Saturday, September 30, 2017

OSR Deadliness and 3d6 Straight Down

I've seen some recent discussion in forums about the deadliness of OSR games, both from a positive and a negative perspective. Critics of the OSR claim that the inherent deadliness of these games are a barrier to immersive play since it is hard to get attached or bond with your character knowing any random encounter could take them out. Another argument goes even further, maintaining that systems like this are inherently antagonistic towards players, turning them into grist for the GM's murder mill, meat on an adventure conveyor belt of the GM's design. Such systems, it is said, strip away player agency and rob them of a chance to build the epic stories they wish to partake in.

Of course, while it's possible for bad GM's to run their OSR games this way, I don't think it's inherent in the systems or psychologies of OSR games themselves. For me, as a GM or a player, I like the feeling and flavor of terror. Not terror in the cheap, slapstick horror movie manner, but terror in the sense of life or death stakes. I want to feel unnerved and not fully in control of the story or the outcome of the adventure. If I feel that my player is always going to survive, I'm not going to be as invested because the stakes aren't very high.

I realize my take on this is not the majority opinion. It seems like a lot of players are simply looking for a stage to express themselves through the avatar of their player. That's a completely valid way to play; it's just not for me. However, because a lot of people don't want to feel that sense of terror that I like, the very idea of a game that threatens the lives of their characters automatically becomes something antagonistic.

Modern gaming's solve for this perceived anti-player bias has been a carefully designed system of balanced encounter challenge ratings, and quick character level-advancement with escalating power bloat. This gives only the very fool-hardiest of player a real chance to die by never pitting PCs against something stronger than themselves and giving them an arsenal of special abilities and video game-like combos to defeat the enemy. I could (and still may, someday) write an article on the OSR's combat-as-war versus the New School's combat-as-sport. Instead, what I wanted to focus on here is that first-step in character generation: the rolling of ability scores.

Ability scores are more than just stat blocks that help determine success or failure in encounters. Theyare the foundational pillars of what defines a character. In some ways there is no more effective spring board for character background than the ability scores. They also have a lot influence over a character's chance of survival at low levels before a character gains a lot of special abilities, spells, skills, feats, or magical items. With this in mind, how these scores are generated matter.

In Old School D&D (Basic Fantasy, in my case), ability scores are generated by rolling 3d6 straight-down the line: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma, giving scores ranging between 3-18. Simple right? Well, even in the rules of the old game, there are a host of secondary options all of which have an effect for how strong, smart, wise, agile, etc. your character is. Some of the popular options include rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest die, rolling six columns of six stats and picking the best, or starting with a base of 8 in every stat and allotting a pool of points wherever desired. There are also methods and rules for freely arranging the scores, evenly swapping a certain number of scores, or dropping one score by two to bump another up by one. All of these methods are usually employed to boost the numbers of player's scores. They don't guarantee superpowered characters, but they greatly decrease the likelihood of truly low scores (but it's possible).

In my current Basic Fantasy campaign I'm running pretty close to RaW. I had my player roll 3d6 straight down and I allowed them to swap a pair of scores as long as one those scores was an intended prerequisite. If the player rolled below 9 in all of the first four (Str, Int, Wis, Dex) I had them re-roll because they wouldn't technically qualify for any class. Also, if the net of their modifiers was negative, they could also re-roll. I like Chris Gonnerman's fix for this, which is to subtract all the scores from 21 which turns the negatives to positives and still creates a balanced character.

I'm pretty happy with this method given my GM style, but something caught my eye when I was perusing my old copy of the original AD&D PHB. On page 9 it mentions that characters without at least two ability scores above 15 risk a low chance of survival. This gave me pause for a couple reasons. First, because I never remembered this from back in the day; and second, because this statement implied that it was recommended (in fact, Gary uses the word "essential") to use a method of generating ability scores that would produce at least two exceptional stats. The deadliness of Old School all of the sudden seemed not so deadly. I finally understood why my PCs were never as studly as the pre-gens in the old modules. A quick scan of the scores of magic items handed out in those adventures also makes those Old School slug-fests not as scary.

I guess what I've decided is for now I will stick with my 3d6 method and my rare magic item games while understanding that my players will need to be extra careful in combat and run often early on if they hope to live. This also means fewer monsters beaten which means fewer XP, which in turn means a longer time before they level up and gain more power. I've hit upon a good XP method that not only rewards for combat and treasure, but also for exploration, clever play, and role-playing. But that's for another post.

