Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Free RPG Day impressions - Castles & Crusades

Now I have had some time to look over some of the freebies I got for Free RPG Day. Just like last year, Troll Lord Games participated with a booklet of quickstart rules for Castles & Crusades. Like last year it also included a small adventure.

The booklet starts with character creation rules, covering levels 1 to 4. Four classes (Fighter, Rogue, Wizard and Cleric) and four races (elf, dwarf, half-elf and human) are included. In just fourteen pages they even manage to include spell lists, equipment, combat rules and some short notices about how to personalize your character. Good job.

The booklet ends with a short adventure about exploring a wizard's tower. If that's not a classic, I don't know what is! It's intriguing enough, and a decent job for showing what you can do with the game.

Now for the oddities. When I came to the last pages and read the adventure, I stared at the monster stats. The monster has 7HD8, AC 20, HP 43, "Its primary attributes are physical" and it attacks with 2 slam attacks for 2d8 of damage. Plain and simple enough, right? Except that there are three physical attributes. Are we to pick one ourself? Are we to roll them up, since they are not provided? The creative gamer can get past that, I guess. Now for the next one, which I didn't manage to solve. Players attack using a d20 roll, add their level, add their BtH combat bonus and if I understood correctly their stat bonus. Compare the result to the target's AC. Take a look again at those monster stats. What's the BtH, level and stat bonus? Maybe I have misunderstood the rules, but I can't find a description how to play the adventure when it comes to combat with monsters! I borrowed the rule books for C&C but returned them just before getting the Free RPG Day booklet. Now I'm wondering if they have managed to be this opaque in the full rules, or if they just managed to slim the rules down a bit too much. I went back and looked in the quickstart from last year, and no more hints in that one. Feel free to enlighten me, if you know how it's supposed to work!

All in all I can't decide if I like C&C or not. It feels a lot like D&D3 without feats, and with a system of stat based rolls instead of skills. One could almost say it's AD&D2 done without trying so hard to keep the cruft of old. Or, one could say it's 3rd ed. done by streamlining AD&D2. I think AD&D1 is kind of messy, with it's nonsensical system of saves, and quixotic arrangement of rules and data in the PHB. I can see why some gamers feel it's a smooth running engine, though. D&D3 is a really slick machine of a game system. It can be tooled with and is a lot more adaptable than old AD&D2 ever was, creaking under the load of diverse settings as Dark Sun and Planescape. That being said, D&D3 without being tweaked is a bit to heavy and if you just add stuff without taking away something it will fall down under its own weight. C&C feels a lot like a mix between of the two. It is slick, and makes sense. It's possible to pick up and play, and don't try to do more than one thing at once but unifies what is does in a neat mechanic. So, why do I feel kind of disinterested? I really don't know. Many parts of me love this game, but my heart wont listen. Curious.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Slowdown in postings

I'm sorry, but I have found myself slowing down a bit in my pace. With a new born in the house you will feel tired and drained, even if the little one is fairly easy going so far. That combined with some ill health have left me feeling very uncreative. Hopefully the creative spirits will return again soon. I'll continue to post, but it might be at a slower speed for a while. Thanks to all who return here to see what I'm posting! Your interest and support is appreciated.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Playing the Dungeon of Voorand - fighting spellcasters

Tonight's game was a fairly simple affair. We had few players, but one of them was a new recruit. I'm trying to spread the love of old school delving.

They did some fooling around in Khazan, and tried to make the wizards at the Wizard's Guild create some specialized items for them. One character had heard the rumour that dragons was crazy about avocados, and since they dragon-man in the party eyed him often enough he wanted a box that always would keep some avocados fresh. I have heard of some players trying to "invent" gunpowder in a fantasy game, but having someone trying to invent a magical fridge was new to me.

When they got down to the dungeon, they went purposefully to the most overpowered site they had yet found. I was impressed. Since I had put a very intriguing puzzle there (which have caused some physical discomfort to some poor dwarf) they keep coming back. Once again the hypercube of doom delivered. Now I have mutilated yet another player character.

The big fight then started with three lich kings, or something to that effect. I guess if you dangle enough bling in front of delvers they will bite sooner or later, against better judgement. After two rounds and the effects of protective magic they retreated down to a deeper level, since stairs just happened to be nearby. Later they sneaked out with bleeding and barely conscious party members. Fun was had.

One lesson was had by me. I have not had much opportunity to test the Kremm Resistance rules, and now it confirmed my suspicions. If they spellcaster is more powerful than you it doesn't mean much, and if he is less powerful he can't do much. The rules as written are way to binary.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More about experience mechanics

For those of you who don't remember Rolemaster, this post by Zzarchov at Unofficial Games might be of interest. It's worth reading for the old RM players as well, I might add. Tweaking experience and using spell casting, exploring and objective based experience are all interesting options.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gygax and Arneson's best idea - coins

I have talked about coins before. Now there was a good post over at Black Dougal, that once again got me thinking. I want to pot the spotlight on the design effects of using collecting gold as a measurement of player advancement. According to me the fact that gp = xp is a strike of genius with many interesting effects on the game. I will view both of D&D and T&T through the golden lens of a coin.

