Sunday, January 27, 2019

Dungeon Digressions: Rooms Apart and Other Ways Out

(Warning: some SPOILERS follow for G1, Stonehell, and the House of Coldarius adventures)

I’ve been formulating an idea of a particular type of dungeon room with which I’ve recently become enamored. For lack of a better term I’ll call them dungeon digressions. These rooms are not only set apart from the general theme of everything else going on around them, but more importantly hint at a larger “otherness” beyond the understood edges of the adventure, or even campaign.

I’ll give you an example which crystalized this concept for me when I recently re-read G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. The room is 17A of the dungeon level, the Weird Abandoned Temple. The orcs on this level (presumably those rebelling against their giant masters) have blocked the door to this temple with rocks, and it is bolted shut. Whether it’s an attempt to keep people out or keep something else in is precisely what makes it so inviting for curious adventurers. Inside the temple the stonework glows purplish-green. The walls chill to the touch and the columns induce nausea. Carved signs and shapes seem to stare at intruders and shift position when not watched. A greasy, yellow-gray altar sits at the far end and beyond it a concave alcove. Staring into the alcove causes visions of sickly mauve and violet tendrils to writhe and stretch towards the viewer, causing insanity 50% of the time. If the viewer doesn’t go insane, they are gifted a scarab of insanity or a 5,000 g.p. gem.

This is a great eerie room heavy on the eldritch vibe, but it’s the room’s context within the rest of the adventure that makes it stand out. This room shows up in the middle of a 9th-level recon/hack-and-slash stronghold invasion with enslaved orcs revolting against giants working for the Drow. There’s a lot going on in this module already, with breadcrumbs, subplots, and portals to the next chain of adventurers in the G-D-Q series. So why did Gary stick 17A (and 18, the blocked-off Vestry sloping downward) into this adventure? Was it a hint or a connection to a cult of evil chaos, or elemental evil? Or does the vision of the alcove with its Lovecraftian feel hint at a Tharizdun connection?

Whatever the intention, the impact is great. No matter how massive and intricate Lolth’s grand designs are in this campaign, this one little room gives a hint of a massive, incomprehensible reality which dwarfs the demonweb queen’s machinations making them seem petty and small by comparison. It’s a small portal, a tiny digression, which drops off a deep end into a larger, abyssal perspective. I love it.

Michael Curtis’ Cenotaph room in the canyon of Stonehell is a very brief version of this with the room’s bas relief intimating the knowledge of a vast sleeping entity lying in wait in a distant land. With that kind of realization, what does it matter if you are downed by a pack of filthy kobolds in some forgotten corner of an underground prison complex. The scale of the PCs’ mortal lives have no meaning by comparison. It does a lot without really doing very much of anything, preparing the PCs for the discovery of the nixthisis at the heart of the underground hell.

The main interest for me with these side-rooms isn’t that they bring a whiff of R’lyeh to the game. The eldritch quality of both is merely coincidental. What’s great about them is they offer a door to worlds older than the mountains in their current dimension. In short, they can be a hook or way out of the current adventure into something deeper and weirder. If they want it, that is. In the case of G1’s 17A, the PCs can decide that what lay beyond the bronze-banded door was interesting enough to abandon Geoff, clear out the rumble in the Vestry, and find their way down to the veins of the earth, so to speak.

One more example I recently came across is in the Basic Fantasy adventure, “House of Coldarius,” from BF3 Strongholds of Sorcery. The adventure largely concerns a vampire kidnapping a wizard pupil to create a dark, intelligent sword. It’s a fun, beat-the-clock rescue in a scary house with various Universal movie monster stand-ins (there’s a vampire, a flesh golem, a mummy, a lycanthrope, etc.). However, in the locked parlor of room 39 on level 7, there’s a black metal arch with silver runes that serves as a gateway to the world of the Moonmist Moor, a Bronze Age realm haunted by spectres who feed off the few humans at night and are kept at bay by huge monoliths called Spires. It’s only a thumbnail sketch of a world, but the strange open possibilities of it, the offer to the party to go “elsewhere” is everything that fantasy should be about.

These kinds of side-door encounters aren’t exclusive to D&D. They can be found all over the fantasy genre. “Riddles in the Dark,” from The Hobbit, is maybe the most famous example. Bilbo gets separated from his party, meets a weird creature, finds a magic ring, and the fate of all Middle Earth changes. Without that digression and resulting alternate way out (literally), you don’t get The Lord of the Rings.

