Monthly Archives: January 2015

Pits & Perils divergences

Because I am tentatively planning to run a Google Plus hangout game of Pits & Perils this friday, I was reviewing the rules. While doing this, it occurred to me that it might be useful to summarize the aspects that differ from “how things are usually done.”

As a player familiar with traditional fantasy roleplaying games but new to Pits & Perils, I think these are the most obvious differences.

  • PCs have 1 or 2 abilities. As in, you “have strength” (no numbers).
  • Abilities constrain what you can do.
  • To attack, roll 2d6. 9-11 = 1 damage. 12 = 2 damage.
  • Fighters get +1 to attack. Magic weapons grant bonuses here also.
  • Saving throws succeed on 7+ rolling 2d6.
  • Using an ability (for example, dexterity) works like a saving throw.
  • Encumbrance is armor & shield + 10 more items (hard limit).
  • HP is static (for example, a 3rd level fighter has 14 HP).
  • Armor works by adding a small amount of HP.
  • Casting a spell costs one spell point (no preparation).

Image from Pits & Perils title page

Image from Pits & Perils title page

There are a number of other specific rules, but if you already know, for example, B/X D&D, I think this will get you most of the way there.

Also, here’s a list of the core spells with numbers, in case you want to determine starting spells randomly (break out that d24). Or click here for a popup.

  1. Bolt
  2. Call
  3. Calm
  4. Cure
  5. Fade
  6. Fear
  7. Find
  8. Foil
  9. Gaze
  10. Glow
  11. Heal
  12. Hide
  13. Know
  14. Link
  15. Load
  16. Mend
  17. Mute
  18. Null
  19. Pass
  20. Rise
  21. Ruin
  22. Send
  23. Stun
  24. Ward

Dispell as counter-spell

To counter a spell, expend one prepared spell and follow the formula presented for dispell magic:

Dispell Magic: Unless countered, this spell will be effective in dispelling enchantments of most kinds (referee’s option), except those on magical items and the like. This is modified by the following formula. The success of a Dispell Magic spell is a ratio of the dispeller over the original spell caster, so if a 5th level Magic-User attempts to dispell the spell of a 10th level Magic-User there is a 50% chance of success. Duration: 1 turn. Range: 12″.

Source: Men & Magic, page 25.

That is, any prepared spell can be “converted” into an antagonistic dispell magic. One could without issue probably extend that to full dispell magic functionality (thereby doing away with the need to find, learn, or prepare dispell magic as a distinct spell), given that removing enchantments is a relatively core aspect of wizarding, though I could understand wanting to keep the full dispell magic a separate thing.

Note that OD&D does this differently than AD&D, which works like the BRP resistance table (50% success modified by level differential). To make the difference clear, in OD&D a 9th level magic-user has a 90% chance of successfully dispelling an 10th level magic-user’s enchantment (9/10), while in AD&D the chance would be only 45% (50% -5% for having one less level).

Alternatively, compare spell levels rather than class levels using the OD&D formula. So, expending a second level spell in an attempt to counter a third level spell would have a 2/3 (66%) chance of success. This method might be preferred if you see the countering process as an opposition of specific spell energies rather than a contest between the overall skill of the two magic-users.

The burn spells paradigm is becoming increasingly attractive to me. There is some danger of complexity creep, so the possibilities should be limited to a small number of effects. That said, having several default options frees up magic-users to prepare more obscure or interesting spells, which otherwise might not get as much use, much as 3E clerics were able to convert any spells into cures. Further, requiring the expenditure of prepared spells to power such effects retains some degree of resource constraint, unlike make other unlimited or at-will approaches, and doesn’t require tracking any additional information, since spell slots are already managed.

The options so far that I have thought about are maleficence, magical defense, and now dispell magic. I could see adding read magic to that list perhaps, though I am also experimenting with replacing read magic with a “skill” type d6 roll that comes at the cost of an exploration turn.

(This idea came to me when I repurposed dispell magic for banishing summoned creatures.)

