Thursday, 19 August 2010

Sacred Magic: Level 2 Spell List

And now, back to magic. A few notes.

Prayer is a less wimpy buff even as a level 2.
Sympathetic Healing is inspired by Meditations on the Tarot (for that matter, so is Constraint/ Break Constraint) and is an attempt at a powerful but more strategic healing spell for level 2.

Evoke Auras
3 min
Causes visible light or darkness to outline holy or unholy beings, places and objects within sight range
1 min
Mind (Wis)
Stops one being from moving or speaking
Drain Light Wounds
Body (Con)
Living being takes 1d6+1 hp damage, heal the same amount of caster’s hp damage.
3 min
Allows target's controller to reroll one die for an attack, save or action within the spell’s duration
Restore Object
Physically mends a broken or corroded object
Slow Ailment
1 day
Delays the effects of poison or disease
Sympathetic Healing
Heals 3d6+3 hp, caster takes the middle die rolled as hp damage; or transfers poison or disease to caster, new saving throw
Break Constraint
Loosens physical or magical restrictions on movement or speech; if magic, 5% to fail per level of difference vs. higher level caster

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Basic D&D, by WotC

The title sums up my personal ideal for a D&D-based adventure game.

I'm chuckling here because both communities that I know read this blog - old school D&D and L5R - have a reputation for allergy to the Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Hasbro.

So let me hasten to explain. By "Wizards of the Coast" I mean the process followed in 3rd edition development. Stripping down, rationalizing, and examining every component of the game for a new generation of players, while keeping it D&D by sticking to such concepts as hit points, armor as hit chance reduction, levels, character classes giving fundamentally different play experiences, and the six stats.

By "Basic" I mean sticking to a rule set that puts simple, open-ended play and character mechanics ahead of endless customization and proceduralization.

The irony is that Wizards would have actually taken one look at the concept, said "This relies way too much on high-trust groups with creative players and GMs," and ditched it as not commercially viable.

Oh, and just in case it needs to be said, don't judge a box by its cover. That ain't what I'm talking about.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Session Wrapup: Storage Cellars of the Castle Ruins 3B

The final session of the family expedition was a mellow exploration of the tavern area with a lot of character interaction and mystery solving. Chests of coin, evidently within reach but guarded by mysterious forces, were not gone after - perhaps wisely, but  I'm entirely open to letting players surprise me with a clever caper. "Don't put anything into play you can't bear to see in their hands" is a good maxim here.

Any more would be a spoiler but a couple of interesting issues came up when reflecting on the whole campaign.
  • One of the NPC's was originally written in a "blue" mode (he wrote and collected pornography) but out of deference to the tender years of one of the players I made him instead a connoisseur of puns from the days of the Archmage. This actually improved the character. It made him more interesting in conversation and provided a lot more opportunities throughout the dungeon to bring him what he wanted, for a few of the puzzles, tricks, and one-offs in my level depend on some rather outrageous puns. I found myself thinking of this song, a favorite of mine in the 90's, whose lyrics were forced to get more creative in its clean version (linked to). There might be a lesson here.
  • 100xp/hit die of monsters defeated or otherwise dealt with, plus 1 xp/gp of treasure recovered, plus a 1:1 gp/xp ratio for carousing, charity or other class-appropriate activities, plus an ad hoc 200 xp award for that session where exploration and interaction stood at the forefront ... these rules got the party about 1/3 of the way to 2nd level over about 9 hours of play. (Level 2 is standardized in my system at 2000 xp for all classes; c'mon, does anyone think the different advancement curves in 0-2e are anything but a wild stab in the dark at balance?) This seems a decent pace. The higher weighting of monsters relative to treasure at lower levels meant the party seemed rather more hungry than well-fed when it came to treasure, a good way to stretch out those fun, money-grubbing early days. This group was refreshingly free of crackhead looter syndrome, but I'll also rule that salvage of objects not intended as treasure - normal monster weapons, furniture, basically anything without a stated monetary value in my notes - gives only gp but not xp.
  • The observation on ars ludi about bad traps really holds true, and that goes double for hidden compartments in dungeon flagstones and so forth. Dangers can still be dangerous even if they're put in attention-grabbing features, or visible to the careful inspection of forward area I'm presuming characters to be making. A party that isn't always announcing that they are checking and tapping every square foot of bland space is a party that is having more fun. 
I once again want to thank my upstate family hosts collectively for putting me up in the middle of unpacking from their move and various summer illnesses, for excellent help playtesting some of my card game ideas, and of course for this fantastic mini-campaign.

