Friday, March 30, 2012

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - First Impressions

I have finally purchased for myself the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. Basically, the upcoming (and also delayed) reprint got me excited. Except that WoTC ruined my favorite game (in my ever so humble opinion). The thought of their abominable logo on my precious RPG books just irked me. So I got online and picked up the books I wanted.

Of course I have played AD&D before - 2nd Edition. I played a LOT of 2nd edition. A function of when I was born. I looked at those older guys who held on to the first edition as bizarre and unfathomable. "Why would you keep playing with your ancient books when you could have nice shiny new ones? It's the same game (just better!) dummies. This is IMPROVED."

My descent into the OSR was fueled by a desire to go back to 2ed. Of course when I started looking around I found out that nobody plays 2ed. So I bought a copy of the Rules Cyclopedia - which I fell in love with. Then some retroclones, which I also adore (and feel less worried about using during play - I refuse to treat my collected books as collectables, I bought them to play with and I'll be damned if I don't, but it is another thing to pass them around the table while everyone is drinking soda and eating salsa).

So now here I am, about to turn 30, and I am holding the AD&D books for the first time, reading the tiny font and inscrutable tables (all set in bizarrely huge margins) for the first time. Now, after a too-lengthy introduction, my first impressions:

Layout: while I find the look and feel appealing in some masochistic, DIY sort of way, I have to think that the corporate hivemind of TSR had to feel that the layout and presentation alone merited a 2nd edition. Not only is the font tiny and are the margins huge but there are tables in Players Handbook that make zero sense without reference to the Dungeon Masters Guide. This of course is explained by Gary Gygax because these books are intended to be a compilation of the D&D rules. The assumed audience in terms of layout is people who are already playing. That being said, there is tons and tons of play advice. There is much more about what the game should look like than in any of the 2ed materials. This is very much in line with the gradual shift from swords & sorcery to heroic fantasy. 1ed explains that adventurers spend much of the term in underground mazes because they are much safer than adventuring in the wilderness. Before beginning my career as a 2ed DM at age 10, I had played exactly once as a player. So I basically learned the craft from the 2ed DMG as well as Dragon, and Dungeon. I ran a lot of outdoor adventures. 2ed takes a "adventure everywhere" kind of tone. My early perception of the game would have been very different if I had started with these books.

At this point I really have only read the Players Handbook and it has only be a quick read so I will have to continue my comments in another post. However my first impression can really be boiled down to this:

While 2ed was a much more polished and well thought out game, it is obvious in retrospect that it also had a very different about idea what the game was about. While mechanically it is largely compatible with the first edition of AD&D than it is third, it is more spiritually aligned with the latter's vision of heroic fantasy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Parallels in video game RPGs

Haven't posted in a while due to some unfortunate events on the home front but we are back!

It seems that video games are sometimes a taboo subject among RPG players - that tabletop games are "serious" and video games are not. I am at peace with saying I enjoy both. I just started playing the latest Wizardry game available in the US - The Labyrinth of Lost Souls which was largely panned in the professional video game review world as being antiquated, boring, and unplayable. Basically, why play this when you can play the infinitely more awesome Skyrim? Or if you insist on playing something challenge, at least go with Dark Souls (I realize that I am playing a little fast and loose with release dates here, but you get my drift). You know, something modern.

Upon actually starting to play Wizardry: TLoLS you find that if you happen to have grown up in the era of games like Ultima, Dragon Warrior, or the old Wizardry games, this game is both familiar and fun. Like with pen and paper games, video game RPGs seem to have added a lot of modern features - see the entire genre of action RPGs - but leave you with basically the same game with a lot of window dressing. The game may be "real time" instead of turn based, and it may rely more on muscle memory, but good video game RPGs rely on a lot of the same things as traditional D&D: game knowledge, good planning, good spot decision making. This is true of high quality games of both the old and the new school. Games like Skyrim just dress it up a whole lot and give beginning players who aren't interested in learning the nuances a lot more assistance. Dark Souls is all the window dressing with none of the help.

This is basically the same as how I feel about modern D&D. Feats, skills, grid based combat - all of this is just a distraction from the core game you are actually playing. Modern combat and skill resolution (the most important mechanical distinctions from traditional D&D) don't actually change anything if you ask me. You roll to hit, you roll for damage, you cast a spell, you roll to jump the pit. The core things all work in pretty much the same way when you boil it down. The calculations have just gotten more complex. Some people think those calculations are the game. I happen to think the game is what happens in between the calculations.

