Sunday, December 29, 2019

E&E Race-and-Class vs. Race-as-Class

Very much in keeping with an old-school adventure-gaming philosophy, the revised Engines & Empires Core Rules are going to present an explicitly humanocentic set of rules. The implied setting will be one where demi-humans are rare, and demi-human player characters are an option subject to referee approval.

The game will present two different systems for demi-human characters, one for settings where demi-humans are relatively common (a typical fantasy kitchen-sink), and one for settings where they're relatively rare (the elder races are waning to make room for the ascendancy of man).

Race and Class

In the race-and-class system, a race is simply a template that you apply to a character—but E&E gives demi-humans no special racial abilities, only restrictions. There are a number of reasons for this. Things like infravision ruin one of the basic challenges of dungeon-crawling. It's very difficult to balance racial special abilities against humans, whose only ability is to pick any class and advance it to any level (or in the case of E&E, up to the maximum level of 10th—but it hardly matters if the campaign remains low-level). Demi-humans in early fantasy literature don't actually manifest a lot of special abilities in stories (there's no indication that Gimli can see in total darkness). And finally, and most importantly, when demi-human player races are made available, players reflexively choose them over humans, just for the sake of playing something "different."

Saturday, December 28, 2019

E&E Revised Core Rules Update

As I've worked through revising my rulebook, I've also started reorganizing it just a little bit. Mainly to match the Rules Cyclopedia—so now the chapter arrangement is:
1 Character Creation
2 Game Rules
3 Magic
4 Technology
5 Refereeing
6 Monsters
7 Magic Items
8 Optional Rules

So far, only the first three chapters are fully revised. I'm in the middle of giving technology the "Old-School Essentials" treatment, turning walls of text into bullet points. (I've already done it for the magic chapter and the result is pretty cool if I do say so myself.) Then I'll do the same for the monsters. (Which puts me back at where I was some months ago, but oh well.)

After that, the rest of the book is just cleanup and editing. But I have added a large section to the beginning of the Refereeing chapter, which includes both race-and-classs demi-humans and race-as-class demi-humans, with the latter being entirely new.

They're modeled off the BX/BECM style race-classes, but given that the human level limit is 10th in this game, their limits are actually closer to white box or 1e. We have

Elves, acting as fighter/magicians up to level 7
Goblins, mirroring elves, can be rogue/inventors up to level 7
Ogres act as fighters with a few minor shaman powers up to level 8
Dwarfs ("should anyone wish to play them") are this game's halfling analogue, so they can only go up to level 6, but they do so as fighter/rogue/clerics, on the game's single slowest XP track.

All in all, it looks pretty old-school, in a satisfying and aesthetic sort of way. (It also maintains roughly the same "ratios" of levels to the human maximum as in B/X. If you were to take the 14–12–10–8 paradigm of humans–dwarves–elves–halflings, scale that down to 10 levels and apply it to my lineup of humans–elves/goblins–ogres–dwarfs, you'd wind up with 10–8½–7–6, and I decided to round ogres' level limit down to 8th instead of up to 9th whilst also giving them a bit of flavorful shaman magic. The end result works well.)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Pithiest Definition Yet of Old-School Gaming

I like pithy gaming sayings.

I love that line by Evreaux of Dragonsfoot, "We don't explore characters, we explore dungeons."

I love to give that exploration some meaning (and admonish against the use of quantum ogres and Schrödinger's dungeons) by saying, "The world is the world."

But I think an even more complete statement of what it is for a game to be old-school (you can take or leave the Renaissance), for a game to be an adventure game rather than a role-playing game, can be summed up as follows:

A tabletop fantasy game is old-school to the extent that it demands of players that they inhabit an avatar in the service of experiencing an adventure. A tabletop fantasy game is not old-school to the extent that it demands of players that they portray a character in the service of telling a story.

I think that about captures it. It's not that these games are always totally one thing or another, with no overlap; as usual for such things, it's a continuum with a sliding scale. And the same set of rules can lead to different sorts of games with different players and referees. But ultimately, it comes down to this: a role-playing game asks players to be somebody else, for the sake of telling a story that entertains all present with things that are entertaining about stories. An adventure game asks players to merely be themselves, and to be entertained by the fictional world that they experience through playing. That's the difference, subtle though it is.

Old-school games are games with meta character portrayal and diegetic entertainment experience. Modern games are games with diegetic character portrayal and meta entertainment experience.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Obligatory Spoiler-Free 'Rise of Skywalker' Opinion

It's fine.

It's a Star Wars movie. As kids' movies go, it's fine.

It won't eat your puppy or bugger your childhood. The Force Awakens already did that, unless you don't accept it as canon, in which case New Jedi Order: Vector Prime already did that.

In a shocking reversal, it was better than Force Awakens and Last Jedi. But then, I was expecting Knives Out to be better than Orient Express, and it wasn't. Decent enough, and entertaining, but not cut from some artistically superior cloth. Basically just fine.

Noticing a running theme here lately?

Get over it.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

One Last Big Change for the E&ECR Revision

Some discussion on various blogs and boards hereabouts reminded me of something.

