Archive for September, 2011


SHE KILLS MONSTERS: more D&D in NYC contemporary art

From Playbill, “Dungeons & Dragons Inspires New Comedy She Kills Monsters at Flea; Cast Announced“:

The Flea Theater’s world-premiere production of She Kills Monsters, a comedy about the people who play fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons, will feature a cast drawn from The Bats, the resident acting company of the lower Manhattan Off-Off-Broadway organization.

From the Flea Theater’s page for the show:

In SHE KILLS MONSTERS, Average Agnes is finally leaving her childhood home following the death of her totally weird sister, Tilly. When she stumbles upon Tilly’s Dungeons & Dragonsnotebook, however, Agnes embarks on an action-packed adventure to discover more about her sister than she previously cared to know. A high-octane comedy fraught with hostile fairies, randy ogres, and ‘90s pop culture, SHE KILLS MONSTERS is a heart-pounding homage to the badass (& geek) within us all.

The Flea will also host the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired art exhibit DOOMSLANGERS. Successfully presented at New York’s Allegra LaViola Gallery last winter, Artist Casey Jex Smith brings to life a Dungeons & Dragons adventure to save the mythical city of Dingershare from the evil Lord Ricaek. The exhibit can be viewed in the Flea’s lobby one-hour before the show.

From the NYC D&D Meetup board, “Our Meetup Has Been Invited…

to use the Flea Theater as a meetup location on November 5th at either 12 noon or 5pm. They are putting together a play called SHE KILLS MONSTERS – which there are 2 showings, one at 3PM and another at 7PM. I think they are under the impression that our games only last 2 hours now that I reflect on the email I received. But they have offered us a place to play, tickets to the show, and some refreshments.

I love this town! The show runs Nov. 4 – Dec. 24, for folks who can’t make the gaming session on the 5th.



The World Dave Made: Panel Discussion for the Arneson Memorial Gameday

What would modern culture look like if it weren’t for Dave Arneson?

At the Third Annual NYC Arneson Memorial Gameday, a panel discussion will explore all the things we owe to his life and work. That’s a legacy that stretches from his involvement in the birth of role-playing games as a player in Dave Wesely’s Braunstein, to the invention and refereeing of Blackmoor, the first fantasy campaign,  through his co-creation of Dungeons & Dragons, and into his later career teaching game design at Full Sail University. Panelists will present key aspects of our Arnesonian inheritance, including the concept of having a character that represents you in an imagined realm and is described by statistics that reflect your advancement as a result of experience, and talk about how these ideas continue to shape progress in their own fields. Here are the folks I’ll be encouraging to say interesting things while playing the role of moderator:

  • Luke Crane is one of the most influential role-playing game designers working today and an outspoken advocate of self-publishing. His participation as  panelist and game-master affords a chance to see both theory and practice.
  • Brian Droitcouer is a staff writer at Rhizome–an organization supporting art that engages emerging technologies based at the New Museum–and a regular contributor to Artforum. He is currently organizing an exhibition titled “Big Reality” that takes role-playing games as a starting point for considering how consumer technologies have integrated fantasy and play in everyday life. He will offer some thoughts on the place of role-playing games in contemporary culture, and examples of how it is reflected in the work of some artists.
  • David Ewalt is a senior editor at Forbes Magazine, where he reports on the game industry, and is writing a book about Dungeons & Dragons, which will be published by Scribner. David will be sharing insights from his interviews with people in all walks of life who were influenced by roleplaying games.
  • Nicholas Fortugno teaches the Game Design and Interactive Narrative program at Parsons New School for Design and is the co-founder of the NYC game design studio Playmatics LLC. Nicholas will be talking about why learning to play Dungeons & Dragons was simply the most influential element of my childhood and has profoundly shaped his career, his identity, and his life.
  • Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the award-winning book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, his travel memoir investigation into fantasy and gaming subcultures. He also blogs for’s Geek Dad, and writes about movies, books, and pop and geek culture for, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.
This year’s Arneson Memorial Gameday will be held from 9 am until 11 pm at the Brooklyn Strategist on 288 Atlantic Avenue. It’s open to everyone and admission is free, with a suggested $10 donation to juvenile diabetes research.
We’re funding the costs of this better-than-ever event with a Kickstarter effort that includes donor rewards that may be of interest to you whether or not you can make it to the Gameday. Go check it out; your support makes this possible!