A lot of times the campaigns we create are built around a central, preconceived narrative idea that everything rests on. But these little “dungeon digressions” are important to have in the game as release valves or rifts to other worlds or adventures to keep things unexpected and fresh. What might start as a typical dungeon delve turns into doorway to Barsoom. The heist of a rare piece of art becomes a portal to the Blue Medusa’s maze. A mirror becomes a way into Voivodja. An escape from the city watch through a garden gate leads to a trek into Ynn. A passage through Ultan’s door takes you to the dream world of Zyan, with its masks and puppet masters. Basically, don’t be afraid to Terry-Gilliam your D&D game.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 11

After Nyphus lays down a challenge to the black-cloaked cultists, he starts to cross the street towards them when he hears the whistle of the city guard. He stops in his tracks and waits for the guard to reach him. At the same time, the cultists also begin walking toward Nyphus. The parade, and attending onlookers, remain watchful to see how the drama plays out. Pater, Mel, and Renic blend in to the crowd and watch to see what happens to Nyphus.

The guards approach Nyphus and the cultists and demand to know what’s going on. Nyphus accuses the cultists of evil acts at Morgansfort, and the cultists expose Nyphus and his party as the wanted murderers of members of their order. Things become heated when Jochim, led by the boy from his office the day before, suddenly steps in and advocates on Nyphus’ behalf. With the duties master involved, the guards decide this squabble is above their pay grade and announce that they will bring both parties before the Duke to settle the matter.

A march to the palace follows with guards between the cultist and Nyphus, Jochim, and the boy. Pater, Mel, and Renic all follow separately at a distance. As the group moves into the merchant quarter on the way to the Noble quarter a carriage with the initials, MR, passes them, seemingly on its to the palace too. The procession enters the palace gates, but the rest wait outside before deciding to regroup back at the ship.

Upon entering the throne room, the Duke is seen finishing up some business with a group of elegantly garbed elvish diplomats from Avenrho. It is their ship docked at the wharf next to the Amber Tide and the Tarred Goose. The Duke tiredly asks the guard what this is about. After a brief synopsis of the situation, Nyphus lays out his case passionately. The cultists lay out theirs. During their testimonies two people enter on the side of the throne room, an elderly gentleman in a wheel chair and his much-younger caretaker, a raven-haired woman with cruel eyes. This is Baron Morgan Rathwynn, father of Halden. He recounts the accusations of murder delivered to him by the Bailiff and Father Thelbain. The boy, Caleb, tells Jochim he saw the Baron’s caretaker with a green mark tattoo on her chest while she was undressed. The Duke, not wanting to get involved in a religious dispute, takes each party into his private quarters for an interview. He meets with Nyphus and Jochim last. He tells Nyphus to slip away as early as he can the following morning once the ships are allowed to disembark.

The group go back to the Goose and ask them to leave as early as possible. They gather their stuff from the wagon. They give Jochim the wagon for his trouble. Nyphus thanks the boy and they all leave early the next day. The party and the ship’s crew get on well. Much drunken cavorting occurs.

On the third night of what is to be a two -week voyage, Nyphus has a dream. He finds himself in a long stone hallway. At the end are two fountains. An eerie music plays. To the left is a milky fog of star lights, beyond which is an altar. On the altar, beside two golden goblets and a large book is a miter. Nyphus wakes with a start. The boat rocks restlessly and the crew can be heard up on deck. Nyphus goes on deck as does the rest of the party. Four large Rocs are circling overhead, but do not attack. The crew are alarmed by the great creatures’ passivity and spooked by the strange omen. The next day they Ravenstone is sighted off the starboard bow – a week and a half early.

The Goose’s crew quietly unload their cargo and take off, glad to rid of the strange southerners. The party find accommodations at a tavern/inn near the docks. Mel offers blessings to the fellow clientele in an attempt to strike up conversation and learn any news about town. She meets a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Harrelson, a widow who is proud of her son, a recent acolyte to the Green Mark, Brother Woodward. The widow talks of the cult in an adoring voice, awed that her son was part of such a holy group, reiterating the phrase, “The Green Mark will open the hearts of men.” She mentions that she hasn’t been able to see much of her son since his vows. Mel offers to dictate a letter to him and deliver it on her behalf. The widow graciously accepts and pays Mel for the service. There is a casual reference to slave pit, but beyond nothing seems too out of the ordinary.

The next day, the group heads out in the direction of the chapel of the Green Mark which is said to be at the heart of town, all roads leading to it. The morning streets are gloomy, due to the bank of clouds that hang over the city. The weather is brisk, but not yet cold, due to the humidity. No one appears on the streets which, although clean, are packed with ugly, three-story, shingle-sided tenements.

