Archive for June, 2011


the binocular thief

The Thief, right?  Nobody digs this class.  Every blog and every forum has about 20 different variations on the Thief.  Most of the complaints fall into three categories:

  1. The Thief is weak.  You cannot suck this much without professional training.
  2. The Thief bolts a weird-ass percentage skill system onto D&D, which is as elegant as a brick upside the head.
  3. The Thief doesn’t model the Grey Mouser very well.  (I’d argue, though, that it’s a pretty good fit for the ridiculous number of thieves in Dunsany’s Book of Wonder, which may have been the primary inspiration.)

So check it out: my theory is that the Thief wasn’t really meant to work as a class in its own right.

  • Debuts in Supplement I: Greyhawk
  • Greyhawk introduces AD&D style multi-classing for demi-humans, finally making sense of the OD&D Elf
  • All demi-humans are eligible to take levels in Thief
  • All demi-humans have strict level caps . . . but unlimited advancement in the Thief class (even in 1e)
  • All demi-humans get sick Thief skill adjustments
  • The Thief is pretty much a joke at low levels, so the demi-human is getting half XP in the main class for little benefit.  Maybe this is a handicap to compensate for the demi-human’s racial bonuses over a Level 1 human character.
  • By Levels 7-9 or so, the Thief no longer stinks out loud, and this is approximately when the demi-human hits a level cap in a “real” class.  Thus the Thief class becomes viable around the time the demi-human has nothing better to do. (Halflings hit the level-cap earlier, but their insane Thief bonuses are like having an extra level or two of Thief so they’re viable earlier.)
  • In Greyhawk your XP will always be divided by your number of classes, even after you hit the level cap.  So a Halfling Fighter/Thief who’s hit level 4 as a Fighter is still only going to be getting half-XP to devote to the Thief class . . . which may explain why the Thief XP chart is so ridiculously easy to level.

I mean, I can’t help you if you think the Thief’s percentage score ability thing is a kludge implemented without any forethought (it obviously was), or if you think that the Thief absolutely must model the Grey Mouser (it mustn’t).

But looking at the Thief as a component of a multi-class character, rather than as an independent class in its own right, helps me understand why the class was designed in such a weird way.

No Joesky tax today because I am late for work.


Dabbling with the Thief (pt. 2)

(Following up on part 1 here)

So, with the goal of re-organizing the Thief, I’d begin by breaking the Thief skills down into circles, or levels, by the Magic User spell they imitate (or close enough, and with some additions to play up an alchemical angle):

First Circle

  • Intoxicating Draught (Charm Person)
  • Read Languages
  • Sap (Person) (Sleep)
  • Sleeping Draught (Sleep)
  • Sleight of Hand (Ventriloquism)

Second Circle

  • Climb Walls (Levitate)
  • Find and Remove Traps (Locate Object and Knock)
  • Hallucinatory Draught (Phantasmal Force)
  • Hide in Shadows and Move Silently (Invisibility)
  • Pick Locks (Knock)

Third Circle (Just go with it)

  • Elixir (Cure Light Wounds)
  • Paralytic Draught (Hold Person)
  • Sap (Structure) (Fireball)
  • Serpentine Powder (Fireball)

Hear noise I’d treat somewhat differently, awarding an escalating bonus with level.  I’d match this with a bonus to missile weapon damage, with the idea that the steady hand and anatomical knowledge required for the draughts (not to mention the sapping) makes the character a deadlier shot.  It may be too much, but these numbers are all hypothetical. Speaking of numbers:

target numbers for skill checks

Two notes:  First, any character should be able to attempt non-alchemical first and second circle skills.  I’d recommend a target number of 10, with mishaps on 2-4: This is effectively the same as success on 6 and mishap on 1 on a d6, but puts the targets in the same framework as the proposed mechanics.

