Monday, February 28, 2011

2D Barcodes as Mapping Inspiration

For your consideration, the Spawn submits:

Recently Carter and I have been working on various maps, together and separately, and I've been trying to apply my skills with Illustrator to figure out how to help Carter make some existing maps functional for game tasks, like being able to add a hex grid to his awesome hand-drawn continental scale map. So maps and map generation have been on my mind lately. Oddly, with that and images like Telecanter's Black Pylon -- "a truncated pyramid of black basalt" -- in my head, I saw a little product code on an item while brushing my teeth one morning and tried to figure out what it was about. After doing some research I found it was a 2D barcode, this one using the Data Matrix symbology, e.g.:

This just encodes the letter "I". But as I tried to figure it out, I imagined a party coming up on an enigmatic structure with walls and columns of smooth black basalt out in the middle of nowhere, or maybe a group of these things. Possibly a ruin, but more likely a monument with all sorts of images and inscriptions on every surface. After a little bit of investigating they'd see that the layout is square, the west and south walls are complete, but the north and east walls are alternating pillars. And then what's inside may appear to be random ... but the regular pattern of the walls might suggest the arrangement within is somehow meaningful. Neat. (I also figure that there's actually enough space between pillars meeting at corners to slip through, or at least see through.)

So then I found this site that allows you to generate 2D (and other) barcodes out of whatever text you want (I suggest you set the module width to the max of 5mm for good resolution). So I started with the Data Matrix symbology and put in "Telecanter's Receding Rules":

Not bad. I think it would be cool to have this in a open place, and have it be tall, but not impossible to scale, so that PCs could climb on top of it for a bird's eye view while other PCs explore within. Another cool feature of the website is you can set the foreground and background colors in a wide range of colors. To illustrate, let's have "D&D with Porn Stars" in Data Matrix:

Some symbologies have other obligatory structures within them so scanners can orient the label. Some of these suggest towers, or something else. Here's "Castrate the Dwarf" in QR Code, where the black and white are inverted:

Maybe these squares are guard towers or shrines or tombs. But you (you meaning the Old School gamer trained in interpreting gridded top-down dungeon maps into the on-the-ground perspective) already start to imagine what these look like if you were exploring them, right?  When you see that little square in the southeast quadrant you want to know what's in there, or if you're the DM you want to put something in there.

The Aztec symbology puts a box in the middle. Here we have "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here", also inverted:

And last but not least, let's say you need some help getting together a hex-map for the Sea of O'SR project. Nothing perfect, but just something to get you going, and you want to have some enigmatic circular structure jutting up out of the sea. Well, take your usual UPS shipping label MaxiCode for "Adrift in the Sea of O'SR", change the colors and voila:

Maybe you cut out a bunch of the little 2-hex bits if you want. Or not. Raggi's Weird New World supplement has a lot of little islands in it. As does this MaxiCode of "Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird New World":

Or maybe you don't need a wilderness hex-grid, maybe it's a place like the Giant's Causeway in Antrim, Eire, with hexagonal pillars of columnar basalt because you're running a Led Zeppelin-themed campaign! AAAAAAGH! Too awesome! I'm losing my mind! (That's what the kid in the middle background is saying with his arms raised.)

Now, you can't really manipulate these with vector graphics programs (my background), but photo editors like PhotoShop and GIMP can probably handle them pretty well (if the stuff that Telecanter does with public domain images in GIMP is any indication ... and by the way, next time you or someone you know talks shit about Fresno, remember it produced Telecanter. So shut yourselves up.) At any rate, there you go. An odd new way to get some graphical inspiration.

UPDATE: I later remember maybe another vague inspiration for this, the maps from Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, specifically this one I borrowed from a Brazilian Old School blog named Vorpal, on a post called (using my 2d6-Bard Read Languages skill) "Eight 'Easter Eggs' of D&D":

And you know what? Me and my sister saw that EGG way back in the day, and never realized it was about E. Gary Gygax. We just thought, "Ha! Egg! They put Egg in their map! Funny!" As I've said elsewhere, 5th graders are fucking stupid.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Arandish Campaign House Rules 2011

I wholeheartedly agree with James Maliszewski's reflection that despite what we DM's may invent or tinker around with in our own time, House Rules are really best developed in the course of game play.  Since the last revision of the Arandish Campaign House Rules in November 2010, I have looked back over those rules to weed out the ones we have literally never used at the table, and to generally bring those rules closer into line with what we've been doing in the actual game.  I already posted about the simplification of our alignment system; what follows is an overhaul / revision of the entire list of Arandish Campaign House Rules.  (Note: Newest and most dramatic changes: "Generating Attributes" and "Initiative.")

Arandish Campaign House Rules 2011

Generating Attributes
Attribute scores are generated by rolling 4d6, discarding the lowest die roll, and assigning the result to each attribute in order:  STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, and CHA.  [Note: The prior system, wherein the player orders the rolls in any way s/he chooses, is now reserved for first-time players only, i.e., players entering the campaign with their very first character.  All subsequent characters after the first will be rolled up using the new 4d6 in order rule.] 

As I have recently discussed, the Arandish Campaign actually uses the three-point Labyrinth Lord default alignment system (see LL p.14), consisting of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.

Chaotic: Inimical to civilization and social organization. Incapable of following orders and unlikely to put the needs of others (especially groups / nations) ahead of their own. Chaotic is the alignment of demons, Faerie, many mages, and all serial killers.

Lawful: The philosophical stance that civilization, regardless of how it is organized, is preferable to other alternatives. Will always privilege group processes and consensual decision making over rogue action. Lawful is the alignment of unicorns, devils, army personnel, most clerics, and all social workers.

