Monthly Archives: November 2011

Some Gygax

Some treasures arrived from Ebay yesterday. Which should I read first? The Giants-Drow series, or The Temple of Elemental Evil? (D1-2 Descent Into the Depths of the Earth is coming in a separate Noble Knight order which should be here soon.)

Charm Person as Limitation

I’ve always been hesitant to use charm spells or effects against my players. First, players don’t like to lose control of their characters. And second, I don’t like players to lose control of their characters. As a referee, I have enough other entities to manage, without needing to run the PCs too.

I’ve been reading Demonspore recently though, and every shroom has charm person memorized. Shrooms are also supposed to be evil geniuses, so they should fight deviously and use all their powers to maximum advantage. If I want to run this module honestly, I need to decide how to consistently manage monsters that charm.

Here is my first idea. If a PC becomes charmed, I will give them a short brief regarding their new priorities. No more than a few sentences. Maybe I’ll write this down beforehand, or maybe I’ll just vocalize it. Then, the player will be responsible for taking actions in line with the brief. My only power as a referee will be to disallow actions that seem to contravene the brief. Attempting to twist the words of the brief, within reason, is permitted (and even encouraged) as that provides space for player skill and also models the idea that the PC’s nature is rebelling against the control. XP for particularly good adherence to the brief may be in order, but if I go that route I would like to find a way to do it that is not too subjective. Maybe something like 100 XP, with -10 XP for each time an action is disallowed by the referee? With negative XP possible?

I wonder how other people handle charm person, or other similar effects (geas, quest, etc).


This is a picture of Raistlin Majere I did about 10 years ago in charcoal.

It is approximately 18 x 24 inches, IIRC. It is currently rolled up in storage, but I just came across some digital pictures.

The Paris Catacombs

Image from Wikipedia.

The Catacombs of Paris are another example of a real-world labyrinth (I first came across them here). Many levels deep, and (supposedly) millions of dead interred. Maps derived from real structures, in my opinion, have a sense of verisimilitude that is hard to get from purely invented maps (though maybe that is at least partially a placebo effect). See also this post at Aaron Steele’s blog on St. Paul’s Catacombs.

Some resources:

Also mentioned on Dragonsfoot. Map here (very atmospheric, but not really ready for RPG prime-time). (Thank you, user Grim, for that link.) Perhaps usable as a player handout, if one were to create a separate referee map (though the French might take players out of the game if this were used in a fantasy setting).

Bone Hill & Saving Throws

One thing that struck me when reading Bone Hill was how Lakofka writes about saves. For example, in the description for room BA:

Any person on the ladder below the falling individual will also be knocked off unless a save is made (rolling one’s dexterity or less on a d20).

And then again:

8c: The trapdoor from above is iron reinforced and barred 50% of the time. The trapdoor down to level b is made of iron and is wizard locked. If it is opened for more than 10 seconds it will cause a trap to activate. One person moving rapidly can easily get through before the trap is sprung. A second person must roll Dexterity or lower on a d20 with -2 on the roll, a third save vs. Dexterity with no penalties or modifiers, a fourth save vs. Dexterity at +3, on the roll, and a fifth person will not succeed at all.

What is this save vs. dexterity? Clearly, in the older games, a save is something broader than the mechanic associated with the per-class saving throw table. A save is any kind of check used for a last chance escape. And it has something to do with abilities, at least in this example, but it also has something to do with experience (for saves that use the level-based table in the core rulebooks). Saving throws are explained narratively in many different ways, and this changes based on the ruleset in question. Some samples:

Basic (Moldvay) B26:

A saving throw represents the chance that a special attack may be avoided or will have less than the normal effect.

Expert (Cook/Marsh) X24:

As characters advance in levels of experience, saving throws become easier to make.

2E PHB (page 89):

Saving throws are measures of a character’s resistance to special types of attacks–poisons, magic, and attacks that affect the whole body or mind of the character. The ability to make successful saving throws improves as the character increases in level; Dexterity and general mental fortitude aid in honing combat senses. Experience makes saving throws easier.

Ibid. (page 100):

More often than not, the saving throw represents an instinctive act on the part of the character–diving to the ground just as a fireball scorches the group, blanking the mind just as a mental battle begins; blocking the worst of an acid spray with a shield.

