters apart, this distance having been determined by effective bowshot range so that the towers could support one another with arrow fire. Wikipedia says that the defensive wall stretched for 1.9 mile (3 km) and had 46 towers and seven main entrances leading through them, with which we could check that math.

As of 1626, one of these towers contained:

  • 3 harquebuses
  • 1 falconet
  • 6 muskets
  • 1 matchlock
  • 2 half-harquebuses
  • 5 armors
  • 1 sword
  • 13 halberds

There were not enough city guardsmen to man all the towers, so each of the city’s guilds were given responsibility for seeing to the defense of one tower.  I found the list of guilds to be an interesting and potentially D&D-useful glimpse of the life of a medieval city.

  • Masons of St. Michael’s Church
  • Harnessmakers
  • Painters
  • Salt-Works Managers
  • Barber-Surgeons
  • Leatherworkers
  • Tinsmiths
  • Knife-Grinders
  • Locksmiths (gate)
  • Armorers (gate)
  • Tawers (gate)
  • Cobblers (gate + also attributed to 3 defensive towers)
  • Red Tanners
  • Potters
  • Bookbinders & Wheelwrights
  • Cartwrights & Pasturers
  • Bathkeepers & Herringers
  • Executioners
  • City Guards
  • Soapmakers
  • Carpenters
  • Joiners
  • Furriers (gate)
  • Haberdashers
  • Inn-Keepers (two towers)
  • Comb-makers & Playing-card Makers
  • Sellers of Small Wares
  • Weavers
  • Hatters
  • Butchers (gate)
  • Cordovaners
  • Merchants
  • Bakers (gate)
  • Smiths
  • Saddlers
  • Ringmakers
  • Coopers
  • Goldsmiths (gate)

Guilds responsible for gate towers may have been more influential or powerful, although this wasn’t stated directly.

    The Barbican outside the wall

    I got the above from an exhibit in the barbican. You could also walk along a surviving section of the defensive wall and visit the two remaining towers. The exhibit there had a description of each of the towers, which often listed a different guild as responsible. In some cases this was likely  due to variance in translation, while in others it may have indicated a change over time. Here are the different guilds I noted in that exhibit:

    Sack-makers (instead of Leather-workers); Cutlers (instead of Knifegrinders); Belt-Makers (instead of Pasturers); Torturers (or City Hall Servants & Hangman’s Assistants); Hangman’s Tower; Sword Makers & Soap-Makers; Costermongers (instead of Sellers of Small Wares); Fustian Makers (instead of Weavers); Rope-Makers (instead of Joiners)

    In thinking about what this implies for D&D games, it’s instructive to consider the size of the city that contained all of these guilds. In the map below, the area surrounded by the green “planty” was the original walled city (a park now occupies the space of the former moat just past the defensive wall). As the woodcut above shows, there were also buildings outside the walls that contributed to the economic activity of the guilds.  Wawel Castle, and its brothel-cave,  is to the south, on a hill overlooking the city.

    Size of the medieval walled city of Krakow


    DexCon After Action Report, Part 2

    Saturday saw a major upswing in attendance. The halls were crowded, as were the gaming tables. The signup sheets for my sessions, which had been almost empty, finally started to fill up.

    My Saturday afternoon game was packed, with eight people squeezed around a small round table. Character creation was slowed by having only two sets of the core rules, though that’s mostly because people took a lot of time to equip their characters. Strange that it takes so long even with Red Box’s limited list of gear! But they finally sorted out their possessions and special abilities—mostly combative knacks in the vein of “two-weapon fighting,” “quick shot” and “weapon master”—and the fighter-heavy party trekked out in heavy rain to the Chateau.

    This was unquestionably the best of my D&D sessions at the convention. The players had a strong dynamic and were interested both in role-playing their characters and in exploring and looting the depths. After negotiating with the Chateau’s orcish guardians (aided by an excellent reaction roll), they delved into the dungeons, where it took them some time to realize that the map they were drawing of their exploration was identical to one of the pre-drawn maps they’d received at the start of play. They eventually found their way to the vastness of the Grand Stair that wound down through the center of the dungeon. A random encounter there turned into something resembling a set-piece battle, and a wild plan involving a rope and elementary physics saved the day from an otherwise invincible opponent.