Neutral: Neither fully committed to Law nor to Chaos; pragmatic. Many inflections are possible here: the Neutral character may be apathetic, invested in balance, leaning toward lawfulness, leaning toward chaos, or none of the above.

Neutral characters with lawful tendencies work well in groups, and will typically follow the orders of Lawful characters or characters whose ideas seem reasonably certain to benefit the group. Neutral characters who prefer Chaos have very little discipline, and only trust their own authority. They can work cooperatively but often undermine outside authority and resist falling in line with group decisions too easily.

Neutral is the alignment of the vast majority of dungeon delvers and adventurers.

Critical Hits and Fumbles
Any time a player rolls a natural ‘20’ on a to hit roll, it is a critical hit. Damage is doubled.
Likewise, if a player rolls a natural ‘1’ on a to hit roll, it is considered a critical failure or fumble. Typically, this means the combatant hurts himself, drops his weapon, breaks his weapon, or just plain falls down – Labyrinth Lord's discretion.

The optional encumbrance system in the Labyrinth Lord rulebook (p. 44) will be ignored; if how much a character is carrying becomes an issue, it will be dealt with intuitively.

Except in special circumstances, NO individual initiative is rolled (see LL p. 52), just initiative for each group, 1d6 rolled once per round as per LL p. 50.  [Changed at outset of Session 29, 2/21/11.] 

Item Saving Throws
YES, see LL p. 55.  [Note: we haven't used these yet.]

Ability Checks
YES, see LL p. 55.  [Note: we have, for the most part, been using simple d6 checks instead of d20 Ability checks thus far.]

YES, see LL p. 56. 

Multiple Chances to Detect Secret Doors
As James Raggi IV has written:

Apparently the Moldvay Basic and Labyrinth Lord state that a character gets only one try to find a secret door, and if that fails, pffft, tough shit! I have never played like that, and as I said was never aware that such a rule existed.

Doublechecking yesterday morning to make sure I haven't been playing wrong for a quarter of a century, I did confirm that OD&D, Holmes Basic, Mentzer Basic, AD&D, OSRIC, and Swords & Wizardry do not have this "one try only" language in the rules for secret doors.

I'm truly flabbergasted that a game that so features exploration as a primary activity would have such a limitation. To me, secret doors are time sinks, and if a party wants to take the time to make an extra check (or five) at the cost of a turn each, running down their light sources and risking wandering monsters, that's great!

I agree with Mr. Raggi and hereby waive the "one try only" rule as printed in LL.

Shields Shall Be Splintered! 
This brilliant set of concepts originates with Trollsmyth, but I like this nice encapsulation by David Larkins at The RPG Corner, from whom I horked many of my own best house rules.  Here's the rule:

Shields provide the usual +1 bonus to AC. However, they may also be used to "soak" damage from a single attack, thereby reducing damage to zero. Soaking damage destroys the shield.

Shields may also be used against any attack that allows a save for half damage, such as a fireball or dragon's breath. In that case, the shield is destroyed, as above, and the save is considered automatically successful, thereby guaranteeing half damage.

For magical shields, each +1 enchantment bonus gives a 10% chance of surviving a damage soak.

The D30 Rule
Once per session each player may opt to roll the referee’s d30 in lieu of whatever die or dice the situation normally calls for. The choice to roll the d30 must be made before any actual rolling has occurred. The d30 cannot be rolled for generating character statistics or hit points. [Thanks to Jeff Rients.]

Awarding Experience Points
Experience points are gained from two sources, treasure and monsters. Characters only gain XP from treasure of a non-magical nature, at a rate of 1 XP per 1 gp value of the item.  As James Raggi has discussed, this only counts treasure/money gained during adventuring, NOT from opening a profitable inn or becoming a ruler and taxing one's subjects. All defeated monsters (either outsmarted or killed), grant XP based on how powerful they are (see LL p. 49).

House Rules available as pdf here.

See also this post about the Arandish Entourage Approach to Retainers.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Square by Square: Megadungeon Mapping Mania

Having chosen to embark upon the wild and woolly real-life adventure known as Megadungeon Creation, I decided that the first thing I need is a large backlog of maps.  More maps than I may even ultimately use for the megadungeon itself.  So many maps I don't know what to do with all of them; so many that I will be able to pick and choose the best ones when it is time to start "solidifying" the basic layout of the individual dungeon levels and sub-levels.  

This is actually a lovely place to start because in some ways, map drafting is (for me anyway) one of the lowest-stress aspects of dungeon creation.  No stocking has been done yet, not many specifics are known, and I am free to simply fill up sheet after sheet of graph paper with rooms, passages, caverns, doors, tunnels, stairwells, ramps, and the occasional bit of cartographic weirdness.  I was slow getting started but four or five weekends ago I became a mapping fiend, creating more or less one entire megadungeon level (don't know which one yet) over the course of a few days.  Last weekend I engaged in another mapping blitz, completing two-thirds of a level in one day, and I have plans to do more megadungeon mapping this weekend.

My process?