They reach the chapel, a small, squat and windowless building on its own at the center of a five-pointed intersection. Before approaching, they see a cultist leave the building and furtively move down the street opposite. The group decide to follow him, stopping when he enters a tenement. They wait and decide what to do next.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Ability Mods and Hot-Rods: The Dangers of Mixing Basic and Advanced D&D

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ability score modifiers throughout the various editions of D&D lately (actually the past year), and how these differences affect the game. Turning them over in my mind, I hit upon a revelation as it related to primary differences between the modifiers in 0e, Holmes*, 1e, and 2e and those in B/X and BECMI. The modifiers are not only the primary drivers for how these two different platforms of D&D work, but they are the reason why mixing the mechanics between the Basic and Advanced rules can create a broken game.

Before I dive into an analysis of the modifiers themselves and why I think the Basic-AD&D hybrid is such a volatile combination, let me first give a little contextual autobiography. This is something I think I’ve covered in a past post, but it’s worth repeating here since it’s relevant. I started playing Mentzer Basic (Red Box) in about ’84 or ’85. My friends and I played “Basic” for a year or two before bowing to the older kids’ wisdom that “Basic (was) for babies” and moved to AD&D. When I say we played AD&D, I mean we borrowed what we liked from the Advanced game and used it in our Basic campaign. AD&D tournament-legal, we were not. At the time I felt guilty and conflicted about it, like we were cheating, not playing by the actual rules because AD&D had more rules than I cared to keep track of. It was (and still is) hard to run AD&D by the book.

When I came back to the hobby after twenty-some years (I stopped as 2e began taking over), I found the OSR and was surprised to learn that a lot of people played the game the way I did back then, mixing Basic and AD&D. In fact, I heard a perfect description of it in one of Matt Finch’s interviews with Greg Gillespie (creator of Barrowmaze). Greg described his early gaming (at 5:30, here) as using the engine of Basic and Advanced as the chrome. That’s exactly it. We used a lot of the core rules from the Basic game (ability mods, combat mechanics, etc.) and the character options (more races, more classes, no race-as-class), spells, monsters, modules, and magic items taken from Advanced. We took the cool stuff and left everything that bogged the game down (weapon speed factors, spell segments, damage-by-size, etc.). To extend Greg’s metaphor we created a hot rod of a game. It ran fast and powerful, exciting and flashy. It also eventually overheated and blew up.

What I mean by that is our game became incredibly imbalanced, particularly when our PCs started reaching higher levels. D&D has always had a problem with balanced high-level play, but we felt the effects far earlier and I think with some perspective I understand why. Both the Basic and the Advanced games were built to be balanced within their own rule sets and were not intended to be mixed. That balance begins, and in some ways largely rests, on how each game’s ability score modifiers fit with the rest of the rules. In my case, I’m talking about using Basic’s ability score modifiers with AD&D’s more powerful character options.

For those who haven’t played any early D&D, the ability modifiers break down thusly. OD&D, Holmes, and AD&D have ability modifiers that are really flat by today’s standards. The modifiers are not standard across the abilities and in some cases, even the extreme ends of the 3-18 range only give a -1 or +1. Some abilities don’t necessarily give a modifier at all. There is a real appeal to these more tempered modifiers for me. A “5” in Dexterity only affects your AC by 1, not 2. A “7” in Strength doesn’t hurt your melee to-hit roll at all. Even a Constitution of “3” only takes 1 off your hit die roll. On the other hand, the bonuses are likewise more mellow and oftentimes the difference between a “15” and an “18” doesn’t seem to have as much mechanical separation as I would normally expect.

By contrast, the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B/X rules from 1981 and the following Mentzer BECMI rules have a much different approach to the ability modifiers. The modifiers are almost nearly universally applied the same way across all the abilities with the following scores: 3 (-3), 4-5 (-2), 6-8 (-1), 9-12 (+0), 13-15 (+1), 16-17 (+2), and 18 (+3). These aren’t as dramatic as the d20-era or current 5e modifiers, but this array creates a nice, dynamic bell curve where the widest range is an average non-mod, and each deviation from that average range gets progressively smaller. There’s an elegant, standardized symmetry to it. It’s also very swingy. There’s a real difference between a “15” and an “18” here that feels powerful, and at the same time, a “5” Dex or “3” Con are really damaging.

Here’s where it’s helpful to look at how each of these sets of modifiers fit within their respective rule sets, which makes it clear how combining some of the AD&D mechanics with the Basic modifiers can imbalance the game.

AD&D’s standard classes are little better than their Basic counterparts (Clerics get d8 hp and spells at first level, Fighters get d10 hp with faster attack progression, Thieves get better skill percentages and d6 hp, Magic-Users get more, and higher-level spells), not to mention the specialty classes (Paladin, Ranger, Druid, etc.), each of which have special powers. These extra goodies complement the lower impact ability modifiers. The smaller modifiers keep things relatively sane when the first magic items start showing up in the campaign. Magic items, it should be said, were expected to be rewarded somewhat early in both Basic and AD&D games, in part to help with characters’ survival. A +1 long sword in the hands of an AD&D Fighter with an “18/49” Strength means a composite +2 to-hit and +4 to damage. The same +1 sword in the hands of Basic Fighter with an “18” Strength means a +4 to-hit and a +4 to damage. This extra +2 to-hit is a big difference, and it’s due to Basic’s souped-up ability mods.