The d20 system uses three saving throws, all based on the capabilities of the character rather than the threat to be avoided; fortitude (modified by constitution), reflex (modified by dexterity), and will (modified by wisdom). From the SRD:

Generally, when you are subject to an unusual or magical attack, you get a saving throw to avoid or reduce the effect. Like an attack roll, a saving throw is a d20 roll plus a bonus based on your class, level, and an ability score.

Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox (page 32):

From time to time, a spell or some other kind of hazard requires you to make a “saving throw.” A successful saving throw means that the character avoids a threat or lessens its effect. Each character class has a saving throw target number which gets lower and lower as the character gains levels.

Labyrinth Lord revised edition (page 54):

All characters and monsters can make”saving throws” to avoid the full effects of spells or certain attacks. Characters and monsters will have a number for a saving throw category, and when affected by a type of spell or attack which requires a saving throw, the player or Labyrinth Lord will roll 1d20.

LotFP uses saves by class and level (the save numbers are included on the experience progression charts), but saves are also adjusted by ability score bonuses and penalties. I couldn’t find a simple description of the idea behind saving throws in the Grindhouse rules, but they seem to be B/X-based with a little d20 SRD flavoring (the ability adjustments).

So: by level, by ability, or by level with ability modifiers? That is the question. And as for most things related to D&D, there is already an extensive conversation about this on Dragonsfoot. After reading Bone Hill, my initial inclination was to do away with the saving throw tables, on the basis that the numbers are a major portion of a character record, and a more minimal character sheet (all other things being equal) is better. One less set of numbers to keep track of. However, one of the posts in that Dragonsfoot thread makes an important point:

This seems like it would create too much of a focus on ability scores, making those with low stats much worse than before and those with high stats better.

I think that is absolutely the main problem with doing away with the saving throw tables. Using an ability-centric mechanic for saves makes abilities more important, and we all know where that leads (bonus inflation, min/maxing, heavier chargen, etc). Also, there is a certain feeling to Dungeons & Dragons, and the saving throws, with all their baroque categories, are part of that. Having a specific save against death rays says something about the expected tone of the game. On the other had, the downside to using level progression saves is the power curve: high level D&D play can sometimes feel like playing superheroes, and while some people might like that, I don’t think most people come to D&D looking for that kind of experience. I suspect (though I am not sure) that that is part of the reason why James Raggi recently wrote that he might do away with the level system if LotFP gets another edition.

After all that comparison and analysis, I will leave you with this: a simple “save vs. dexterity” to partially avoid dragon breath, “save vs. constitution” to survive poison, or “save vs. wisdom” to shake off a charm spell seems mighty attractive. This does, however, make ability scores more important, and I generally dislike that. (This is not an either/or proposition, obviously. The two styles of saves could be blended in various ways and with varying levels of complexity.)

See also the commentary over at Jeff’s Gameblog (the changing set of categories is also interesting, though peripheral to this discussion) and Talysman’s comparison of different approaches here.

L1 The Secret of Bone Hill

These old modules are much more like local settings than stories. The area detailed is about 16 by 28 miles, based on the wilderness map. That’s approximately 14 six mile hexes. The module starts out talking about the Lendore (also known as Spindrift) Islands, which was slightly confusing to me, until it became clear that it was set in Greyhawk. Indeed the cover does say “This module may be incorporated into an existing campaign or used in conjunction with THE WORLD OF GREYHAWK (TM) Fantasy World Setting.” I missed that because I am used to products trumpeting their brand association with setting logos. Moving on. It contains the following locations:

  • Dweomer Forest. With a temple to a god of chance. This is an example of a cleric’s stronghold with followers, and is presented as a source of information, cleric spells, and a place to sell magic items.
  • Bald Hill. Farmland and a thieves’ lair (orcs).
  • Guardian Peak, Lark Hill, Low Point, Reddy Forest. These areas are mostly a source of potential henchmen: Tolvar (magic-user), Locinda (half-orc thief/fighter), Martin (ranger), and Volcifar (assassin). Aside: my next character is totally going to be named Volcifar; that is the coolest name I have seen in a while. I like the fact that potential henchmen are placed like treasure to be found. It reminds me of finding new party members in video games. I wish my players were more interested in hirelings and henchmen.
  • Pebble Hills, Tri-top, Kelman Woods, Spring Glade. A dire wolf pack and a small gnoll village of six stone huts.
  • Bone Hill and the Dead Forest. Ruined castle inhabited by several different factions of monsters. Lakofka explicitly calls this a symbiosis, which I find interesting, as dungeon factions are usually assumed to be competitive.
  • Restenford town & castle. Every building in the town is keyed, as is every room in the castle. This resource alone is worth the price of admission. You could rename the town and drop it into any campaign setting. The castle and dungeon of the title are an added bonus.

