Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Now for Something Completely Different

The roulette wheel that is my gaming ADD has spun, again. I've never played this game, even solo. I had only seen it in a game store one time, back in '93 (I think). Of course, I heard of it. My  impressions (and that is all they were, I never read a review or ad) were that is would be too simplified for me. I thought that to accommodate solo play it would have to be shorn of tactical options, deep character development, and long-term campaign potential.

Thus, in my early, formative gaming days it was D&D for serious gamers (like me), Runequest for potheads and hippies, and T&T for those who couldn't find a group.

Prejudice is ignorant at any age, and I am happy to report that I was horribly mistaken about T&T. (The jury is still out on RQ, I've known a lot of potheads and they swore by it.)

Before I go further, I want to stress: everything I'm saying is based only on reading, not on actual play.

There is so much in this game that I like in a fantasy game.

  • It seems like it will play fast
  • Combat features a "death spiral" effect
  • Armor absorbs damage, rather than deflecting hits
  • It uses only d6's
  • Magic is not Vancian
  • Characters have class and level, but advancement is "individualized"
  • A simple Saving Roll system to handle anything a player wants to try, without limiting their imagination with lists of skills and/or "feats"
  • Silver Piece standard, rather than gold (a personal thing, but I don't like the "Read GP as SP" conversion advice)

Those high points are from an incomplete and quick read, so I'm sure I'll find more to like. I'm reading the 5th edition. I think that pic may be the 30th Anniversary 7th Edition, I'm not sure. I just like it.

One definite boon is the community. A lot of games like to boast about their friendly community, but in my experience they seem very cliquish. I get almost no feedback on my posts on several forums covering a variety of games, and sometimes if I am getting a few replies going all of a sudden my thread gets hijacked by some of the "popular kids".

The designer of Tunnels and Trolls, Ken St. Andre, maintains an active and welcoming website, Trollhalla. It requires membership, which is free. There is a treasure-trove of T&T material there, as well as an active group of "trolls". One outstanding feature is the "walla", which is almost like an IRC window right smack in the middle of the homepage, allowing any members currently logged in to talk in real-time about the game. Instant feedback is a wonderful thing. Mr. St. Andre is often in residence, as well, so there is almost unprecedented access to the man behind the game.

If you've never given this game a serious look, you really should. There is a free "quickstart" download at Trollhalla, so no excuses.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Pondering Combat (Long)

Grab a drink and some snacks. This could take a while.

In my never-ending quest to best represent my idea of fighters I have taken my thinking further back, and down stranger avenues, than ever before. In fact, I have taken it "back to formula" so to speak, the Fantasy Combat Table from Chainmail.

Man-to-man combat in Chainmail is straight-forward enough, as is Fantasy Combat. Hits equal kills (broadly speaking). Fantasy Combat is resolved by cross-referencing the fantastic combatants to arrive at the "to-hit" number. If the dice roll exceeds this number, the defender is killed.
(let me pause for a minute to apologize, for this will be pure stream-of-conscious writing)
What I have found to be the most compelling is this fact: in Chainmail combat, no matter which level of combat it is, one hit equals one kill. This is very significant, as it relates directly with what seems to be a design philosophy that is central to D&D combat. In D&D combat all 1st level characters, as well as normal men, have 1d6 HP. All weapons inflict 1d6 damage on a successful hit, thus we have one hit equals one kill (with minor variation) where "normal" men are concerned.

There are certain unaddressed disconnects in the translation from Chainmail to the "Alternative" system. At first level, these are minor to the point of being inconsequential. It is only when the characters rise in level that they become more apparent. Specifically, the one that causes me the most grief is the fact that damage output, at least for PCs, remains fairly flat, while monster HD go up and up the more powerful the creature is.

Creatures that enjoyed fantastic status in Chainmail, such as Ogres, only deal 1d6 in the LBBs. Dragon breath and certain giants are able to exceed that, but by and large creatures that slayed adventurers with one roll in Chainmail are now reduced to a war of attrition with their formerly fantastic opponents. This is one of the things that slows combat down at higher levels: the ratio of potential damage output to creature HP.

Obviously, no player wants to invest the effort and real-world time necessary to get a character to 10th level, only to have an epic battle that comes down to a single dice roll. That's only marginally removed from a save-or-die situation. But, think about this: aren't there really only two kinds of combat, when you get right down to it?
1) The dice go cold, one side is far superior and/or better prepared, or fortune smiles on the other guy. Whatever the reason, one side beats the cold, living hell out of the other. If this can be accomplished in 3 or maybe 4 rounds, it is fun. If it takes 14 turns because the bad guy has 70 HP and you max out at 10 points of damage, it gets tedious. We play this game to overcome life-or-death obstacles and exist in dramatically heroic moments. The object of our gaming is not to force a dragon to be pivot man in our circle-jerk, with no dramatic tension.

2) There is a boat load of tension as the fight goes back and forth, each side scoring blistering success and suffering grievous set-backs. Until, finally, the party is down to the last fighter, who has 4 HP left, and the Stone Giant king, likewise down to 5 HP. Guess what? For all the great drama of the ebb and flow of the fight, it comes down to one roll.
Admittedly, scenario 2 is preferable, but it still comes down to that one roll.

I'm not advocating a return to the Fantasy Combat Table. There, you can breath again.

What Makes a Fighter Better?

More to the point, what makes a fighter a more fearsome opponent? Is it that he can routinely crack your head? Maybe. But, if you have more than 6 HP, you know that no matter how good he is at connecting with your head, it will take him at least two rounds to split your head, magic and other bonuses notwithstanding.

What about more attacks? I think this gets closer to the mark, when you consider that an attack is actually an opportunity to injure your opponent. So, a skilled fighter will find more openings and opportunities in the span of that one-minute combat round to do some damage.

And that is where the nugget of truth lies for me. Damage. A really scary, capable fighter is one that lays waste and does so reliably. Not just "has the potential", but actually does more damage. If I know deep down inside that if that guy gets at me with that short sword he is going to end all my plans, I will leave him alone.

My Proposal

I propose a system of "hitting" like the one in Chainmail. Roll 2d6 on the table cross-referencing various weapons against various armor situations. If you hit, roll a number of d6 equal to your level.

Before you panic and cry FOUL! remember that the two most-desired magic-user spells, Fireball and Lightning Bolt, do caster level x d6. Of course, the target gets a save for half. Let's face it though, the threat of the possibility of a Fireball is enough to give most parties pause.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Exposure to the Mythic Environment

My Dannak megadungeon will be based on the principle of the mythic underworld. One of the things this allows, and something I have always wanted, is a concrete, sensible rationale to regard the PCs as regular folks that dare to achieve.

Most of the NPCs of the setting will be 0-level folks just trying to get by. That is the stock the PCs spring from. Sure, they may have a couple of above average stats, or be able to command simple magics, but at the beginning of their adventures they are only barely separated from the NPCs. This is why I am definitely limiting the availability of starting classes. Some classes are just too specialized to be allowable right out of the gate, in this environment.

It is their exposure to the mythic underworld that annoints them as true adventurers. Once they have braved its dangers and faced its horrors, they begin to acquire a certain legend surrounding themselves. I see this as an upward spiral, just as the game was designed to engender. The more capable (legendary, in mythic terms) the characters become, the greater the dangers they can face. The greater the danger, the greater the reward, and if they best that challenge and return with that reward, their legend grows, and the cycle perpetuates itself. This is represented, of course, by the character gaining levels, which enable him to delve ever deeper into the dungeon, slay more powerful opponents, take their shit, and continue gaining levels.

I have been a big fan of the notion that says "If enough people believe in it enough, it must be true". I think Earthdawn pulled that off pretty well, and I love it for that. I've seen rules in later iterations of D&D that have made a nod toward it, with magic items that can gain in power, but that never really satisfied. This, though, makes sense to me. The mechanics are already in place, with D&D's levels. All I needed was a campaign specific "dressing" (dare I say "narrative"?) to give form to the function.

So, here we will have a group of suicidal people trying to wrest their fortune from the ruins of Dannak (the 1st level party). After some time they return with some coin and jewelry, along with tales of horrors faced and battles won. Some of their former peers will be impressed, some will thumb their noses at the modest success. Orcs and goblins, though, are no longer feared by the characters, and having tasted success, and confident in their abilities, they reprovision and head back in. With each successful foray, rumors spread, becoming legend, and the PCs are no longer even part of the society that spawned them.

Which brings me to my next point. With the bulk of NPCs being 0-level, it would seem easy for the PCs, even at modest level, to take over. To be honest, I can't really divine a way to prevent that mechanically, other than the obvious solution of giving the NPCs levels. That is too artificial, in a lot of ways. No, this has to be handled narratively (there's that word again). The players have to realize and understand that once their characters have essentially become mythic through exposure to the mythic underworld, they no longer view 0-level people as worthy adversaries. They likewise are not tempted by whatever mundane wealth could be gained by slaughtering common folk.