In Basic D&D a suit of plate will cost you 60 gp. In AD&D it will cost you 400 gp, and in T&T 7 th ed a suit of heavy plate costs 1300 gp and in 6 th ed it will cost 600 gp. In BD&D and AD&D you get xp for gold, and in T&T you don't. In AD&D you have to pay for training to level up, and in T&T you have to pay the Wizard's Guild to get new spells. All this will of course influence how the game plays.

In my old D&D3 campaign (which I have written about before) I managed to get into the situation where my players considered coins as useless treasure. They barely bothered with gold, unless they got enough of it to buy a magic item they wanted. In my T&T campaign I have now started to see some of that as well, and I was wondering about the effects of the gp as xp rule.

In T&T, what happen when you have gotten the best armor and weapon you can get? You still have to pay the Wizard's Guild if you're a spellcaster, but if you're a fighter you probably only want gold to buy magic items. The latter is not something I really appreciate. Getting magic items to order have a high chance of making the wonder of magic turn into the blandness of Wallmart.

In D&D you very easy get the best armor and weapons. Frankly, surprisingly easy! After that you will still be interested in gold, since then you need to start saving for a stronghold when you reach level 9. When you have to pay for training it makes even more sense. I think this is a very good way to make sure that at all levels of play you still have a reason to go adventuring.

Here we can now see how the simple design of gp as xp have many small effects on play. Since you get a lot more xp from gold than you'll ever get from killing monsters, it encourage you to get your money without combat. In T&T you get most of your points from Saving Rolls so it has a similar effect. I like how those games make murder of other intelligent beings something that might happen, but not the point of the game. All these points of how this rule influence play impress me. To achieve so much with one rule is impressive. It's good design in my book if you can get much mileage out of a rule like that.

The shift from AD&D 2 nd ed onward to giving most of the xp from combat, combined with the “wallmartification” of magic, is the biggest shift in how the game is played throughout its history. I'm not sure I like it. In my 3 rd ed campaign it clearly became ridiculous when gold wasn't “worth it's weight in gold” any longer.

For T&T I'm thinking about experience. The gp = xp is neat, and I wonder if I'd “fix” a problem that isn't there if I try to import it? I do think it is a bit troublesome when a fighter basically don't have any more reason to get gold when he has gotten his plate armor. Sure, he can chip in and help buying some spells which he'll benefit from, but it isn't the same thing. From some conversations on Trollhalla lately I'm wondering if the experience rules don't could use a tweak or two.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Free RPG Day - horray!

Today was Free RPG Day all over the world. As before Noble Night Games is available as a participating store for those who don't have a FLGS to go to. Maybe there's someone else, but I only know of Aaron's store. I want to thank my FLGSs Kingston Gaming Nexus and Minotaur Games and Gifts for their generosity! Thanks Michael, Justine and Michael!

Last year I was running in-store demos for T&T and Trail of Cthulhu. But this year with a new baby and everything, it was a lower level of attendance for me. The freebies this year looks really nice, and some of them were actually games I've been looking at for a while. This might push me over the edge. On me this kind of promotion works just as intended!

Sadly Flying Buffalo bowed out. I kind of wonder why it was done so late, but I guess there were reasons. Hopefully T&T will get some publicity come Gen Con, when the next boxed set of supplementary material will be published. Until then, you can still buy T&T from Flying Buffalo!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Playing the Dungeon of Voorand - the entrepeneur phase

Note: I have a newborn son who's only a couple of days old, so right now I'm not totally focused on blogging. I'll try to keep up. This post is a little late. Sorry about that.

Our Wednesday game have had to move to Thursdays, and I've been worried that some of the walk-in attendees would be confused by this. Unfortunately that happened, but we still had enough show up for a game this week.

Now we have entered what I call the entrepreneur stage. Our dwarven hero have lost a couple of limbs, and in order to scale back on the hazards he decided to start a tavern. Earlier that player managed to become the chief of a small tribe of hyenakin by defeating the former chief in single combat. He is now the player's second in command and gets to run the show as usual. Now the tribe have become recruited as loggers, and builder of the tavern. I really like this development. I have not set out any clear targets for the players, except some hooks and rumours about the dungeon. From out of player initiative we now have another campaign reaching development! I can let this tavern be a source of more information, problems and adventures for the players. The best part of being the one player who has to build the environment and provide the building blocks for fun, is when a player starts giving you building blocks they have carved themselves.

The delving this time focused on a weird intra dimensional room they found earlier, which spins like a carousel. Tugging the rope that hangs from out of nowhere in the centre of the room, they started the room spinning and then opened the doors that now lead to adventure. What was most fun for me at this point was when they found a room which wasn't really like anything else they have encountered before. Save or die effects are hated by some, and ridiculed by others. In this instance I had a room with a very subtle threat, that none the less had hints to decipher about what was going on. To my amusement they looked in the right direction and draw other conclusions than the wholly correct one. Hilarity ensued and the party was split in two and had to flee when a fight showed itself way to much for them. Learn to run away, and remember that sharks swim in the shallowest water. I have good players, and they know that. But, it is fun to see them not just waltz through it all and get a reminder once in a while.

