On Fight On! Versus The Dragon

I think one of the primary things that makes Fight On! a more useful tool then older issues of Dragon were was the default assumption given that DM's will figure out the statistic information for the game they are playing.

Part of the reason for the density of material and articles is the lack of extensive pages upon pages of stats, which is possible due to the statistic light nature of the game constellation that it serves.

On the Division of Experience and Honor

I just wrote a long post on the division of honor and experience in my Hackmaster game and blogger ate it as soon as I was done. This is very frustrating.

Second attempt: I often find that information about old school games is lacking in specifics, (How wide is that hex? How large are your sandboxes?). So in order to address that, and because one of my players asked for a breakdown of the division, I'd figured I'd post this. This includes the last 2 weeks of play.

  • Spiritspyre
  • Hardimore
    • Gwenevere
    • Authunto
  • Zeltara
    • Nash
    • Quent
    • Kalen
  • Arolodo
    • Smoke
    • Niles
    • Gwendolyn
    • Petrus
  • Usis
  • Elimen
  • Kyra
16 total shares

Experience:

Monster EP
Beetle                420*2
Bird                  2000
Corrupted Feral Gorm  160*2
Frogs                 0 (Fled)
Hightide Fen Lizard-Man
                      35*15*.25
                   (Befriended)
Hightide Fen Lizard-Man Mage
                      65*2*.25
                   (Befriended)
Bullywugs             65*24
Advanced Bullywugs    120*4
Bullywug Clerics      195
                      245
                      295
                      520
Alligators            65*3
Hyrdra                2000

Treasure EP
Coins                 419.4
Barrels (Swamp Herbs) 960
Casks                 16
Steel Bars            120
Jar of Pearls         20
Malachite             150
Opals                 48
Earrings              48
Bracelets             80
Belts                 72

Monster EP total is 8453.75
Treasure EP total is 1933.4
Total experience is 10387.15 / 16 total shares
Base award is 649.19687
Henchmen award is 324.59843 (1/2 base)

Bonus EP
Recovering Bera's remains: 100ep
"Solving" Bera's death:  200ep
No townsfolk killed during arrest and escape: 50ep
Entering swamp for first time: 100 ep
Eradicating Bullywug outpost: 250 ep
Crossing unnamed lake (100ep) with Lizard-man guides (/10 penalty): 10ep

Total Individual award is 710ep
Base party Award is 1359.19687ep
Spiritspyre: +10%
1359.19687ep
+21 Healing
+750 Best Supporting Player
Final: 2130.1967
Hardimore: +20%
1359.19687ep
+23 Healing
+1000 Most valuable player
Final 1429.318/1429.318
Zeltara: +5%
1359.19687ep
+351 Most damage
+270 Most damage single roll
+38 Most damage taken
+160 Most damage taken single roll
+400 Percision cutting (3 criticals)
Final: 2707.1066
Aroldo: +5%
1359.19687ep
Final:1427.1566
Usis: +25%
1359.19687ep
100.8 Treasure stolen
Final: 1824.996

Elimen:
Final:1359.19687ep
Kyra:
Final: 1359.19687ep




Honor:
Honor is awarded in temporal form, i.e. 4 points of honor gained equal 1 permanent actual point of honor. After the positive and negative values are totaled together, I divide by 4, drop the remainder, and that is the increase or decrease in honor.

Group awards:
Fighting a worthy opponent in combat: +42
In school or training: -3
Being publically disparaged by a superior/inferior: -12
Banished: -5

Individual Awards:

Spiritspyre:
Healing +3
Defeating Bullywugs: +4
Final: +49/-20
Hardimore:
Healing +4
Defeating Bullywugs: +10

Final: +56/-20

Zeltara:
Delivering criticals: +3
Defeating Bullywugs: +10

Final: +55/-20

Elimen:
Accused of a crime: +3
Defeating Bullywugs: +7

Final: +52/-20
Usis:
Delivering death blow to helpless opponents: +5
Accused of a crime: +3
Defeating Bullywugs: +7
Final: +57/-20
Aroldo:
Entering combat sans armor: +5
Failing a skill course: +1
Defeating Bullywugs: +10
Final: +58/-20
Kyra:
Accused of a crime: -5
Defeating Bullywugs: +10
Final: +52/-25



Final total Awards:
Spiritspyre 2343.2163 / +7 honor
Hardimore 1429.318/1429.318 / +9 honor
Zeltara 2707.1066 / +8 honor
Arolodo 1427.1560 / +9 honor
Usis 1824.996 / +9 honor
Elimen 1359.19687 / +8 honor
Kyra 1359.19687 / +6 honor

This calculation took about 2 hours to complete. Blogger eating my post turned this post into a 2 hour ordeal, instead of a 1 hour job. I spend on average 3 hours per 'adventure' calculating honor and experience. Sometimes the adventure can be over several weeks, meaning I only need to do this once a month or so. It's quicker when they are low level, but I have to do it more often. It's more complicated when they are higher level, but they level less quickly, and I have to do it infrequently (they tend to go on longer and longer excursions).

The last step is to send out an e-mail informing everyone of their final numbers, after I prepare myself for the deluge inevitable comments. ("You forgot this!", "I shouldn't have lost honor for that!", "I'm not getting enough experience!")

On Modern Principles in Old School Games

While reading Dragon issue #118 I ran across two articles for adding systems in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons that Hackmaster has as part of it's core rules.One article on Pain ("ARRRGH!!!"), and another on Hero Points ("A Hero's Reward").

Dungeons and Dragons has always had an abstract hit point system. It was added to the earliest versions as an enhancement to the chainmail rules way to prevent the characters from dying instantly. People got attached to their characters, and this was a way to allow them greater survivability. This abstraction is very 'gamey'. There are no long term consequences for damage. In the older versions, the primary nod to actual damage was the rest required after being dropped below 0 hit points.

