Thursday, 30 August 2012

Monte's Numenera Kickstarter

Speaking of science fantasy and "OSR is dead/has won" proclamations, here's what Monte Cook is up to these days. Best concentration of info is in this series of posts.

Science fantasy: The Numenera game is Earth, one billion years hence, and that could mean anything. Clearly, this is an adventure game, not an exercise in the manipulation of sixth-dimensional solids; so there are people and peopleoids around, barbarians in the ruins, challenges best overcome by short-range violence, stuff indistinguishable from magic. Monte name-drops Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock, but the focus on artifacts and ruins has me thinking also of Empire of the Petal Throne - down to the acute accent on the "e" in the Numenera logo, with its echo of the similarly accented Tékumel.

OSR has won: Remember 3rd edition D&D monster stat blocks? Monte was one of the designers, but now he gives a public recantation, and promises simple systems that ease GM improvisation and rulings. There are a few implementations of Old School talking points: resource management (though of personal stats, not equipment and henchmen), the three Fantasy Trip stats that everyone seems to keep re-discovering, experience for discovery.

Story games have won: Numenera also boasts a heavy infusion of story/indie/Forge concepts - character definition by natural-language terms, for one, but most importantly a system of challenges and forfeits between player and GM. Experience points are given for going with the flow of a plot or accepting a difficult development, and can be spent to refuse such a thing. There are a lot of precedents for this. Here, the ability to bend reality and shape the narrative reminds me most of the challenge-and-forfeit system in James Wallis' highly enjoyable proto-indie-game Baron Munchausen.

What's my reaction? Science fantasy is cool, I guess, but details are sparse. The key concept seems to be nanotechnology, which is not the most exciting revelation*; remember midichlorians? There's more promise in the visual sketches of the world, where mysterious shrouded figures lurch in shadow beside gargantuan, misshapen dray animals. Explicitly influenced by the likes of Moebius, this hints at a welcome change from the every-strap-and-armor-spike esthetic in mainstream fantasy gaming art.

As for the story-old school hybrid, the tradeoffs are pretty clear. Gone is the illusion of a pervasive and coherent world that a skilled, authoritative GM can provide. The players are more aware of the fictional nature of the world, of their role as co-authors, their characters' roles as puppets. If the DM informs you that wild apes have descended from the roof, and you spend an XP to make that not happen, can you still erase that image from your mind? I see more advantage into having XP spent to make something equally awesome happen in your favor (the apes are taxidermic decoys, put there just to frighten us!) No doubt this set of rules and their use will be the most controversial aspect of the system.

Anyway, the kickstarter is successful enough that Numenera will evidently be a game to be reckoned with in 2013.

*Exception made for gray goo apocalypses like Wil McCarthy's Bloom.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Blogroll Blitz

As I mentioned before, this GenCon was fun but didn't really connect as much as it could have in terms of old school blog community meetups. In fact, it sometimes felt like Desolation Boulevard. To avoid coming up with Sweet F. A. next year, I wanna be committed to thinking about what kind of get-together could help us match faces to names.

In my professional life the data blitz is a format of five-minute talks that strips out most of the exposition, assumes people are familiar with the background of the research, and lets a large number of people get known in a short amount of time - details can be fleshed out in conversation later. I figure up to ten people can get up there, each for 3-5 minutes, and briefly run down one or two of the best ideas from their blog, with an emphasis on outreach beyond the Old School rule set. Supporting slides should be sent separately so they can be worked into a single sequential presentation. Time for one or two questions is factored in but the MC is responsible for getting out the hook when things go on too long.

I figure the "call" for this seminar - Rapid Fire Ideas for Fantasy Role-Playing? - can go out in January, and some kind of selection process can take place in case there are more than 10 or so entrants. So of the regular readers, who thinks they'll be attending Gencon next year and would be up for this?

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Anomalous Subsurface Environment

Anomalous Subsurface Environment, by Patrick Wetmore of the Henchman Abuse blog,  is the first installment of a megadungeon. It has been out for about a year, and shortlisted for the Three Castles Award in 2012. I decided to get it at the OSR booth at Gencon this year, not because it would be particularly useful in my current campaign, but as inspiration and possible grounds for a future campaign.

Please note that some spoilers for the ASE settting, inevitably, follow.