Sometimes you hear that any touch of technology or "science fantasy" makes hard core fantasy gamers run away screaming. The module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is one that those kind of gamers love to hate. Those also seem to be vary of anything related to Blackmoor, since they know there are hi-tech there. Personally I kind of like to mix anything fun in. I decided to put a piece of gaming history in my dungeon. Anyone ever heard of Adventure or The Colossal Caves? If you have, you have probably also played the version with the vending machine in the labyrinth. For me vending machines are neat. They are fun to play with and might dispense all kind of wondrous stuff in a world of magic. Needless to say, I couldn't resist putting in a vending machine filled with toys, gewgaws and magically powered trinkets. I have no idea what some of them can be used for, but I trust my players to come up with something funny. Already the bouncing ball that doubles in size every time it bounces have provided us with fun and laughter. Imagine that one in a cramped environment down in the tunnels of a dungeon.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How to succeed at adventuring according to Gary Gygax

I just looked through my copy of the 1st ed PHB. In it are described some tips on how to be successful at adventuring. Apart from the importance of having an objective, is also mentioned that having two maps is the key to success. One map could get destroyed by a fire ball, or some other environmental hazard. It brought home to me the idea that the player's map is not just a help for the player's memory, but also an object in the game. The advice is actually something I recognize from the first place I read it, in the Swedish game Drakar & Demoner. Back then I thought it odd that it said that the DM should destroy the physical map his players had drawn if the in game map was destroyed. I really wonder how common it ever was for gamers to actually do that. A very special kind of immersion, indeed.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Endurance sports in fantasy

After a weekend of motorsport I have started to think of how to import the "Le Mans experience" into a fantasy rpg campaign. Once a long time ago I had all the boxes Avalon Hill put out for RuneQuest. One of those were a thing called Monster Coliseum, which if I remember correctly included some kind of Ben Hur style racing arena. The box didn't contain much that caught my fancy, so I sold it and kept just the Glorantha boxes. Now I'm wondering if it might have contained something useful after all.

For a fantasy world to feel "real", I think there are somethings which has to be there. Two of those things are sports and religion. For the latter it is usually present in weird cults and as a source of spells for "clerics", which often is just wizards with another name. The former is, as far as I know, more scarce. Sport is something which means a lot to many people all over our world, and it involves a lot of people from the very casual level up to those who are professional athletes. It's not that odd to expect some measure of that devotion to sport in secondary worlds, is it?

Personally I only care for motorsports, which in most fantasy settings will be a bit hard to implement. But, the Monster Coliseum got me thinking. Now, I'm not going to talk about futuristic settings since they are obviously more easy to adapt to phenomena in our world, and fantasy gaming is the major part of gaming. Taking a queue from the enormously popular and truly epic classic Ben Hur, I think low tech sports probably could be the focus of a whole campaign without it being boring! The first thing you think of will probably be arena gladiatorial fighting (like the classic Arena of Khazan from Flying Buffalo for T&T, but since I'm a race fan I'd prefer some sport that is less focused on fighting.

For those of you who don't know what "Le Mans" means, I can summarize the idea like this. You take a car and try to make it run as fast as you can, as far as you can, for 24 hours. It will take not only speed, but also a lot of endurance both by man and machine. Doesn't that sounds like something that could be used in gaming? How about a hunt, going on for many days? How about trials and tribulations along a messaging or mailing service, like the Pony Express in the Old West? How about some arena racing, like in Ben Hur?

I'm beginning to see a lot of interesting campaign possibilities, all having elements of competition and endurance. Not only will there be interesting to explore the wilderness outside the dungeon, it will be an interesting way to roleplay interpersonal conflicts and maybe even some resource management for players who like things like that. If you want to go crazy, you could even have a racetrack, in the dungeon. I'm seriously tempted, let me tell you! I'll be all happy after getting my racing fix for a long time after this weekend. We'll see if it will show up in my campaign. What about yours? If you have included any sports, then I'd love to hear how it went. Race On!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some pause in blogging: Le Mans!

If you're waiting for today's post, it might be late. Today the greatest motor race of all started, and I'm glued to Radio Le Mans for 24 hours.

This is so much more fun than another racing series I could have mentioned.

Making interesting characters

I read a good blog post today, which got me thinking about how I generate the characters I play. Our Sunday Group have been playing different kind of New School, indie games, for a while now. Many of these games come from the movement to empower the player which can be said to have started at The Forge. In those games you usually focus a lot on the player characters, naturally. To then just roll the bones and play what you get is kind of antithetical to that idea. My problem is that rolling the bones is how I go about such things!

I was once very fond of GURPS. My love with that system ended when I tried to make some characters in that system. It's a great system in many respects, but it showed to me an aspect which I know about, but hadn't felt before. If you ask me about what kind of character I'd like to play in this or that game, I usually think a bit and then give a few words of the attitude I'm aiming for. When using GURPS that is usually where you have to start, but for me that is the end. Sitting down and actually design a character built upon that vague attitude and you'll find me flailing about indecisively. I don't design my characters. I play them, from the start.

Rolling the bones and making up something as you go along is my way of doing it. I have nothing against detailed concepts, but I suck a making them up on the spot. Using life path systems is something I love, since it gives me a character with a lot of interesting wrinkles and also helps me start imagining things. So, having a table like the one on bloodlines which Mike is working on is right up my alley. Something like this in the rulebook of my beloved T&T would make me happy. As far as I know, neither Flying Buffalo nor anyone else have every published anything like that. A new character could always use some polish, right?