This is a great thing in the context of people playing a game. Who wants to roleplay walking around in a cast for six months. Over the years, more than one or two people has said - this is entirely unrealistic (by which they mean, it's destroying their suspension of disbelief)

The article uses a system of "cumulative wound tracking" with a variety of "wound location charts" each containing penalties for future actions. This means as you get closer to death you are less and less effective in combat (versus the default system where you are 100% until you're out). These wounds are abstract, not tied to a location. There is an 'advanced' variant where the wounds can be on a particular limb, providing more specific penalties.

This system is exceedingly complicated requiring tracking of every individual wound greater then a percentage of hit points based off your race, class and constitution. There are half a dozen matrices in the article giving those percentages. Most of the percentages are between 18%-21%. At the levels of hit points that old school characters have these small fluctuations will hardly ever make any difference in the sizes of the wounds.

Hackmaster characters have a lot more hit points than normal Dungeons and Dragons Characters (the 20+ hp kicker). I've been exceedingly impressed with it's system for critical/pain/called shots. It overcomes the obvious issues with extended grindfests due to high hit point totals by having a "Threshold of Pain". Every time you take damage in a melee round equal to 1/2 or more your starting hit point total, you must make a saving throw versus death or fall to the ground incapacitated by pain. This speeds things up greatly and helps maintain that suspension of disbelief. Another unforeseen benefit to this system is that often after a fight, many of the participants are still alive, although possibly in shock and on the way to death.

As far as individual wounds, Hackmaster works just like the earlier abstract models, unless you're dealing with criticals, which can cause specific wounds to bones, internal organs, or muscles. This system is also complicated, ignored for the most part on the monsters (where the bonus damage is what's important). But for the players, the benefit is that they can sustain long term consequences from their battle. I've found that this avoids being overbearing, because it has to be a fairly severe critical hit on a vulnerable location before these things come into play. I can think of maybe 20 or so wounds over the course of nearly 2 years of play where this became a factor.

It is totally possible in old school play to just arbitrary describe wounds based off damage done, but I find that a table like the Hackmaster critical table prevents Dungeon Master bias as well as enhancing creativity. ("Wow, I hit him in the eye again!")

I also have to say that I'm a big fan of the called shot system in Hackmaster. It's often very difficult to prevent called shots from being strictly better or worse then normal attacks, and I think it does a very good job of riding that line. There are differing penalties for the sizes of body parts on differing sizes of creatures applied to the roll (1 chart). You critical on a 19-20 instead of a 20. There is another table for the 'armor coverage' of different armor types (1 chart). There is a third page showing how much damage each body part can sustain before it becomes disabled (1 reference picture). It makes them a useful tool that can achieve a specific effect at a consequence. You normally only need two of the pages, and I have them together for when it comes up in a game. A little extra reference, but by no means overwhelming.

The hero point article is fairly simple. Players get points equal to their level every day which they can use to alter rolls by +/-1 per point. On a first read, this seemed extremely broken to me for several reasons, as well as missing one of the core issues of these types of systems.

The whole idea behind hero/action points is that players should have some meta-control over the game. This is a good solid principle. A group of people are getting together to play a game, it's only reasonable that they should have some say in what happens in that game - action/hero points are a mechanical way of having that happen. There are a lot of random die rolls in a game, and allowing the players to mitigate some of that randomness is a very modern idea, but in play is very useful. If you're playing in a game with save or die, and the party is middle to high level, having an in game system for hero points and mulligans is fun for the players, since failing often turns into just a gold tax. I don't feel it's specifically opposed to the principles of old school play.

Again, I like the Hackmaster system better. They have honor, which you can spend to add your honor die to rolls (which changes based on your level). Characters in great honor get +1 to all rolls, one mulligan a session, and bonus experience and reduced leveling costs. You may also purge your honor (spending it all) to avoid any one in game event, but this can put you in bad karma, locking you into low honor, unable to advance.

There are some problems with it also. Points are given based off a large series of actions in the context of player alignments. The system allows a large degree of wiggle room and DM fiat (40 points +/- per PC per 'adventure' when most table awards are 1-4 per action), but if I'm assigning honor based off my own whims, it may not be nearly as consistent as what the table suggests. So I spend a long time (~3 hours) dealing with experience and honor after each game session.

Why don't I just handwave it and hand out what I think is close? I'm certain I'd be close to the table most of the time. If I just handed honor or experience out, eventually I'd just be deciding the pace of the game. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that you say? In the context of old school play, there is. Regardless of what they do, their actions don't matter because the pace is being set by me instead of by them. So yes, it takes some additional time to go down the list of honor awards for every PC and total up all the experience. But the end result of having players know that when they reached level eight after 15 months that they earned it, every last experience point, and that there was no guarantee that they would survive that long is of far greater benefit then the time I spend calculating these values.

On Magazines of the Past and the Future

So, I purchased issues number 8, number 9, and number 10 of Fight On! out of curiosity. I had heard good things; so I grabbed those, and about 10 old issues of Dragon magazine and headed to work. I have a lot of time to read where I work.

My first thoughts upon reading were, "Holy crap! This is better then anything in these Dragons!" Then I discovered, I was not the first to have such a thought, and there was a bit of controversy about that particular line of thinking.

For what it's worth, what I specifically mean by that thought, is that I found more useful articles in one issue of Fight On!, more articles that I am going to whole cloth drop into my game, then in the ten or so issues of Dragon that I grabbed (ranging from issue 100-190). This is simply a fact. There is more content per page, the contents are more varied and complex, specifically in a visual sense, and there are more things that are immediately useful to me as an RPG.

The Dragon's on the other hand, had three or four long articles an issue, often with an obscene (3-4 pages) amount of research on 'historical context' and several shorter articles. There was a great deal more consistency between each article, and a much larger interest in providing a imaginative historical context "to understand how D&D was meant to be played".

 I recommend against visiting any link in this post - the vitriol surrounding some of this is galactic in the scope of it's stupidity. I've been so excited and so busy having fun with all this fun gaming I've been doing, going through some of this commentary has been a slap in the face. Horrible rants about one of the creators of this hobby being a toad, to spiteful arguments back and forth about some random descriptor - it's adults and publishers acting like Wizards of the Coast forum trolls.