Also, this video by The Sword.
Wetmore puts the players in an explicitly postapocalyptic setting bombed back to medieval technology millennia ago, where tyrannical wizards rule the majority of humanity and one free city, Denethix, is hesitantly crawling up the technology tree. This somewhat excuses the dedication of about half of the book to setting up the city and surrounding area. Settings like this are rare in gaming outside of Gamma World and the like, although more common in literary and pop science fiction. There are subtle and not-so-subtle nods to Gene Wolfe (both New Sun and Long Sun series), Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, the film Zardoz, etc. Plus, dinosaurs.

Some goofiness in the art and descriptions is excessive, but easily toned down with a simple twist of the dial - for example, I'd change the cornstalk men to Wolfean chlorophyll-sustained Green Men.

The titular ASE is a self-sustaining, seemingly magical realm discovered in the ancient days beneath a mountain near Denethix, and investigated in secret by scientists. It conforms to the model of a mythical underworld dungeon, with dressed stone walls, ironbound doors, monsters, traps, and treasure. Elusive "dungeon elementals" creep around, closing doors and restocking rooms. After the research facility was sealed four thousand years ago, accelerated mutations in the inhabitants and investigators have left the chambers teeming with rival factions: surviving robot soldiers, standard D&D goblins, H. G. Wells' morlocks, and "Screechmen" patterned after the Weekly World News' Bat Boy.

Part of the charm and dark comedy comes from the multi-layered civilization/barbarism faceoff. You have the schematic and stagey primitive ruin that is the ASE itself, being studied by the high-tech scientists whose works have decayed and degenerated, while your explorers are breaking in from a society on the rise that wants answers, laser guns, and money. The strong implication: your discovery of the ASE complex and its mysteries will seriously upset the political and technological balance of the world. Yes, there's a meaningful megadungeon among all the macabre inventiveness.

The module does a good job of leading potential adventurers into the drama of opening the sealed Environment, and also stands out for interesting map and monster designs, including the memorable corpse jellies and blade zombies. Descriptions are sparse, in old-school style, except when outlining the complications of a mechanism or the history of a particularly meaningful room. However, only one complete level of the megadungeon, plus an entry level and a side adventure, is detailed in the volume.

In sum, I'm glad I picked this up. It would be my first choice right now if I wanted to start running a non-standard campaign setting while still keeping old-school D&D compatible rules. The only question for me is whether and how soon the next installment is coming.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Funny Things Happen On The Way To The Dungeon

Two different experiences over the past weeks show the value of respecting the likelihood of random encounters on the way to and from the adventure site.

One was the Red Box NYC adventure I took part in the other week. I didn't mention this at the time, but the whole adventure emerged from a random encounter we had with some minions of a rival adventuring guild. After that fight - in which a white dragon also randomly appeared but, being known to the established PCs, was bought off by their deep pockets - a captive spilled the beans on the location of the guild's treasure warehouse. The adventure then revolved around a raid on that warehouse. In a chat afterwards, DM Tavis Allison noted that he is a strict stickler for encounter rolls going to and from adventures, contributing to the sense of a living, unpredictable world.

The other was the game I ran for my brother-in-law's family in upstate New York after GenCon, just as I had done 2 years ago. The character sheets and maps being dug up again, there was a short period of henchman handling and hiring, then off to the Castle of the Mad Archmage. The random encounter roll on the way came up a "1"; it was a patrol from the "Invisibles" bandit gang in the castle, 6 members or 2/3 of the gang's strength.

The gang attacked without parley, despite being outclassed in the missile department. The combat went well, with bandits dropping, a few wounds but no fallen comrades, and the leader finally surrendering abjectly when surrounded. The group then decided to go back to town to heal up their damage, sell off the spare weapons and armor of the dead bandits, and turn the live one over to the law for a bounty.

Now, I have heard tell of this "15 minute adventuring day" and how it can turn games into cancerous masses of anti-fun, so wouldn't you expect everyone to ball up their character sheets in disgust and quit the game? Wow, that didn't happen. Perhaps because a Vancian wizard was not involved. Anyway, everyone agreed that retreating, regrouping and going out the next day was just plain smart tactics. But the consequences of their random encounter were not yet over.

You see, in the Gray Keep of my Castle, the Invisible gang are in an uneasy truce with the Skull Stackers bandits who operated there some 25 years ago and re-spawned when the Castle did. My judgment was that the bandits had each agreed to send out a raiding party of about the same size in opposite directions, so the balance of power would be kept. When the Stackers' party returned and the Invisibles' did not, open and uneven battle broke out, with the Stackers attacking. This was the situation when our heroes returned to the Castle the next day. Shouts, catcalls, and the sound of an axe chopping into a door echoed from behind the tall wall of the Gray Keep.

