Archive for February, 2013

27
Feb
13

charlemagne in action

charlemagne1

Our regular Pendragon crew could not play on Friday night, so I spruced up some one-page dungeons and ran a session of Charlemagne’s Paladins for Skidoo, whose Pendragon character Sir Hervis is the terrifically accomplished straight man to Sir Carabad the Schlimazel.

Running 1:1 D&D is rough going for the player. Skidoo grabbed a pre-gen, Lady Odelia, a dual-class Thief 5 (ex-Cleric 5) and a bunch of 3rd level Fighter henchmen, and set off for adventure, before realizing that a lone Thief and her gang of henchmen are in for a world of trouble.

Briefly: Charlemagne’s court enchanter, Maugris, had a prophetic dream about the city of Avignon and the future of Christendom, and asked Lady Odelia on behalf of the King to pacify the surrounding lands.  Avignon and the territory between it and the Pyrenees was  known back then as “Septimania,” which sounds like some Labor Day-related car sale event.

But in the late 700’s A.D. Septimania had a lot going on, in terms of D&D settings. About forty years prior, Charles THE HAMMER Martel practically stomped the whole region into the dirt when the local Visigoths, led on by promises of assistance from the Moors, wouldn’t submit to him. So the place is littered with ruins, the local population is nominally Christian but there are still lots of pagan traditions and cults (variants on Saxon deities, who were variants on Norse gods), there are barbarian and Moorish raiders from the Pyrenees, and towns like Marseille get a fair amount of trade.  Narbonne is in the process of becoming a center of learning and religious toleration, with lots of strange folk mingling. To the southwest, the dangerous Moors; to the southeast, the treacherous Lombards.

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex (French people, point out what I got wrong!)

Anyhow, Odelia wasn’t too keen on spreading the King’s influence, but did want to help the locals simply for the sake of doing good deeds, so she traveled down to Avignon by riverboat. Along the way she hoodwinked some Ogres who had set up a toll, and negotiated the release of one of her men from mischievous Nixies. During the journey she became increasingly fixated on finding the bandit stronghold of Scarlet Jacques, whose depredations had alarmed the locals.

(Of the one-pagers I had brought with me, this stronghold was the one I had not stocked—and, it turns out, had not brought the map after all. Naturally it was the plot hook the player wanted to pursue…)

Anyway, so Odelia set off into the foothills of the Alps, and ran into five Hill Giants who she had to let pass by.  She interrogated a desperate merchant who had escaped from Jacques’ alpine fortress: there are at least 150 bandits, a pagan priest, and a magician of terrible power: far more than a Thief and six knights could handle. Regrettably descending back into civilization, we had to stop when a flock of Wyverns carried off half of Odelia’s henchmen and another poised on a rock above her, daring her to make the first move…

what worked

This felt exactly like any D&D game ever played. Some overland hex exploration leading to encounters solved through lateral thinking (she was a Thief after all), and just GM’ing what the dice told me would happen. My only deviations from the 2e rules were using the B/X wildness encounter charts, because I didn’t have the Monstrous Compendia on my iPad.

what didn’t work

Odelia in theory had access to Cleric spells, but the casting time problem–everything in Charlemagne’s Paladins takes ten times longer to cast–meant that it was pretty hard to plan ahead given the extremely random nature of overland travel in the game. I suspect that this is something that could be overcome with some thought and more exposure to the spell list.

The other thing that didn’t work was having a solo adventurer engage in overland travel, even with a retinue of meat shields. A lot of really horrible monsters live in the mountains, and it was a minor miracle that Odelia survived for over a week of game time.

charlemagne: a cool guy

All the stuff that King Arthur gets credit for, like unifying a diverse kingdom and establishing order after a long period of chaos, conquering Europe, trying to instill a moral code among the warrior class, and encouraging culture and learning–Charlemagne actually did that stuff, though of course this was the work of generations beginning with his grandfather Charles THE HAMMER Martel and continued by his father Pepin the Short. From (very biased) accounts Charlemagne seems like an extremely talented and interesting person.

charlemagne: also, turned into a dick for propaganda purposes

As we discussed prior to play, so much of our society’s imaginative life is focused on the idea of “good” violence. It’s a very problematic concept, and I’m sure it’s been part of human nature since the dawn of time, but Charlemagne did “good violence” on a scale never before seen in Europe, particularly against Muslims.