    One noteworthy situation that arose here was the trouble of resting in the dungeon. Distrusting the orcs, the party decided to hole up in a small dungeon room. As the room they picked had no door, they set guards in the hallway outside, and took apart some furniture from a nearby room to build a bonfire in the hall. Naturally, this brought multiple waves of wandering monsters down upon them! They only reconsidered this stratagem after a preponderance of the PCs had been paralyzed by ghouls.

    Saturday evening was a slower session, with only five players, two of whom had played in the afternoon game. The resulting continuity resembled a real campaign, with the returning PCs farming out magic items to the new players and sharing maps and information about the dungeon. Sadly, their chosen path took them through empty room after empty room, while the random encounter die refused to cough up any monsters. Had this been a session at home with my own gaming group, that would have been fine—exploring a new area is a more meaningful reward in long-term play—but these people were paying to play a single adventure, so I fudged things to drop an encounter in their path. Things warmed up considerably after that, and the players seemed to have a good time despite a near-TPK at the end. (How many paralyzed adventurers can fit into a carrion crawler’s stomach? Roll 1d4!)

    Sunday was spent on a final visit to the dealer’s room, where I acquired a copy of The Swordswoman and some old AD&D modules on the cheap, then headed home; I’m not a fan of Sunday convention gaming, as I prefer to get home early and take some time to decompress. I think I’m finally finished decompressing!

    All in all, it was a good experience and a viable experiment. I plan to give it another try next February at Dreamation 2011.


    DexCon After Action Report, Part 1

    Whew! I’m still recovering from four days spent in sunny Morristown, NJ at DexCon XIII. Joe Bloch over at Greyhawk Grognard assembled an elite team of DMs—him, me and Rich McKee—to run old-school games, creating a gaming track with the delightful name of “Invasion of the Grognards.”

    The convention space, at the Morristown Hyatt, was pleasant and spacious, and Raul’s Empanadas down the street makes a mean empanada (surprise!). But that’s not what you’re here to read about, gentle readers! So, D&D:

    I’d scheduled four sessions of play in my home megadungeon, the Chateau d’Ambreville, to provide a slice of actual old-school dungeon delving. I was a bit nervous; much of the fun of the dungeon crawl comes from being invested in the long-term development of one’s character and party. Would convention-goers enjoy the game without that attachment? (The answer turned out to be a definite yes. Read on!)

    Thursday was slow; few people had shown up to the convention at that point, and the halls were all but empty. The sign-up sheets for my games were likewise almost empty, with four players spread across four sessions!

    Only one person showed up for my first session. Not wanting to turn a player away, I let him roll up three characters and pick a destination. He chose the Keep on the Borderlands. Hearing from the locals that a party of adventurers had just visited the Caves of Chaos and trounced a tribe of orcs, his party went to the Caves… where they entered the cave that the PCs in my home game had just cleared of orcs. Instead of moving on to a more fruitful cave, he spent the next hour turning over corpses and searching rooms that had been picked clean.

    This would prove to be a theme for the rest of the convention.

    Thursday evening was spent as a player, roaming through the Castle of the Mad Archmage. The adventure was fun but frustrating, as teleport rooms confounded my mapping efforts and much of the party seemed bound and determined to get us all killed in entertaining ways. The characters were pre-gens, which saved valuable time from being spent on chargen but made it a bit harder to engage with the game.

    Friday brought in more people wandering the halls and signing up for game sessions. Five players turned up for my afternoon game, including a father and his preteen son (player of the infamous “X the Dwarf”). The party headed up to the Chateau d’Ambreville, but decided the place was too dangerous to enter! Instead, they explored the Chateau’s infamous watchtower—long since stripped of valuables by prior adventurers—then went on to visit the ruins of Ambreville town, where they were encircled by undead and only barely cut their way out. They had fun despite only acquiring three copper pieces: a sure sign of success!

