Posts Tagged ‘new-school

20
Jul
12

Watch Out for that Fjord: More on Wilderness Encounters and Spotting

Yesterday I talked about wilderness encounters I had while hiking along the Naerøyfjord during a recent trip to Norway, and how the experience matched up with the rules for spotting distance and terrain in the Adventurer Conqueror King System. Today I’ll continue this investigation and look at how creature size affects when creatures become aware of each other.

My second wilderness encounter came maybe ten minutes after the previous wandering monster (three sheep). The local terrain changed as the trail emerged onto one of the infrequent areas of flat land – in most places the ground rises sharply up from the water of the fjord. Here’s Rudy’s picture of a similar area:

As I walked out into this expanse, the cry of a bird alerted me to its presence; looking up I saw it already taking wing. ACKS would say that the bird achieved surprise on me, made an “unfriendly” reaction roll, and used the advantage of surprise to flee. I paced the distance to the rock on which the bird had been perching: seventy paces or about 60 yards, a plausible result for the 4d6 x 10 yards specified for mountain terrain – especially if we imagine that the bird’s more adventurer-like spotting abilities had me pegged some time before its decision to flee gave me a clue that it was there. In my defense, I’ll note that I am man-size but the bird was not.

ACKS notes that “Larger creatures can spot and be spotted at greater distances”; rules are given for increasing the spotting distances for larger than man-sized creatures. Judges could easily reverse these rules to account for the difficulty I experienced in sighting a smaller creature. (ACKS also points out that having a higher vantage increases spotting distance, such that adventurers in a tower can see farther than those on the ground. In clear terrain, a giant’s ability to see above obstructions in the landscape, further over the horizon, etc. will counteract the fact that its height will also make it easier to be seen, increasing encounter distance bilaterally. Rough terrain which gives concealment to smaller observers might enable them to spot the giant’s head standing out of the landscape well before it was able to see them in return.)

A deeper issue is that it seemed to me that the bird reacted first not merely because it was more alert (as a city dweller I likely suffer a penalty on wilderness surprise rolls) but also because I was easier to spot. In ACKS, the determination of surprise and spotting distance are separate and unrelated procedures. Especially in cases where one party is larger (bigger, taller, or more numerous), it might make more sense to roll modified spotting distances for each side separately. The group that achieves the greater distance would then effectively have surprise, which would last until the other party closes to the spotting distance rolled for their side – so long as nothing changes like the first party hiding, making noise, etc.

Using this rule would cause surprise to happen more often – since ties for spotting distance will be infrequent, it’d basically mean that almost all wilderness encounters start with only one side aware of the other. I think it’d be wise to roll the usual surprise checks. This would make characters’ modifiers to those checks meaningful, and allow for the possibility that both sides are distracted and bump into each other at the standard spotting distance rolled once, rather than once for each side. If neither side achieves surprise, instead of going to initiative, have each roll for spotting distance. The group with the larger distance will act first, with the other side still unaware of their presence.

I think that having disparities of awareness (like you normally get from unilateral surprise rolls) happen more often in wilderness encounters is beneficial. Setting the distance at whichever of two rolls is greater would mean that most wilderness encounters will happen much further away than in the dungeon. I’d rule that most things that could be done to take advantage of first awareness – closing with the foe, casting spells – would make enough noise to potentially alert the other party, going back to the regular initiative procedure.

In old-school D&D, wilderness encounters can be famously lethal, and ACKS is no exception. Unlike the dungeon encounter tables, which are scaled to the depth at which the encounter occurs, the possible results in the wilderness are all over the map. Having the small adventurers spot a large dragon before it sees them can generate suspense and (perhaps) avoid a TPK. Contrariwise, a wandering monster that is too puny to hope to challenge a large and well-prepared party can, if it can spot them first, avoid combat; this is both sensible and avoids wasting time at the table (since the Judge can quickly resolve the monster’s attempt to bugger off unseen, without invoking initiative and all the other standard encounter procedures).

