Monday, July 31, 2017

So You Rolled A 3: Wisdom

Oblivious by Michael Wood

Wisdom represents your man's powers of observation, his intuition, and the sum total of the knowledge he has gained through passive observation of people, places and things.  Generally, someone is wiser when they are older than when they are younger, but they might not have been too wise to start with!  So what can you say about a character who has a Wisdom of 3?

This was a hard one for me.  I suppose the first thing you might say is that the person is quite myopic. If you can't see details, then it would be very hard to spot traps, describe monsters, or even recognize and differentiate between acquaintances.  Reading runes and "reading" peoples' emotions and so forth becomes much harder.

You might instead say that the person is an ADHD case who can't concentrate enough to process what he's seeing and hearing.  Remembering names and faces becomes nearly impossible. Concentrating on searching for a trap or, for instance, counting a large number of objects is very difficult.  The person is always mentally far away even if he's right there with you trying to have a conversation.

You could also say perhaps the person is "on the spectrum" and gets super-focused on whatever he's interested in at that moment to the exclusion of all other details.

But I'm really more interested in what you think a 3 in Wisdom might mean. I'm sure I'm missing something obvious; what do you think it is?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

So You Rolled A 3: Intelligence

Dumb! Dumb! Dumb!  It's  easy to imagine a particularly dim fighting man, who is only good for sucking up hits and swinging a mighty battle axe. Decades of half-orcs and barbarians have been played like this and the trope has been screwed right into the ground, like some goofy Dwarf with a Scottish brogue. 

But remember in the old school, an Intelligence score of 3 is perfectly playable. Like we said with Strength, an Int of 3 doesn't necessarily mean someone is feeble-minded. It means instead that they might not be so clever, creative, or be passionate about learning. It might mean they are willfully ignorant of the world around them - incurious, as opposed to unobservant (that's covered by Wisdom). 

The most likely scenario is that the person is quite passionate about his field of expertise but you can't get him to think very deeply about anything he doesn't care about. Fighting Men are very smart about fighting; clerics are very smart about religion and monster hunting; and magic users are very smart about spells and magic items. 

Yes, even a Magic-User can have an Int of 3 in the old rules! In most rules sets, his XP will be penalized slightly, but he is perfectly able to cast spells and even able to learn new ones like his high-Int peers!

But what an INT 3 does NOT say is that you, the player, have to stop being clever.  You can use your player knowledge to solve problems and get by.  Don't even think you have to dumb yourself down because your man is dumb!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

So You Rolled a 3: Strength

What does a STR of 3 mean in old school games?

Well, first let's talk about AD&D 1st Edition.  At the break point of 1E, the Strength stat was for the first time assigned a value.

Click to Enlarge

We can see that the STR 3 guy can lift an astonishing 10 pounds over his head!  And he has a 0% chance of bending steel bars or lifting a portcullis (clearly two especially important actions in 1st Edition.)  In later editions and up until the present day, we have imagined that a STR of 3 correlates to the weakest of the weaklings across the spectrum of people everywhere.  

But in old school play, this simply is not so!  A Strength score of 3 has no exact weight correlation.  A STR of 3 can certainly mean someone who is a complete weakling, but it doesn't make sense that a veteran adventurer would be too feeble to carry his own gear, does it?  No, it does not.  Instead, a STR of 3 just means your man is very weak compared to other adventurers - perhaps he would have little chance of winning an arm wrestling contest.  Certainly he would have little chance to bend iron bars or break down a door with his bare hands, among other feats of strength.  

But a STR 3 character is strong enough to carry his gear, wear his armor, and swing a weapon (just perhaps not as forcefully as Conan might do).  As far as other strength-related tasks, he would likely fail most of the time.  That's all it means.

So therefore what can we say about your man when you roll a 3?  Perhaps he is a child.  Perhaps he is very old.  Perhaps he is as strong as a normal person but so grand that it takes all his might just to propel himself around on his two tree-trunk legs!  And this will get me in trouble to say in this day and age, but perhaps he is actually a she* instead?  If you really want to get kooky, maybe you say your man only has one arm or his legs do not work.  He's unable to perform a wide range of feats of strength because of this drawback.

Do not despair when you roll a 3 for Strength.  Let it inform you about your man.  You will be all the more heroic for overcoming such a limitation.

*There ought to be no mechanical difference between male and female characters, so you are free to play a woman with an 18 STR.  However in the real world almost all women are less strong than almost all men.  It's just a fact of biology.

Balancing Encounters the OSR Way - Part 2

There are two other parts to balancing encounters the old school way that we need to talk about. They are allowing the several players agency to set the goals for their adventure session, and giving the players game space to make decisions.

What? No Cleric?

