Thursday, September 24, 2009

Real-Life C.H.U.D.s!

Well, not really (these too look way too ill-fed, for one thing), but this article over at The Sun got me thinking, quite naturally, to my gaming-addled brain, about those who live in underground environments.

Are these not the orcs and goblins of which our games spin tales, who dwell within the nameless darks, venturing forth to plunder from the surface world in order to drag their loot into their subterranean dwellings?

In all seriousness, it's a tragic thing that folks need to live like this, but it did give me a game-related idea. What if there were ordinary folks who just lived in the dungeons because they chose to? What if there were just first-level shmoes who had a room tucked away in the dungeon, off the beaten track, who knew some of the ins and outs and called some abandoned storage room home? No monsters, no rakshasa or wererat trying to lull the player characters into a false sense of security. Just people. Villagers in the dungeon, but not all conveniently put together where the PCs can figure out who is most likely friend or foe.

Think Newt from "Aliens", or Marvin in "Die Hard 2", or any number of characters from "Beauty and the Beast".

Oh... it makes the rakshasas and wererats all the worse, because the players won't know when they should or shouldn't trust the "nice, ordinary folks" they find in the tunnels. Friend? Foe? I can't tell!

It gives much more meaning to the "parley" option. Such dwellers would know at least the local topography, beasties, etc. and might be inclined to share their information for some loot, or food, or news, or whatever. Or they could turn out to be a nest of doppelgangers and kill off the party one by one. Muhahahaha...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

T1: The Village of Hommlet

Hands down, module T1: The Village of Hommlet is my favorite AD&D adventure. Better than Vault of the Drow, better than Tomb of Horrors, better than the Slavers modules or Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

Many AD&D fans disagree, and I think I know at least part of the reason. It's a hundred times better without the Temple of Elemental Evil, the long-awaited sequel.

Let us turn back the clock. The year is 1979. One of the several modules that TSR publishes is Gary Gygax's "The Village of Hommlet". It describes an intrigue-filled village and a fairly modest ruin/dungeon complex. What it also does --absolutely brilliantly-- is describe an historical background that is really and truly meaningful to the module setting. The World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting folio was a year away. We had little idea what these powers and kingdoms were like; Verbobonc, the Kron Hills, Celene, etc. were all just names (if that). Too, the deities of the setting, like the central player Saint Cuthbert, were little more than names from artifacts in the DMG. And the Old Faith of the druids? That was a new wrinkle.

It was all so fresh and new. The WoG folio filled in some of the gaps (as well as using the module's background as an historical object lesson), but there was still so much to figure out. And it would all be revealed, we were promised, with the release of T2: The Temple of Elemental Evil.

We waited six long years between the release of T1 and what would eventually be released as T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil. (I am proud to say that I purchased the very-first-ever copy of that module sold, at Gencon, signed by EGG Himself. I am less proud to say that I eventually sold it, albeit for a tidy sum, but hardly what it would be worth today.) And what did we do in the meantime?

We ran the hell out of it. Over and over again. I never got around to doing my own version of the Temple, because it was always "just over the horizon" (kinda like Castle Greyhawk, but I digress). But man, I had party after party arrive at the Inn of the Welcome Wench, and interact with all the villagers, whose roles and personalities I could pretty much do by rote. And the obligatory visit to the moat house, and the confrontation with Lareth the Beautiful.

One party ended up finding the lair of the demoness Lolth. She was a Type V demon. Remember, this was way before a lot of that particular mythology got set down. She was little more than a name at that time.

One party got mixed up in the power politics between Burne and Rufus and the Viscount of Verbobonc, after one of their thiefly con-jobs got unraveled. They ended up burning down the tower and fleeing, after killing one of the Viscount's guard-captains, and with the men of the patrol hot on their heels.

Yet another party did the best yet. They cleared out the moat house and ended up using Hommlet as a base of operations for many months as they explored various lairs and ruins in the Kron Hills and the Gnarley Forest. They eventually moved on to the Wild Coast, but not after one of them assumed the command of the village militia.