Uncommon Tongue?

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six-foot-four and full of muscles
I said, “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich

—Men At Work, “Down Under”

The “Common Tongue” is one of many old-school D&D conceits: a single widely-known language that all humans speak. Depending on what historical era you’re using as a template, this isn’t necessarily far off the mark; Latin was certainly a world language in Roman times, the term “lingua franca” was coined for a reason in France’s heyday, and English is itself an effective common tongue. On a more regional scale, there have been dozens of languages that served as common tongues in some smaller segment of the world.

But what about non-humans? Do orcs know Common? What about gnolls, ogres and lizard men? Or the game’s eponymous dragons?

By the book, dragons capable of speech always know the Common tongue, while 20% of all other talking monsters also know Common. As such, any sizable group of intelligent monsters is almost certain to have at least one member that can communicate with the party. This makes knowledge of specific monster languages less essential to the party for purposes of communication (though still useful for listening in on their private conversations). It also makes negotiation a lot more feasible, providing a reliable alternative to combat for parties thus inclined.

(Conversational monsters also automatically know their alignment tongue. This is generally a better bet for purposes of communication, as long as you can trust your party’s interlocutors when they don’t share your alignment.)

All of this is important to keep in mind for DMs inclined to tweak the rules to match their ideas for their setting. If monsters don’t share a language with the player characters, negotiation becomes a lot more difficult. You’re more likely to see combat become the standard—indeed, the only—mode for resolving encounters, while the alliances with monster factions that are characteristic of Gygaxian play go by the wayside.


Anomalous Subsurface Environment

Behold the awesomeness. Yes, it's kind of small.

I am using ASE1: City of Denethix and Dungeon Level 1 in my White Sandbox campaign because it is awesome. If you are playing in my game, please do not read it. This is the only permissible excuse for not doing so, and White Sandbox players are encouraged to pick up copies but not read them; putting them under your pillow may cause some of the awesomeness to seep in.

Here is a bit of the module in actual play, from the summary of session #50 by myself and Ookla’s player flyingace:

Inside they found an octagonal room with three doors marked “Barracks”, “Main Generator Core”, and “Colossus Research Facility”. They decided to explore the latter, but as they did they were followed by a number of automatons in the shape of dwarves, who insisted that they identify themselves and requested that they follow them to speak with the Sargent who would know what to do with them. Ookla asked whether the Sargent was expecting them, trying to ascertain whether they were in some sort of mystical/mechanical communication with the entity. They replied that he was not and inquired after Ookla’s identity. Yelling “My name is Jimminy Cricket and I’m here to make with the rescue!” the previously invisible Ookla became visible as he launched into an attack of one of the mechanoids. Ookla, Tobias, Rolzac, Nolgur and the tuxedo-bedecked gorilla who resembled Groucho Marx dispatched the automatons, but not without the loss of the gorilla. Thirster noted that he was unable to draw forth any souls from the mecha-dwarves.

I have seen ASE described as gonzo, but in a campaign where players (Jedo, to give credit where it is due) have researched spells to procedurally generate monkey butlers according to which species of great ape they are and what comedian they resemble it is actually a reasonably realistic backdrop for adventure.


The Incredible Indestructible Halfling

In B/X, halflings are much like fighters, but with a slew of minor changes that seem geared to make them good ranged combatants. On the one hand, they get a bonus to hit with missile weapons, an initiative bonus and an Armor Class bonus against larger than man-sized creatures. On the other hand, they can only use weapons “cut down to their size” (limiting their offense in melee) and they use six-sided Hit Dice instead of the fighter’s eight-sided dice, making them more fragile than their human and dwarven counterparts.