If a player or two has trouble with that concept from time to time, a scattering a higher level NPCs should keep them in check. Mentors, and other like-minded adventurers are sure to be present. Side adventures could even involve one of these running amok, and the PCs hired to stop them. A little object lesson never hurts.

So, that's my take on weaving exposure to the mythic environment into the mechanics of leveling. As always, comments and discourse are welcomed.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Subject to Change

In case it hasn't become apparent, virtually all of what I say here is subject to change. Not having a group, I don't have to concern myself with "sticking with something". I can be convinced that S&W Complete is my game today, and be on a Rules Cyclopedia kick tomorrow. I try not to do that, but it does happen.

In that spirit, my desire/quest for the best way to represent fighters has brought me back around to one of my favorite on-again/off-again love affairs. Specifically, that is using the original 2d6 combat system from Chainmail. The reason I like it is its simplicity. Essentially, to-hit numbers are fixed based on cross-referencing armor type vs weapon. Improving ability is represented by increasing the number of attacks. That achieves two objectives that I feel should be modeled in skillful combatants:
1) It gives the skilled fighter tactical options. He is free to distribute his attacks among his opponents as he deems fit. I know there is the so-called "Combat Machine" class ability, but it only applies if all opponents the fighter is engaged with are 1HD or less. So, an 8th level fighter can wade into 8 goblins and start cracking heads. Great. If there is a hobgoblin bully-boy leading the goblins, a hobgoblin has 1+1 HD, btw, our 8th level fighter is reduced to one attack. That just ain't right.
2) It abstractly represents a higher possible damage output. I believe a skillful opponent should be something to fear. An 8th level fighter with a dagger in the "Alternative Combat System"? He might scratch you for 4 points. An 8th level fighter with a dagger under the Chainmail system? He'll hand you your liver with the possibility of a maximum of 48 points of damage!
That makes combat a frightening prospect. I genuinely like higher-level characters being able to enter combat with a certain level of confidence. I genuinely dislike players entering combat with a smug attitude because their character has 53 HP and that ogre can only do 10 points max per turn.

For any of you interested in pursuing this sort of thing for your own game, I refer you to:

Forbidden Lore by Jason Vey. The pdf is free, the link is near the bottom of the page, along with some pretty cool Conan stuff. You will need access to Chainmail to really use it, but if you have the Ready Ref sheets from Judge's Guild you might squeak by. The combat tables for 2d6 combat are in the Ready Ref sheets.

Misnomers and House Rules

It is amazing what a little clarity of vision, married with a well-defined goal, can enable one to accomplish.

It has never been lost on me that D&D is a toolkit. Especially D&D as presented in the LBBs. It is also well-known that it demands tinkering and house-ruling right out of the box (pardon the pun). I think, though, that maybe "house rules" is a term that is a bit misleading. I think the term should be "campaign modifications", or some variation thereof. Please allow me to explain.

For virtually my entire gaming "career" I have house ruled any game I have ever owned. Whether I had a group or not, a campaign in development or underway, or not, I was house ruling. It never dawned on me that I wasn't house ruling at all. Without a campaign in mind, I was actually modifying the toolkit. It isn't until the toolkit is applied to the campaign that it becomes a rules set. Some changes can be made to the toolkit, to be sure. The vast majority of the house rules should be informed by specific details of the campaign, however. Very few people will go to their workshop and modify their hammer or screwdriver, but they will take the blueprint for a project and modify it to better suit the unique nature of their needs.

Development of Dannak has lead me to this conclusion. Anyone can play D&D straight from the box. Anyone can start house ruling willy-nilly on their first read-thru. The best modifications, though, are the ones implemented to reflect specific peculiarities of the campaign.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

More S&W Complete Fighters

On first blush I was pretty happy with the changes made to the Fighter class in Complete. Then I really gave it a good look.

This iteration of the Fighting Man has two new class features that are supposed to set him apart from the other classes. They are his ability to Parry and exclusive use of Strength bonuses on to-hit and damage rolls. He also has the ability to make one attack per level vs opponents of one HD or less.

One thing I find myself guilty of when designing something is considering the best-case as the baseline. I don't mean to, but it happens. Then, I start thinking some idea I've had is unbalancing or too powerful. That seems to be the case to me with this Fighter. A lot is made of being the only class able to take advantage of Strength bonuses, and those bonuses apply to missile fire, as well, making the Fighter a formidable and deadly archer. Such a Fighter can enjoy a bonus of +3 to-hit and damage with a missile weapon, if his stats are high enough.

That's a tall order, though, and for Fighters without such stats, there are essentially no class abilities. In order to enjoy the benefits of the Strength modifiers on to-hit and damage rolls, the character must have a Strength of at least 13. This would allow a +1 to-hit, no modifier to damage. When rolling straight 3d6 for stats there is a 26% chance the roll will be 13 or more. The damage bonus doesn't come in until the Strength score is at least 16, where the damage bonus is +1. A roll of 16 or better occurs only 5% of the time. The maximum benefit, +2 to-hit/+3 damage, comes with an 18 Strength, which happens less than .5% of the time. Those probabilities don't account for rolling in order. I'm no statistician, and I don't know if I have ever had to roll in order, so it isn't worth considering, really. Then, of course for the deadly archer mentioned, the Dexterity roll has to be 13+, as well. The Parry ability is dependent on a Dexterity of 14+, 16% of the time. I have no idea what the percentage is of getting a 13+ on Strength and 14+ on Dexterity with the same character, but I'm sure it's brutal.

Part of the attraction of the OSR, for me, is that I don't need to feel like characters with a highest stat of 13 and the rest between 9 and 11 are unplayable. Remember the quote from the AD&D? The one about characters needing at least 15s in at least 2 stats to be considered playable.

"Furthermore, it is usually essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating of 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics."
PHB, pg 9
I don't want that. Exceptional should, by definition, be the exception. If the entire party is sporting at least two stats of 15+, where's the "exceptional"? Oh, sure, compared to everyone else in the world, maybe. But only if they are NPCs, and NPCs that aren't retired adventurers, because they would have to possess such scores as well.

So, while those bonuses looked good on paper, they are too problematic for me. I believe that a Fighter's class abilities should be just that, class abilities, not stat abilities. They should scale with his level, just like all the other classes. Lastly, they should be exclusive to the class, not allowed to so-called "subclasses" like paladins and rangers. I think I'll be incorporating my personal Fighter class for my megadungeon. If I ever get a group to play it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

System of Choice

Now that I have my megadungeon direction, I have to firmly focus myself on a system. Naturally, it will be old-school D&D, but via which route? For me, it is all about the characters and the combat system. It is about the one that produces characters that I want to play (even though I'll be designing/refereeing). it also has to deliver characters I want to referee, so no abilities that get real sticky with math or exceptions. Combat has to pop, move right along, be exciting, terrifying, and quick. I refuse to track segments or arrow flight times or any of the other "realism" nonsense that people have tried to bolt onto the abstraction engine at the heart of D&D.

So, it really comes down to three options for me: Swords & Wizardry Complete, Labyrinth Lord, and Labyrinth Lord + Advanced Edition Companion.

Complete really is in the driver's seat. The LBBs plus supplements were proto-AD&D, and so is Complete. I think it would require minimal house ruling (mostly for the Fighter, Cleric, and changes to the Magic-User xp chart). Its rules are closest to the ones I started with, so the comfort factor is off the chart.

LL and LL+AEC are superb games. Very well presented and organized. As I've mentioned, I've never held an actual copy of B or X, so there is zero familiarity or nostalgia for me in LL. The AEC does conjure some memories, though, because it truly does capture the spirit of how we actually played "AD&D" back then. I just bolted it onto the LBBs instead of B/X. The biggest thing holding these two back, beyond the nostalgia factor, is size. I have a program that splits pdfs into their individual pages, then add or rearrange pages. I cobbled together an LL "complete", which is base LL minus sections 2 and 3, added in everything from the AEC, left out the known world stuff, and it is still 236 pages. Not bad compared to close to 500 for Pathfinder Core, which doesn't include monsters. But S&W Complete comes in over 100 pages shorter. I like that.

The other option I didn't include is my own S&W based house rules doc. I still have mixed feelings on it, so it will almost certainly remain on the shelf for now.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Megadungeon Monday: Backstory

The Dank Dungeons of Dannak

The Rûgari were the people of an empire that controlled the lands hereabouts for many hundreds of years. Sometimes ruled by benevolence, sometimes cruelty, they always saw themselves as superior to all others in their realm. Toward the end of their reign, true megalomania overtook the emperors. They became convinced they were gods, and that the Rugar in general were near-celestial beings.

Their great city sprawled across a lush valley, cradled between two arms of the Starspur Mountains. The city, originally walled, grew far beyond its modest beginnings. Eventually, all thoughts of walling the city were abandoned. Instead the valley mouth was walled, and the inhabitants of the great city had the length and breadth of the valley to call home. Watch towers were constructed along the spurs to guard those passes down into the valley. At the head of the valley the mighty fortress of Dannak was erected. It crouched over the headwaters of the Velspé River, carved from the very slopes of Mt. Kander.