The latest foray into Hommlet didn't end so well. The PCs took on a hireling, who ended up calling down an illusionary blue dragon whilst off traipsing about the Kron Hills. They didn't realize until it was too late that attacking him, rather than the dragon, would have saved their hides. Hommlet doesn't always end well.

See a pattern here? None of them ever made it to the Temple itself. The moat house was the finale. Once that was done, the village remained, and new adventuring opportunities presented themselves. Trade routes, gnomes in the Kron hills, Verbobonc... I didn't need the Temple!

The Temple, once it came out, was bloated. It lacked the elegant simplicity of Hommlet and the moat house. I'm certain there was an element of inflated expectations-- we'd been waiting for six years for the damn thing, after all. But it lacked verve. It was very very complex, and the complicated bits didn't really seem to fit all that well together, especially given the scenario that Hommlet had laid out, albeit in a nascent fashion. Competing factions within the Temple seemed an unnecessary complication, and where the heck was Lolth in all this?

Also, the leveling sequence never seemed to make a lot of sense to me. A party would get to 4th level... max... going through Hommlet and the moat house. How they were supposed to go on to the Temple, and engage in repeated forays (even with the help of the notable NPCs in Hommlet and Nulb) is beyond me. The sinister forces in Hommlet have the werewithal to hire a high-level assassin just to take care of nuisances, for crying out loud. Wouldn't they do a little bit more if they were being set upon salami-style? (A slice at a time.)

In the end, I used the kidnapped-prince theme to great effect, but discarded just about everything else. I've actually never run Temple of Elemental Evil (although I've toyed with the idea of making my own). But I've run Hommlet more than a dozen times, and had a blast every time. Its utility comes from its elegance, and its simplicity. Perfect.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Designing the setting: top-down vs. bottom-up

There are two basic approaches to setting design when it comes to starting a new campaign. The first, as immortalized in the DMG, is the "pinpoint" approach to campaign design.
"The milieu for initial adventuring should be kept to a size commensurate with the needs of campaign participants -- your available time as compared with the demands of the players. This will typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby. As background you inform them that they are from some nearby place where they were apprentices learning their respective professions, that they met by chance in an inn or tavern and resolved to journey together to seek their fortunes in the dangerous environment, and that, beyond the knowledge common to the area (speech, alignments, races, and the like), they know nothing of the world. Placing these new participants in a small setting means that you need only do minimal work describing the place and its inhabitants." (DMG, pp. 86-87)
I daresay this is the source of the whole "you all meet in a tavern" cliche, even if its original origins may have been mislaid over the years. The section continues to describe the method by which the campaign world is slowly detailed; the basic gist of it is that the world only needs to be described as far as the player characters need it to be. The dungeon master need not flesh out the world until the players are likely to need it fleshed out. This is the bottom-up approach to setting design. You start with a village and a dungeon, and you work from there. It's an approach that should be well familiar to those of us who cut our teeth on the Village of Hommlet, long before there was any Temple of Elemental Evil to move on to afterward.

Back in 1979, this approach made sense. There were no published D&D campaign worlds other than Judges Guild's City State of the Invincible Overlord, and that fit into the "detail a single area, and move out from there" approach. There was no grand overview. No sense of how the City State of the Invincible Overlord fit in with the City State of the World Emperor, and how either of those political entities interacted with the Barbarian Altanis or what the heck were the Isles of the Blest. Isolated spots, like the city-states, were incredibly well-detailed, but the grand overview was lacking. It was a world built of pinpoints, built from the bottom up. (The way the wildernesses were described was singularly appropriate for what we now call sandbox play, but that's beyond the scope of this post.)

Of course, with the publication of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, that changed. Now there was a coherent framework, built from the top-down. You knew where the City of Greyhawk was relative to Verbobonc and Urnst, and had some idea of the politics and factions and races, and how they all fit together. When the boxed set came out a couple years later, the picture was even more complete, as it saw fit to include gods and goddesses and much more detail.