Second, the preparation of draughts, elixirs and powders should require a facility not dissimilar to a Magic User’s laboratory for research. Moreover, these alchemical efforts should be expensive- 5g and a day of work at first circle, 25g and a week at second circle, and 100g and a month at third circle.

I’d stick with the same hit dice (d4) and combat progressions (Cleric/Thief).  I think a class like this- well, frankly, it sucks less that the Thief, so I’d bump the experience progression up.  This post is already getting unwieldy, so I’ll leave notes about the skills and mishaps for another post.  What do you think?  Does thinking of the Thiefly bits as an outgrowth of tinkering and alchemy work?


Dabbling with the Thief

I was too busy to participate in this discussion when it happened, but I’d like to suggest another way to reconsider Thief-type classes.  I’d start with this vision of the BX Thief:

The Thief is a 3rd level Magic User that trades their limitations on number of spells for reduced scope and a chance of failure.  The high chance of failure at early levels is compensated for by improved melee abilities. The chance of failure diminishes as the Thief gains levels, putting the character on a trajectory to perform mundane, sometimes slower versions of a subset of first and second level spells at will.

The Thief knocks-off magic missile with missile weapons; knock with pick lockslocate object with find traps; levitation with climb walls; invisibility with hide in shadows; read languages with… you get the idea.

My reboot of the Thief would be a class that crystallizes this vision: A Thief derivative whose skills are rearranged so that those mocking first level spells are easier than those mocking second, with an escalating bonus to hear noise and missile damage as they increase in level.  And possibly some sapping skill (both kinds!).  This class is a roguish dabbler in sleights of hand, tinkering, archery, and minor alchemies and biologies… a crypto-medieval Indiana Jones, without the respectability of university backing.  Not a pickpocket, but a gray-market businessman with insight into fringe sciences and less-than-respectable studies.

But that’s another post. First, tell me where my vision of the BX Thief is inaccurate.


Red Box Armory: Pikes

No, not that kind.

The pike is a very long spear, typically 15 feet in length, intended for use in mass combat. Pikemen gather in large ‘hedgehog’ formations, so called because they bristle with spearheads like a hedgehog’s spines.

Pikes may be used to attack opponents 10 feet away (or farther, for especially long pikes) and always gain initiative against an attacker who’s closing to melee range while using a shorter weapon. However, they may not be used at closer range, nor may they be thrown. A successful pike attack inflicts 1d6 damage.

The unwieldiness of the pike makes it impossible to casually swing it about in melee. Instead, its wielder must specify in which direction he or she is pointing it. If there are other characters within 10 feet, it takes a full round to maneuver the pike around them in order to change facing. (A group of untrained peasant levies must make a successful morale check each round in order to accomplish this task.) The wielder may only attack opponents within a 90 degree forward arc.

It is rarely possible to bring a pike into a dungeon, as it’s hard to fit around corners in narrow passageways.

Treat pikes as spears for purposes of weapon proficiency.

Cost: 5gp.


You’ll Get No DCC RPG First Impressions From Me

"In today's adventure, we will confront the Grants and Contracts office as we attempt to solve the mystery of why its computer system won't interface with the one that does the financial conflict of interest forms."

In my day job, I spend a fair amount of time getting research investigators to fill out conflict of interest forms. This requires an annual statement of all the things you have any kind of financial stake in, then each time we apply for money from a new funding source everyone involved has to state whether the proposed work does or doesn’t affect these interests.

I like to think that my own financial conflict of interest statements bring a smile to the face – or milk shooting out the nose – of some guy in Compliance. He’d have to be a nerd like me to get the joke: here we sit, who dreamed of becoming puissant magic-users or legendary thieves, now trying to survive our institutional mega-dungeon as Papers & Paychecks characters instead. Last year I reported income from Wizards of the Coast, Goodman Games, and my son’s elementary school’s Board of Regents (for the afterschool class), plus ownership of Adventuring Parties LLC which I formed to take over the latter. This year I may or may not get paid by WotC for invoices on stuff I never fully completed and they never released as planned; I’ll have equity in two new gaming startups, which will get their own here-are-my-biases posts as they get announced; and I sure hope to cash a few checks from Goodman Games for writing some of the adventures Mr. Goodman and I have been kicking around, like Moonlight on Elf Hill or Robbing You Makes Me Rich, Slavedriver, and Gutting You Makes Me Glad.