Slumbering Ursine Dunes

SUD cover from RPGNow

SUD cover from RPGNow

Chris K. of Hill Cantons is one of the procedural innovators of the OSR blog scene, and his innovations are all the more valuable for arising from solutions to problems experienced in actual play. For examples, see posts on point crawls, ruin crawls, and the chaos index. So, I was excited to see how Chris would realize these ideas in a more formal product, such as Slumbering Ursine Dunes (original kickstarter, current RPGNow PDF).

For a quick overview, the atmosphere of SUD is one part Slavic mythology, one part Moorcock. The major points of the content are a small scale, keyed wilderness, two medium sized “dungeon” adventure sites, a collection of monsters, faction details, and a modular subsystem (the chaos index) which could be used generally. The dunes and adventure sites are both flavorful and easily integrated, I suspect, into most exploration-focused hex crawl type campaigns, though see the note on Slavic cultural specificity below. The tone is light, and though it violates my general preference for setting as straight man (players generally add enough humor on their own), the numerous jokes and site gags here work. For example, the sloth variation on another classic monster, the Terminax, etc.

The basic structure of SUD is a master class in faction design, and for me this was both a complete surprise and its strongest component. Adding any factions at all to an adventure site increases the richness of potential interaction, but the distinct character of each faction here seems like it would drive dramatic conflict particularly well. There is one faction of each major alignment quadrant (lawful good, chaotic good, lawful evil, chaotic evil). Thus, one faction is just interested in carnage and watching the world burn, but all could be useful by enterprising and creative players. When I bother with alignment at all, I generally gravitate toward cosmic interpretations that equate chaos and magic, such as forwarded by Carcosa and LotFP generally, but this setup makes the nine point alignment system shine in a way that I have not seen done nearly as effectively before.

The Slavic cultural inspiration has both upsides and downsides. It makes the texture of the setting more distinctive, but it also makes the dunes slightly harder to drop into a campaigns without modification. The names in particular seem like they may need to be replaced, though that is no big labor. That said, I suspect this distinct cultural flavor will be a draw for anyone that has been saturated with the English-Germanic pastiche implied by many D&D settings and modules. The Moorcockian influences are, for me, uniformly wonderful. For example:

The Eld presence in the Dunes precedes even that of the Master, the extradimensional elves having wrestled the Glittering Tower from the Hyperboreans back when their necromancer king-led states began to crumble more than a 1,500 years ago and then lost it to Medved when he ascended to divinity in the area.

I also enjoyed the immanent divinity of the many minor gods. This is not just a point of taste, though it is that as well. Making deities immanent means that players can interact with them in play. It transforms a campaign element from either info dump or character build option to active encounter, so engaging all players, not just those that do their homework.

The area of the dunes is intended to be governed by mystical, dreamlike logic rather than staid ecological assumptions. In Chris’s home campaign, this is manifested as shift from rational, civilized areas to impressionistic, wild areas called the Weird. It is easy to say this, but standard causal assumptions can easily reassert themselves unless the Weird manifests in play, either through continuous referee engagement or some game system. The chaos index is such a game system. It consists of three a5 pages detailing a simple state machine and several random tables. The referee (secretly?) maintains a number representing the irrationality of a campaign area. (Pause a moment to absorb the irony of managing chaos with a numerical, predicable framework.) Depending on the chaos index level, the referee rolls on various tables which include outcomes like a tesseract opening, the arrival of Eld Bubbleships, and shadowy illusions. The chaos index by default rises 1d4-1 points each session (thus, the expected rise is small but positive) and is also affected by player actions. The system is light enough that I do not think it would be a drag to use, and the tables could be repurposed for encounters or magical catastrophes even if you do not want to engage in the rather minimal bookkeeping.

The layout is unfortunately not as useful as it could be. Objects such as tables are often spread between two pages or even between two spreads. Examples. Pages 7, 8, and 9. Pages 41, 42, and 43. Zombastodon stats are on page 54 and description on page 55 (which are two different spreads). And so forth. Maps diagrams and key entries do not generally share a spread, requiring either page flipping or printing out maps (one more thing to shuffle). Descriptors are also often nestled within several paragraphs of prose, which means I either need to read and take notes, scramble to reread continuously during play, or miss details. Though this remains the standard mode of module writing, and is good at communicating atmosphere during a linear read-through, I find it difficult to use at the table. These are not huge flaws, but I highlight them to bring them to the attention of future creators. A table of contents (both textual and as PDF metadata) would also have been appreciated, to allow quick access to modular tools such as the chaos index.

