Thursday, November 29, 2012

Old Dogs, New Tricks: Playing the Game I Want To

Tonight, the G+ Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign was absolute blast, a sheer joy that proved to me (again) that I love to DM and I really enjoy playing with the players of that campaign, but it didn't start that way. The way I saw it (from my side of the computer screen), it started to become a crazy-great time when I  started playing the game I wanted to play and started to play it in the way I wanted to.

I know, that sounds like child's play, like I should have known it already, like I should have already been doing it, but it's harder than you think, particularly in hangout gaming where you only know so much about the other folks you're playing with.

What's the game I want to play when I'm running DCC? It's a wild and crazy game of swords, sorcery and science fiction where mind-warping trans-dimensional tentacle beasts have as much a place as barbarians and horses and every wizard works magic by reshaping reality and shredding the laws of physics. It's a game where I get to use long-winded words and crooked imagery to describe brain-addling scope of the totality of cosmological truths and why that's both a good thing and a bad thing. It's a game where flocks of monkeys chase you into monstrous sundew liers-in-wait which attempt to digest you; but don't worry, you can sneak up on the monkeys and garrote their heads off and knock them out of the trees, making a snack for those sundews so you can get away.

That's my game, not some average vanilla fantasy, and tonight's session became amazing as soon as I let it.

As a result of letting the game be what I wanted it to be, I now get to create a table that determines what happens to the players when they decide its time to eat the dimensional-horror-down-a-well's severed tentacle.

Damn good times.

Slaves of the Silicon God, Players' Background & Rumors

For centuries, tribes of ape men have threatened the borders of Man's great civilization. This time, they've gone too far and it's time to take the fight to their hidden temple deep within the jungle. Grab your steel and gird yourself for adventure as you and your allies put a stop to this menace or meet your gods trying!

Players' Background

"The filthy ape men infested a temple two days to the south five years ago," said the village head man when you sat down with him two days ago, "and that's when all the trouble started. Before that, they were just brutes but ever since they found that temple, they've gone and gotten... organized." With that, the head man recounted raid after raid, the ape men getting more and more daring with each successive one, and what started as livestock theft escalated to the kidnapping of young men and women -- those about to undertake the rite of passage into adulthood. Losing livestock is one thing, but losing the next generation is quite another.

The head man sent a runner to Mustertown, where you first heard the promise of gold and silver in reward for adventurers brave enough to take up arms on behalf of the village. At the foot of Ur-Hadad, you gathered your allies and prepared for the five day trek across swamp where it gives way to jungle and on to the village of Rakau. <Stop here and ask the players what preparations they're making such as recruiting men at arms or new 0s or the like.>

"We want our young-folk back, adventurers," the head man advised before you left, "but we are a realistic people: we know they are likely dead or might be better off that way. If you cannot bring them back to us, healthy, then avenge them. Avenge us. We shall pay for your metal with ours, that they may be one: our coins for your swords, our vengeance and your violence. For each of our young men and women you return, we shall gladly pay one gold, but destroy the tribe of ape men -- and bring us proof -- and we shall shower you with wealth."

With such a promise heavy on your mind, you made the two-day trek through the sweltering jungle to the narrow valley where the map the Rakau villagers provided you with shows the long-forgotten temple of the ape men set flush into the cliff wall at the far end of the valley. Built ages before man first thought to record history, the temple is overrun with ancient banyan trees and, the villagers claim, beasts of all sorts. As you now stand that the foot of the valley, a brightly-colored flock of small birds alights from the drooping boughs of a nearby tree, a last glimpse of hope and beauty before the yawning, unplumbed depths of arboreal gloom ahead of you. 

Rumors

Roll one rumor per player.

1 - Outside the temple is an ancient well which, if drank from, imparts the imbiber with wisdom, allowing him to grasp the great mysteries of the universe.
2 - The temple was built by an ancient race that was extinct before men first walked the face of the world.
3 - There are two species of ape men living in the ruins: smaller pygmy ape men and larger, white-furred ape men.
4 - The pygmy ape men of the temple are the result of the white ape men mating with shadow demons; they haunt the jungle's shadows and steal babies in the night.
5 - The pygmy ape men are the degenerate offspring of the white apes who happened upon a village of halflings ages ago. I hope the gods afforded those poor halflings a swift death in child birth.
6 - The ape men's improved coordination is due to the fact that they've taken up worship of some blasphemous god -- one of the Metal Gods that turned its back on the rest of the pantheon.
7 - A year ago, the head man hired another group of adventurers to rid us of the ape men menace. They never returned.
8 - A year ago, the head man hired another group of adventurers to rid us of the ape men menace. Only the group's thief survived and he was found near a watering hole, gibbering nonsense words and series of apparently random numbers.

The first session of this adventure is being run tonight via Google+ hangouts, so I thought I'd go ahead and post this info here now. I thought it would make sense to allow my players who take the time and trouble to read my blog the small jump on the game that this info represents.

If I Wasn't Running DCC [Fake Trek Edition]

Sometimes, I don't so much forget that I love DCC, but I think about what else I could be running. Over the last day or so, a lot of the OSR community has reminded me by posting pictures of gaming shelves -- gaming shelves filled with awesome memories of great games played and the fantastic prospects of games I've never played but always wanted to (or recently decided that I wanted to in the case of more recent releases). So, the question remains, "if I wasn't running DCC, what would I be running?"

Starships & Spacemen 2e (+LL & MF)

I know I've been talking about this one a lot lately over on G+ (mostly to point out the proliferation of typos and errors in the book), but I really dig this game. Over the past few years, I've gone from a distaste for Star Trek TOS to "hey, that's pretty neat" to "waitaminute, this is pretty much Twilight Zone in space, huh?" to my current love of the series. The problem that I've usually had with licensed RPGs (and with some better-established campaign settings such as Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk) is that there's so much established canon that players might know more about the setting than the DM. Sure, sure, you've always got the concept that the DM determines canon, but established canon helps inform players' expectations about the setting and, to a degree, their fun can be compromised if the DM deviates too far from it. Enter Starship& Spacemen, a pastiche of TOS (I can't remember who first used the term pastiche to describe the game) that hits all of the sweet spots of the series: crazy aliens, exploring the unexplored, exploring crazy aliens, humanist-existentialist plotlines and all that great stuff. This game out dropped a week or two ago, but I have devoured it a few times over in that span of time and I am hooked. 

Here's How I'd Do It

If I wasn't running DCC right now, I'd be running Starships & Spacemen in a way that celebrates the TOS pastiche nature of the game as well as the "little guys who become big, powerful, important guys" nature of class & level RPGs. The idea that's kicking around is for a campaign I'm calling "Redshirts;" the players all take on the roles of the lowest-level officers on the ship, the guys the bridge crew take along on the missions to ostensibly help out with their special skills but that invariably end up on the receiving end of some sort of alien violence. After all, if they weren't there to be killed by aliens, why would the bridge crew need them in the first place? I'd want to take this idea in an episodic format by setting up the players with discrete adventures to go on (planets to explore) and not penalize them for death (they'd still have to reroll, but probably be able to keep xp earned), just bringing in their new officer in the next episode. To a degree, the players would be both the bridge crew and the Redshirts (who don't actually have to be redshirts... they could be science or command officers), making decisions that effect the whole crew and being the team that takes the risks that those decisions entail. 

As a brief aside, I understand why there's so much resistance to episodic game formats within the OSR community since, in most forms that episodic games take, they can rob players of meaningful choices. One way I've been combating this in my Game of Taps campaign as the players explore the Keep on Kickassistan is, at the end of a session as we're wrapping up, I'll have the players make plans for the next session. They may not stick to those plans, but it lets me prepare for those plans and invent new monkeywrenches for the stuff that they said they want to do (which are often useful regardless of what they plan). In the Star Wars d6 game I'm playing on G+, I've been doing this with the other players as well, giving our brave GM plenty of time to figure out awful things to do to us. 

