Archive for September, 2010



11
Sep
10

Paksenarrion’s Deed & Renaming the Village of Hommlet

I’m reading, and enjoying, Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy. I got started on it by reading the first book, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. You can read that one for free online; this is savvy of Baen Books because you’ll then want to pick up the omnibus of the three-book trilogy, which I did at a used bookstore in the San Juan Islands. (Sadly,  forgetting my passport prevented me from visiting Red Box Vancouver.)

So as I’m reading the middle book in the trilogy, originally published as Divided Allegiance, there’s a section where our hero, Paksennarion, has captured some bandits who have been hiding out in a small keep. One of them is describing their miserable lot – they were often so hungry that they even tried to catch and eat a giant frog from the moat. A lightbulb appears above my head: giant frog + moathouse = T1: The Village of Hommlet.

In the comments to Grognardia’s retrospective on this module,  Rob Conley says he recognized that Moon’s town of Brewersbridge was Hommlet just from the directions Paksenarrion takes to walk from Jaroo the druid, aka the Kuakgan to the Welcome Wench, aka the Jolly Potboy. This indicates to me that Rob knows his classic AD&D modules better than I do, and is also better with spatial relationships and maps, neither of which are surprising. Here are some other often unsurprising observations:

  1. Deed of Paksenarrion is the best novelization of a D&D campaign I’ve ever read. The episodic, zany, picaresque Maze of Peril is better at showing what it’s actually like to have played D&D with J. Eric Holmes back in the day. The oddly disjointed, stuffed with too many protagonists Quag Keep does the same for playing with Gary Gygax, and has the advantage that while Moon’s changes to Greyhawk lore can be purely attributed to filing off the serial numbers, aka poetic license (either authorial or Dungeon Mastery; it’s not clear to me yet how Moon was involved in D&D), Norton’s might well reveal a pre-Folio archaeological layer. But when it comes to showing what D&D would be like if it weren’t a game, but rather a moving and intelligent story told about your character with an epic sweep, Paksennarion’s Deed is unparalleled in my experience. Her thoughtful handling of the religion and morality of her paladin PC hold their own against Gene Wolfe’s Patera Silk in Book of the Long Sun and Abel in The Wizard Knight, which is high praise, and her evocation of medieval military life and tactics (for which the book was first recommended to me) feels spot on; like Wolfe and David Drake (or J.R.R. Tolkien), Moon draws on her own experiences of military service. This item is becoming over-long, but the last thing I wanted to underline is that Paksenarrion’s Deed succeeds by any standards, not just “good for a RPG novelization” (Robin Wayne Bayley’s Nightwatch, I’m looking at you).
  2. Perhaps understandably given that last sentence,  Moon does not appear eager to be painted with the RPG-novelization brush. Or maybe it’s just that she didn’t have permission to do a novelization of Temple of Hommlet. Her discussion of the literary sources for the Paksennarion books referenced at Wikipedia mentions D&D as well as many other interesting citations, but not the specific Gygax module she’s clearly working from. (Possibly she only experienced it as a player, and thus wasn’t aware of its provenance?)
  3. Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Horrors, I know, and I shouldn’t complain because how awesome is it to have a magic encyclopedia in my pocket that has entries about the nerdiest things I could wish? Still, this just ain’t true:  “A number of people[who?] have pointed out resemblances between the story setting and Dungeons & Dragons, in particular alleged similarities between Moon’s town of Brewersbridge and Hommlet (a village in The Temple of Elemental Evil module for AD&D) and between Moon’s religion of Gird and the faith of Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel in Greyhawk.[citation needed] However, such themes may often be similarly found in many brands of high fantasy, and are not unique to any one fictional world.” The correspondences here are much more specific than just “this fantasy novel has orcs, and so does D&D”. I’m hoping grodog or somebody may be inspired to go through and list them all – it’d be an interesting exercise – but we’re talking about specific fight scenes in Divided Allegiance whose opponents and sequencing are the same as combats you’d encounter while following the dungeon key in Temple of Hommlet.
  4. I don’t think it’s taking anything away from Moon to say that Divided Allegiance is a testament to Gygax as a storyteller, just as I think Gygax’s reputation can survive my saying that his modules show that better than his novels. The story that Moon tells about Paksenarrion’s adventures in the moathouse proves that what Gygax set forth in sixteen pages is, like Edgar Allan Poe’s invention of  detective fiction in “The Speckled Band”, a great and lasting template from which others can cast works of virtue. That’s not news to any of the thousands of gaming groups who’ve had great experiences in Hommlet, but it’s interesting that it can be true for a novel as well as actual play.
  5. In the back cover blurb for Paksennarion’s Deed, Judith Tarr says “This is the first work of heroic high fantasy I’ve seen that has taken the work of Tolkien, assimilated it totally and deeply and absolutely, and produced something altogether new.” I’d say that the thorough mulching of Tolkien’s work by D&D, mixing it up in a big syncretic brew with minotaurs and flying carpets and Baba Yagas that everyone then drinks and pisses out into the groundwater with its active metabolites intact, was the key step in that assimilation.