The art in SUD proper (example) is also not exactly to my taste (the texture looks too much like Photoshop brush). It adequately illustrates many included situations, but does not excite me. I am looking forward to the art in the related and upcoming Misty Isles of the Eld supplement by Luka Rejec.

Despite the layout (objective) and art (subjective) critiques, this is a great little module with several new ideas and fun, interesting details. The content could easily be used in an existing hex crawl, many of the tools are modular, and it is particularly worth picking up to see the faction presentation and how those affiliations permeate all aspects of the scenario.

You can buy the PDF or print on demand perfect-bound paperback at RPGNow.

OD&D summoning

Mateo had the (brilliant) idea to use the retainer and morale system as the base for a summoner class. His approach adjusts the loyalty rolls based on summoner level, monster HD, and other factors. This allows higher level summoners to control more powerful creatures (on average).

Here is another take on the same basic idea, but using the retainer system literally. That is, summoned monsters just occupy retainer slots. Reaction, negotiation, and loyalty rolls are made exactly as if the monster was encountered in the wild. Base rules are 3 LBB OD&D, but I suspect a similar approach would work with other systems. See pages 12 and 13 in Men & Magic and also this old post I wrote about OD&D loyalty and morale.

Monsters defeated in combat may be subdued and brought into service following the rules in Men & Magic. Now, we could pretty much just end there and have a relatively comprehensive system. Magic-users would need to find minions during adventures and convince them to serve or employ charms. However, I like the idea of magic-users being able to gate in creatures directly, and the only even remotely similar spell in Men & Magic is conjure elemental. The monster summoning spells introduced later are not to my taste. So it seems like at least one new rule is required, in the form of a spell that any magic-user could employ if learned:

Summon Monster, level 1 magic-user spell

In a puff of smoke, a monster appears. Use the dungeon random encounter tables, determining first dungeon level* then monster with dice. Establish reaction normally, adjusting for incentives (2d6: 5- hostile, 9+ friendly). Only one monster is summoned. Do not use the number appearing value.

I like the minions that Mateo crafted, but also find the idea of just leveraging everything in the Monster Manuals compelling.

Beyond the new spell, the core of the summoner’s art lies in the skillful application of other standard spells.

Summoned creatures cannot cross a properly prepared circle of protection (requires salt and casting the spell protection from evil). Creatures may be summoned into or outside of such a circle, at the summoner’s discretion.

Other spells that a summoner may want to master: charm person, charm monster.

The dispel magic spell may be used to banish summoned creatures. The “original spell caster level” is the higher of summoner level and monster HD.

The polymorph others spell may be used in conjunction with flesh to stone (using special techniques, they may be cast together, though both must be prepared separately) to transmute minions into figurines, holding them in stasis until recalled using dispel magic (no check required, given that you are dispelling your own enchantment). Such figurines are significant items, and creatures that resist are permitted a single saving throw versus the combined polymorph/stone effect.

Thus, higher level magic-users become better summoners because they are more likely to have all the other spells and be able to set up the summon, ward, compel “combo” more easily and reliably than a lower level conjurer.

In OD&D, I allow magic-users of any level to create scrolls of any spell possessed, even if it is too high level to prepare normally, at the cost of 100 GP per spell level and one downtime action. This rule is based on the scroll creation system in Holmes. It essentially allows ritual casting of higher level spells given time and sufficient GP. Thus, with proper access to spell texts and resources, even a low level magic-user could perform a summoning, but it would be a long, expensive, arduous undertaking, and still entail significant risk.

* Roll 1d6 for dungeon level if using The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (page 10). The AD&D Monster Manual II probably has the best dungeon encounter tables (page 133), though, so I might use that instead, in which case roll 1d10 for dungeon level. The MMII provides the chance of randomly getting, for example, a duke of hell.