The Basic game didn’t have as many bells and whistles as the Advanced game, but those ability mods picked up the slack by being really dynamic, and potentially very powerful. When stacked with the extra AD&D class benefits and hit die, it could make for some supercharged PCs. Another dangerous crossover between rules was using the Method I of rolling for ability scores from AD&D with the Basic ability mods. Method I is the popular “roll 4d6, drop the lowest” method which is designed to make sure every PC has at least two scores of “15” or higher (which remember, in AD&D, have smaller modifiers). The AD&D PHB even says that it’s essential to the character’s chances of survival. Using this method in a Basic game increases the likelihood of not only 15s, but 16-18s, giving you a huge boost. It also makes the Basic rules’ more-punitive negative modifiers less likely. Along with higher mods, the higher levels of spells in the Advanced game (7th level for Clerics, 9th for Magic-Users) means real firepower enters the campaign.

AD&D mechanics may seem wonky by modern sensibilities. There isn’t a standardized core mechanic. In fact, there are a number of different systems for determining success or failure (d20 attacks, % Thief skills, d6 open doors/listen checks, etc.). But when all the rules are used in conjunction together, it fits together perfectly and ticks like Swiss clockwork. It just takes time, dedication, and practice to become fluent in the 1e rules (at least that’s what die-hard 1e grognards claim). Tom Moldvay’s game is likewise very well-balanced, but it’s more streamlined and elegant. It isn’t built to simulate reality in the same way Gary’s rules seemed to try to do. Tom’s modifiers (I actually don’t know if he came up with them, but his rules mark their first appearance I’m aware of) are a big part of how that game runs. They drive a lot of the way things work.

You may ask what the point of all this is. Am I just trying to validate my guilt for hot rodding the games I played as a kid? I guess the reason I’ve been thinking about this so much is two-fold.

First, it makes me realize part of my reticence to try 5e lies in the fact that it appears to be an even more exaggerated example of my Basic-AD&D hybrid. The crunch of the d20 rules may have been reduced, but the even more dramatic ability score modifiers combined with even more class and race options, abilities, feats, skills, and proficiency points all indicates a game that falls into all the same hot rod traps I found as a kid.

Second, my musings are in response to a lot of people, both young and old, getting into the OSR versions of the older games and talking about bringing in Advanced options into the Basic game. We often talk in the OSR about cross-compatibility between any of the early versions, and while that may be true to a large extent for running adventures (usually it’s just adjusting armor class a bit), it gets a bit trickier when it comes to combining rules mechanics around characters.

Goblinoid Games just put out their combined Advanced Labyrinth Lord set of rules which is being marketed as “advanced first edition as you remember it,” the distinction being not as first edition was, but as we all played it, stripped of the fussy rules no one likes. Now, I don’t own the new book, but I do have the physical copy of the regular rules as well as the previous no-art PDF of the Advanced Edition Companion supplement. Daniel Proctor wrote a good game and is careful to mention caveats, like giving higher hit die might affect the game if used. It’s presented as rules you could use ala carte or as a whole. I just wonder how the hybrid actually operates in play, especially at higher levels. I’m not implying that a Basic-Advanced hybrid can’t be done, but I think it would need to be carefully done.

I currently run Basic Fantasy which is a slightly modernized version of the old Basic game. It’s well-balanced and runs exactly how I expect it to. The Moldvay modifiers are present, but a few rule changes have been made to give the Basic system a little Advanced boost. Race-as-class is gone, as are demi-human level-limits. Thief skills are closer to the better 1e percentages and to-hit advancement is a little more aggressive. And yet, hit dice are kept relatively low, Clerics don’t get spells at first level, and the magic is kept within reason.

However, I constantly see people on BFRPG forums and Facebook groups who are looking for creator Chris Gonnerman to formally publish some of the supplemental classes and rules from the game’s download page which have a more Advanced flavor (paladins, rangers, druids, weapon proficiency rules, skills, higher level spells from his Iron Falcon, etc.). A lot of these supplements are pretty good (I have a paladin in my current campaign), but Chris’ refusal to add them to the core game makes me happy. He’s willing to let people explore and share options for his game through the OGL, but not willing to canonize these options as core rules themselves. Anyone’s free to hot rod their own games, but at their own peril.

I don’t mean this to be a bad-wrong-fun rant or suggest that the way some people like to play isn’t correct. It’s more of an observation about my own adult preferences and making peace with the mistakes of my youth. It’s also me trying to determine how I approach my games in the future. I still haven’t fully satisfied my curiosity with ability score modifiers.