I would say that the initial publication of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting folio represents a watershed in campaign design theory. It overturned the established order. No longer was a village and a dungeon enough to start a campaign; now you needed at least a continent, or a couple of kingdoms at the most bare-bones level. Gary Gygax himself established the new theory of campaign design in 1983, in an article in Polyhedron magazine entitled "Setting the Milieu".
"Rather than working haphazardly from a dungeon to a world in ever-widening concentric circles (and I have done this in the early days), the DM should broadly outline his or her universe, sketch out the world upon which initial action will occur, generally detail a continent, develop a section of that continent (perhaps four or five states), prepare a full history of the central area in which the adventurers will find themselves, and then begin recording the minutiae of the campaign. Highly detailed work must be done for the major urban and rural settings of the heart of the action." (Polyhedron #12, p.16)
What a difference four years makes!

I must say, once the World of Greyhawk folio came out, I don't think I ever even attempted to run a game that didn't have a continent-wide map (or at least a sub-continent). Until a couple of years ago, that is. When I decided I was going to run an AD&D game, I put together a town, a dungeon, and a quick wilderness map. That was it. After a couple of gaming sessions, I plopped the whole thing into the World of Greyhawk, but only out of love of that particular setting; I could very well have stuck with the original conception and see where it took me.

That, I think, is the heart of the difference between the two approaches. The top-down vision of campaign design gives the dungeon master the final say in the broad brush-strokes. The kingdoms, the religions, the planes of existence, are already at least sketched out. Sure, they can be changed, but even the act of putting them down on paper gives them a certain permanence. The bottom-up approach, on the other hand, might be seen as giving the players a certain hand in the development of the setting. Your dwarf fighter wants to be a disinherited prince from a dwarven kingdom? Well, you could try to shoehorn that into an already-established setting, but if the setting consists of a town and a dungeon, then your options as a DM are a bit more broad. This speaks to the "say yes" philosophy of DMing.

My current game is on hiatus for a variety of reasons. I wonder if it wouldn't be nifty to restart it with a bottom-up approach. What do you all think? I map out a village, a 30-mile wilderness, and a dungeon. "You all meet in a tavern, and decide to go to the village and explore the dungeon."

Then just say "GO!"

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Arcane Legions

I must confess I don't own the rules to this game, let alone can I say that I've played it. Judging by what I've seen, this doesn't seem like a game I would be particularly interested in. But sweet merciful bloodstained Gods! They have a series of "how to" videos up on YouTube that are just unbelievably good. Here's the first; they have a bunch.



They're funny, informative, and they actually try. They should include a DVD with all these videos with the rulebook. I must wonder why other game companies haven't thought of such a visceral way of bringing in the players (or, if they have, I've missed it). And no, I don't count the D&D 4E videos; they were all cute, and no substance.

Yes, I'm sure there's a quip in there somewhere, but I'm not going to go all edition-war in this post.

As for why I wouldn't probably go for this particular game, I can name two reasons. First, I'm not a fan of "fantasy suddenly introduced into history" scenarios. That's why I have avoided Deadlands like the plague. Second, if I am playing a minis game, I don't want to see huge cardboard blocks with icons and loads of data. If I wanted that, I'd play System 7 Napoleonics, or a standard hex-and-counter wargame. I want to see minis, and flecking, and terrain, and not be distracted by game mechanics on the actual table.

But that does not dilute my absolute love of these videos, and my belief that the gaming industry as a whole would be well served by adopting a how-to concept like this, to supplement regular rules.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Man, I Loved Second Edition


When Second Edition hit the shelves in 1989, I was so into it it's hard to describe. I loved everything about it. It seemed to streamline everything that needed streamlining-- THAC0 was a huge hit in my games-- and the concept of "splat books" was new and exciting at the time.

