Sunday, July 29, 2012

Without a Compass

I've been back into the LBBs the last few days. I've also been looking over the Traveller Little Black Books. Something struck me. Even though these games have their warts, they have definitely stood the test of time. You look at games like Pathfiner, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and now D&D Next, all of which made extensive use of pretty open beta testing. Legions of games with decades of experience helped locate and smooth the rough spots. The result is a finished game that is playtested and really put through its paces.

LBB D&D and Traveller did not enjoy such diverse and wide-spread playtesting. Yet they are far more robust systems. I think it is also important to remember that the teams at TSR and GDW didn't have 30+ years of RPG industry to help guide them. They were operating in a strange land without a compass. Yet the games they developed and produce are more robust and more tightly designed than most games that follow, even today in the age of open beta testing. Kudos, gentlemen, and thank you.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Selected Bit from the Old School Thread

This is a quote from the thread I linked to in my previous post. It is from an actual-play report, post #65:
There we met some elves (ie: killed three and Charmed two) . . .
This simple statement floored me. I have a vague memory of literally everything you meet as a character being a potential foe. Everything. I honestly can not remember the last time in my playing career that a statement like that would be viable. Drow are fair game, of course, but he said elves. How long has it been since elves could be just slain like any other wandering monster? I would wager that almost any DM running a game not in the old school style would balk at such a turn of events. I daresay that many DMs would actually penalize the players in some way, perhaps even forcing some alignment alteration on them.

I'm having a hard time really communicating my feelings on this. Sorry if it is confusing. If you get it, though, you get it. For me it is a really cool reminder of a really cool aspect of the old school way, an aspect I forgot about and abandoned long ago. I'm very happy to be reacquainted with it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Now THIS Is Old School

I ran across a thread over at It is written by a guy who had never experienced old school play before. I'm not sure what his past experience was, but he seems to have missed OD&D the first time around. Anyway, he has some actual-play posts along with his thoughts on old school play and OD&D. I always enjoy hearing about someone "seeing the light". It seems they spend a lot of time running from shit, which is the #1 survival skill in the old school. One thing I've found interesting is that his group has made some poor decisions, but they survive. Maybe he has a lenient referee, I don't know, but I prefer to think that OD&D characters aren't as fragile as later editions would have us think. This group survives its bad decisions, learns from the mistakes, and heads back into the dungeon. Great stuff.

This is the thread, if you want to check it out. It is very entertaining.

A Wacky Idea

Wacky, because compared to my other ideas, this one is pretty damn simple. My mind has wandered back to the LBBs, so that is what this is for, but usable with anything D&Dish.

A Magic-user can cast spells in two basic ways:

  1. From a scroll or spellbook, which results in the destruction of the scroll/spellbook entry
  2. From memory
As I recall, there are no set rules for how long it actually takes to memorize spells in OD&D, but we pretty much go with the 15 minutes per spell level formula. So, scrolls notwithstanding, if you find yourself needing to cast a spell you don't have memorized, your choices are to take the time to memorize it (IF the referee allows it based on how long since you last rested) or you can cast it direct from the spellbook, but lose the spell. I have another idea.

The Magic-user can "ritual cast" direct from the spellbook, without losing the spell. It takes 1 minute per spell level (I use the 10-second combat round, adjust that casting time to best suit your combat round). Casting in this way still uses a spell slot of the appropriate level, so if you suddenly feel the need to cast Light but have already used all your 1st level spells, too bad.

Obviously, this is not something to be used in combat when you discover that your Fireballs are useless and what you really need is a Lightning Bolt. It does off the Magic-user a little versatility outside combat, though. In my estimation that helps keep the "mysterious wizard" from simply being artillery.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Random Thoughts (Because All My Thoughts Are Random Lately)

So, here we are in Day Whatever of my undefined mood. There is nothing good about it, but there are differences in how I think. For example, when I'm not particularly focused, I tend to think in the abstract/big picture sense. Case in point . . .

OD&D Classes

Being as how Mr. Gygax went to such lengths to stress that the LBBs were guidelines, isn't it possible that the classes given were: (1) Examples (2) Starting points (3) Some barebones to get things rolling? I know I have pontificated about using just the basic three classes. I was thinking about the Greyhawk supplement and the new classes in Strategic Review. It really occurred to me that the main three are starting points, they are the basic classes, the chassis, if you will. Look at all the variants and sub-classes of the fighter. It could be argued that they are attempts to power-up the fighter, but I don't buy that for two reasons: #1 - Why not just power-up the fighter? Why do you have to cook up a sub-type? #2 - The variants all have limits imposed upon them.