All that said, it’s not a clash of financial self-interest that keeps me from talking about the DCC RPG beta the way everyone else in our echo chamber is doing. First, any actual paid work is still in the fantasy realm of when-I-have-more-time. Second, I’d get paid by the word, so that once it’s published neither helping the project succeed nor trying to make it fail would affect my bottom line. And third, getting paid to do something for Goodman, like Zolobachai’s Wagon in the Book of Rituals, hasn’t stopped me from talking about it before.

The problem for me in talking about the DCC RPG beta is that I’m too close to it. And the reason that’s a problem is not a conflict of interests, it’s that it makes it hard for me to perceive what’s actually on the page. I formed my first impressions of the game over a year ago, at a pickup playtest Joe put together at Gary Con II. Immediately afterward, I started bugging him to become a playtester, shamelessly exploiting our previous working relationship to get a look at the rules-in-progress. Since then, I’ve:

  • run Joe’s adventure Citadel of the Emerald Sorceror at Fal-Con, and played it with my nine-year-old son in preparation
  • converted Castle Zagyg and Castle of the Mad Archmage on the fly to the DCC RPG for Anonycon (which I wrote about in the Glorious Swinginess post)
  • converted the Paizo 3.5 adventure “War of the Wielded” on the fly to the DCC RPG (which I wrote about in the Uncomplicated Fun post), and playtested the Moonlight on Elf Hill adventure I’d drafted specifically for the system, for the New York Red Box crew
  • taken all of the feedback my players and I generated from these experiences and passed it on via email and in-person conversations to Joe Goodman, Harley Stroh, Doug Kovacs, Dieter Zimmerman, Michael Curtis, along with my suggestions about how the problems we encountered could be addressed and the things we like carried further, which we then all kicked back and forth until there was a collective “yes that’s it”
  • participated in discussions with some/all of the above plus artists like Stefan Poag, Peter Mullen, Brad McDevitt, and Erol Otus on visual inspirations – what was special about the look of the pulp covers that the original D&D creators grew up on, what does it mean to be “retro” nowadays, how does that relate to the backward-looking mystique of the original game where most of the Appendix N entries were already oldies and the art looked like medieval woodcuts and grimoire illustrations even when it also referenced contemporary underground comix?
  • tossed in a lot of unsolicited stuff of my own like “here’s how XP for both finding and spending GP has made the White Sandbox campaign more fun” and “this is my personal theory on why wandering monsters are essential” and “a good idea from the OSR hive mind handles this problem thusly” and “yeah that Margaret St. Clair book is totally wack, wouldn’t it be awesome to play in a game that pays as much attention to that inspiration as to the Big Three?”

At some point I apparently did enough of this kind of stuff to earn an Additional Design credit, even though I didn’t write a word of the rules. The important thing here isn’t that my name appears on the book, although this is indeed a game I’m very proud to have been part of. Nor is it that Joe is the kind of standup guy who would give me that credit, unasked for and indeed unmentioned until I saw the beta release. The thing that matters to you, the thing that is amazing and unprecedented in my experience, is that Goodman Games listened closely to its playtesters and made ongoing, substantive changes to essential design features of the DCC RPG system based on volunteer feedback.

When I look at the beta, I don’t see what’s on the page. I see the realization of a vision of what D&D would have been like if it had grown out of all the same pulp fantasy and early-70s inspirations Arneson and Gygax and their playgroups loved, except with the 3E System Reference Document swapped out for Chainmail as the “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures” that were near to hand when they reached the limit of the number of rulings they could make on the fly and still keep track of in their heads, and thus decided to add a little more systemization. Like a D&D game or a shared hallucination, this vision is both personal and collective, and it’s responded to my input continually and organically. At this point it would be both hard and not-fun for me to go through the document and discern what’s there for outside readers to see vs. what’s just the way I dreamed it.