And in new-school D&D, wilderness encounters are infamously hard to stage as a combat sporting event. The ability to set up an interesting battlefield full of the sorts of hazards and opportunities that make detailed-resolution combat fun is limited by the randomness of the encounter, and the wilderness situation makes it susceptible to the party “going nova” and firing off all their resources, confident that they’ll have time to rest before the next encounter. Making unilateral awareness more likely can help with this situation. If the party spots the monsters at a greater distance, they can plan their approach, making the encounter a more satisfying example of “combat as war”. If the monsters become aware of the party, they can retreat to a fortified position and send out a few of their number to lure the party into an ambush, while the others go for reinforcements. The result can be a encounter with the kind of tactical depth and multiple waves of enemies that you normally don’t get from a wilderness wandering monster.

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02
Apr
12

D&D’s Original Iconic Characters

Doesn’t this look like an adventuring party you’d like to be part of?

Illustrations by David C. Sutherland for the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide

Stat one of these characters up using the Adventurer Conqueror King System and you can play ’em in a session I’ll run via G+ hangout! Plus, if the Kickstarter for Paul Hughes’ Random Dungeon Generator as a Dungeon Map poster succeeds in raising more funding than Autarch’s Player’s Companion did, the backers of that worthy project will get to admire your character-making handiwork as part of a bonus goal I offered Paul in the foolhardy belief that it’d never happen. (It is now less than $300 short).

Here’s the backstory. The designers of 3rd Edition D&D went to remarkable lengths to reference 1st Edition AD&D. This is something I’ve been saying for a long time, but the more I learn about 1E the more examples I discover.

One of the defining aspects of 3E’s art direction was the use of iconic characters whose illustrations were featured in the section introducing their class and were then re-used in other books, the D&D miniatures line, etc. For example, here we see the rogue Lidda, the wizard Mialee, and the fighters Regdar and Tordek planning a dungeon-heist:

At Gary Con, we were talking about things we liked and didn’t like about 3E. Iconic characters made it onto both lists.

  • Plus: The way that the same heroes would turn up in different contexts created the sense of the books being a window into another world, the way that elements of the Cthulu Mythos like the Necronomicon showing up in different stories made it seem real (and a precursor of roleplaying games and transmedia).
  • Minus: We weren’t convinced that the 3E iconic characters emerged from actual play; their inception had the whiff of a clever memo from WotC’s marketing department.

Until reading this post at Blog of Holding, from which the top picture was taken, I didn’t realize that the idea of a party of characters recurring from one illustration to the next had its roots in David C. Sutherland’s drawings for the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. I don’t know whether they represented a real party of player characters, but certainly the DMG illustrations show them doing the kinds of things adventurers do in actual games of D&D. (The planning illustration above is an exception to the normal kind of thing the 3E iconic characters were depicted doing: standing around on their own, looking iconic.)

Given that I care about things like illustrations reflecting actual play, let’s make sure that the ACKS writeup of the AD&D iconics reflects characters that a player created (albeit to match a pre-existing visual image) and played in a game! Reply in the comments to claim which of these five adventurers you’d like to stat up and play, I’ll email you to work out the details and schedule the G+ hangout.

09
Jan
12

you heard it here first

Sign-up image for Wizards of the Coast's 5E open playtest.

Today’s pieces by Ethan Gilsdorf in the New York Times, David Ewalt in Forbes, and Greg Tito in the Escapist – as well as the Legends and Lore column by Mike Mearls – bring confirmation that the OSR has won sooner than I expected. Apparently there is some inaccuracy in taking a summer temperature by counting the frequency of cicadas chirping, or in predicting the arrival of 5E by how often people are crying that the sky is falling.

Here are folks I know have been listening to what the OSR has been saying, talking about the announcement:

“The long open testing period for the next edition, if handled correctly, could be exactly what’s needed to make players feels invested in D&D again.”

“I’m not a fan of fourth edition. I find the combat slow, the powers limiting, and the rules inhospitable to the kind of creative world-building, story-telling and problem-solving that make D&D great. But so far, the fifth edition rules show promise. They’re simple without being stupid, and efficient without being shallow. Combat was quick and satisfying; we got through most of an adventure in just a few hours.”

  • David Ewalt, one of the participants on the “The World Dave Built” panel at the Arneson Memorial Gameday.