That bring me to another thought: How many referees out there stick to the book when it comes to limitations placed on classes? If a player wants to play a ranger, but his stat rolls don't quite measure up, do you fudge things in some way? I always did, mainly because players have always been in short supply and I didn't want to jeopardize the campaign before it even started by being inflexible during character generation. Now that I think about it, though, it's more than a little ridiculous. I'm from the time of Gygaxian Naturalism and my campaign design tends to bear that out. So, here I am trying to detail a consistent and internally logical world, but throwing consistency and logic out the window when it came time to roll up characters.

It is stated here and there in the books that certain classes are rare or uncommon. The rules support this notion mechanically by imposing restrictions on the classes. These restrictions make the class in question either more difficult for a character to take, and/or provide an undesirable counterpoint for the player to contend with. For example, the Paladin. This class requires a Charisma of 17 before it can even be taken. A 17 is a tall order, even if you roll 4d6, keep the best three and arrange to taste. Not to mention that the paladin is a fighter sub-class, so that 17 would be better served applied to Strength or Constitution. Then there's the fact that the paladin must be Lawful (we're talking Greyhawk here), and only associate with Neutral characters for brief, specific missions. If these restrictions are enforced, paladins would indeed be rare, because it would take a certain player and campaign to take the class.

Most of the classes outside the main three have such restrictions, that if ignored, can lead to them overshadowing the originals. I think that is the real strength of the original three classes; their versatility. If you do ignore the restrictions on the sub-classes and allow them to be more freely selectable it kind of wrecks the internal structure that supports the relative power balance between the classes.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A New Spin on Magic: Pt 3

An excellent point was brought up in comments on Pt 1, concerning Scribes banking a bunch of scrolls, presumably during downtime. I have thought about it and have some ideas. I want to put them in a new post, though, so the ideas, and comments on them, have their own "home".

Under this idea scrolls are two things: not cheap, and fragile.

Ink is Not Cheap

Encoding scrolls requires special ink. This is an abstract concept, which individual referees may make as detailed as desired. I intend to keep it fairly abstract, as I present it here. It costs 100 gp per level of spell for the ink. Anytime a Scribe is in a town or larger, he may purchase ink simply by player declaration. The player notes how many gold pieces were spent on ink, and that is that. Of course, ink may also be found as treasure, which could be significant at lower levels or further from civilization.

Scrolls Are Fragile

Scrolls may be carried in reasonably durable containers, but they are bulky and make getting the desired scroll in play more difficult. At best, a container could provide a saving throw bonus to any scrolls in it, based on hazard. Unprotected scrolls would be subject to destruction from the most basic of hazards, especially water. Rain, creek/river crossings, or even water based attacks targetting the Scribe (they're not hard to spot) can ruin exposed scrolls. Of course, fire spells disaster for scrolls, as does acid, or anything with that form of attack, such as green slime.

Oops, I Meant to Grab the Other One

Finally, a large number of scrolls will make it increasingly difficult to grab just the right one. Of course, this being old-school play, clever players will describe in detail how the scrolls are tabbed and organized. Yet, in the heat of the moment there should always be some chance of grabbing the wrong scroll. I think that's how it should be handled, too. Not with some sort of fixed amount of time to fish it out, but with a chance to grab the desired scroll. That can then be modified by how they're carried and organized.

Limit the Number of Spells per Scroll

This would be based on level. Say, something like the maximum number of levels spells they can put on one scroll is equal to their level? That keeps the other limits above in play, but isn't too restrictive. Besides, with the fragility of the medium, would a Scribe put too many spells on one scroll anyway? All your eggs in one basket and all that.

These are just some ideas to offset players taking a week or so of game time to craft a library of spells. I'd like to hear others.

And Another Thing

In a similar vein, I think beginning Scribe characters should be allowed to start with one scroll of each spell they know.

A new Spin on Magic Pt 2

Encoding Scrolls

Scribes may only encode a limited number of scrolls per day. Use the Number of Spells by Level, from Table 9: Magic-User Advancement (pg 13). It requires 30 minutes per spell level to encode the spells.
At lower levels the maximum number of spells per day obviously doesn't jive with how long it actually takes to encode the scroll. I apologize if this seems jarring. The plain truth is that if it is represented as taking the entire day to encode the spell slots available, then the class is screwed. It would take an entire day for a 1st level Scribe to encode a Sleep scroll, one turn to use it, then another day to encode another one. Yuck. The other side of it was to just make it a flat number of minutes per spell level and leave it at that. Scribes would be overpowered like that. The same 1st level Scribe could spend the same day encoding Sleep, except he would have a brace of Sleep scrolls at the end of the day. This is my compromise, which I narrate by saying that as the Scribe advances, his mental discipline and ability to concentrate and encode for longer periods of time.
By the way, the player can pretty much call the spells in his spellbook whatever he wants. As long as it is known that Silver Tongued Devil is actually Charm Person everybody will be happy.