Charlemagne’s own attitudes toward Muslims appear to be complex and historically contingent: the disaster at Roncevalles started because he was willing to make an alliance with one group of Muslims against another faction.

But a few centuries later, during the Crusades, people looked to Charlemagne’s battles against the Moors as a kind of propaganda tool to inspire everyone to go to the Holy Land and slaughter people. The chansons de geste, which are at the heart of the Matter of France, were composed during this time.  For the next thousand years, whether fighting crusades, colonizing the New World and Africa, holding various ideological revolutions, World Wars, Cold Wars, and now Terror Wars, world history has been shaped by Western Civilization’s seemingly endless appetite for “good violence.”  And for Europe, the big proof-of-concept was Charlemagne, at least as perceived in propaganda.  (And again, this is probably not unique to the West, but they ended up in a position to indulge that appetite fairly often.)

Basically, in 2013 your attitude about legendary Charlemagne killing hordes of legendary Evil Muslims is going to be shaped by our own experiences of “good violence” in our modern crusade.  I haven’t resolved how I feel about using these themes in the game.

25
Feb
13

Into the Woods We Go

In 1984, TSR published N2: The Forest Oracle, a module for characters level 2-4.  I hate it. It’s a ham-fisted, credulity-straining railroad laid down on a track of base Tolkien stereotypes. The landscape makes no sense, there are obvious PC choices that are entirely foreclosed on, and the event-driving NPCs seem to play by a completely different set of rules than the players. This isn’t even getting into a ridiculous table of mishaps borne out of falling into a river (“a magic item, or 200gp if the player has none”) or a comically blunt Raiders of the Lost Ark ripoff.

On the other hand, I also kind of love N2. It’s got a ruined castle camped by worg-riding goblins that would be perfect for putting Dyson’s Delve under. It’s got no less than 4 hidden groves/glades. It’s got what are basically the underpinnings for a nice little sandbox: A dungeonous cavern, lairs for creatures from the encounter tables, and a comically blunt Raiders of the Lost Ark ripoff.

So I’m trying to remediate the module by tearing it down and putting it back together again. I’m modifying the map- expanding it to the local (6-mile hex) ACKS regional map template, re-arranging and rationalizing it a bit. I’m also re-thinking all of it against the ACKS recommendations for building a campaign map, since it seems useful to have a swatch of low-level campaign fodder I can pull out of the binder when I need it. So this is like a kick-off post for that work.

Reworking and expanding a classic map

Reworking and expanding a classic map

JOESKY DOWN-PAYMENT

The ACKS map template I’m using measures 15 x 25 hexes. If it’s a typically-populated realm unto itself, it would clock in as a principality of 100k-120k families.  However, I’m thinking of this as an agrarian/borderlands realm, I’m knocking that population down a rank to a duchy of 52k families. ACKS predicts right around 5200 families in settlements, with 1042 of them in the largest settlement of the realm (you can see it off the river near the bottom of the map above). That’s a Class IV market that brings in 617gp monthly income for the duke.

It doesn’t really sport any other settlements that even show up on a  map at the 6-mile scale: Its most notable settlements after the largest would be 6 villages of 75-170 families that center the counties of the duchy.  Because much of the map is occupied by somewhat hostile territory, I’m collecting two of them into one which brushes up against the Class V threshold for mapping (250 families) at this scale (it’s in the Southwest of the map near an intersection of roads and a freshwater spring in the nearby hills). The rest will probably end up on the roads out of the mountains and forests, which looks grim for the Count and Countess of Marshy Fens up in the Northwest and Lord Scrubland of the North. There’s a reason no one lives there.