    Despite my fears, no one had any problems with jumping right into the old-school dungeon delving mindset. There was no need for a grand mission; the quest for gold and magic was enough! Presumably some element of self-selection was in effect, as the adventure description was clear and straightforward in this regard. As to character creation, it went quickly, even accounting for house rules—especially coming up with special abilities for each character. More time was spent on buying equipment than anything else! The main bottleneck was a lack of rulebooks; I should have printed out copies of the relevant material beforehand.

    For the evening, I played Shock: Social Science Fiction, one of those wacky new-school games that the kids are talking about. Despite only getting about a third of the way through the game due to time constraints and a surfeit of players, it was absolutely brilliant. We sketched out an entire setting in the first hour: far-future transhuman Earth academics visiting a lost colony where hunter-gatherers with elaborate marriage rituals are at risk of occupation by ore-hungry technocrats. The remaining three hours were packed with drama, largely centering around the technocrats’ discovery that according to the arbitrary measures of genetic “fitness” that defined their caste system, the hunter-gatherers would automatically be placed in the ruling caste if they were to be conquered and assimilated as planned.

    Mind you, not only isn’t Shock an old-school game, it’s hardly a role-playing game at all. It would be better to describe it as a story game—that is, a game for creating stories. If that’s your bag, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re looking to play a character and get into his or her head-space, though, it won’t give you what you want.

    Next post: Saturday!


    rama-tut is awesome

    Rama-Tut, by pre-crazy John Byrne

    I probably have several bloggable observations about the Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game, but they require me to think lucidly.  Instead I’d rather just post stuff about RAMA-TUT, one of my favorite obscure super villains, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four 19.

    It’s related to gaming because in our game, Chrystos is playing HORUS, THE VENGEFUL FALCON, and Rama-Tut has stolen the mystical scepter he needs to become a normal human again.

    Rama-Tut’s deal is that he became a super villain because, in the future there are no role-playing games.

    For I was then, as I am now, a man of action, an adventurer! But there were no adventures in the year 3000 . . . No enemies to battle, no dragons to slay!  All was peaceful . . . Horribly, unbearably peaceful!!

    Rama-Tut wants to get out there and get his freakin’ LARP on, as passive forms of entertainment totally blow.

    Why was I born into an age when the only excitement a man can find is in watching 3-D stereovisions from a thousand years ago?!!

    His adventuring urges frustrated by the shallowness of CRPG’s, he steals a time machine, disguises it to look like the Great Sphinx of Giza, and kicks the asses of everyone in Ancient Egypt.

    Prototype of the Ultra-Diode Ray-Gun

    So, Rama-Tut is like Evil Connecticut Yankee.  Rama-Tut’s super powers consist basically of being a Super-Genius (at least by 20th Century standards), and looking totally ripped while wearing a crazy green headdress.  In Ancient Egypt, that makes him a total bad-ass.

    He also has what the Gamer’s Handbook to the Marvel Universe describes as an “Ultra-Diode Ray-Gun,” which can control your brain but mainly is cool because it looks like a Mauser.

    This whole schtick – futuristic technology commingling with Neolithic society,  with a gloss of World War II industrial design – is one of the recurring motifs of Jack Kirby’s work, and one of the easiest to imitate in gaming.  Dude was always writing Pulp Fantasy for the Space Age.

    To be honest, Rama-Tut is a pretty gimmicky villain, and would be totally forgettable, if not for a chance encounter with Doctor Doom in hyperspace.  Together, they have the GREATEST CONVERSATION OF ALL TIME:

    Can you spot the elementary logical flaw which eludes the two greatest minds in super-villainy?  I revisit this conversation, found in Fantastic Four Annual 2, whenever I’m feeling low.


    the fighter is the thief of fighting

    Two examples of D&D play.  First example:

    Dungeon Master: The treasure chest looks to be made of an unearthly metal: it is a deep, slate grey color, but in your flickering torchlight it shows tints of magenta, lime green, and a nauseating purple which, when you gaze at it too long, seems to shrivel your eyeballs.  The clasp is worked to resemble a face somewhere between that of a preying mantis and a giraffe.  If the chest isn’t locked, it sure as hell doesn’t look inviting, either.

    Fighting-Man: I’m gonna try to get that chest open.

    Dungeon Master: How?