Here's some rough sketches, and a few newly cut facets which shows the jewel beneath. Now, imagine the hell out of it!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Grapple rules, why so complex?

Last night we had another session of our At the Mountains of Madness campaign. Following some burly looking fellows in a taxi, we suddenly found ourselves in a scuffle in a New York warehouse. We of course decided to help a poor fellow being questioned by the thugs, and we got to test the grapple rules. This got me thinking, and I'll do that out loud for a bit.

Do any of my dear readers remember the Strike and Wrestling rules from the old D&D Companion set? I just took a look at them again. Calculate Wrestling Rating, having odd exceptions for classes and odd monsters. Good grief. As someone who have played D&D3 knows, the grapple rules in that game is a mess. I've seen people running other D&D rules having bent over backwards trying to invent good grapple rules. It seems like unarmed combat just wont play nice.

So, when we entered the grapple last night I felt a shiver as I realized we were up for something complex. It was a very smooth fight, and the rules didn't get in the way at all. Roll to attack and that's it! Now it is nothing new that fans of BRP usually say that the best trait of the system to get out of the way. Still, I had forgotten how smooth it was!

You can probably spend a lot of time to discuss why this worked as it did, contrasting class based and skill based systems. I wont do that. What I will do is to toss out the question if there are any games out there which lacks unified resolution mechanic that have a simple and workable system for unarmed combat. I bet there are dozens, but I for the moment can't think of any. I don't think it can't be done, but maybe it's been overlooked?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mesoamerica as a game setting

Everyone these days are fairly familiar with "the fantasy rpg setting" as it commonly is presented. More often than not it is based on European pre-industrial societies. Sometimes it's more medieval and sometimes it's more Victorian renaissance with primitive steam engines. For some reason inspiration from other cultures are few and far between.

Glorantha is kind of famous for being a rich setting, and also for being hard to "get". One reason it is so rich is the inspiration from ancient Roman, Greek, Persian, Indian and other non-European milieus. For D&D we have seen Maztica and The Horde and some source books for 2nd ed about different historical eras.

Since I've just finished reading Charles C. Mann excellent book 1491, I've begun to think it would be seriously cool to do a small contained setting influenced my Mesoamerican cultures. It's weird enough to give a sense of fantasy in itself and not too far out. Apart from Maztica, which I don't know much about I think this is virgin territory. It would be fun to hear of anything like it, or about Maztica for that matter. Research time!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How to nurture Game Masters - troupe style playing?

After writing the report from our play of How We Came to Live Here, I kept thinking of that play experience. We all help setting scenes, and we all help by playing NPCs and develop different antagonists for the heroes. It's a lot like sharing game mastering duties, actually.

Sometimes people think about the hobby, and talk about the need for new blood. One way that have been mentioned across the blogosphere a lot is for having a simpler boxed set of rules in physical stores that stock games. While the idea have merits, I also think that nurturing what we have is also very important. Most of all gamers are players, not Game Masters/Storytellers/Referee/Judge/Dungeon Masters or whatever you want to call it. The late Keith Herber noticed the fact that Chaosium sold most of their books to Keepers, and that it limited their audience. While the idea of splatbooks alleviate this business conundrum somewhat, the idea is still that most sales are not to the persons who just show up for someone else to run a game. This is not just a problem for people who try so eke out a living selling game books, but it also threatens burn out for game masters world wide.

Have you ever heard of Ars Magica? It's a game filled with a lot of wonder and cool ideas. Personally I have not found it very fun, since it is so often more focused on the management of the covenant (the magicians "tower" with it's servants, hangers on and the politics and logistics of running a small town) than anything I consider fun. But, a few of the ideas in that game are worth taking a closer look at. Since everyone have at least two player characters in that game, a magician and a companion, you take turn playing the magicians! They are the most powerful character and everyone thus share the spotlight, sometimes playing their other character. Add to this, which is called troupe style roleplaying, the idea that you also share the GM duties (which is kind of natural when you share spotlight like that) and you have a nice way to train new game masters!

Running a game for your friends takes a lot of time and effort, and it make sense to try to share the burden. Not only that, but it makes it easier to avoid one person burn out because of the work load. I think it could be a nice way to phase new people into the chair behind the screen, and would also be of economic benefit for the hobby at large. More Game Masters means more potential buyers, more possibilities of being creative with your friends, less burn out and overworked game masters. Add to that the possibility of training good skills which might serve you at e.g. work. I think it would be an all win.

It is also very fun.

Monday, June 8, 2009

How We Came to Live Here - new school adventures in a southwest that never was

Last night we had a session of a distinctly new school game. How We Came to Live Here, by Brennan Taylor. What's making this game tick is a communally created village, with inside and outside threats. There's no “story”, so it's very much a sandbox way of playing. In play there will be two “game masters” so to speak, one playing outside threats and the other inside threats. The scenes are created alternately by inside and outside threats and the players of the heroes. That mean that if you want to explore the interplay between a hero and a NPC you helped create when you created the village, you can set up scenes that way. One round of scenes, or the end of the predetermined track of dice pools, is the end of the session and a period of recuperation, which might be months, take place before the next session. IT reminds me slightly of Pendragon, with its emphasis on dynastic play.