“It’s a compliment to the new rules that I was rarely aware of them. It might have been Mike’s expertise as a DM, but the new D&D does feel like a pleasant amalgam of every edition and the elegance of the rules allowed us to concentrate on the adventure’s plot… Many of us fell in love with the game through the adventure modules released by TSR in the early days of the game. Gygax’s Against the Giants modules are still regarded as a crowning achievement in how they planted plot details in the dungeon along with exciting combat, and Mearls said he wants to get back to that level of story-telling through new published adventures.”

  • Disgruntled 4E playtester Greg Tito, in his own piece.

Are these not some of the things that we’ve been asking for?

I don’t think that the OSR’s every word has been taken to heart. It’s certainly not that our size or market impact has made any kind of meaningful impact on Wizards of the Coast’s business projections; I’m not even sure our OGL ally Pathfinder can claim that distinction.

What I do believe is that the OSR represents the same zeitgeist that is putting like-minded souls into art galleries and theaters and sports teams and the leadership of WotC and Paizo. And I believe that our cacophonous, insanely divergent group of loudmouthed blind men provided an unusually complete description of the elephant in the room throughout the 4E era. Facing an insanely difficult task of design and marketing as they try to usher in the new age of creation, not even WotC would have the hubris to completely refuse to drink from the OSR’s pool of free advice and analysis.

Of course, WotC’s capacity to screw things up often seems limitless. If in trying to give the OSR what we want they make a complete mockery of everything we believe in, feel free to say I was among the first to get egg on my face.

22
Jul
11

What do New-Schoolers Want?

One of the Visionary backers for the ACKS Kickstarter described this illo, which I love. She's also done some great edits on v.16 of the rules MS. Yay for patronage publishing!

I’ve been thinking that the integrated economic system in Adventurer Conqueror King may interest fans of other editions of the “world’s most popular fantasy RPG”: debatable but not unreasonable. I’m also thinking that Mule readers include folks who aren’t exclusively old-schoolers, and also a large-enough group of people who don’t read EN World’s General RPG Discussion forum or the D&D Meetup boards. Running with those assumptions, here’s how I broke down ACKS over there in search of some insights about whether and how new-schoolers might kit-bash bits of our system into the one they prefer.

The game’s tagline is “fulfilling the promise of the original fantasy RPG with support for every level of campaign play.” What that means is:

1) it’s built on the chassis of the retro-clones, especially Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG, but instead of emulating a particular older edition it’s designed to enable a certain kind of long-term gameplay

2) it presents comprehensive guidelines for all the different “tiers” of the classic game, from dungeon crawling to wilderness exploration to building a stronghold and ruling a kingdom, with lots of other stuff in between like running a thieves’ guild, mercantile trading by land and sea, spell research, etc.

#1 means ACKS plays like the old-school games I’ve increasingly come to love. But to do #2, we had to create an integrated economic framework that ties all this stuff together. That’s because:

a) getting and spending gold is tightly tied to character progression in the classic game, and thus serves kind of the same role as encounter levels, treasure parcels, wealth by level, etc: an integrated framework lets you predict pretty well that a character who can cast fly can also afford to buy a pegasus mount, and design adventures around that expectation without having to dissociate it from the concrete things in the game world

b) different characters and campaigns will have different goals, but spending gold in pursuit of those goals is a universal constant; rules for all the things you can do with money are always going to be useful and allow the progression from low levels to the end game to proceed organically in response to player actions

c) making these things self-consistent, so that the price of hiring mercenaries and forging swords for them is consistent with how much skilled characters could earn as a sell-sword or a blacksmith and also how much it costs to buy food and a place to sleep, is hard work that no previous edition has gotten exactly right and maybe one of the few good answers to Gary and Dave’s question in OD&D: “why have us do any more of your imagining for you?”

OK, with that background in place, I’m getting to my question for y’all. One of the things I did when I was one of the guys whose names were going to be on the cover of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium was to design mundane items. And because I wanted them to be things that you wouldn’t just buy at first level, I worked out this same kind of comprehensive economic structure for 4E, based on the range of existing prices from a wagon to a galleon to a spelljammer. I was surprised to see that the difference from previous editions (the d20SRD and the B/E/C/M/I Rules Compendium were my main sources) was within the margin of error!