Summary:
  • Ignore most of the above links
  • Fight On! is awesome
  • Dragon magazine was focused on providing imaginative background for Dungeon Masters and less on actual useful gaming material

On the Worst Sessions Ever

I've been reading several interesting threads over on the paizo boards about the worst player/gm stories. When reading things like that, I always have a sour feeling in my stomach. This anxiety is a feature of my personality I've learned to ignore, I've long ago come to terms with the traumas of my youth. The physiological sensation that occurs in response to someone else passing judgment on other peoples malfeasance that I (may) recognize in myself remains.

This is related tangentially to my earlier post this week. I would like to clarify that not one thing said about my players was meant to be taken as a critique. It was simply a process of communicating about what one likes, which is what seems to be the primary problem on these worst player/gm threads. Lack of communication and maturity seems to be the key factor in these stories.

Recently the Tao of D&D commented about the need for a "universal rule variation repository". This seems like an excessively pointless exercise because I'm hanging out with my friends while we role-play (or wargame, or card game, or boardgame). Our house rules and norms are just what works for us - hence why my earlier post wasn't a critiqe. I'm simply more knowledgable about what they enjoy. There is no absolute external metric for "fun".

Dungeons and Dragons, in spite of the desires of many people throughout its history, is not a competitive sport. The vast majority of players are playing with people who are their friends and family.

The greater part of these horror stories have to do with situations where this is not the case. People trying out games with new people because they are looking for a game instead of trying out new games because they are looking for an activity to do with their friends.

Let's examine some of these stories:
Rape in the game stories: there can be a place for this in a game. Last weeks session used this, along with other horrible to distinguish that not only were the bullywugs evil (which many likeable people are, including no less than four party members) but that they were morally repugnant with no redeeming value. At no point were such activites ever performed on the pcs. Also, I talked beforehand with the players to ensure that none had any problems with such lurid descriptions (and yes, the players are mixed gender).

However these examples included players having their pc's rape other players pc's who a) were played by female characters and b) playing their first game with the group. There was more than one tale about DM's trying to use rape survivor as origin for female pc's.

Is it surprising that in these same games rape exclusively means male on female violence? I'm going to say no. There was no mention of horror stories of male/male rape.

There were several comments by people who attempted to justify such behavior as simulationist. i.e. "the DM can't do anything about that because he shouldn't control in player choices" this is, I hope, plain to all as raw idiocy. Anyone who is acting to make someone uncomfortable or cause trauma has nothing to do with a game. Any sort of abuse, violence, or harassment should be addressed.

I've had my own player horror stories where something similar occurred. One player decided that because he turned out to not like the style of game he requested to try out that he would start pissing in game on NPCs. This is childish and immature (not what I would expect from a college educated father of 2), and that was iirc the last session I ran for that group of people.

The game was boring/stupid/deadly: There were several of these types of stories - a player showed up and the group was going from room to room killing monsters, occasionally in alphabetical order. Or the group 'looked for adventure' for four sessions but didn't find any, and was told by the DM that if they wanted adventure they would have to make it on their own. Or the group that didn't name their PC's. Or the one that had 14 players, and when the player brought up to the DM that some of them felt left out, the DM replied "They should have spoken up."

It's in response to these I have to cringe. I understand why each of these was a 'horror story', but I see all of the above as valid styles of play. Hell, even Gygax himself ran with 10+ members in a group, and had players who didn't name their PC's (Bob's cleric, etc.) On of my players used to do that exact thing of rolling random encounters out of the Monster Manual for her brothers to kill. The primary issue I see with the above horror stories is one of communication (and possibly the vocabulary to communicate about them). I could see myself running a game where the players make their own actions and the world responds, instead of a traditional dungeon crawl.

It certainly seems that if people were better informed about what these games consisted of, there would have been no horror story. I feel that sitting in judgment over other peoples games and what they enjoy is a little silly. I mean for my next trick, should I tell them they are masturbating wrong?

The creepy/immature/crazy player: There were many of these. I however don't consider these a class of gaming story because it's just a factor in anything you might choose to do - there are these types of people in all fields and interests, and I don't think role-playing has any greater or lesser percentage of them. Of course this view might be colored by the fact that I work in an Insane Asylum, and out of the 1000 or so (unique) patients we've had since I've worked there, I've only ran into 1 who even had heard of Role-Playing games.

I'm pressed for time, so I'll summarize. There are no gaming horror stories, just horrible people and bad communicators.

On Where is that Train Headed?

Brought to my attention on Drawings & Dragons there is this post on the 4e message boards.

To be short, it's a set of powers that is only fluff, and has no mechanical information or benefit.

The other day on /traditional games/, there was a thread about an marketer doing research for an "unnamed company" that was quizzing professional women 20-35 on how they felt about Dungeons and Dragons. (Here's a hint, They don't like it, or you.)

I assume that there are many intelligent college-educated people at Hasbro. Is it flat out ignorance that makes them think they can turn Dungeons and Dragons into a moneymaker like Magic? Don't they realize it's a niche product?

More importantly, don't they know beyond the shade cast by conception of momentary doubt that a product that tries to appeal to everyone appeals to no one?

I am only comforted by the fact that people, in the end, tend to act in the same ways over and over making them statistically like to get the natural consequences for their actions.

On Old School Gaming

I perused the "A Quick Primer to Old School Gaming" document earlier tonight, and it got me thinking about our game. (Although the link above is currently not letting me download, it can be read here at Scribd but for goodness sakes, don't try to download it from there!)

Although the core of our game is an old school aesthetic, there are strong new school influences on our game. I talked earlier about really starting to know my players, and there are several 'new-school' things that I think many of my players would be unhappy without.

We like our numbers and our fiddly skills. I often call for rolls for things like identifying spells or various other small things, none of those things are truly important. For the most part, simply having a skill no matter the level it is at is enough to succeed. I think without those skills many players would feel a much reduced sense of accomplishment. Skill selection is the single longest part of character creation. Even though something like the SIEGE system is much faster and in game achieves the same effect, while removing a vast amount of bookkeeping; my players would be much less happy without the fiddly bits. They like the crunchy gamey stuff.