There are many good reasons you might not care about the DCC RPG. But if you are interested in its vision even a little, and/or in the scale on which that vision will be able to reach the wider population of gamers, I encourage you to go play a session or two. You might start out by assuming it’s always right, in order to see how the rules play out and what their unspoken implications might be, but the text frequently encourages you to house-rule, interpret, and make the DCC RPG your own game. When you do – when you achieve the mix of old-school and new, of pulp inspiration and gameable mechanics, that hits your group’s sweet spot – go to the Goodman Games forums and post about it. The shared vision hasn’t yet died and left a fossil; on the contrary it’s unusually vital, growing and changing to better adapt to its environment. Once it’s published you can always change it to make it the way you want – but now is the time when your input can result in changes to the system that’ll help others discover that the way you want it is awesome and they never would have thought to do it that way without your input. Seize this opportunity!


experimental combat system

Quick post because I have to get to work.

Several months ago I was wondering about how to separate deflection-type protection (shields, dexterity) from soak-type protection (armor).

In cases of uncertainty, the baseline here is the Moldvay/Mentzer Basic D&D combat system.

  1. Typical combat sequence is unaltered. Variable weapon damage is used.
  2. Attack rolls are made as usual in D&D: 1d20 + (class attack bonus/THAC0 stuff) + (ability mod) + (magic mod) + (circumstance)
  3. Ascending Deflection Class = 11 + (Dex mod) + (shield & shield magic mods) + (circumstance). Note: no actual “armor” in this calculation.
  4. If the attack roll equals or exceeds your deflection, guess what – you’re hit.
  5. If hit, Armor decreases the size of the damage dice: 1d10 > 1d8 > 1d6 > 1d4 > 2 > 1. Any hit does at least 1 point of damage, regardless.
  6. Multiple dice-types (3dX for example) shed the extra dice first, and once they hit 1dX then degrade to the lower dice type.  So 2d6 > 1d6 > 1d4.
  7. Light armor reduces the damage die type by one step, medium armor by two steps, and heavy armor by three steps.
  8. Damage is then rolled “normally” – the modifed die type + (ability mod) + (magic mod) + (circumstance)
  9. Magical armor lightens your Encumbrance Category, e.g., a heavily laden warrior in Plate +3 moves as if totally unencumbered.
  10. Monsters don’t have to be changed, but they could be depending on your ambition. An attack doing 1d3 damage reduces to 2 points, not 1.

Thus: Arnold Littleworth, under this system, has a Bathrobe of AC 4, which is equal to Chain + Shield. His Deflection class is 11 (base) -1 (poor Dexterity) +1 (equivalent to shield) = 11.

If, solely for the sake of science, Martin le Black attacked Arnold with his +2 sword Bazilien, his attack roll would be executed normally, hoping for a roll equal or better than 11. Because Arnold’s Bathrobe is equivalent to Chain armor, the damage from Bazilien would be 1d4 (starting from 1d8 and reducing two steps) +1 (strength) +2 (magic).

Action Normal B/X D&D Experimental System
Martin hits Arnold … 60% of the time 80% of the time
On average Martin inflicts 7.5 damage 5.5 damage
Expected damage per round 4.5 damage 4.4 damage

Note a couple of effects from this experimental system:

