Thursday, May 19, 2022

I finally found it!

I finally found a copy of The Haunted Tower! So now I have all three of the original full-sized "adventure packs" that were meant for use with the D&D black box!!!

Of course, there's still technically a fifth game in this line — the introductory Dragon Quest game, which plays more like HeroQuest than actual D&D — right down to a board full of doorless rooms that aren't all used during a single quest:

I'd like to find that sometime, if only to have an alternative board available for making up my own HeroQuest adventures (because hellz yeah).

Focusing back on 90s D&D, though, my acquisition of The Haunted Tower means that I can now turn my attention to the Challenger Series adventure modules, of which I presently own only one entry, the execrably railroady In the Phantom's Wake (the others being Thunder Rift, Quest for the Silver Sword, the very fun Assault on Raven's Ruin, Sword and Shield, The Knight of Newts, Rage of the Rakasta, and the ultra-rare but also decidedly not worth collecting The Jade Hare).

Most of these actually seem easy enough to find on Ebay without being unreasonably overpriced. This isn't surprising, since I doubt they're in terribly high demand; I reckon that there aren't too terribly many old-school gamers out there who have more nostalgia for these adventures than for the classic B- and X-series modules. But, hey, that just means I'll have any easier time of it, getting my hands on them! ∎

Sunday, May 8, 2022

More Paper Minis

So in the last few days, I've been sort of head over heels in love with the notion of fulfilling all of my tabletop miniatures needs with simple folded paper mins. They don't have all of the visual appeal of real minifigs, and they don't have the flexibility of faceless checkers and chessmen, but my goodness, are they certainly cheap to make, easy to assemble, and perfectly functional. 

Just as a simple proof of concept, I cut out a blank of what appeared to be the easiest template to work with that I could find online, and to my astonishment—even though I was only using 20 lb. copy paper—the proofs held together without glue. Just a bit of folding, and bam, instant minis.

For scale, the wizard's base is a ¾" octagon, roughly the size of a penny or a bingo chip.
The ogre's base is twice that diameter, 1½", or about the size of a poker chip. 

They're ugly as sin, but they're the kind of thing you could quite literally fold together on the spot, mid adventure, if you really needed to.

So, taking this idea and running with it, I both printed off some sheets of old TSR paper minis and designed a few of my own (just to shore up some missing mini types that I needed—more kobolds and skeletons, and one huge spider). This is still in the "proof of concept" stage, but here are the results:

The three homemade minis on the right are laser-printed on coated 65 lb. cardstock.

On the far left is an actual tri-fold TSR mini of a skeleton (from the tan box—the Classic D&D Game). Center is the same art, but glued together to make a more vertical pawn; and, right, a similar design using the art from the 2e Monstrous Manual (thank you, Core Rules 2.0 CD-ROM!), both mounted on bingo chips for bases. The huge black widow in the back rank is mounted on a poker chip and uses the battle sprite from the PSP version of Final Fantasy.

This is nothing I'll ever distribute, of course, because I'm poaching art from wherever I can grab it online; but it's just such a quick and easy way to make minis that I doubt I'll ever bother with the 3d variety ever again. These things are even a cinch to store (in old game boxes, tackleboxes, or art trays)! ∎

Spooky, scary skeletons!

Monday, May 2, 2022

Paper Minis

Probably the polar opposite of my previous blog post.

It occurred to me recently that I have sheets and sheets of these 90s TSR fold-over paper stand-up minis, which I've never punched out and assembled. (I don't have the whole lineup — just the '91 black box, the '96 rerelease of the Classic set, and the Dragon's Den and Goblin's Lair boxes; I'm missing Haunted Tower and the module-sized Character & Monster Assortment.) Mounted on bingo-chip bases with a drop of glue, they're actually stable enough to use! It's just a tedious process, folding and mounting all of them… but, hey, it's easier than painting minis. ∎


Sunday, May 1, 2022

Gemstone Dice


Jasper d20, bloodstone and lapis lazuli d6s,and tiger's eye d8.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Alignment. I get it now.

For many years now, I've run my D&D games without including alignment as a game mechanic. I left it out of Engines & Empires almost completely, and I have often praised Chris Gonnerman's Basic Fantasy RPG for retro-cloning D&D Basic but dropping alignment.