Beneath the great fortress were built countless miles of tunnels, chambers, libraries, temples, and all manner of things. The emporers saw Dannak as their final bastion should calamity befall their empire, and provisioned it thus. Being haughty and wasteful, no emporer would demean himself by occupying a predecessor's lodgings in Dannak. Each emporer had his own domocile carved from the rock. Some ordered previous quarters sealed, either walled up or buried beneath controlled cave-ins. Eventually it became impossible to accurately determine the extent of the dungeons.

Then, in a night, the empire was gone. The cause remains unknown, and perhaps unknowable. All that is known comes down from citizens whose dwellings were near the wall at the mouth of the great valley. They reported seeing a rolling, boiling mist issuing from Dannak. It moved down the valley with unnatural speed and purpose. There were disembodied voices in the mist, laughing and cavorting. Every living person touched by the mist died, screaming and choking, within seconds. Crops and livestock, too, were killed, but not wild things still growing and making their lives in the valley.

Thus it was, that in the span of a single night, the mighty Rûgari Empire was brought low. Their great city became a graveyard, and their mighty fortress became a tomb, cursed and haunted.


I have exhausted my initial batch of misconceptions. I'm certain more will come to me, but for now I'm out.

So, I have a new thing for Monday. Megadungeon Monday. I've been wanting to do this, but just didn't have a unifying theme. Just this very morning, one hit me like a ton of bricks. I am very excited about it, excited to share it, and hopeful that I'll get some feedback and conversations going with it.

Even though I'll be looking at it as a mythic underworld, I still wanted it to have some historical context for existing. I do want research in town to be a viable and worthy option. I wanted a good backstory for the players that could at least hint at why this sprawling underground complex would come to be. As far as my referee's backstory goes, there is a certain point where the dungeon took on a mythical life of its own, thus obviating the need to give even a passing nod to reality issues.

The inaugural Megadungeon Monday is up next, with a rough draft of the backstory idea. Please let me know what you think.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Level Caps

This will likely be brief, but once I get rolling . . . who knows?

Everybody that knows some basic D&D history knows that demihuman level caps were first introduced into the game as one of D&D's arbitrary balancing factors. Our game is much maligned for having several points of arbitrary balance, but this one is odd, to say the least. However, just this morning I think I may finally understand it. And it only took me 35 years.

First, the ironical portion: demihuman level limits are one of the things that D&D is regularly criticized for, by fans of the game, as well as the haters. Strangely, though, the players, the vocal ones, that hate it and speak/write/blog about hating it, also ignore it. It's one of those things like alignment languages. A person (I won't name names, you know who you are) will write a 10,000 word essay on the arbitrary and "silly" nature of such things, and in the last 50 words smugly declare that they never follow such rules anyway.

For years I, and the gaming circles I ran in, ignored level limits. We also ignored the rules for dual-classing and allowed humans to multiclass, but that's another post. I was never into the idea that being able to detect sloping passages and a bonus to certain saves was worth stunting my character's development. I mean, you're giving up a boatload of hit points (depending on exact flavor of D&D you play), spells and spell levels, better to-hit chances, and improved saving throws. That's a lot of stuff that will come up every single session, and it is sacrificed for some special abilities with a pretty narrow application. How is that "balance"?

This morning I realized I have been looking at it all wrong. It is not meant to balance demihumans against humans on a 1-to-1 basis. It is meant to balance entire populations. What is one of the things common to racial descriptions, no matter what setting or ruleset? The supposed rarity of dwarves, elves, whatever. Things like "The dwarves are rarely seen anymore, their numbers having been decimated by their centuries-old conflict with the goblins." or "The elves have been slowly and mysteriously disappearing for generations of men, their population now a shadow of its former numbers." From the beginning, demihumans were meant to be rare.

So, it is simple economics, really. If you want to control the flow of goods, you increase the price. A player would think twice about making his fighter a dwarf, if he knew the character couldn't go above 6th level. That alone would ensure the rarity of dwarven characters. And hobbits? Forget it. 4th level, are you kidding me?

But, there is another way. As much as I hate to say it (not because I'm an Edition Warrior, just because this is an OSR blog), 3E and up, including PF, figured it out. Rather than make it prohibitive to play demihumans, make it enticing to play humans. Instead of making humans the no-bonus-or-penalty baseline, give them some bonuses to make them attractive options alongside the demihumans.

Of course, this is a form of power creep, but if handled properly has its benefits. If the bonuses are kept slight in power, yet broad in application, and tied to specific human cultures/societies in the campaign, that should help. Things along the lines of humans from a certain region are Hardy, and gain a +1 to saving throws against the natural elements, ie freezing to death. Or another group that is known for their horse archers, so fighters have +1 to-hit with bows from horseback. I like mechanical ties to the setting, so minor perks like this are right up my alley.

Well, I didn't keep it as brief as I thought I would. I suppose I could have just said "Ignore them, it shouldn't break your game" and been done with it, but where's the blog in that?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The D&D Rules Cyclopedia

Any exploration of OD&D inevitably leads me here. As you know by now, I cut my teeth on the LBBs + Supplements, and went from there to AD&D. I never played Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B/X. In fact I've never held a physical copy in my mitts to this very day. The Mentzer BECMI boxes, though, is another story.

I used to buy a lot of D&D stuff, always trying to recapture the wonder of those first adventures, the halcyon days of youth. This was one of those purchases, made during a time when I came to the conclusion that I needed two things in my gaming: 1) Completeness and 2) Simplicity. I had already learned from 2nd Edition that I didn't want a million splatbooks and rules spread across 12,000 pages. (I'm an option whore, so I always want all the class books, race books, whatever).

Anyway, this one book had it all, and it had it all for 36 levels. It also had a charming, almost naive simplicity to it. Before it is said, I know BECMI is not considered as simple as B/X. I'm not prepared to debate that in this post (maybe in the comments), but one thing I think we can all agree on is that BECMI is much simpler that AD&D 1st or 2nd Edition. I even liked the race-as-class, because sometimes I think I tend toward too many house rules and feel a need to return to the source from time to time.

Sad thing is, I never got to play it. My group had become geographically challenged in those days and we only got together once a month or so. It wasn't my turn on the DM carousel, either. Besides all that, I doubt my group at the time would have played with these rules anyway. They were too advanced for that. By advanced, I mean they were into a 1st/2nd edition hybrid, with a cornucopia of house rules, Dragon articles, and whatever whimsy overtook the DM during any given session.

As should be plain over these last few weeks, I am once again tilting at windmills of simplicity. Thus, I arrive once again on the shores of Mystara. Unfortunately, I gave away my copy of the Cyclopedia to the 13 year old son of a (then) friend. He was wanting to learn D&D, it was his birthday, and I could introduce my beloved hobby to him in a single book. Besides, I wasn't playing from it anyway.

A retro-clone of the Cyclopedia. I won't go into a review here (I'm not really qualified since I haven't played it), but I will say that this is a very cool game. Especially if, like me, you loved the Cyclopedia, but no longer have access. It is a free download here and come in three versions and two editions. All free. There are POD options, as well, costing no more than print cost plus shipping.

Since it is free, I feel comfortable recommending Dark Dungeons based on my simple read-thru. If you want a complete game, with a little more crunch than some titles, this won't disappoint.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Role of the Referee

Something in my last post has started me thinking. The role of the referee has evolved along with everything else in our hobby. Even the name went from referee (my preferred term, in case you haven't noticed) to Dungeon Master. I think this is worth looking into closer.

In the olden days, the guy that ran the game was called the referee. That was his role, to referee the events and conflicts of the game. He was supposed to be completely impartial, neither favoring nor hindering the player characters with his behind-the-scenes knowledge. He was instructed to devise cunning traps and carefully craft certain encounters. The rest of the encounters were to be left to chance. Once committed to paper, the traps and encounters were to be administered with impartiality. Curiously enough, even though in those early days there were very few modules (as we called adventures), and no published settings as we know them today, the referee was to be an impartial judge. Almost as if he had no creative connection to the material.

Sometime prior to the release of AD&D it was suggested that the referee be called Dungeon Master (DM). I believe it was first published as a term in Dragon magazine, called The Dragon in those days. It is ironic to me that while over time published settings became the standard, the connotation of the referee shifted. Where the impartial term referee was first used, the participant in that role was forced to devise their own setting. Later, when the referee became "master" he was master over a pre-written, pre-imagined, published setting.

In the days of the referee, there was little to no thought wasted on balancing encounters. Players were given free reign to go anywhere they wanted and pick a fight with whomever they found there. If the fight turned out to be more than they could handle, they better have a Plan B. One of the best pieces of player advice in the old days was "Know when to run away. It is always better to live to fight another day than force a bad fight."