Friday, September 1, 2017

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 1

I just ran my first role-playing game as a DM in 25 years last Saturday night. The four players came to the table with a mix of gaming experience, most of which involved modern systems like Pathfinder and newer editions of D&D (3.5 to 5). I ran Basic Fantasy’s Western Lands campaign from the Morgansfort module. It was a decent-length session, about five hours.

Since these players were new to old school gaming I started the session off by going over the rules and setting some expectations. I explained character generation, the combat sequence, and how to expect non-combat actions and checks to work in the absence of skills and feats. One of the biggest hurdles for them was getting used to not having a central, core mechanic of rolling-over a target number on a d20. OSR gaming’s mixture of roll-over and roll-under mechanics across different dice makes a lot of sense to me because it’s how I learned, but it admittedly isn’t intuitive for newcomers.

I had everyone roll up four new first-level characters, 3d6 straight down for ability scores with one swap allowed as long as one of the scores was the intended prime requisite. It was an adjustment for them to accept a few low scores along with their high ones. I did my best to tell them not to worry about it too much. Everyone’s characters met a minimum viability of a net modifier of zero or higher. I gave everyone max hit points for their race and class without Constitution modifiers. It took longer for them to draw up the characters than I would have liked, but it was a new experience for them and likely was much quicker than what they were used to.

*** If any of my players are reading this, stop now or you will spoil the fun. ***

For anyone unfamiliar with Morgansfort (most people, I imagine), it’s one of the multi-adventure modules published by Basic Fantasy. It follows a familiar military outpost on the edge of civilization setting like Keep on the Borderlands, but the Olde Island Fortress is pretty different than the Caves of Chaos (BF does an homage to that in their Chaotic Caves).  The Olde Island Fortress is the dungeon to the first adventure and is the setting for the Introduction Story featured at the beginning of different sections of the core rulebook.

I made several changes to the adventure, both at the fort and in the island dungeon. I used the NPCs in the fort itself, but just fleshed out their stories, their relationships to each other, and what they want. I did add one NPC, Grelda, a witch currently living at a boathouse I placed on the bank of the river across from the island. For the dungeon, I created an entire ground level floor plan leading down into the dungeon. I also placed an invented monster in the first room, Ghazold, a one-of-a-kind creation of a magic user as mix of a hairy ape with the head of a balding crow. The carnivorous apes in the second level are leftovers from the magician's experiments. Ghazold is hanging upside down chained to the ceiling and may answer PC questions if they ask the right ones. On the whole I stripped out a ton of the monsters from the dungeon including all of the random monster encounters. The dungeon is ultra-deadly with the amount of monsters in there; and I personally feel it’s a bit overpacked for what I wanted to do storywise. I always need to feel like I can justify why the creatures are there and how they coexist with each other. I think the module is intended to be tough and not cleared out all in one shot. The first line of the Introduction Story (and the first line in the core book, period) mentions it was the group’s third trip to the dungeon. I also took out a lot of the treasure and magic items out too. I’m not a big proponent of bags and chests of jewels and gold coins just sitting in basements all over the realm. I want to make magic items a little more rare and special as well.

The biggest change was the background storyline I added. The backstory is that the fortress was a former temple of ancient evil powered through child sacrifice. Years later, after the original Urdish empire conquered the land and then fell, a barbarian clan scoured it and built a huge 60’ wall around the temple to keep out the great plague ravaging the land. Cooped up in their new haunted fortress, the barbarians lost their minds and began sacrificing their children and eating them. The children’s spirits haunt the entire region. People who sleep at the fort (including the PCs) have apocalyptic nightmares about the children unless they go to daily service at the Chapel of St. Basil’s where the head cleric, Father Thelbain, casts a spell over the congregation to shield them from the effects of the haunted spirits. Grelda has been freeing the spirits from the material plane through an arcane ritual which separates them from and collects the essence chaining them to the real world. She uses this essence to charge her garden plow with the power of flight. She does this instead of using the blood of living children. She is sister to Maien Brai, the herbalist at Morgansfort, and aunt to Jyni, Maien’s beautiful 13-year-old daughter who seems to be preternaturally gifted in magic, even at her young age. Jyni is lusted after by Lorynn, the sleazy innkeeper. I also included the beginnings of a plot of a secret cult called the Green Mark, who seek to re-ignite the ancient pre-imperial evil in the region.

