Monthly Archives: January 2012

Simple Stunts Rule

Inspired by this comment from Lasgunpacker over at Jeff’s Gameblog, here is a simple rule for combat stunts.

Say you want to perform a combat stunt that is high risk but also high reward (such as doing a backflip over charging goblins and kicking them over a ledge). The referee will give you a difficulty modifier based on the specific circumstances (say, -2) and if you accept the risk you make an attack roll. If you hit, your stunt succeeds (exact effect is by referee ruling). If you miss, it counts as a fumble, as if you had rolled a natural 1. Either roll on a fumble table or do whatever it is your group does for fumbles.

Mathematically, this compresses the probability distribution. Everything above the target number is something like a critical hit, and everything below is a fumble. It is the combat equivalent of “all in” which captures exactly the flavor that I think a stunt should have. Also note that a penalty to the attack roll need not always apply as the increased probability of a fumble may sometimes be enough of a difference from a normal attack.

Many systems use auto-success mechanics for stunts (e.g., luck or action points) which create exactly the opposite of the desired narrative effect: certainty rather than suspense. Another common game mechanic is to call for something like a dexterity or athletics check. I also consider this suboptimal because it emphasizes ability scores and thus character engineering. My dislike of emphasizing ability scores should by now be well established.

Margaret St. Clair

This pair of novels arrived today (birthday presents). Both are from Appendix N.

The Shadow People:


The had existed from time immemorial, hidden in a space warp far beneath the surface of the earth. Until now, their only form of nourishment had been a strange hallucinogenic grain. Now, they hungered for human flesh. The earth was to be their stockyards and mankind their meat…

Sign of the Labrys:

Earth was a weird and dire place after the plagues. The few humans who survived could not bear the touch of each other; they lived in the enormous, endless caverns hacked out of the bowels of the earth for the bombs that never came.

Oh, and on the back of Sign of the Labrys we are treated to this charming advertisement:

It is easy to forget how much society has changed over such a short period of time (this book is copyright 1963).

Rerolling Hit Dice & Healing

Ian over at Magician’s Manse has an interesting house rule for healing:

Rerolling hit points at the beginning of each adventure represents healing. Roll all your HD, if the total is greater than your CURRENT hp, use the new roll. Otherwise, you current hp is retained.

This is a great rule and I am going to adopt it. This has old school pedigree: in Empire of the Petal Throne, hit dice were rerolled upon gaining a new level. Such rerolling has a number of advantages:

  1. Simplified healing math: no need to bother with exact downtime
  2. Healing and gaining a new hit die are mechanically identical
  3. PCs are not stuck with low rolls forever (or even for a level)
  4. It reflects variation in health and preparedness
  5. Healing and recovery are diegetic explanations; this is not “just” a game mechanic
  6. Promotes a reversion to the mean in HP totals
  7. Record hit dice on the character sheet and hit points on scratch paper
I would only change Ian’s rule to allow 1 HP worth of healing for every night of rest during an adventure. It also might be appropriate to heal 1 HP per level per night, if you don’t like higher level characters to regain HP at a proportionately slower rate [12 March 2012 edit: this sentence].
Also, I kind of like the idea of players having a stable of PCs available at the beginning of each adventure and then picking one to go out on the adventure. This reminds me of games like Final Fantasy VI where all the characters you have accumulated hang out on the airship and you construct an active party from those PCs. I think this style is very amenable to a hexcrawl or West Marches game, as the choice of who goes and where is totally up to the players (most of the time).
There is always going to be an incentive to not have more than a few such PCs, as experience will end up divided between them. I’m fine with players picking the PC that gets the best HD reroll, as that represents some PCs having an off-day. If you were feeling out of it, would you choose that day to go after the dragon’s treasure? I don’t think so. And of course sometimes the real adventure might involve the PCs left behind to hold down the fort…

See also:

3 February 2012 edit: added link to “In defense of the original HD system” thread
12 March 2012 edit: added link to “Healing and Hit Points” post at Aeons & Augauries

1d10 Blogs: Recently Founded

Twitter has this convention called Follow Fridays where people post links to other Twitter users they think are worth following. So here’s a few other RPG blogs you might be interested in if you don’t already know about them.

I have limited this list to blogs that have been founded relatively recently. I also added a short note explaining the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the blog (not intended to pigeonhole anyone).