Now, D&DIV is all about a succession of well-balanced encounters. They are designed to challenge the characters. The inference there, to me, is that it shouldn't necessarily be deadly, just challenging. Kind of like watching a Conan movie. You know there may be a desperate fight and Conan will be challenged. We don't ever fear for his life though, because it wouldn't be a Conan movie without Conan. It may very well be challenging. It may be a desperate, pitched battle. One thing it won't be, though, is suspenseful. So, the latest iteration has the DM carefully balancing encounters.

I'll take a sandbox, a few random encounter tables, and a couple of purpose-designed lairs any day. Then again I am a Referee.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Misconception Monday: Subsystems

In the waning months of 1999 the world held its breath in anticipation of Y2K. Would computers around the world crash? Would power grids go dark, airline catastrophes dominate the news, and life as we knew it cease to be? January 1 came and went, with barely a ripple in the collective experience. The true cataclysm of 2000 wouldn't hit until August, and it would be heralded by an innocent moniker: d20.

d20 gave us a unified system mechanic. Sure, other games had unified mechanics. Good for them. D&D and AD&D never had, and that simple premise shook the foundations of our game. Roll a d20 for everything task-related. Always, always, roll high. Simple, to the point, and flavorless.

D&D gets picked on for its wealth of subsystems. Virtually every major game activity has its own system, none of them really function with similarity. Roll high on a d20 for attacks and saving throws. Roll d20 low for non-weapon proficiencies (when used). Roll d6 for opening doors. Percentile for thief skills. And so on . . .

The problem with this should be obvious. Remembering which die type to roll for which situation. Remembering if it is roll-high or roll-low. Since each roll and situation is unique, so are each of the modifiers. No light is -4 on to-hit rolls, for example. What about no light when a thief is searching for traps? Would it be -20%, since 4 points on a d20 roll equals 20%? What about initiative in the dark? Would it be modified at all? It's a d6 roll, so it can't have the same -4, and it doesn't translate as well as it would to a d100.

The thing about these "problems" is the same as it is with other problems: they are part of the charm. They are part of what makes it a D&D experience. I adore the subsystems. For me, unified mechanics make a lot of sense, but they don't really speak to me. As a referee, I like for the game to have a certain air of mystery about it. When it seems mysterious to the players, then I seem sort of, I don't know, almost like some sort of intermediary. I understand how things work, and without me acting as a sort of translator, their characters are lost. Kind of weird, I know, but it gets me in a good place to referee from.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Question of Experience

I forget what I was doing, but the other day I directly compared the Fighter and Magic-User advancement schemes. We old schoolers were raised on the concept that magic-users start out weak and end up as the most powerful characters in the game. A quick glance at the table I've compiled reveals why this is. In almost every version of D&D, and the clones based on those versions, it requires fewer experience points to reach 9th level for a magic-user. In some cases, substantially less. In the LBBs, AD&D, and S&W Core a magic-user is well on his way to 11th level when the fighter crosses the threshold into 9th.

9th Level
Source Fighter Magic-User
LBB 240,000 100,000
B/X 240,000 300,000
RC 240,000 450,000
AD&D 250,000 135,000
S&W WhiteBox 256,000 320,000
S&W Core 256,000 135,000
S&W Complete 256,000 100,000
BFRP 240,000 300,000
Labyrinth Lord 240,001 310,001
Advanced Edition Companion 240,001 310,001
Castles & Crusades 272,001 340,001
OSRIC 250,000 140,000

I'm unclear on the reasoning for this. The best answer I can come up with is that different designers/writers have different ideas on how magic-users should progress. They were all apparently pretty happy with the fighter's requirements from the beginning.

I simply can not fathom why the requirements for the magic-user were so lax in the LBB. Something to do with hit dice and a lack of armor, maybe? The only direct-damage spells they have in those books are Fireball and Lightning Bolt. Other than those, magic-user spells are utility, buffs, or just "magicky". So, maybe that's it. An OD&D magic-user winning the footrace to 9th level doesn't have nearly the impact it does when spells like Cloukill and Ice Storm are up for grabs. Not to mention that magic-users from those editions are well on their way to 11th level by the time the Fighter drags his sorry ass to 9th. That opens the door to Death Spell and Disintegrate (neither of which are available in the LBBs).

I guess that explains why it was that way in the LBBs, and by extension AD&D and clones based on those. It seems that other editions/clones woke up to the fact that with access to spell levels 7-9, not to mention many additional spells in levels 1-6, and that there are many more direct-damage spells. Magic-Users under those rules are much more potent and their progression to the strata that grants access to the newer spells should be slowed, otherwise they will definitely come to dominate the campaign, as well as the campaign world.

Armor and Spellcasters

I want to pose an open question to my readership. How do you handle spellcasters, particularly those casting magic-user spells, wearing armor? This problem can rear its ugly head in a couple of situations.
Classes gaining the ability to cast magic-user spells, such as the ranger;
Elves, multi-classed, and dual classed characters.
Personally, I don't care for the hand-wave of "enchanted armor is ok". I believe, and referee this way, that it is the encumbrance of the armor that is the culprit. There are movements required in spell casting that can be rather nuanced.

Fighters are practically born in armor. It isn't simply a matter of becoming accustomed to the weight. It is also a matter of learning to move, to perform mundane tasks, such as feeding oneself. Armor is surprising articulated, but it is still a heap of metal obstructing and interfering with joint function and range of movement. Fighters devote a lifetime to learning the subtleties of operating in armor.

Anyone not committing that level of dedication can't hope to do more than walk across a room. The intricacies of spell casting are far beyond their capacity while armored. Furthermore, even if eschewing spell casting, and attempting to don the armor to survive a pending attack, they will be woefully unable to take any advantage of the armor. Absorbing, deflecting, and blunting blows have not been their priorities, and simply encasing oneself in steel isn't enough to call oneself "armored".

So, for my money, no one can cast magic spells while armored. Even if their class allows "Any Armor and Shield". My only possible exception to this would be to allow Rangers to cast while wearing Leather armor. Maybe. If I was feeling really generous.

So, how about it? How do you guys deal with this?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Hazards of House Rules

In this post I am talking about my feelings on house rules. I am in a bit of a purist mood right now. What follows isn't a judgement or indictment of anyone else's style of playing or refereeing. I'm just examining my own feelings about this topic. It is not meant to be taken personally.

On with the show . . .

As you probably know, I was busily working on my house rules not long ago. Mr. Finch was kind enough to provide us with document files of S&W WhiteBox and Core, to allow us to seamlessly insert our idiosyncrasies into his most excellent games. So, I decided to take that route.

Then, I had the idea for Kalagris. I decided that I may as well rewrite class descriptions, racial descriptions, and so on, to directly reflect that setting. Somewhere during that process it occurred to me that I would enjoy finding and inserting art that I wanted to see, so I did that. At that point, I figured I may as well give it a name of my choosing. I fired up the GIMP and whipped up a cover. Then, reality hit me like an icy fish-slap:

This wasn't D&D anymore. Not in any form or fashion. I had changed too much. Of course, that isn't a deadly sin. It isn't even particularly a sin. Unless, that is, you truly want to be playing D&D. By the way, for my purposes here, S&W and D&D are pretty much interchangeable. Refer to this for insight into how that works.

I was changing things that ultimately made D&D into another game, one that addressed my unique desires. There's nothing wrong with that, it is done all the time and always has been. The word of the rules not only encourages it, the sparsity of the rules demands it. Back in my day, any referee that didn't house rule must have an underdeveloped imagination.

Then, of course, there's the argument that anyone playing Original D&D isn't really playing D&D at all. It demands so many house rules that it becomes specific to the table it's played on almost immediately, and thus, ceases being D&D. This was one of the reasons for AD&D in the first place; to get people all playing from the same book.

Whatever. I'm not against house rules, but I think there are only a few reasons to do them:

1) When there is something missing from the rules. If there is a situation that arises consistently, like exactly how much control a magic-user has over the subject of a Charm Person, it needs a house rule to keep it consistent.
2) To create a mechanical tie to the campaign world. Things like changing how magic works, or adding backgrounds that grant certain skills/abilities/bonuses fit into this category.
3) To clearly state any variants or alternative rules that may, or may not, be permissible.
4) Ignoring certain aspects, such as demi-human level limits.
Of those, #2 is the trickiest and has the most potential to turn a game into some bastard hybrid. There are certain things that are the very essence and charm of D&D. Love these or hate them, they are D&D. Things like Vancian magic, hit points, armor making you harder to hit, these are D&D and without them, you are playing something else. Which isn't really a problem . . .

Unless you want to be playing D&D. D&D is an experience, a shared experience. The whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. It is full of clunky systems, numerous subsystems, and arbitrary balancers. Yet, at the end of a session, it is also fun, sometimes moving, and most often memorable. It is D&D and it is what I want to be playing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Misconception Monday: d6 Weapon Damage

Good morning. I hope everyone had a good weekend.