I like the Moldvay modifiers, in part because I grew up using them, but also because of their clean, standardized, logical symmetry. Their larger range makes a character’s abilities more dramatic and mechanically meaningful. Although I have found that low scores in Strength, Constitution, and particularly Dexterity can cripple a PC. The Thief in my current game has a “5” Constitution (-2) which means he has to roll a “4” in order to add more than one hit point when he levels up.

I like the idea of shallower OD&D modifiers in something like Iron Falcon or Swords & Wizardry, but without the AD&D extra hit points and abilities they almost seem to necessitate a campaign which includes at least a moderate amount of magic items (something I’m stingy with, as a low-fantasy GM). I did see one 0e option recently that appeals to me. Jimm Johnson from The Contemptible Cube of Quazar blog has his own house rules posted for his Planet Eris campaign. HIs universal modifier array is: 3 (-2), 4-6 (-1), 7-14 (0), 15-17 (+1), and 18 (+2). I like these a lot. The bonuses/penalties are flatter than Moldvay’s, but there’s still symmetry with a dynamic flare at the extremes. It strikes me as a nice compromise. I’d like to try some flatter modifiers out soon. It would be interesting to not rely on ability mods as much as I’m used to.

No matter what I decide to go with in the future, I’ll probably still have a hard time leaving well enough alone. Old hot rodders die hard.

* Yes, I know the Holmes set of rules is actually the first Basic rules set, but as far as the ability mods go, I believe they’re the same as the 3LBBs.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Greyhawk Dexterity Modifier to Armor Class: Just for the Fighting Man?

Okay, this is going to be a hardcore nerd post. I’m going to indulge into a bit of rules minutiae. I’ve been digging in my OD&D books lately because I plan at some point to do a post comparing the different retro clones and how closely they hew to the source. I’m not interested in finding out which is the most authentic, but rather, I’m curious to note how the small deviations actually affect play at the table. Whether intentional or not, these small mis-readings or diverse interpretations are just as interesting to me as any factual historical account of how particular rules came to be.

In looking at how ability score modifiers changed from the 3LBBs to Greyhawk, I noticed something I had never come across before. I did a little poking around in the old forums and didn’t find anything about it either. It could be that I missed an article or just that no one has ever posted about it because it’s so universally known. I came across a passage that seems to suggest that the Dexterity modifier as it is applied to Armor Class is a benefit exclusively enjoyed by the Fighting Man.

What prompted me to check the Dexterity modifier in Greyhawk in the first place was noting how different the Dexterity modifier table in Iron Falcon was from the parallel table in Swords & Wizardry Core (which is the 3LBBs plus Greyhawk). In S&W Core, the Dexterity modifier is universal to all classes as better by 1 for scores of 13-18, and worse by 1 for scores of 3-8. The Iron Falcon table showed the Dexterity modifier giving a Dex score of 0-14 gives no bonus or penalty, a score of 15 improves AC by 1, a score of 16 by 2, a score of 17 by 3, and a score of 18 by 4. This modifier is applied only to Fighters, with an alternate option to apply it to all classes at the GM’s discretion*.

This wide discrepancy again sent me to my copy of the first supplement. Again, I’m not particularly interested in what Strategic Review article or late-era Gary interview may have influenced Chris Gonnerman or Matt Finch to write their charts as they did. I’m more interested in comparing them to the original to see how the changes might affect the game one way or the other. What I found in Greyhawk was surprising.

It turns out that Iron Falcon’s Dex mod chart replicates what is laid out for Dexterity’s effect on AC. The relevant passage on the middle of page 8 of Greyhawk reads:

“Dexterity affects both the ability of characters to act/react and fire missiles. It is also the prime requisite for thieves. Fighters with a dexterity of greater than 14 can use their unusual manual dexterity to attempt to dodge or parry opponents’ attacks. For every point over 14 they are able to reduce their opponents’ chances of hitting them by 1 (5%).”

The Iron Falcon chart reflects this passage exactly, a bonus of 1-4 for scores of 15-18, and no mention of a penalty to AC for a low Dexterity. What struck me most was that it specifies that the fighter receives this bonus. Now it’s possible that Gary was using “fighter” as common parlance for Player Character combatant – meaning any character of any class. However, “fighter” is used as shorthand for the Fighting Man class all over Greyhawk. There is also a passage earlier on page 4 that seems to reinforce this idea the fighter-only Dexterity mod to AC:

“Fighting Men: Other character-types may engage in hand-to-hand combat, but only true fighting men are able to use their strength and dexterity to utmost advantage in melee.”