Long story short, I'd like to frame the events of the campaign around opportunities for the players to decide what's coming next, informing that frame work with TOS's sensibilities (particularly the existentialist/humanist/Twilight Zone stuff). I really appreciate Goblinoid Games's choice to make the second edition of S&S compatible with Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future since so much of TOS's charm is the exploration of weird places with various stages of technological advancement (and often devastating consequences of those technologies). Plus, monsters. And robots. Lots of robots.

So, if I wasn't running DCC, I'd be running S&S. Maybe now that I've written about it, I can stop thinking about it. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Killed a Dragon? Wear Its Face! Dragon Scale Armor in DCC

Okay, here are two completely unrelated things came up in gaming for me today. Here's the first -- I need to think more about the second.

First, in Kickassistan (so, DCC RPG system here), should one manage to actually kill a dragon, there's easily enough dragon scale on that hide for a suit of scale mail, half plate or full plate armor. Doing so requires a skilled armorer (or a PC of the armorer profession), money and time. The armorer needs to have access to leather straps, bits and bobs along with accompanying buckles, grommets and fasteners that cost up to 75 gp (for scale mail & half plate; 75 sp on the silver standard) or 150 gp (full plate). This results in a fairly unadorned but functional suit. This suit of armor has the following benefits above and beyond normal armor of its type:

  • Reduces the fumble die by one step in the dice chain; thus, a suit of dragon scale plate armor has a fumble die of d14 rather than d16.
  • Reduces the armor check penalty by 1.
  • Reduces the speed penalty of the armor by 5'.
The suit takes two weeks to craft for scale mail or half plate, but two months for a suit of full plate. By spending an additional 150 gp and an additional month of labor, the armor may be adorned and filigreed with silvers and golds. Such ornament gives the wearer a +1 bonus to attempts to intimidate or impress persons who are impressed by ostentatious displays of wealth such as nobles, merchants or the greedy. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Game of Taps: Rainbow Magic, Sleepytime Magic and Doug Henning

Tonight, we got a late start and, therefore, were at the bar a lot later than we intended and got a lot less (comparatively) done. The players did, however, walk out with a lot of loot and carrying the bodies of some pals. Here's how it all went down.

Doug was going to be significantly late, so Chris, Sean and I decided to use our time wise to (a) level up Sean's two fresh level ones and (b) hire some new level 0 canon fodder. Right, so, Sean's elven chandler ended up being sponsored by the Three Fates (so far, no one in the Game of Taps has bitten the Metal Gods bullet whereas everyone in the G+ game has) and his minstrel became a thief. Right away, Sean was pretty excited by the thief's luck-burning flexibility and knew that was going to come into play (it did).

Search "Iron Tusk,"
Find this,
Fail to figure it out,
Post it anyway
On the spot, I came up with a ruling that, at this point, to gain additional level 0s (and they could control no more than 4 characters at a time), they'd have to pay an "insurance benefit" of 10gp per head. Given the rate these guys are going through mooks, it's to be expected that the families of prospective hirelings would demand something in return from the loss of labor that they're causing in the neighborhood. So, basically, the guys pay 10gp for each index card for a level 0 that they can now "purchase" from me. Oh, and they are, of course, counting against the number of families in the region (as per last session's use of ACKS-inspired rules). Chris ended up hiring an alchemist and a farmer, Sean ended up with a tax collector and an armorer.

The guys miraculously decided to investigate cave C in the Caves of Chaos (the Keep on Kickassistan version, mind you) which, luckily, I've been working on a little bit. I've been holding off posting it until after the players explored it just in case they decide to read their DM's blog. So, they headed off into cavern C, greedy for all of the gold they were sure was hidden inside. One of the fun things about this whole set up has been that we've been gradually introducing important elements of adventure gaming; today's lesson was in the application of light in the dungeon and how, sometimes, being able to see can also means that other things can now see you.

Doug names his PCs ... poorly
A short distance into the cave, the party's elves spotted a trap, so they sent in the newly-minted thief. Of course. Makes sense. He has something on his character sheet that says "disable traps." He's gotta be good at this stuff. Turns out, Sean's really good at rolling 1s, thereby triggering the trap and alerting the boar men (the Iron Tusk tribe; much better organized than the Gurgalur Tribe) to their presence. The PCs leaped into action and, through judicious use of some terribly powerful spells (I say as the guy who has to face the consequences of the spells when they actually work right), the group's elves managed to Color spray and Sleep a good half of the oncoming boarmen, which wasn't quite enough to prevent Sean's elf from getting dropped to zero hp (but, as a level 1, he was counting down the rounds to -10 hp) or Chris's alchemist from getting a javelin in the face, or even Doug's new level 1 warrior (the poorly-named "Tosser") from getting a fatal spear through the knee. After mopping up and several applications of Lay On Hands, the players moved forward, down a man.

Sean decided that his elf was going to try casting Animal summoning just to see what'd happen. What happened was the summoning of a dire wolf for an hour, accompanied by a huge thunderclap. The PCs bravely hid behind the dire wolf and uncovered the secret door to the Gurgalur tribe's chief (Snurk, son of Wheesquin, devourer of Wheesquin). They went for the obvious chest in the room (and added a valuable shortbow to their arsenal) but managed to do a great job of missing the room's hidden treasure. Would have been a great time to have a dwarf on staff. The party, realizing that the clock was ticking on their summoned doggy pal, moved forward to the Iron Tusks' chief's quarters.

The party burst through the door with the dire wolf in the lead. What followed was a pretty amazing clusterfuck. Sean's tax collector bit it and his elven chandler took a thrown axe to the chest and went down (causing the summoned dire wolf to disappear after it only got to attack once). Chris's cleric of Cthulhu dropped a Darkness spell on top of the Iron Tusk chief and one of his mates. Taking out this guy took awhile, mostly because of his full plate armor (and thus crazy high AC), but the guys accomplished it by letting Sean's thief get into position for a Backstab and a judicious application of Luck (Sean burned 4 points of Luck and turned a 10 on the Backstab into a 19).

After looting, it was last call in the bar, so we called it a night. The guys went carousing and spent a ton of the money they'd just earned, but Sean now has 3 1st levels (the armorer survived and will likely end up a warrior when all's said and done). I also asked the players to figure out which cavern they're going to explore next and they picked area G (but I don't think they saw area H, so they might change their minds), so next time it's jellies and owlbears!

With all of the reliance on rainbow magic (Color spray) that's happened, Chris decided that his elf, Tith, is a devotee of Doug Henning. There were also some jokes about the elves casting Sleep on the boarmen and exactly what they would sleep through. It sounds like Tith is developing a case of "What Would Doug Henning Do?" Don't answer that. Please, don't answer that.

Okay, too tired now... It's a bad idea to do recaps right after a session. I start added idiotic pictures and videos of Doug Henning.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Monster Monday: Monstrous Sundew

The glint of metal is the first thing that catches your eye as you step into the clearing, and you can clearly see a small pile of coin and the hint of the more useful metals poking out from beneath one of the two skeletons here. Between the skeletons, you see a large plant with arms branching off of a central bulb like a mad wild artichoke. Each branch is around ten feet in length and ends in a broad, succulent, leaf-like appendage that is covered with tiny cilia, the ends of which glisten as if coated in a fine coat of dew. 

Monstrous Sundew

Like this, but huge; freaking huge
Init +1; Atk grab +3 melee (1 damage, target restrained; DC 16 Strength check to get free; 20' reach) or impale +5 melee (2d4); AC 13 (AC 16 vs ranged attacks); HD 3d8; MV 10'; Act 3d20; SP Plant traits, Digestive acid (1d4/round and DC 14 Fortitude save or paralyzed), Tremorsense (100'); Fort +3, Ref -2, Will +2; AL N.

Learn about sundews here.

The monstrous sundew is similar to its smaller cousins, except that it may use its branches similarly to tentacles -- tentacles that stick to whatever they strike and them drag them toward the central body where long spines slide out to impale the grabbed prey. Once its prey is impaled on these spines, the monstrous sundew injects digestive acid into it, doing 1d4 points of damage and requiring a DC 14 Fortitude save or the victim is paralyzed with pain. Once the victim is dead, the spine is retracted and the body drops free -- free to rot at the roots of the sundew.