OK, I was going to say this made me unhappy for a long time, or that it had this effect or that effect on my game. It never did. I have never played or refereed even one single minute of D&D with "all weapons do d6". Greyhawk was in the house when I started playing, so we smugly thumbed our noses at d6 in favor of the "realistic" variable weapon damage. Ah, the superiority of youth.

I'm not entirely sure if it was an intentional elegance of design, or more of a product of exploring uncharted waters. Either way, d6 weapon damage ends up being a fairly elegant way of handling things. This rule, like most of the LBBs, was ported from Chainmail. That game was all about the d6, so I suspect that the assumption that most D&D players would be coming from Chainmail made the choice for weapon damage rather simple.

Whether it was intentional or not, d6 weapon damage turned out to be somewhat elegant. It allows weapon choice to be purely a role-playing selection. Whatever you envision your character using to crack heads, you can play with. This also allows a referee to dispense with weapon limitations on classes. This in itself does open a certain can of worms.

With the original three classes of the LBBs, Fighting-Men were differentiated by being the only class capable of wielding magical swords. Make no mistake, in the LBBs, magical swords were king. They all possess Intelligence, and 50% of them have additional powers, ranging from various Detection abilities to things like Teleportation, Flying, and Healing. If any class can use any weapon, one of the Fighting-Man's unique abilities isn't so unique anymore. But that's a topic for another post.

On the surface d6 damage seems sort of vanilla. It is, but it makes much more sense when you consider that D&D models results not means. A normal man or monster (1HD) can be killed with a single blow. That was the standard. It works in that sense, because you can sneak up on a lookout and shank him with a dagger, just like in the movies.

In my opinion, the variable weapon damage was one of the foundations of power creep. Think about this: all hit dice are d6, all weapons do d6. One hit, one kill was possible with 1HD beings. Enter variable weapon damage and all of a sudden a single swing of a sword by a 1st level Fighter could slay a 2HD monster. Solution: give all monsters a d8 for hit dice. So, now all monsters are tougher, not just for Fighters, they are tougher for everybody. Other classes had to be tougher to survive this paradigm shift, and we were off to the races. The power curve went into orbit. Of course, there were many factors, but I believe variable weapon damage, while not the most potent, was one of the very first.

Enough digression. I'll wrap this up by saying that I really like d6 damage. It empowers role playing by not forcing mechanical considerations on characters. It also plays perfectly with the Fighting-Man's ability to make one "to-hit" roll for each opponent of 1HD or less. If you've never considered the virtues of d6 damage, give it another look. You may not use it, but perhaps a new appreciation of it will give you new ideas.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

An Embarrassment of Riches

I'm like a kid in a candy store (a really old kid). I am just all tore up over which system to devote my attention to. They are all awesome in their own right, and for their own reasons.

First up is D&D. Most especially Greyhawk. Like I've said, RPGs for me started with my best friend John's hand-copies of the LBBs. But, we very quickly acquired an actual xerox (it's what we called copies back then) of Greyhawk. In those days it was probably more expensive to copy those 70 pages than it would have been to order it, but we could copy it a few pages at a time. So, Greyhawk was the first D&D book that I "owned", and I spent hours studying every single page (when it wasn't with John). I love the original AD&D PHB cover, but nothing says D&D to me like the Greyhawk cover, and contents. The image of each page, taken as a whole, is burned into my brain, indelible and iconic. When I see those pages, my heart yearns for the old adventures like a hound straining at the leash.

When I found Swords & Wizardry, it was like finding D&D all over again. I really should qualify that just a bit. WhiteBox specifically gave me that feeling. It still does. When I look at the cover (the Pete Mullen piece with the giants raining pain down on a colorful little party), I get that Christmas morning thrill I got when D&D was new and each thought of it was pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming. Even though they are very nearly identical, I never get that rush from Core, for some reason.

Then there's S&W Complete. This one ties me up in knots. I want to play D&D from the D&D books, the LBBs plus Greyhawk and a smattering of Eldritch Wizardry (best Supplement name ever, bar none). I wouldn't have noticed if Blackmoor had never been published. Sorry, no disrespect intended. Just not a fan of Assassins, Monks, aquatic adventuring, or toady temples. Complete has everything I want in my D&D (plus a dash of what I don't) all between two covers.

Lastly, there is my Crucible house rules document. I'll get back to it one day. Maybe. I was going too far with it, and when I finished it wouldn't really be D&D anymore. I'm going to do a post on just what went astray with that project later this week.

Now that we understand the riches, here's the embarrassment. With the exception of Crucible, I can't focus on one of these for any meaningful amount of time because one leads me into another. I'll be studying the LBBs and find something confusing, so look in WhiteBox to see if it offers more clarity. As soon as I see that cover . . . BAM! . . . Then I start thinking about adding a class or two, so I think I'll just lift them from Complete . . . BOOM! . . . So, I'm flipping through Complete when I want to see how Greyhawk handled the Thief's progression . . . and the cycle is back at start. What a fantastic fix to find oneself in.

New Link

I've updated the link associated with the OSR logo to the right --->

The new link is an excellent write-up/graphic depiction of what several retroclones are actually cloning. I found it to be a very good intro when I first discovered the OSR, then I lost track of it. Now that I've "found" it, I am happy to share it with my readers. Thanks, Rockjaw, for such a cool, informative break-down.

Also, for the convenience of anyone interested, I have uploaded a copy the Old School Primer by Matt Finch. It's on my GoogleDocs (link at bottom of page). It is freely available, and does a fine job of describing what it means to play "old school". Definitely worth a read, even if you started with the old school games a million years ago, like me. Years of bad habits and games can obscure the essence of what made gaming fun to start with. I found this little document a fine reminder.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Quick Thank You

I watch my blog stats pretty regularly, and yesterday it hit 31 pageviews for the day. As far as I can recall, that was the most in a day and the first time in the 30's. I'll be happy when I start getting comments, but my pageviews are up, my visits count is over 2100, and tomorrow is my birthday. So, thanks for reading to all of you that do.

S&W Complete Fighters

I've been trolling some S&W Complete forums, and a common thread (pardon the pun) has concerned Fighters. There are a lot of questions concerning the ability of Fighters to fight defensively:

Parry: Fighters with a Dexterity score of 14 or better can fight on thedefensive, parrying enemy blows and dodging attacks, as shown on thetable below.

I bring this up here because the threads I'm seeing are several months old and I don't want to necro. I do want to address this, though, since I have some thoughts on it.

The concern has been whether this ability continuously functions or if it is some sort of tactical option. The main crux of it is that Fighters are the only class to enjoy bonuses "to-hit" and damage, so should they be able to take advantage of a high DEX ability in addition to high STR bonuses in a given round.

There have been several ways of handling this question put forward. The most harsh, for the Fighter, is an either/or situation. Parry was defined in many games as a full-round defense which improved AC by -4. The other end of the scale was that the ability is always "on" and is fully functional with the STR bonuses. The most common middle ground answer was to render it as a tactical decision, that is the player would choose which bonus to take advantage of round-per-round.

Personally, being the Fighter-phile that I am, I say both bonuses are always in effect. The either/or option completely invalidates this as a class ability. Any class can Parry, at the expense of their attack, so that negates this as a "class ability". Sure, the Fighter does it better than anyone else, most likely, but so what. I also don't really like the tactical option approach. It weakens the ability. Does any other class have to choose which action to apply a bonus to? If a bow wielding character is attacked hand-to-hand in the same round he fires his bow, is the player forced to choose to apply his DEX bonus to either the missile attack -or- AC? No.

I think the problem is that people are looking in the wrong place for the answer. They are fixating on the word "can" in the above quote:
"can fight on the defensive,"
Which to them, can equals optionally. If looked at in that way, sure, I can see it. Can would imply "if they so choose".

However, I think the operative word is fight. Fight, meaning attack. They can (as in "have the ability to") fight (attack), while maintaining a sound defensive aspect to their tactics.

Besides which, it is obvious that an effort has been made to give the Fighter unique class abilities to make them desirable, mechanically. And that's a Good Thing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Swords & Wizardry Complete

As you know, my love for D&D has been rekindled of late. Also obvious to readers is the fact that I am enamored of S&W. I got the pdf a few weeks ago, but was only recently able to get it printed. I'm one of those that doesn't enjoy full-scale reading on a computer monitor. So, I've only just starting perusing this little gem.

I should make it clear right now: this is not a review. I'm not shooting for a degree of objectivity with the goal of helping you make your purchasing decisions. These are just my thoughts. Carry on . . .

So far I've read the character classes and races. Remember all the stuff I said about three classes in a previous post? It's still partially true, but not as much as it was. There is something about the flavor text with each class that softened my perspective somewhat. The paladin's restrictions on companions' alignment still makes it more of an NPC class to me, I still think the monk is out of place, and druids and rangers aren't dungeoneering classes, in my opinion. Otherwise, I liked what I read.