    Second example:

    Dungeon Master: As you and your allies try to scramble down from the Titan’s bookcase with the scrolls you found, its bookends–worked in brass to resemble an otherwordly hybrid of a purple worm and a lion–begin to roar in alarm.  As the Titan’s pet wyvern, hearing the noise, beats its wings furiously against the bars of its cage, hissing at you, the worm-lion bookends detach from their bases and come slithering toward you.  Now what?

    Fighting-Man: I attack.

    Dungeon Master: Okay, roll.

    The first example cannot be resolved without obtaining additional fictional inputs from the character.  This can slow down the pace of the game to an absurd degree, but it leads to a richly imagined scene.

    The second example may have some pretty nifty things operating on your character sheet (exhausting your spells one by one; losing hit points; getting enhancements due to your magic items), but usually the fictional events in the game are imaginatively anemic.

    Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t require much in the way of fictional inputs for combat.  In the worst case scenario, the situation in the second example can degenerate into “I hit . . . 6 points . . . You miss . . . I miss . . . You hit, 5 points.”

    This isn’t inevitable – a good Dungeon Master or good players can always gussy up this basic exchange – but the rules operate without that degree of creativity and imaginative investment, and there’s always a drift toward laziness which can result in less scintillating play.

    (Case in point: in Tavis’s White Sandbox game, Tavis allows players to narrate how they land the killing blow against an enemy.  Sometimes this results in some very nice additions to the fiction: although Eric’s Halfling Archer was the one who reduced the Beast Lord to 0 Hit Points, Eric used his narration to describe that it was Adrian’s character who lopped Stronghoen’s head off.   But often we’re too lazy to say more than, “Um, I just totally kill him.”)

    Giving some situational modifiers (+2 for high ground) is a step in the right direction, but these tend to get lost in the spread of a 1d20 roll.

    Contrast Gygaxian combat with D&D 4e.  Fourth edition requires zillions of fictional inputs in order to work, it’s just that the fictional inputs are largely confined to relative positioning on a battlefield.  I find it hard to imagine how 4e could be played without figuring out exactly where people are standing, and exactly how they’re attacking.

    As a result, combat in 4e is imaginatively rich, in the sense that how you attack someone both requires input from the imaginary environment and also changes the environment in a way that impacts later decisions.

    The downside is that in 4e there are so many inputs to track that fighting slows to a crawl.  This isn’t a problem if you’re fighting the Beast Lord, but it stinks when you’re just mowing down encounters that only exist to bleed resources prior to the big showdown.

    What would be nice is a version of D&D where resolution has a scalable complexity.  When you’re frustrated by bullshit caltrops on a staircase, just roll the Remove Traps skill and get it over with.  When you’re trying to do something really complicated, like blowing up a Lich by re-binding its booby-trapped spell books to deceive it (as Maldoor did), do something pretty freeform to enable the players to show creativity.  Stupid fights against lame-o’s, use the baseline combat system.  Big fights against major enemies, adopt a system where, say, special abilities or feat-type things come into play, allowing for some more tactical complexity.

    Credit where it’s due department – Vincent’s making the same point here, over a year ago.


    dawn of the defenders

    By the Book of the Vishanti!  I am roused from my eternal sloth to compose a quick post on the Marvel Super Heroes game.  I’ve been meaning to blog about Marvel Super Heroes generally, but I’ve been busy with work and various holiday-related events.

    Quick character summaries:

    • Sternum’s playing DOCTOR STRANGE, the Sorcerer Supreme, whose super power is omnipotence.
    • Bodacious plays The SKINK, a Japanese fire-demon who works in a pizzeria and lives in fear of the INS.
    • Chrystos plays HORUS (a/k/a Sarcophaguy), a millionaire leper who is also a cyborg-mummy gigolo.
    • WeisseRose plays TUNDRA, a Z-list super villain who is pretty much the northern half of Canada.

    They fight crime.

    Specifically, they are the Defenders.

    For anyone who wasn’t a big Marvel Comics fan, The Defenders was a comic book series that ran through the 1970’s, briefly revived a few times since, where the idea is that it’s a team of people who don’t really like each other, and who don’t think they’re part of a team at all.  As Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner phrased it:

    The Defenders is merely a name, and no more.  At times we battle together against a common foe–but the Defenders is not an alliance . . . There is no leader, no rules, no charter.