I remember my ambitious plan to go through every kingdom in Greyhawk and come up with an applicable fighter kit, thief kit, etc. You would finally be able to play a Yeomanry Fighter, or an Almor cleric. I had dozens of the damn things written out (all, naturally, with the applicable formatting, or as close as I could get to it using Wordstar, which was the word processor of choice at the time for us DOS users).

These were the heady days of CompuServe ($12 per hour) and GEnie ($6 per hour, if I recall correctly). And AOL was just getting started, so there was that as well. It turns out AOL made the transition from dial-up BBS to web-based portal, but it was by no means a done deal when we were still breathlessly awaiting the Complete Paladins Handbook. There was a lot of chatter on the BBS's about how to really fill out every nook and cranny.

This was also the time I was in the Air Force, and my friend Pete (who's now a Major staring into the dark abyss of becoming a Lt. Col-- 18 years after we last rolled d20's together) was DMing a Dark Sun campaign. Oh, I had great fun with my half-giant fighter with the 21 strength. But the group moved on first to Champions (I had a character with a bionic arm), and to Palladium, and I wasn't thrilled with either the system or the setting, and sat that one out. Then we all ended up getting transferred. But I kept up with second edition.

Once I got out of the military, I was still a huge 2E-head. Back in Boston, I ran my legendary Greyhawk campaign, and had a blast (and, if I may be permitted to name-drop, so did Erik Mona, whom I had the pleasure of DMing in said Greyhawk campaign, and whose name some Greyhawk aficionados and others might recognize; at the time he looked like David Mustaine, which fact I never tire of reminding him when we chat).

But I've got to say somehow 2E eventually wore thin. Was it too slick? Was the fact that you had essentially an infinite number of classes (or sub-classes) thanks to the concepts of kits just too much? Bear in mind that some kits were ridiculously over-powered, and others were similarly lame. And all the more were the ones that I came up with. Oh, you're a Geoffian Fighter? You've got X, Y, and Z skills and abilities. You come from neighboring Sterich? Well, see, you're completely different.

It was all just too much. Too many fiddly rules. 2E ended up being the ultimate bulwark against the onslaught of the skill system. Who needs skills? You can choose from a thousand different classes, races, and kits! Surely one of those will fit the bill you're looking for. It ended up just being a complete mess, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. I left RPGs for a decade before coming back to 1E, which, while more complex, in its way is still more flexible in that it doesn't expect you to use every rule. There was still a bit of the "frontier mentality" that said the DM was king, and the game was his to bend and warp as he saw fit. So when I came back, I went to AD&D 1E.

But one thing I still to this day love-- the Ravenloft Monstrous Compendiums. The idea of a 3-ring binder for monsters was a good one in theory, but in practice it ended up not working. But Grave Elementals? Oh, HELL yeah. I'm keeping them no matter what edition I use.

Friday, September 11, 2009

CotMA Level 7 Coming Soon!

I want to send out a hearty "thank you" to everyone who has donated to keep work on the Castle of the Mad Archmage going. Your support has been really overwhelming, and I cannot thank you all enough. You've really shown me that the work is appreciated, and I am pleased to report that work on Level 7 has begun again. I just received the maps from Joe B. (well... I guess he'd be the other Joe B.), and I've started work on the text. This level is a real beast, as many of the "rooms" have several sub-rooms (A, B, C, etc.), so I don't know how long it'll take to complete, but I'll be posting regular progress reports over on the right.

Thanks again-- I'm still flabbergasted at the show of support.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

TV Shows That Would Make Awesome RPGs

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers



I'm not ordinarily a fan of the whole "wild west meets space" thing, but damned if this show didn't do it right. The mechanical horses were a bit annoying, but they built an enormous back story that would make a terrific setting for an RPG. The Super Troopers, the Queen of the Crown (and the Crown Agents), the myriad of aliens... it is a gold mine for RPG goodness.