Old-school gamers really, really like those demi-human character classes.

My in-progress revision of the Engines & Empires Core Rules was on the brink of dropping any semblance of race-as-class, and just going with straightforward race-and-class with a few restrictions (similar to Holmes Basic or Basic Fantasy RPG). But then I saw folks once again singing the praises of race-as-class, and it reminded me: race-and-class leads to "weird fantasy kitchen sink" games, while race-as-class promotes human-centric games. And you can even go one step further by making demi-humans entirely optional, in which case the game becomes not just human-centric, but human-by-default.

I want Engines & Empires to be human-by-default.

So one big re-write that I'm working through now is to strip demi-humans out of E&E's character creation chapter. A new chapter will be inserted later on to give demi-humans a place in the rules, and it will be explicitly optional and present multiple methods for dealing with such characters.

That way, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can have rules for race-and-class that go with a setting like Gaia, which is a weird fantasy kitchen sink where demi-humans are common. And I can have race-as-class classes (elf fighter/magicians, goblin rogue/inventors, etc.) that really drive home what those non-humans are all about in settings where the demi-humans are rare or on the wane or simply really isolationist (as in Tolkien). And it will just be up to individual referees to choose which model works best for their campaigns.

That, I think, is the right way to do it in the end. We'll never totally resolve the debate in the old-school gaming community (the large umbrella that includes grumpy grognards, the OSR, the artpunk movement, SwordDream, and tabletop adventure gamers like myself), so I think more rulebooks should try to include both race-and-class and race-as-class as options.

But forget dual-statting books with both descending and ascending AC. Ascending AC is for heretics.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

My first D&D game in a season.

Really my first E&E game in like two years.

Of the six players I was expecting, four made it. The following characters were created:

Bertrand Truelove, human inventor.
Elizabeth, human scholar.
Tommy Twohands, dwarfish rogue.
Hector, elfin magician.

That's right, they rolled up a party with every available class except fighter. Then they went down into the dungeons of Zenopus (yeah, that Zenopus; I've been on a Holmes Basic kick lately you'll remember), which I'd conveniently placed under Morgansfort.

Oh, yeah, have I mentioned that I'm running BF1: Morgansfort? But with the Zenopus dungeon under the town itself, and the rest of the region expanded into a thickly forested point-crawl.

For this campaign, I wanted to do some things differently to what I normally do. To that end:

• It'll be a short little campaign, nothing epic, with just some close friends & family, not my usual big open table at a game-shop. Only a handful of sessions before I call it good.
• A point-crawl instead of a hex-crawl, which should make exploring the whole map within a short time-frame totally reasonable.
• Mostly based on the E&E rules, including those weapon rules I posed about last time, but with one big exception. I'm using the B/X rules for magic. Not AD&D or BECMI where magic-users can expand their spell-books without limit, but the B/X version where they can't know more spells than they can cast.
• Also, straight dead-at-0-hit-points (but with the Holmes "final action"/"blaze of glory" rule in force).

And because of that last rule, we had a truly awesome moment where Bertrand and some chaotic beastmen got into a war of words over who would "stand and deliver" their treasure to the other party, before the beastman drove his dagger into Bertrand's heart; and Bertrand in a last act of spite cut out the beastman's tongue and spat, "You deliver!" before they both died.

Then the rest of the party carried Bertrand's corpse back up to the surface and let the sight of it traumatize the stable-boy they'd hired. In the words of Bertrand's player, choked with laughter: "You can't write this shit!"

Indeed, you can't.

But I can say that it was the best laugh I've had out of a tabletop game in a good long while, and I owe it to OD&D's death rules.

Monday, December 9, 2019

All weapons do 1d6 damage, but bigger or smaller weapons adjust both attack rolls and AC: I call it "deep fried Holmes-style."

So a little while ago, I finally went and put together a reasonably complete version of this idea that's been banging around in my brain for a good long while. (Dragonsfoot link.) (Reddit link.)

The basic idea is, all melee weapons and most missile weapons deal 1d6 damage, just like in the blue box version of D&D from '77 (so-called "Holmes Basic"). It's yet another one of those cases where I find that I like the original D&D rule better than either of what developed in classic D&D or AD&D. And it got me to thinking: what if Moldvay had never put the optional variable weapon damage table into the pink box Basic Set in '81 (cribbed and simplified as it was from Supplement I: Greyhawk)?

The game's combat system might have gone in a different direction, and it turns out to be one that I like. Instead of differentiating weapons by damage die sizes, so that weapons only vary in their offensive capabilities, my alteration is to vary them with a modifier that applies to both attack rolls and AC-in-melee. For example, if you're unarmed, you still deal 1d6 damage, but you're −4 to hit and −4 to your melee AC. If you have a great sword, assuming you have room to swing it, you're +3 to hit and +3 to your melee AC.

The upshot is that the to-hit bonus and AC mod cancel each other out for identical weapons, but when weapons are different, the bigger ones are a big offensive and defensive advantage, as in real life. And it's no great increase in game complexity to implement this little change. Different to what people are used to, sure—but not if you're steeped in a white box/blue box culture, where the d6 damage die is already standard.