  1. Built by Gods Long Forgotten – awesome creative tables in pretty PDFs
  2. Dungeon Fantastic – GURPS Dungeon Fantasy & classic dungeon design
  3. From Beyond the Drowning Woods – detailing a weird fantasy setting
  4. Giant Evil Wizard – old school creations
  5. Howling Tower – Steve Winter (an organizer of 2E) on D&D game design
  6. Lost in Time – beautiful maps, creative rules analysis
  7. Tales of the Grotesque and the Dungeonesque – interesting creations
  8. Tartarus Press – player from 2E investigating the OSR
  9. The Aspiring Lich – interesting rules discussion
  10. Underworld Cleaning Service – new classes, comparisons of old school rule sets

Using Real Gods

Can you remember any memorable fantasy gods? The only one I can think of right away is Lolth. Tiamat and Bahamut almost count, I suppose, but they are halfway between god and legendary monster. I also remember Corellon Larethian and Moradin, but other than being “the god of elves” and “the god of dwarves” neither of them are interesting in the slightest. Vecna is also memorable, if you want to consider him a god. Actually, mentioning Vecna, a commonality with Lolth becomes clear: both were developed actively as nemeses in play rather than as setting dressing.

What about Set, the serpent lord? The Set of the Conan stories is certainly memorable and interesting. Or Loki, from the Thor comic? Both of those examples have something else in common: they come from actual world mythology. If you’re going to have a god of the underworld, why not just call him Hades? Does it add anything to create a new god of the underworld named Zarfleglok that has a slightly different portfolio of divine aspects? Keep in mind that unless you have an abnormally dedicated group of players, nobody other than you is likely to remember your new god’s name anyways. I also like the idea of tying gods to specific polities, much like Yahweh is depicted in the Old Testament: the god of the Israelites. Baal is also shown as the god of a rival city-state. And the guardian of Athens was Athena.

Fantasy settings with direct knockoffs of real world cultures usually bother me for some reason, especially if there are more than one such knockoff within the same setting. A setting that feels vaguely Celtic is okay, but if there is a fantasy Japan next door and a fantasy Rome across the ocean it just doesn’t work. Something about that sort of juxtaposition takes me out of the setting. One exception to this is if there is some diegetic reason for the juxtaposition, such as a series of dimensional gates, or aliens that have transported Earth cultures to some strange world.

I realize this may just be personal preference, but I suspect there is something more general going on here. Perhaps it is some sort of cultural version of the uncanny valley: close enough to be recognizable, but not close enough to be captivating. I remember being strongly put off by the Belgariad by David Eddings for exactly this reason (though to be honest I don’t remember the details anymore) and by the Seanchan from The Wheel of Time (a thinly disguised collection of East Asian tropes). This was one of the characteristics of fantasy genre fiction that drove me toward reading history instead.

For some reason, however, the Conan setting of Hyboria works where these other settings don’t. This is despite the fact that there are many clear analogs, including:

  • Nordheim = Scandinavia
  • Iranistan = Persia
  • Stygia = Egypt
  • Black Kingdoms = Africa
  • Khitai = China

And many others. I normally don’t like to quote Wikipedia, but in this case it is too good to pass over:

The reasons behind the invention of the Hyborian Age were perhaps commercial: Howard had an intense love for history and historical dramas; however, at the same time, he recognized the difficulties and the time-consuming research needed in maintaining historical accuracy. By conceiving a timeless setting – a vanished age – and by carefully choosing names that resembled our past history, Howard avoided the problem of historical anachronisms and the need for lengthy exposition.

Perhaps the problem is that some modern fantasy settings borrow from real cultures without acknowledgment. They have a totally made up map, but with various recognizable cultural signs scattered about that don’t quite seem to fit. Hyboria has no pretension to being an entirely contained and internally consistent mythos. More Wikipedia (same page):

The geographical setting of the Hyborian Age is that of our earth, but in a fictional version of a period in the past.

The map is also recognizably earth-like.

Now, I realize that some people may have their immersion interrupted by the use of real world mythology much as I am put off by culture juxtaposition as described above. I would point out, though, that most fantasy games import other culture-bound elements of real world mythology (dragons, hydras) without problems. Why is a hydra more at home in D&D than a ninja? I’m not exactly sure, but it does seem to be.