The similarities don't end there though. In Skyrim, you wade through endless bits of tedious dialogue interesting only to the writers to get to the actual game (Paizo modules?) and then go out and play what is basically a pretty traditional RPG game with a lot of help for new players, robust auto-mapping, way-point markers, quest logs, autosaving. Not to mention the assumption that the characters are singled out for a special destiny and quickly rise to levels of tremendous power. That whole thing.

Wizardry isn't like that. You are plopped into a town with no guidance as to how anything works and with a minimal bit of explanation about the dungeon. If you head into the dungeon without hiring a robust complement of retainers you will die to the first kobold run into. Even if you hire 5 retainers you will probably die to the first group of goblins you run into. Through trial and error you learn things. You die a lot. You figure out how to make a map of the dungeon. You realize that you really need both a bishop and a cleric in your party but after that it is up to you. The game makes you think about the game instead of just loading every time you die (I guess that is technically possible, but it is not how the game is intended to be played, death is pretty forgiving). Seems an awful lot like traditional D&D.

For the record, I think Skyrim is fun, I think Pathfinder is fun. There is just a lot about them that is included in them that I think adds nothing, and often detracts from the core things that are fun about them.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The True Nature of the Planes

What you have been told about the planes is wrong. Folktales, mysticism.

The truth is that the planes are like a tower. At the peak is the realm of absolute law and in the deepest dungeon absolute chaos. Good and evil are human projections of their own base desires. The pole of law radiates positive energy and the pole of chaos radiates negative energy and there is an endless current between the two poles. Picture a magnet. The human world sits roughly equidistant between the two poles. I say roughly because its exact position shifts and fluctuates with the energy currents. Sometimes it drifts "up" towards the pole of law and empires are built, great works done, and the people are oppressed. Sometimes it shifts "down" and empires crumble, wars are fought, and the people starve. The orientation of law as up and chaos as down is literal. While one cannot travel between the planes by merely traveling up or down the plane is shaped by its poles. Down, into the earth you find that the world is rotten, eaten by the forces of chaos. Up you find the ancient and terrible powers of law.

The planes are like a tower, but they are also like an ocean. Each level of the tower is distinct and drifting and on each level there are many islands, many realms, separate from each other. These places are what are often thought of as the varied material planes, and the outer planes. One can travel between these realms only by crossing through the emptiness between them. Unspeakable dangers await those that would step out into the currents. This place is what is commonly called the astral plane or the dreaming but its true conception is beyond imagining. The varied elemental planes are also mere aspects of this hinterland, with no true reality of their own.

Magic is done in the world by harnessing the energy of the poles. "Divine" magic is accomplished by direct tapping of one of the pole's energy (often with the assistance of an entity), "arcane" magic is the manipulation of the currents themselves. Both are dangerous and risk attracting the attention of the entities and old powers that dwell in other realms.

I started thinking about the planes because of the reimagining of Planescape that Scrap Princess is doing and because I am reading The Wizard by Gene Wolfe.

Dwimmermount Session

I had the opportunity to playtest Dwimmermount with James M. last night. Needless to say I was excited. I neither like reading nor writing play reports as they usually are seen: careful blow by blows of what the characters did. These for me never capture the spirit of the game and are often tedious (to write and to read). Instead I will do what I usually do and ramble on aimlessly talking about this and that until I feel done.

Leaving Dwimmermount itself aside for a minute, last night's session was excellent - everything I want out of D&D. I got to play with an excellent DM and two wonderful players and we had a great time. This was the second time I have played over G+ (the first was with Il Male) and it has been a positive experience both times. While we do have to wrestle with technology a bit and it is not quite equivalent to the over-the-table experience there is no replacement for playing D&D with like-minded people. For those of us who do not live in big cities or are otherwise lucky, finding OSR players can be a real challenge.

On to the game itself. We were exploring the second level of Dwimmermount with second level characters rolled up on the spot. Character creation took maybe 10 minutes, I played a magic-user with a pretty miserable stat line, but I rolled pretty well for hit points and James let us take maximum for first level. James rolled random spells for me - something I always used to do, so that was nice. I ended up with read magic, light, charm person, and magic missile. I memorize charm person (because it is awesome) and magic missile just in case. The other players decided to play a dwarf and a fighter, and in we went.