So as it turns out, much like making sure that ability scores are chiefly serving as prime requisites for classes and sources of XP adjustment, I think I'm going to be taking the next edition of Engines & Empires in this direction too. (After all, it was the need to make the weapon tables more historically accurate that prompted me to start working on this new edition in the first place.) When all is said and done, E&E will be I think more compatible with Holmes than Moldvay or Mentzer, which is different for me, but it's what I'm into these days.

So (to cite one example of a family of weapons), blades now have the following progression:
knives, −3/−3
daggers, −2/−2
short swords (cutlass, hanger, longknife, smallsword), −1/−1
normal swords (arming sword, broadsword, rapier), ±0/±0
bastard swords (when held in two hands), +1/+1 (falls to −1/−1 in one hand)
long swords (e.g. claymores), +2/+2
great swords (e.g. zweihänder), +3/+3 out in the open, or ±0/+0 down in a dungeon

This alteration to the rules produces fine granularity, and I can also vary the weapon modifier to apply to different armor types in a way that largely represents the (in)famous Chainmail/AD&D weapon vs. armor type table, without having to ever look up or cross-reference anything. In the next edition of E&E, it will be the case that:
• Spears retain their main advantages, throwability and setting vs. a charge
• Swords have social capital, ease of carrying/wearing, and are commonly enchanted
• Axes are +1 to hit low armor classes (9 to 6) because they're good at hewing through soft matter
• Maces are +1 to hit high armor classes (6 to 2) because they punch armor
• Clubs get no such advantage and are actually −1/−1 relative to similarly-sized weapons

And it all fits together really well and "just werks." I've run some Python simulations and some one-man playtests and everything looks great so far; and I look forward to running a full, live playtest game with actual players sometime soon.

* * *

There's a second alteration that I'm also leaning strongly towards implementing, but it has me a little more worried. The more I've thought about it, the more I've decided that I'd rather play out rounds in D&D combats without any kind of initiative mechanic. I'd keep initiative rolls at the start of encounters, because those are a great framework for organizing such mechanics as reaction rolls and the starts of chase scenes.

But in combat? A round is ten seconds. A lot can happen in ten seconds, sure, but on a scale that small I'm inclined to call everything simultaneous. That is to say, everybody gets to at least start taking actions before anything actually shakes out or results from them.

How it works is actually a lot like AD&D 2nd edition, but without the d10 roll for inish. There's a combat sequence, but it has to do with declaring and resolving actions, rather than classic D&D's famous "m-steps" (move, missiles, magic, melee, misc.).

It goes a little something like this:

1. The referee tips his hand by declaring what the monsters or enemy NPCs are doing, or appear to be doing.

2. The players decide what each character and follower in the party is doing, construct a list of orders/actions, and relay these to the DM through the caller.

3. The DM now executes all the actions one at a time, in whatever order makes the most sense, but resolves none of them. That is, movement happens, spells go off, and attacks are rolled, but no consequences yet.

4. The DM then resolves all actions as close to simultaneously as possible. Saving throws are rolled, spells take effect, damage and healing are rolled and applied to targets (with damage and healing to the same target cancelling out so that only the net number of HPs are gained or lost).

5. Back to step 1 until the fight is over.

It's straightforward, but not at all simple. The potential for absolute chaos is there, because actions are not ordered in any way beyond what the DM judges. Which on the one hand I like, because it's freeing, but on the other, has terribly high stakes in the game because it's combat.

Generally speaking, I hate 3rd edition style cyclic initiative. I would never go back to that. And for me, Basic D&D's swingy round-to-round back-and-forth was also starting to feel kind of artificial and predictable. This, I hope, injects a little danger back into the proceedings. No more streaks where the player characters steamroll encounter after encounter in the dungeon by setting up surprise, getting a free round, and then winning initiative on top of that and getting to take two allotments of actions in a row, often ending a fight before it starts without consequences.

With a system like the above, where actions are always effectively simultaneous, there is no such thing as a "safe" battle. Maybe this will make players think twice even before laying an ambush now.

But who knows? This one, I'll actually need time and players to test out.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Saw some movies and (unrelatedly) thought up some D&D stuff

Saw Knives Out this evening. It was a damn fun little mystery thriller that just begs to be analyzed, what with its themes and metaphors all taking front and center stage. Very enjoyable flick.

Saw Frozen II last week as well. Not as good as the original but it had its moments. Maybe mildly disappointing, but still worth the price of the ticket.

I just put up a Reddit post on my most recent thoughts about weapons in D&D, and I hope I can get some solid critique there! Normally this is the sort of thing I'd put up on my blog, but (a) I haven't touched my blog in a while because school has me badly out of the blogging habit, and (b) I really need lots of eyeballs on this system, as it presents a major change and a lot of work that I may or may not actually be willing to put it. We'll see.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

E&E3: XP Tables and Basic Class Design

I still haven't quite figured out how to compactify the monster chapters yet. It's one of those nagging feelings, like I'm missing a puzzle-piece. I both hate and love that, because I know it will come to me eventually.