And now back to the world of theory and design for a while. Certainly a lot to chew on, most importantly a few germs of ideas on how I can present my rule set as more than just another retro-clone.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Session Report: Storage Cellars of the Castle Ruins 2B

Fortified by chili and roasted peaches with mascarpone - a toast to the cook! -  our intrepid party slipped once more into character, upgrading equipment with their spoils in town.

Party rich kid Ekhdrine the fighter spent 10 coins for xp on the carousing rule, and a roll of 6 on d6 led to a "good thing" - one of the drinking buddies in town turned out to be Luke's dwarven berserker from the first run, who gave a few reminiscences about the first expedition that could have been useful ... if they'd been followed up on with more questions.

They also had interrogated Zektrah, a captive from the big fight last time, who gave them the low-down on the dungeon's power politics, and was then released to run home.

Whether this will be exploited remains to be seen, as this evening's session had little to do with humanoids apart from a couple of fights that left the foes dead and the party little the wiser about what was going on. Instead of heading back to the area of the battle last time, following up the leads from the captive, the party went down some nearer byways. They found a trio of stairs down, which were tempting but eventually avoided; another way back up to the surface; a couple of rooms, one inhabited, one empty; and finally, a fight with certain monsters from Varlets & Vermin outside a peculiar underground tavern door. Sadly, the battle left the lizardman-victimized hireling, Morson, dead. As the session concluded, from a fumble-broken window of the tavern came a strangely out-of-place flute melody!

I wrote this level to give a sense of exploration, hoping to create the intrinsic satisfaction of piecing together clues and history that I'd noticed in my time playing text adventure games. And even though there was little grand drama or epic combat this session, the details kept coming up ... the recurrence of purple and black heraldry, and the discovery of the seal of the Archmage on a wine bottle ... the humanoid graffiti room that spilled a little more about the competing tribes ... the torn corner of a map in the stairs room, could it be a key to the levels ..?

The tavern should be fun if they go inside.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Session Report: Storage Cellars of the Castle Ruins 1B

As soon as my in-laws, veteran gamers and SCAdians both, saw my character sheets, they could not resist rolling up Old School characters, and soon enough their son (~20, 3e and 4e experience) and daughter (~11, her first RPG) were joining us.

The party was only four strong - rich fighter (son), poor fighter (dad), mountain ranger rogue (daughter), and priestess of the Old Ways (mom). To add bulk, hirelings were hired, interviews being held at the Meatshields Tavern (hooray for wireless). They ended up with a garrulous elf swordsman and a grim human man-at-arms whose family had been massacred by lizardmen, to which roster was added Phred, card carrying halfling member of the International Brotherhood of Torchbearers, Linkboys, Pole Handlers, and Sack Haulers.

The game itself went on at the large and handsome rec room bar of the family's new house. This forced some improvisation of materials, but soon enough (PRO TIP) we found that a stack of index cards could be deployed to show the layout of the dungeon in limited space. The setup was great, with DM in the bartender spot, notes on a box below eye level, serving up round after round of encountery goodness. Beer caps were used at times to mark dungeon features.

The party chose the same entrance as the GenCon expedition had, but this time the smell they started to notice had a denizen behind it. Fortunately they were able to parley with it and pass without violence. They went in a different direction after that, and ran into a wandering scouting party of rock-throwing kobolds. These quickly faded away, though not before the mountain ranger had laid one low and wounded another with a single penetrating arrow shot into the dark (natural 20).

A brief flirtation with disaster came next, one of those dungeon features whose dangerous nature was discovered by sheer good fortune, and then provided an almost irresistible temptation to mess with. Fortunately, nothing too bad came of that, and the party was off down a looong corridor to the other side of the dungeon and a serious encounter with humanoids. Two hirelings were laid low, but survived due to the good graces of Trollsmyth's Death & Dismemberment table, which I mercifully applied because I liked these NPCs. The encounter could have gone a lot worse (hey, I gave you a chance to parley) but for some generally bad rolling on the DM's part.