I never ran modules as written back in the day. I first approached this one as maybe just a one-shot, but once I started planning for it I got invested in it. Eventually I’ll create my own campaign world, but this is a nice way back into the game. It felt good to GM again. There wasn’t as much rust as I expected. The night ended up great. The PCs didn’t make it far in the dungeon before having to return to the fort to heal, but there was tons of role-playing and everyone began to invest in their characters with brief sketches of backstories. Folks were tired by the end so we decided to start a little earlier next time. One player who has only played 5e D&D really liked the simplicity of the game. He had even bought the Basic Fantasy rule book that week. Hopefully I’ll keep the momentum going. We’ve got a game in another week. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Adventure Recap/Synopsis:

Our four characters are Renic the Dwarven Fighter, Pater the Halfling Thief, Melinthil the Elven Cleric, and Nyphus the Human Paladin. Renic is a Dwarven noble who has squandered most of his family’s fortune. Pater is a mischievous trickster. Melinthil has left her elven homeland to go out into the world as her deities Demeter & Persephone would approve. Nymphus is a middle-aged former slave who has risen to rank of a paladin of Poseidon. They know each other through Jochim Kellborn, an escaped-slave smuggler in Slateholm. The party of four left Slateholm heads south for Morgansfort, a military outpost on the borders of the wilderness, on the recommendation of Joachim. Honest work has been hard to come by with a recent influx of escaped slaves working for lower wages, so the characters must turn to adventuring to make their way.

After a few days the group reaches Morgansfort in the late afternoon, at the beginning of autumn. They announce themselves to the clerk at the gate, and pay the monthly tax of 1 sp each (courtesy of Renic). Melinthil acquires accommodations (two rooms) at the Iron Helm Inn for two nights to get settled and pray. The innkeeper, Lorynn, is an older, desperate letch who gives Mel a deal on the rooms despite her mentioning her three “bodyguards.”

The remaining party members enter the Toothless Dragon Tavern next door for a drink and try to start up a game of chance with the locals. The crowd is quiet and reserved (farmers, merchants, soldiers). The barkeep, Garnoth, tells the party that gambling is forbidden in Morgansfort. A round for the house is bought on Renic’s dime to smooth things over and Halden Rathwynn, the Baronet of Morgansfort, introduces himself. When asked for a recommendation for adventuring in the area, he mentions the Olde Island Fortress a mile away towards the river’s opening to the sea. However, he warns them it’s a bit dangerous. He leaves as Mel joins her comrades. They observe the staff of the tavern, Garnoth, his wife Lianna (Lorynn’s sister), and the two serving maids who appear to be their daughters.

That night both Mel and Nyphus have horrible nightmares of children in agonizing pain screaming for their mothers and fathers. Upon waking they consult their deities who indicate that the island fortress they heard about the previous night is the origin of these visions and that the threat there has ancient origins. After telling Pater and Renic about their dreams, they decide to embark for the fortress.

They stop and question Garnoth who is a little less surly with them than the previous night and warns them to stay away from that place (“Are you guys really going down there?”). Renic packs and prepares their supplies; Mel and Nyphus visit the Chapel of St. Queril to speak with Father Thelbain about the visions; and Pater poses as a beggar outside the church. Father Thelbain is patient and helpful to a point, telling the party that others had experienced visions like theirs, but it was rare. Generally these dreams occur to adventurers like themselves, although the old Baron’s (Morgan) wife, Halden’s mother, suffered from such dreams a number of years ago and driving her mad, resulting in her death.

Pater is unlucky in collecting cash as mostly soldiers pass by, as the church sits just outside the fort’s barracks and training grounds. On their way, they observe other fort inhabitants including a pretty girl of about 13 outside an herbalist shop, a smith whose hammer can be heard throughout the horseshoe-shaped square, the stableman and his helpers, storehouse labors, and a mix of local farmers and merchants setting up shop for the day. A different clerk, older, sits in the gatehouse.

Leaving the fort, the party encounters and greets two men in black robes with their cowls raised. The response is curt and perfunctory, bordering on rude. Mel intuits that one of them may be taking a vow of silence. The short 45 minutes journey to the river through the grasslands is uneventful. At the river they find a small house with three docks and three boats in the side yard. A woman exiting the house to work in the garden introduces herself as Grelda. Grelda is perhaps 50, slightly gray, with intelligent eyes. She explains she’s been living in the house for the past several months, but she doesn’t own it. It was just abandoned. The boats aren’t hers either, but she warns the party that if they take a boat to the other shore she will retrieve it at dusk if they haven’t returned. She’s slightly cagey as to why, but she indicates that there are some nasty types who might use the stray boat to cross to her side, and she can’t have that. Not that she couldn’t handle herself, she mentions.