When I started creating maps for the megadungeon project in early January, one of the first methods that I wanted to try was to create a whole level or two using EGG's random dungeon generator charts from pp. 169-172 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. This soon proved a bit too tedious for me, as it involves a great deal of die rolling just to generate a very small amount of mapped material. No offense to Gary G., but has anybody out there developed a simpler, down-and-dirtier version of the random dungeon generator? I may return to that (aborted) randomly-generated map in time, but honestly I only lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes with those DMG random generation tables, and only got about a third of a page mapped. I love the idea of randomly-generated maps but apparently lack the patience to wade through that much die rolling.  In short, I was bored.*

Then a mapping lifesaver arrived in the form of Fight On! #6, which I ordered back in December amongst a stack of other things (other back issues of Fight On! and a hardcover of Goblinoid's Mutant Future with the cool new cover art) and which arrived in the first week of January. On pp. 65-66 of FO! #6 is a superb article by Jeff Rients called "Holy Crap! I Need A Dungeon RIGHT NOW!" While Jeff's article is intended for use in times when one needs to generate a quick dungeon level or sub-level because characters have stumbled into an area for which the DM is unprepared, I found that the method outlined really spoke to me in general, so I started using it for generating my megadungeon maps. I don't want to give too much away here, because in fact I'd like to encourage you all to buy that particular issue of Fight On! (the best one ever, IMO) -- but I will mention the broad strokes: Draw a generous handful of square and rectangular rooms distributed at random, followed by a few larger square and rectangular chambers, also randomly placed. Next, a few irregular rooms and connecting passages. A few dead ends, a few traps. Etc.

The thing that really inspired me about Rients' quick mapping method is that it freed me from planning, or worse, over-planning my sub-levels. My whole goal in using the DMG random generator had been to release the mapping process from my conscious control; Rients' suggestions helped me achieve that without all the damn die rolling. Now when I pull out a blank sheet of graph paper, I just start peppering those initial square and rectangular rooms around -- and that gives me some of the "random" feel I was going for with the DMG charts in the first place.  Thanks Jeff!

(FYI, my One Hour Dungeon map of January 22 utilizes the Rientsian "I Need A Dungeon RIGHT NOW!" method as well.  That One Hour Dungeon map has been added to my stack of "megadungeon map fodder," with an additional connecting map and a couple of sub-levels recently added to it for good measure.)

One final note about my mapping methodology: before I tuck each individual 8.5 x 11" map away into a file folder for future stocking, I add at least one "custom chamber" or special locale to it. That special locale -- which may be an unusually shaped chamber, a "water feature," or even a perfectly usual-seeming room with a statue or other fixture in it -- then gets named using Al Krombach's awesome Megadungeon Random Area Name Generator. I can't tell you how much fun I've been having with that name generator. Like my other mapping strategies, it is designed to keep the megadungeon and its contents just slightly outside my control. Thanks Al!

To be clear, I DO have a few ideas for megadungeon levels that will look a specific way, will feature certain preselected monster groups, will have a predetermined history, and therefore will be more consciously and deliberately designed. (Actually, this has already happened to a slight extent, as I have drawn most of the main entrance level to the megadungeon -- a level whose basic contours I have known in my head since the early 1990s.)  But for now, I am trying to avoid over-thinking things too much and am instead letting random chance and quickie mapping techniques dominate my approach to cranking out the sheer bulk of maps I need in order to see the megadungeon project through to completion.


* I have since developed my own, slightly simpler random dungeon generator, but upon giving it a test run last weekend, I found that things didn't go much faster than they had using EGG's tables.  So I am forced to concede that random dungeon generation may just be too slow and tedious a method for me in general.  We will see.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Fieldwork of Crawling Chaos: Arachnids

Wherein thoust Spawn talks about his real-life battles to the death with dangerous vermin!

(WARNING: There will be images of arachnids being killed! If this is not your cup of tea, don't proceed!)

Carter posted last week or so about watching IJ and the Crystal Skull and how fire-ants would be a cool encounter, and I commented to the effect that I get enough of fire-ants in the field, what do I want it in my D&D for? I'm doing my doctoral research in southern Belize and mostly live in a shack-like camp when I'm down there, and especially at the beginning of the season there are always nasty scorpions, tarantulas, and whatever else refusing to be evicted. Plus there's bat shit on everything, dessicated lizard mummies, termite wings ... yes it's BELIZE and I'm so lucky and all that, but folks, the tropics are just NASTY. To quote the Talking Heads, if this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower.

What? Desiccated Lizard Mummies? you ask. Yes, look:
Our host thought this was funny. It's on the bunk next to mine. And yes, it truly is funny. But it's also NASTY. These are a sort of Jesus lizard and they get inside the place in the off-season and can't get out. They eventually starve and then mummify. Yay!

So off the bat, we get down there and we start running into, e.g. scorpions.
Maybe they're in the corner. Maybe they're crawling out of the fucking sink. Maybe they're in your boot. Maybe their nasty dull black exoskeletoned selves are curled up in a pile of your clothes and you see it while you're brushing your teeth in the morning half-awake as you select a shirt for the day. And you're in your underwear, barefoot, and moving something around in your mouth. It's already creepy, but you're being creeped out while pleasurably manipulating one of your orifices. You just got violated somehow. You can't undo that. So no, I don't want to kill it (I'm a Scorpio, JB!), but you can't cohabitate with these things. Are they going to kill you if you get stung? Probably not, but you will suffer, and be pretty ill. These are not Ray Harryhausen scorpions, but scorpions of any size are gnarly when they live where you sleep. Here's a little movie about how I found a scorpion in the lab one night and invited people to come down and help me kill it. Then there was a littler decoy one that threw us off:

Take home messages: 1) always assume the scorpion is alive; and 2) "Next time it's straight to kill kill kill".

Tarantulas. I have a lot of respect for spiders in general. My favorite spiders are the family of Jumping Spiders (the Salticidae! of course), who I consider to be good omens when I run into them. They are bad-ass little hunters. But they're little. They jump on your finger and they have no sense that they should bite you. They just see there's no prey so let's jump to the next place. They're like Stonehell kobolds (at least the ones we've met so far ... Stonehell 2: Kobold Boogaloo just announced notwithstanding). If you don't fuck with them, they won't fuck with you.