But in actual play? It’s all frontline halflings in plate mail, all the time.

Your typical halfling warrior in plate mail, ready for action.

The reason for this is an emergent property of the B/X rules for ability score adjustment (p. B6). Characters can drop points from some stats to raise a prime requisite on a 2-for-1 basis. And who has Dexterity as a prime requisite? Halflings. So everyone who plays a halfling trades away Intelligence and Wisdom to get an 18 Dexterity, which is impressive when a natural Dexterity score is rarely higher than 15. Combine that with plate mail and shield and you’ve got a base Armor Class of -1, which goes up to -3 against larger than man-sized creatures. The resulting survivability boost more than makes up for having one less hit point per level than the fighter.

The first question here isn’t what’s to be done, but whether anything should be done at all. Is there anything fundamentally wrong with a party with a bunch of plate-armored hobbits anchoring the front line? If the players seem happy enough with the situation, it may be best to let them keep doing what they’re doing.

On the other hand, if the DM’s dissatisfied with the resulting flavor, there are a number of approaches to be taken:

1) Disallow ability score adjustment, so halfling PCs are stuck with their initial dexterity roll. The downsides here are that this may be a case of taking out a housefly with a hand grenade if it’s the only problematic situation caused by ability score adjustment, and that a player who rolled a high dexterity can still choose to play a plate-armored halfling anyway; this makes the situation rarer but does not abolish it.
2) Put a limit on how much of a dexterity bonus a PC can get from heavy armor, like in later editions of D&D. So plate mail might cap the wearer at a +2 (or even +1) AC bonus from dexterity. This meshes well with the movement rules; if metal armor slows you down, it’s reasonable to think that it also makes you less agile in combat.
3) Remove plate mail from the halfling’s list of allowed armor types. This may have an overly negative effect on the halfling’s survivability, and unlike some other solutions, it requires grandfathering in exceptions to the rule for existing characters if you want to let them keep playing as they have been playing. But it has the advantage of matching the race’s original Tolkienian flavor; they’re not the sort to dress up like knights in full armor.


Annoucing the GMs for the Arneson Memorial Gameday

Scott LeMien - skatay on New York Red Box & nerdNYC - created this awesome logo. Click on it to see more of his work!

Saturday, October 1, 2011 would have been Dave Arneson’s 64th birthday. If you’ll be in the area, come help celebrate it from 9 am until 11 pm at the Brooklyn Strategist!

Here is a partial list of the designers and GMs who will be participating:

  • Luke Crane will be running games of Arneson’s adventure DNA/DOA using a hack of Burning Wheel Gold
  • Darren Watts will be running games of Lucha Libre for the HERO System
  • Michael Curtis will be running games of Stonehell Dungeon
  • Joseph Bloch will be running games of Adventures Dark & Deep, and will have a new version of the Bestiary
  • Paul Hughes will be running games of 4E Dungeons & Dragons using his poster of the OD&D random monster charts
  • Tavis Allison will be running games of Adventurer Conqueror King

From 9 until 5, we’ll be doing open-table games with a focus on kids and drop-ins. From 5 until 6:30, there will be a panel discussion that will be the subject of my next post. After that we’ll set aside some of the space for socializing with wine and beer and snacks, as well as more focused gaming sessions.


barding and goldilocks

actually, I think "dungeonpunk" works for the Bard

Jeff Rients wrote about 2e Bards earlier.  It’s probably my favorite class too, but it’s very curiously designed.

Twenty years ago, after my 2e Psionicist accidentally disintegrated himself on his very first action, I played a 2e Bard for six months or so.   I had fun, but our group was pretty small – a Fighter, a Magic-User, and a Bard. I was basically playing the “5th man” position in a 3-person group, and in hindsight should have held things down as the Cleric or a straight Thief.  I just wasn’t adding very much.