So here’s the thing with specific gaming relevance I want to talk about, dropped out of numeric order in case you were skipping over all those. How do you feel about the practice of renaming things when it comes to gaming?

In a novel, the renaming works because making the familiar seem strange sets up an aha moment; recognizing that a Kuakgan is a druid, and a hool is an ogre, is like the head of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. Moon is good at names that have their own resonance, and by tying them to D&D archetypes she gets to borrow their thunder while avoiding their limitations. An ogre starts out predictable and has to be made surprising; a hool reserves the right to veer out of known territory whenever it pleases.

Have you experienced this working well in actual play? You don’t need DM of the Rings to know that roleplayers will gleefully trample all over many novelistic effects. I’m certain that at a certain point, players will stop saying “Let’s go see the Kuakgan” and start referring to him as a druid. But is there nevertheless a residual benefit if the DM, and especially the NPCs, can continue using the exotic names to cloak the familiar D&D bones? (For me, this may be of academic interest only; experience suggests I am as likely to slip back into calling a smeerp a rabbit as are the players.)

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10
Sep
10

anybody can paint minis, part four

Brushwork

Logically, after covering the basics of getting paint onto your miniature, we can go on to topics and techniques such as washes, dry-brushing, and black-lining for improving the look of our miniatures. However I just wanted to take the time to talk about the really basic idea of using your brush right. On all these we will be of course discussing the typical 0 size synthetic brush that I recommended last week.

I teach art & design to kids in programs and to adults at a universities and the first common mistake that I see new painters do is that they just don’t know how to apply the paint to whatever surface they are working with. People have a built up experience of brushing their teeth, mopping floors, and painting their houses, so it is only natural for most of these new artists to shove their paint around and brush it about as if it was spackle that needed herding. They think of the paint as a substance that needs shoving around and wiping off, and this is true for new painters of canvases and for new painters of miniatures.

Painting for control and precision is a different experience. The goal is not to shove the paint where you want it to go, but to touch your brush to the surface and have your paint flow off the tip exactly where you want it. All the contact between the miniature and the brush should happen at the very tip of the pointed brush, so you can control where you put the pigment. If the bristles of the brush splay out , the paint mark becomes much more random and it’s almost impossible to retain control.

So what is required to keep your paint flowing off of the tip of your finely pointed brush?

  • You need to make sure that the paint is the right consistency. When you put your drops of paint color on your palette you have to mix in water to make the paint able to flow from the bristles of the brush. Mini-paint that comes in droppers is thin enough to only need a bit of water to thin it down. The paint that comes in pots usually needs a little more thinning down. On average, you want to have the paint be the consistency of heavy milk. Paint that is too thick will form a blob on your brush and conceal your tip, it will be hard to control. Paint that is too thin will take many layers to eventually cover the miniature and the coat of paint is easy to rub off because the acrylic binder is too weak to keep the paint film. Some pigments are just more transparent than others. Resist the urge to slop a heavy coat of paint on when you are trying to get a red, orange, or yellow part of your mini opaque. Several thin layers are much easier to control and cover the miniature much more evenly. You can even put additives in the water to have the paint dry slower on your palette or flow more easily in the recesses. I have several different droppers of water with different drying times and surface tensions that I add to the paint, advanced fiddling but very useful.
  • You need the proper light to see by and a comfortable position for your hands. Miniatures are small things you know and it’s hard to paint them, as it is, in broad daylight, so do yourself a favor and use a lamp. Painting under indirect daylight is the best, but any normal incandescent lamp can help you see better, especially in the evenings. Also find a comfortable position for your hands. For dine details like eyes, I find myself resting my wrists on the table edge to keep them steady but sitting up in a good work-chair should be enough for most of your process.
  • Your brush needs to come to a point as you paint. Once you see the tip of your brush running out of paint, dip onto the palette again and make sure it comes to a point by either rolling the brush over on a palette by twisting your fingers or wiping that little bit of excess paint off with a paper towel. I always have a paper towel underneath my tub of rinsing water and every time I dip my brush on the palette for more paint, I gently wipe the excess off with a streak across the towel. You can tell by looking at the tip and seeing if too much paint is held by the bristles. This will keep a consistent paint load on your brush that you can get used to.
  • Your brush needs to come to a point as it dries. You should rinse your brush out every once in a while to make sure none of the paint dries in the deeper bristles. You should never rest the brush in the water with pressure on the bristles because they will bend. And you should soap and rinse your brush before you put them away. Brushes become ruined (pointless) when paint dries in the bristles and splays them apart, so you have to use some hand-soap to rinse them clean at the end of the session. Warm water, and lather them up against your palm until no more color comes out. After they are clean, take a little bit of hand-soap and form a point on the brush with your fingers. This will help the brush to dry pointed when you lay it flat.