To make a long story short, the party ended up taking the fleeing Fergus and his two remaining bandits under their wing, only to surround and betray them, the bounty on live bandits being too much to resist. In the ensuing short fight, Fergus lost his foot, the bleeding stump stanched by the party druid's healing, and was handed in to justice - the other two bandits having fled.

Did I let the random encounter get in the way of My Precious Dungeon? Of course not. The encounter was a thing in its own right, establishing the reality of the campaign world and eventually interacting with the prepared encounters in a satisfying way.

I must confess, though, that as much I appreciate encounters on the way to the adventure site, the rolls for encounters on the way back are often skipped in my campaign. In real life this is usually the time when we are about to wrap up and I'm not as inclined to leave a cliffhanger combat at that point in the session. Although maybe I should - any thoughts?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Report from GenCon

Things I did not do at GenCon:
  • True Dungeon ((I must confess this oversubscribed event has little to no appeal for me)
  • Any kind of Wizards seminar (I see little useful information in pronouncements about the next edition 2 years pre-release while the current edition enters a preordained death march)
  • Buy T-shirts with marginally witty, embarrassing slogans
Things I did do at GenCon:
  • Play a lot of prototype and pre-release board and card games thanks to behind-the-scenes invites from colleagues at AEG
  • Get my own game design into the prototype cycle there, with some initial interest ... wait and see ...
  • Party and hang out with my usual people in the L5R community and meet a number of new and cool faces
  • Thursday night, play again with Tavis Allison as DM, another fun game of ACKS involving the investigation of the "old unused" dragon lair *uh huh*. The signal feature of Tavis' DMing, I came to realize, is that the party is not an entirely autonomus unit, but operates within a social structure of favors, errands and obligations to people both more and less powerful. This also comes through in the higher order social structures in ACKS.
  • Friday night, run a game for the L5R people I hang out with. The module used was Mike Monaco's one-page winner, Belly of the Beast. One page does not by any means equal one night! Even using pre-gens the party only got to explore the lungs and some of the artery before fatigue overcame them. Thanks to all who played and took over from exhausted colleagues. Another memorable physical dwarf-minis moment occurred when we established that one dwarf had a 10' long beard from long imprisonment (all the party members were convicts on a Dirty Dozen-style mission) and I used a piece of kleenex to represent this on the board when a wind blew it forward and back, or a giant bat got tangled with it.
  • Went by the old school booth and bought Anomalous Subsurface Environment and ACKS. I haven't really read ACKS extensively yet but like the advanced domain rules, simple economic systems and so on. ASE is great and worthy of a separate review later on. The booth was a little nondescript, with no real banner, and not quite the selection of material I was hoping for. I did see Tavis again and Beedo from Dreams in the Lich House with his two young boys, so the place did fulfill somewhat of the community meetup function. I guess I was more disappointed because of all the old-school bloggers who were at GC but I didn't get to meet. Can we think about just scheduling a meet-n-greet hour next year?
  • The closest to that was Tavis' seminar (by this time I am feeling like a stalker) where he laid down some history and theory of the movement. Saw Trollsmyth, who had played in my 2010 game, and Jon Peterson, author of Playing At The World.
  • Get tired enough that even a day after leaving I don't have the energy to fill in hyperlinks in this post. More reflections later, and picking up the series about chases again ...
  • Bought a factory-second battlemat and about 50 cheapo D&D plastic miniatures to round out the collection. Plus Zatchbell spellbooks and various dice. Still not sure what I will use the blank d20 for.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Red Box NYC and GenCon

Being in New York City on Sunday gave me the opportunity to swing by a Red Box NYC game run by Tavis Allison, blogger, ACKS co-author and old school promoter extraordinaire. I came there prepared to run a variant of the game I'll be running off the grid at GenCon, but other players wanted Tavis to DM and the oracular die gave the table to him.

This has to be the most unusual location I've ever roleplayed in, apart from that one game on the high speed train out of London. Red Box NYC meets in the upstairs eating area of one of those big midtown delis, at a massive wooden table seemingly placed there as a sign from the Gods of Dice to game on! Stares and occasional curiosity from passers-by livened the session, which included bookbinder extraordinaire Thaddeus, and the Mule, also of The Mule Abides.