There is something else to say here regarding the ever more self-referential nature of Dungeons & Dragons, and how to combat it. (There are commercial reasons behind this too, as the invented mythology of, for example, Eberron becomes a property that can be controlled more easily than mythology with historical roots.) By drawing directly from real world mythology with no pretensions to complete world-building, one nips the canon-forming tendency in the bud and in addition makes the game setting more accessible to new players. It also works for a setting with a more monotheistic bent (and early D&D was implicitly Christian in many ways).

Lovecraft on Refereeing

The following is a excerpt from an essay H. P. Lovecraft wrote on supernatural horror (originally brought to my attention here). I have struck out mentions of “the writer” and replaced them with “the referee” (colored text in brackets). Obviously, the point of historical scholarship Lovecraft was trying to make in regards to Poe is not relevant to the ideas I am trying to highlight here: detachment, lack of judgment, exploratory freedom rather than preplanned conclusions.

Before Poe the bulk of weird writers [referees] had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or legs of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author [referee] to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority’s artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist [referee]; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove — good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing, with the author [referee] always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathizer, or vendor of opinion. He saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as a subject matter for the artist [referee], and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feelings and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquility, and which are fundamentally either adverse or indifferent to the tastes and traditional outward sentiments of mankind, and to the health, sanity, and normal expansive welfare of the species.

— H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)

Musings on Mapping

I am a recent convert to hex mapping. (Six mile hexes, to be specific.) It was not always so. In my earlier days of gaming, I would draw wilderness maps free-form on blank paper. I often included a scale, but rarely made much use of it.

However, there is another way to do it, which I have thought about off and on, and which has seen some interesting blog discussion recently. This alternate mapping technique employs locations and connections rather than literal space (for the mathematically inclined, this is basically a graph). For example, see this post over at Hill Cantons:

And this example by Chris Huth:

Doug over at Blue Boxer Rebellion has some useful techniques as well:

He color-codes his zones by danger level (green – yellow – orange – red) and connection type (blue for water, brown for land routes). I think this would actually be a great idea for a player handout rather than a referee map, though I would use more evocative markers (such as “here there be dragons”) rather than color-coding. Doug mentions that using hexes is more realistic, but I don’t actually see them that way. A hex is really a node with six connections (edges) that can be scaled up or down (by creating sub and super hexes) in a systematic fashion. Hexes quantify something that is otherwise less defined. Hexes also give you a simple and objective answer to the “what do I see?” question, as they allow the referee to easily derive the viewable horizon.

I think there are two dangers with using point-based mapping rather than literal mapping.

  1. Mechanics for getting lost are not as simple. In fact, other than rapidly improvising, I’m not sure how you can manage getting lost at all in a point crawl. Also, using hexes allows referee impartiality regarding location: you can just roll for it. In a point crawl, it seems like the referee needs to make value-laden (and potentially deadly) decisions. Compare that to the simple and objective rules from B/X (page X56):

    When travelling, a party can become lost. A party following a road, trail, or river, or led by a reliable guide, will not become lost. Otherwise, the DM checks each day, rolling a six-sided die (1d6) before the party begins movement. The DM then checks the chance of becoming lost of the appropriate terrain. If the number rolled is the same as those listed, the party is lost.

    If a party is lost, the DM may choose the direction the party moves in, or use a random die roll. The DM must keep track of the party’s actual position, as well as the direction the party believes it is moving.

  2. The video game trap. By this I mean the increased chance that PCs will come upon certain planned encounters. I mentioned this in my comment on Chris Huth’s blog. Chris has some interesting suggestions in his comment response, but I’m still not sure exactly how I would work this in terms of concrete techniques, especially if I want to remain narratively impartial. I feel like I would probably slip into referee illusionist techniques (quantum ogres, etc). Maybe adding new nodes and connections on the fly is a skill that can be cultivated, much like dramatizing and detailing random encounters.

Though I say above that I am a hex-convert, that is not entirely true. In many locations, I do maintain a list of “adjacent” areas; that is, a list of places that you can easily reach (along with method of transport). For example, there may be a frequent caravan between two towns that PCs can purchase passage with. Such transport is not guaranteed to be hassle-free, but the chances of random encounters or other problems are decreased (and speed may be increased, depending on the mode of transport).