  • Armor reduces damage, it doesn’t keep you from getting hit in the first place.
  • Magic-Users and Clerics can make “touch attacks” to overcome Deflection Class much easier than AC
  • Characters are hit more often for less damage. Armor is approximately twice as useful as before, which helps Level 1 wimp-o’s.
  • Damage reduction is neither fixed nor does it require an extra roll, i.e., it’s unpredictable without slowing play
  • Against a guy with heavy armor, a dagger +1 does the same damage as a normal sword (more, on average, since it hits more often): magic is cool
  • Heavily armored knights are slow and easy to hit, but very difficult to wound without magic.
  • The special thing about Frodo’s undershirt is that it was extremely lightweight and easily concealed – like not wearing armor at all.
  • Maybe someone other than me will enjoy the strategic effects of Encumbrance… oh who am I kidding

Just to see what it would look like, here is the comparison for a duel between Martin le Black and Hanna Darrowkin, using their stats as of 1/9/2011:

Action Normal B/X D&D Experimental System
Martin hits Hanna … 25% of the time 55% of the time
On average Martin inflicts 7.5 damage 5 damage
Expected damage per round 1.875 damage 2.75 damage
Action Normal B/X D&D Experimental System
Hanna hits Martin … 30% of the time 60% of the time
On average Hanna inflicts 3.5 damage 1 damage
Expected damage per round 1.05 damage 0.6 damage

What’s happening here is that Hanna, physically weaker, is using what amounts to an ordinary sword to attack a stronger foe armed with a larger, more heavily enchanted blade. Both duelists are very heavily armored, but over time, Martin’s superior strength and magic can punch through the Halfling Hero’s defenses.

I still need to figure out:

  • What to do against touch-style attacks, like Wights and Vampires?  They become a lot deadlier under this system.
  • Do Hit Dice change? I’m thinking that combat between heavily armored dudes would take too long at standard Hit-Dice values.
  • Maybe each type of armor stays vulnerable to a particular type of damage (Piercing, Slashing, Bludgeon), if people think armor otherwise is too good.

Third Annual Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday: October 1, 2011

This year’s Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday will be the third to be held in New York City, and the first to be celebrated on the day of Arneson’s birth, October 1. I don’t have much more to say about this yet – I just want to get the word out well ahead of time, instead of waiting for the last minute like I usually do.

Lushomon Canal. OMG that's a triceratops pulling a wagon.