The other thing I think is difficult for my players has little to do with what they think is fun, and more to do with the type of people they are. Not that there is such a thing as 'true' old school gaming, but when faced with the classical 'search each room in the dungeon as if you were actually there' scenario given inside the document several problems would quickly start to occur. One of my players would wonder why we were 'wasting time' that could have been spent fighting something. Another would have a great idea, but get distracted and totally forget about any sequential plan of action. Another would be concerned about the abstract fairness of the meta-interaction. Another is just happy someone besides him is taking point.

The point of this post is not just commentary on 'what my players are like' but instead a step by step primer on 'how to go about role-playing successfully in an old school style'. They touched on this within the document, but I found their list lacking. This is a listing on what I would do if I were a player within my game. Perhaps this will help other players be more effective and proactive in their old school games.

  • Make a listing of all your goals and keep it in front of you on a 3"x5" note card.
  • Have a blank scratch paper for the sole purpose of writing down names, ideas, thoughts, and questions when talking with NPC's
  • Seek out various NPC's before doing anything and talk to them. A list of suggested NPC's are below.
    • Townspeople
    • Guardsmen
    • Town Officals
    • Bartenders
    • Bar Patrons/Other Adventuers
    • Various 'guilds' (Merchant as well as nefarious)
    • Religious Organizations
    • Sages and Magic-Users
  • Talking to NPC's: 
    • When you talk to the NPC's GET THEIR NAMES.  Your DM is running these people as people - when you walk up to them rudely, they respond rudely. Don't be overly obsequious either.
    • 50%-70% of all rumors and NPC information is false in all published materials. This should be a clue to how much  you believe what they say. Default into thinking that what you are being told is false - even when it looks like they know what they are talking about. (This advice is NOT relevant for sages. They charge a pretty penny, because you know what you are getting is the truth).
    • Trust your eyes and your investigation abilities. 
    • Think very hard about their perspective on the situation. When you do get information from someone, even if you are sure it is true, remember to treat it like a theory. Be prepared to revise it as soon as you receive additional or conflicting information.
    • Cover each and every goal on your list with every NPC! Use your goals sheet as a checklist. In a sandbox game there will be many threads going on at once.
  • Accomplishing goals
    • There are two ways to accomplish anything in old school play. Money, and Adventure. 
    • You can pay the gold to buy training, or answers from the sages, or spells cast for you, or certain specific magic items. Often this is a way to compensate for bad play (except in the case of sages - sometimes your only option). This (money) is the real source of power in old school gaming, and it's fast and effective - but very expensive.
    • Or you can engineer the situation to get what you want. 
      • Do not walk up to the person and go "What can I do to make you X" Where X is 'give me free training' or 'lead me to the magical whosit'. It may work at the very start of a campaign or adventure, but mostly it gets blank stares. (Think about someone coming up to you and going "What can I say to make you buy a vacuum today/believe in Jesus Christ our zombie lord/donate blood" Mostly the response is "Gah!")
      • Do observe the person. See where they go, who they talk to, what they do.
      • Talk to other people about the person indirectly. Say something that you know is just slightly wrong, and listen to the way people correct you. "Joesph isn't just in charge of the lighthouse - he also is on the city council, right?"
      • Then, once you know the score, you can assist/blackmail/bribe/coerce the person into giving you information, training, etc. 
      • Often there may simply not be anything prepared there, but that becomes less and less likely the more important the person is. Most old school DM's have exploitable relationships like this prepared. If they don't they will either develop something on the spot or use this to lead you to what is going on that's interesting.
  • Going on an Adventure
    • Be a boy scout. (Be prepared!)
    • That means mounts, pets, men-at-arms, torchbearers, equipment, food, and supplies, weapons, armor, and spare shields.
    • Treat those men you buy well! Give them extra gold, take risks for them. Talk to them and make sure they are comfortable. Over 100% loyalty is crazy nice. 
    • Scout ahead! Time and time again, I've seen the scout not be sent ahead because it was dangerous. That is their 'fsking job! It's not like they are nearly as effective as any of the other classes in combat. Their biggest advantage is not getting surprised, discovering the enemies and reporting back to the party. This helps the party avoid being surprised - the single biggest killer of PC's.
    • Avoid combat at all costs. Experience comes from treasure. Monsters give very little ep value compared to treasure and carry a high risk. If you have an encounter with an enemy that appears even mildly intelligent PARLEY. Even if their alignment is diametrically opposed to yours, your job isn't fixing the whole world (at this point), it's accomplishing your immediate goal. This is why certain inflexible classes are so difficult to adventure with (Paladin, I'm looking in your direction).
    • If in doubt, run. I've started pretending to track damage for creatures immune to weapons the party is using unless it is very obvious that they are not working. You cannot kill everything, and you will run into things you can't kill.
    • Make sure your party mapper comes prepared with actual real world tools to map (Paper) and some sort of organizational scheme for the maps.
    • Ask lots of questions about the environment. Remember any unusual words the DM mentions. There is an economy of language - rooms 'seem' empty, you 'think' you don't find any traps. If there's dust on the floor, is it ancient debris? Or pulverized bone from the ceiling crushing down every 4 minutes? Or powdered blood and flesh from a disintegrate trap? Not asking about the dust on the floor means you're going to be the dust on the floor.
    • Look up
    • Test the floor - every floor, every time.
    • Make sure your marching order is effective. Like Gygax says, short people up front, then elven bowmen, then your men with pikes. Maximize your damage potential. Focus fire on targets until they are down. Don't ever assume anything is dead. 
    • Cut open the stomach of every monster, even if you didn't kill it. (Especially if you didn't kill it).
    • Search every item in every room. Break apart rusty pipes, check pedestals, daises, idols, everything.
    • Set a watch at a chokepoint while you're searching.
    • The most important thing of all: Have a party goal and STICK TO THE PARTY GOAL. Do not be distracted.
That's a start. Think of anything I missed? Please comment!

Session Thirteen

A strange mystery
sacrifice of a small girl,
who would have done this?

Find the murder,
what's this, Elimen, oh no!
The demons are us!

