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.


Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2011

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