23
Feb
13

“oriental adventures” class summary charts

“My cossack asks the Leprechaun, ‘Why did you sabotage that aqueduct?'”

The other day Zak was talking about how come nobody seems to use 1985’s “Oriental Adventures” rules, written by David “Zeb” Cook with material from François Marcela-Froideval.  I think it’s an interesting effort, and one I’ve always been intrigued by, but (among many other problems) the book suffers from some truly bad organization and editing.  If I’m remembering correctly, Cook has said he was bascially handed Marcela-Froideval’s manuscript on Friday and told, “Have this thing ready to publish on Monday.”  That’s not the correct deadline, but it’s that type of story, where publication date had been set way in advance of when the manuscript was actually ready.  And it shows.

Anyway, what the hell: I spent a long time compiling all the information about the “Oriental Adventures” into a set of charts which hopefully are easier to use than the book itself.  I was thinking mainly for use with AD&D 2e but I guess you could port it to whatever you like.

21
Feb
13

charlemagne: by the cross and the sword

Image

Yes: Christopher Lee recorded a heavy metal album in which he pretends to be Charlemagne.

Because I’ve been enjoying Pendragon so much, I became curious about how to adapt a historical low-fantasy environment to Dungeons & Dragons.  Turns out dudes already beat me to it twenty years ago with HR2: Charlemagne’s Paladins.  I’ve been messing around with this book, and it is weird.  

The sourcebook groups its rules options into Historical (pretty close to reality), Legendary (pretty close to most European epic tales), and Fantasy (pretty close to D&D-style fantasy).  Under the middle-of-the-road Legendary set of rules, everybody’s human, and the only available classes are the Fighter, Paladin, Cleric, Thief, and Bard. 

Even more critically, spells are very tightly restricted in terms of subject matter.  Bards get Illusions, Enchantments, Conjurations, and Divinations only; (Christian) Clerics get Healing, Divination, Protection, and a tiny percentage to cast some other spells.  So right there, nobody is tossing fire ball to vaporize a horde of angry Visigoths, or teleporting from Aix-la-Chapelle to Roncevalles to send Roland some reinforcements.

But even more importantly, spells take “one unit” longer to cast.  So a spell with a “casting time” of 4 segments, now takes 4 rounds; a spell that takes a turn to cast now takes an hour; etc.  (The book doesn’t say it, but presumably the compensation is that the durations are similarly extended.)  This has the effect of turning spells into ritual type performances, which is kind of cool.  But it also means that it’s almost impossible to cast spells in the middle of combat.  Magic is something you plan ahead of time; it’s not your “oh dang we need immediate crisis control” toolbox

As an experiment, I’ve been playing “solitaire” by running some sample characters through a randomly generated dungeon.  Unsurprisingly, with the spell-casting classes crippled, the Fighter dominates.  The game is still playable, and even still recognizable as Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s definitely a “Gladys Knight & the Pips” thing going on. 

(In fact, this is exactly how things go in Pendragon: in 4e, you could play a magician or a miracle-worker, but what you can do is so limited that you really should be playing a knight instead.)

The whole thing makes me wonder what the idea was behind the Historical Sourcebooks.  “It’s the D&D you know and love!  Minus the races, the classes, most of the magic, most of the monsters, and all of the really cool treasures!  Doesn’t that sound fun?” 

To me, it kinda does, actually: there’s a viable sub-set of D&D in here.  But I think the audience for it is likely very small.

04
Feb
13

OSR 2.0 and the ACKS Player’s Companion

The Player’s Companion for the Adventurer Conqueror King System is now available in PDF and as a hardcover + PDF bundle.  If this is a thing you’ve been waiting for, go order it now. When you get back I want to talk about what it means for the current phase of the OSR.