Cool stuff that we found:
  •  A circular room with unexplained hooks in the walls.
  • Weird mosaics.
  • A large table that we spent some time examining.
  • Some sort of phosphorescent moss.
  • A whole lot of orcs - some of which had suspiciously good equipment (that we relieved them of) and finely crafted amulets (which we also took).
Cool stuff that we did:
  • Killed a bunch of orcs.
  • Ambushed more orcs.
  • Cast charm person on the orc chieftain and then killed him.
  • Listened at a lot of doors.
  • Examined stuff.
  • Watched our backs.
  • Explored and mapped.
  • Proved that yes, the magic-user with a penalty in both dexterity and constitution should pull out his dagger and wade into melee because he is awesome like that.
Basically it was D&D at its best.

Final thought: it is hard to separate the experience of the dungeon from the DM, but Dwimmermount managed to feel both organic and mysterious - exactly what a good dungeon should be.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In defense of halflings

I have read a fair amount of deprecation of the halfling here and there in the D&D world (some games even pretend that halflings do not exist!) and it is time to put the myths to rest. The image of the halfling as soft and bumbling is a poisonous lie spread by the nefarious J.R.R. Tolkien and it has been taken up in the fantasy roleplaying community. The truth of halflings is much darker, mysterious, and interesting.

Halflings, like their taller and weaker cousins the humans, are highly adaptable and live in a wide variety of terrains. Halflings, being slightly smaller, can survive in more extreme climes than humans can. Halflings can be found in deep jungles (the ferocious pygmy warriors and lizard-riders of legend), deep mountain retreats (the infamous spelunker assassins often hired by dwarves to assail their enemies), and in wild-wood fastnesses (wolfriders and tree-crawlers feared by orc and elf alike). Sometimes, they can even be found in towns or among adventurers working as heavily armored sellswords or living on the margins of human society.

Most halflings do not dwell in holes or live lives of quiet gluttony.

Halflings are in league with all manner of fae creatures and ally with them in times of need. While they rarely traffic in "arcane" or "divine" human magic, halflings will often be encountered armed with mysterious faerie witchcraft and charms.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Pathfinder Frustration

We had a frustrating game session. Some of my group seems to be stuck in the "if we see it, we must be able to kill it" mentality of later D&D. This led to disaster. After trouncing everything they had seen so far they ran into a large earth elemental. I tried to give as much warning as possible and had constructed things such that fleeing was very possible. They didn't. While it is possible they could have killed it with some sustained luck they were pretty out matched. Only one survived.

Now a near-TPK in old-school D&D is normal, expected, and easily remedied it comes as a bit of a shock to 3e players who expect to win every fight. Also it takes forever to make characters. SO half the session was spent making new characters. One player failed to even come up with a character concept.

Solution: I am suggesting to players to make at least one backup character. Additionally, I am going to make a pool of backup characters to draw upon. I do not want to have to sit and watch four out of five people agonizing over character options again any time soon.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Horrid Corpse

Horrid Corpse

Wandering dungeons mindlessly, these putrescent undead are the result of the hideous magic of the Polluted Jailer.  Swarming flies and a nauseating stench mark their presence. While their bodies are rotten and easily broken, those who encounter them often contract their horrific disease.

HD 3, AC 9 [10], Attack, slam for 1d4 + disease (see below), Move 15', Save 14, undead, xp 240
Anyone within 20 feet is subject to the effects of a stinking cloud.

After being struck save vs. disease or lose 1 constitution and charisma per day until cured. Can only be cured by magical means.

Note about xp:

I calculated experience (and saves) using Swords & Wizardry. Interestingly, using Labyrinth Lord the same creature is worth 80xp.

I then went to calculate xp value for Pathfinder, since that is what I am going to use it in first. Pathfinder gives me no guidance. Their monster creation rules start with you determining CR, and then deriving other things from that. Ugh. So . . . I'm not sure what killing one of these bad boys should give you in Pathfinder. Any thoughts?