The game itself was a fun caper ensonced in Tavis' campaign. I rolled up a magic-user who started at 3rd level. The house rules in use are based off OD&D with a lot of interesting bells and whistles including backgrounds and some cool spells - like the one that summons a simian butler of random species and resemblance to a mid-20th century celebrity. Mine was an orangutan Dean Martin. Trapped in a world he never made, and 3rd level among blinging titans of level as high as 8, Istrobian the ex-librarian skulked around under invisibility, looting, dragging KO'd adventurers to safety and providing nuggets of lore.

After some good conversation on design and writing, we parted ways. Monday I flew out to Indy, and spent the next couple of days under the cone of silence at the AEG retreat. And now, I'm with my usual crew at the Hilton, looking forward to the Friday night game and a whole lot more! Will keep you posted ...

Monday, 13 August 2012

A Simple Chase Rule

Following on the previous post about random movement rates and chases, here's the simplest chase rule I can come up with:

Just before moving, a character may choose to give up its regular movement rate and instead move d6 for every 3 points of movement, plus 1 for every leftover point. A movement rate of 12 becomes 4d6, for example, and a move of 10 becomes 3d6+1. This move is rerolled on every round it is used.

Cue "Yakety Sax."
This does a number of things.

1. It makes chases exciting in a simple and traditional way.
2. In normal tactical combat movement, there is seldom going to be a reason to delay the game by rolling movement instead of using the reliable rate. As I noted last time, the normal move rate usually will be enough to do whatever maneuvering is needed once sides have closed. If that's so, then you don't want to take the chance of a low roll ruining it.
3. The dice will normally only be used if speed is of the essence - charging missile weapons, racing an enemy to get to a switch, or just plain chases. Why? Because the average roll of a d6 is 3.5, giving a variable but overall half-point advantage over a plain predictable 3.
4. It represents switching from a more cautious to a more risky mode of movement. Good and bad rolls can  be visualized as bursts of speed or accidents.
5. It slots easily into any number of combat rules sequences by offering an option for movement, whenever and however that happens.
6. It reflects the advantage of a large pursuing party; each round, the more figures you have, the more likely someone will roll high and catch up. Outpacing a horde of 6-move kobolds with your 9-move party is no longer such a done deal! At the same time, if this gives too much unrealistic advantage to an unruly mob, you can just say (as my rules do) that you need to spend 3 movement points in order to pass through a slower figure in front. 

As simple as it is, this rule is missing a couple of things. One is the possibility for character stats and terrain to regulate such things as dodging obstacles and getting tired. These I'll cover next post.

Another is a protocol for ending the chase. With perfect visibility ahead, a chase can continue until the pursuing side catches up or gives up. If a chase is taking place across terrain already mapped by the DM - for example, a dungeon or a well-developed city - then visibility is easy to determine. Otherwise, visibility can be determined generically - 10' in thick fog, 20' in twisty city streets, 30' in deep woods, and so on.

When the chasers lose sight of their quarry and there is more than one way to go, they need to decide whether to split up, continue along one way at the risk of being entirely wrong, or give up. Those being pursued, once the chasers lose sight of them, also have the well-known cinematic option of finding some place to hide and waiting as the chase goes by. 

To guard against this, the more intelligent kind of pursuers, if numerous,  will need to leave behind a searcher each round. Somehow, they never seem to do that in the movies ...

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Roll Dice And Move

It's one of the most ancient of board game mechanics, going back to the Egyptian Senet. It powers the most beloved family board games, from backgammon to Parcheesi to Monopoly. Yet rolling dice to move is almost completely absent from the geekish world of hobby games that has sprung up since the 70s.

Random determination of movement stands out as the easiest and most fun way to run a race game. Certainly, there are other ways. For example, the almost-luck-free Hare and Tortoise is deceptively complex for its kiddie theme. Movement depends on managing a hand of carrot cards which can be used to fuel movement. The "mileage" gets mathematically less efficient with greater speed. Picking up carrots depends largely on predicting your position in the race when the next turn comes.

However, board and miniatures wargaming took a different turn. Military science in the 19th century emphasized the predictability of troop movements, gunnery and logistics. The rates of march tables from military manuals were translated to fixed movement distances in military kriegspiel. Wargames in the 20th century picked up these habits. Although combat required dice to resolve, being seen as necessarily uncertain, how you got there was seen as a much more predictable process.