At Gen Con last year I gave a seminar on the Old-School Renaissance in which I said the OSR was dead. This wasn’t a point I expected to make, and it depends on the idea that the OSR is or was an entity like the Roman Empire, where being alive means it has borders that it defends against its enemies and can expel people from if they don’t meet the requirements for citizenship. By this analogy “the OSR is dead” looks a lot like “the OSR has won“. More people than ever use Roman numerals and live in representative democracies now that the emperor can’t send centurions to enforce the right way to do it. Likewise, it’s easier than ever to find a group of gamers who are eager to play in the old-school style now that it’s spread past the point where old-school cred is a requirement for entry.

Over at Greyhawk Grognard, Joe Bloch has a post about the OSR Phase II that uses less incendiary terms to make many of the same points I cited at that Gen Con seminar:

  • The level of philosophical analysis has decreased dramatically both on the blogs and message boards. If the job of the OSR was to analyze and rediscover the essentials of old-school play, I feel like this job has been done. (Playing at the World can fly the “mission accomplished” banner for the subset of historical analysis). The folks who started out pursuing these questions have, if not reached consensus, at least publicly worked out their own positions in enough detail that newcomers can dive as deep as they like to gain an understanding of OSR philosophy. If there are burning philosophical issues left that are specific to the OSR I can’t think of them, and I think it’s notable that our most consistently brilliant philosopher is now working on carrying his line of analysis outside our scene’s boundaries to games belonging to other movements and to the nature of roleplaying systems in general.
  • The scene now focuses an enormous wave of practical application, including many more reviews of new products, analysis of older non-D&D games, and organization of face-to-face and virtual events. One of the reasons we started The Mule Abides was to share a perspective from New York Red Box’s regular engagement in TSR-era D&D, mixed with other old- and new-school games, that seemed unique. That’s no longer true. Old-school play is very popular and diverse at nerdNYC’s quarterly convention Recess, and I bet you’re seeing the same thing happening through hangouts if you’re on G+.

I think it’s significant, although Joe doesn’t make a point of this specifically, that much of this practical application is also commercial. For example, here’s the “mission accomplished” banner that marked the Player’s Companion having shipped all of its rewards to backers of its Kickstarter last week:

Here’s why I think increased commercial activity in the OSR matters:

  1. Each time that someone starts a business in the OSR, they’re betting on its permanence and popularity. When I run along the Hudson after dark I often surprise rats on the pavement between the river and the park. It turns out that the speed at which they try to scamper away is close enough to my jogging pace that I can chase them for minutes at a time. I enjoy this activity quite a bit, and NYC being NYC no doubt I could find other weirdos who’d also find it fun. But before I launched a adventure tourism enterprise around river-rat chasing I’d have to be pretty sure that there was a regular enough supply of runners and rats to keep the business afloat. 
  2. Commercialism fosters professionalism. As a blogger if I say “I’m going to write a multi-part series of posts about moving into the dungeon” but never do, I feel sort of bad but don’t lose any sleep over it. I only realize why this is an idiom when I’ve taken people’s money for a thing, there are delays in delivering it, and more nights than not I wake up frantic with dream-logic solutions, still carrying on imaginary conversations with upset backers, etc. I aspire to honor all my commitments but there’s no denying that the commercial ones carry more weight and are more likely to get done.
  3. Businesses seek to expand their markets. One of the first OSR controversies I was involved in was TARGA’s plan to create an outreach program for old-school play. It foundered over a number of things that seem outdated, including questions about whether it was even desirable to bring in outsiders. Now that it’s clear that outsiders are extremely interested in our thing and eager to spend their gaming dollars to find out about it, outreach stops being a community question like “what kind of missionary should we send to the South Seas” and becomes an individual one like “should I go pan for gold in California” – or, to carry on the OSR is dead analogy, “go loot the treasures left behind by the fall of the Roman Empire’s boundaries”. Even when I’m not trying to sell anything I think expansion is a good thing. I recognize the value of having the OSR’s borders hotly defended back when a core group needed to be undiluted long enough to define and tackle the key philosophical issues, but I really like how easy it is nowadays to to find common ground rather than fight turf wars.