So that is how you keep a point going on your brush. And, in case you want to know, everyone has jittery hands to some degree. A little bit of practice just compensates for our own jitteriness when we are painting. So just ignore that excuse.

Next post we will get into some basic technique to make our lives easier.

09
Sep
10

That Burning, Burning Feeling: Flaming Oil in D&D

“Burning oil will deter many monsters from continuing pursuit.”

—Gygax & Arneson, “Dungeons & Dragons Volume III: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures”

Burning oil is the traditional equalizer for low-level parties in old school D&D. It’s a deadly ranged weapon that’s also dirt cheap and usable by anyone. Despite the risks of setting oneself on fire, it’s the most effective tool that starting PCs have for dealing with their enemies, dealing an average of 9 damage over two rounds—enough to kill even the toughest normal man or orcish sergeant.

But… why is it so deadly?

Clearly, dousing someone in burning oil is going to be deadly. In fact, in the Chainmail ruleset, dumping a cauldron of burning oil on targets kills them instantly! But using this as a baseline for the effect goes against the core of D&D combat. It’s like saying that running someone through with a sword will be deadly; this is true, but it’s also not a presumed effect of any successful attack. And just as a successful melee attack might reduce the target’s hit point total through a bruise, a graze or even a threatening near-miss, a successful burning oil attack might drench an easily-removed cloak, deliver only a few burning droplets or even result in a threatening near-miss.

On the other hand, burning oil isn’t actually that bad in terms of game balance, since it takes two rounds and two attack rolls to set someone alight—one to douse them in oil and another to hit them with a torch. This doubles the combat effectiveness of the party’s dagger-wielding magic-users, but isn’t nearly as beneficial for more fighting-oriented types. Alternatively, you can spread the oil on the floor in advance and light it when they come into range, but most opponents will be able to withdraw from the burning area after one round, and you risk getting pushed into your own oil patch or having it block your own escape.

Things really break down when you allow players to make and use oil-based Molotov cocktails. These are allowed in the Rules Cyclopedia, but there’s no mention of them in pure Red Box. Pre-lit oil lets you deal 2-16 damage with one attack roll. That’s definitely unbalanced at low levels, and makes Molotov-lobbing first level hirelings effective even in the deeper levels of the dungeon.

My recommendations:

  1. Allow a character hit by burning oil to spend a round rolling around and putting out the flames, thereby preventing the second round of damage from the oil.
  2. Disallow the use of Molotov cocktails, or make them sufficiently flawed that it’s a meaningful tactical choice as to whether or not to use them.
  3. Incorporate oil into the extant class-based weapon restrictions; it can be used by classes that can use any weapon, and as it lacks an edge it can be used by clerics, but magic-users can only wield daggers and thus cannot effectively throw oil (or at least suffer a penalty to do so).
  4. Consult Philotomy’s advice on burning oil for detailed suggestions regarding complexities arising from burning oil use.
  5. Set the PCs on fire and watch their oil flasks explode! (You may wish to employ a pyrologist for this purpose.)

This should make burning oil less of a trump card while still retaining its usefulness. It’s a decently effective weapon, a method to slay enemies resistant to ordinary weapons (such as mummies), a means to destroy wooden structures, and a barrier against hostile foes. There’s no reason for it to be anything more.

08
Sep
10

Henchmen Are the Opposite of Dissociated Mechanics

These would make great minis for henchmen.