Oh, and did I mention that Fighters rock? Of course I didn't. Well, they certainly do. Fighters are my favorite class (and I've played them all in 35 years of D&D), even though it is very disheartening to be the biggest badass fighter on the continent, decked out in the finest armor in generations, swinging a truly brutal weapon, and smacking the big bad monster for a max damage hit of 24 points, only to have a thief backstab it for 60 points. Or the magic-user hit it with a lucky 10d Fireball for 50 points.

Not so in Complete. For one thing, Fighters, and only Fighters, get combat bonuses for Strength. Fighters means only Fighters. Paladins and Rangers need not apply, not for this or any other Fighter-specific class feature. Features like multiple attacks (wherein the Fighter can make one attack per level if all foes are 1 HD or less), and Parry (where the Fighter gets a bonus to AC based on DEX, with a separate scheme from the normal stat bonus). There is also the aforementioned Fighter-centric bonuses to the "to-hit" and damage rolls, which apply (and stack with the DEX bonus) to missile weapon use. Ahhhh, Fighters with a bow can be played as formidable archers. At last.

I may port over my cleric rework from my Crucible house rules. I'm not a huge fan of the class, never have been, so I don't have much "respectful" nostalgia for the cleric of the LBBs (or their clones).

The races are pretty much what you would expect from the S&W take on the LBB races. Perfectly serviceable for a more-or-less vanilla sandbox (such as the original Judge's Guild Wilderlands of High Fantasy, which I am salivating to use).

That's it for now. I'll post more perspectives as I continue reading. Any of my fellow gamers that have S&W Complete should feel free to comment with their perceptions on this edition of the S&W ruleset.

A Form of Hero Questing

I am very enamored of the down-and-dirty, low fantasy feel evoked by the LBBs and S&W WhiteBox. At the same time, I freely admit that I love Supplement I: Greyhawk, and S&W Complete (which incorporates much of that tome in addition to various bits of Supplements II & III).

One of the things I love most about the LBB's and WB are the bare-bones spell list. To me, nothing screams "High Fantasy" quite as loudly as high-level wizards tossing around reality-warping spells like Reverse Gravity, Summon Demon, Mass Charm, Meteor Swarm, and, of course, Wish. One of the things I love most about Greyhawk, and S&W Complete, is that it includes those spells. Dichotomy, thy name is mine. Welcome to my world.

Anyway, I want a way to include such high fantasy tropes without turning my game into high fantasy. So, I had this idea. All the spells, as well as magic items, in the LBBs/WB are more normally available. The magic items are still uncommon, some even rare. The spells and items from the supplements are the subjects of specific quests to find them. If your magic-user wants a spell to stop time, he will have to do research, not on the spell itself, but on the finished spell as written by some ancient, powerful magic-user. If your paladin wants a holy sword, it will come at the end of some epic quest.

I can hear you now, "So what? This kind of stuff is common business with any good referee", and you're right. I'm proposing something slightly different than the norm, though.

Since spells above 6th level for magic-users (5th for clerics) and certain magic items have the capacity to alter reality and change the world, those seeking them should be subject to change, too. It is a common theme that those seeking power are not only changed by the power, they are even more changed by the quest for power. Literature if replete with stories of heroes sacrificing their humanity, health, sanity, and their very souls in their quest for power. That power can take many forms and need not be inherently selfish in nature. But the desire, need, and effort for it require a heroic effort to attain.

There should not be Vorpal Blades in a simple treasure hoard, even if it is an ancient red dragon. A wizard shouldn't find a scroll with Delayed Blast Fireball among the other scraps of parchment in a lost library. These things should be the object of epic quests. The kind of quest that regularly causes the character to make tough decisions and sacrifices. The kind of quest that routinely begs the question "Is it worth (this sacrifice)?", until the character has come too far and given up too much to turn back. It is at that most beautiful moment, when the character becomes resigned to the Fate his choices have laid for him, at that perfect moment of clarity, that epic heroes are born.

A Simple Assumption

Everybody knows the story of the "Alternative" combat system in the LBB's and how it became "the" combat system. I was pondering how that came about. Chainmail's man-to-man system is serviceable enough. It definitely requires some thought on applying it to the dungeon crawl style of D&D play (as opposed to Chainmail's mass combat focus), but at its core it is pretty solid.

Damaging an opponent is based on two factors: weapon wielded and armor worn. Greater skilled was modeled by giving higher level characters more "to-hit" rolls. Personally, I don't view that as multiple attacks. It was established from an early time that there is a lot of give-and-take in a D&D combat round. A single "to-hit" roll actually represented the opportunity to cause damage, rather than a single swing of a weapon. Under the Chainmail system, a more capable fighter will create/find/take advantage of more opportunities to damage an opponent, thus the greater number of "to-hit" rolls allowed. Sure, it's more dice rolling, but if dice rolling is a problem, check this out.

I'm not going to pretend to know the thought processes that went into forging D&D from the raw ore of Chainmail's Fantasy Supplement. I will, however, make my guesses about some of them. I believe that Gary assumed that most of the purchasers/players of D&D would arrive by way of Chainmail, thus having ready access and understanding of that volumes combat rules. That simple assumption freed them from the necessity of including all of Chainmail's man-to-man and fantasy rules and tables. This is further born out by many of the monster descriptions including some variation of the phrase "otherwise as in the Chainmail rules" and numerous references to Chainmail's troop types (light horse, medium foot, etc). Acknowledging the fact that not all potential D&D buyers would own Chainmail, they included the "alternative combat system", so that the game would still be playable.

It must be remembered that this was during the formative years of the industry of our hobby. Distribution wasn't as wide-spread as today. This wasn't simply the latest role playing title, it was the only role playing title. There weren't stores built on a foundation of RPGs in those days. For many of us the only way to get the game was mail order (or "xerox", or for the truly desperate hand copy), and that took time. No new D&D player who wanted to get started groping through black pits or slaying dragons wanted to wait two months for another book detailing combat, especially when there was an alternative right there in the book.

The rest, as they say, is history. The "alternative combat system" was fleshed out and fully realized in Supplement I: Greyhawk. Part of this involved variable weapon damage and specific hit die types for character classes. I have my suspicions that part of the motivation for that may have been dice sales, since outlets for specialty dice were as rare as hen's teeth (I myself mail ordered dice, as well as Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry), but that is another topic for another time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Characters of Heroic Proportions

If you've been reading this blog lately you know that I have whole-heartedly re-embraced my OD&D roots. I was poring over the Chainmail combat system, thinking about using it for a game, when I discovered something rather significant. This discovery lead me along a thought process I'd like to share.

I was referring back and forth between the LBBs and Chainmail, when I saw this:

"(Magic) Armor subtracts its bonus from the hit dice of the opponents of its wearer."
pg 31 Monsters and Treasure

Now, remember: the d20 combat system was given as an alternative in the LBBs. The default was assumed to be Chainmail, so much of the terminology and processes were taken from that game. In Chainmail, hit dice equated to combat capability, ie the number of attack rolls a combatant made in a given round. So, we see that in Chainmail terms, magic armor actually afforded an opponent fewer opportunities to damage its wearer. A very interesting concept.

As I pondered this, I started thinking about a Warrior (2nd level fighter, 2 HD, 2 attacks) engaged with a Swordsman (3rd level fighter, 3 HD, 3 attacks), carrying a +1 shield. If that rule is applied as written, the Warrior would suffer a -1 hit die penalty from the shield, leaving him with one attack. What if he were a common man, rather than a Warrior? Would the penalty negate his attack all together?

Obviously, the Fantasy Supplement for Chainmail was a rather fast-and-loose adjunct to what were essentially a set of wargame rules. As such, they can't be imported into D&D wholesale. It is clear from reading them, however, that the fantastic was supposed to be Fantastic, and that combating its perils was beyond the province of the common man. It was a job for other fantastic creatures (ie elves) or for men who had achieved a fantastic status: Heroes.

That spirit, that implied threshold between the mundane and the fantastic, and that  only men of heroic character have the mettle to cross it, is something I feel has gone missing from our games. The characters don't have to be heroes in the literary sense of the word, but they should be viewed by the campaign as those who are willing to grapple with the very myths, fairytales, and boogey men of the world, on their turf, in a quest for wealth, fame, and eternal glory.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Redefining the OSR

Anybody reading this, do yourself a favor: do not think the OSR is all about clones. That's what I did. I convinced myself that the only way to get in touch with my gaming roots was with a clone. The clones are awesome and they do an awesome service to our hobby. They get a lot of positive ink in reviews for their "restatement and clarification" of the old rules. That praise is well-earned, because they do collect, codify, and clarify many things that may have been spread across multiple sources. But never make the mistake of thinking that the clones ARE the OSR. They aren't. Technically, OSR stands for Old School Renaissance (or Rules, depending on whom you ask). For me, from now on, it stands for Original Source Rules.