Tarantulas aren't very little.
They are big enough to transgress the order of scale that just gets them in the range of human spatial reality. And then they're all furry and FAST! Scorpions are nasty and they move in uncanny ways, but tarantulas haul ass, as I learned in this episode from the next year (two parts, unfortunately):
When I was back down there in October I fought a splayed-hand-sized one to the death with a machete and a mop behind a plastic Chinese washing machine next to the bathroom at 1am. I ended up smearing it all over the veranda with the flat side of the machete ... black hairy scattered legs twitching and all the abdominal whatever spread like pale chunky peanut butter across the concrete. I was swearing through my revulsion at the whole scene. You don't sleep well after that. You also don't crap well after that since it happened on the way back from the bathroom. Again with the orifices.

And by the next morning a column of army ants were already hauling the fragmented tarantula carcass away to feed their young. Gygaxian dungeon ecology, anyone?

Next time: Reptiles! And I'll stat up a new kind of snake for your dungeon/wilderness enjoyment: The Black-Tailed Viper!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Session 28: Vengeance in Stonehell

This session (played 2/7/11) opened with the party -- Innominus (Clr 5), Hazel (Ftr 4 / MU 3), Uncle Junkal (Rodian Bard 4), Dak (Dwf 4), Yor (Dwf 4), and newcomer Jwi (Rodian 3) -- arriving at Stonehell in the wee hours after a couple of relatively inconsequential night encounters with some fleeing Morlocks and some Fortinbras-bound Western Minochian dwarves. Dak wagged his genitals at the former, while Yor befriended the latter group, attempting to cull favor with still more supporters of the regional Dwarves-for-Government movement.

The box canyon containing Stonehell's main entrance was very quiet when the party arrived, and they had no difficulty reaching the dungeon entrance and descending through levels one and two to the "elevator room." Unfortunately, the elevator was on a different floor when they arrived. But the dwarves inspected the mechanisms that drive the elevator up and down, and Yor deduced that there was a big gear he could turn manually to kick-start the elevator's ascent. Using his girdle of giant strength, Yor turned the gear, the elevator fired up, and voila! the group had a means down to the fourth level where the Hobgoblins of the Black Oil operation presumably still were.

Once on the fourth floor, Gark the Dwarf, having been here before, led the party to the main oil harvesting chamber, which lay beyond some very narrow (5' - 6') passages that uncle Junkal's rock troll could not fit through. The Bard left the rock troll guarding the elevator room and the party pressed on. The group reached the entrance to the oil pool cavern, which was obscured by a slight haziness in the musty underground air. Immediately to the right was the entrance to the caverns of the rust-colored rock trolls who had attacked and routed Gark's former party, killing the cleric Stanthor.

Hazel led the way into the oil pool cavern, with Dak, Yor, and Innominus close behind. Upon contact with the hazy cloud in the cavern entrance, Hazel became violently nauseated, as did Innominus. Nevertheless, they pressed on swiftly into the chamber beyond the haze cloud. . .

To find themselves in a large chamber with ten hobgoblins and a cloaked wizard-like figure, apparently expecting them. The party's foes gained the initiative, and the wizard instantly vanished. The hobgoblins drew swords and attacked.

Violent melee combat ensued, highlights of which include Yor's critical battle axe hit which cleaved one hapless hobgoblin in one blow, and a successful critical attack and d30 damage roll by one of the hobgoblins that nearly killed NPC Gorgo.

Gark's companion Korak, a half-orcish Druid, cast Delay Poison on Innominus and got him back on his feet, whilst Hazel made a lucky saving roll and recovered from her sudden illness as well. These two PCs returning to combat improved the party's odds a great deal, but where was that enemy wizard and what was he up to?

Always a woman of action, Hazel decided to simply shoot her longbow toward the general direction in which the wizard was last seen, near a tunnel exit at the back of the cavern. Hazel's player then rolled a natural "20," a critical hit, and chose to roll her nightly d30 for the damage. She rolled a "28" for the damage roll, and the wizard suddenly reappeared, grasping in vain at the arrow through his neck.  He then collapsed, dead, to the cavern floor.

After that, Innominus cast Hold Person on six of the Hobgoblins, and even though four saved, between that and the combat prowess of the other PCs, the hobgoblin contingent was soon defeated. The party left two Hobs alive for questioning, killed the rest, and that is where the session ended.

Notes and Comments on the Session
Wow, it has been many a moon since a single PC action -- Hazel's insanely lucky critical-hit arrow shot -- so floored me and disrupted my plans as a DM. That invisible wizard was on the verge of unleashing HELL upon the PC's when Hazel's critical hit took the poor bastard out. After that, killing the rest of the Hobgoblins was easy work for the party; the battle was effectively over as of the wizard's (untimely from my POV) demise.

Now the PC's just have to look out for those rust-colored rock trolls. . .

Regarding those "inconsequential night encounters" early in the session, I have a "note to self": I need to generate a high-powered random wilderness encounter table for the Minochian mountains. I have been rolling a decent number of random outdoor encounters, but then the creatures I roll to actually have show up are pretty damn anticlimactic, i.e., Morlocks, Dwarves. They add appropriate flavor and all, but dammit, I want some BADASS monsters to attack the frikkin' party once in awhile. It's time to start stacking the deck -- or rather, the random encounter table.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Noble Knight = AWESOME!