The monstrous sundew is terribly unlike its comparatively tiny cousins in two very distinct ways. For one, the monstrous sundew is possessed of a rudimentary intelligence that allows it to interpret tactile data so acutely that it can effectively "see" anything in contact with the ground within 100 feet and has learned to distinguish prey from passing (and non-edible) phenomena. Secondly, the monstrous sundew is relatively mobile, able to drag itself along the ground by use of its tendrils and twisting roots. Though not nearly as swift as more intelligent plants, the monstrous sundew arrays itself near watering holes, feeding grounds or other high-traffic places, moving on if and when the resource dries up. Large populations of monstrous sundews are uncommon but known to exist, particularly around the banks of rivers.

When under attack (or attacking), the monstrous sundew normally roots itself firmly to the ground and cannot be pushed, pulled or moved by any reasonable means. If killed, the sundew releases its seed into the ground below it, growing to maturity in shortly under two months.

Some species have learned to exploit the sundew's senses and capabilities, most notably monkeys and carrion birds, both of which will wait in nearby trees where they are effectively invisible to the sundew. Such symbiotes are often clever enough to exploit the sundew's tremorsense, but rarely clever enough to want any of the incidental treasures dropped by the sundew's victims.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Dream About No-Shave NaNoWriGaDeMon

I'm not one of those guys who can remember many of his dreams, and I'm thankful for that fact, too, if the dreams I can remember are any indication of what the ones I can't remember are like. So, it was much to my surprise that the dream I had last night had stayed with me when I woke up and that it wasn't disturbing at all. Rather, it was the sort of thing I want to share with you folks out there who are undoubtedly the reason my brain came up with thoughts like this (well, at least part of why). So, here it goes.

In the dream, I was creating a cross-platform media challenge that required participation in any one of NaGa DeMon, NaNoWriMo or No-Shave November. Yup. It was No-Shave NaNoWriGaDeMon.

The set up is that some important to you has been kidnapped and it's up to you to use Novemberly activities to get them back. Whatever route you're going to take, you've got a month to get there, so there's no crunch for time.

[Here's the part where I have to figure out the particulars of the dream, so this might take me a minute.]

If you chose to write the novel (go the NaNoWriMo route), you were writing some subversive piece that would make the kidnappers believe that both you and the person they'd kidnapped weren't just sympathetic to their grand cause, but that you wanted to join their revolution (or coup or religious movement or whatever). Through carefully-written dialog, you'd convince them to let the kidnapped person go, but ultimately they'd realize your duplicity (you know, when you'd try to run away), and you'd better have written an awesome getaway scene and resolution.

If you chose to create a game (and enjoy NaGa DeMon), it had to be a fair one (the kidnappers would somehow know if you were cheating) that you'd have to beat all of the kidnappers at, facing off against all members of their diabolical cadre. Somehow, though, you had to let them get good at the game you'd just designed; I think the dream used Rocky-style training montages for this.

Finally, if you celebrated No-Shave November (or Movember for my fellow men who won't/can't grow beards or Novembeard for folks like me who really enjoy contractions), once you'd grown your beard, you could just waltz right in, your beard allowing you to infiltrate the kidnappers. Traipse in, free the kidnapee, then traipse right back out.

I love how, even in my subconscious mind, beards trump many other things.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Holy Power Creep, Gygax!

I used to be one of those guys. You know, the ones who sneer at 3d6 in order. One of the guys who thinks that 4d6 drop and rearrange should have been the law of the land. I never quite got into the idiosyncrasies of 5d6 drop/rearrange or the "re-roll 1's and 2's," but I at least recognize that some people feel they need a crutch like that to play an effective character. These days, I'm normally a 3d6 in order guy (DCC really encourages that and while it may not work as well for other OSR games, it works great for funnel PCs) or a point-buy guy (4e relies on inflated stats I'm more than prepared to admit; point-buy at least makes stat inflation relatively fair).

The 1e DMG states four methods of stat generation and absolutely none of them are 3d6 straight. There's 4d6 drop, 3d6 12 times (take highest), 3d6 6 times per ability score (take highest), 3d6 straight but for 12 characters (pick the character you want). Is it just me or is that a lot  of opportunity for crazy-high stats? These methods are a long way from the method mentioned in the OD&D Men & Magic book (where the DM rolls 3d6 straight for each player; the DM!) and even the Basic boxes (Holmes, Moldvay & Mentzer all call for 3d6 straight with some player-controlled modifications). So here's Uncle Gary advocating four different methods of bloating up ability scores. Well, not just here, but also in the 1e PHB: "Furthermore, it is usually essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating of 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics."

So, it shouldn't have really come as much of a surprise when I found a "holy shit" rule in Unearthed Arcana.

Yes, I have never owned a copy of UA until this past October. I've always wanted a copy, but never actually pulled the trigger. Being relatively unfamiliar with the volume (please note "relatively"), I never knew about the stat generation method that Uncle Gary suggests here. In case you hadn't noticed, on page 74 of UA, Uncle Gary introduces "method V" for the generation of ability scores, one that offers the player the opportunity to roll tons of dice to determine their scores, depending on their character class. The player is allowed to roll 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4 or 3 d6 on each stat, depending on the stats that they're supposed to need. A paladin rolls 9d6 for Charisma, for example, 8d6 for Wisdom, 7d6 for Strength and so on. I'd really like to know on what planet is the physics strange enough that 9d6 (keep highest) doesn't guarantee an 18. 8d6 seems also terribly likely to end up with 18s, as well.

I'd like to know just how many 18's a character "needed" to have from Gary's point of view to be sufficiently extraordinary?

For all of the OSR's love of Uncle Gary, it's moments like this that make me doubt just how much we rely on his actual rules for running games rather than the flair with which he ran them. The more I learn, the more I think that we love the flavor of Gygaxianism, but not the substance.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

DCC Donnerstag: The Metal Gods, Part 4a; The Gonzo Version

Though clerics may offer prayers to Metal Gods and work miracles in their name, though wizards and elves may receive their patronage and the power of their Lost Hymns, only those whose mastery of steel may be chosen to join the pantheon. Whether smiths or swordsmen, warriors, dwarves and even halflings may ultimately ascend to the pantheon and ultimately replace another Metal God who will pass into history, barely remembered. As the adventurer learns to master his metal, he develops a legend around himself and soon sages and minstrels will record his deeds and victories, setbacks and defeats all as part of his ongoing saga of epic verses.

Whereas wizards, clerics and elves feel the influence of the Metal Gods from the moments they first tap into their power, those adventurers who follow the path of the sword must first demonstrate their commitment to violence as a valid conflict resolution method before feeling the favor of the Metal Gods. For these swordsmen, the growing legend of their exploits propels them forward toward greater deeds nearly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more they do, the bigger their legends become and the bigger their legends, the more they are capable of doing. Eventually, should their deeds become great enough, these adventurers take their place in the halls of the celestial realms, joining the pantheon and becoming Metal Gods themselves.

Once a warrior, dwarf or halfling reaches the fifth level of experience, he may choose to walk the path of the Metal Gods; should he do so, he has chosen the path of violence and warfare, forsaking all others. Though he may pay hirelings and mercenaries, never will he command legions of men loyal to him and him alone, never will he be lord of realm, a baron or a king, never will he be more than that which he makes of himself with steel. To follow the metal way, the adventurer may be a folk hero, but a folk hero without a stronghold, without a title and without retainers more loyal than their salaries.

There are two methods of determining just what will grow the adventurer's legend sufficiently to join the pantheon of the Metal Gods in the hearts and minds of common folk. The method we will describe today is better suited for more casual campaigns or campaigns in which the strange or bizarre is more commonplace. The second method is better suited to more "serious" campaigns or campaigns that are more worried about internal consistency and in-depth storytelling and will be discussed at a later date.

The Path of Metal: Gonzo Version

Step One: Kill Yr Idols

Okay, so not necessarily kill, more like "replace." Or "character modelling." Pick a metal band. Any metal band. Whatever choice you've made defines key aspects of your character and serves to model that character's behavior. Allow this choice to inform your decisions about how to play the character. A common question you might ask yourself could be "What would [whatever band] do?" ("What would Lemmy do?" All the blow, all the groupies, then wreck the place.) You might even change the name of your adventurer to reflect this choice, but that is not necessary.