That being some overview of the rules I'd like to say something about the setting. It's supposed to be based upon the cultures of some native American cultures in present day south west USA. There's spirits, corn, a beautiful but dangerous land. In our game we have turkey eaters, a cactus woman and weird non-peoples who wants to eat our livers as our outside threats. Our game master (well, the guy who set us up with the game) have emphasized the props a lot so we have made food and other physical and tactile items a strong part of our game. It's very evocative!

Yesterday's session my character traveled to the spirit world, and I got to bargain with animal spirits and give gifts of servitude and offerings to them to get what I wanted. Even though I'm a big fan of Glorantha I have never played in Glorantha myself, but this felt like I've always imagined a good session of myth working in Glorantha to be. Very cool.

I don't have much to say about the game really. The system is using Fudge dice with a IGO/UGO attack/defend mechanic where you bring traits into play to enlarge your pools. Nothing fancy, but it works. It's a different experience from a more traditional rpg, since nobody knows what the session will be about until we start framing scenes. You could say that it's more about telling stories together by tossing your friends into a situation and then see how that situation shapes the persons and society. Have you ever felt that your heroes were suspiciously detached from their society, then this game might be for you. I'm not sure I'd say I'm a fan, but it is always interesting with games that makes you experience new dimensions in gaming.

The Gaming Library: Knockspell #2

The latest pile of loot arrived from Lulu last week. Knockspell #1 came out earlier this year and was nice enough, but this issue looked to be even better. I can summarize it simply by saying, yes it's better than I thought - buy it! Matt Finch and team have surpassed issue number one.

I will be taking a closer look at this issue, and focus on how well I think the material in this issue can be used by a Tunnels & Trolls gamer like myself. Knockspell is primarily a magazine for OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry, but I play neither and have enjoyed this issue a lot.

Out of 32 items (and classifieds) in the Table of Contents, I'd say 15 or 16 is usable off the bat for T&T. Some of the other items are a little bit more tied to D&D, but might give some inspiration and idea. The big block of stuff which I personally wasn't all that interested in was the essay about "The Trouble with Thieves" and the different ways of solving the "problem". Frankly I don't see much of a problem. The thief might not be in the holy scripture (OD&D) but it doesn't mean it is not a "proper archetype". Also, nothing makes it impossible for other classes to climb, steal and disarm traps even when you have decided to bring the thief into your game. For those who still see a problem I'll paraphrase the Talent rules from T&T like this. Let everyone have one Trait, which is some kind of thing they do a bit better than anyone else. Then take a mechanic for resolving general questions like that, d% or d6, and give a small bonus for those with the Traits. Everyone else can still try and succeed. Now, if you want a type of character who is good at "skills" give him more or less of these Traits as he progresses in his chosen path as an adventurer. Problem solved.


Some of the 86 pages of this issue is taken up by long and well written essays. Michael Curtis does what he does on his blog, i.e. provides us with nuggets of wonder and mysteries for your dungeons. Allan "grodog" T. Grohe Jr. has a regular column, "From Kuroth's Quill", wherein he discusses dungeon design. I usually find what Allan writes interesting, and he doesn't disappoint. These, and the grandly titled "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" by Jason "Philotomy Jurament" Cone, are all mostly about design issues, and how to build adventures filled with that wonder we felt the first time we played an adventure game. That's the kind of articles that makes me dream, and lets my imagination roam.

Those who have talked to me, or read some of my writings, know that I have a soft spot for tables. In this issue we have articles with tables for random thieves guilds, city lairs, spell books and pits and their occupants. Anyone who need a kick of inspiration can use those! Many of the longer articles have tables to help you implement their ideas. There are tables galore! Me like.

Jason Vasche writes a very intriguing article about "Arnesonian" magic based on alchemy. Dave once said that the magic in Blackmoor was based on ingredients, and mixing of those. This is an interesting piece on how to make a system for alchemical magic within the limits of "the Original Dungeon Game". I think ideas that break out of the common accepted mold of how these games of ours are "supposed" to be played is cool. If you consider yourself "old school" remember that in those times they mixed everything fairly wild. The limits were the imagination. Well worth remembering.

I must confess I was a bit taken aback when I saw "Leprechauns - New Monster and Magic Items for S&W". Monster? They are one of the common kindreds, friend! Well, for us on Trollworld they are, anyway. It was really neat to see some items and takes on the Leprechauns, though. Since T&T don't contain any explanation at all about the kindreds, this short article can give some inspiration for those who wants to develop their Leprechaun Player Characters. There's even a magic item called the "Hidey-Hole"!

Frankly, any DM worth their salt should be able to take stuff written for any old fantasy game or retro clone and use most stuff in between them. If you care nothing for how well you can use an article about Leprechauns can flesh out the shorties on Trollworld, you still have lot of good stuff in this magazine. The adventure by Gabor Lux in this issue is written for Swords & Wizardry, but the game stats are so simple they can be converted on the fly to anything.

Last but now least I want to mention a few things about the visual impressions. The cover is in colour and depicts exploration of ruins. What could be more fitting the theme of classic sword and sorcery gaming? Inside it looks very nice indeed. Small touches like the editorial comments on articles and the short author biographies are excellent! This issue have illustrations by Jim Holloway and Liz Danforth, how could it not be good looking!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Dungeon Alphabet will be published by Goodman Games!