My dislike of alignment stems from the way that all modern versions of D&D (particularly from AD&D 2nd Edition forward) have interpreted alignment, and the way most players use (or misuse or abuse) alignment. That is, they treat alignment as a guide to their character's personal morality, or ethos, or psychology, or even their personality. It is akin to my general dislike of fantasy campaigns that have too many demihuman PCs in them: how often have you seen a player running an elf PC whose personality amounts to, "I'm an elf"? How many times have you seen a player running a dwarf PC whose personality is defined by a bad Scottish accent and all the usual dwarf stereotypes? 

Likewise, how often have you seen a Lawful PC whose one-note personality amounts to self-righteous dickery, or a Chaotic PC whose player clearly thinks that being random and cuh-ray-zy! is a decent substitute for depth?

(This is not, I should stress, anything to do with performative play-acting at the game table. It has everything to do with role-playing in the proper sense of the term, i.e. players running their PCs in accordance with their role — their job — during an adventure.)

In other words, I hate the modern interpretation of alignment as having anything to do with character behavior, particularly when it comes to "Lawful" and "Chaotic" being respectively interpreted as "upright" and "unpredictable." And while the orthodox OSR claims to have a remedy for this — "Just tell players that alignments are factions! Once the players understand that alignment comes from Chainmail, they'll get it." — in my experience, this simply doesn't work. The vast majority of D&D players do not give two shits about Chainmail, and even if you make it clear as day to all of your players that Law and Chaos are two grand, cosmic "sides" in an eternal war, that never dissuades players from treating them as personality types that they can — indeed, ought — to play up in the hammiest fashion they can muster.

And so, I have quietly left alignment by the wayside, and I have left the otherwise ubiquitous "Alignment: ___" field off of all my character sheets, and I have continued gaming in quiet contentment.

But… I think that I have been wrong to do so. And it comes from yet another off-handed comment overheard on a YouTube video. Notably, this recent reading of Men & Magic by Justin Alexander:

(Discussion of alignment starts at 1:11:17.)

As a rule, I'm not fond of these sorts of read-along videos. They usually just frustrate me, because I've already read these texts before, and I don't usually agree with the reader's interpretations and other color commentary. But I decided to listen to this one, just in case I might learn something new, and in fact I did. Justin actually discusses how alignment got into the D&D game in the first place — how Dave Arneson's Blackmoor players actually wound up segregating themselves into "Team Good" and "Team Evil," and how Gary Gygax decided to make things a little more nuanced and literary (and closer to Poul Anderson and especially Michael Moorcock) by changing the opposed poles to Law and Chaos for his Greyhawk campaign (before eventually including both axes in AD&D).

This is another epiphany moment, akin to hearing the old grognards in Gary Gygax's gaming circles discuss how they always had a stable of five or six PCs going at a time, and finally figuring out how 1:1 game-time is meant to work. As is typically the case, when presented with a murky or confusing game mechanic, the route to understanding it comes from peeling away the layers of misinterpretation and misuse and abuse and corruption heaped upon it by forty years of trad-style campaigns (i.e. small, fixed groups of players play-acting their small, fixed groups of PCs through the DM's plotlines) and instead reading the text in the context of a truly old-school campaign — not the superficial OSR interpretation of the old-school, mind, but one that contextualizes everything we can possibly know and have so far discovered about how Gygax &al. actually played in the mid-70s.

(Whole swaths of the RPG hobby, perhaps most especially those segments of the OSR that want nothing to do with AD&D or Gygaxian play, are presently scoffing at the recently-emerged BrOSR wing of by-the-book AD&D players. Say what you will about their bombast and their risible elitism, but at least they're actually playing the game in a manner that I'd call more properly contextualized than the last fifteen-plus years of "rulings, not rules" type OSR gaming.)