Step Two: Dub or Mixtape?

Now that you know how your would-be-Metal God will face his or her challenges, it is important to understand what those challenges are. There are two methods of determining what shape these challenges will be. The first method (the "Dub" method) involves simply picking a metal album -- again, any metal album -- and the song titles of the tracks on that album will help the Judge define what sorts of challenges and life events the adventurer will find in his path, what setbacks he will encounter and struggle to overcome. The Judge should make a point of working these album track titles into the overarching campaign and of letting the player know when his character has faced a Dub-inspired event (not necessarily before, however). The second (or "Mixtape") method tasks the player with picking 8+1d5 individual songs into a virtual mixtape that will, in all other ways, function as the track list from the Dub method. I encourage players to make this mixtape as much a labor of love as real mixtapes tend to be.

Step Three: Breakout Single

Finally, it's time to go back through your chosen band's catalog and pick one song that could have been (or might have been) the band's breakout single. The one they'll still be playing on the radio thirty years later. It doesn't ever have to have ever been a single (most of my favorite metal bands have never gotten played on the radio nor will they ever) or anything like that, just the one song that you think should have been their breakout single. Get the lyrics from somewhere. Send these to the Judge. If you can find the track on YouTube or Spotify or something like that, send that over, too. The Judge is going to use this to craft the "capstone event" of your adventurer's career and, if possible, use it to describe and define your character's ascension to the ranks of the Metal Gods. Judges, turn up the volume (to 11!) on what your player hands you and take the journey where the song sends you; if the makes you believe that the only way for the adventurer to ascend to the halls of celestial glory is to kill the Sargovax of Pluur, then the Sargovax (and the adventurer) had better watch out.

I wasn't sure how to move forward with the Metal Gods for warriors, dwarves or halflings. I knew that I wanted them to be able to join the pantheon (however unlikely that may be for halflings), but wasn't sure how. A little while ago, when I wrote about using Sabbath's Paranoid as a campaign element generator, I planned on writing more of those sorts of articles, but that idea is on hold for now because I've had so many other irons in the fire. So, when I was looking for an answer for "how do these guys become gods?" the easy answer was "metal!"

New Project: HeroQuest on Roll20

This scene, but with older kids, was every winter Sunday growing up
Ladies and gents, perhaps you're like me and you'd been playing RPGs for years when Milton Bradley released Games Workshop's HeroQuest here in the US. For some, I'm sure this game was as much of a gateway drug to real RPGs as Dungeon! had been for earlier generations. For those of us who grew into RPGs in the years between and didn't have a clique of older geeks to hang around who'd had access to Dungeon! or experienced DMs, we read D&D, AD&D and even Palladium RPG for the first time and had to figure out how these RPG-things worked without anyone holding our hands during the process. And by we, I really mean me. Well, me and the other guys in my suburb back in the day which I guess is technically a we. 

My favorite brand of crap when I was a kid
The point of this story is that there are conceits of RPGs, specifically the "fantasy adventure" and dungeon crawl variety of RPGs, that I grew up ignorant of. Yes, I'd buy issues of Dragon so I knew that miniatures were out there, but I had no idea how they were supposed to be used. I sort of had a vision of building a huge action playset-type thing like I'd had for my Star Wars figures ages before and somehow using that for D&D-style adventures. I'd read my Red Box thoroughly, so I knew that someone should be drawing maps, but I had no idea how they were supposed to know what to draw. Further, I had no real idea how to make the combat system work, but didn't let that stop me. Whenever confronted with something that we couldn't quite make heads or tails out of, we did what all good gamers have done since the dawn of the hobby: we made it up. (Which is, I think, why we liked the Palladium stuff back in the day; it's pretty obvious that they just took D&D and made up some other stuff for the parts they didn't get or "thought they could do better.")

My first favorite adventuring party
Then, one Christmas Day way back in the mists of time (1990 I think), my brother got HeroQuest. Every other present was disregarded (but not the Christmas kielbasa; nothing comes between teenage Polish fat kids and their kielbasa) as we immediately set up the board and... ineffectually tried to get our father and mother to join us. I even volunteered to play Zargon (for the uninitiated, read this as "to DM"), but no dice. An actual play-through of the game would have to wait until after the two-hour drive from Goshen, Indiana (where we lived), to Grand Rapids, Michigan (where the rest of the Muszkiewicz clan did), so we could force our cousins to play. We might not have gotten all of them hooked on HQ, but i know that at least our cousin Pete was sold (he got his copy of HQ for Christmas the next year) and soon every wintertime family gathering included HeroQuest. 

I painted my brother's HQ minis, too
The funny thing is that HQ taught my brother how to do a lot of stuff that we'd never bothered to learn in D&D. In some cases, this might have been "taught us how to learn" how to do some stuff that we'd just been making up, and in some, it was an "ooh, so that's how it works" sort of moment. Soon, my D&D scenarios were accompanied by miniature-appropriate temples composed of hand-drawn geomorphs on cardstock and painted miniatures where previously had been "theater of the mind"-style combat. It's sort of sad that it took me so long to figure out this stuff because by the time I had, I ran AD&D this way just a handful of times then my friends' interest in stuff like RIFTS (ugh, more Palladium!), Robotech (still more Palladium), ShadowRun, and the White Wolf games sort of took over my gaming life for the next decade or so. Oh, and right about this time, I fell in love with WEG's d6 Star Wars RPG (which I've luckily spent a lot of time thinking about lately), so there's that, too. And Earth Dawn. But every time enough Muszkiewiczes gathered in one place during the winter months, there was HeroQuest!

Wooden dice + crap paint = bald dice
Today, as I reflected more on my experiences with Roll20 as a player and DM, I realized that HeroQuest would be a perfect thing to run over Roll20. Simple rules, simple goals, simple game altogether. Limited need for player focus or stuff like that. It was the perfect "my first adventure game" back in the day, and I'm sure it'd be a great "my first hangout game" today. What would need to change, I asked myself, between the tabletop version and an online version? Realistically, not much. As it stands, the only thing that needs to change is dice rolling mechanism since Roll20 wouldn't have the "skully dice." Instead, you'd have to roll a number of normal d6s compared against a target number to represent how many faces the desired symbol took up on the die. For example, the "skull" result would happen on a 4+ (4, 5 or 6 result). Similarly, the "shield" result would happen on a 5+ (5 or 6), while a "monster shield" could only happen on a 6. 

The big thing that I'm going to have to work on is creating a toolkit for DMs who want to run HQ over Roll20 (or any VTT for that matter, but my efforts will concentrate on Roll20 functionality) and this means parsing out the different necessary graphic assets that one would need to set up the game board, to have tokens for the different monsters and heroes, to build the tiles that needed to be add during the course of the game and of course to create the requisite decks of cards (one of the really nice things about Roll20 is the integrated card deck creator). Right, so now it's time to get to work. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Old Dogs, New Tricks: Teaching Myself to be an Online DM

This last Thursday, I ran my first session over G+ hangouts using the Roll20 app, my first session DMing an online game since the (very) early days of MapTool back in 2006 or '7 or something. Not unsurprisingly, my DMing skills as they apply to online gaming have atrophied since then. To be honest, I hadn't really thought about how different DMing via the internet would be different than DMing live, and so every time I ran up against something that I didn't expect, it sort of freaked me out.

Dear Jez Gordon, WATCH THIS MOVIE!
Every DM I've ever met (or Judge or GM or Storyteller or whatever your preferred term is) started off as a "live gaming" DM. That is, he or she began by running games in person with the players in the same room rather than on the other end of the internet somewhere, anywhere. There's a degree of gaming performance that DMs develop as they hone their craft, things they look for in their players' responses, methodologies of speech and action that help them moderate the story the group is telling together and react to their players' actions and (sometimes) even thoughts. In short, every DM develops a set of tools that he or she uses to move the story along and help make the fun happen (or set up the fun for the players to kill or be killed by, however you want to look at it).