During arguments about whether game/edition X counts as a roleplaying game, people like to say that you could roleplay Monopoly. This is intended to end the argument, but I think it actually points out the way that roleplaying depends on a correspondence between something in your own personal experience and the situation you imagine your game-token to be occupying.

It’s easier to roleplay Monopoly than The Game of Gaining and Losing Points Due to Random Motion across a Regularly Demarcated Perimeter. The mechanics of both are identical; the difference is that Monopoly gives you imaginary things to manipulate that are easy to associate with things that have meaning in your life. (I’m talking here about money and real estate; the top hats and poodles remain inexplicable.)

Dungeons & Dragons is and always has been, among other things, a game of resource management. The great thing about old-school D&D is that the resources it gives you to keep track of are so often concrete and meaningful. It’s vivid and compelling to imagine having your last torch burning your fingers as you try to find an exit from the underworld, or taking your last swallow from a waterskin beneath the burning desert sun.

Hit points and spells are more abstract. Owing, perhaps, to long practice, we are usually able to associate these game variables with things that make sense to us. Nevertheless, when people want to make a “more realistic” version of D&D they often start looking for alternatives to fire-and-forget spellcasting and complaining about how it takes more sword thrusts to kill a high-level fighter than an elephant. I think this is because hit points and memorized spells start floating loose from anything we can have real-world experience with.

Healing surges and martial daily powers are a step further dissociated from the players’ concrete experience, and for many people that’s a step too far towards The Game of Gaining and Losing Points Due to  Random Motion across a Regularly Demarcated Perimeter.

When I ran Blackmoor Dungeons at Gen Con, I gave each player some henchmen to control. In one session, the players positioned their henchmen and heroes around a door and then went storming in to meet a roomful of poisonous spiders. When they pulled out again, sealing the door with a wizard lock, I said: “Okay, you left three dead henchmen on the floor inside. What were their names? There are two more corpses on this side of the floor. What are you doing with the bodies?”

Henchmen are the opposite of dissociated mechanics, and I love them. They’re a game token that’s more easily commodified and spent than a PC. At the So-Cal Mini Con, in the first fifteen minutes of play I probably killed a dozen henchmen, immediately illustrating the lethality of the situation and depleting the players’ resource without having to take away anyone’s sole means of interaction with the action of the game.

Broken swords and bulging-with-gold backpacks are also good, concrete resources for game management. But, being  people, players are interested in stories about people. The great thing about henchmen are that they create events in play that make for interesting stories. Will the souls of the abandoned henchmen come back to haunt the living? What might the families of the others do when their corpses are brought back to town? How do the survivors find the courage to keep descending despite the loss of their comrades?

The problem with dissociated mechanics is simple: you can’t tell stories about them. “We lost four henchmen” is more satisfying than “we lost four healing surges” for the same reason that “you landed on my Park Place hotel, pay me $2,000” is more satisfying than “your random motion earned me two thousand due to my investment in the penultimate gradation.”

In case this post makes a blahblah blah sound, here’s the way I did henchmen in the Blackmoor Dungeons run:

  • Ask each player their charisma, tell them how many maximum followers they can have as a result.
  • Offer a choice between guaranteed henchmen or rolling for them.
  • If you go with the guarantee, you have three zero-level men-at-arms (fewer if your Charisma doesn’t allow that many).
  • If you choose to roll, you get a d6 worth (again limited by your Charisma max). If you rolled a 6, one of them is a first-level fighting man, cleric, or magic-user (with two randomly chosen spells in their spellbook).
  • Don’t roll any stats for the henchmen; assume they have perfectly average or just below normal scores. If a player’s PC is killed or incapacitated, they take over one of their former henchmen; rolling up their ability scores at this point creates some excitement and gives them a new sense of ownership over the character.

In my first Blackmoor run, we had a lot of time before the official session start so I had people roll their henchmen’s stats; this put more focus on them at the start of the game than I think was necessary, and when henchmen were known ahead of time to have great ability scores players were like “Can I sacrifice my main guy and play this one instead?”

Alternately, a nice way to turn alternative ability score generation from a dissociated mechanic into a concrete one is to have people roll multiple sets of 3d6 in order. Your favorite of these is your PC; the others are your henchmen.

07
Sep
10

Simultaneous Sacking of Castle Zagyg at Fal-Con

JoetheLawyer* and I are going to be running simultaneous, competing expeditions into Castle Zagyg at  Fal-Con on Sat., Oct. 16. I hope all readers of the Mule who are in the area will join the race to loot the Upper Works!