If you're a regular reader of Michael Curtis very entertaining blog The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope, then you know that he has done an alphabetic rundown of all the tropes and elements of dungeons. I think he managed to nail down a lot of the feel of a good dungeon in those entries.

Now Goodman Games have decided to publish the alphabet in a book! Go to the web page for the book, and look at who's involved in addition to Mike. Impressive. Here's the announcment.

Make a note of that one. It will be good. Really good.

Call of Cthulhu, rules analysis redux

Brian Gleichman over at Whitehall ParaIndustries (a very nice blog, go read it!) saw my post about Call of Cthulhu and posted a response in which he calls it an epic fail. I thought it was wonderful with some discussion, so I posted some short notes over there as a reply. He was totally right that I did fail! But, I consider my main failing to be that I was too unfocused in my post, and will try to remedy that a bit by this follow up.

Let's begin with this: If the simple rule that coins is the unit of experience and weight, reinforces the image of the characters as scoundrels our to make a buck, then the question is what is it that investigators in CoC get from the game system?

This was my main question. Later I talked about how the SAN mechanic actually discourage what is the main thrust of the game, investigating.

My next observation is this: For some reason "the correct way" to play, i.e. do the heroic thing and go forth and protect the world at your own peril, is transmitted by some other means.

So the idea here is that if you're analyzing the game from a pure game mechanic standpoint there is something missing. It's the Social Contract or the meta level (Brian have a very good essay about the different layers of design here) that make CoC work.

That being said, I think there are game mechanics which make CoC the game it is, and some of that was touched upon. Where my failings began to show is for example when I replied to some comments. I was a tired and unfocused and didn't made any of the points I had hope to make from the feedback I expected. So I'll try to put a few points to rest here.

I don't feel that the idea that rules define play needs to be defended. It does fine by itself from my experience. What I was aiming for was how this is still true, but that CoC tells us that there's more at work! In the Old School Renaissance it's popular to claim that old school rules drive old school play. Now, CoC shakes this up a bit, and we can doubt if it is indeed the whole story. Being less than clear on that point was probably the the failure of my first post.

Now there's a very interesting comment to Brian's post by the always eloquent Jeff Rients:

I honestly don't get people who don't get Call of Cthulhu. There are monsters threatening the world. Someone must stop them, even though stopping monsters is dangerous. If you aren't that someone, then there is no game.

Compare that with the result from the first Chaosium playest (quote from Greg Stafford):
We sat down and test played it. We knew the RQ system worked. We wanted to test this setting and is unique SAN. After the first game we all agreed, “OK, this works, but boy are we depressed!” We played it again, and thought, “It really does work, but why would anyone want to play this more than once?” So we changed one little thing: we made a way to regain Sanity. Then we edited the manuscript, got my friend Gene Day to do some art, Lynn laid it out and we got it into print.
Some game, eh?

So, what we have with CoC is a disconnect between how SAN discourage investigation, and how people play the game. It opens up interesting opportunities to talk about mix and match "cargo cult D&D" and the social aspects of play. All of which I find fascinating! Not only that, I also think that there are actually ways in which the game mechanic reinforces play in CoC. It's a useful starting point to study the rules and how they support a style, and sometimes prove it's irrelevant.

I hope that came across as clearer, and also as more developed. If you are interested in the theory of design and "old school" play, Call of Cthulhu will be very worthwhile to study.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Playing the Dunegon of Voorand - the restless dead

The gamestore where I run my weekly gave have changed their open gaming day, and after some scrambling to get the news to some of the players I was wondering if anyone who had played the game before but wasn't a regular would be able to show up, with a new day. At least it was at the same spot! We had good attendance though, and the game could go on.

Tonight was the first major assault on level three. While the first level was too small, level two have taken the players a lot of time to explore. I think my design changed and the game became less like a linear video game with a boss at the end, before the stairs to the next level. There's still a lot of stuff to explore and I have managed to make the dungeon feel big. I like that. Now it was time, though, to push on into deeper realms. They have heard rumours of undead and a city of goblins, and off they went.

As usual I design from a sketchy idea of what I want in the dungeon. I put down some of that on paper and try to fill in the blanks in between. I will shamelessly admit that one strong inspiration for level three is the three piece dungeon by Necromancer Games, Rappan Athuk. It's the only published megadungeon that I know of by the way. Since Bill Webb and Clark Peterson are serious fans of Orcus it's a dungeon with a lot of undead. My sketchy idea this time was undead.

So, after taking it really careful the players managed to do just one big fight, and to explore a lot of corridor and one big cavern with zombies. The zombies would keep coming and coming, as they are wont to do, until they figured out that they had to hit them in the head. Some nice attacks like spinning around with the blade plain dive bomb attacks were done. One missed save, and the party fairy was kind of squashed, though. Having fought those mindless undead they decided to desecrate the mausoleums they found in the underground graveyard, and opening them up they released one wailing banshee which managed to paralyse and chill them to the bone. I had nine of those lined up, but they had quite enough after one! I think that monster which didn't even tried a physical attack was the most threatening thing they've encountered in a long time!

After half the session I remembered to ask the players to keep track of AP gained. I'm going to collect some data about the speed of advancement for later. More about that when I have analyzed some of it and thought about it some.