A dungeon organizer; note: not a person
Our individual toolboxes are things that we develop as a form of short hand to allow us to be effective DMs without having to over-prepare or over-think what we're doing. They allow us to DM at an even keel and in a natural, organic way without skipping a beat. They, rather than any other bit of rules knowledge or even (usually) scenario design, are what make us Dungeon Masters rather than just Dungeon Organizers.

Google calls this a "kinesthetic DM"
I'm what you might call a "kinesthetic narrator" in that I'm always moving, always doing. I point to things on maps. I draw on those maps with the wet-erase markers to illustrate tiny points. I stand up and walk around, gesticulating wildly. I do all the voices (the trick is to vary cadence of speech as much as accent or voice-y-ness). I've never been an actor, but for me, DMing is a performance. I like to look my players in the eye to catch the hidden meaning of "does it work?" or whatever they're experimenting with in the dungeon. These are the tools that I have taught myself to use while DMing to accomplish my goals.

And guess what.

They don't work online.

None of them.

(Well, maybe the "do all the voices" part, but I didn't get a chance to do that one.)

And so, I've got to work to develop some new tricks, a new toolbox to short-hand my way into being an effective DM online. I'm not one for drawn-out pronouncements of "new, ongoing article series," and so I'd like to not do so here, but I think that, whenever I come up with a new trick or shortcut for my online toolbox, I'll write about it here in hopes of saving someone out there some time. Any time. Right, so here's the first one I've come up with.

Don't Fear "Boxed Text"

Maybe you call it "read aloud text," but I call it "boxed text" because it's more readily understood than "canned text" ("canned" in the sense of "canned laughter"). Normally, I won't use it. Or rather, I use it as a... well, not even really a guide, more like a signpost pointing me toward the things that the writers thought were important enough about the area to talk about. So, I take what they've given (or not given) and add the details I want to add, point out the things I want to point out (usually literally, as in "this thing is here and that thing is there and the trippy music is coming from over here) and sometimes gesticulate in particular manners that I believe will get across a specific kinetic or tactile or whatever detail ("like clammy damp and cold" while I grip my forearms to demonstrate the ickiness).

Fucking terrifying
In the middle of our Thursday session, I realized that I was trying to show my players stuff by pointing to it on my monitor. Yep, by pointing to it. On my monitor. With my finger.

That doesn't work.

I found myself talking with my hands, gesticulating explosions, violence, dramatic actions and all sorts of stuff that ended up being, as it comes to pass, completely off camera.

That doesn't work either.

Right, so I needed a way to get across details completely and fully without missing anything and so everybody knows what I'm talking about. It may be training wheels or a stop-gap measure for now, but boxed text just might be the right answer. From here on out (or at least until I find new shortcuts to replace wild gesticulation and here here here-pointing), it'll be boxed text for every keyed area within reason. Reduction of confusion, no missing details and a hopefully more stream-lined gaming experience. At the cost of using a crutch that I thought I was done with back in middle school.



Thursday, November 15, 2012

Races of Kickassistan: The Dwarves

Step One: Fill with Dwarves

The Dwarves

Humans could not have accomplished their victory over the Elder Races without the assistance of the dwarves, of this there can be no doubt. It is possible, however, that the bondage in which the Elder Races held Man might not have been so severe -- nor the Elder Races’ fear of Mankind’s potential not been as great -- had it not been for the dwarves and their revolt, a revolt which predates Man’s by at least a millennium. First enslaved by an Elder Race whose name and aspect is lost to time, the dwarves were bound to work beneath the earth, to shape stone, to wrench ores from the bowels of the world, to shape metal into fine wares both decorative and deadly. While plumbing the depths beneath the world’s surface, the dwarves uncovered ancient ruins and attendant technologies belonging to peoples even older than the Elder Races. The dwarves kept the secret of their discoveries from the Elders, learning to use them far from prying eyes; not every device led to breakthroughs, but those that did ended up advancing dwarven artifice by thousands of years. Ultimately developing advanced sciences and devices of their own, the dwarves managed to free themselves from the Elder Races, but set up a tenuous trade relationship with them, one that would fail in later years as the dwarves aided the humans in their own rebellion. While dwarven artifice today is mostly focused on the manufacture of mundane weapons and armors as well as fine art objects and jewelry, rumors persist of dwarven machines, far below the surface, that surpass anything known on the surface world. The most persistent of these rumors speak of Soul Engines, colossal machines that “reforge” the souls of dead dwarves into the bodies of specially-built automata that advanced magics transmogrify into living dwarves.

Dwarven Adventurers

Step Two: Blast this on the 8-track deck
Dwarves pride themselves on their work: miners prize their best ore finds, smiths their finest goods, machinists their greatest inventions and warriors their most difficult kills. Dwarven adventurers are those dwarves who couldn’t find a source of pride within their community, so they go looking for it without. Fiercely independent and notoriously stubborn, dwarves will readily leave their homes in pursuit of their chosen profession; dwarven clans know better than to try to interfere, instead letting their more adventurous youths seek their glory in the world. Materialists to a fault, dwarven adventurers accumulate the best gear they can find and keep it in the best condition they can manage; they would lament the scratches and mars their arms and armor receive if those mars didn’t mean that the dwarves got to polish and hone them all over again.


The way I see it, the dwarves of Kickassistan are the my Uncle Pat's native people: eternally tinkering with some favorite piece of craftsmanship (muscle cars, motorcycles, armor, weapons, etc.) while blaring Led Zeppelin and Sabbath from the quadraphonic stereo in the garage. Afterwards (or maybe even during), it's a beer and a smoke and a quick "field test." Then, back to the drawing board for the next bit of technical innovation...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Alignment in Kickassistan: Neutrality

Alignment is one of those sticky bits of RPG logic that role players can't really seem to agree on. Rather than start an argument about what "lawful" or "chaotic" means in and of itself, I prefer to talk about what it means in a particular context. Here, I'll be talking about what it means to be neutral in the face of the constant struggle in Kickassistan between the forces of Law -- which attempt to civilize the world -- and the forces of Chaos -- which seek to enslave it. Unlike many settings, Kickassistan does not presume that the cause of Law is "right" and that Chaos is "evil;" rather, it presumes that either side simply exists and duly biases its followers against the other (one can assume that modern mortals are thus duly biased in favor of Law, considering it "right" or "good" while neither is accurate). 


What does it mean to be neutral in a world ravaged by the eternal struggle of Law and Chaos against each other? While the followers of Law and Chaos might lead you to believe that neutrality is a mere lack of commitment to one of the great philosophies or another and that neutrals are against them by virtue of not being "with" them, the truth is much more complex. Neutrality, in truth, is actually the most wide-spread alignment in the world; often, this fact is due to the "moral apathy" that lawful and chaotic peoples accuse neutral ones of but nearly as often it is due to a dedication to nature, balance or self-determination.

Neutral As Undecided

While many civilized folk devote themselves to the cause of Law, forming the backbones of most of the civil institutions of society, the vast bulk of Humanity have other priorities. Concerned primarily with their own survival and that of those close to them, most people spend far too large a part of their time simply trying to eke out a living to hold any strong moral underpinnings that go beyond their immediate social group. By the same token, these folk are not so self-centered as to ignore the well-being of that social group (whether it is his family, village, tribe or whatever) and give themselves over, whole cloth to Chaos. Thus, many of those aligned with Neutrality align themselves thus merely out of expediency and the fact that they don't have time to make a decision or to devote themselves to one cause or the other.

Preservers of the Balance

As Law and Chaos vie for supremacy, they ravage the world and leaving ruin and death in their wake. While those ethically committed to on side or the other claim this fact reflects the urgency of devotion to their side, that if Law or Chaos were to win the war, the entire world would be better off (if not the cosmos), there are many who understand that an end result on either side might be far worse than conflict. A balance of power, these philosophers posit, is far more desirable than the perfect, machine-like order of Law or the might-makes-right objectivism of Chaos; should either side attain primacy and victory over the other, the common man would be crushed beneath the weight of these cosmic forces. These philosophers actively work to support this balance, often playing devil's advocate for under-represented sides and willingly acting as a champion for either Law or Chaos, whichever side is on the decline at any given time.