If you can realize and accept that supplements, no matter how many "Official" labels there are attached to them, are just somebody's house rules, then you can really dig in and find your roots. It doesn't matter what your OSR of choice are, get back to the core, the kernel if you will, of them. Then, from there judge the absolute necessity of any additions or changes in a glaring light. If it meets your criteria, then install it, but do so on your terms. I'm all for the D&D at my table being my D&D, but it should always be D&D. Too many additions, changes, and house rules and it becomes a case of "I like a little D&D with my house rules" instead of the other way 'round.

Little Brown Books

As I said in the previous post, I own the LBB's and I have decided to skip the clones and go to the source. This is owed in large part to Philotomy's Musings. He re-opened my eyes to a lot of things, and even opened them to some I'd never seen. Thanks again for that.

Anyway, I want to start out with just the three: Men and Magic, Monsters and Treasure, and The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. If I use stuff from the supplements and/or periodicals, it will be judged on a case-by-case basis. Nothing comes in whole-cloth. Also, I will be keeping a close guard on my house ruling tendencies. I want house rules to exist to:

a.) Maintain consistency once a table ruling has been made.

b.) Fill in "gaps". I believe these gaps were left intentionally to "force" referees to house rule, thereby making each referee's D&D unique to him.

I do not want to add unnecessarily to the game, so no new player classes. I do not want to change drastically, or worse yet rewrite, systems or subsystems. So, my new magic system will be mothballed with my other house rules. The systems and their subsystems are what make D&D what it is. You see, it occurred to me after I actually named my house rules that it wasn't D&D anymore. I was calling it something else because it was something else. It was based on D&D (through Swords & Wizardry), but it couldn't be rightfully called D&D anymore.

So, I guess I have become a purist. The three LBB's are canon, everything else, whether mine or from another source, gets a long hard look before it gets in. From this post forward, any references I make to D&D are to be understand as referring to the LBBs only. No Greyhawk or other supplemental material.

My House Rules

My house rules are on hiatus. This is indefinite, I may get back to them (gamer ADD is still ADD, after all), or I may not. I have the LBBs, so I have decided to simply use them. I'll expound on this further in my next post. I'm splitting the two posts for clarity.

Misconception Monday: Combat

Combat in D&D was a thorn in my side for a long time. I have a confession: I starting gaming as a wargamer. That being the case, I craved a degree of realism in my gaming, or at least an attempt to make sense. Combat in D&D really and truly does neither, at least when you operate under the misconception that D&D combat models combat.

Let's look at it:

1.) All weapons do d6 damage
2.) Armor makes you harder to hit
3.) The notion of hit points
4.) Time
5.) Initiative

Not only are the points I listed rather ambiguously described (if at all), there are also many things missing from a realistic combat model. Things like variable weapon damage (added in Supplement I), armor should absorb damage rather than make it more difficult to hit the wearer, damage should carry penalties, a one-minute combat round is far too long, and initiative was vague.

Yet, consider this: D&D combat does not model combat. It actually models results. The dice rolls along the way are simply for dramatic tension, it is the result that truly matters. As long as the system arrives at the proper conclusion (ie delivers the proper result based upon the circumstances of the combat), the system did its job. D&D is a game and like any other game it exists to determine the winner of its particular contest. We play Monopoly to drive our loved ones into abject poverty, not to argue over whether the person with the shoe should have a -4 to their roll because they are "walking" around the board.

It is also useful to consider D&D's genesis: it was a miniatures wargame. Delivering a consistent, believable result was Chainmail's goal, as with any wargame. It naturally became D&D's goal as well. I believe this is why combat is one of the most difficult things to house rule in D&D. People are trying to house rule a lack of realism by adding realistic bits and pieces. There isn't a lack of realism, there is an absence of realism. You can't add house rules to something that doesn't exist. If you want more realistic combat in D&D you will have to write it from the ground up, not try to bolt it onto D&D results-modelling combat.

If you wanted to somehow house rule some X factor into the formula that delivers the results, that is more plausible. I'm not entirely sure how, or even why, someone would want to, though. The results delivered by D&D's combat system are consistent, fairly accurate, and above all, realistic. At least as realistic as a fantasy game can be, anyway.

Some Thoughts on Classes

I really dig the basic, three-class scheme of D&D. They are broadly defined, broadly capable, and free to develop in any direction the player should choose. I'm a little torn on the thief. I like the basic idea that there is a need for a stealthy and/or mechanically competent character. I like the idea that said character is shady, with amorphous morals. However, once you give a class the ability to do something, then, by implication, you've denied the ability of the other classes to do it. The most cursory of examinations bears this out.

I am not a fan of subclasses, nor of the plethora of classes that have appeared in supplements and periodicals. I feel that the foundation upon which they are built is too narrow to allow them to function in the adventuring party, without compromising what should be the core tenets of the class. To wit:

With the stricture of personal alignment, plus the limitations of associating with others of like mind, this alone is enough to make the paladin a questionable class to allow. Also, as Lawful beings, they should have serious problems with killing in the name of acquisition.  They have a vow of poverty hanging over their heads, so why would they go on a treasure hunt in the first place? Unless the campaign is designed to be some sort of holy quest, paladins simply do not fit with long-term play.

This one is fairly simple. Why would a wilderness warrior, sworn to defend a certain area, seek his fame and wealth in a dungeon? Pursuing or tracking fell creatures to an underground lair, sure. A serious career as a glory-and-riches dungeon delver, hell no.

See Ranger, multiply by 10.

Head east, Caine, there's no place for you here.

Killer-for-hire on an extended career branch as a dungeon delver? I don't see it. Purpose-hired by the party to take out a specific threat, absolutely, but nobody in the party should keep an assassin on retainer.

Obviously, there are plenty more, but I think you get the idea. I have no problem with these as NPCs. I think they are more than fine when they are in the game for a specific purpose related to their raison d'etre.

I also feel that, in most cases, the subclass actually outperforms the base class. Paladins and Rangers have all the benefits of the Fighting-Man, plus all their cool class abilities. The assassin fights much better than the thief, has thief skills (albeit at a delayed development), and trumps the Backstab with the auto-kill Assassination Table. Even if that fails, he still does Backstab damage.

No, for my money, the Big Three are the Only Three. The rest are too purpose-driven, but make fine additions as NPC henchmen or villains.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Philotomy's Exceptional Musings

I am greatly enamored of Swords & Wizardry, 'tis true. However, in all my zeal for that most excellent of clones, I completely overlooked the original. Thanks to stumbling across Philotomy's insightful dissertation, I have rediscovered the True Source. For anyone, anyone, with any level of interest in the OSR, this is a must-read. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Updated House Rules

I have uploaded an updated version of my house ruled Swords & Wizardry. I changed the name to Crucible Fantasy Roleplay. This update includes a full-color cover, changes to the art, additions to art, initiative section, basic "To-Hit" tables, weapon damage tables, and damage and healing. As always, comments are encouraged and welcome.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Alternate 1976

I read a blog post somewhere (sorry, I forget where) about a guy who was planning a campaign with a product cut-off of mid-'76. Nothing published after that was to be allowed. Anything prior was fair game, which included all of the Strategic Reviews and some other things I didn't recognize.

I love that idea. I've spent the better part of my 35 years gaming trying to recapture the first 3 years. I've tried it with different versions of D&D, different games altogether, and other methods too numerous to mention. There was a pure joy in the game then, and that is the kind of lightning that is hard to get in a bottle. I've tried to go back to the Little Brown Books, but with the stream-of-conscious writing compounded by being spread across six books, it is frustrating.

Enter Swords & Wizardry. As I have said before, I love S&W. So, I started thinking about simply turning back my gaming clock to 1976, like the other guy did. That started me to thinking. I could just get the Gray Book, which is a usable compilation and organizing of the six books, and really get back to my roots. Then, I realized, I would have to do a lot of house ruling to get the game to where I wanted it (see my personal S&W on my googledocs for some of my house rules). I was torn. You see, my house rules are extensive and when I'm done, they will almost amount to a new game. Definitely not the game I was playing in '76.

So, what to do? The purist route with Gray Book and minimal house rules? Or, my personal S&W, with extensive house rules based on 35 years in the hobby?

My decision is to use my rules (which I'm calling Crucible, btw, changed from The Book of Orange), with any supplements, such as magazines or non-TSR stuff, cut off at October 1976.

As you can see, I house ruled my options. . .

Misconceptions: Common Tongue

"LANGUAGES: The "common tongue" spoken throughout the "continent" is
known by most humans. All other creatures and monsters which can speak have
their own language, although some (20%) also know the common one."

That is the direct quote from Book I: Men and Magic. The "common tongue" has been much maligned, in print as well as my gaming circles. "It doesn't make sense", goes the common refrain, "for all humans to speak a common language. Real life isn't like that." So, a bazillion languages spring up, complete with language trees sporting proto-linguistics, dead languages, ancient forms, and all that. That is a totally acceptable way to breathe life into one's creation, and I'm not criticizing any referee for doing it. My point is that the original authors were not advocating a global language, as the critics would later assert.