Alignments are factions. But more importantly, alignments are factions of player characters (and maybe of players too). This is what makes it all make sense. Alignment-as-personality (or morality or ethos) doesn't work and never has — it's shallow and annoying, and it always has been. Alignment-as-faction is better, but if we're only talking about "grand, cosmic" factions, or factions of NPCs that player characters can opt to join or ignore, it's not really all that much better. Indeed, if the players aren't separating themselves out into factions based on their differing goals and ideals (which is entirely understandable if the campaign has too few players for such a thing to happen naturally), then there are really only two alignments in the game that can possibly matter — "the PCs" and "the DM." It becomes a game of all the players vs. the world. Adversarial, but perhaps also the platonic form of a West Marches campaign, where the players would indeed be wise to always pool all of their knowledge and resources, so that they can best meet whatever challenges exist in the DM's world.

Alignment throws a wrinkle into that picture. It creates teams. If you only use Law and Chaos, or Good and Evil, there are two major teams competing to get that dungeon treasure first. If you use both, there are four poles, four teams — and at any given moment, the team you're on is fundamentally opposed to one of the other times, but could be a temporary ally or enemy to either of the other two. And all the while, the unaligned — Neutrals — can stand on their own or move between the teams, unconcerned with the machinations of the Grand Game. What wonderful complexity this suggests! What tremendous opportunities for interesting gameplay this opens up!

Once again, the picture gets a little bit clearer. Another piece of the puzzle falls into place. It starts with the OSR — XP for GP, "mega"-dungeons, sandboxes, hex-crawls — and then it goes beyond — open tables, PC stables, blorb, the persistent milieu, 1:1 time… and alignment not as cosmic factions, but as something very grounded and tangible and relatable. Player teams. I see it now, and I like what I see. ∎

Monday, February 21, 2022

HeroQuest, Ghostbusters, and a D&D Synthesis

So I finally pulled the trigger on a HeroQuest set, and I'm super excited to give it a try later this week! You see, I've never actually played HeroQuest, even though I've been aware of it for a long time indeed. I knew of the game, but I never had a set as a kid, and neither did any of my friends, so it's always been admiration from afar. (Or over a dial-up connection, as the case may be. Back in the 90s, I used to frequent Ye Olde Inn and print off their fan-made HQ tiles on my dad's crummy old inkjet printer for use with black box D&D and 2e AD&D games.) 

One of the reasons I'm most excited? HQ is almost certainly one of the key inspirations behind the Sega Genesis Shining Force titles, and I want to see it in action on the tabletop before I dive back into designing my own skirmish game, Shining Armour. I suspect that I'll find plenty of inspiration in its mechanics, and it may even help me to solve some game-design dilemmas that I've had trouble working through.

* * * 

Another couple of recent acquisitions that have me excited: I lately obtained a print copy of Spooktacular, a delightful retro-clone of the WEG Ghostbusters RPG, and in order to use it properly, I decided that I needed some official Spooktacular "spooky dice", which serve as the game's d6 System "wild dice" — as well as some suitably ectoplasmic-looking regular d6s to roll alongside them (Chessex "neon green" proved an excellent candidate for that).

Then, after also getting my hands on a copy of the Ghostbusters board game, I discovered (much to my surprise and delight) that the dice contained therein were replicas of the WEG wild dice for use with Ghostbusters. So now I'm spoiled for choice when it comes to dice aesthetics if I should ever find the time to run a Ghostbusters TTRPG.

* * *

Next, a major left-turn in the way I've approached D&D for the past, uh, very many of years. I have practically always treated OD&D and AD&D as two different games. This has been a longstanding habit, ever since I first started playing RPGs. But, after my last tabletop campaign came to an end, I experienced something of a personal crisis with respect to that philosophy. I missed parts of AD&D, but not enough to want to switch over to that system for a campaign of any respectable length. I certainly didn't want to abandon OD&D for its more complex counterpart. So the only option available to me, I came to realize, was to finally get over that strict delineation and simply do what gamers have always done, take the pieces of AD&D that I like, and kitbash them into my OD&D house rules. 