The Uncaring Cosmos

It is worth noting that Law and Chaos are only two of an uncountable number of cosmic forces, primarily notable because both actually have a stake or take an interest in the action of mortals. Far more prevalent, however, are the cosmic forces that take no notice of Mankind's coming and passing, life or death; far more prevalent are the cosmic forces which regard the whole of the world as, in the larger scheme of the universe, being completely irrelevant. One aspect of Neutrality that Law and Chaos overlook is the devotion to those forces that are beyond mortal reckoning and dwell outside of mortal experience. Operating in and upon realms far outside of man's experience, these cosmic forces represent vast oceans of power that mortals may be able to tap, but that care little for mortal affairs, demanding unfathomable and unpredictable devotions from supplicants.

One With Nature

Though it may be orderly or wild, nature itself is neither lawful nor chaotic; similar to the cosmic forces mentioned above, nature cares only for the rise and fall of tides, the change of seasons and the life cycles of all things that grow. Nature has no goals, has no ends justifying its means, it has only method, for it is the process of vitality that drives all living things. Beyond such petty concerns as the self or civilization, nature merely is and will continue to be; so too are those who devote their lives to nature. For these devotees, neutrality is merely the path that life itself takes when no outside forces interfere with it; it is their responsibility to make sure that no forces are allowed such interference.

Champions of Freedom

Sure, him, why not?
Finally, and perhaps confusingly, there are those champions of Neutrality who view it as the only true path to freedom for the mortal man. Law, they reason, is a devotion to the gods and their cause of celestial perfection, a sublimation of the self in favor of blindly following the dictates of higher powers or structures; this devotion, the continue, robs the individual of choice and, thereby, freedom. Similarly, these champions posit that the will to power philosophy of Chaos sacrifices choice and freedom upon an altar of selfish power-hungry idiocy, that Chaos encourages a simplistic, systematic choice of self-satisfaction over any other motivating factor. These champions refuse to compromise or limit their own capacity to act as masters of their own fate, to bow to either gods or demons.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Winter Is Coming: The Weather Outside is Frightful...

This scenario uses the Get Ready, Get Set, Go short adventure format developed by Matt of Asshat Paladins. What follows is a very short adventure for Goodman Games's Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG designed to be played in a very short amount of time (no more than a single session) written for the Winter Is Coming II RPG Blog Festival.

The Weather Outside Is Frightful...



(Line break inserted to hopefully keep the prying eyes of players away.)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Races of Kickassistan: The Elves


The Elves

The first elves came to the world from that strange place called “Elfland” far in the past before any recorded history known to man or dwarf began. The elves are wild, unknowable creatures, and modern scholars believe that these first elves were no different. It was a separation from whatever grace that Elfland itself possessed and, perhaps more importantly, that the King of Elfland bestows upon the elves, that ultimately led to the “corruption” of the worldly elves, these scholars claim. Over millennia of life in the world, these worldly elves carved out an empire for themselves, ultimately finding kindred spirits in the other master species that would come to call themselves Elder Races and founding the cities that men would know as the First City of Ur-Hadad and the Sunken City, wherein they languished in a decadent luxury supported by their myriad races of slaves. It was the race of Men, supported as they were by another Young Race, the dwarves, who sealed the fate of these imperial elves; though they styled themselves as kings and emperors, priests and pontiffs, the final death knell for this darker race of elves came when the bridge to Elfland reopened and the uncorrupted elves came to the world for the first time in ages. Though suspicious of the Young Races and doubtful of their intent, the elves joined with Man and his dwarven and halfling allies to rout the imperial elves. The blood of their one-time kinsmen on their hands, these elves did not return to Elfland but instead took up residence in the untamed places of the world, ever vigilant should the scattered remnants of that dark elven empire return.
Surprisingly like this

Elven Adventurers

Though elf society has much to offer elves of all social classes, a growing number of elves have found themselves overcome with a fiendish sort of ennui; they have seen it all, time and again, and seek some new thrill. Many adopt trappings of the past out of a sense of irony; after all, the ages that produced those trappings crumbled as surely as the current age is crumbling. Many seek solace in art, ever adopting new styles and rejecting all previous tradition. Many seek to slake their boredom at the edge of a blade and reject all norms of society, becoming adventurers; many others seek adventure through the working of magics and the binding of of demons and creatures from outside space. Nearly all elves spend at least some of their lives pursuing all of these causes, all to find some small excitement that they have not yet known, all to ward off the weariness that a life that spans centuries leads to.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Game of Taps: Hey, buddy, you're the one with the pig...

Last night was another fantastic session of the Game of Taps featuring, yet again, a dearth of the crew from "People of the Pit" and another new player, so we dove right back into the Keep on Kickassistan. Good thing I'd just written up Area B a few days ago (and am currently working on Areas C, D & E), so the guys had stuff to go kill. Right, so, who were our intrepid players and their adventurers?
  • Chris L was there as ever, ready to rock. His B2 characters are (so far):
    • A nameless elf who's pretty deadly with a bow. Playing to stereotypes much, Chris? Seriously, though, this guy's +1 to hit with a bow dropped more boar folk than it should have, along with his super-crazy crits on spell rolls. First it was Charm person, and this week's spell crit was even cooler (for them, not for me). 
    • A similarly nameless cleric of Cthulhu who did a lot to displease He-Who-Sleeps, apparently. This was my first opportunity to adjudicate a cleric and it was surprisingly simple. All of those rules and bullet points in the Cleric section of the Class chapter really aren't that intimidating once you have to dig through them. 
  • Doug B's name sounds like he could be an 80's rapper: "Yo, yo, yo, it's Douggie B!" Doug had only one remaining PC from last session:
    • Gorby, level 1 warrior and fortune teller. Gorby took the Higgabooga king's giant cleaver (treated as a battle axe) and did a spectacular job of hitting very few things with it. Heavily armored, they tended to put Gorby on the front lines and let him take the hits so no one else had to.
    • Doug replenished his squad of level 0's, picking up a trapper and some other guys who I can't remember because only the trapper survived.
  • Sean is Chris's ex-roommate (I think?) and a new guy at our table, but he performed admirably. His pack of 0's included:
    • A fortune teller who was seriously weak and clumsy but pretty smart. (Dead)
    • A dwarven miner who was strong and quick and surprisingly smart. (Dead)
    • An elf chandler who... pretty much sucked except that she has super lucky. 
    • A minstrel who had all around better-than-average stats and would have been a nigh-perfect bard if DCC included classes that suck. The good news is that Goodman Games doesn't hate us and we therefore have no bards.
Not quite exactly like this, but this
The players heard my dramatic reading of the player introduction that you can find here, then they were ready to head into cavern B. After making a few Luck checks and failing them all, the players failed to notice the boar folk head amongst all the severed ones on the wall until it moved, but by that time, it was too late and the boar folk were all up in their collective grills. The party started moving toward the nearer guard post and got caught between that group and a group of freshly-alerted guards who were coming in from deeper in the warren. This pincer movement proved pretty rough for the group and Doug lost his two level 0s that I can't remember; Sean, on the other hand, managed to pull of some pretty spectacular rolls and managed to survive with all four of his 0s intact. Chris's cleric managed to mis-cast a few spells, leading to a pretty substantial disfavor factor, then managed to roll a "1" on a Lay on Hands check, drawing the ire of Cthulhu. Cthulhu commanded him to spend an hour in prayer, atoning for whatever he had done (luckily, he didn't have to do that right away, but was at -1 to spell checks until he did). The group took out all nine boar folk and started to search the area.

It's a fun thing, fellow DMs, to poke and prod players into doing stuff you know they shouldn't, isn't it? Like, after they've finished looting and piling up the disgusting bodies of nine dead boar folk, and the players know that they really should be waiting for the party cleric to finish off his paeans to R'lyeh -- there's just a half an hour left, after all -- egging them toward further exploration and discovery can be terribly satisfying if they take the bait. You know, like sending the Agility-penaltied fortune teller off with a lantern to investigate just what's down that passage off to the west.