In the meanwhile, I thought I'd do a quick post on the (more or less) final form that the character class chapter has taken. Just a few notes and hints and things that I consider relevant or fun.

The 1st version of Engines & Empires was out-in-the-open-covertly Rules Cyclopedia based. All of the class tables went up to 36th level. All of the demi-humans existed as racial classes (though none of them were ever dual-classed: the original E&E elf was explicitly just a cleric with elf racial abilities, for example, in the same way that a BECMI dwarf is a fighter with dwarf abilities).

In the 2nd version of E&E, I kind of halfheartedly broke this up by treating all human characters as single-classed but able to pick any class and take it up to 10th level; and all demi-human characters as automatically dual-classed and able to take both classes up to 8th level, with one of their classes fixed by the choice of race (e.g. elves had to be mage/something and you couldn't dual mage with tech, so elves were either mage/fighters or mage/experts).

In the latest version of E&E, I've abandoned any pretense to race-as-class. It's a little more complicated, but in the end I think most players prefer to have the options. So here's how it works now:
• After players roll stats, they select one of five kindreds: human, elf, dwarf, goblin, or ogre.
• As in the 2nd version of the game, each kindred other than human has a favored and a disfavored attribute score, and if the disfavored score is the higher of the two, you swap them. That hasn't changed.
• But now, any kindred can pick any class (but only one—there's no more dual-classing). The classes are fighter, rogue, magician, inventor, and scholar. (The scholar serves as a kind of fighter/magician or cleric).
• There are no level limits, but non-human kindreds do have favored and disfavored classes. Humans favor all five classes and advance in them normally. Everyone else has two favored classes in which they advance normally (e.g. fighter and magician for elves, or rogue and inventor for goblins), and the other three classes are "disfavored" for that kindred and take a −10% XP penalty. If your prime requisite is high enough, your prime XP bonus will cancel out this penalty, but if the prime for that class also happens to be a disfavored attribute for your kindred, that can really mess you up. In short, there won't be a lot of elvish inventors or goblin magicians running around without an XP penalty (but you can certainly play them if you want to).

And that's pretty much it. Any character can take any one class up to level 10, but if it happens that your favored class lines up with your favored attribute, you're more likely to have a high prime requisite and advance a little faster; and if you try to play against type, you might wind up advancing a little slower. But it will never be more drastic than ±10% of earned XP.

In fact, standing back and looking at the race-and-class system like this, it resembles Basic Fantasy RPG more than any other edition or retro-clone.

But I do limit levels to 10th, for a few reasons. Some of my main sources of inspiration (Beyond the Wall, Dragon Fist) at least stop their tables at 10th, even if they don't explicitly limit character advancement. And I find that a campaign is only really fun up to that level. But stopping there also means that 9th level doesn't have to be some special cutoff like it is in Basic, where suddenly there are no more level titles or hit dice and the XP table kinks linear. I've dropped all of that for E&E3 by making the last experience level "just another level," like so:

Level
Rogue XP
Inventor XP
Fighter XP
Scholar XP
Magician XP
1
0
0
0
0
0
2
1,500
1,750
2,000
2,250
2,500
3
3,000
3,500
4,000
4,500
5,000
4
6,000
7,000
8,000
9,000
10,000
5
12,000
14,000
16,000
18,000
20,000
6
25,000
28,000
32,000
36,000
40,000
7
50,000
56,000
64,000
72,000
80,000
8
100,000
112,000
125,000
140,000
150,000
9
200,000
225,000
250,000
280,000
300,000
10
400,000
450,000
500,000
550,000
600,000


Level
Rogue Titles
Inventor Titles
Fighter Titles
Scholar Titles
Magician Titles
1
Apprentice
Tinker
Veteran
Collegiate
Medium
2
Journeyman
Wright
Swordsman
Baccalaureate
Seer
3
Tradesman
Craftsman
Duelist
Master
Conjurer
4
Expert
Machinist
Hero
Doctor
Wizard
5
Specialist
Mechanic
Swashbuckler
Fellow
Enchanter
6
Agent
Technician
Knight
Professor
Warlock
7
Operative
Technologist
Champion
Emeritus
Sorcerer
8
Professional
Engineer
Superhero
Philosopher
Archmage
9
Maverick
Chief Engineer
Paladin
Sage
Magus
10
Top Gun
Master Chief
Lord Paladin
Great Sage
High Magus


Doubling the XP at 10th level holds the endgame off for just a bit longer, and it puts those 10th level spells and inventions a little bit further out of reach for a while. But I do really like how elegantly the five XP tables line up with one another when arranged like so. As for the level titles, I'd already posted those here before, so no real surprises there.