One thing I'm noticing about dungeon crawl sessions is an almost universal conflict between more reckless and more cautious party members, with the reckless players setting the pace through the sheer fait accompli of their forward momentum. Is this something you find in play? Does it take a few more sessions or maybe a TPK for the wild ones to calm down? And is that always a good thing?

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Character sheet and player aids

For the curious, the 2 page character sheets and 3 pages of play aids from our Gencon crawl are here (Google docs).

I have modified them somewhat since the game, mainly putting more complete stats for common weapons and armor onto the equipment sheet, and adding a henchmen table (in the game I used a number of pre-gens from the Meatshields utility).

Some of the notes may be a little cryptic, but people generally figured stuff out, asking along the way.

Yes, the d6 pips and encumbrance system are a blatant hommage. Probably by the time I release Assayers' Guild Characters I'll have figured out an alternate display system.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Session Report: Storage Cellars of the Castle Ruins 1

Classical music, unlike jazz, is not usually associated with free-form improvisation. Nonetheless, one space for it in the repertoire comes in the concerto (piece for orchestra and solo instrument). Traditionally at the end of the concerto's first movement comes a cadenza. This is a blank space in the score where the instrumentalist is asked to compose or improvise a solo piece based on the themes of the concerto.

Not to compare the Greyhawk Grognard, Joseph Bloch, to Beethoven or anything, but his mega-dungeon opus Castle of the Mad Archmage invites a similar "cadenza" - it starts on level 2 and the DM is encouraged to use their own upper works and first dungeon level.

I am aware that there's another level 1 out there, The Mad Demigod's Castle by Richard Graves. I've had a look, with mixed feelings. I really like the map, because it is very different in design from the other levels and very true to the idea of a storage level. The problem was that there were a lot of red herrings in the adventure. Now this does a good job of conveying a jumbled and ransacked storage area. But I wanted to run something more structured, so I wrote my own.

Anyway, I will have more to say about this thing when I post it; just need to resolve some graphic issues with the map and figure out a style of presentation.

On to the GenCon game. It took place in the meeting room of the Hilton floor that the L5R community occupies every year, with groups of people playing the L5R CCG and other games, and a roving frat-party atmosphere in the halls outside. The master party organizer, Mr. John Ling, kindly provided a huge dry-erase graph mat that covered damn near 8 x 4 feet, two long tables pushed together. Add thereto $20 of bargain-bin D&D minis, drafting in dice as appropriate, and that was our tactical display.

The party was large, about 8 or 9 folks - see previous post. Character generation took place as people filtered in. I could have saved time with pre-gens, but wanted to give the experience of 3d6 in order. You could switch one pair of rolls (including a 3d6 social status that determined starting cash and equipment) but if you didn't you got a 1HP bonus. I made up a character sheet that, together with a couple of handouts, pretty much explained the char-gen and play rules, if you were familiar with D&D. I'm likely to put that set of sheets up on Google Docs soon. I had forgotten to bring a printout of my Rule of the Assayers combat and weapon rules but it turned out that a simplified version of that was quite enough (variable weapon damage balanced by #hands and wielding room).

This suggests a meta-rule of thumb: If the DM can't remember the rule, or doesn't have the attention to apply it while running the game, it shouldn't be in there. For example, I found that time tracking worked quite well if I just rolled a wandering monster die whenever I felt that 10 minutes, or some noisy or tedious activity, had happened. Tallying those rolls would also give some indication of things like torch longevity, but I'm really only inclined to track things like that if there are long stretches of rest or travel. I just can't keep the game hopping while maintaining awareness of a bunch of boring stuff or looking up some chart or table.

Early on in the session, as the first encounter with intelligent opponents loomed (I'm being intentionally vague here because this is not a spoiler report), it became clear there was a rift in the approaches, with a couple of players role-playing their fighter characters to the hilt and going aggressive, and others choosing a more cautious approach. I knew these guys were not mere munchkins so after some slight admonition I decided to let the dice fall where they may, realizing the inherently rowdy nature of the large party which often can offset its advantage in numbers.

After a tense moment where the party wasted two spells - one (Fortitude) essentially forcing the dwarf berserker to resist his violent impulse and another (Ventriloquism) effectively restoring his free will through trickery - combat broke out. The free-wheeling fight ended with a couple of dead, a captive and two runaways. Some exploration followed, the party winding up in a series of rooms that had evidently been used to store various foodstuffs.