So you could use the economic structure from ACKS in pretty much any version of the game you play. The changes in prices for items, hirelings, and the like are minor and not the main benefit; the big benefit would be that if the party wants to do things like manage a caravan going between points of light (the theme of one of the most fun 4Ecampaigns I’ve been in), you have a sound basis for calculating things like how much demand there will be for goods in different-sized cities, the profit the caravan might expect to realize from carrying different cargoes, etc.

What I want to know is: would you want to include skill DCs, designing skill challenges, and other such new-school stuff if you were going to use this framework in your game? And if so, how would you fit it in?

In that caravan game that me and my ACKS co-author Greg Tito played in, even though it used the 4E rules that we were elbows-deep in at the time while writing the Forgotten Heroes books, neither he nor I paid much attention to how the profit-and-loss part of the operation worked. I was playing a fighter, so I was happy if we made money, but I left the details up to others. This is maybe part of why I like old-school play. Even though caravan wandering monsters were something my character cared about, I preferred to let the DM roll these behind the screen instead of being the outcome of my character’s Survival or Nature skill checks, and so likewise my inclination is to have the price the caravan goods be something the DM determines based on supply and demand, not something that emerges from my character’s skills.

What about you?

16
May
11

rick jones, sorcerer (pt 1)

“James,” no one asks, “where have you been?

Why don’t you blog anymore?”

I have been on an RPG bender, snorting powdered rule books, line after line of Gygaxian prose, until I’ve ruined my nasal cavities, and sticking irrational-sided dice into various orifices.  I’ve turned myself into New York Red Box’s very own Wandering Monster, showing up randomly at sessions and giggling at things nobody else thinks is funny, encouraging TPK’s through bad advice.  Then leaving early to snort more rule books.  Soon I’m gonna end up like my man Ska-Tay, mainlining retroclones and telling myself it’s no big deal since it’s just micro-lites.

Anyway: content!

+

Crossposted over at the Forge.

While trying to put together another one-shot for Marvel Super Heroes, I ended up thinking about the Hulk.

In the very earliest issues of The Incredible Hulk, which lasted for all of 6 issues in 1962, the Hulk is a rampaging atomic monster hell-bent on conquering the Earth, destroying the human race, and raping Betty Ross.  Not necessarily in that order.

This was a comic sold to children

even creeper in original context

The only thing holding him in check (just barely) is teenage delinquent and high school drop-out Rick Jones.  These early Hulk comics are really the story of an incredibly quick-witted and resourceful boy trying desperately to save the world from a monster he feels responsible for creating.

It’s a Sorcerer story, at least in its better moments.

This write-up isn’t meant to replicate Hulk comics precisely, but rather to play on the desperation, Cold War paranoia, atomic monster fiction of the time.  Rick and the Hulk are just one data point in there.

Sorcerer, for those who don’t know…

Is an RPG where you play Faust.  You’re a mostly-ordinary dude, except that through sorcery you’ve bound a demon into your service.  If you’re a PC, you probably had a really good reason for doing so, but the game is about finding out how well that works out for you. Your goal isn’t just to advance your own interests, but to somehow preserve a shred of your Humanity, which is sort of like your spiritual health.  It’s one of my favorite games and one that I wish I could play more often.

Sorcerer, as a rules text, is all about formal abstractions: “demon” doesn’t have to mean a critter from Hell, all that matters is that, however you define the term in your setting, the rules for demons apply.  (D&D analogy: maybe in your world, Fighting-Man is more of a samurai dude or a Wild West gunslinger, instead of a medieval European knight, but in all cases the rules for Fighting-Men would apply.)

Customizing Sorcerer for the setting

we'll get to you later, Doctor Pym

Humanity is loyalty, friendship, human decency type stuff.  You can roll Humanity vs. Will to compel someone to cleave to you.  Rick does this a lot to persuade the rampaging Hulk to cool it.

Demons are monstrous creatures and unearthly technologies brought forth by the atomic age.  Unprecedented outlanders, these oddities either do not respect or simply fail to understand the reciprocal bonds that make us human.  The monster’s Power score represents the scope or intensity of its loathing.