Regarding attacks and saves, I decided to "de-granularize" them and make them work pretty much exactly as in B/X, including the "3-point kink" on the second step up the table that went away between B/X and BECMI. That is, the attack levels for all classes are now:

To-Hit Bonus; Class & Level
+1 ; Fighter 1–3, Rogue and Scholar 1–4, Magician and Inventor 1–5
+3 ; Fighter 4–6, Rogue and Scholar 5–8, Magician and Inventor 6–10
+6 ; Fighter 7–9, Rogue and Scholar 9–10
+8 ; Fighter 10

Saving throws follow a similar pattern, except that these are now the same for all classes, as they were in E&E1. After doing an analysis on all the save tables in B/X and BECMI, it turns out that if I wanted to average all the saves together to make a single saving throw number, the differences between the classes really do disappear, and the fighter doesn't have "the best saves" compared to the other classes, not really. (In E&E2, I made saves improve at the same rate as attacks to give fighters an advantage in this category, but in actually, that advantage shouldn't be there for a single save number. It turns out that Swords & Wizardry basically had that part exactly right all along.)

But I did want to keep to B/X-style simple, chunky steps. So saving throws now divide all of the characters into three clear tiers:

ST 7-in-20 (35%): Levels 1–4
ST 9-in-20 (45%): Levels 5–8
ST 12-in-20 (60%): Levels 9–10

Finally, regarding the character classes' actual special abilities:

One thing I definitely wanted to keep from the previous two versions of E&E was the absence of weapon and armor restrictions by class. Any class can equip anything. I just like it better that way. So to preserve the fighter's niche of damage output and tanking, they have two special abilities: they can attack twice in melee if the player accepts a to-hit penalty on both attack rolls (the penalty starts out at −5 and gradually dwindles down to −1 at high levels: in other words, in this B/X based game of mine that only goes up to level 10, the fighter never actually quite reaches the point where he can just freely make two attacks per round at no penalty, like a 13th level AD&D fighter or a 15th level B/X fighter); and fighters have a reserve hp pool of 2 hp per level that they can use to heal themselves between encounters (like a paladin's lay on hands, but it only works on the fighter himself; I don't think it's too unbalanced if it's based on the ability of a fighter sub-class).

Rogues (called "experts" no longer, except as their 4th level title) have their traditional bonus skill points, plus two class perks: whenever initiative is simultaneous, rogues act as if they've won the initiative and go first anyway (although enemy rogues on opposing sides still tie); and once per day per two levels, a rogue can "gamble" on a die roll (attack, save, or skill check), rolling twice and keeping the better roll, and if he happens to roll doubles (meaning, no benefit from the use of the ability), that daily use of the ability is retained rather than used up. (This also serves to push rogues into saving their limited uses of this ability for skill checks, rather than combat, since skill checks in E&E3 work as they did in E&E1, rolled on a d6 against a skill rank, rather than under an attribute on d20 as in E&E2).

The magicians and inventors work as mages and techs did in E&E2, with magicians having magic and inventors having technology. Scholars are like magicians that give up all the wizardry and druid magic (keeping only the really priestly-feeling magic) in exchange for better combat stats.

* * *

Oh, and I almost forgot about alignment! Yeah, so… after E&E2 had alignment more or less "fixed" by your choice of race and class (I hear tell that LotFP does a similar thing), I was all ready to keep that pretty much the same going into E&E3… when I decided, there really wasn't a point, it's not a mechanic that ever affects anything except the occasional interaction with a sapient weapon (and I hate sapient weapons and try to avoid them where possible). So (again, making the final product resemble BFRPG even more strongly), I've all but eliminated alignment as a player-facing mechanic.

It still exists in the game: a couple of magical effects target Chaotic creatures. But as things stand now:
• Alignment is a Big Fat Cosmic Deal that mortals barely comprehend. If you're not a magician, your character may not even know that alignment is a Thing that Exists in-universe.
• The three alignments are now called Chaos, Balance, and Order. Mortals never have a permanent alignment, though they certainly may find themselves allied with forces of Chaos, Balance, or Order at a given time, according to circumstances.
• Most creatures, in fact, do not have a permanent alignment. The exceptions are weird-ass aliens and cosmic, planar beings. Abominations and Demons are always of Chaos. Fae and Angels are always of Order. (Yes, Fae are of Order. The realm of Faerie is all about stagnant, unchanging preservation. A place where a mortal can dance away ninety years at an elfin dinner party and never notice the passage of time, then crumble to dust the moment he returns to the material plane. Remember, kids, that Rip Van Winkle shit is horrifying.) Elementals and Nature Spirits are of Balance. And practically nothing else in the game has an alignment.
• The only mechanics that actually interact with alignment are the occasional spell, like a Protection Circle vs. Chaos (which will ward off abominations and demons but do jack-all against anything else, no mater how evil or psychotic or undead or lol-randumb), and the very occasional magical item, like the Holy Avenger sword (double damage to Chaotics). But stuff like this is rare.

So… yeah, that's pretty much all I wanted to talk about. Maybe soon I'll make some progress in the monster department. Still taking suggestions there, if anyone's seen any kickass, really compact bestiaries lately. Until next time, slán go fóill.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Making Headway

Had my first class as a TA. My heart was pounding in my chest with terror at the start. By the end, I felt the same thrill that I feel when DMing: "This was fun, let's do more of this."

So that's cool.