A lot of other writers have discussed and defined agency better than I have but let me give it a shot: Player agency means that the several players, and not the Referee, decide what will happen in a session, an adventure, or a campaign.  The players are not tourists in the Referee's world being shown this and that passively.  Nor are they pushed down an adventure path that they are meant to finish. At most, they are given several adventure "hooks" and allowed to choose which to pursue and in which order.

There is a text book's worth of analysis and basic and advanced rules for playing in this way, but the most important thing to remember is that the animating force of the adventures has to come from the player's side of the screen and not the Ref's side.  If the Ref is telling the players what to do with their characters, that's a red flag.

So that's agency.

The other part of balancing encounters is that you need to leave room for the characters to progress slowly as well as quickly.  For instance, the first dungeon level should have much more treasure and many more monsters and traps than it would take for the party to achieve second level.  They don't hit second level and DING! head downstairs.  That would be the Ref telling the players what to do! It's so critically important for the players to be able to keep their characters in the "shallow end" and for them to have meaningful content there as well.  

That may mean putting five times as many rooms and five times as much treasure as they would need to hit level 2.  It may mean restocking that dungeon level through some mechanism, such as new monsters from deeper in (but in this case, not tougher) lairing up closer to the surface.  In reality, it's probably good to use both of these methods in tandem. In the Wilderlands, it's easy to say that the characters missed something on their first survey and there was more to be found after all, so that's a third way for you the Ref to provide more room for the characters and more agency for the players. Additionally, because of the open nature of a hexcrawl, there should be plenty of opportunities for characters to backtrack to unexplored areas they missed because of their direction of travel - more so than even in a dungeon.

And that's space.

Along with the critical relationship between risk, reward, and distance, player agency and the game space for characters to work in make it possible for old school encounters to balance in a different way from new school encounters.  It happens in real time at the table and may result in real character death. These are exciting prospects which will bring your players back again and again.

Balancing Encounters the OSR Way, Part 1

Traffic Jam, Level 3A
For those of you who are players of modern games, you will understand that the encounters that you face and the challenges you come upon are closely balanced to your level and party makeup.  You are meant to be able to overcome each encounter and in many cases, it will be through making die rolls against skills, both combat and non-combat, that you careful chose for your characters beforehand. Player skill at the table gets rewarded, but the real skill comes before table time, where you build your man up from the many options available to you.

Not so with old school D&D.  There was certainly a system for encounter balancing but it has very little to do with what the players and Referee do before table time. The Referee does prepare encounters and place them, or make rosters of wandering monsters for various areas.  But the balancing act of party strength versus encounter danger happens at the table in real time. 

You might remember that we observed the relationship between XP (the measure of personal power), encumbrance, speed, and equipment.  They are all inextricably linked to each other through the touchstone of the gold piece.  But let's go a little further now and link the gold piece up to dungeon levels.

The first dungeon level is the one closest to the surface world.  We know this to be true because it is a given in the game. The weakest monsters and traps guard the least of the many treasures in the Underworld. Not only are they meager, but they are usually composed of relatively heavy objects, such as copper pieces or perhaps sacks of grain.  Deeper levels hold greater danger, but also contain greater treasures.

Therefore it is up to the several players to decide what level of risk/reward they wish to pursue.  The greater danger guards greater rewards, and therefore the depth below ground (or similar distance) guards faster advancement in terms of XP.

Likewise, there ought to be a simple way for the several players to know how dangerous the Wilderlands can become.  One simple way is to say that the hex that contains a town is Civilized and within it, dangers will be those of civilization.  Things will be "normal."  Two hexes hence will be the weird Borderlands, where dangers of a wild and sometimes magical nature may reside.  Past that is true Wilderlands where one must be prepared for anything, because it's impossible to say what is out there.

In any case, keeping that relationship between distance, risk, and reward is how the Referee keeps encounters balanced. Let this be your lesson: If the Referee does it well enough, the players will trust him and the table will have more fun, and play together longer.

Friday, July 28, 2017

So You Rolled a 3

Bad dice happen to good people.

When you play in old school games, a lot of folks trick out their stat generation methods, but a lot of people don't.  Whatever the options are, I like to go with the most hardcore method available. In my opinion, there's 3d6 in order... and there's everything else.

Even in my game, Mythical Journeys, there are other methods to do it. But for me, there's nothing like 3d6.

One reason is the stats are much more qualitative than quantitative.  The best (and worst) you will do is +/- 1 on isolated rolls.  Another reason is that player skill trumps character ability almost every time.

But what happens when you roll that 3?  When the dice gods are trolling you?  When half the table is laughing and the other half is beset by pity?  How do you make the best of a 3 on your character sheet?

My answer: since the numbers are largely qualitative, use them to spur your imagination.  Why does your man have a 3 in a particular stat?  How did that come to be? What does it say about him?  How has he overcome that 3 to become a functional person in his fictional world?