    Also, if you haven’t seen Doug’s character creation as a dungeon, you are missing out. I am totally going to make one of these for my B/X house document.

    Jack of Shadows

    A planet hangs motionless. There is no night and day, only dark side and light side, like the moon. Twilight is the space, rather than the time, between the two. On the west side, protected from the chill of space by a great shield, live the darksiders, whose myths are made of machines, and who die only to rise again in the Dung Pits of Glyve. On the east side, always in sunlight, live the daysiders, whose myths are haunted by demons, and whose power comes from science.

    Jack of Shadows is the only Zelazny listed by title in Gygax’s Appendix N (and all in caps too). The Amber series is mentioned as well. Two themes stood out for me. The first is the idea of change, the second is duality.

    Change. Consider the following quotes. Thus spoke Jack, page 17:

    You are a daysider with but one life in you, and when that is gone, you will have no more. We of darkness are said not to have souls, such as you are alleged to possess. We do, however, live many times, by means of a process which you cannot share. I say that you are jealous of this, that you mean to deprive me of a life. Know that dying is just as hard for one of us as it is for one of you.

    And on time and change (page 51):

    I forgot how little time means to a darksider. The years mean so little to you that you do not keep proper track of them. You simply decided one day that you would go back for Rosie, never thinking that she might have become an old woman and died or gone away. I understand now, Jackie. You are used to things that never change. The Powers remain the Powers. You may kill a man today and have dinner with him ten years hence, laughing over the duel you fought and trying to recall its cause

    I think this is an interesting template for faerie creatures such as elves. Unable to experience the world the same way a mortal limited by one life would. Unable to identify with loss and aging.

    Duality. This reminds me of the law/chaos alignment dichotomy. The power of law (Dayside) is science. The power of chaos (Darkside) is magic. Which in turn reminds me of the ontological struggle between the magic-users and the Technocracy in Mage: The Ascension (I used to love that book, but never once played it).

    Now a few bits of atmosphere.

    A supernatural thiefly ability on page 101:

    There was no trail and the last several hundred feet of the ascent required the negotiation of a near-vertical face of stone. As always, for the shadows were heavy here, Jack strode up it as he would cross a horizontal plane. 

    What shall we call this? Shadow ascension? Or perhaps climbing shadows?

    And dragons (page 110):

    “I wonder as to the value of consciousness,” said Jack, “if it does not change the nature of a beast.”

    “But the dragon was once a man,” said Morningstar, “and his greed transformed him into what he is now.”

    “I am familiar with the phenomenon,” said Jack, “for I was once, briefly, a pack-rat.”

    The plot reminded me of some strange mix of Neil Gaiman and something I can’t quite put my finger on. What is Jack? We never really find out. Is he a god of shadows, or just some powerful entity tied to them in some way? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t need everything explained to me.

    Those who have been thinking about mythic geography recently need to read this book, especially for the way it manages to blend dream logic, parable logic, and invented mythology. James from Grognardia described Zelazny’s style as psychedelic, and I have to agree, though this does not detract from the story for me.

    Zanzer’s Dungeon

    The New Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons was my first exposure to the D&D basic line. At the time, I was already quite into Second Edition (my gateway edition), so I’m not sure why I even had a copy of this. Maybe it was a present or something? In any case, it ended up being quite educational for someone who had never seen race-as-class or an unarmored AC of 9 before. I ultimately picked up a copy of the Rules Cyclopedia too, for the full experience.

    Check out Zanzer’s Dungeon (from this site that is in a language I don’t understand). This was the map of the dungeon for the included beginning adventure. Looking at that map now, it’s a rather wacky design: basically a big spiral leading in to the prison cell where the (captured) PCs are expected to begin. Not much naturalism there. Also, I don’t remember where the actual entrance was supposed to be. Is there a staircase I am missing or something? Maybe it was the concealed door in room 33?

    Not that I’m a stickler for logic or anything, but here’s a scenario idea for recasting this map so that it makes more sense. There’s obviously some mining going on here (see rooms 30, 31, and 32). Say the entrance (from the surface) is in room 28. Rooms on the right side (the mining side) are new construction. This would be everything on the right side of the corridors with rough walls. Rooms on the left side are ancient construction (a barrow reinforced with ancient spells and meant to contain an evil power). The center of the map (the “cell” that is room 1) should be recast as the demon containment unit. The rooms leading to it contain greater and greater guardians, intended to keep the ancient evil in and also to prevent evil cultists from releasing it. (Thank you, Glen Cook, for the Barrowlands inspiration.)