Meanwhile, I'm now up to the point where chapters 1–3 of Engines & Empires (3rd edition, imagine that) are pretty much done. I'm now working my way through chapter 4, technology, which is probably going to be the easiest chapter to revise. I was pretty happy with it during the last go-around, and so I don't need to do more than tweak the text to bring it in line with other changes. (The biggest change here, in fact, is the encumbrance system. I have to switch things over from the 8×8 encumbrance "grid" to the four-column table, so all the encumbrance values of items and gadgets become simple kilograms. E.g., if a thing was EV 2×3 before, it's now just "6 kg" and takes up six cells in a column.)

But when I get to chapter 5, monsters, whoa-Nelly. Previously, monsters took up about half the book's page count. I love monsters, and I love the variety, but I do not need to keep this giant bestiary in the book. It's far too easy to slap some basic monster stats together on the fly, or to re-skin what's already there, and so I really want to trim this section down. (Especially the enormous section on animals.) In fact, I'm starting to feel like the best possible monster stat format is the one used by OD&D's little white booklets, where there's a big table with all the monsters' stats, followed by a very brief description of what each monster is and what it can do.

But, I'm not sold on this. My hesitation comes from a question of usability. Certainly, the big table followed by short descriptions is compact in terms of page-count, but is it functional at the table in those moments when you need to quickly flip to a monster stat-block and remind yourself what it can do? I kind of feel like it would suck (no pun intended for this example) if I had to flip to page 101 and look up the table of "undead monster stats" to see a vampire's AC or move speed, and then flip over to 103 and find the vampire's monster entry to remind myself how the gaze attack or the regeneration worked.

Then again, maybe that's just not a big deal. But I would appreciate some input from other DMs out there. Given the choice, do you prefer monster stat blocks to be whole and expansive (as they are in Holmes, B/X, BECMI, the Rules Cyclopedia, and the various Monster Manuals) or split up into a table of stats and then a block of descriptions (as they appear in the original little booklets, the 1e DMG, and many, many early OD&D and AD&D modules, especially the B-series)?

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Game Over

It is done.

The Table of Chaos is broken. Ascyet Vie Yannarg, Keeper of the Tablet and lich-cleric of Nergal, met the same fate as Ossithrax Pejorative. Neither Orcus nor Set will hold power over death in the realm of Karameikos, in the land of Brun, in the Known World of Mystara, year 1006 After the Crowning of the First Emperor of Thyatis.

Characters died. Most were in decent enough shape to be raised, particularly dwarf-cleric Bruenor, who was unceremoniously stopped dead in his tracks with a power word—kill right at the start of the battle. Poor Harold* the Sorceress, though, she got straight up lightning bolted off a cliff and into a bottomless abyss. And everyone knew what her fate must have been when her familiar, Aspen the tabby-cat, discorporated before their very eyes.

* Not her real name, but she owed lots of people money.

Silverhearte the elf survived with a single hit point. Of three characters that this player has run in three separate campaigns who have all been elves named Silverhearte, this was the first to survive past 3rd level, never mind surviving to see the end of a whole campaign.

Experience levels ranged from 4th to 8th at the end of all things. Most characters were solidly 7th level after calculating XP for the final session. The entire campaign lasted twenty months, a personal record for myself as a DM running OD&D as very nearly by the book as I could manage.

For my part, I think that I won't run another game of D&D (any edition) for a very long time indeed. It has been tremendous fun, most instructive, at times even enlightening, and increasingly tiresome to deal with.

It is probably also time for me to pare down my collection of gaming materials once again, as the pruning mood often strikes me after a long campaign like this, and only once before (when I sold off all of my 1st edition AD&D modules about ten years ago) did I ever for a moment regret it, and then only for a moment. Now I think it's time that I also divested myself of a lot of Classic D&D cruft that I've collected over the years, but which I never use. (I sometimes have occasion to end campaigns by giving away to players the spare Rules Cyclopedias that I somehow manage to accumulate cheaply over time; the tradition has carried on in this instance as well, as more than a few of my players have either expressed interest in Dungeon Mastering their own old-school games, or have already begun to.)

At the moment, I am tired, and a little bit shell-shocked. It is usually the case that the end of an action-packed game session will leave a DM with something like runner's high, as the adrenaline wears off. The end of a campaign, though, comes with a pleasant numbness. Self-granted permission to relax and not be "the DM" at all.

It is freedom.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Big Wrap-Up

This might very well be the last post I have time for before my final year of school kicks off. (Holy fuck, my final year of grad school… it's about damned time.) During this last year, I expect to be too busy to do much of anything involving gaming. On that account, my Barrowmaze campaign is wrapping up, and the last session will be played next Saturday.

The penultimate session saw a very large party (sixteen characters with levels ranging from 1st to 8th, being run into the dungeon by ten players) go full "balls to the wall," speedily ransacking a path from the northwest corner of the Barrowmaze to the northeast, using whatever divinatory means they had at their disposal (now considerable, between their two crystal balls and their 11th level patriarch ally who can commune). They started the session by fighting their way to the Pit of Chaos and chucking in the Fount of Law ("killing the spawn point," as they put it) and then making a mad dash for the lair of Ossithrax Pejorative (they ganked the draco-lich in two rounds flat; there is a bloody reason I bump the haste spell up to 4th level when I run D&D).

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Level Titles, Cont'd

Just a brief follow-up, this time.