When viewed next to the wording of the passage on page 8, it would seem only fighters would be able to use their Dexterity in combat to avoid a blow. Thieves may be the most dexterous, but their class lacks the combat know-how to take advantage of it in close-combat. While I may not want to run my games that way, the intention of the rule seems pretty clear.

What is interesting to me is how Swords & Wizardry (and other simulacra) apply the AC modifier to all classes, as AD&D did in 1978 (PHB), B/X did in 1981, and every edition did thereafter. (Holmes in 1977 is a notable exception as it used the 3LBB rules more closely.) I’ve always played it with all classes getting the AC mod. Everyone I’ve ever known has played it that way. It’s as if everyone missed the exclusivity of this rule, or simply, like me, decided, ‘Nah, I’m not going to do it like that.’ In any case, how that conscious (or not) re-interpretation affects the intent of the rule is pretty huge.

First, applying the Dexterity modifier to AC for all classes makes Dexterity much more important. Many modern players feel that Dexterity is the true God Stat – it’s useful to everyone no matter what your class. Finch, in his WhiteBox rules’ alternate Universal Attribute Bonus rules, gives the -1/+1 modifier option for Dexterity to AC. There is a caution that it maybe should be limited to more swashbuckling campaigns without a lot of armor. There is an implied recognition that having Dex affecting AC makes the stat have a very powerful impact on the game.

Next, by giving this benefit to all classes, it takes something special away from the fighter. If only the fighter gains this benefit it makes this class much more powerful. When paired with the rule that only fighters use Strength bonuses for melee attacks and damage, it truly differentiates this class from the others and makes the cleric not nearly as good at combat (one of these days I’m going to write a post about how the 3LBB cleric is OP). If you use the strict interpretation of the rule (as S&W does with Strength to-hit & damage), that fighters, and only fighters (no paladins or rangers), get this benefit, it makes playing a bog-standard character much more appealing.

It should be noted (as was pointed out to me*) that S&W’s application of Chainmail’s man-to-man parrying rules does give some of that power back to Fighters. However, a parry is an active action taking the place of an attack, which is not as great a boon as a passive AC boost. Still, some of that Fighter “specialness” is preserved. In Delving Deeper, for instance, parrying is a non-exclusive action for any class.

As for how I feel about using this in my own games, I’m pretty sure I won’t. Possibly because my players would revolt. Partly because I grew up playing the game with AC being affected by Dex for all classes and it’s what I’m used to. More than that though, is the affect it would have on my game. Magic-users would be even more fragile than they are. Thieves would be less-likely to engage in combat, more likely to be played strictly as scouts, lock-picks, and trap-removers. People would want to play clerics even less. Then there’s thinking about how it would make a party of bandits (or other fighter humanoids) more powerful adversaries.

It has been said that Gary never understood why anyone would ever want to play anything other than a fighter, a Conan-like superhero. Given this rules interpretation, I can see how that makes sense.

CORRECTION: I updated this post because I made some incorrect statements about how Iron Falcon and Swords & Wizardry Core handle these rules. Just like Greyhawk, I glossed over the finer details. Both Gonnerman and Finch note that their work differs in parts (intentionally so) from the original game so shame on me for not careful reading. On the other hand, what’s an RPG post without a little errata?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 10

The party question the young cultist they've just take prisoner, the lone survivor of their roadside ambush, and let him go. They take stock of the wagon’s contents, and bury the bodies of the cultists off the road. Disguised as cultists they head north to Slateholm. Close to the city, they run across a farmer and wife heading south with an oxen and cart and squabbling loudly. Nyphus greets them and learns there is a tax to enter the city in preparation for the Harvest Festival. Nyphus give them the needed funds while Pater sneaks onto their cart as the couple heads back. The plan is to meet up later inside Slateholm. Nyphus leads the wagon after the cart a ways back. They are questioned by the guards and end up paying the fine.

They see notices for their capture, but they look at least a week old, covered by other posters. They make their way through the Docks to the offices of the duty collection manager, Jochim Kellborn – the man who introduced them not three months ago. Jochim maintains an underground railroad for runaway slaves from Urd who stow away on merchant ships. The group enters his office dressed as cult members. Jochim is giving orders to a boy of about 9. He dismisses the boy, greets his old friends without ceremony or surprise, and begins questioning them about what happened at Morgansfort. He digs into them a bit about the mess they’ve made and how they’ve gotten themselves into trouble.

They party defend themselves, tell their side of the story, and asked to be taken to the Duke. Jochim tells them that the cultists have suddenly rose up in power and influence in the area, and they need to be delicate. He can keep their wagon and belongings safe, but isn’t willing to still his neck out by trying to intercede on their behalf with the Duke. He says that there are a lot of tensions right now in Slatesholm. The followers of the hundred gods (the old, pagan religions) are starting to proselytize on the streets and the Church of Tah, Reformed is watching them carefully, though not doing anything yet. He tells them if they insist on going to Ravenstone they could get a ride on one of the ships in the harbor, but no one will be leaving until the day after tomorrow, until after the harvest festival. The group leave to find a ship.