Sorcery is super science, the relentless pursuit of atomic energies and Space Age revelations that mankind was never meant to know.  Pursuit of knowledge in the abstract, with no regard how it will impact the rest of humanity, marks someone as beyond petty concepts like “loyalty” or “friendship.”

Lore is basically comic-book super science, doing stuff like contacting aliens on other planets, developing biological weapons that turn into blob-monsters, building robots, implanting wasp DNA into teenage girls, and so on.  This isn’t just science, but 1950’s “mad” science, things that just cannot possibly work.

26
Mar
11

the Doom Quest of Nightfang

The latest issue (#11) of Fight On! contains Doom Quest, a micro version of Rune Quest by Friend-of-the-Mule Scott LeMien.  (Scott resisted my suggestion to name it Quest Quest, but otherwise it’s a great little game.)

In case, like me, you are too poor to spring for every OSR magazine, let me sing the praises of Doom Quest a little bit.

Scott’s a fanatic for the whole microlite tradition of game design, where you squeeze one hundred pages of rules and advice into a concentrated, one-page version.  Doom Quest sets out to do that for Rune Quest, and succeeds beautifully.  I used Doom Quest to run a published RQ adventure without understanding the first thing goldang thing about Rune Quest.  It was beautiful and flawless.  If you’re a Rune Quest maniac, but your gaming group is afraid of investing the time to learn a complex new system, Doom Quest is your new best friend.

But speaking as someone who doesn’t know Rune Quest, I was astonished at how elegantly Doom Quest operates.  This past summer, when some of the New York Red Box began dallying with RQ, Scott came away raving about the combat mechanics–and his approach to combat in Doom Quest is exceedingly impressive.

I’m very accustomed to D&D combat: I roll a d20 and a d6, and use the results as a cue for my imagination: “Hmm, I rolled a good strike but lousy damage.  The monster must have left itself wide open to the attack, but I couldn’t quite get a good footing, so my sword-thrust was weaker than expected.”  In Doom Quest, you don’t have to engage in some kind of oracular justification of weird random results: a surprisingly thorough outcome is generated entirely by the dice.  “I rolled a 7, and you rolled a 18, so therefore I blocked your blow, but my sword is badly notched . . . and then I rolled a 13, so I strike you in the leg, hamstringing you, so you fall to the ground, and you’ll be dead in 10 minutes.”  There’s a full table of embarrassing fumbles too, although my favorite outcome comes when you take massive head or torso wounds: given the gore inherent in the system already, the laconic “Horrible death!” makes me shudder because of what it doesn’t describe.

Doom Quest’s combat system takes a simple 1d20 input from each player, and spits out a vivid, plausible, and sometimes very distressing story of men maiming each other with steel.  If you’re bored with the Rock’em Sock’em Robots quality of D&D combat, but are too much of a neckbeard to play 4e, Doom Quest presents a cruel arena built from the bones of Rune Quest.  The rules are worth stealing.

The rest of Doom Quest is less crunchy, but well considered.  The version of the game I played had rules for building customized weapons, thieving skills, and hirelings.  The magic rules are a little anemic for reasons of space, but presumably if you’re reading Doom Quest you’re comfortable making up new spells.

In our game, I ran Scott’s Rune-Priest, his two zealots, and a child squire through Paul Jaquays’s small masterpiece, The Hellpits of Nightfang.  Some weird-ass mutated snakes set upon the crusaders as they descended a dried-up creekbed into the caverns.  The group managed to kill most of the snakes – but not before one of the beasts propelled itself like a javelin through the thigh of the child squire.  (Uncharacteristically, Scott did not then slaughter the child and bathe in its blood.)

Helping the squire along as best they could, the group explored a sinkhole and tried to loot some corpses, before they remembered they were on a holy quest to kill Nightfang the Vampire.  Venturing into the caverns, the Rune-Priest slaughtered Doomlost, Nightfang’s wolf sidekick, with a single well-placed javelin.  As the Rune-Priest and Nightfang fought a pitched hand-to-hand battle–leading to grotesque mutilations–the two zealots bravely tried to hold back a small army of Skeletons.  Even as the Rune-Priest drove Nightfang to retreat, a sinister Ghost took possession of the Rune-Priest and forced him to commit suicide by plunging into an frigid subterranean lake.  The zealots tried to rescue him, but the Skeletons provided stiff resistance, and ultimately cut the men down as they were just a few feet from escaping.