While the zombie-OSR blog-space blows up over JB's rant against ability checks (my answer to his complaints boils down to the following: (1) yes, ability checks that work by rolling under a stat on 1d20 are a bad mechanic, but that's all they are, kind of a bad idea that doesn't really work because of the math, not Everything Wrong with D&D; (2) no, a character's class should not be the sum total of how a character interacts with the game, and while D&D can certainly function without them, Secondary Skills are a Rather Good Thing™ if you want to flesh characters out a little more and give them some detail—or maybe just let a fighter build a goddamned boat, because yes Virginia sometimes heroes are MacGuyver) . . . I hereby present the table of level titles I'm now using in my weekly Barrowmaze – Caverns of Thracia – Stonehell – Isle of Dread campaign (soon to enter its 20th consecutive month; a fair number of 7th level characters now, but nobody has hit level eight yet):

Level Titles

It's weird how campaigns evolve in their own way over time. I started the game with a fairly robust but complete little spread of twelve playable classes, six human and six non-human, but someone wanted to play a dwarf-cleric, so now we have GAZ6 dwarf-clerics. And the players running spell-casters wanted access to more necromancy spells ('cuz, y'know, Barrowmaze), and so the caster classes got re-organized to include a few sub-classes. And I got really nostalgic and missed having psionicists around. So now the system looks like this:

• Human Classes: Fighter (Str), Rogue (Dex), Monk (Con), Wizard (Int*), Cleric (Wis),  Psychic (Cha).
— Wizard Sub-Classes: White Wizard (casts arcane and druidic spells), Grey Wizard (casts arcane and illusionist spells), Dark Wizard (casts arcane and necromantic spells), White, Grey, or Dark Witch (wizard of any sub-class who uses Cha instead of Int as a prime requisite.
— Cleric Sub-Classes: Priest (casts clerical and reversed necromantic spells), Druid (casts clerical and druidic spells), Bard (casts clerical and illusionist spells).
• Demi-Human Classes: High Elf (fighter/wizard), Silvan Elf (rogue/druid), Orc (fighter/rogue), Hill Gnome (bard with a bit of fighter/druid), Forest Gnome (rogue with a bit of fighter), Dwarf (fighter), Dwarf-Cleric (fighter/cleric).

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Level Titles

I love level titles. They're one of those weird little aspects of D&D that make me go, "yeah, this is D&D!" whenever I see them.

I find it very, very odd that they've been absent from every version of the Advanced game since 2nd edition. I find it even stranger that they're absent from the Rules Cyclopedia (in spite of the fact that they do appear in the 90s boxed sets, the 1070 black box and the 1106 tan box, at least up to 5th level). Well, maybe it's not strange exactly, since it was obvious that by the time GAZ1 came out, the writers working on the basic D&D game did not like level titles and wanted to remove them (and as far as the Mystara setting was, the text of the gazetteers largely invalidated them).

But I like them and use them (though often in abbreviated form, say, changing a character's level title once at 4th and then again at 8th or 9th), and I thought that I might as well get around to putting them back in both my ongoing campaign and my personal rules.

I've written up a version of the monk and psychic classes that I'm using in my local Barrowmaze campaign that has level titles—yes, I've gone and added a psionic class to my basic D&D game, purely out of nostalgia for the way I played 2nd edition back in high school.

As I work through revising Engines & Empires, I've also decided to put level titles back there too. For each of the classes that are going to appear, here's what I'm thinking so far (NB, I'm re-naming the expert class to "ace" in the new edition to make the class sound more roguish and adventurous):

Fighter: Veteran, Swordsman, Duelist, Hero, Swashbuckler, Knight, Champion, Superhero, Paladin.
Ace: Apprentice, Journeyman, Tradesman, Expert, Specialist, Agent, Operative, Professional, Maverick.
Scholar: Collegiate, Baccalaureate, Master, Doctor, Fellow, Professor, Emeritus, Philosopher, Sage.
Mage: Medium, Seer, Conjurer, Magician, Enchanter, Warlock, Sorcerer, Archmage, Wizard.
Tech: Tinker, Wright, Craftsman, Machinist, Mechanic, Technician, Technologist, Engineer, Chief Engineer.

As I go through the rules, I find myself cleaning up a lot of stuff that didn't work quite right, and just plain putting a lot of stuff "back to the way it was" in the B/E editions. It's subtle in a lot of cases, but… ah, well, you'll see soon enough. Like, nixing critical hits, or putting prime requisite XP bonuses back in the game. It's just these little things that make D&D feel like D&D again.

Warm fuzzy feeling inside. You know what I mean.

Crap… this, uh, this blog post just sort of fizzled out like Strong Bad E-Mail #15.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Gaming today, and so very excited

After a couple of weeks of interruptions, in part due to my own burdensome schedule, and in part due to an over-crowded comic-book shop two weeks in a row (first from a card set release, then because of New Comic Book day), my D&D group's last regular meeting was April 20th. We squeezed in a short session, with only half the players able to make it, and at a different venue than we're used to, on May the 4th; but it really does feel like I haven't gamed in a month. Probably because I did at least a month's worth of schoolwork in the last week of the semester, and I've forgotten what fun is like.