The Special Problem of Knowledge Skills

As I alluded to in my last post, knowledge skills present special challenges. It seems like a perfectly reasonable way to allocate skill points ("my character knows stuff!") particularly when you think about the academic wizardly types. However, knowledge skills present a problem for D&D. For me, D&D is at its best when it is the players up against the unknown and the game is about discovery and exploration. Knowledge skills inevitably undermine this. If a player has invested a lot of points in say, knowledge dungeoneering or knowledge nature, it is pretty unfair of me to say they know nothing at all about a new monster. Likewise, knowledge geography or knowledge history can be a real bugaboo in terms of hex crawling and exploration. 

Obviously a good DM can work with these to skills to create interesting bits of knowledge, but I find that they tend to be a mystery killer. Instead of investigating in character, the player simply asks, "what do I know about the [monster, mountain range, ancient city]?"

Possible solutions:

Take them out of the game completely.

Water them down in some way.

Replace them with more general knowledge sets: for example, world, culture, and academic.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why am I playing Pathfinder? (Part 2)

More thoughts on 3e and then an explanation of why I actually am running  a Pathfinder game.

Combat - Takes forever. In some ways I love playing on a battlemat, in some ways I don't. I like the visual representation (although a white board works just fine if you need something to track things on) - especially for complex combats, but this is where all the rules monkeying tends to crop up.

I had a player (in a different game than the one I am running now) once try to leap through the air and punch a flying griffin that was about 10 feet up and 20 feet away. I said "no way" and this devolved into a big discussion of the jumping rules and the player saying my favorite line: "but this is what my character does."

I thought that all of this rules minutiae was defended on the grounds of realism?

The same goes for movement and attacks of opportunity, so yes, it is realistic that someone will try to strike you if you try to pass by or cast a spell, but they won't take one step to do so? Not realistic, (not that I care), but let's not try to pretend that these rules are based on anything closer to reality than AD&D was.

Rule completeness - Its a myth. No rule set is entirely complete or coherent. Example from last session:

Group of 3rd level characters (we picked up where a campaign I ran last summer left off) has been exploring the dungeon and generally kicking ass in true 3e manner. There is no rogue so the barbarian is hacking through doors. Each time he does this I take the opportunity to roll for a random encounter). Finally one hits and . . . swarm of bats! Well this a melee heavy group so they all say "uh oh, swarm". They have exactly one AoE spell among the five of them. Burning hands goes off . . . and doesn't kill them. So the witch cleverly pulls out a vial of acid and throws it amidst the swarming bats. Well, apparently grenade-like weapons use the touch AC of the opponent. Bats have a very high touch AC. It is very tough to touch a bat. Of course that isn't what he is doing. He is not trying to touch one and cast shocking grasp. He is merely trying to throw a glass vial onto the floor and have it splash on them. So he misses. This is a ridiculous result to the action he is attempting to take. So . . . house rule, he hits automatically! Unfortunately this doesn't kill the bats either and they have to flee . . . but at least things are making sense now.

So don't claim that the rules cover everything or always coherent. Just as much a need for adjudication as ever, just now we have to look a lot of things up first.

So why DO I play Pathfinder?

Because I have found a good group of players who like to play it and I like DMing. They know the rules well and are good sports so I don't need to memorize things. Generally they tell me the rules, we look it up if it is very important or there is disagreement, and I adjudicate. I don't mind DMing (sorry WotC, GMing) Pathfinder because I like designing adventures, dungeons, and monsters. The rules system is pretty irrelevant to all of that.

Would I rather play a different rules system? Sure. Would I be a better DM if we played something I was more familiar with? Probably. But I think that with a good group rules adjudication is the smallest part of the DM's job. Will they start seeing monsters from the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book that arrived last night? Absolutely.

Basically, rule systems are pretty irrelevant to the kind of stories we tell. That's just the details. That's why I think simple rules are good, but if my players would rather get all bogged down in that stuff I'm okay with that. They just need to understand that I think CR is a laughable concept, and that yes I am going to kill them with the cave giant waiting by the stairs.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why am I playing Pathfinder?

Because my game group likes 3e and its children (I'm going to refer to them all as 3e because that is easier).

That's basically the only reason. Other than that I would rather play any version of D&D - possibly excepting 4e, which I have never played but does not seem particularly appealing by all accounts. In fact I don't even own any 3e books, all my Pathfinder books are borrowed from one of my players. I own the rules of course to four other editions, and I find lots of uses for them nonetheless.