So this session begins with the attack on the Bullywug Soldiers of Rexxor the Maul. The battle contained a few surprises - the land entrances were warded, paralyzing several members of the party. When the party crossed into the lake, they discovered pet Alligators. And on the second round of combat they Bullwugs unleashed a captured Hydra on the party. Although there were several close calls, there were only a few deaths. Several of their Lizard Man allies were killed and Petrus died.

I italicized and underlined the name, because since his creation Petrus the gnome-titan fighter has been in a strange limbo. He is both a player character and and a non-player character (but not a monster) because he was rolled up a a potential player character. A potential player character is a rolled up henchmen to help mitigate the death of a main PC, to assist "getting back into the game" instead of having to start at level one. His death was strange also - one of the henchmen (Smoke Soames, a party favorite) received a critical hit to the top of his head. Not wanting him to die, one of the players pulled out a coupon, that allowed him to accomplish an outlandish task, and inserted his shield between the blow. The maul (because what other weapon do members of a tribe named Rexxor the Maul use?) Slid off and caused the same critical to the head of Petrus. And so he met his death.

They examined the camp after the battle and learned that indeed Bullywugs are repugnant. I gave lurid descriptions of the horrors that they found. Initially I gave little thought to the fact that I was going to mention the rape and other enormities that they committed, but I was reading this thread over on the pathfinder boards about DM horror stories, and a surprising number of them were about DM's inserting lurid material in a game. So before the game started I asked if anyone wanted me to turn on a filter for the descriptions of such horrors. The group however seemed ok with it.

I'm finally starting to feel after a year of gaming with these people and thirteen games into this campaign that I know them a little. As in I'm starting to understand who they really are, as opposed to who I perceived them to be.

After the battle, they looted and destroyed the camp finding fourteen human corpses, dozens of dead Lizard Men and Gnoll corpses, and  only a single living human prisoner, an old old woman who they could not understand when she spoke. They then followed the Lizard Men, back to their home camp. The journey was somewhat uneventful, with a bit of sightseeing on the side.

Two wildly divergent bullet points here:
  • I must be running in the only campaign in the world ever in the history of gaming, where when the party gets a hint that somewhere is "Dangerous" they resolutely vow to never venture there. I mean, we're playing Dungeons & Dragons, right? They are supposed to be adventurers. I just don't know what gives.
  • I discussed tonight that "I talk to much". Every player AFAIK has been greatly enjoying almost every session. But the other week I mentioned that getting run out of town wasn't a bad thing because it wasn't that long until circumstances would have conspired to force them to remain mobile anyway. Several of my players mentioned that this gave them extremely negative feelings, and it was in some substantive way 'less fun' if that was 'taken away from them'. I totally listen to my players and their thoughts and feelings, but this was about an event that hasn't happened yet.
    I run a game powered to the extreme by player agency. If I give them five options, and they pick option six, then it is definitively different then the other options. They are in control of their destiny, and their choices matter. I also never fudge. However I'm finding that when I let them in on certain behind the scenes decision making processes even though 5 out of 7 of the players are highly experienced Dungeon Masters it is destroying their ability to suspend disbelief. I can't talk to them as my peers when I am running a game they are in, because when I am running a game, I am not their peer. I'm their Dungeon Master. A responsibility of facilitation and adjudication that I do love, but in so doing, separates me during the game. I cannot fulfill my duty or responsibility to them at the same time as I'm their buddy.
    I've always had a huge problem with authority, and this is a very very very difficult thing for me to cope with. It's why I have such a hard time being quiet - I am simply not comfortable with the detached aspect of running a game. So I'm going to work on it. I told them I'm putting the screen up from now on.
  • I mention this 'talking too much' point because I avoided mentioning that there was only one person left alive because of how long it took them to find the Bullywug camp. At the start all of those folks were alive, and as time passed they slowly died, one by one. The list of missing people was the very first thing they saw when they got off the boat.
While at the Lizard Man camp, they talked with the chief, A'haz'vit and he welcomed them, boasting of the glory of the Hightide Fen Clan, and thanking them for their help in fighting the Bullywugs. He offered them shelter and (free!!) training. Everyone took advantage of the offer. The most important thing is that everyone took advantage of the training to learn Ophidian, the language of reptiles, snakes, and amphibians. Being a very common language here in these parts it greatly increased their ability to communicate.

Further discussion with A'haz'vid and one of his expedition leaders named Qui'pid informed them that they no longer needed to attack the Bullywugs any more because they had "won". And if they ever "lost" by having the Bullywugs attack again, they would strike back and "win" again. They laughed that strange lizard laugh at the suggestion that they attack them again - they've already won! They also discovered they were "stupid" for building their city on the coast. Everyone knows that the coastal cities are all destroyed by "Sea Demons". They asked if these "Sea Demons" were "Fish People" and they were laughed at. Fish aren't people, silly humans.

At this, with a base found, and information gained, we called it a night.

Old School Hack

I know this is old news to most of the Blogsphere, but my players were interested in this information so I figured I'd post it here.

I'm interested in gonzo pulp fantasy as a genera, and greatly enjoy the setting. In our group, even our rules light systems tend to be rules heavy. Having found Old School Hack, I found several of my problems resolved themselves at once. It is modern, and yet rules-light. The playtest documents can be found here.

It's not that an old-school clone doesn't meet the rules light standard. It's that we're currently running one old school game, and running two games at once with similar rules and settings tends to cause confusion.

It's the perfect system for that low magic game - every magic item has a story. It's based on adventure and danger, really very much towards the narrative end of the scale for a fantasy game.  It's one of those documents that triggers gamer ADD - reading the rules makes you want to start a game.

If you haven't checked it out yet you should, I'll be certain to post a review of it when we give it a spin here in a couple of weeks.

Also: It appears that it's getting close to releasing another revision, which is super-exciting!

Session Twelve

Eldrich Sea Cow Beast,
Skeletons Screaming in pain -
Take that leg right off.

First, new readers should know each session post stands entirely on it's own.

Second, wow, what a session.

The session can be summarized by the players got tired of exploring the dungeon, and decided to solve a mystery of a little girls disappearance. They followed this mystery to the inevitable conclusion that they were responsible for her abduction and ritual sacrifice. Maybe.