Anyway, after many trials and tribulations on the high seas, and a second dead PC the last time we played, I expect that the party will at last reach the Isle of Dread today. And have I put the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan somewhere on the isle? You bet your sweet bippy I have.

It'll also be the first time gaming with a pile of new equipment: custom .75" grid battle-mat, a new hand-made DM screen, some numbered checkers to serve as monster tokens, and a snap-together felt-and-leather dice-tray (it is so choice; if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up).


Yeah, baby. I'm psyched for this.

Red, blue, green, black, and gold panels,
for each box in the BECMI series.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

I've got Fighters and Rogues on my mind

It's the last weekend of my semester. I'm scrambling even more than usual to get all of my work in on time. I could maybe write about that.

My last D&D session involved fewer than half the usual number of players showing up, and indulging their maximum murderhobo instincts, with severe consequences. I'd also really like to write about that.

But for some reason, my thoughts keep getting drawn to the fighter and rogue classes, and the ways that I've implemented them in past and present campaigns.

In my Barrowmaze campaign, I've tried to go against my tinkering instincts and implement as few house rules as possible, to keep D&D as close to by-the-book D&D as I can. Where there are differing interpretations (say, between the Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer Basic Sets and the Rules Cyclopedia), I've tried to stick with either the most frequently occurring, or the latest and most up-to-date version of the rule that doesn't appear to be a grave mistake or inadvertent typo. So the Rules Cyclopedia mostly has precedent over the boxed sets, except where it seems pretty clear that the boxed set rules make more sense.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Yes. Oh, very yes.

As of last week's game session, the party had been exploring Mystara's Sea of Dread in search of the storied Isle of Dread, when the player characters had stumbled upon a random island which happened to be home to the infamous White Plume Mountain. By the time the session had ended, the PCs had explored about two-thirds of the small dungeon and claimed Wave and Whelm for their own; our evening came to a close with the slaughter of all the monsters in the "inverted ziggurat" that guards Blackrazor.

But this post isn't about that. This post is about something I received in the mail.

* * *

So, being an obsessive with no real self-control, I went ahead and bit the bullet on my battle-mat redesign (say that five times quickly), and I have to say… oh, sweet hot mama, yes.


The grid looks perfect. The thicker vinyl feels far, far sturdier and nigh-indistinguishable from a commercially-produced battle-mat. The woven texture reminds me of the older battle-mats, before Chessex's design was ubiquitous, which is a total nostalgia-trip. The light-gray grid-lines against the white-marble background let any color of marker show up, and this particular vinyl even works with every kind of wet-erase marker I've thrown at it, including Crayolas. (Turns out, you can buy black Crayola Washables in bulk on Amazon; so I don't think I have to worry about finding decent markers in the future.)

After I was kind of disappointed by the mat that I received from bannersonthecheap.com (again, half of it my fault, because I didn't think the color-scheme through very carefully; half of it theirs because of the flimsy vinyl and heat-crimped edge-hemming), I went looking around for a company that would print on heavier vinyl (18 oz instead of 13 oz) and had an option to leave the edges clean-cut and un-crimped.  I went with printastic.com more or less at random, and I'm kind of blown away by the results.

So the bottom line is this: bannersonthecheap.com is, indeed, cheap. I would only recommend them for poster-maps that you're only going to pull out occasionally, such as a single specific dungeon, or perhaps as a backdrop for a specific wargame or scenario. In that case, the low price makes them a good go-to. Printastic.com (or anywhere else with similar options, although I can't vouch for other banner-printing websites) is a fantastic choice for a more permanent, repeat-use mat. If you need something custom, like colors or grid-sizes that you won't find from Chessex or Crystal Caste or any of the many, many newer sorts of battle-mats and -boards that you can find floating around on Amazon and Ebay, printing your own is definitely the way to go. And I could not be happier with how this one turned out.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

First attempt at a custom print battle mat

My new battle-mat arrived from bannersonthecheap.com yesterday; I have to give it a solidly mixed review. Part of it is my fault; the grid I designed was composed of overlapping light gray and dark gray lines, set on top of a crinkly parchment background (one of the defaults in GIMP 2); and while the thin light gray lines just barely show up, the thick dark gray lines look almost black. This makes it very difficult to draw visible rooms with any color of marker, even black, over the grid that I wound up using. So, lesson #1 learned: next time I try this, use only light gray for the grid-lines, and don't use a background color that contrasts quite so much.

Testing markers on the vinyl, incidentally, has also met with some mixed results. "Expo Vis a Vis" overhead projector markers work fine (for the most part), whereas Crayola washable markers just bead up and don't form a line (in just exactly the same way that RoseArt and any cheap off-brand washable markers will when used on a Chessex mat; and of course those behave this way on this mat as well). On top of that, while black and green overhead markers wipe off just fine, blue stains and red stains badly. Lesson #2: only use black and green overhead projector markers when drawing directly onto a custom-printed vinyl battle-mat. (Not that I'll be doing this very much; clear plastic and dry erase markers make the whole affair that much more convenient!)