Pronouncing Scrolls
This is pretty much the easy part.  Unless it is an invented spell, the spells are the same as in S&W Core. Some may not be particularly suited to scroll work, that is left to individual referees to determine. In any event, spells that are pronounced from scrolls have the same range, duration, etc. They are cast at the level of the Scribe who encoded them.

Other Considerations

  • Scribes may not cast spells directly from their spellbooks. The information in the book describes how to encapsulate magical power in a scroll. It is not actually a spell. Likewise, spells encoded to scrolls may not be transcribed into the Scribe's spellbook.
  • Scribes begin with 3 or 4 spells in their spellbooks. Any other spells must be acquired through play. They do not automatically add spells as they gain levels.
  • All other class information, such as HD, XP, and so forth, is identical to the Magic-User.

That's it for now. I'm sure you noticed that I didn't address clerical magic. I'm not sure how it fits into this paradigm. I'm thinking on it, though. I'm also thinking of something similar, except with potions. I've run into some potential issues with that one already, and it's still in the conceptual stages. I think it could be neat if I can work it out, though.

A New Spin on Magic Pt 1

First things first. This is not a "new" magic system. Been there, done that. It's a fun exercise, but this is different. I'm trying to describe a new way of looking at the mechanics. It's still the same system under the hood. I'm still using Spells Usable per Day, for example, just putting a different spin on it.

One more thing: this is written with Swords & Wizardry Core, 4th Printing in mind, although it is usable with any similar rules set.

Anyway, here goes . . .

Magic-users are called Scribes. Scribes know the ancient languages of magic, called the Eldritch Tongues, and use them to encode magical power and intent into scrolls.  This is the only way magic is practiced. Technically speaking, anyone who knows at least one of the Eldritch Tongues can write spells to scrolls (known as encoding), and cast spells written to scrolls (known as pronouncing). The reality of such an endeavor is an entirely different matter.

The Eldritch Tongues

The Eldritch Tongues are all dead languages. They are very difficult to learn due to their intricate nature. Many subtle nuances of inflection and tone are required to control magical energies. The written language required to communicate such intricacies demands the utmost dedication from one who would master it. Scribes sacrifice the youth of their lives to just such an undertaking. Mastery of the lost languages of magic is not for the dabbler or casual student.

Scribes may use their "Max. Number of Languages" (pg7) to select Eldritch Tongues. Their are eight Eldritch Tongues, so no Scribe will know them all without some form of magical aid. However, knowing only one is enough to encode scrolls, and pronounce any scroll encoded in the selected tongue. Knowing a variety of tongues is useful for pronouncing scrolls discovered in musty libraries and lost temples. Such broad knowledge gives the scribe versatility.

Other classes may select one Eldritch Tongue at character creation. It requires four of their available language slots to do so. Such a character may pronounce any scroll encoded in the tongue they know. They may also encode scrolls in their chosen tongue, however time and material costs are both doubled. It is worth noting that locating spells to encode could be problematic (see Spellbooks below).

Table: The Eldritch Tongues (use d8 to randomize scrolls found in treasure)
(1) Ohlish
(2) Turlian
(3) Vesh
(4) K'Kiri
(5) Molesti
(6) Gazeeri
(7) Banarrian
(8) Hullish

It is possible that certain tongues are better suited to some spells than others. This is left for individual referees to determine.


Scribes maintain books of spells, from which to encode their scrolls. They are very protective and secretive about their spellbooks. They never allow other scribes to "thumb through" their spellbooks. They do not share spells. Rarely, and for great cost, will they sell one of their spells. Those strictures apply to other scribes. Scribes will never, under any circumstances, allow spells or spellbooks be in the possession of non-scribes. They will not sell, trade, or otherwise sanction such. If they come to know of a non-scribe in possession of spells or a spellbook they will pursue any avenue necessary to recover it.

The scribe must have the spellbook at hand in order to encode a scroll. The spell formula are far too complicated to memorize fully. A scribe without a spellbook is completely unable to encode scrolls. Spellbooks are also written in the Eldritch Tongues, so any spellbook found as treasure must be written a tongue known to the scribe to be of use.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Different Approach to Magic

DISCLAIMER: I'm not sure I would ever do something like this. It's just an idea I'm batting around.

So, I'm still in my gaming funk, unable to settle my mind on a system long enough to get anything done. While I'm in this state I do have the occasional idea, I just can't stay focused long enough to develop it to any degree. Which is where this idea comes in.