By the time wargames evolved into roleplaying games and fantasy board games, the cultural divide between serious and family games was clear. Figures in serious games were going to be moving at a fixed and stately pace. Even the exceptions confirm the rule. Avalon Hill's Titan, for example, used random movement on the highly abstracted strategic board but fixed movement on the more detailed and war- gamey tactical board, as if to flaunt the hybridization of the two models while keeping clear what each one was for. Milton Bradley's family-oriented HeroQuest was a dungeon crawl where your movement rate was the roll of two dice. However, fixed movement could just have easily been used and the movement dice had little impact on play most of the time. Again, this choice betrays the association of random movement with light, family-style gaming.

But there are good reasons to make movement random in some way, even if you're aiming for simulation. On a strategic level, whether a small party or a huge army, a movement roll can easily reflect all the myriad mishaps and inefficiencies of day-to-day travel. Greater expertise in logistics or terrain should be able, too, to reduce some of the slower results. On a tactical level, combat is an ever-shifting field of dangerous weapons flashing, opportunities to lunge, divided attention and obstacles underfoot. With this in mind, it makes more sense to have movement be in some way random, rather than carefully plotting out a steady distance each turn before your one allotted attack.

Some game systems today acknowledge that randomness in movement is part of simulation. Most often this is done through a command control system, where the uncertainty is less about how much a unit or leader can move than whether it can move at all. This has always been a good feature of the De Bellis Antiquitatis family of wargames, for example, and also plays a part in the very popular family of card-driven conflict games that began with Hannibal.

For skirmish combat in role-playing games, the main drawback of random movement is added time and strategizing to roll, for not a lot of payoff. I find, actually, that the amount of movement that can be done even in a very short 6 second combat round is sufficient to get most figures from one end of the effective fight area to another, so varying this really adds very little tension or strategy.

However, I'll make an obvious exception for contexts where it could be important, like charging to close or better yet, a chase. I recently commented on the 9 and 30 Kingdoms blog that chase scenes are the one form of contest that are most under-served by adventure game rules, especially traditional ones. The main culprit is the insistence on fixed movement rates. Clearly, this is what "roll to move" was made for.

Next post I'll consider some options for making chases exciting. In the meantime, check out the system that Talysman came up with in response to my comment.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Jack Vance and False Consciousness

Seeing the first novel in Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series put up for free download in the USA, I'm reminded of how important false consciousness is in his novels.

(Spoilers for Planet of Adventure, Emphyrio, and Nopalgarth follow.)

False consciousness is a form of sophisticated social control that depends on getting people to believe myths that obscure their own exploitation, so that they fail to identify with others who are similarly exploited. It's a term associated with Marxism, though really it can be used in any critique of a social system. For example, Nietzsche and Ayn Rand use the concept a lot, though on behalf of a different kind of oppressed people than Marx's proletariat.

Throughout his work, Vance describes schemes of exploitation with detachment and brio, whether they be the crafty swindles of his picaresques, or the society-wide swindles of his space novels. The reader is left to supply moral outrage, admiration, or cynicism, as the case may be. The larger point of Vance's dry style: it is enough to describe straightforwardly a system that obscures itself by false consciousness in order to expose it. To follow through by detailing the back-and-forth of a struggle for material and political power is more Jack London (in socialist mode) than Jack Vance.

The Planet of Adventure series presents a world that four main alien races have settled. Humans also live there, but many of them are subservient to the aliens - Chaschmen to the Chasch, Wankhmen to the Wankh (cease your snickering, they were changed to "Wannek" in later editions), and so on.

The servant humans have become genetically and psychologically altered to resemble their masters. But beyond this, each human type has a different form of false consciousness that justifies their relationship with their superiors. For example, Chaschmen have been led to believe that they are the larval form of the Chasch, while Dirdirmen live to improve themselves and eventually become indistinguishable from the Dirdir. The intriguing point here is that false consciousness can blur even the species boundary.

Emphyrio, one of Vance's most political and heroic novels, presents a similar kind of exploitative society, with an alienated aristocracy that keeps the populace of the planet Halma low-tech, ignorant, and producing artifacts of great value for a pittance. Here, false consciousness again conceals that the exploiters are not just alienated, but aliens. When this fact is revealed, a near-bloodless revolution occurs, and all is set right.