The remainder of Joe’s post talks about published material he sees as exemplifying a shift towards OSR phase II. He includes a number of games that I’ve talked about before as second-wave retroclones. This phrase balances looking backwards (the “retro” in retroclone) and forwards, with the presumption that there will be a progression of waves, each building on the last the way the second-wavers built on the original OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardry. The Player’s Companion is the first supplement for ACKS, and it’s considerably more progressive and less retro.

ACKS features several things that I think go beyond looking backwards and make genuine additions to the canon. Its economy was one I focused on in the post about building blocks of the next wave of retroclones. By this I mean not just the integrated structure that makes the price of swords line up with the wages of a swordsmith and the cost to field an army of swordsmen, a thing I admire but was never a problem for a GM as loosey-goosey as myself. The contribution from ACKS’ economy that I only vaguely realized had been lacking in my OD&D-based White Sandbox campaign was the way it contextualizes the heroes in the game world. Some vagueness about what’s beyond the dungeon was ideal at the start of a play-and-find-out campaign, but at the stage where they started looking to make a mark on the town and wilderness with their newfound riches and power, I found that I had no basis to adjucate key questions like “how far do we have to go to find someone who will buy a scroll much too potent for us” and “if the local ruler wants to challenge me to a duel, how tough is he?” For a sandbox game where you don’t have details all worked out for every society the PCs might visit, nothing beats ACKS’ brilliant insight that, if most XP come from bringing gold back to civilization, you can use the size of any given civilized area to determine on the fly how many heroes it has and how much of its resources they’re likely to control.

Melee combat, and specifically the linear fighter/quadratic wizard thing, is another problem that my White Sandbox players were frustrated by & ACKS solved.  One reason the OSR is so devoted to B/X D&D is that Moldvay’s presentation of melee is so tight. Many of us may have sought out the old-school in conscious rejection of 4E’s mathy talk of the sweet spot for combat effectiveness, but there’s no denying that this kind of thinking is part of our zeitgeist, nor that a finely honed balance between heroism and lethality is a great asset for a fantasy RPG. ACKS takes this lineage of the “alternate combat system” already refined through multiple waves under TSR and passed on to us via Labyrinth Lord, bolts on equalizers for fighters in the form of a damage-by-level bonus and the ability to cleave, and preserves the narrow level cap it needs to not break down. (The mortal wounds/tampering with mortality charts have worked to solve another combat-related problem in the White Sandbox, the transition from the early stage where we wanted it to be easier to survive past zero hit points and the post-raise dead stage where we wanted death to be more consequential.)

Keon and Leo

These guys are my family’s second and third waves. Their parents are now old enough that any subsequent waves will have to actually be clones.

So let’s imagine you’re looking to make your own perfect system for fantasy roleplaying, which is to say that you are a gamer. Even if you accept that ACKS’ work on economic and combat balance is an improvement you want to incorporate, you’ll want to leave lots of the other choices we made in ACKS on the scrap heap and come up with your own best solutions. Here’s where the Player’s Companion comes in. While writing ACKS, Alex Macris was also figuring out the  design space for two key elements of the Moldvay miracle, character classes and spells, and this book is where he puts the guidelines in your hands. In my next post I’ll show how you to can use the Player’s Companion like a Rosetta stone to drive other kinds of classic gaming with the ACKS engine, or to pioneer an all-new approach in your own third wave retro-clone.

However, I’ve already gone blah blah blah for a long time and the baby strapped to my body will soon wake up. I hope you’ll accept that attaching these pictures of our newborn twins is a kind of negative-space Joesky tax, since otherwise I’d be tempted to put them in a post all their own which would have no gaming relevance at all.

04
Feb
13

against the pixies

hill-giant-scan

Has anyone ever done G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, but literally scaled down and reversed?  So that instead of adventurers invading the home of a Giant, the players are Northmen defending their homes against incursions of sprites and pixies?

Just came to me, now that the blockade has been lifted.

"Let's team up to make people miserable and eat their treasure."

“Let’s team up to make people miserable and eat their treasure.”




Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2013
M T W T F S S
« Jan   Mar »
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728  

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,053 other followers