As I have reported the game have also expanded a bit through the aims and goals that are being developed by the individual characters. Now we spent some time in Khazan planning and researching, made diplomatic missions to the cattle rustling orcs living in the woods outside the dungeon, and business ventures are being planned! I love it when players decide to build something in the game world. Some players might start a religion, found a dynasty or build a castle. Others start a tavern, in the dungeon. Me like. I open the possibilities for people to dream, and they take the opportunity and run with it. That is cool. Building permits, taxes, procurement of food supplies and suddenly the dungeon crawling game have grown. Idiotically enough I actually totally forgot that one character had unwittingly acquired a girlfriend last time. Well, we did have some character development anyway.

Other cool stuff done tonight was the new operating procedure with rope tied to a mountain climbing harness to keep the delvers together. Also, scouting ahead for an exit route when the party was going to try something potentially dangerous. I think fun was had by all.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

To Craft Dungeon of Voorand part II

I have been thinking a bit about how to make an interesting dungeon again. One thing I really wanted to make a key feature of my campaign, was for it to be player driven. A sue way to snap the suspension of disbelief for me is to have the world "know" the level of the players and only throw "scaled challenges" at them. They key is to have enough open doors to let the players choose what they want to do. When I look at my dungeon maps I think they are way to limited. If I truly want the players to be able to choose what to explore there has to be a lot of possibilities to move up and down! From now on when I have nothing better to put in, sitting at the graph paper with pencil in hand, I will put in a stairway. How much is good enough? Looking over some old maps, like the maps of Blackmoor castle, you'll see stairways all over the place! Tossing out some numbers I'm thinking that out of ten stairways on a level, at least three should go to the next lower/upper level and four going to stuff way deeper down. Maybe the key here is for the players to encounter a serious temptation, or choice, to go on deeper at least once a game session. I don't think the density of stairs and the possibilities of movement up and down have been investigated much in the discussions online about dungeon design. It would be interesting to know what people think of this. Please let me know if you have any links to discussions like that. For now I have been preparing stuff for my players to explore on level two, three, four and five. If that's not enough I don't know what is!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Call of Cthulhu - the game where the rules tell you not to go on adventures

I have been thinking a bit about Call of Cthulhu lately. Fairly recently we started to play the gigantic campaign At the Mountains of Madness, and it switched on the part of my brain that pontificates upon design issues. I began to ponder what makes good old CoC tick.

Some of my recent musings on how rules reinforce and support a certain style of play is especially relevant to an analysis of CoC. If the simple rule that coins is the unit of experience and weight, reinforces the image of the characters as scoundrels our to make a buck, then the question is what is it that investigators in CoC get from the game system?

Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying, is a very slick skill based system. Apart from the stats which are rolled with 3d6, everything else is based on percentile dice. Combat system and skills is all based on rolling a d100 under your rating. Even testing against stats is often done that way, with the relevant stat multiplied by five. Nothing of this reinforce the image of investigators unearthing cults and combating otherworldly beings trying to enter our reality, does it? The key thing, of course, is the Sanity mechanic.

As many of you know, the sanity rules are kind of like mental hit points, SAN. See or partake in too much mind numbing things and your mind fragments. So, what will this teach you? Oddly enough it reinforces the view that the only way to stay sane is to never read a book, partake in a ritual or cast a spell and to shut your eyes as soon as some entity appears. It teaches you to run away and stick your head in the sand!

A typical Call of Cthulhu scenario might look like this. You hear from an acquaintance that a childhood friend have disappeared. Naturally you travel to his last known residence, gathering clues. As thanks for your curiosity you will loose some sanity from what you discover. After some fraternization with the locals you might hear that odd occurrences, maybe cattle mutilations, have been notices around the time when your friend was last seen and about. Following that trail and you loose some more SAN. Perhaps it will tell you that your friend probably have gone out in the wilds, and that once it's midnight he will probably do something really bad. Armed with some unsound knowledge and maybe some guns, you confront your friend and sends the bloodsucking monster back to the void. If you are lucky you only loose some SAN doing it, and if you are unlucky you get to see your friend killed and drained of blood before the beast it dispelled. Your mind is now very fragile and you probably need psychological help.

Did you notice something in that tale? At every step, getting closer to the final confrontation and solving the mystery, you loose SAN! The lesson here is that if you want your character to stay sane and healthy, you'd better not read any books and not investigate anything! There's a disconnect here, since these things which the game system encourages you to stay away from, are the very things you have to do in order to play the game successfully. I guess sitting in your room and never travel when you receive letters about missing persons could be considered successful, but it sure isn't very fun.

Now, players of CoC have disregarded the hints from the rules and actually went out and investigated, ever since 1981. It is a very successful game and often listed as a favourite of a lot of gamers. It has even been described as the "adult" game (by Ken Hite, I think). Maybe it's one of the few games where the heroics come from the fact that to play it you will have to act contrary to all common sense and the prodding from the rules. I'm not sure that is a good definition of adult behaviour, but it sure is a sign of a different player mentality than seen in many other games. The difficult thing is to understand how that came to be.

I strongly believe that rules enforce play. If the are a list of combat actions on the character sheet like "Parry", "Feint", "Dodge" you can bet that those three actions are going to be the most common actions taken by the players. By the same token, a game where you gain most of your experience points from killing other beings, the players will try to kill everything they see. The odd thing about CoC is that in that game it's not true.