Sean's fortune teller took a closer look down that passage and came face to face with another boar man and both stopped dead in their tracks! The party now found themselves facing off against 12 boar folk and one cleric down. Sean learned quickly that risking action without the party medic on hand is risky as two of the boar folk charged his fortune teller and the poor guy went down. Gorby sprang into action and tried to make a trap with some lantern oil, but his toss put the stuff too close to the giant fire pit in the room and the thing went up in flames, building a barrier between (some of) the PCs and the boar folk.  Gorby ended up going down after getting charged by lots of boar men, and nearly bled out. Chris's elf distinguished himself again with the elf, casing a well-planed Sleep that knocked out three of the boar folk, then using a careful strategy of attacking (at range with javelins) and withdrawal, the players managed to control the numbers of the advancing boar folk, only losing two of the 0s in the fight (Sean's dwarf and fortune teller ended up biting it in this fight) and (just barely) saving Gorby while the cleric kept up the "Cthluhu ftaghn" outside.

And then things got weird.

Sean found that, in the wallow where the boar folk had been, well, wallowing, there was a pen containing their young. This group avoided the usual "Should we kill them? Let them live? Free them? Raise them as our own?" conversation and went straight to "could we sell them into slavery?" and "could we let them loose and herd them down hallways to detect traps?" In the end, Chris and Doug decided to not interfere if Sean wanted to try to herd a boarling down the hall to "check for traps." After some agonizing how to do it or even whether he should do it, Sean asked his fellow adventurers for advice. I believe it was Doug who, not wanting to get involved, said "Hey, buddy, you're the one with the pig." When the swineherding turned up no traps, Sean's elven chandler slaughtered the boarling when no one was watching.

One thing that the boarling did turn up was some doors, and while the PCs bashed away at the locked one, some boarfolk poked their heads out of the other one to see what was going on; one of their squealing young had just been murdered outside their door, after all, not to mention the racket these guys were making a hundred feet away or so. And so the last fight of the dungeon segment (and its boss fight) ensued. And two rounds later, it was over.

Here's what happened.

Snurk, son of Wheesquin, devourer of Wheesquin, and his two ladies were behind that door, and it was one of the ladies who opened it and charged the adventurers (I think it was Chris's cleric). As the group got set up to face off against the new threat, Chris asked "Hey, what does Color spray do?" Snurk came out of hiding, managed to get off a pretty big hit on Gorby, then WHAM!, Chris's elf crit with Color spray. Okay, so it's not like crits with spells do more damage than other casts, but the result that 20+1 ends up with blinds enemies less than 2HD and gives those of 2HD or more two Will saves; if they fail both saves, they're not only blind, but also unconscious. Well damn. Two failed Will saves later and the threat posed by Snurk was over, crushed beneath the heels of the PCs and awesome dice rolls.

It wasn't quite over there, though. Gorby picked up Snurk's maul, the demonic weapon Backbreaker and began a journey down a very dark path indeed. He used the maul to bash open an iron chest in Snurk's secret treasury and attempted to repeat the feat on the other door in the cavern, the locked door that they had been trying to bash in when they attracted Snurk's attention in the first place. The red tide of fury that washed over Gorby consumed him for a few moments and he lost control, smashing everything in sight, including all of the chests and crates behind the door, one of the several shields in there and (due to a failed Luck roll) the crossbow that was in a now-crushed chest. When the rage subsided, and Gorby realized the implications that his new weapon might have, he giggled with impish glee.

The rest of the night was clean up, selling off treasure, dividing it up, some carousing and first level decisions, stuff like that. Three of the 0s that survived the night were 3 xp shy of 1st, so their players decided to opt for carousing, dropping bunches of cash down the xp hole. Here's what they ended up with:
  • The trapper (Doug) became a warrior.
  • The minstrel opted to become a wizard (Sean) and
  • The elven chandler became, well, and elf (Sean again).
Here are some thoughts on the session:
  • The players get one set of 0s from here on in. If they get "reinforcements" from the Keep, then they'll start effecting the population of it, which means that they'll probably run afoul of the castellan.
  • This was my first time Judging a cleric. Clerics in DCC are just as powerful and full of potential as wizards and the differences between DCC clerics and D&D clerics are interesting. I love the alternative consequence deceleration mechanics that DCC uses for spellcasting rather than Vancian gaminess and this session gave me two opportunities to see how well Disfavor acts as a decelerator like wizardly spell loss, corruption and patron taint. 
  • I keep thinking that carousing rules aren't the best fit for DCC or that the guidelines listed in the DCC rulebook should be more closely adhered to, but I've decided that after 1st level, carousing uses a d3 instead of a d6. 0s have a lot more room for improvement, after all. 
  • I need to use more traps. Half the time, these players are really cautious, the other half, they seem completely reckless; not a bad dynamic, but I might need to knock them down a few pegs lest they get too cocky.
  • Backbreaker had a good start, but that thing is getting a facelift. Instead of just being a simple "port" of the cursed tomb axe from Sailors on the Starless Sea, Backbreaker might just become a more Stormbringer-esque sort of force that could lead Gorby down the path Chaos Lordship. Oh, and berserker rages.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Monster Monday: Pygmy Man Ape

So, I don't normally do the whole "Monster Monday" thing, but just a few minutes ago, I realized that I was going to need to write a few new monsters for an adventure I'm writing for the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad gaming group on Google+ and I might as well turn them into blog fodder. That having been said, there are also a few "new" monsters (really just modifications of existing monsters) that I'm using in my Game of Taps: Keep on Kickassistan conversion. So, yeah, lots of monsters kicking around inside my brain, so it's time for some of them to blow up the old blog here. And so, ladies and gents, I give you the pygmy man ape.

Pygmy Man Ape

Init +0; Atk +1 club (1d4) or +2 thrown stone (20' range); AC 12; HD 1d8+1; MV 40'; Act 1d20; SP Stealthy (+5 hide in shadows & sneak silently), backstab +4 (2d6 damage plus crit); Fort +3, Ref +1, Will +0; AL N.

Only slightly larger than halflings, the pygmy man ape is often found as servant to other species of ape men. Sitting somewhere between a gibbon and a bonobo, but slightly higher than either on the evolutionary scale, pygmy man apes are surprisingly coordinated, particularly when working in the service of larger apes. Often, pygmy man apes will split their forces, one half trying to distract their foes while the other half sneaks behind them to attack from the rear. When making a backstab attempt, treat the pygmy man apes' clubs as saps (thus the increased damage listed above).

Pygmy man apes aren't the brightest creatures and while they have developed some tools of their own, they work far better when using tools made for them. By the same token, they make little of value but quickly latch on to items of value made by others and often hoard items that they could never make for themselves (such as art items, armor or coins). Although arboreal, these apes normally nest on the ground, preferably in caves or near defensible rock structures. 

By now, you may be asking, "Alright Adam, why did we need yet another kind of ape man?" Well, folks, the thing is that the weakest ape man in the DCC RPG is a 2d8 HD white ape man and here I am designing an adventure for level 1 PCs. I needed a 1 HD version of the ape man that didn't feel forced or reskinned and so these pygmies were born.

The Thief Problem: Playing Thieves In FLAILSNAILS Games

My copy of this is under lock & key
This last weekend, I played in my very first FLAILSNAILS game (well, first other than the one Edgar & I run), run by Shawn Sanford over on the G+. This, of course, meant that I would need a character and since my only FLAILSNAILS characters are babies (still level 0), Shawn let me roll up a level 3 character to head in to the Forbidden City (in module I1: Dwellers in the Forbidden City) and thank god for that since I1 has a level range of 4-7; 0 would have been completely out of place. I had decided that I wanted to play something I don't often get to play: a thief. Thieves have always been one of my favorite classes (right up there with wizards), mostly because of their ability to do so many different cool and strange things. I tend to enjoy jack-of-all-trades characters (sorta because that's what I do IRL); wizards do it through spells, but thieves do it through their skills. And so, what draws me to the thief is ultimately what can make it difficult to play one. You see, every incarnation of the thief is slightly different, with slightly different skills and sometimes with vastly different ways of accomplishing those skills on the player side. Whether it's percentile rolls, d20+n rolls, or d6 rolls, there are a number of different routes to go about measuring a thief's success or failure. The neat thing about FLAILSNAILS games is that any character you make for one game can be carried over into another, although changes may be necessary depending on the DM or the system that the DM prefers to run.