We will talk about specific scores of 3 going forward.

Some Things Brewing

I'm working on a little series of dumb posts about rolling a 3 during chargen. I also look forward to wrapping up the revision of Mythical Journeys Book I in the next couple of weeks, and making it available for purchase (the PDF is free).  

Work will be nutty this weekend and the first half of next week. We will see whether I can squeeze out a couple of posts, since I have a lot to say. 

But whether I can or not, July 27 is Gary Gygax day. And I can tell you everything's gonna be all right. Gary sent us. He made up some stuff he thought would be fun and showed us how we could do it too. 

Thanks, Gary. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Holmes Basic D&D at 40

On July 22nd 1977, Dr. Holmes premiered his version of the D at Origins III, a convention in Staten Island, New York.  It was well received and consumed voraciously.  Although the game was revised again in 1981 (Marsh) and 1983 (Mentzer), the Holmes version was still for sale at the time the latter revision was published.

I never owned Holmes.  I did own the Marsh Basic set and the Menzter Basic and Expert sets, and learned to play with the Mentzer set.  I have subsequently been able to play Holmes with the help of the great BLUEHOLME retroclone from Dreamscape Designs.

The Holmes game is very special because it serves as a nexus or touchstone for OD&D, Basic D&D and Advanced D&D. And it also touches CHAINMAIL because Dr. Holmes used that game to fill in details like order of combat and simplifying encumbrance. 

For a great overview of the history and importance of Holmes D&D, visit Wayne Rossi's Semper Initiavitus Unum blog. For more information about Holmes D&D and for great modern documents meant to round it out, you can visit the Zenopus Archives blog, which deals almost exclusively with Holmes Basic. For more information about the history of the hobby and about the origins of D&D, visit Jon Peterson's Playing At the World blog.

Dr. Holmes DMing in the great early days

Saturday, July 22, 2017

This Flyer

I posted this flyer at the friendly local games store.  Do you think I'll have many takers?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Game Play Novelizations

Recently the Chic Santorian was asking me in the comments section about the novelization of actual play reports. Like, why not turn their adventures into fun works of fantasy fiction?

Short answer: It's hard to write compelling fiction and I don't like working hard on that aspect of the hobby.

Longer answer: no matter how hard I try, there's no way I could write a fictive tale of value in the same neighborhood as some of the greats of the OSR.  You can put lipstick on a pig, as they say, but you'll still end up in the mud after the barn door closes on your eggs.

Allow me to instead recommend this post on Dragons Gonna Drag, a novelization of the continuing misadventures of his table of blundering PC slobs. Very funny!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Deadly Sardonian

I was reading the dictionary today (don't judge me) and came upon the word Sardonic.

Sardonic means "Characterized by bitter or scornful derision; mocking; cynical; sneering."

A good word!  And one that about half of English speakers know.

It originated between 1630 and 1640.  It's from a Middle English word sardonian influenced by the French word sardonique, which in turn comes from the Latin sardonius, which they borrowed from the Greek sardonios.

But what is Sardonios?  Well, it appears to be a plant which when eaten produced convulsive laughter ending in death!

THIS IS TOTALLY SOMETHING THAT SHOULD BE IN D&D!  THE DEADLY SARDONIAN! Can you imagine spiking someone's salad with the Sardonian, which should probably look like some leafy green ground plant?  That would be devious!  And during a rip-snorting party and feast, who would think of poison if someone laughed and laughed and keeled over dead?  They just overdid it is all!  Right?


So here's the Sardonian plant written up for your old school game:


The Sardonian plant resembles rhubarb, with dark leaves and a slight hair.  Its stalks are maroon to red, warning fauna of the danger it poses to those who ingest it.  Sardonian is slightly bitter but edible, and blends nicely with edible leafy greens.  However, when eaten, the Sardonian plant (leaf, stalk or root) produces convulsive laughter ending in death!

Onset for convulsive laughter is one Round. This lasts 2-5 Rounds, during which the victim may make no action other than a half move.  Upon the conclusion of this period, he makes a Save versus Poison.  A successful save results in 1d6 damage and 1 day of discomfort (all rolls at -2).  A failed save results in death.

Assassins, apothecary, alchemists and wizards will cultivate this plant in small amounts as ingredients for their carious concoctions.  Beware eating from their gardens, for death "stalks" every plant!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Schedule of Combat Cards

Someone on Dragonsfoot, I don't remember who, used to say that Initiative and Morale are the Kobayashi Maru test of D&D.  In other words, no amount of player skill or PC stats can "win" these tests consistently, but you can learn to endure them with dignity and minimize the damage they can do to you and your party.