As a quick comparison, the Bard is probably about as good at fighting as the Thief or the Cleric, at least on paper.  The Bard shares the same horrible 1:2 THAC0 progression as the Thief, but has access to heavier melee weapons, like the bastard sword, as well as chain armor and shield, so they’re doing more damage and lasting longer than a Thief would.   On the other hand they don’t have the Thief’s backstab attack and likely don’t have as high a Dexterity.  It’s hard to generalize about 2e Specialty Priests, but the Bard has worse Hit Dice and THAC0 and probably same-or-worse armor, but better weapon selection (especially regarding ranged attacks).

But what I found in practice is that the Bard really isn’t cut out for the front-line.  The d6 Hit Dice and mediocre Armor Class means that she’s going to get chewed up really fast and end up draining a disproportionate amount of the party’s healing.  The smart thing to do is probably hang back, shed the armor, and use spells and ranged weapons.  All that stuff about being able to fight half-competently is a trick.

A Bard can cast spells, but doesn’t gain new spells every level: she’s got to compete against the party’s Wizard(s) for scrolls.  This suggests that the Bard will have a very thin spell book with mostly “reject” spells.  So, you’re hanging back to cast spells, and your spells probably stink.  (As the player of Arnold Littleworth, I can testify that playing the auxiliary caster can be a lot of fun, though.)

You also have Thief skills, but not the “real” Thief skills.  (Pick pockets sucks.)

But even the special Bard-y stuff you can do is highly situational:

  • Counter-Song isn’t the sort of thing you need every day
  • Knowing legends is unreliable at low levels, but the Dungeon Master may give a plot-dump even without you
  • Rallying allies is nice, but it doesn’t scale and requires advance notice of a particular fight in order to prepare
  • Bonus to social interaction is pretty nice if the adventure allows for it

    2e class philosophy at work

So what you’re left with is a highly likeable, unarmored archer who muddles around with spells and can hear noise with the best of them.   You can recover Plot Hooks, give a pretty minor boost to combat effectiveness, and reliably sweet-talk low-level NPC’s who don’t already hate the party.

These situational class abilities are pretty common in 2e: it’s like every “exotic” class is Goldilocks, waiting for a dungeon that’s just right to bust out the awesome. The Druid’s spells are largely wasted in a dungeon, and the bonus against electrical attacks, identifying plants, and moving through the woods without leaving a trail are nice, but are likely to come up only rarely. A Ranger’s ability to track, befriend animals, and slaughter a particular enemy are also pretty limited. (The Paladin has a little bit of Goldilocks design goin’ on, but not quite as bad as the others.)

why didn't Korgan kill you, dude?  I would have

why did you have to ruin this class for me?

Compare that to a (say) Fighter / Mage / Thief.

  • At around 30,000 XP, you’re looking at a Bard 6 vs. F4/M4/T5. The multi-class has comparable combat stats, a wider range of Thief abilities (the “real” Thief abilities like stealth and trap-mongery) plus backstab, making for a more formidable opponent in combat and better utilization of magic items. On the other hand the Bard has social powers and a slightly higher caster-level.
  • At around 90,000 XP, you’re looking at Bard 8 vs. F5/M5/T6, and it works out about the same as above.
  • It looks like the Bard begins to pull away from the F/M/T at much higher levels (1,200,000 XP give or take a level)

But there’s something about t

he Bard that I really dig.  It’s fun playing the crafty, not-quite-competent bullshitter–like Jeff’s desire to play Gandalf as a Bard, my character Arnold is essentially a Bard in M-U drag.

I could never figure out the music aspect of the Bard, other than as an unnecessary nod to history.  The mechanics say, “Spare tire.”. Which is a fun niche. But the incidental color of the class is, “Poet/musician.”   That’s not rooted in the mechanics very deeply, but it seems to have indelibly stained the class concept as a goofy adventuring playwright dandy type.  So it’s a lot like a Fighter/Mage/Thief with a sizable dollop of camp.



Saltbox Report

I was able to wrangle some of the NYRB faithful into another saltbox this session this weekend.  Because I am either ambitious or masochistic, I also began trying to run the saltbox sessions under the ACKS ruleset.