After dealing unsuccessfully with a trick and taking some damage from a trap, the party stumbled into a monster ... just about the same time I rolled the next wandering monster, which I had decided would be a large revenge party from the earlier defeated foes. A chaotic melee across several rooms and corridors ensued. Highlights of this included Howard's fighter casting shadows with a set of wooden false teeth to frighten off opponents (I had made up a Deck of Janky Things, a la Jeff Rients, various semi-useless items on cards that were given out at random one per character). This passed the "make DM sit down to laugh" test and I gave it a 50-50 chance to work, which it did. Luke's dwarf at one point fumbled and slid on blood past his frightened adolescent opponent, memorably combining dwarf bowling and Blood Bowl, and Andy's cleric dived in the same way to deliver emergency healing.

Eventually the party, amazingly, survived the whole thing with no fatalities and we called it a late, exhausted and hot night. That was OK, actually - I had wanted to fall on the side of leniency with the starting setup and hit points (best of 3 rolls), so that there wouldn't have to be a break in the action. Earlier playtesting had indicated that the foes in question could inflict a death or two on a first-level party under my system so I guess the god who watches over toddlers who play with dynamite was also watching our table!

A few lessons and confirmations:
  • The rules and system work well, and the gonzo-naturalistic style I followed in writing the level allowed for meaningful exploration and discovery as well as interesting tactical situations.
  • It's a group decision-making and problem-solving game. Let people live out the consequences of their style of play. Put in some situations where cautious is not better (in fact, the foes that ended up being fought might have done some bad things to the party if they'd been parleyed with) and some where it is (in this case, the party did not run into any of the real out-of-level challenges in the area).
  • Good players make the game. Freeform gaming can only work if they respect the DM's rulings and decisions, and respect the basically cooperative nature of the game. Roleplaying systems that rely on rigid rules to manage difficult people or assist inexperienced DMs are necessary, but in the same way that training wheels are.
  • Light rules make things go faster. Going around the table in either direction (a trick I picked up earlier in the evening from tacojohn's game) instead of doing individual initiative really speeds things up. In that situation I would not have traded an ounce of spontaneity for a ton of simulation.
I would like to thank all the participants in the game - Dan, Trollsmyth, Andy, Luke, Howard, Kilian, Doruk, AJ, and Oddysey - for making this a great time. I'm hoping to run the same module at my brother-in-law's house in the next few days. Will let you know if and how that turns out.

Monday, 9 August 2010

GenCon Dispatch

GenCon is over. Very behind on sleep but definitely one of the best ever. I had two goals this time: to hook up with the Old School crowd and to pitch my board and card game ideas to AEG.

Imagine that - the first time after going for some 10 years, playing L5R CCG, L5R LARPS and various boardgames, that I have actually played D&D at the nerdfest. This went down Friday night with an early evening romp through Caverns of Thracia as a somewhat demented druid, AD&D right down to the goldenrod sheets and Trampier screen, helmed by the pleasantly efficient "TacoJohn" Jon Hershberger and played by a cast of veterans (including, I believe, blogger Clovis Cithog) and one eager kid. Then back to the Hilton for my own heavily houseruled Basic run - my take on level 1 of the Castle of the Mad Archmage, till the late early morn. Bloggers Oddysey and Trollsmyth showed up with a couple of their friends and the rest of the 8-9 strong party was composed of Legend of the Five Rings CCG players, most of whom are also continuing D&D players of one stripe or another and most of whom had read up on the tenets of the OSR. I'll do a more extensive post on the game - what went on there was not just a huge blast as acknowledged by all, but has important lessons for how to handle different playstyles at the table.

Two hits but also two strikes; I went to an "old school seminar" Friday morning for which the presenter did not show up, chatted for a while with the other attendees about the old ways and days ... and sadly failed to make contact with Maj Dave Wesely for the run of the proto-RPG Braunstein that had been advertised.

And the design pimping goal? I can only give a cautious smile and optimistic thumbs up, but I think definite progress was made on that front too.

The rest of the con was eating, drinking, and socializing with L5R folks, helping some of my AEG colleagues demo boardgames in the boardgame hall, and the party for the 15th anniversary of L5R. In which it is proven that North Americans are indeed miraculously capable of running a competitive drinking event at a public gaming convention.

More later on the game and some thoughts about the publicity or lack thereof for the Old School movement.