Here's how we do combat Rounds in Mythical Journeys.  They are one minute long and intended to be quite abstract.

The key steps here are 2 and 3: we declare our actions before we know who is going first!  This is makes it so combat feels chaotic and keeps people from "cheating" in some ways - gaming the system.  It's fun and kind of swingy.  There's something akin to rock-paper-scissors going on at the start of every combat Round.  You have to guess what is going to happen.

Mike Mornard said that he had done it like that some in the old days too, and it made sense to him.  I remember reading about something similar on the Lord of the Bling thread on Big Purple years ago.  I don't know whether I read it right but it seemed like they declared before initiative.

What else might jump out at you is there are very few categories of things to do during combat: move, missile fire, magic spells, melee attacks, and other things (overturning a table, drinking a potion, binding wounds.)  That is, there are only five categories of actions to take.

Combat Cards

What I tried a while ago, and it didn't work perfectly, is to write out Combat Cards, each of which has one category of action written on it: Full Move, Melee, Spell, Missile, Other.  

Each player would the select his card and hide it;
I would secretly choose what the monsters would do; 
The players "lock in" their action by revealing their cards;
Then we roll for initiative, 1d6, by sides.

When combat actually happens, the several combatants choose their targets or where they are running to or whatever, but within those action categories.  It didn't really work the way I wanted it to because the players were not as enthusiastic about it as I had hoped.  (I love the old game shows Match Game and Price Is Right; in my brain, this mini game would be fun like those games, oh well.)

I want to try the Combat Cards again.  Do you see any issues with this that I can clean up before I roll it out at the table?  Or do you think I should just try it and hope for players willing to work with me?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Castle Caldwell Explorers Session II

15 July 2017 6:45 - 9:30
The DM was Steve.  He does a good job of moving things along. It's been a month since we were together.  A month! 

The players were

  • Ethan, Steve's 13 year old Son.  He played Ronin, a Fighting-Man.  Level 1.
  • Simone, Steve's wife.  She played Raven, a level 2 female half-elf Cleric of Freya.
  • my daughter Julie, just turned 13 nest week, who ran Vuvier, the Lvl 1 Thief who loves poison.
  • my son Nate, just turned 15, with Gruffle the Halfling Thief, Level 1.
  • and me, I ran Vuvier's twin brother Yaspar, the Fighting-Man with 2 Hits.  GRAH!!!

The rule set was modified 1E.  1E, but we could only have one character class. Raven the Cleric had gotten to Level 2 in a previous adventure.  18 hit points and chain mail made her the WRECKING BALL of the crew!

We were rolling through Castle Caldwell.  We got to an old kitchen and my fighter Yaspar tried to loot the tableware to everyone's amusement.  There was an old leather chest.  We poked it with our 10' pole (MVP of the dungeon by the way) and found it to be safe.

So Julie's thief, Vuvier, opened the chest, only to be POISONED!!  She lost her Magic-User, Emma, to poison last session.  She didn't die though and a healing spell restored her.

The next room had a snake in a bag.  Yaspar poked all the bags with the 10' pole until the snake popped out and hit him with spitting venom!  He had two hit points!  He was a goner! But it turns out he only took 2 hit points damage, and was saved again by healing magic. Later on we came back, doused the room with oil, threw in a torch, and burnt the snakes into snake bacon!

We fought with a whacked out cleric of Lolth who we were not supposed to be able to kill, but we did.  Ronin, who struck the final blow, claimed her +2 Chain armor as his own and almost made level 2 on the spot.

Finally there were two fire beetles that managed to paralyze 3/5 of the PCs.  Ronin and Yaspar were able to make good attack and damage rolls at the last minute to save the day.  Yaspar palmed a potion he found in a hollow book.  It turns out, it was a potion of Climbing.

His second potion of Climbing!

An animated statue helped us a little, and there's still the mystery of the magically-sealed door.  We will have a hireling Wizard in next session to cast Knock for us.

PROPS: Simone for suggesting we just burn those nasty snakes out.  It worked perfectly!

SLOPS: The dice, which were 1000000% against us all night.  We're totally buying new dice before the next game.  These dice hate us!

MVP:  Ronin, who despite whining and threatening to run away all night, saved the day against the evil cleric and the fire beetles.  He's very brave once he's got no other choice!


And just gonna leave this here:

"When I first started playing back in 1980, we quickly learned the value of Fire Beetle glands. Harvested them. Used them as exclusively as we could underground.

Wham! no smoke, no runny eyes/noses, no smell warning creatures that we were mucking about. Lasts up to 6 days, emits illumination 10' radius. Put that in a bulls-eye lantern!

P.9, AD&D Monster Manual. 1st print 1977 (mines a 3rd though).

Perfectly use able in the OD&D system.

Matter resolved. "