Gargoyles



Oh. My. Gods. How did Disney never turn this into an RPG? Magical creatures, mutants, robots, and cyborgs, and Shakespeare (MacBeth-- yes, THAT MacBeth--, Oberon, and Puck are recurring characters, for crying out loud!). There are some epic themes that resonate through this series, and the notion of finding new and unique variations on the "European gargoyles" trope could keep such a game (and game supplements) going for quite some time.

Disney's Aladdin



The movies were good, but the TV show was better. They vastly expanded the rogues' gallery with really interesting villains (Abis Mal, Mozenrath, and Mechanicles "the greatest of the Great Greek Philosophers"), and gave the whole setting a lot of heft. You could play an entire campaign in Agrabah and never encounter Jasmine or Aladdin (although you might well encounter Sadira). The quantity of other characters makes it a worthy candidate.

Thundercats



You could make a lot out of this show; different types of cats having different abilities, and there are an infinite number of potential "hideous mutant" types, not to mention the Lunateks. And Mumm-ra is the ultimate recurring villain; defeatable in the short term, but never defeatable in the long term. Add in the Amazons, the Berbils, Wollows, and Bolkins, and there's a decent lineup of NPCs.

Pirates of Dark Water



Ignore the whole "lost 13 treasures" thing; this cartoon had possibly the richest background of any 2-season cartoon ever made. And if you're looking for a template for a maritime-based game, look no further. Noy Jitat! What a game this would make.

That's my five. What show would you like to see turned into an RPG?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Main Gauche in AD&D

My previous post on parrying got me thinking about using weapons as main gauche. For those not versed in the art of sword-fighting, main gauche (French for "left hand") refers to a secondary weapon, something between a dagger and a shortsword, used in the "off hand" to complement a one-handed sword.

I don't recall ever seeing rules in 1E for using a main gauche. I suppose it got covered in one of the various splat books for 2E, but if that's the case, I certainly don't remember it. For 1E, I would allow characters to use a dagger as a main gauche in lieu of a shield, thus essentially reversing the rule in the DMG (p. 70). A character with a dagger as main gauche can opt to have it treated as a buckler or attack with it at the usual penalties (he chooses at the beginning of the round). The fact that it is treated as a buckler means it can only be used to get a bonus to AC against a single opponent. A hand axe cannot be used as a main gauche.

If the DM chooses to use rules for main gauche, he might also want to allow two new weapons into play, specifically designed to be used as a main gauche. These are the sword-breaker and trident dagger.

The sword-breaker is a long and sturdy dagger with a series of notches cut into the back of the blade like the teeth of a comb. If an opponent using a melee weapon misses by "1" against a character using such a weapon as main gauche, the opponent's weapon is considered to have been snagged. On the next round, the opponent must roll "to hit" successfully against AC 8 to free his weapon. If, in the process, he rolls a natural 1, his weapon is broken. Pole-arms and two-handed weapons cannot be snagged or broken. Magical weapons cannot be broken, except by magical sword-breakers of at least the same bonus as the weapon snagged. While a weapon is snagged, the sword-breaker cannot be used as main gauche. The sword-breaker costs 20 g.p., and otherwise functions as a dagger in combat.

The trident dagger is an ordinary-looking dagger until a secret catch in the handle is activated. When that happens, the blade springs into three parts and the weapon is able to snag opponents' weapons. If an opponent using a melee weapon misses by "1" against a character using such a weapon as main gauche, the opponent's weapon is considered to be snagged. On the next round, the opponent must roll "to hit" successfully against AC 8 to free his weapon. If, in the process, he rolls a natural 1, his weapon is ripped from his hand and hurled 1d6 feet away. Pole-arms and two-handed weapons cannot be snagged or hurled. When a weapon is snagged, the trident dagger cannot be used as main gauche. The trident dagger costs 25 g.p. and otherwise functions as a dagger in combat.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Parrying Rules for (A)D&D

Okay...

I think I've come up with an elegant solution to the whole "how the heck do I actively defend against an enemy?" question. And it works so well with (A)D&D, I thought I would share. How about this:

Anyone engaged in melee can opt to parry. The term includes dodging, avoiding, etc. as well as literal parrying of weapons.