What is this theme of nonhuman exploiters all about? On the one hand, Vance could be drawing parallels with systems of exploitation and false consciousness here on earth - a radical point. On the other hand, you could also see the implicit argument that humans are basically good when left to their own devices, so oppression is something that has to be explained by tagging oppressors as nonhuman. This is a more conservative point to make in a story, although here I'm using "conservative" and "radical" in a different sense than the usual right-wing/left-wing one.

Think of the belief that the powerful people of the earth are disguised alien lizards. Such conspiracy tales don't facilitate radical action, in the sense of organizing for a power struggle. Their more usual effects are self-satisfaction at having figured things out, and frenzied desire to communicate the big secret. After all, if false consciousness can be reduced to a big secret, then your revolutionary praxis need go no further than Facebook, and the revolution will be televised, often to a stunned planet from a commandeered news station.

That's not how things work, though. Real false consciousness lets you see the facts (The government just passed tax cuts for the wealthy?), but imposes a different interpretation that is not liable to be punctured by a guerrilla broadcast (Great, I don't want to have to pay those kind of taxes when I move up to making that kind of money!)

So, peering through the dry and detached style, which side does Vance come down on? I think the key is to be found in one of his underappreciated novels, Nopalgarth, also known as The Brains of Earth. Admittedly, it's more a novel of ideas than of effective characterization or thrilling adventure. But what ideas!

Earth scientists are contacted by alien Xaxans who are fighting invisible Nopal, monsters that sit on a being's head and control their thoughts and desires. The entire population of Earth is colonized by these creatures, which the Xaxans remove from our heroes by a painful treatment. But the twist is that the aliens themselves are pawns of a more sinister intelligence, controlled by  an amoeba-like monster at war with the Nopal that sends invisible tentacles to control the Xaxans' minds. The human heroes eventually find a way to be free of both.

Written in the mid-60's at the height of the Cold War, the allegory seems obvious, though I don't know of any other commentators who have picked up on this, or even see this novel as worthy of interpretation. Marxism, Vance seems to be saying, gives you great insight into the system of oppression. But lurking behind it is an even less palatable system of mind control, centralized in the Soviet Union. This critique of the irony of radicalism is very much in the spirit of Burkean, small-c conservatism and Orwellian socialism. In the end, Vance promotes a rugged individualism in which all ideology is suspect; a message that lives beyond the death of the USSR, thanks to the timeless science-fiction setting of his writings.

Monday, 6 August 2012


Announcing yet another expansion of the silhouette file on the right, for the "savage" encounter table that simulates a lost world/Heavy Metal magazine esthetic. The ettin is being a good sport and going on this table because neither Legend nor Evil would have him. I think he makes a good caveman giant.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Two-Class Rule

In a class-based RPG, who should be able to do what? Let's divvy up the job of the dungeon crew into:

  • Frontline fighting
  • Ranged fighting
  • Control and utility magic (charm, hold, sleep, etc.)
  • Healing magic
  • Trickery and troubleshooting (traps, locks, overcoming obstacles)

And introduce the basic class types from Advanced and Basic D&D (left to right, fighter, magic-user, cleric, thief, then dwarf, elf and halfling):

The chart should be self-evident. The thief is a bad ranged attack class, in AD&D anyway, because it's restricted to the one-a round sling rather than the two-a-round bow. Yes, the cleric has some troubleshooting spells, but in practice they're overwhelmed by the impulse to stack multiple heals and Hold Persons. You could also see the dwarf class in Basic as a kind of troubleshooter, although limited, thanks to stonework abilities, dark vision and the ability to fit into small places.

If I could graphically show each class/job as a profile over levels, you'd see the thief starting with weak and unreliable abilities, while the magic-user eventually far surpasses the fighter as a ranged shooter. For now, it's enough to comment on the things that this chart reveals about the "original game":

1. There's a fairly obvious bottleneck where the cleric (or variant classes)  is absolutely necessary for healing. This combined with the other abilities of the cleric make it a golden class, yet often derided as "boring" because of its support role. I'll get into why healing is so great in another post, but I'll leave it for now with an observation that experienced players know the cleric is a must-have member of the party.