Others have said as much before, but I want to go public with my praise for Aaron Leeder and Noble Knight Games.  Not only does Noble Knight carry an excellent selection of out-of-print RPG products, thereby serving as my "go-to" vendor for old TSR modules and the like, but Noble Knight's Customer Service policy RULES!

Case in point:

I recently ordered the Moldvay Basic D&D Rulebook from Noble Knight, and when it arrived, a few pages in the middle were missing.  Actually, there were pages there, but they were the wrong ones: I had duplicates of pages B9-B16 and B49-B56, and was missing pages B17-B24 and B41-B48.  The very same day I emailed Noble Knight about this problem, I got an email reply from Aaron L., apologizing for the mishap and assuring me that he was putting a replacement copy of the product into the mail forthwith.

Two days later, the replacement copy arrived.  The Noble Knight email instructed me to simply keep or discard the defective copy.

Now THAT'S customer service!  Fast, friendly, and professional.  I cannot thank Aaron enough for his speedy reply and re-shipment, and I cannot overstate how happy it makes me to have a complete Moldvay Basic book in my hot little hands after only a two-day wait.

Well done Noble Knight Games!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

New House Rule: Entourage Approach

Particularly now that the Arandish Campaign has hit that "sweet spot" where all the PCs are 3rd level or higher, and therefore the "domain-level game" begins to hove ever so tentatively into view, I feel it is time to actively deploy this terrific Entourage-Based Retainer system that I have horked wholesale from Dave "Sham" Bowman.

But first, a few key henchman-related definitions, adapted from Labyrinth Lord pp. 46-49 and Rob of the North's recent Grognardia comment:

1. Hireling. A 'normal man' (usually 0-level) hired to perform a specific task. This category includes porters, torch-bearers, stable boys, and/or mercenaries and specialists. Hirelings and specialists do NOT accompany PCs into dungeons, though they will guard stuff in camp or at home.

2. Henchman/Retainer. An NPC (classed character) who is a member of your party, serving for pay or other motivations. This type, called a "Retainer" in LL terms, is a henchman-level Entourage member in our terms but not (yet) a Loyal Follower (see below). I will use the terms "henchman" and "retainer" interchangeably for this type, even though LL pp. 46-47 refers to them specifically as "retainers."

3. Loyal Follower. An NPC (classed character) retainer who becomes a Loyal Follower of a PC. See Entourage System rules below.

The Entourage System
Players in the Arandish campaign will be portraying the role of a player character, but each player will be additionally charged with developing an Entourage or stable of player characters. This is called the Entourage Approach.

Each Entourage will consist of a Primary Character and a Loyal Follower. Further members of the Entourage will be standard Henchmen. The Primary Character’s Loyal Follower will not count towards the henchman / retainer total permitted by his CHA score. Furthermore, the henchman total will rise with experience for each Primary Character, +1 per level gained, reflecting his fame and influence as he gains notoriety throughout the region.

Brave Sir Robin and his Entourage of minstrels.

Upon the untimely death of a Primary Character, the Loyal Follower, by law, is able to claim all of the slain former leader’s possessions which are upon his character, and is able to claim, after paying a 10% tax to the state, that deceased individual’s estate, such as it is. At this point, short of a potential Raise Dead, the Loyal Follower becomes the Primary Character, and must then choose a new Loyal Follower from amongst his own Entourage.

At the beginning of each session, the player decides who from amongst his Entourage is going on this particular adventure. Typically, either the Primary Character or the Loyal Follower must be present during an adventure. Some of the members of the Entourage might stay behind to tend to matters at home while their brethren assume the dangerous duties of adventuring. Later in the campaign, the players might decide to attempt an adventure which is surely beneath their Primary Character’s or even Loyal Follower’s level of expertise. In such a case, the player can opt to play an adventure using the Henchmen members of their Entourage. Temporary Primary Characters will have to be established during those adventures.

Experience is affected by the number of characters, obviously, so it is not always the best idea to tackle an adventure with three dozen members. Primary Characters receive one full share of divided experience, Loyal Followers and Henchmen receive but one-half a full PC share of experience and treasure.

A Primary Character may take on his first Loayl Follower at any point, and gains the capacity for an additional Loyal Follower at experience levels three, six, and nine, for a possible total of up to four Loyal Followers. Again, these members of the Entourage do not count toward the Primary Character's maximum allowable number of retainers. The player must designate a pecking order amongst his Loyal Followers, in order that inheritance is clearly defined.

If a Loyal Follower or any other member of an Entourage attains an experience level higher than the Primary Character’s, he or she will leave the Entourage (and possibly establish his own and continue adventuring, at the player’s option).

The alignment of a henchman / retainer should be compatible with that of the Primary PC s/he serves. Difference in alignment will certainly affect the loyalty / morale of henchmen, if alignment is radically different.

Morale is an important game feature when using the Entourage Approach. Henchmen can be fairly transient, but eventually, each Entourage will consist of some very loyal members, even at the henchman / retainer level. The Labyrinth Lord rules shall be followed each time a new retainer is added.

To begin with, the Reaction Table on LL p. 46 is used during the hiring process. There is a possibility that said retainer will end up with +1 Morale Bonus (result "2" on the Reaction Table) at this stage. The henchman's base morale level is determined by the Primary PC's CHA score (see LL p. 7), adjusted for amount of gold offered (at DM's discretion) and possibly that +1 from the Reaction Table.

Retainer Morale should be checked during particularly perilous situations, and at the conclusion of each adventure to see if the Henchman remains in the Entourage. Fair treatment and fair pay, especially over multiple adventures, will often mean that no check is required (DM's discretion). Henchmen who have witnessed their mates perish, or come to within a breath of their own demise, will normally have to check with a penalty. Additional gold and Gems can help to convince even the most reluctant Henchmen, though.