The latter provided some utterly predictable pain as we shifted from a just-ended B/X session, but I want to soldier on there.  The actual session:  The players collected around Poseidon (a player) and the Venerable Brude (likewise), as they have a small ship.  They set out from the port town of Nantaticut with the intention of finding the lair of a sea hydra killed by the players in the last saltbox session, hoping to scoop up a treasure protected only by li’l baby hydras.

I’ve been running these sessions more-or-less like a hex crawl: Stocked with a fistful of undiscovered islets, kelp forests, and random encounter tables, I let the players put out to sea and look for trouble.  In general, I think this would have a lot to commend it in a more regular game, but it’s a little slow to start with an irregularly attended one.  This sense of slowness is compounded by the mechanics of sea voyages:  Every day begins with a flurry of DM dice-rolling (Wind direction! Weather! Random encounters! Other events!), most of which boil down to a fairly trim description.  This is the area I think the most about improving: How to make the daily rolls more compact.  It’s effectively like randomly generating a dungeon with very similar-looking rooms as it’s explored.  Until the players have a thread to pursue, it can feel a bit like you’re waiting for a fight to happen.

Of course, once those fights start happening, things change in a hurry.  “Fight” #1: Nixies.  I had included them on my encounter tables in place of some shark entries, and am reconsidering that decision.  On the open seas, a passle of nixies is basically a save-or-die trap.  Retrieving a character lost that way is a deep-water affair.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means I need to have thought through that scenario better.  Fortunately, the players bailed me out with some snappy initiative and attack rolls, and the captain of the ship made a difficult seafaring proficiency throw to evade the pursuing nixies.  Thanks, dice!

Fight 2: Cockatrice.  This is an entry from the Flyer subtable that I’ve also thought about removing, but for different reasons: It sounds ridiculous when you start describing it to the players.  “From the crow’s nest, you see a dark shape approaching.  It appears to be a seagull or small albatross, but as it approaches it seems to be struggling to carry a snake. It flaps awkwardly towards you, and you see that in fact the bird has a snake-like neck and tail…”  What the hell is that cockatrice doing out over the ocean?  Did it get lost in a storm?  With most of the flyers, it’s not difficult to imagine them ranging out over the water from an island, but this thing is an even less aerodynamic rooster.  Roasted by a fireball, dead.

Now, that fireball: One of the things I’ve been dissatisfied with in the saltbox sessions is the resource management of spells.  A norm of a single combat per day allows your wizards to just unload in every fight.  This session I began using a “Blood in the Water” rule to address that: When the crew draws blood in a fight, I immediately make another random encounter check. In this case, it meant that  they were beset by Giant Carnivorous Flies later that night.  While not especially difficult, this is a fun encounter on a ship at night.  The flying beasties are able to position themselves over the water (to their detriment at times), and having them pursue the light sources under which the players are defending themselves is entertaining.

The last phase of the evening was the delve into the hydra lair, where the party killed a couple of small hydra spawn and found an enormous treasure guarded by the mate (or parent?) of the previous session’s hydra: An 11HD regenerating hydra.  This was a wall for the party, but they did seem to hit on a strategy for dealing with the thing next time.

Thoughts for next time:

  1. Instead of stat blocks for pregens, I should have brought character sheets to ease the B/X-ACKS transition.
  2. I need to come up with a way to determine the various characteristics of a day at sea faster: As it was, I found myself “cheating” a few days ahead when the players made plans.
  3. With the melee bells and whistles ACKS has, I wish we would have run into a naval encounter.  Maybe my North Seas tables need to be adjusted a bit to reflect more maritime traffic.
There’s a chance I get to run another session this coming weekend: If so, it’ll be a bit more of a scenario for lower level characters.  If it’s successful, I’ll try to run it again at third-annual Arneson Game Day in NY.

Hexomancy: Making the perfect maps for Adventurer Conqueror King

Using the ACKS hexmap format for my personal campaign mapping. If you can squint, you can notice the random village names from Judges Guild tables like Duck Oracle and Concealed Van.