To that end, I've quit maintaining two separate house rules documents for OD&D and AD&D. Now there's just a single D&D document on this blog's sidebar, and it represents a much more radical departure from the core of both OD&D and AD&D in a couple of important ways:
• The class system is completely restructured. It retains elements of both BECMI and AD&D. There are four basic classes (fighter, mage, cleric, thief); five "prestige" classes (paladin, avenger, bard, druid, assassin); five optional classes (monk, psionicist, artificer, ranger, minstrel); and five demihuman classes (elf, dwarf, hobbit, gnome, orc).
• The level scaling is drastically reined in compared to either game. Human characters can reach a maximum of 18th level; demihumans, 12th or 13th level. In either case, experience point requirements to reach levels above name level are no longer strictly linear, so it still takes millions of XP to max out any class — the fastest of which is the hobbit, which reaches 12th level at exactly 2,000,000 XP, whereas the slowest class to reach top level is the ranger, needing 6,080,000 XP to reach 18th level. (Rangers are still woodsmen and monster-hunters in this rendition, but their primary function is to serve as "gish"-types, combination fighter/mages which are something of a human counterpoint to elves.) For comparison, thieves max out at 2.8 million XP; clerics at 3.2 million; fighters at 4 million; mages at 4.8 million; and monks at 5.6 million.
• The decision of which classes to keep or add has been based on a desire to "cover all the bases," so to speak, with respect to including all of the traditional D&D and AD&D archetypes. To that end, practically every major character type from every edition now has at least some mechanical representation that I can point to for my campaigns. That's… very different from the way I've treated D&D for the past decade and a half, and it's honestly kind of a relief to have true "sub-classes" back in play. I've missed them.

* * *

Finally, I just want to speak briefly on a cool critical hit rule I heard about recently. 

I haven't used critical hits at all in the last several campaigns I've run (going back to my Barrowmaze game from some four years back). Gary Gygax was against critical hits, believing that they made D&D combat too swingy and unpredictable, lessening the ability of players to make sound, informed judgements concerning when to retreat vs. when to press on. Having played without crits, I find that I agree — Gary was right. (Loath as I am to admit it, Gary was often right.) 

Still, that expectant look in players' eyes when they roll a natural 20 (or a natural 1, as the case may be — at my table, one rolls under a target number on the d20 to score a hit or make a saving throw), followed by the subtle note of disappointment and disapproval in their voice when they learn that I don't have critical hits or critical fumbles in my campaign… it's galling. 

I can do one of two things here. I can stick to my guns; or I can pull a bit of mathematical sleight-of-hand and fool players into thinking that an aced attack roll is something spectacular. And the way to do it is easy enough: just let damage dice explode on a natural ace. When the d20 turns up a 1 and the hit is automatic, let the player roll damage, and keep re-rolling and adding if they roll maximum damage. The possibility of considerably high damage exists… but it's remote. In fact, the actual result of exploding damage dice for any die of d4 or larger is an expected less than +1 point of extra damage.

And if you use corrected exploding dice — where each time the die explodes, you subtract 1 from the total before re-rolling and adding, so that for a die of size dN, multiples of N are still possible results — then the expected extra damage for any die, even a d2 or a d3, is just +½ hp of extra damage exactly. It's practically the same thing as flipping a coin and adding either +0 or +1 to the damage roll on a critical hit, but the perception of it — because of the vanishingly remote possibility of racking up die after exploding die — will be that the impact is even greater than maximum damage or double damage on a crit. When the truth is that there's almost no impact on the game system at all.

I've detailed this critical hit rule in my house-rules document as well, though it's clearly marked therein as "optional." I expect that the next time I run D&D, I'll be giving it a try, and I also expect that whoever I'm playing with will absolutely love the idea. Even in spite of the fact — or maybe because of the fact — that I'll be sure to take a shortcut with monsters and just have the PCs' opponents inflict +1 extra point of damage 50% of the time when they crit. Same difference. ∎

Friday, January 7, 2022

I don't want to neglect my blog, but…

…all that pesky "adulting" keeps getting in the way of doing what I'd prefer to be doing all the time, namely writing and game-design. I have a heap of subjects that I want to write about, and oh so little time to squeeze in any posts.

Apart from game-related subjects, the topic foremost on my mind is the recent film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife. When I have a spare moment, I need to devote an entire post to that movie, because… well, as someone who was born in 1984 (the same year that the original Ghostbusters was released), I grew up with The Real Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II. I was one of those child-of-the-80s "fanboys" for whom Ghostbusters was utterly formative, precisely the sort of fan for whom (so everybody keeps saying) Afterlife was made… and I just need to talk about that soon.