The session started by addressing Usui's leg. Elimen the drow necromancer summoned a representative of her "deific" liege and bargained with Usui's servitude and eventual conversion of his soul for a replacement of his leg. She hacked it off at the hip and his leg was replaced by a silvery silent stag leg.

That handled they returned to town and found the message from the parents of the child Bera that she had disappeared. They followed her tracks out of town where they found a buried firepit, and rocks with dark stains. They also located a bit of a cloak. The cloak resembled the cloak of the Klaxites, a church which has recently arrived in town, led by a charismatic man named Maldorazi. Although they have been nothing but explicitly helpful, the characters are all still highly suspicious of the church.

They dig out the firepit, finding what are definitely remains of a small girl. They return to town intent on clearing their names. The only cleric powerful enough to speak with the dead is Maldorazi himself, so reluctantly they enter the church.

He raises the phantasm of the young girl, and immediately Zeltara asks, "Hey, little girl, did you ever find your dog?" using up one of the questions. After being shouted down by the party, they asked the girl what happened to her. She replied that a beautiful lady with dark skin came and took her out into the woods and that's the last that she remembers. She also said everything was dark and warm and frightening where she was. They asked her to describe the dark lady, and she described Elimen.

The whole party was arrested. This went unlike I'm sure it goes in many games, because I have a mature group of players that don't mind getting into the damn car to move the story forward. I should point out that I am completely ok if the response to getting arrested is to run or murder the guards. I have no preplanned outcome. I'm just pointing out, that when I was young, I remember not being able to implement 'go to prison' scenarios because players would never submit. Now that I don't 'implement scenarios' at all, when it came up, everyone went right to jail.(Well, excepting Nash, who threatened the guards by saying he would tattoo a dick on their foreheads with magic, and then ran. They caught him. He's only a henchmen anyway.)

Elimen then told the party her sad tale. In the worship of the androgynous Moon Deity Ranul, she fled her underdark, her sistern, and her life and ran to the surface where she could worship in peace. Yet she did not come alone - a man, Klo-thort, servant of Bis, hunts her and any other worshiper of Ranul to extinction. She has traveled here to destroy his power base on earth, and free the world from his enormity. She knows he lives to the south in the swamp, and has little other information to his purposes. She says it is this man who has framed her, and they must find and kill him, to clear their names.

It was then, that Jayla the Black entered the jail, having left her metal hut for the first time in years, for the sole purpose of being their legal counsul. In her careful, paranoid, hostile way, she informed the party that they had no chance, they would all be found guilty - Elimen would be fined 550gp, and hung by the neck until dead for the charge of Murder, and the rest of the party would be found guilty of Failing Duty to Crown, Purjury, and Being a Public Menace, requiring a recantation and apology for their actions, a public flogging, and permanent banishment. She then cackled and left.

That night, the party decided to break from the insecure jail. They left their cells, retrieved most of their equipment, and fled the city, holing up for the night in the first floor of the dungeon they were exploring. The night passed without event.

In the morning, uncertain of what to do, they headed south for a bit. I had a bit of a panic moment when they started to go to areas I had not designed. Then I remembered, I spent dozens of hours creating tools to handle this very specific eventuality. They found an ancient, undisturbed Mabden treasure cache, but left it alone, having nowhere to cart it. They decided at least on a short term basis, to finally head to the boarman city, to see what they could find there.

On their way to the city, they ran into a large group of Lizard-Men, Members of the Hightide Fen Tribe. Combat was (narrowly) avoided, and they found them congenial enough, if somewhat primitive. It turns out they were hunting Bullywugs of the Rexxor clan. The party volunteered to assist them with their assault on the "evil, repugnant, giant frog men". It was there we ended the session.

Hacking and Slashing

I have one of my players who's a little down on himself.

He seems to think that since what he's interested in is getting into the dungeon and killing monsters, that it somehow makes him a bad player. He's uninterested in the talking and side-quests, and focused on when his next combat will come from. He is quite enthusiastic about getting everyone back to the dungeon and he often apologizes for this behavior.

I've told him over and over that it's ok. Of course on the other hand, I also give him a hard time. I just think that his opinion of himself as 'a bad roleplayer' is silly. He's been playing in a game of mine weekly for over 2 years. One was a Shadowrun game that ran half a year.

There's a guy, who did a bit of reinventing of the hobby of RPGs. Something that had disappeared since roman times, he brought it back into vogue. You might of heard of him - Gary Gygax. In his home campaigns he had a set of house rules. Here is the list. I'd like to point out one particular item.

Gary IDs most magic items immediately (charging large sums of money when they return to town to rest & recuperate for this service). (This is because the players are anxious to get back into the dungeon & don't want to bother with in-town adventures.) Potions must still be tasted to ID, though. Usual items require a trip to the striped mage.

So you see, that player is actually hewing closer to the original implementation of the Dungeons and Dragons player, then the more modern ones. He's doing a more authentic version of roleplaying then the entire rest of the table.

Now I just need to get him to stop playing computer games at the table. Snuck that sucker right in under the premise of 'keeping up with his fantasy football scores'. ;-p

Peanut Gallery

I was given a pleasant surprise last night. Followers! Who I don't know! I figure their must be a few who follow .rss feeds without following also. So I figured I'd point out a post or two worth noticing! Also: please comment on any post, especially if you're not a follower -  I would love some discussion and feedback.

I have gained a level! My title is now Beginner!

Here are some posts that are useful, are tools, could be expanded with some commentary, or are just interesting.

Dungeon Entrances
Causes of Death in RPG's and their frequency
Magical Aging and it's effects on non-human races
Traps to place on spellbooks
Treasure and the generation of interesting items
Minatures, 5' squares and spell ranges and their interpertations

On Adventure Design

When creating adventures these tools will allow you to create something truly spectacular.

There are 4 different structures of adventure design. Each individual session is a mixture of these styles. It is neigh impossible to create an adventure not using a mixture of the below.