    The new construction on the east side was started by a greedy merchant who either does not hold the old legends in high esteem, or does not care as long as he extracts the mineral wealth.

    Further adventure hooks are left as an exercise for the reader.

    23 Answers

    My response to Zak’s GM Questionnaire:

    1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?

      I can’t follow directions, so here are a few.

      • There was this dungeon that was built under the vacation villa of some powerful noble family. It was designed so that the floor of the villa was also the ceiling of the dungeon, in some places glass, in other metal grates. So the owner could host soirees where the entertainment was adventurers fighting their way through the monsters and traps of the labyrinth below, like a gladiatorial combat. Adventurers would also occasionally get a glass of champagne dumped on them if they were boring the guests.
      • My D&D firearms rules. In terms of game mechanics, guns work exactly like crossbows, but: guns make noise and are easier to conceal, crossbows are quiet but are hard to conceal.
      • Giving XP for session reports. I give bonuses for: writing from character perspective, mentioning awesome things other PCs did, and going the extra mile (one player collected on this for writing in iambic pentameter).

    2. When was the last time you GMed?

      This past monday.

    3. When was the last time you played?

      I don’t remember exactly, which means it has been too long.

    4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven’t run but would like to.

      Here I go not following instructions again.

      • Vecna Lives! with the pregens and second edition rules.
      • Deadwood on the Dying Earth as imagined by Cormac McCarthy where the wilderness is also the land of faerie.

    5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?

      Examine my notes, make sure I have relevant data for nearby things so that players don’t get the tabletop equivalent of a “content loading” message. Sometimes I just watch the players go back and forth with crazier and crazier explanations of whatever it is they are trying to understand.

    6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?

      Recently, this has been oolong tea and dried mangoes. But often, nothing.

    7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?

      I find myself more tired on the days when I work a full day and then run a game afterwards than on the days when I only work, so I suppose so (to some degree).

    8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?

      Luring the floating head from Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom into a sack, tying a rope to it, and making it into a balloon.

    9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?

      In my experience, a game of D&D is exactly as serious as the least serious person at the table. I am rarely the least serious, and usually the referee, so my setting is usually made unserious. I’ve learned to sit back and enjoy this as part of the show.

    10. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?

      This bottle of vodka I just bought. The next healing potion my players find will look like this.

    11. What do you do with goblins?

      This: Goblins as Corruption

      I really like the idea of this as well: Grognard’s Grimoire: Goblins as a PC Race

    12. What’s the funniest table moment you can remember right now?

      The halfling getting knocked down to zero, making some crazy long odds saving throw thing, and then getting knocked right down again. You had to be there, but trust me it was funny.

    13. What was the last game book you looked at–aside from things you referenced in a game–why were you looking at it?

      The 3 LBBs (because of this discussion about thrown crossbow bolts).

    14. Who’s your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?

      My head is in OSR-space right now, so that is certainly affecting this list. I can’t pick only one, and I’m sure this list leaving out many worthy artists, especially those less associated with RPGs already.

    15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?


    16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn’t write? (If ever)

      Prior to recently, I have only rarely run modules. As one of those exceptions I ran the Ravenloft Touch of Death module for a player who had tomb raider type of character. It ended up feeling very Indiana Jones.

    17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?

      A swanky board room. Leather, chrome, and marble. Rothko paintings. Maybe a stray piece of ancient Greek sculpture. Like the Philip Johnson Glass House, but at the top of a fancy office building. Attendants in sharp suits serving great cocktails.

    18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?

      The Stratego board game. D&D books.

    19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?

      Kafka and He-Man.

    20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?

      Those who aren’t only concerned with optimization and are willing to engage with the setting in play (by engagement, I don’t mean willingness to read infodumps, I mean willingness to explore and create some of their own goals).

    21. What’s a real life experience you’ve translated into game terms?

      Almost dying once.

    22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn’t?

      I have such a wealth of unexplored material already that it seems ungrateful to ask for more. I like reading other megadungeons, especially if they have unique premises. More wilderness generation tools.

    23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn’t play? How do those conversations go?

      Yes; I tend to get overly enthusiastic, and they tend to nod and smile.