But right now? Right now, I'm taking a surreptitious break at work to dash off a quick "hey, I've just remembered that I have a blog, and I need to promise myself that I'll keep writing for it!" post. And it just so happens that I have the perfect, fluffy little subject to address quickly.

I love my new dice. 

I finally got my set of "OSR Full Monte" dice in the mail from Threshold Diceworks, and they are fantastic. This, in spite of the fact that I came into the hobby in the 90s, and therefore all of my personal "dice nostalgia" is directed at Chessex and Koplow and Gamescience dice from that time. I never had a Mentzer or Moldvay Basic Set growing up, never mind the Holmes Basic Set that inspired these dice. I never had dice that looked anything like these. But they're just so… beautiful. Simple. Functional. Iconic.

When I was growing up, the dice that came in every TSR set were Chessex make—the orange d20, yellow d12, a pair of black and white d10s, a blue d8, a red d6, and a green d4. WotC would later put a similar set (a Koplow design) in their boxes, switching the dice from black to white ink and slightly redoing the color scheme, to orange d20, yellow d12, purple d%, green d10, blue d8, red d6, and black d4. But the ancestor of those rainbow-colored "official" D&D dice sets? That's the Holmes dice, of which the above are a replica. White and pink d20s, sky-blue d12, green d8, orange-red d6, and yellow d4.

And they're perfect (not least because they predate the "Deckaider" d10 and therefore keep the whole set to platonic solids)! Just for the sake of rounding out the set, of course, I have added one non-platonic shape to the mix—a purple d14, because it's handy to have one of those for when you want to generate a random day of the week or number 1–7 without having to re-roll your d8—as well as a couple of extra d6s. More d6s are a must when refereeing a game, because in a typical session, you're constantly rolling 2d6—morale checks, reaction rolls, initiative, surprise—and in those latter two cases, the d6s need to be differentiated somehow, to compare the rolls. In my case, I took a couple of vintage Bakelite casino-style dice with the "birdseye" or "target" pips, and colored one set of pips in with red ink. (The red-pipped die always represents the monsters when I roll for initiative or check for surprise.) 

And, of course, the set now has 3d6 in total for the sake of generating character ability scores, even though that's not something I find myself doing terribly frequently at the table when I'm actually running games.

One thing I've found that I really like, though, is having a pair of old-fashioned "0–9" d20s to serve simultaneously as d20s, d10s, and percentile dice. It keeps the set sleek and trim; the dice are versatile; and when you use them for percentiles, the pair of d20s just has a pleasing heft in the hand. (Plus, the d20 inked in two colors just plain looks a lot cooler in person than I ever thought it would.) 

I've only had the chance to actually use these dice twice since their arrival, but I think I'm also going to need to write an entire post dedicated to their more recent application. You see, the first time I used them was during a session of the regular weekend campaign I'm running now (yet another outing for my longtime favorite and mainstay, the Shade Isle hex-crawl and its Shade Abbey mega-dungeon). The second was for a quick one-shot that I ran for a couple of friends, which also served to playtest a set of rules for Basic D&D that completely lack ability scores, character classes, or any process of character creation—and it was both an awesome game and a resounding success of a test. So, more on that very soon. 

Right now, my gaming projects are still taking priority over my writing projects, with my revised skirmish game (Shining Armour) still sitting at the top of the docket, followed by my mega-dungeons (The Fiendish Temple and Shade Abbey). But it's also occurring to me lately that my recent enthusiasm for adapting the OD&D rules to non-medieval settings should perhaps be driving me to dash off a few hacks for running games set in the nostalgic properties of my youth that I've always wanted to have RPGs for—stuff like Super Mario Bros. and, indeed, The Real Ghosbusters—which certainly already have plenty of tabletop adaptations already, but not D&D-compatible adaptations. I personally happen to believe (contra the Forge and its storygaming acolytes) that System Doesn't Matter All That Much™, and I'm starting to think here that maybe the best way to prove my thesis would be to write a serviceable Ghostbusters RPG that didn't go about the matter by cloning any of the much-beloved "Frightfully Cheerful," proto-d6 rules from 1986. But that'll have to wait for a time when I have… uh, time. ∎