    In other words, it’s a super hero team designed around a West Marches or Red Box style of attendance, where the strangest collection of characters, from the Hulk to Howard the Duck to Dracula can all team up, drop in, drop out, and save the day or whatever they please.  Welcome to the world of Steve Gerber!

    Character creation was a mixture of selecting established characters (Dr. Strange, Tundra), random rolling, and modeling based on concepts.  The players of the Skink and Horus wheedled a few minor powers out of me, so it wasn’t an “honest” random roll, but since they’re partners with Doctor Strange, who is arguably the most powerful guy in Marvel Comics, and also the game lets you simply adapt concepts without rolling, I didn’t think this was a big deal.

    Horus, the Living Mummy

    Plot Summary:

    Doctor Strange is warned by the Orb of Agamotto that bad guys are gunning for the fabled Scepter of Set, a mystical gizmo that can conquer the world–but anyone who touches it will have their soul destroyed.  He therefore gathers up the Skink (who has no soul) and Horus (whose soul is theoretically sealed in a canopic jar), and after some bickering they arrive in Cairo to protect the Scepter.  (Tundra presumably will arrive later.)

    There, they confront the fanatical witch-hunter the Silver Dagger, the robot minions of Rama-Tut, and the astral spirit of Baron Mordo–precipitating a four-way battle for the Scepter of Set.  After a lot of dice-wrangling, the heroes manage to seize the Scepter, only to discover it was a fake–suggesting that someone duped the Orb of Agamotto to keep Doctor Strange occupied…

    System comments:

    More to follow, but basically things worked pretty well.  It was a very fun session, but mainly because I enjoy playing with these folks so much.  The Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game didn’t get in our way at all, but didn’t do much to facilitate play either.

    My only serious complaint is that, like early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the mechanics permit but don’t require fictional inputs, leading to an “I attack… I dodge… I attack… I dodge” style of play if you’re not careful.

    My thought on fixing this is to steal from Ron Edwards’s excellent SORCERER: if you end up repeating your action from last round, you take a cumulative penalty to your rolls.

    My not-so-serious complaint is that the Magic Rules befuddled us completely.  Sternum was most familiar with the Advanced Rules, I knew the Basic Rules, and Doctor Strange’s character sheet was from the Realms of Magic accessory–and all of these texts have different rules for magic.  At some point we’ll have to figure it out.

    Overall, a pretty good night.  We’ll do  few more sessions and see how things go.


    Historical Accuracy Demands A Cave Beneath Your Castle With a Brothel & Caveman Ghosts

    Cave below Wawel Castle

    I just visited Krakow, Poland, where I had the pleasure of meeting with some local RPG gamers who deserve a post of their own. This one, however, is about a cave they urged me to visit, called the Dragon’s Den. Here are some of the many awesome things about it:

    • It is directly under the early 16th-century Wawel Castle – we entered the cave by descending a very narrow spiral staircase on top of the castle hill.
    • Legend has it that the cave used to contain a dragon,  Smok Wawelski, who defeated many great warriors before being brought low by an adventurer (with the cobbler background skill) named Skuba Dratewka, who fed it a sheep stuffed with sulfur.
    • It used to contain a brothel. The fact that the denizens of the royal palace could nip down the hill to a house of ill repute may have something to do with the fact that at one point 25% of people in Krakow had noble blood (according to these Polish gamers at least).
    • The part we walked through is just one part of a larger complex, which was discovered in 1974:

    The left arrow is the cave mouth; the right is the spiral staircase

    • The part of the cave you can’t go into contains an honest-to-God troglobyte, a rare crustacean from the Tertiary
    • The signs in the cave suggest that people were living there in the Stone Age; although the Wiki translation of this page seems to say the oldest traces of man found there date back to the end of the 16th century, people were certainly living on the hill above the cave in the paleolithic era.

    I believe this is the side tunnel - certainly I didn't get to go into anything like this.

    Moral of this story: more historical accuracy = more dragons kicked out of their caves to make way for whorehouses conveniently located to castles.

    Past Adventures of the Mule

    July 2010
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