Under certain circumstances, a player with available space within his entourage can actually add intelligent Monsters to his Entourage on a temporary or even permanent basis, given that said Monster can be accepted by his Henchmen mates, and further by those members of society whom might have to accept said Monster!

The process of actually attracting and maintaining a successful Entourage will be a large part of campaign play.  A player is never required to bring members of his Entourage on adventures, but the benefits of maintaining a Loyal Follower, at the least, are clear.

As "Sham" notes, the Entourage Approach has been inspired from notes by Mike Mornard, in regard to how Gary Gygax handled his campaign back in the early days, to quote:

“Gary ran a weekly game. His total player pool was about 12 to 15.

Usually, only about 2 to 5 of us could make it any given game day.

So, everybody acquired henchmen to "fill out the group" if somebody wasn't going to be there.

And it didn't take long for players to start arranging other times and playing alone or with henchmen.

Heck, it even reached the point where from time to time we'd just play our henchmen to level them up.

And yes, the original D&D assumed an endgame where you would build your stronghold, acquire vassals and tenants, and become A Major Player In The World's Politics.

That endgame seems to have virtually disappeared.”

With the Arandish Entourage System, I hope to bring back that end game that has virtually disappeared. We’ll see how it goes!

[Thanks to Dave "Sham" Bowman for posting this and to Chris of Vaults of Nagoh for helping me find the post again!]

Equally Valuable But Certainly Different

I was reading my friend Carl's blog this weekend, intrigued by the post where he claims that

I run a Mutant Future (heavily houseruled) game, and I run a D&D 4e (heavily houseruled) game, and I play in a Labyrinth Lord (+AEC, heavily houseruled game)... and guess what. IN PLAY, the experience is exactly the same in all three. And of course, the experience is totally different.

While I am completely in agreement with Carl's general point, that "the differences of edition are trivial compared to the commonalities experienced at the table," I still do feel that different rules systems do produce slightly different gaming experiences. Perhaps not radically different ones, but different ones nonetheless. For me, there is a palpable difference between a game that has "healing surges" and one that doesn't, one that has "tieflings" and one that doesn't. This may, as Carl suggests, be a matter of houseruling, or simply my own curmudgeonly partisanship shining through, though I would say (as I have said before) that the actual rules mechanics you play with DO have a noticeable impact on what kind of game play occurs at the table.

I have debated this point with Carl before -- see comments here -- and he and I have a healthy "agree to slightly disagree" pact on this. Looking back over those comments from late November, I really like the way our back-and-forth brings out some very interesting points about the role of the rules system vs. the role of DM style and houseruling. I want to contribute a few more good-natured thoughts to the ongoing discussion of this topic, in order to

(a) voice my total support of Carl's community-building premises, i.e., that "the differences of edition are trivial compared to the commonalities experienced at the table" and that "the final product of houseruling plus the old school game system of choice is far closer to the current iterations (Pathfinder, 4e) of D&D than most of the OSR would care to admit"


(b) reiterate my view about the role of rules systems (and to explain why I suspect that edition differences DO matter at least sometimes) via a driving metaphor.

To start off, a recent post by Al Krombach has forced me to re-evaluate how different 4e might actually be from older editions, or at least to reconsider when those differences vis-a-vis original edition D&D began to take shape. In short, did min-maxing begin with 1e AD&D?

Al writes that 1e AD&D

moved the bonuses for [attribute] scores to the higher end of the score range. A 13, which got you a +1 to-hit and damage in B/X, got you squat in AD&D; you needed a 17, a much rarer ability score (see the no-doubt peyote-fueled bell-curve and mathematical discourse on DMG pg10) to get that +1 to-hit and damage. This new element of D&D would help add yet another new element: min-maxing! You usually needed higher scores to even play one of the nifty new classes AD&D offered like the Assassin, Monk, or Ranger. And, no one wanted a sucky fighter with no bonuses to hit, or a thief with no bonus to AC, or so on. So, a way had be invented to provide players with a means of getting higher ability scores. Interestingly, the "need" to min-max must have been apparent very early on, as Gygax takes time to introduce ways of getting those higher ability scores (DMG pg11), stating "it is important to allow participants to generate a viable character of the race and profession which he or she desires". Note the word "viable", which means "doesn't suck".

Al notes what a major departure this was from earlier editions of D&D:

Before AD&D the dice fell as they would: maybe you got a 7 strength and a 16 wisdom, and no matter how much you might've felt like running a super-strong Gilgamesh-type hero, you were stuck with either a weak fighter or a decent cleric. Now [with AD&D] you could roll strength six times and unless you were pretty unlucky, you were going to get something you wanted.

Wow! So maybe Carl is right, that 4e is not such a radical shift from earlier editions when we note this transition away from the "old-school" sensibility already underway in the 1e DMG.

But why, then, do I find D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder combat and feat resolution so time-consumingly dull?  Is it possible to have empathy for a system (which I do, greatly, for Pathfinder, since I actually had some great times playing it and I like Paizo and their fan-centric vibe) yet to not want to play it?  Do edition differences matter?  (Again, I ask this question analytically, not evaluatively.)

A recent post by A Paladin in Citadel mentioned that Paladin had played in a 4e game only to discover that

I find 4E to be too mechanical and combat-centric for my tastes.