The character opts to parry as part of their normal attack in the melee round. Characters who lose initiative may not parry. Parrying subtracts a number from the opponents' "to hit" roll equal to half the number chosen by the character, to a maximum of their level (round down). Characters are penalized by the full amount on their own "to hit" roll. Opponents of fighters (and cavaliers, and sub-classes of both) are penalized the full amount, rather than half, due to the training they receive. Monsters can parry at a level equal to their hit dice, at the full rate as if they were fighters.

EXAMPLE: A 5th level fighter chooses to parry 3 points during his round. Both his opponent and he suffer a -3 penalty on their "to hit" rolls.

EXAMPLE: A 4th level magic-user chooses to parry 5 points during his round. He cannot, however, since he can only is 4th level. He opts to parry 4 points. His opponent is -2 on its "to hit" rolls. He is -4 "to hit" for that round.

My only concern is, is this too under-powered a rule? Would you ever parry in melee, given these rules?

Fixing AD&D

Nobody actually played AD&D the way it was written, including Gygax himself. We all had (or have) house-rules, sections we ignore, other sections we embellish, etc. All my musings on this blog thusfar have been geared towards some sort of new game (although that was not my intention when I began the series), and I'd like to see how I can apply my thoughts to my favorite RPG; Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (oft'times referred to as 1E).

Right off the bat, out go psionics. I've never liked the concept, and don't think it's necessary in a fantasy game. Why bother when you have magic? Pick one or the other; I could see doing an AD&D game without magic-users or clerics, but where psionics took their place. But "mainstream" AD&D doesn't need it.

And hot on those heels, in come more character classes. I know, I know; I was toying with the idea of paring down the core character classes to a mere two just a couple of days ago. But if it's AD&D I'm talking about, more classes are better. Not necessarily willy-nilly; I'm not talking archers and anti-paladins, but it definitely seems like there's room for another magic-user sub-class (necromancer? invoker?). A straight-out bard would be welcome. I've always loved the idea of the mountebank as a sub-class of thief; essentially a con man who dabbles in minor magics. I wrote a jester class earlier this year, and I'd probably toss that in as well. I'd keep clerics, if for no other reason than I think they're too iconic in D&D terms to jettison. I'd get rid of monks, though; they don't make a lot of sense in a medieval setting. I happen to like cavaliers, myself, but I'd probably put them under fighters as a sub-class.

Combat needs some work. I'd change initiative to make it individual for PCs. Make the difference between armor type and armor class more obvious, so the weapons vs. armor-type table makes more sense. Give some sort of option for "active defense" that would make parrying a real option. And I would split hit points into wounds and fatigue. The former heal more slowly, the latter are recovered quickly. But I wouldn't want to go overboard; if it ends up slowing down combat with a jillion modifiers, I'd toss it out and start over.

Gnomes would be history. I know the removal of gnomes from the 4E Players Handbook caused a minor ruckus, but there's just not a need for a half-dwarf half-elf demihuman. I'd include all the sub-races from Unearthed Arcana.

Magic would pretty much stay the same, although I'd beef up some of the magic-user spell lists with some more other-planar spells. And (f)lame arrow would get a complete re-write. Obviously the magic-user sub-classes would need spells of their own, and the bard would get songs with magical effects.

Monsters would have some of the worst of the Fiend Folio excised, fill in some of the more obvious gaps (special familiars for all alignments, for example, and more Upper Planes creatures). I'd pare down the dinosaurs, and include the "missing dragons" that Richard Lloyd wrote about in Dragon magazine (filling in the color wheel with evil dragons). I like the crystal dragons for neutral ones, too.

Would I include skills? Probably not. With a heftier supply of character classes, they just aren't needed. Maybe a section on character background would do the trick; roll for (or choose) some pieces of personal history, and let that act as a guide.

How would you "fix" AD&D?