The only survivor was the lamed child, carrying news of unholy carnage back to his village, telling the tale of the Doom Quest.

17
Dec
10

A Post-1979 D&D Inspirational & Educational Reading List

Perhaps still in time for the holiday super saver shipping, here’s my personal list of recommended reading for D&D players, a supplement to the original Appendix N in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide:

  • Baker, Kage. Anvil of the World & its sequels
  • Banks, Iain M. The Player of Games, Use of Weapons
  • Barnes, John. One for the Morning Glory, Kaleidoscope Century
  • Chabon, Michael. Gentlemen of the Road
  • Cook, Glen. Black Company series
  • Cook, Hugh. Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series
  • Harrison, M. John. Virconium
  • Holdstock, Robert. Mythago Wood
  • Holmes, J. Eric. Maze of Peril
  • Hughart, Barry. The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox
  • Jones, Diana Wynne. Homeward Bounders, Chrestomanci series, etc.
  • Lynch, Scott. The Gentlemen Bastard series
  • Meynard, Yves. The Book of Knights
  • Moon, Elizabeth. The Deed of Paksenarrion
  • Powers, Tim. On Stranger Tides, The Drawing of the Dark
  • Pratchett, Terry. Discworld series
  • Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. Tomoe Gozen, The Golden Naginata, and Thousand Shrine Warrior.
  • Sfarr, Joann and Trondheim, Lewis. Dungeon series
  • Shea, Michael. Nifft the Lean & its sequels
  • Sterling, Bruce. Schismatrix
  • Swanwick, Michael. The Iron Dragon’s DaughterThe Dragons of Babel
  • Wolfe, Gene. Book of the New Sun, The Wizard Knight

Hyperlinks are provided haphazardly, and signify nothing about the works linked or not.

I chose publication after 1979 as a clear line of separation to make this an add-on to Gygax’s original, as a list of my own favorite D&D-esque books would show a high degree of redundancy with the ones he chose in ’79. In addition to all the ones everyone’s read, I’ve particulary enjoyed Lin Carter’s Worlds End series, John Bellairs, and Margaret St. Clair;  and if everyone hasn’t read The Broken Sword they should.

Some of the ones I’ve listed here would likely have been added to Gygax’s list had he written it later. At EN World he said this was true of the Discworld books, and he wrote a glowing back-cover blurb for the American edition of one of Hugh Cook’s fantasies.

The chronological cutoff did mean leaving out some things I personally would have added to the original:

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Book of Imaginary Beings, others.
  • Davidson, Avram. The Phoenix and the Mirror
  • Klein, Otis Adelbert. Planet of Peril
  • Smith, Clark Ashton.
  • Swann, Thomas Burnett. Day of the Minotaur
  • van Gulik, Robert. Judge Dee stories.

I’ve tried to keep to the parameters established by the original Appendix N by focusing strictly on novels and short stories, despite the ample evidence that movies, other games, comic books, etc. were important influences on the corpus of classic D&Disms. (I made an exception for Sfar and Trondheim’s Dungeon, because it’s just so damn good.)

In the spirit of the original, I didn’t worry much about lumping SF and fantasy together. Genre considerations did convince me to move the following into this footnote, which are nevertheless a big part of my education in adventures and heists :

  • Child, Lee. Reacher novels.
  • Dent, Lester. Honey in his Mouth
  • Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Gold, David Glen. Carter Beats the Devil
  • O’ Brien, Patrick. Aubrey-Maturin series
  • Winslow, Don. The Winter of Frankie Machine, California Fire and Life
  • Westlake, Donald. Dortmunder series, Parker series (written as Richard Stark), Kahawa

What would you add to Appendix N? Post it in the comments; if it’s one I meant to include but forgot I’ll add it above!




Past Adventures of the Mule

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