Interestingly, not only are most of the evil demihumans (the bugbears and gnolls) presented as having females and young, the demihumans are explicitly placed in a family setting. There are more children in the gnoll village than adults (six male adults, three female adults, and eleven children). The same is true of the bugbears in the castle ruins. Certainly an example of Gygaxian naturalism, and little care is taken to protect delicate sensibilities regarding potentially fighting demihuman young.

The module says that the town has 315 inhabitants. I’m not counting, but it looks like all the village inhabitants are placed and detailed, most with stats and alignments. Speaking of which, a surprising number of them are chaotic neutral. Lakofka must have known that this was asking for trouble so he includes this (page 17):

The garrison is provided to maintain some degree of order through the town, as you will note the town is mostly chaotic neutral in nature. Chaotic neutral does not equate with brawling, meleeing, spells in the streets, and open mayhem. Be sure you are clear on the meaning of this alignment and that your players understand it as well.

There is also this gem:

DM Note: Only the Baron knows the exact location of the family treasure, and how it is guarded.

This is particularly interesting in light of James Raggi’s true objective of the keep post. I don’t think I need to summarize that argument here other than to say that most of the same points apply (other than the one about the title).

Enough about the setting. L1 also got me thinking about a particular rules subsystem, on which the next post will be focused.

Other Old Games

Unlike many of my blogland compatriots, I’m not much of a gamer. That might read strangely, coming from someone interested enough in D&D to write this blog, and play RPGs at all (especially as a referee, given the time required). But it’s true. I don’t play board games and haven’t played any video game extensively since Final Fantasy XII. I find myself getting bored by most games other than D&D, and most of the time I would rather be reading or at the gym.

I don’t really have gamer ADD either, though I am a bit of a perfectionist and because of that sometimes feel the urge to start a new campaign from a blank slate. Even now I’m working on my next campaign in addition to the campaign I am currently running.

I haven’t played any tabletop RPG extensively other than D&D. I played a few White Wolf games in the 90s during high school, but no real campaigns. I owned several of the books, but have since sold them. I had a brief experience with RIFTS and hated it. I read most of the Nobilis book because it came highly recommended by a friend, but never played it. Cool ideas, but two high-powered for my tastes. I tried Ars Magica once, but the chargen took longer than the one or two sessions we ended up playing.

What’s the point of this? Following the ongoing OSR commentary, I’ve actually had my interest piqued regarding several other game systems. Specifically, the Stormbringer domain hack, over at Hill Cantons, Small But Vicious Dog (D&D mashed up with Warhammer), and the Lovecraft-inspired work at Secret Antiquities. Not to mention the continuing retrospectives of older games at Grognardia. SBVD is one of my favorite products that I have seen come out of the OSR, and I have zero experience with WFRP. I’m not sure if I would actually like to play them, but I think I would like to read them, for historical knowledge if nothing else. I’m sure they would also be a good source of ideas, even if I only continue to play D&D. Here are the games I am considering:

  • Elric! or Stormbringer
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Burning Wheel (recent, I know, but still looks interesting)
  • Some other Chaosium games
  • Chivalry & Sorcery
  • Gamma World
  • Spirit of the Century (also recent, I think)

However, I don’t really know where to start. Most or all of these games have multiple editions, and the first edition is not always the best. I’m really interested in classic versions, not cleaned up new school editions. So, readers, where would you recommend I begin? Any suggestions regarding versions to seek out or avoid? For Gamma World, I would probably start with Mutant Future, based on how much I like Labyrinth Lord, but for the others I’m really not sure. Which game would you pick to investigate first, for someone who doesn’t currently own a single RPG product that is not D&D or a retro-clone?