The idea is that we’ll each have adjacent tables so that we can eavesdrop on what one another’s group are doing and keep abreast of where in the dungeons they are. We’ll be doing two runs apiece, so in the afternoon session there’ll be the possibility that adventurers will enter rooms ransacked that morning. Savvy parties will presumably hide the bodies, lest the freshness of the blood tip their rivals to their proximity!
Some questions:
  • Anyone have experience with something similar to suggest what works, what doesn’t, etc.?
  • As a player, would you be disappointed if you did/didn’t encounter the other party?
  • Tips on communications between the DMs to help us know when the parties are near enough to influence one another?
  • Tips on summarizing the dungeon (even the fragment of CZ that got published is big!) in such a way that we could deal with parties going anywhere & knowing roughly where the other group is?

* Joe is better known to the White Sandbox players as Theos, one of the slayers of the Beast Lord.

06
Sep
10

Word from the Geofront

Just a quick update: I’ve been at Myrtle Beach for the past six days, hence my lack of gaming posts. I have, however, finished mapping out two levels of my megadungeon and wrote up the contents of 75 rooms, including assorted furnishings and bric-a-brac. I gotta tell ya, filling in all the fine details takes a lot of time! But it’s necessary to give the dungeon that “lived-in” look. Some of it actually counts as treasure, too! (This is a good reason to bring in the Trader PC: to assess the value of this chair or that tapestry!)

More later. Eric out.

03
Sep
10

anybody can paint minis, part three

Paint Your Miniature Now

Bare Essential Supply List

  • dish soap
  • sponge
  • 2 tubs for water
  • paper towels
  • Exacto or craft-knife
  • super-glue
  • palette paper or white plate
  • 2 synthetic hair short handle watercolor brush (nylon, taklon, sablette), one 0 size and one 000 size.
  • miniature paint (any brand, if needed you can go without the two browns, two silvers etc.)
  • white
  • black
  • bright silver metallic
  • dull silver metallic (gunmetal)
  • light brown
  • dark brown
  • light skin color
  • dark skin color
  • middle blue
  • middle red
  • middle yellow
  • middle green
  • black ink
  • brown ink

Bare Essential Instructions:

  • Soak your new miniatures in a tub of soapy water and sponge them off after a while. This will remove the mold release grease that all new miniatures have.
  • Dry your miniatures on a paper towel.
  • Cut all the excess casting metal (flash) from the miniature with your knife and carefully bend it into the proper shape.
  • Assemble and glue you miniature if necessary. Check the base for a proper fit before the glue goes on.
  • Plan out which colors will go where on the mini. Use a scrap paper to check for color combinations if needed.
  • Set the two tubs of water down on the table and put a folded paper towel under one of them. One of the tubs is to rinse your brush in, the other is to get fresh water from.
  • Paint a base-coat or priming layer on the mini to get it ready to accept the later coats of paint. Use black paint if your mini will be mostly dark colors or white if your mini will be mostly light colors. Red, orange, and yellow parts need to go over a white layer of paint.
  • Put a drop of paint on your palette. Put a drop or two of water on your palette next to your paint drop. Mix the paint and water so the combination has the consistency of heavy milk or light cream.
  • Get comfortable, pick the miniature up and hold it in your hands. If you need to, brace your wrists against each other or the table edge so they don’t move too much. Try and get used to painting sitting up straight.
  • Using just the tip of your brush, apply your chosen colors to the miniature like you were painting a coloring book. Just try to keep it in the lines.
  • The paint colors go on in layers. You usually have to make two or three coats of a color to get it opaque on the miniature. Do not glob the paint on to make it opaque. Work thin and in layers. Control is key, opacity builds up over time. Drying time is only a couple minutes.
  • Wipe excess paint or water off your brush with the paper towel, you should always have a point on your brush. Rinse the brush in water before starting a new color and don’t rest your brush in the water tub with the tip down.
  • Once you have covered the miniature with paint, you are done. Congratulations. You may alternatively keep correcting your paint edges but it’s not necessary.
  • Clean up. Rinse your brushes with hand or dish soap in the palm of your hand until no more color comes out. Use soap to make a point on your brushes and have them dry out laying flat. This will keep them pointed as they dry.

More arcane knowledge to follow. Post any question you have in the comments section.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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