More so than most other tabletop rpgs, “wilderness travel” and hex mapping of the sandbox world is integral to the resurgent old school style of play. In a game where the players can possibly take off in whatever direction they desire, geography holds an even footing with elements like story threads as drivers of fun at the table. Having an easy and logical way to record that visual geography is a key to verisimilitude in ongoing play.

Having been tasked with cartography work for Autarch’s new Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), I found myself in the delightful position of organizing the game’s hex mapping format that we would use in published material. On one hand, I knew that I would use a type of hex-map among the many used by sandboxing players out there, but I also felt that my method should lend itself to play as best as possible. In short, I wanted to make the type of map sheets I would want to fill up and detail myself if all I had was just a pencil and an eraser and not the crazy gadzooks of watercolor, scanning and photoshopping that I sometimes overdo maps in (see above).

Another concern that I had was with ACKS’ increased emphasis on the middle and high end of play for an OSR fantasy game, the need to “zoom” from local geography to regional and continent geography was self-evident. The higher the character levels that the PCs achieve, the more of the surface of their world becomes their concern. The high end campaign would begin to rely on hex maps as much as the low end adventures would rely on graph paper for dungeon mapping.

So knowing that campaign-usability weighed heavily on my shoulders and also reminding myself of the fact that I was sweating over dinky hexagons of elven glades, I lifted design heavily from previously published campaign maps (Traveler, D&D Gazetteer, Judges Guild) and set about making three different hex maps for use in a campaign that featured three different levels of play.

The first type of map would be the smallest “local” scale containing a grid of hexes that are the traditional six mile size in diameter. This scale would be familiar to most people playing OSR games as the standard wilderness travel hexes that you could get lost in while navigating and encounter nasty wandering monsters in. I wanted these hexes to fit on a letter size page for publishing and also be used by GMs to print and use in their own campaign so I went with a map that was 25 hexes wide and 16 hexes tall. This would make hexes that were roughly half an inch across on the printed page and allow players and GMs to draw their own details in as well as give some room for some pretty map art to be published in any future ACKS campaign or adventure books. Readable details at the local level is what is needed. I also added a larger 24 mile hex-grid over the top to provide an easy way of zooming in and out of the larger map scales shown below. I put coordinate numbering on the small hexes similar to the Judges Guild/Traveler sector maps so any text reference could point to an exact 6 mile hex in the game-world. This resulting “local” size map is roughly 90 miles tall and 150 wide, giving a surface area that can encompass of a couple US counties.

The next standard map would be the “regional” map comprised of four of the smaller “local” maps at. This size map gives a good feel for the DM planning of the relationship between local areas and for mid-level journeys by player characters. The 48 x 32 hex-grid fits precisely into the suggested “starting” sandbox area that many DMs create at the outset of a sandbox campaign. The GM just has to provide the rough geography or fill the hexes with quick icons reminiscent of the old Basic D&D Gazetteer and then pick out one of the quadrants for mapping out the level 1 character’s home base and dungeons at the local scale. This regional map is 192 miles tall and 280 miles wide, giving the total surface area of a typical US state.

The last and grandest map is the “continent” hex-map made up from 24 mile hexes in a 48 x 32 grid. This map is It is roughly 768 miles tall and 1152 miles wide and has the surface area of roughly half of the continental United States. It contains 16 of the region size maps and 64 of the small local maps. It features a coordinate grid so you can effectively specify any small 6 mile hex location on your continent by listing the coordinates of the local map and then the numeric hex coordinates. For example:
Dungeon of Pain – C7-0535
Very nice in a Traveler UPP sort of a way.

In the end, It is all a very modest organization on a simple convention used by players over the last 30+ years but the little extras made a tight system for zooming in and out of the campaign world and it also gave the the right hex sizes for drawing pretty maps for both publication and the play table. It all might be a bit too obsessive by some player’s tastes but we all know in the OSR that rules and standards are there to help player and not hinder fun. So please use and abuse them hexes as you will, they are free to download from Autarch’s website here.

Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2011

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