An important advantage of the new time is that our event happens after the one the Aethervox Gamers organize, which lets me share some stuff from their game. As posted at Chirine ba Kael’s blog chirine’s workbench:
Scenery we got; “Saving Serqu’s Sisters” will be the two drop cloths from the old ‘Islands of Death’ game from 2004, with all the jungle I can cram onto the table. Lots of bridges for movement, and we have to use the Mayan bookends I got from Dave Arneson; they’ll be the Lost Temple of the Nameless Ones, which is a joke based on Prof. Barker’s SF fanclub in the 1940’s. (Memo to self; buy some FFG Cthullus for the temple; it’ll look nicer, and they’ll be happy.)
The second table will be the Lushomon Canal game from the first DLA MMM event three years ago; use some of the blank drop cloths from stock, and the 30 yards of light blue vinyl table cloth for the canal – we can eat our pizzas on it, as it wipes off and we have some very sloppy eaters. Use the ‘temperate’ scenery sets, and use the Sakbe road from the Battle of Anch’ke terrain set as a backdrop; it plays no part in the game itself, but looks cool as all get-out and will help get people interested. (It did.)
“Sisters” gets all the Hlutrgu and their nasty little coracles. The humans get two larger galleys from the collection with larger contingents of troops, and we add the pirate fleet of three ships and a longboat for Harchar’s four henchpersons. Total, seven players minimum. Each boat or ship gets as many figures as it’ll hold, and we learned last time that the humans barely held their own so we add archers to the troops. We also add the two sisters as a player, because I have twin sister figures (the two Pathfinder “Seoni” figures) and giving the rest of the players a mobile objective with hidden movement will add to the challenge. The sisters get three chits, only one of which is actually them; the other two will give the rest of the players fits as they chase noises in the jungle.
Total forces, spread amongst eight players:
Sisters [one player] – derelict boat, two figures; goal, get saved by the Tsolyani and not killed.
Tsolyani [one player] – medium galley with 10 pikemen, 10 pikemen with bows, eight officers, one standard-bearer, one trumpeter; goal, save the sisters and arrest Harchar.
Salarvyani [one player] – medium galley, 10 infantry, 10 archers, five officers, one standard-bearer, one trumpeter; goal, rescue sisters (ransom money!) and arrest Harchar (reward money!)
Pirate Fleet [four players] – three small ships, one longboat; 20 marines, 20 sailors, four mates, one captain; goal, rescue sisters (ransom money!), keep Harchar out of the hands of law and order.
Hlutrgu – [one player, expanded to three to get late arrivals into the game] – eight coracles, 80 Hlutrgu; goal, kill all the humans that they can, sacrifice the sisters to the Nameless Ones at their Lost Temple.
“Canal” gets all the boats we have left, with a mix of mercenaries, pirates, and possible targets for piracy. And the River Police, who never seem to do much but always seem to get a lot of money in the course of the game.
Total forces, spread amongst six or seven players:
River Police – [one player] – small galley, six officers of the law; goal, get rich.
Vriddi Pleasure Barge [one player] – towed barge, rich folks; goal, don’t get kidnapped for ransom.
Temple of Dilinala – [one player] – medium merchant ship, ten Temple Guards disguised as dancing girls; goal, get off board with their valuable treasure.
Mercenaries – [two separate players] – two small galleys, each with ten warriors; goal, get rich.
Carolyn, the Pirate Queen of Butrus – [one player] – small galliot, ten warriors; goal, get rich.
Malia, the Pirate Princess – [one player] – small merchant ship, twelve warriors cleverly disguised as dancing girls; goal, get rich.
Now, the intelligent reader will note that an Opportunity for Considerable Confusion exists here; you’d be right, and that’s part of the charm of doing a game like this. It keeps things fun for the players when a) they board the ship full of helpless dancing girls, who pull out weapons and cut them to ribbons, and b) it’s the wrong ship full of helpless dancing girls who pull out weapons and cut them to ribbons.
(And yes, this kind of thing does take a lot of miniatures to pull off. We happen to have some 4,600 little lead people in the Aethervox collection, so we can do two boatloads of helpless dancing girls who happen to be fanatical warriors all armed to the teeth.)
That’s the set up. Pick a card at random, roll for move-counter-move, and we’re off on game turn one. Please feel free to ask more questions about all this; it’s what I’m here for…
All of this, and especially those gorgeous pictures, makes for great inspiration. It’s unlikely that we can do any of this ourselves here in NYC – we lack 4,600 lead people, for one thing – but I for one plan to try out some of these kind of Braunstein-like scenarios, for which Chirine lays out the design specs here. And it’s fantastic to see the maritime miniatures milieu in which Dave’s former gaming group believes he is best honored; Charlatan’s saltbox inherits the oldest of traditions. Even if what we do here is totally dissimilar, though, I think the universe of people who owe a debt to Arneson’s work – a set which most of its members are unaware of belonging to – benefit greatly from having two events: Minnesota’s with a unique and specific focus and a direct link to the original, and NYC’s that’s open to all the diversity of everything that Dave’s work has made possible, and admires it through the unearthed lens of distant time and space.
Another great thing about having these two memorial gaming events happen on different days is that it makes it possible for me to attend them both! Here’s Chirine again:
Planning for the next one, the Fourth Annual, is already starting; several of the folks at this year’s event have very kindly offered to do the spadework for next year, and I think it’ll be something Dave would be proud of. More on that, too, as we get things put together!
I join him in promising more details on our plans for the NYC gameday soon – I can say now that it’s unlikely to be at the Complete Strategist, like last year’s, because their basement is usually booked for the first Saturday in each month – and also in hoping it will make Dave proud.

Past Adventures of the Mule

June 2011
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