Right. So, how should I go about rolling up my thief?

Dungeon Crawl Classics

I wish I could justify another copy for this cover
DCC is my current retro-game of choice which I'm sure is painfully obvious to anyone who's spent five minutes on this blog and, as such, this was my go-to game when deciding on what game to roll up a character for FLAILSNAILS. And why not? Awesome art, crazy-cool systems and characters that feel intuitive and super-fun. Oh right, that's actually the "why not." First off, among retro-style games, DCC is (I think) alone in having a level cap of 10. Since there are fewer levels, more power gets crammed into each level. Don't think so? Ask yourself, what's a fighter's HD in any edition of D&D? Is it a d12? No? Well there you go. DCC characters' ten levels equate to a similar power curve that other games will have over 20. Does that mean that a level 3 thief in DCC RPG way overpowers other characters from other systems of comparable levels? Yes and no. First, the statistical probabilities attached to attack rolls aren't much higher than in other systems but, second, other mechanics sneak in to make things more complicated, like Luck. If my thief is the only character burning luck to gain extra dice on my attack rolls, does that make him more or less powerful than the other PCs? Boy, that doesn't take much to figure out. Third, there's the saving throw problem. When Shawn tells me to make a save vs. Petrification, how do I do that? My gut tells me to make a Fortitude save, but how do I report a completely different save to the DM and even know if I've succeeded or failed without a DC or a saving throw number like in other editions? Similarly, thief skills present a huge problem (in case you couldn't tell by the title of this post, it's what's driving me the most crazy here). In DCC, the DM provides the Difficulty Class for all such actions, and the player makes a d20 roll, adding some modifiers to determine success; the success requires the DM and the player to work together to determine the result. In other editions, the character possesses, as a feature of his class and often level, a flat out chance of success based on a die roll; in effect, the success or failure is all player-side loaded. This may seem like a simple semantic difference, but it's one that's really surprising me as I compare retro-games, retro-clones and various editions: where is the success located? And though my personal preference is the hybrid player & DM model, I'm not sure that this is best for FLAILSNAILS where DMs could be running six different characters from different editions/games.

I rolled up my thief using DCC rules and I didn't even realize that this might be a problem until Shawn started calling for attack rolls against descending ACs and saving throws against things that I haven't been used to saving against since the 90's. So, looking closer at the situation, DCC (what with it's lack of Charisma and all) might not be a one-size-fits all solution that I was hoping for. (Oh right, then there's the XP thing, but we'll not be talking about that right now.) So, what system should I use?

Swords & Wizardry

What about using the industry leaders of LL or SnW? These guys feature rulesets that are readily intelligible by folks across the OSR community so there's a big feature in their favor. I really enjoy both rulesets and can see getting a lot of mileage out of them, so lets look at each one in turn.

Okay, Core, not Complete
Swords & Wizardry is a sexy, sleek retro-clone of the '74 OD&D white box, although I'd have to use the SnW Core rules (which add some material from the OD&D Supplements to the core game) since that's the set that adds thieves. So, stuff that's in favor of SnW: simple but "player-side" saving throws and attack progression. Unfortunately, the way I see it, that's all the pro's there are. SnW features depressingly slow HD progression and a skill system that, while being "player-side" and hitting a nice sweet spot between generality and specificity, is sadly mostly based on something that I really can't stand: percentile probability. Percentile-based probability is, I believe, simply the laziest way to determine the success or failure of any action. There are always simpler, smarter or sexier ways to accomplish a task resolution system than cruddy old percentile rolls. Sorry folks, I just can't get behind them. The power gamer in me wants to complain about the paucity of ability score effects on task resolution, but really those could be adjusted as seen fit by the DM one way or the other, so that's not really a complaint. The final word here is that I really, really like SnW, but don't think it's the right system for me to use to write up my thief or to use in a general FLAILSNAILS environment unless the entire game is powered by it.

Labyrinth Lord

If Orcus plays it, should I?
On to the king of retro-clones, Labyrinth Lord and LL AEC. LL boasts the street cred of being a retro-clone of one of the most flavorful types D&D, therefore coming with a "baked in" audience. That's cool. The rules are cool. The ability score modifiers are standardized and what I'm already used to from DCC (well, init is a bit different), and this is borne out in AEC as well. It has the old-school style player-side saves (broken up the same way old editions did it) and attack progression. The skill selection is robust but based on percentiles, so I'm pretty turned off by it. HD progression (in LL as written) is not too hot with thieves using d4s instead of d6s (unless you use an optional rule). All in all, it may be the granddaddy of retro-clones, but I don't feel fantastic about using it.

OSRIC/1e

If LL is the gold standard by which all retro-clones must be judged -- and I'm not sure that it is -- then what the hell is OSRIC? I may have called LL the granddaddy of all retro-clones, but I think that honor might actually belong to OSRIC. All in all, I COULD use OSRIC, but I could just as easily use AD&D first edition. I've got that close at hand. But really, the only thing that OSRIC/1e has over LL is the standardized use of d6s instead of d4s for HD. Other than that, it's got all the fiddly bits that make me never feel completely comfortable with 1e. This system is out.

LotFP Weird Fantasy

Without art, its a lot less weird
Okay, I'm going to tell you right now that I love LotFP. If I wasn't running DCC right now, I'd be running LotFP. I may in the future run LotFP. It has something that I really, really dig: you roll d6s for success and you spend skill points to "buy" faces for success on those die. Here, "2" would mean a "roll of 1 or 2 on 1d6" whereas "4" would mean "a roll of 1, 2, 3 or 4 on 1d6." Nice, simple, elegant and it puts the player in control of his character's development. The HD are in the right place and the game features player-side saving throws of the old school sort. The attack progression is hybrid, though, and uses attack bonuses and ascending AC, which I like but doesn't seem to be as wide-spread on FLAILSNAILS as I'd like. Now, to offset all the stuff that I really, really like about LotFP, the experience charts for "Specialists" (the LotFP name for thieves) is slanted higher than in other games (level 2 at 1500 compared to 1250 for most others), which I think is a worthwhile gimp for all the stuff you're getting. So, realistically, I think that the LotFP rules are the ones that I'd most like to use, assuming I'm not using DCC.

Conclusion

Okay FLAILSNAILS DMs, as one of you (which I sort of am), I'm going to ask that you pick a ruleset. That you call out somewhere what ruleset you yourself are going to be using to resolve conflict so your players can be on the same page, so your players can convert their characters to that system. Sure, some things won't need to be converted (ability scores, hp and such), but it seems that thieves have the most complex set of changes from one game to the next, so we need to be prepared.

For now, the plan is to (at least temporarily) move my 3rd level thief over to LotFP but also write him up as a 1e/OSRIC character as well, since that's the ruleset that I think Shawn was using for most of the session (but I couldn't really tell; my guess is primarily based on the names of the saving throws he called for and the fact that Edgar plays a 1e fighter). I used the ACKS "mail you some PCs" thingy for stats (the first one was perfect for a thief, so I lucked out), so my stats are pretty balanced and not overpowered. All in all, I think the LotFP & 1e route is the most likely to hit closest to the mark; one is more ideal, but the other is likely a better fit to the particular DM in question.

Why Didn't You Talk About System X?

You might have noticed that I just talked about Adventurer, Conqueror, King in the previous segment. Why didn't I compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of that system? I'm also an outspoken proponent of Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperboria; why didn't I consider that system as well? To be short, you have to draw the line somewhere. One of the arguments in favor of all of the systems discussed above other than DCC is the fact that all of them are available online for free in one form or another. I have considered that, I think, when I initially statted my thief out for DCC: shouldn't I be playing with a ruleset that I know that everyone has access to? Similarly, ASSH is only $10 on RPGNow/etc., but I can't assume that every DM is going to shell out the cash to allow one player to play one character. So, for simplicity's sake, I considered the major options for OSR-style games, whether retro-clones (LL & OSRIC) or retro-styled games (LotFP), where I should have started in the first place.