Yet, look more closely. The key, over-looked, phrase is "throughout the "continent"". In other words, the basic, local area. That, taken with the fact "common tongue" is in quotes, should be enough to convey the intent. It should be remembered that the D&D of the Little Brown Books did not have a setting attached. It simply was not possible to name a language for humans to speak, so it was simply called "common tongue". It was in quotes, and lower case. If a globe-spanning human language would have been the intent, it would have been written as Common Tongue. If we did want to draw a modern analogy, we could say that English is the "common tongue" of the continent of North America.

It is also worth noting that only 20% of non-humans speak it. So, it is definitely a human "common tongue", which is stated in the rule quote above. It is also "known by most humans", further evidence that the term "common tongue" was used as a matter of convenience, in the absence of a setting-specific language. Continuing the above analogy, English is known by most people of North American descent, with 20% of non-North Americans speaking it (obviously I'm not quoting demographics, just putting the "common tongue" rule into a real-world context).

That's it for the first installment of Misconceptions. I hope you enjoyed it, and that it may give you a new perspective on certain aspects of Original D&D. Thanks for stopping by.


One of the problems with being the standard against which all else is judged, is that you are also judged. D&D, being the first RPG, naturally became that standard. So-and-so has more realistic combat. Such-and-such has better magic. Over the years, though, I think certain misconceptions have crept into the collective conscious. They come from a lot of places, mostly somebody taking something and twisting it around to shine a better light on their latest creation, or simply their favorite game. Advertising is a big source of these misconceptions, as game after game has touted its supposed superiority over D&D.

So, I'm starting this series about these misconceptions. The original D&D was a much tighter design than we have been lead to believe. The original D&D is actually quite an elegant little system. It isn't burdened with the level or depth of rules detail that many newer systems are.

Lastly, please note that in this series I am speaking strictly of Original D&D. That is, the Little Brown Books, the supplements Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

S&W Character Sheet

I have uploaded a Swords & Wizardry character sheet to my Google Docs (link at bottom of blog). It is in PocketMod format. It is based on one I found for Labyrinth Lord, and modified slightly. So, there it is, then . . .

Friday, November 18, 2011

Fondly Recalling: The Fantasy Trip

Let's take a quick trip in the Way-Back Machine, shall we? The year is 1980, the place is a row of shops in Pembroke Mall, Virginia Beach, VA. A gangly, bespectacled 17 year old picks up something called In the Labyrinth . . .

 As I've said before, D&D was my first RPG. I started gaming life as a wargamer, though, but that's a different story. I was introduced to D&D by a friend of mine, I didn't discover it on my own. He was the DM, always, and I was the only player in his games. We played as constantly as two teens could manage. We lived less than a mile apart, so we played a lot.

Being a wargamer, too, I loved learning and trying new games. Being a mid-level teen from a four-child family, money was tight, so when I saw a little ditty called Melee, I was in. Melee was great fun. It was much more tactical combat (with a board and counters!) than D&D, which definitely got my wargamer blood a'flowing. Then came Wizard. Dueling mages, what could be cooler than that!? Magic-users, uh, sorry, I mean Wizards, actually duking it out on the sands of the arena, something I'd never done, or seen, in D&D. A magic system with points, rather than fire-and-forget. Damn!

Anyway, I played those two as often as I could find an opponent.

Then, that fateful day in The Alley. In the Layrinth was, I think, $7 or $8, somewhere in there. It was rich for my budget, but I had to own it. Here was a book that turned Melee and Wizard into a full-blown RPG. But not just any RPG. It had a combat system I loved, and a magic system I thought was the coolest thing since sliced bread. More than that, though, it was mine. Nobody lead me to it. Nobody taught me to play it.

(I should mention here, that I'm not trying to imply that my friend ruled our gaming. I wasn't a victim of RPG oppression or anything.)

I devoured In the Labyrinth as well as the first two Micro-quests. It was the first skill-based game I'd ever played. It had it's sticking points, sure enough (You mean there's only three stats?! I only get to use d6's?!), but they didn't diminish my love for the game. But, two trans-Atlantic crossing and three years later, and it was gone, along with Melee and Wizard. I'll always love it though, because it was my first RPG discovery.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Book of Orange

I have uploaded the first installment of my personal Swords & Wizardry, which I am calling The Book of Orange, in honor of a friend. It is on my GoogleDocs page, link at the bottom of this blog. It is not intended for sale or distribution. It is made available for evaluation and comment only. The first installment consists of my take on classes, with pretty radical changes to the Cleric and Magic-User, plus other not so radical changes. My take on the dwarf and elf is there, along with alignment. Finally, there is a Magic chapter. It is an extensively re-imagined magic system, but still compatible with existing spell lists. I invite anyone interested to read over it and offer any constructive comments.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Irony can be such a subtle thing. This thought occurred to me whilest reading some forum posts about "What is S&W?". One of the staple answers to such a query always involves house ruling. Back in the days of 0e we house ruled. AD&D tried to do away with that. It was an attempt to cover all the bases. Not to stifle creativity, just to establish a common tongue, as it were. The idea was that if you sat down at 20 different AD&D tables at 20 different conventions, they would all be the same AD&D.

The real death knell for creative thinking in D&D was actually the internet. There have always been plenty of people willing to step up and create new classes, subclasses, systems for this or that, and so on and so forth. Back in the day, you had to wait for the next issue of Dragon to access these folks, and they never directly addressed your needs. You took what was on offer or you didn't. Then came the internet.

Consider this: In 1977 if you wanted a different magic system, you made it yourself. In 2007, you Google it. There are plenty of people who have already done the work. If you don't like one, there're plenty more. Their work is still considered house rules, but not your house. DMs (I prefer the original term, Referee) became lazy. Since the advent of AD&D they had been discouraged from deviating from the written word. Now of the intrepid few that did, many of them just used the work of the other intrepid few.

Then, as irony would have it, the internet came to the rescue. Games like S&W, Labyrinth Lord, and BFRPG sprang up. Not only do they encourage individual referee's to house rule and customize, they require it. And, thanks to the internet, they are in wide distribution among players who share their passion for such gaming on forums and across the blogosphere.

Long live the clones and the intellectual exploration they engender!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Alignment and the Cosmology of Kalagris

     There are three alignments in the Kalagris campaign: Law, Chaos, and Unaligned. The great ideological conflict of the world isn't concerned with Good and Evil. Chaos is literally destroying the world piece by piece. While good vs evil is important at a personal level, at the cosmic level, it comes in second. Far more pressing is where your character stands in the Law vs Chaos struggle.

     No one in the world, not ancient elven scribes or the most erudit human philosophers, understands the true nature of what is happening to the world. As horrific as it may be, it is a natural part of the process of birth-death-rebirth. Ultimately, it is natural. To the people living through it, it is something else entirely.

     It is the ultimate confrontation between Law and Chaos. That is where the line is drawn: are you aligned with the powers of Law, and thus the continued, ordered existence of Kalagris, or are you aligned with Chaos, bent on the unravelling of the world and all within it? This polarity means that people may find themselves allied with strange bedfellows. There are plenty of people and organizations that resist Chaos. Some do so to protect their own evil existence, some do so out of a sense of duty. Yet, when it comes time to take arms, they stand shoulder to shoulder. They can sort out their “personal” problems another time.

The Alignments

     Essentially, those aligned with Law stand against the forces of Chaos. It is important to understand that they stand against Chaos. It is not merely a philosophical choice, it is a plan of action. In principle virtually everyone on Kalagris is Lawful in word, but the Law-aligned are Lawful in deed, taking the fight to the enemy, actively resisting the Chaos Gods and their agents.

     Like Law, this isn't a simple withdrawal from the struggle, it is a sincere belief that one has no place in that struggle. Merely declining to become involved isn't enough. Truly neutral characters are extremely rare.
     Druids are among the only true neutral people on Kalagris. They have a sense that the Chaos Encroachment (as they call it) is a part of some cosmic cycle. They believe (mistakenly) that the Maelstrom is a machination of the Chaos Gods. According to their conclusions, it is simply time for the Chaos Gods to be ascendant. Being a part of the natural cosmic cycle, it is beyond the reach of anyone on Kalagris to interfere. This includes agents of Chaos seeking to call down the Maelstrom (it should advance at its own pace), or seeking some personal gain in the name of the Encroachment.

     Those aligned with Chaos are believed to be mad by virtually everyone else on Kalagris. Some welcome and embrace the Maelstrom to varying degrees, believing in the powers of Chaos in a very literally sense. There are some that believe in it in a more philosophical sense, viewing the tenets of Chaos figuratively, believing it represents their freedom. Finally, there are those who follow the Chaos Gods, slaves to their whims. In spite of the varied nature of those aligned with Chaos, they are universally met with distrust, at best. In some provinces a known Chaotic alignment is grounds for a summary execution.