If someone just reads the rules for CoC or read any play reports, they would get the idea that not investigating is the way to go. For some reason "the correct way" to play, i.e. do the heroic thing and go forth and protect the world at your own peril, is transmitted by some other means. Have you been taught the "right" way to play CoC? How did you learn about playing CoC? Personally I since long totally forgotten when and how I first heard of the game, and how I learnt how to play it. I wonder if it is a social contract, a code of conduct when playing CoC, that makes people to what is actually not very healthy for their character? I find the question intriguing, since there are a few other games out there which are similar to Call of Cthulhu. Maybe I'm paying way to much attention to this idea of mine that the rules of a game should support and encourage a style of play, but I know from experience how that have helped me in the past to "get" a game. I will probably wrote about my thoughts about that at a later date.

To end on a positive tone, I'd like to say that CoC still is one of my favourite games. The fact that I got the opportunity to join in a group playing At the Mountains of Madness is something I am really happy about. It might be that the game really doesn't make sense, but boy am I enjoying it anyway!

Edit: A follow up post to this was posted later to clarify a few points.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Let's shake up combat!

I'm a sucker for tables. Tables where you roll some dice and read of something you never would have thought of, and suddenly your games takes a new turn. AEG Toolbox is one of my favourite game books of all time (Yes, I have the JG Ready Ref Sheets, I just haven't had time to look at them yet!).

This is a pearl I found. Random Combat Events. Go wild!

How to look good even when feeling low

Do you talk about gaming? Do you blog about gaming? Do you show your love to the world? Show the world you love good, old, classic games! I have a very stylish shirt I wear when I run T&T games at cons and in game stores. Admire the brutal beauty to the left

Recently I heard my fellow minion of the Trollgod, Grumlahk moan and sigh about a unkind and uncaring world. It reminded me of how he has shed some light on my world with his art. Go take a look at his stuff! There might be something there for everyone. We should all be thankful for those of our friends who can make the dreams in our heads take form in front of our eyes. Buy a shirt! Without Jeff I would look far less cool when gaming.

When do we get to see some Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord gear to wear? Matthew? Daniel?

Monday, June 1, 2009

PDF books, or how to pay more for less

I guess by now everyone have noticed that the business of traditional gaming products on dead trees are not the place to make big bucks. Not that it ever was a money maker, but the hobby are transitioning to electronic sales for a reason. While I readily see the advantages from a producer perspective I am also kind of vary of this development, and not only for nostalgic reasons. Fairly recently I bought some pdfs and I'll tell you about my experiences and conclusions. How does pdf compare to physical game books? On DriveThruRPG they had a sale when it was time for "GM Day". Since I had just got hold of 7th Sea, I felt some stuff for Flashing Blades might give me inspiration. The adventures where fairly cheap and I bought all I could find, all four of them. They cost $2.10 USD and it felt like a decent deal. Now when I looked them up they were marked at $7 but striked through and reduced to $2.80 which gives me the suspicion that DriveThruRPG is one of those places which never sells their stock for what they claim is "full price". In total I paid $8.4 USD for the bunch. Since I prefer to have my gaming stuff on paper, which for me is easier to cram in a pocket, read without electricity and for making notices on, I decided to have them printed. But, just stealing the resources of my workplace wasn't what I had in mind. Yes, I said steal. How many of you dear readers have a deal with your boss about printing game stuff at work? Without paying? Didn't think so. At my local print shop (the good one, not the bad one where the cranky persons worked) they could make booklets of my pdfs, full letter size so I could read the slightly blurred text. They also gave me the option of getting cardstock for the covers and the front page illustration in colour. Now if this seem excessive let me remind you that this was done to compare a printed game book to a pdf. All in all I paid $32 USD for this. That makes it $10.1 USD per book. Now when I look at those books at, say Noble Knight Games, they will cost you roughly $5 USD. All four plus shipping to me here in Ontario adds up to $26.69 which means $6.67 USD per book. Since none of the books available at the Knight were mint I guess we could add a few bucks to that total to compensate. Still, cheaper than the pdf. Why is pdf sales such a big thing then? Well, it's not hard to see why. Printing costs, warehousing and costs for shipping from the printer is probably going to be a major (if not the major) cost in producing a game book. Imagine if you could get some other poor sucker to pay that cost! Frankly, that is what's key to pdf sales. I wonder how many gamers out there who actually go through the pain to get themselves good looking results, like I did? If the product is just black and white, maybe a plain print out on the office printer is "good enough", since it's "free". Once when I complained on the Kenzer message boards about the idiocy of publishing a 200+ page book only in pdf, someone told me they could get a hardcover printed from that at a local print shop, and without paying a pint of blood. I was damn tempted to take him up on the offer. Seriously, where do they have print shops that can do that? My conclusions from my experiences is that this pdf renaissance is fuelled by companies whose employees print stuff they are not supposed to at work. Otherwise I can hardly understand how it makes economic sense. Unless you have good equipment and pay good dollars you will have a sheaf of black and white papers (probably lesser quality paper than the generic game book, and maybe even not double sided) and not a game book. You just paid more money, for less. Congratulations!
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