Carl commented that

My experience with 4e and every other edition is that the group and DM determine exactly how much combat is the focus of the game. If the DM wants to feed encounter after encounter to a group willing to hack and slash, then sure, any edition is combat centric. If the group wants to talk, or find alternate solutions to problems, adopts a "fight as a last resort and usually in self defense" policy, gets involved in political intrigue between factions, etc... then any edition is not focused on combat.

This line of reasoning, while correct in terms of the overall game play experience, is not directly relevant to how combat itself (or other actions governed specifically by the rules, like chargen) feels or plays within the different systems. My guess is that Paladin feels that 4e is too "combat-centric" NOT because it forces 4e games to be all about melee combat, but because ONCE YOU DO ENTER COMBAT it is quite sophisticated and detailed, and therefore takes longer to resolve. Sure, Carl is right, players and DMs can choose to play combat-heavy or combat-lite D&D regardless of edition; but I argue that what happens once the party actually enters a tactical situation definitely feels different -- and takes different amounts of time to adjudicate -- depending upon the rules system one uses.

It's like this:

I grew up in Seattle, and learned to drive there. When I was growing up, my parents only had stick-shift cars, so manual transmission is I what I learned on. Downtown Seattle is steeply hilled, and there are certain stoplights on those hilly streets that one comes to dread when one is a novice stick-shift driver, because once you are stopped at such a light on the downhill side waiting for it to turn green, you realize that as soon as it changes, you have to remove your foot from the brake for an awful split-second as you move your foot over to jam on the accelerator as you pop the car into gear. Even highly experienced drivers quite used to manual clutches get to test their mettle in such a scenario -- there is ALWAYS a slight roll backwards in that split-second before the clutch engages and the car surges forward, up the hill.

James St., downtown Seattle.

This moment of releasing the brake and rolling backward (potentially into the car right behind you) is something that drivers of automatic transmission cars simply never have to deal with. They just push the gas and go, no terrifying split-second roll backwards for them at all. Unless those drivers have driven or ridden in a manual-transmission car on a similar hill, they will not even know of this phenomenon that so haunts the manual-clutch driver on certain stoplights on steep hills in Seattle.

Now take the same experienced driver in two different cars, one automatic, one stick-shift. That driver can do everything in his or her power to make the automatic transmission car drive just like the stick-shift one, and vice-versa, and under certain circumstances, like the open highway, he or she might succeed. But if that driver ever comes to a stoplight on a steep hill in Seattle, no amount of driver style or finesse is going to change the fact that an automatic transmission car will simply hold its position on the slope, and the stick-shift will not, once the brake is released for that harrowing split-second. In other words, in certain conditions, each type of car is going to reveal its nature, even in the hands of the same, incredibly experienced driver.

Similarly, 4e combat is 4e combat. It does not rule out or discourage great roleplaying nor does it dictate a combat-o-centric playing style. But it governs combat and tactical situations in a specific way that does feel and function differently from other editions of D&D.

Is this sufficient grounds for those of us who prefer older editions to be 4e (or even Pathfinder) "haters"? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Does it point to the fact that even though individual DMs and players do indeed heavily influence what happens in their games, nevertheless the game experience cannot be "exactly the same" from edition to edition? Absolutely.

This is NOT an incitement to Edition War, nor a rebuttal of what I take to be Carl's main point, that "we should all be friends and appreciate our commonalities." Agreed! But this is a plea that we remember that "all being friends" means tolerating each others' differences, including edition preference, NOT insisting that those differences do not exist or that they can be erased given the presence of the right DM.

This has also been a bit of a rant; so, following the Joesky Protocol, here is my offering:

Ring of Alignment Change
This ring functions as a +1 Ring of Protection but also has another, more subtle (cursed) function.  Once someone dons the ring, it cannot be  removed for 1d6 weeks; over the course of those weeks, the being's alignment will gradually shift from its current state to one other randomly-determined alignment.  Optionally the DM may choose the alignment to which the ring-wearer shifts.  In any case, this shift is irreversible by any means, and the being must now act and behave in accordance with the dictates of the new alignment.  The ring continues to function as a +1 Ring of Protection at all times, but can alignment-shift each being only once.

Monday, February 21, 2011

HELP! FASA Star Trek Question: Tomcats over Leebyah?

The Spawn appeals to the OSR:

The current turmoil in Libya has brought that country and Gaddafi back onto my radar in a way it hasn't been since the Reagan era, when we used to bomb them mysteriously and they used to bomb everybody else mysteriously. This was back when I was in junior high, and most of my friends were gaming. I remember shortly after one of the raids on Libya that involved F-14 Tomcats (my favorite fighter at the time, because the wings could move ... pretty awesome to a 12 year-old ), that one of my friends had the FASA Star Trek game (I think ... could have been something else spacey) and there was a section that had a bunch of 1 paragraph scenarios or skirmishes or maybe it was a chronology of battles.

One of these was called some thing like "Tomcats over Leeb-yah" or similar, and we totally flipped out. I think it referred to some other incidents back in the 70s, not the then-current events. But there were more and more of these little scenarios that had barely disguised references to Soviet leaders, the PLO, Arab leaders, Iran, etc.

Does this ring a bell for anyone? What was this game supplement or whatever it was?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

2d6 Bardery (Towards a B/X Bard Part 3)

As Spawn of Endra has so elegantly outlined over his last two posts (here and here), our Arandish campaign experienced a minor crisis over the interaction between the Bard's Charm Monster skill and our d30 house rule. These two systems together produced a situation in which Uncle Junkal had a 70% chance to charm one up-to-ogre-sized creature per week at first level. This he did in Session 11, charming a rock troll, which has been with the party ever since. The presence of this regenerating rock troll has made it difficult for me as DM to kill, or even significantly damage, the PCs in most combat situations. That rock troll is just too damn powerful. Any monster I can send at the party that would be capable of taking out the rock troll (a red or black dragon would do the trick, for example) would likely overwhelm the PCs, catalyzing a TPK -- or would have until quite recently. In short, a rock troll is a bit too badassed for such low-level characters to be leading around.