2. The thief also has a fair monopoly, with the wizard's troubleshooting powers at low levels being one-shot and limited. This doesn't tell the whole story across levels, though, and this is why the A/BD&D thief is generally considered weak. At low levels the thief's abilities are pretty terrible, while by the time that  thief gets up to reliable powers, the magic-user is starting to learn troubleshooting spells of a whole new class - invisibility, fly, ESP - that completely overshadow what the thief can do. The only drawback is that to memorize those spells means to forego more combat-oriented ones. Adding insult to injury, a wizard throwing 3 darts a round is a better back-rank shooter than the thief with 1 sling bullet, even leaving aside the wizard's ranged spells.

3. Dwarves and halflings in BD&D are pretty much redundant with the base classes, but elves are their own thing.

Just for grins, here's the chart for the Wizards versions, showing how little 3rd edition changed this picture (except for the welcome step of making rogues competent ranged attackers finally) and how much 4th edition changed it, to the well-remarked "anyone can do anything" soup.

Now, what do I want for my game? Some designers see it as a virtue to specialize each class further, so that the optimum party contains all four. Others see it as a virtue to allow variety in party composition, so that no one class is strictly essential. James Raggi's Flame Princess rules are built on the former assumption, though in practice his improvements on Basic D&D has more to do with the profile of ability across level; making only fighters improve in hitting, and making specialists much more viable in what they do early on than rogues, for example.

Recent experiences in play have shown me how dependent on the prophet class and its healing abilities my parties are. This is a little embarrassing because prophets are supposed to be rare, semi-outcast members of society. The urge is to stick in another class that can heal; thus, recently, the druid. I don't think every class should do everything, but I do think everything should be doable by a choice of two or more classes. Call it the two-class rule.

So here is the chart for my 52 Pages system, and more info can be found on each class under this search. The system assumes that characters' hit points are more like "heroic courage and luck" that gets worn down in combat, so "healing" hit points is actually a matter of giving a sufficient pep talk.

With this in mind, two classes beyond the prophet and druid might qualify for HP restorative powers. One - a commander-type based on the fighter, kind of a secular paladin.

The other ... I shudder to mention it ... is the bard. Now, I want to have this class in my game, it makes a lot of sense, but please let it be anything but the bard, or the other awful alternatives (minstrel? gleeman?). Seriously, I would rather have a jester class doing this than a bard, and that's saying something.

Making The Prehistoric Scene

I'm working on the sixth and final main wilderness encounter table for "savage" environments in the spirit of Lost World pulp tales. Naturally, it takes me back to the days when dinosaurs and Pleistocene megafauna were all I could think about, thanks to their three-dimensional embodiment as MPC toys ...

Origin of my horned gopher obsession.

and Aurora "Prehistoric Scenes" models.

Those were the two-fisted days when dinosaurs dragged tail and wouldn't be caught dead in feathers. The Aurora models already strained credibility with the prehistoric woman in a rawhide Mary Quant number menaced by a two-headed snake. On top of that, their bases fitted together to create a young-earth Flintstone monster zoo where saber-toothed tigers rubbed shoulders with Styracosaurus.

There were fourteen models and I owned eleven. Haven't thought about them in decades, but memories of the plastic parts and the jigsaw of the bases leapt forth from my memory with unseemly speed. Here's a nostalgia site with some much better paint jobs than I could manage ...

Anyway, for gaming purposes there only need to be 8 dinosaurs, right? For medieval sword-slingers who've stumbled on the Valley of the Lost the distinction between a Rhamphorhynchus and a Lambeosaurus doesn't bear mentioning.We don't need to pad things out the way Gary padded the Monster Manual and MM2. Add to the canon laid down in the 50's, Spielberg's own raptor-types for a low-to-mid-level challenge. The crested guys are more for random prey than any significant danger.

 (some silhouettes by Telecanter, others by me, others from the Phylopic archive.)

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Real Spellbooks

Not exactly the kind Jack Chick had in mind ...

but play aids that would save trips through the rulebooks by organizing each spell-using character's library into pages.

I know there have been various spell card decks here and there through the ages. Stuart's pocketmod spellbook is almost what I'm after, but I want the ability to easily add in spells and have different books for different characters.

And I've already got spell cards for my system...

Then I remembered the CCG flash in the pan of 2005: Zatch Bell. Its gimmick: your collectible deck was stored and played from inside a little spellbook binder with 16 sleeve-pages for the cards. This is perfect.

 It doesn't seem to be available through UK retailers ... good thing I'm going to GenCon Indy, huh?