Pater slips off the wagon before the couple make it to the market square. He nearly bumps into a couple of cultists, but slips past. He finds lodging for the night in a common room of the Medusa’s Mirror in the Merchant Quarter. He starts asking around for information.

The rest of the group talk to Captain Ferris Merriweather of the Amber Tide, a clean and beautiful ship. He asks for an exorbitant rate, and laughs at their attempt to bargain. They next try the Tarred Goose, an ugly-looking longship that looks like it’s undergone heavy homegrown modifications. They approach a group of drunken sailors near the gangplank. They are recommended to “Captain” Baldrick who is currently passed out and must be roused. He bargains their fare down to something they can afford, and will allow them to sleep on the ship that night.

The group split up to gather information. Renik finds Pater in the Merchant Quarter and takes him back to the others. Mel and Nyphus split up and ask around the Docks, no longer disguised as cultists. They learn although there is some support for the cult, there is some among the populace that view them with fear and distrust. They all hear the following rumors:

·        Beware the Green Mark. Its print is poison and will stain your soul.
·        The Monks of the Mark bring peace to the people. Their verdant sign will open the hearts of men.
·        The old gods are restless. They will make their move soon and return.

The party sleep somewhat fitfully onboard with the rowdy, bearded and burly sailors. In the morning they go down to the main thoroughfare and watch the harvest festival parade. A range of  deities and beliefs are represented. The main float features Demeter and Persephone representing their annual meeting with Hades. The parade ends at the “underworld” of the Slateholm cemetary.

A commotion breaks out as three giant rats drop on a group of grubby, poor children watching. The party leap into action and quickly dispatch the rodents. An angry woman dressed in frilly antiquated clothing gathers the children up to lead them off. In the calm, as the parade goers look on the party, they see two black-robed men watching from the other side of the street. Nyphus assumes a threatening, beckoning pose and a whistle blows as the city watch close in to keep the peace.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Eldritch Cock's New Saving Throws

I've been thinking about Lamentations of the Flame Princess' new book, Eldritch Cock, ever since I picked it up on FreeRPGDay. The new spells in the book are pretty interesting, but the new playtest rules in the back inside cover are what I've been thinking about most. James Raggi has made a number of changes with the intent of increasing the influence of the ability scores in the game. One of the biggest changes is how saving throws are handled. IvanMike1968 just covered this very well on his YouTube channel (here), and it kind of prompted me to put my thoughts down.

To be perfectly frank, the new E.C. saves feel pretty foreign to me. I've only just started coming around to Swords & Wizardry's single saving throw mechanic after having used the standard five categories from old school Dungeons & Dragons for years. S&W creator, Matt Finch, gives special bonuses to certain classes for particular types of saves which gets it close to the original D&D rules. It's also extremely elegant which is part of the reason I've come around after my initial resistance. Now Eldritch Cock's new saving throw system comes around and has challenged my old school prejudices once more.

The new E.C. saves are based on a character's Charisma score for magic-related saves and their Wisdom score for non-magic-related saves. Instead of the traditional roll high on a d20 save against a target number based on the character's level and class, the new system is a dice pool mechanic where the relevant ability score determines how many d6s you throw. A roll of one 6 is a partial success, and two or more 6s are a full save. These saves don't improve with level progression, but last the lifespan of the character. The percent of at least partial success, however, is generally better with this new system.

Although I've never struggled too much with the idea of level progression impacting saves, it does make a lot of sense to keep it relatively static. The idea that a character gets better at ingesting poison without dying after going on a lot of adventures is a little absurd (although maybe you work up a tolerance, or learn to distinguish some telltale aftertaste/scent). At the same time, I'm still not a big fan of dice pools. I understand the utility of a bell curve, but there's just something about clattering all those dice on the table which doesn't thrill me.

So I came up with a d20 approximation of the new system that combines S&W's single saving throw, takes ability scores into account, and approximates the math of the new LotFP system so that characters have more of a shot of survival at 1st level without ever getting crazily invulnerable at high levels.

With this new hack, all saving throws would be made on a d20 with a roll of 1-10 indicating failure, a roll of 11-17 being a partial save, and a roll of 18-20 a full save. This universal saving throw wouldn't increase with level progression, but would (or could, based on GM ruling) be affected by your ability score modifier, from a -3 to a +3. When you break it down into the math it looks something like this:

Ability Score
Failure %
Partial Save
Partial %
Full Save
Full %
3 (-3)
4-5 (-2)
6-8 (-1)
9-12 (0)
13-15 (+1)
16-17 (+2)
18 (+3)

*Maybe a natural 20, plus a second partial save gives you a full save.