I think I would feel better about the charmed rock troll situation if Uncle Junkal's player had had to pull off some incredibly improbable roll in order to charm the deadly creature, but instead he used his nightly d30 roll, which made it nigh impossible for him to fail. A completely legitimate move, but one that made me feel as though we had encountered a dangerous loophole created by the d30 house rule.

Obviously, by embracing a once-per-session d30 rolling rule in the first place, I am to some extent endorsing and encouraging (or at least tempting!) players to find unique applications of the d30 roll, and I should not be too shocked when game-changing results occur. But the rock troll feels like a limit case, a d30 exploit that has led to a long-term imbalance which in turn has deflated the stakes of a good many of the combat encounters the PCs get into. Call me a stodgy old DM, but I want combat to feel more dangerous and threatening for the PCs.

How to cure this unforeseen imbalance?

With Dyson Logos' 2d6 Thievery, of course! I am a big fan of Dyson's system, since I dislike d% skill mechanics in D&D to begin with. For me, 2d6 skill rolls just feel more appropriate to B/X / Labyrinth Lord than d% rolls do, so as soon as I saw Dyson's 2d6 Thievery article in Dyson's Dodecahedron Issue #1, I knew I would be adopting it into the Arandish Campaign.

It did not take long for me to realize that what works for thieves could easily work for bards. I started talking this idea over with Spawn of Endra, who additionally mentioned the cleric's "Turn Undead" mechanic, which also uses 2d6 to do what it does (see LL p. 8). Thus it would seem there is strong precedent for a 2d6 skill system embedded in certain aspects of LL / B/X.

Spawn of Endra then used his substantial statistical knowledge and graphing ability to create that bad-ass chart he posted yesterday -- I love it so much that I'm going to reprint it here:

As you can see, 2d6 Bardery does indeed reduce the impact of the d30 rule, and generally follows a similar curve of success probabilities as d% Bardery. Admittedly, it makes using Bard skills a wee bit more difficult than under the d% system, but given how potent that Charm Person / Monster ability has turned out to be in the course of game play, I do not feel too badly about slightly decreasing Uncle Junkal's chances for success in his skill use in general. Furthermore, given Uncle Junkal's high CHA (15+, a Bard class requirement under the Brave Halfling template) he will always get at least a +1 to his Charm Person / Monster skill, as I use (and strongly endorse) the optional CHA Attribute bonus rule (see below). This attribute bonus factor is reflected in Spawn's chart.

As I mentioned, we have been using Brave Halfling's Delving Deeper: Bard supplement as Uncle Junkal's basic Bard template, and for the most part I have been very happy with it. My favorite part is that it makes clear (as Spawn also discussed yesterday) that the Bard is not magical, an interpretation I favor. While his Charm Person/ Monster ability functions a lot like two certain spells, and while his Use Magic-User / Elf Scrolls ability allows him to fake his way into some quasi-arcanery, ultimately, the Bard is a non-magical class whose skills are mundane abilities, NOT spells.

[In a related note, Brave Halfling does the same thing for the Ranger in its Delving Deeper supplement on that class -- it takes away those pesky Druid spells and instead appends a mundane d% skill mechanic. I like this. Can 2d6 Rangery be far behind?]

So now Spawn of Endra and I proudly present 2d6 Bardery, hereby declared Open Gaming Content and available as a pdf here. You will probably need Brave Halfling's Delving Deeper: Bard to make best use of this system, but at the low low price of $0.75 for the pdf, this supplement is surely a must-have for those folks wishing to include Bards in their campaigns.  A free sample version is available here.

2d6 Bardery
Using the Brave Halfling Delving Deeper: Bard template as a baseline, we have established that Bards have three basic skills: Legend Lore, Charm Person / Monster, and Read Languages and Arcane Scrolls. The latter is a conflation of two Delving Deeper skills, the former of which (Read Languages) has no set parameters or roll associated with it in the Delving Deeper template.

Instead of using the d%-based skill chart in the Delving Deeper supplement, the Bard chooses one of the first two of those three skills (Legend Lore or Charm Person / Monster) to be his or her Favored Skill; the remaining two (ALWAYS including Read Languages and Arcane Scrolls) function as Other Skills on the table below.

2d6 Bardery Skill Chart - Roll 2d6:

Bard Level
Favored Skill
Other Skills
Note that a roll of "2" always fails.

Optionally (and strongly recommended), you can grant a Bard his or her CHA modifier (i.e., the absolute value of the Reaction Adjustment modifier, +1 for CHA 13-17, +2 for CHA 18) to Charm Person / Monster checks. No attribute (INT) modifiers are permitted for Legend Lore or Read Languages and Arcane Scrolls skill rolls: exposure to lore during his or her training is the basis for the Bard's being able to decipher languages or arcane scrolls.

Endnote: Although much of this 2d6 Bardery business has been inspired by the presence and deeds of the Arandish Campaign's resident rodian bard, Uncle Junkal, it should be mentioned that Uncle Junkal himself does not completely conform to the rules given above. 2d6 Bardery as presented here should be considered a "Basic Bard Template" applicable to most bards; however, Uncle Junkal himself is a juggling specialist, and as such has a couple of skills / abilities not outlined here. A future post, perhaps?