I don't like 3e. From the first time I saw it when it came out, to actually playing in a few campaigns (of 3.5) to running now my third Pathfinder game I think it is less fun than old-school D&D.


Skills - for all the reasons brilliantly explained by -C here, I think skills basically reduce fun.

Example from my last game session: unknown monster appears in the dungeon (fungal crawler), player rolls knowledge dungeoneering and rolls well. I am faced with a choice: deny them information to preserve the mystery of the dungeon, and punish them for taking "soft skills", or give them information. Well I approve of developing characters with aims other than maximum damage output, so I tell them some tidbits about the fungal crawler, I try to couch it in terms of "you can tell by its grasshopper legs that it is probably quite a jumper" but wouldn't it be more fun to find out first hand?

In theory skills seem great, but in my last days of playing 2e (the rule set I cut my teeth on and played the most of) I dropped nonweapon proficiencies (yes, they are an optional rule!) in favor of secondary skills (which I think are dandy).

Where I like skills is Stars Without Number, but that is a different game and a topic for a different day.

Feats - Unlike almost everyone I know, I hated feats from the moment I saw them. Feats are the reason I never adopted 3e in its heyday.

My feelings towards them have soften somewhat since, but I looked at them at the time and thought: wow, this is terrible. What do feats give us theoretically? Control, character customization, options. But the raise a couple of big problems: first of all, people no longer feel that they need to distinguish their character through roleplaying, now they are distinguished largely by their class powers and feats. ("What are you playing?" [class and list of feats]).

Second, they heavily reward power gamers. In pre-3e D&D power gaming was only marginally rewarded, now player skill at character building leads to great discrepancies in power. The characters of players played by more experienced (or more power game focused) players are mechanically more powerful than those of other players. This is very different than a difference in player skill as thought of in the OSR. In old school D&D you don't know what you are doing, so you kill your character, roll up a new one and learn. In new school D&D you don't know what you are doing so your character sucks and does not get to participate at the same level as other player's characters. This of course can only be remedied by making a new more powerful character. So if you want to have the same amount of fun as the rest of the group, you need to make sure you are carefully optimized as well. One could easily say this is a metagame problem with particular groups, but the root problem is that 3e rewards powergaming so heavily. You tend to get what the game rewards.

More to come.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

New Pathfinder Campaign

Getting prepped for our new Pathfinder campaign I find it remarkable how useful the Rules Cyclopedia and Swords & Wizardry core rules are to me. So much solid advice and useful tables - like the random dungeon stocking tables. I have yet to actually reference any of the Pathfinder books (not that they are bad, but like all later D&D they are just lacking in actual utility). I wish we were playing a different system . . . but we have to keep the players happy I suppose.

Friday, March 2, 2012

20 Strange and Wondrous Events

I have resurrected my long-defunct blogger account to post some D&D miscellany. I might even post a thought here or there. My first post is the first 20 entries of a table of weird events I'm working on.
Table of Strange and Wondrous Events (1d20)
  1. A strange figure is seen walking away, pursue and be lost in a mysterious plane.
  2. A kindly face appears, attempts to communicate will lead to madness.
  3. Water turns to wine, drinking it will lead to madness.
  4. Water turns to blood, drinking it will provide healing.
  5. A fog of an unnameable color envelopes the adventurers - only those of steely will can pass through and remain in their own world.
  6. A vision of horror and disaster is granted, then a chance encounter with a troupe of players.
  7. Picnickers - a fae power.
  8. The sky is green and the earth purple, a horrific insect is encountered.
  9. Come across a scene of massacre.
  10. An ancient altar. Sacrifice will provide blessing.
  11. Strange flowers upon the ground, consuming the petals will grant power.
  12. A stranger walks up and presses a single golden coin into your palm.
  13. A voice calls out to you – following it leads to riches.
  14. Butterflies stream from the eyes.
  15. A blind tinker selling sand, thrown on the ground it has wondrous effects.
  16. A new spring where none should be.
  17. Ash falls from the sky. It is not easily cleaned from the skin.
  18. The weather becomes unseasonable and day becomes night, or night day.
  19. A sword hilt protruding from the earth. Pull it free and discover a secret realm beneath.
  20. An obelisk is found covered in unknown writing. Once lost from view it can never be found again.