I was thinking about some of the references to "formulas" in the First Fantasy Campaign. I'm not entirely sure how Mr. Arneson implemented this idea. Thinking about it led me to the idea that spells aren't cast in the traditional sense. Instead, they are cast from scrolls. Magic-users scribe their spells onto scrolls, to be used later. My premise is that casting takes too long to be done in the context of the game session. The whys are undetermined, but could be that magic is too powerful to be used in more than small, carefully controlled amounts. Whatever. The spell can be released from the scroll in a single round, though, since the spell and magic to power it are crafted into the scroll.

One of the limiting factors would be language. The scrolls would have to be written in one of several specific, and dead, languages. I'm thinking eight languages because it is a decent enough number to work with, and easy enough to randomize. That would give an extra, and more immediate, meaning to the Bonus Languages column under Intelligence.

Potions would get a similar treatment, allowing a different sort of thing. Maybe some spells are better suited, or even restricted, to one medium or another.

Obviously, I don't have the mechanical details very well thought out at this point. This is an idea I like, though, and this doldrum I am in has made it difficult to work up enough enthusiasm to post about anything. So, here it is, an idea in the rough. Hopefully I can put some meat on the bones as the week goes on.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Simplicity and the Gentle Power Curve

Disclaimer (for those who don't already know): I'm a Fighter man.

I've been ruminating the last few days on a couple of things. At first they didn't seem related, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw a connection. My frantic ADD swing has led me back to a few of my old favorites. These are games that I know well from repeated readings over the last number of years, or the fact that I've used them. If I were to try to use them now, though, I would have to teach my wife and kids these games. They already know old-school style D&D, but one of these other systems would be a from-the-ground-up proposition. Probably not a very fun one, either.

But isn't that why we game in the first place? Fun? Maybe in a different time, and with a different group of players, it was fun to learn and try new systems. In my here and now, though, that's not where it's at. However, it isn't a case of D&D being fun because it is the only game in my house. It's not fun due to a lack of choice. It's fun because it is fun. Even all the way back to the LBBs (I would argue especially in the LBBs), it is a very tight system. All the parts work well together, and it isn't until "improvements" were made that problems started to develop. In its most simple state, D&D is still an excellent engine for fantasy gaming.

That simplicity began to collapse as the power curve started going up. I have been guilty (in these very posts) of trying to make Fighters more powerful so they are more on par with other classes, Magic-users especially. What I should have been doing was lowering the M-U's power curve, not raising the Fighter's. (I do believe that, as a playable class, Fighters do need more than what is offered in the LBBs. The class offers little fun to the player. A Fighter in the LBBs gets a HD each level and gets 10% better at hitting opponents every 3 levels. Not a lot to get excited about. But, I digress.)

Monster HD go up in response to more powerful spells and class abilities. Monster abilities, even if it is just better damage, go up to keep the monsters a challenge. Our simple little power curve became a self-perpetuating spiral of one-upsmanship.

The sweet spot

I've been reading Adventurer Conqueror King again, and in light of power curves and simplicity, I have to say, it hits a sweet spot. The core engine is simple and elegant, because it doesn't stray too far from the founding principles. The characters are simple archetypes, but there are customization options to keep things interesting. They don't wreck the power curve, though. ACKS has an inherent interest in maintaining the power curve.

That interest is, of course, the endgame. For a fully realized endgame to work there has to be two things going on: a steady progression toward the goal, and relative power levels once the endgame is reached. Considering these points individually:

Steady progression is achieved by concise rules supporting henchmen so that players (not necessarily characters, because it is the players that are interfacing with the systems) can develop an understanding and experience with the building blocks of the domain systems. Learning to handle henchmen, hireling, and eventually mercenaries, are vital components of domain management. Simply waiting until the character reaches Name level and opening the doors to Castle Depo doesn't really work.

The above point is crucial to getting to the endgame. This point is paramount for operating in the endgame. The characters have to be somewhat balanced at the highest level. The game tops out at 14th level for all characters. If one 14th level character is clearly superior, then the endgame collapses under the weight of the imbalance. Either nobody will want to play through to the endgame, or everyone will want to play the unbalanced class so they can dominate the endgame.

Ok, that's another digression, but it was to make a point. The point is that ACKS attempts to have balanced classes from the outset and keep them balanced. That balance occurs along a fairly modest power curve. The modest power curve keeps things simple: player choices matter in the scheme of things, combats are shorter, creative solutions to problems are not only encouraged, they are necessary because there isn't some uber-feat/ability for dealing with the challenge. Simplicity is King.