For comparison, here is the new saving throw rules for Lamentations featured in the back of Eldritch Cock. Again, a character's Charisma score determines the number of dice thrown for magical saves, and their Wisdom score determines the number of dice for non-magical saves. One roll of "6" is a partial save, and two or more "6s" are a full save.

Ability Score
Failed Save
Partial Save
Full Save

Now, right away, you can see that my d20 method and the EC save percentages are not exact, but they're close. The d20 saves are generally a little better, but not by much. The big difference is one is a flat distribution (d20) and the other is a bell curve (xd6) which leans towards the middle values. The outcome of this is that Partial Save category is dynamic with xd6 bell curve where it's static for the flat d20 roll.

Where my d20 version does make up the dynamic difference is in its use of multiple ability scores depending on the type of save, whereas LotFP's new system just uses Wisdom or Charisma. Having Constitution affect the save versus poison makes more sense than Wisdom. Having Dexterity affect versus Breath Weapon/Devices/Jump-out-of-the-way saves seems more appropriate. So on and so on. I get that by using only Wisdom and Charisma, Raggi makes them not dump stats, but I don't know if that justifies it for me. If I were to use the d20 global save system above I would keep the traditional, seven-bracket B/X ability score modifiers ranging from -3 to +3 to give it that dynamic swingy-ness.

At the end of the day, I'm not sure I'm sold on a global saving system for one big reason: how it affects adversary saves. Traditionally in OSR games, "monsters" save as a Fighter class would at the same hit dice level (or possibly M.U. if more appropriate). In a system that uses ability scores to modify a global save range, a couple of things happen.

First, not only do your low-level PCs have better saves, but all of your low-level adversaries/minions do too. It might make spellcasters possibly less effective against lower-level opponents. Next, you will either need to assume a standard 4d6 save for all NPCs and monsters, or start giving full stats for all your monsters. The first option works fine for your average bandit or evil human in LotFP, but doesn't feel right if you add in any otherworldly or eldritch horrors. The second option is where all the modern D&D systems have gone, creating huge stat blocks for monsters, something I have no interest in. While it wouldn't be too hard to ballpark a stat in the moment, I might bias myself for or against the players in the moment.

In the future, I'm toying with using a S&W style single save that improves with level and may be influenced by an ability mod at the GM's discretion. That leaves it open for a flexible rulings approach, helps low-level PCs save better against threats that test their strengths, allows for experience to influence your chances, and keeps running a monster fairly low-crunch.

I have heard some playtest reports on G+ that the new level-less spells found in Vaginas Are Magic and Eldritch Cock are way too powerful at lower levels, making the fighters feel useless. I wonder how many of them are using the new saving throw rules, where the average opponents has a decent chances at saving for half. The new LotFP Ref book should be out in 2019 so maybe we'll find out if these new save rules make the cut.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Over the Garden Wall as Inspiration for a Dolmenwood/Gardens of Ynn Campaign

I recently discovered Cartoon Network’s short animated series from a few years ago, Over the Garden Wall. It’s a charming world full of faerie mystery and autumnal melancholy. While watching it I was reminded of Necrotic Gnomes’ Dolmenwood setting and Emmy Allen’s Gardens of Ynn. Like those two game worlds there is a light whimsy with dark, folk tale undertones to this story of two brothers lost in a strange woodland named the Unknown with their talking bluebird guide, Beatrice.

Over the Garden Wall is a parable with Divine Comedy parallels, a bittersweet journey of self-discovery. It would be incredibly easy to tuck any of the characters and places into encounters in Dolmenwood or Ynn. I’d love to create a campaign using either of those supplements, and populate it with the harvest revelers of Pottsfield, the Woodman of the Dark Lantern, Adelaide – the Lady of the Pasture, the riverboat frog constables, the hysterical Auntie Whispers, and especially the Wraith-like, operatic Beast of the Woods.

I can’t be the first person to think of this. The series ran just one season, enough to cover the characters’ story arc of trying to find their way home. A series of graphic novels followed afterwards. There’s not enough of this gentle strangeness in D&D and I want more of it. Particularly now, since it's fall and Halloween is in the air. Everyone always thinks about dark horror-themed games this time of year, which is all well and good, but a little more Something Wicked This Way Comes is nice sometimes too.

If you haven't checked it out before it's worth a look. I think they are all still on Hulu as of this writing, and also on Dailymotion.

Dungeon Digressions: Rooms Apart and Other Ways Out

(Warning: some SPOILERS follow for G1, Stonehell, and the House of Coldarius adventures) I’ve been formulating an idea of a particul...