  • Line
  • Space
  • Time
  • Power

The first is the Linear Structure, or "flowchart style". Because it says linear does not mean that there are no options or choices. Linear simply refers to the progression. You are in one place and have a limited number of options. This can refer to the classic dungeon (a literal flowchart if there ever was one) but also to a scene based game (because each scene has a number of different outcomes that it can lead to).

This structure is visually represented by a flowchart - each box containing a reference to the information of what happens when it is reached. 

The second is the Space Structure, or "sandbox style". This is quite literally a box which contains various objects. Each object could be a scene or a dungeon or an event depending on the type of game. It is primarily characterized the freedom of player choice. It could be an unexplored wilderness with different sites, a murder mystery with different subjects to talk to, or a trick room within a dungeon.

This structure is represented by a (sandbox) map - each item containing a reference to to the information of what each box contains.

The third is the Time Structure or "schedule style". This style simply means states will change depending on the time within the game. In the linear or space structure each scene is simply triggered by the players arriving at it - using the time structure allows you to have a city guard change shifts, or have someone not be at home because they are out working the fields. On a broader scale this means the bad guys have a plan and they will accomplish their goals at these times, or a PC can only recharge their magic items during a new moon.

This structure is represented by a schedule. I'm sure you're sensing a theme here. Each item on the list contains a time (or a time frame) and a reference to what occurs when that time is reached.

The fourth is the Power Structure, or "spiderweb style" or "node style". In this style each active source of influence (i.e person, faction, pet, diety, city, etc. Any possible thing that exerts an independent influence over events) is given a list of drives, desires and goals, and put into play with every other active source of influence. This could be factions in a static area (like a mega-dungeon, city, or countryside), individual people, or even gods. Each is then set loose to act as intelligent independent agents.

This structure is represented by a nodes, each connected (resembling a spiderweb). Each individual node contains the name of the influence source and a reference to their goals, drives, and desires. Their relationship with each other influence source is represented by a line drawn in a variety of styles (dashed, dotted, colors, double barred) indicating the relationship between the two entities.

None of these is meant to be used in isolation. I imagine the vast majority of you are already using many of these styles in play. Explicitly identifying these can let you more effectively run complex adventures swiftly and be prepared for unexpected player actions (for if you have all these in place - there is nothing they can do that you are not prepared for.)

Youth and Game Design

I remember one of the earliest (second edition) campaigns I ran. Sitting with my notebook; laying out races and classes and planets and plots. I found myself assailed by all these questions.

How come wizards forgot spells after they cast them - shouldn't magic be like a skill that you know? Why can't any race be any class? Why are saving throws split up they way they are? Why do you get experience for treasure? How do all these fantasy races and monsters get along? Shouldn't all the dungeons make sense?

When I was younger, there was a great deal I didn't understand. The first failing I had was a lack of familiarity with the source material. The second was realizing that realism, both in design and art, is a limited dead end. Another was failing to recognize the game design implications of these choices and why they were made.

I know I was not the only person with such ideas - the urge to have things 'make sense' in a realistic (as opposed to naturalistic) way is a strong one. It shows up in many modern systems.

My 'realistic' approach in youth was to say level limits were silly. Dwarves were just humans in mountain hats and so could be any race or any class, as opposed to dwarves being elemental fay creatures of stone and earth whose societies and morals differed from ours the way ant society differs from meekrat society. Both maintain verisimilitude. I made elves, halflings, minotaurs, gnolls, orcs (and scro) and a dozen other races humans in funny hats. Huge sheets listed with level limits so high they weren't limits at all - anybody could be anything.

Unsurprisingly this led to parties with a small human contingent and more then a few questions about why humans were still around. Hackmaster has fairly relaxed level limits, but still, the majority of my parties are human. Why? Because non-human races are (in most cases) limited to basic classes. So when people want to play a monk, or a double specialist, or a druid, or what have you, they see that mostly they have to pick human or half-elf. You can have your special thing be your race, or your class can be unusual if you're human. Not only does this encourage a human-centric game, but it allows players to keep a handle on their character.
  • These level limits weren't just about capping character ability - they were about making those non-human races more than just humans in funny hats.
  • Magic was about a system of effects that could be adjudicated in play, involving casting time, high experience requirements, and either expensive research or random non-player driven acquisition.
  • Saving throws about about the abstract and fantastic nature of the saves, not a realistic representation of basic defenses.
  • Treasure gives experience because that is the real source of power in the game and you are rewarded (more) for your success in acquiring it, not your ability to slaughter the guardians.
  • The knowledge that the information we have about the world we live in and our ability to access it is an anomaly when compared with the whole of human existence, means that anything more than eight miles away from where you were born could contain anything seen or unseen - even today new things are constantly being discovered.
  • Finally a dungeon may make sense, but keep in mind it may have stood for hundreds of thousands of years - anything within that context may make sense.

As I discovered Hackmaster, and rediscovered old school play, I had exposed myself to more and more of these original works. After reading Vance, I understood the didactic, mathematical, super-science that was spell formulae , and it no longer seemed confusing to me. I became familiar with picaresque literature and understood the pulp gestalt of the roots of Dungeons and Dragons. Most importantly I understood the game design reasons behind each of those decisions and how each accomplished their goal with laser-like precision.

The thing that's clear now, after having a system that tries to answer all those questions that I had when I was 14, is that it is a slippery slope indeed. I can see where it led people (many people) who were like me and wanted things to 'make sense'. There are half a dozen 20 page threads on a variety of topics, drilling down to the final resolution on these issues - and I don't even visit 'millennial edition' dungeons and dragons forums.

The thing I think about most is how well the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was put together. It's a game that is very modular, and yet the vast majority of things that have been done to improve it, generally don't. Did Gygax know? How much of his creation was science, and how much was art and guesswork? In the end, I've been a much happier DM once I understood the source material and embraced it. My sessions are filled with play instead of rules discussions. I can't imagine running anything else without a obscene amount of house-ruling. I'm glad I outgrew my youthful need to have everything make sense in a specific way.

On Vancian Spells

There is an excellent post on Jeffs Gameblog regarding several articles on the Vancian method of spellcasting. For the one person who might not know, Jack Vance wrote a series of books about Earth near it's final demise, from which the fire and forget method of spellcasting in Dungeons and Dragons was developed.