The party crosses the river by boat and portages the small craft up the 45-degree hill and hides it in the underbrush to keep Grelda from finding it, so they don’t get trapped. The group makes a perimeter check. The imposing structure has 60-ft high walls made of huge timbers and petrified clay with one aperture at the front (a 20-ft high and wide arch) facing south. They can see natural light on the other end of the portal 20-ft deep, indicating an open space. As they enter Pater check for traps and find none. Renic makes an architecture check and determines the construction is old and solid throughout, no hollow walls. Nyphus checks to sense if evil is present and finds the entire place radiating evil.

Stepping into the fortress the group is presented with a long and wide colonnade terminating in a ziggurat topped with a stone altar. Classically sculpted columns, fountains, and marble benches filled the central arcade. This area down the middle of the fortress stands in stark contrast to the areas on the right and left which are burned-out, broken-down ruins of wooden structures, mostly cabins and lodges. All of it is old, but the two different styles are obviously of two different eras, the latter being newer.

A small trench runs around the extended, finger-shaped center area, the bottom of which is stained with dark, ancient blood. The basin of the fountain and the ridges of the ziggurat are marked with similar stains. Nyphus inspects the top of the altar, some 45 or 50 feet up. No signs of restraints remain if any ever existed. Searching around the base of the ziggurat, Pater finds an open stairway at the back leading down into the earth. At the top of the stairs a green smudge marks the right-hand stone wall.

The party enters. The stairs go down 10’ to a corridor moving south for about 100’ before turning into a clockwise stairway going down 40’ with landings every 10’. The end of the last staircase opens into a large, diamond-shaped chamber with 30’ ceilings and open passageways to the east, south, and west. Signs of traffic lead to the western passage.

Chains rattle from the ceiling above and a creature comes into view. He is a man-sized hairy ape with the head of a balding crow and cruel, hungry eyes. He is hanging upside down, shackled to the ceiling by his ankles and wrists. He questions the party about who they are. They question him and ask if knows about children who might need help. The creature says that his name is Ghazold and he’s been here for who knows how long (could be years) – ever since that magician left him there. He asks the party, “Which children? There have always been children coming in and out of here.” He then asks if they have any children with them that he could eat. The party moves on westward towards the tracks as Ghazold whines for them to keep their eyes out for the magician’s key to set him free. “He said there was a key to let me out. What’s a key?”

Ten feet down the corridor Pater finds a possible trap on the floor of a new 10’ x 10’ intersection that continues west, as well as open passages to the north and south. The party skirt the middle area and move south. In 10’ the passage opens up into a new 20’ x 20’ chamber. The room is filled with rubble, scraps of cloth and fur, and two dead human bodies which look like they have been desiccated of all blood and fluid. Upon close inspection, a large gaping hole is found on each victim’s neck. The bodies have no treasure.

The party leaves to inspect the passage north. Again, after 10’ the passage opens up into another 20’ x 20’ room. Mewling and dry flapping sounds are heard as they approach. Within the room the party discovers large nests built against the far wall at eye-level. Five bird-like creatures with long, pointed proboscises sleepily crawl out of the nests. Mel kills one. Two of the creatures latch on to the necks of Mel and Nyphus and begin to drain blood. Renic sprays oil in an arc across the floor of the room using Pater’s dropped torch on the floor to ignite it. Two creatures drop from fire damage. Mel and Nyphus kill their attackers before they suck any more blood. Pater hits the last one and it flies off. The fire spreads to the far wall where hatchlings fall out of the nest and die sizzling in the flames.

The party puts out the fire and search the room. They find two identical silver necklaces in amongst the mess. They pick up some of the dead carcasses to give to Ghazold on the way out. They find him bug-eyed with his mouthful of the last creature as it tried to escape. The party leaves the dungeon to heal up and decide what to do next.

UPDATE: For anyone interested, here is a map of my ground level of the Old Island Fortress and a document of keyed text.

Ground Level Map

Ground Level Text

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 14 - Death Frost Doom - Part 2 of 2

So, here stands the final chronicle of my two-year Basic Fantasy campaign. It ended a year ago and I'm just now getting around to fini...