I was particularly interested in his link to this post on The Wheel of Samsara, regarding the rarity of  spells. The basic contention is that the whole of all knowledge that the Magic-Users have available is just the first level spell list. To learn something more, it must be found.

This post has a little to do with balance. In all my old school games, I've never had any sort of issue with wizards overpowering or overshadowing fighters, or any class seeming useless. I've had players that have held those beliefs of course, but upon reviewing actual play an individuals skill has a great deal more to do with success than with any numerical or class advantage handed to the player. (Indeed, in my experience these differences begin to disappear at high levels, rather than become more prominent.)

This has not been my experience in more modern games. Often I have found myself in games where a players 'build' (or my 'build') of a character overshadows the ability of the other party members. I've fallen into long discussions on other new school forums on the utility of differing spellcaster types, spellcasting versus combat, and various other discussions on how to avoid 'traps' in the 'builds' in order to just maintain your effectiveness (otherwise you might not be able to beat 'level-appropriate' encounters).

A small aside here; having played a more modern game and then moved back to my old school game, I've discovered a fierce reduction in talk about character builds (I need this feat, this power, and these class levels), and a proportionate increase in talk about actual play needed to improve characters. (I need to find some gold, and someone to sell me this, and a way to get a library)

There are several game factors in old-school games that keep the Magic-user from being able to survive on their own. Their experience table causes them to level slower than fighters, they have fewer hit points, their spells take time to cast (during which they may be interrupted) and they have no choice over which spells they learn.

I've had players ask me when looking through the book "Who would 'take' this spell, this other one is better". I point out that Magic-Users don't 'take' spells, they learn what they find. This is interesting in (at least) two ways. First, it insures not every magic user looks alike, and second it provides a lot of space for interesting spell design.

In my own game I actually hew pretty closely to the actual article, the only exception being that I give Magic-Users two randomly determined spells of the levels that they select upon gaining a level. We've been playing three months now in our current campaign, and our party conjurer just now reached level 3 last week.

In more civilized areas, I usually allow Magic-User spells of second and third level to be purchased. I only ask for 20,000-40,000 gp per spell for second level spells and 40,000-80,000 gp for third level spells. In most cases, they are better off tracking down materials and books towards an arcane library and attempting to research the spell themselves. They almost never have that amount of gold available.

It is these factors that are part of the definition of the class.

Another option in Dragon Magazine #17 by James M. Ward in the article A Wizard with a Difference, talks about specialty mages. These Magic-Users aren't organized by school, but by effect. They are very similar to Hackmasters sole practitioners.  An interesting thing about this variant is that they may select to know any spell of any level on their list. Each spell has its own power level (1st-8th).  He then memorizes two spells per experience level as normal off of his narrow and specialized list. There is a table of spell level 'chances'.
First Level : 100% Fifth Level  : 40%
Second Level: 85%  Sixth Level  : 30%
Third Level : 75%  Seventh Level: 20%
Fourth Level: 50%  Eighth Level : 10%

They have a level *5%+spell level chance at successfully casting the spell, they forget the spell no matter if they succeed or fail. There are also many new spells contained within the article, including 'transport to the spot', 'heat ray', 'no punctures', 'hold sword' and more.

This is interesting because it holds parallels to the Vancian ideal of there being two 'levels' of spells, complicated and Byzantine. There are many downsides to it - it very much seems like the thinking that lead to some new school ideas. It's surprising how far back those ideas originated (1978!)

A post on that to come.

Session Eleven

I've sat down to do this session several times, yet each time blogger responds with 'service unavailable, 503' apologies.

Realtime Riddle
gave them a wish. ha ha ha!
Not good for players.

We started this weeks session with a return to town, where they found the Eldritch Sea Cow Beast with hideous proboscis surrounded by mini-tentacles, a translucent exposed brain, and spectral chains binding it to the ground.

From its skull sprang spectral Suffering Skeletons, bones of some long forgotten race, surrounded by spectral fire, screaming in constant agony. They are the ethereal servants wished for by the party.

Disturbed, but unsure of how to deal with the situation, they gave multiple conflicting instructions, and returned to the dungeon. One of my players noted that he thought "they wasted that wish" and next time he "was going to wish for something that gave me some experience"

They finished their explorations of the first level and descended to the second. There was a minor encounter with strange Huge electrical spiders which fled from them upon approach. They declined to follow them down the shaft, once they realized that the webbing was non-flammable. They made good time, exploring much of that level. They explored quite a bit, and then ran into more of those Stone Guardians. Several of the PC's desiring to be seen as honorable, strode up into melee combat unarmored. One of the stone guardians turned and made two attacks against Usui the new players thief. The dice turned up in the tray.

20, 20.

Two critical hits against his leg. The first nearly pulped his ankle, destroying his Achilles tendon. He suffered neither paralysis, nor profuse bleeding, but was knocked off his feet. The second hit him in the thigh, which normally was ok, but ended up doing 18 points of damage. This left Usui at -3. He made his roll to avoid going into shock, and they managed to kill off the guardians before heading into town.Usui had a negative movement rate meaning he was unable to walk. One of the nice things about criticals in Hackmaster, is that a normal cure spell leaves many of the penalties from the critical. There is a good chance Usui will never walk correctly again.

Maldorazi cleric of Klax is the only cleric of a high enough level in town to heal anyone of critical wounds or to raise the dead. Being that Elimen has a particular enmity towards Klax, her and Usui headed off into the woods to see what she could do about his leg.

There, we ended the night.

Psionics update

I've fixed Jayson Elliot's worksheet to have the correct fonts, and updated the combat reference so that it will be a more complete table reference, with all the psionic vs. psionic and psionic vs. non-psionic tables in the same place. If you know the rules, all you should need at the table is that sheet + the character record.

If you're dropping by to pick it up, feel free to comment on any post, no matter how old it is, and please subscribe to either the .rss feed or become a fan! I've got more things like this in the works, and would love to have comments.

Also feel free to contact either Nathan or I for writing or art commissions. 

Thanks everyone!
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