Power Centers and the Wilderness

In 1974 D&D, the assumed campaign setting is an expanse of chaotic wilderness with isolated domains controlled by powerful NPCs. High-level PCs might also at some point aspire to roll back part of the wilderness and carve out their own domain (rather detailed rules for doing this, including prices for components of strongholds are given in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, pages 20 through 24). The assumption is that a dungeon will be located nearby the town where PCs start, and will occupy those characters for (at least) their first few levels. The overland wilderness is considered too dangerous for small parties of low level adventurers. A method is given for determining the residents of strongholds once the adventurers have graduated from dungeoneering (TU&WA pages 15 and 16). These articles contain a method for generating wilderness settings

Based on the scaffolding given in the 3 LBBs, Victor Raymond wrote a fantastic pair of articles for Fight On! that contain a method for generating wilderness settings. It is called The Wilderness Architect (found in issue 2 page 52 and issue 3 page 118) and is based on a thread at the ODD74 forums. They assume that the campaign starts in or near an existing stronghold, and have tools to determine the population of the stronghold (which in turn determines the lord’s tax base), how to distribute the population among villages, and how close other strongholds are (that which is not controlled by a stronghold is assumed to be chaotic wilderness). In essence, it is a mapping of social power centers.
As a side note, I think it is truly inspired to have the rules for creating strongholds for PCs be more or less the same as rules for creating strongholds that are encountered in the wilderness by PCs. I don’t think any other edition of D&D or game since then has really expanded on this idea, or at least none that I know of.

There are kinds of power centers other than civilization, though. This thought struck me when reading Trollsmyth’s series on hex mapping:

I want to place the dragons now because they’ll likely distort the social map. Few people want to live next-door to a dragon.

I think this idea of power centers can profitably be the guiding principle for wilderness setting design.

In addition to strongholds and monsters, I think there might be other things that might warp the surrounding area. Powerful artifacts, perhaps, or magical natural phenomena. A few ideas for other sources of chaotic influence:
  • Undying lord or knight and undead court
  • Faerie enclave (elves, gnomes)
  • Dragon lair and hunting grounds
  • Vampire lord and flock
  • Cursed location (ancient battlefield, ghost town, cemetery)
  • Source of super-science (crashed space ship, ancient technological ruins)
  • Dangerous ground (radioactive wasteland, wild magic zone)
Here I am considering elves part of the wilderness and therefor chaotic, though they are not necessarily wicked from a human perspective. Obviously, PC elves need not be pure agents of chaos (they are, after all, adventuring with humans by choice), but I at least would like them to be dangerous and alien.
Thus, for power center types, we have:

  • Strongholds (inherently lawful, if sometimes despotic)
  • Dungeons (Entrances to the underworld, sources of chaos)
  • Powerful chaotic monsters
  • Features of the environment that influence nearby residents

This begs for a nice collection of tables that could be plugged into a system similar to The Wilderness Architect, but I’m not feeling all that creative right now, so I will leave that as an exercise for the reader (and maybe a future post).

The Symbiotic Dungeon

The classic D&D setup is a town or city with a dungeon nearby. Assume for a moment that the dungeon’s proximity to the town is not coincidence. From the point of view of the townsfolk, situating their town in this way does not seem like a wise move. People generally build settlements near resources (mines, farmland) or transportation routes (rivers, passes, roads).

In a traditional game, the dungeon resource is treasure, but treasure is almost by definition, a luxury. It is not something that yields any return outside of exchange society. Treasure is, after all, inherently almost valueless. The value of money (gold included) is a social construct. There are many other useful things that might come out of a dungeon though. Here are a few of them. If the setting is truly dangerous, such as a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or demon-infested wilderness, controlling a dungeon entrance might even be the only way any kind of civilization might be able to survive (for an extreme example, consider ancient domed cities on mars which require archaic fuel cells to power the life support systems).

Dungeon Bounty
  1. Ancient fuel cells (required to power technology or weapons)
  2. Rare magic components
  3. Wandering souls on their way to the underworld (mechanic for resurrection?)
  4. Gastronomic delicacy or rare spice
  5. Sole source of potable water (surface water is polluted, poison, or intoxicating)
  6. Slaves (goblins taken from the underworld make up an underclass like helots)

There is a danger of starting out too weird, and scaring off or confusing your players. If you follow such threads to their logical conclusions, you may end up with a society based on dungeon ecology which is totally unrecognizable. You probably don’t want to begin your campaign with a 10 page setting document for your players to read. As James Raggi suggests though, there is no need to go overboard with explanation and backstory. Even to yourself, as who knows where your ideas (and the dice) might take you in the future? Also, there is no reason why the level one PCs should know how things actually work. Let the characters discover things slowly, starting from a relatively mundane and recognizable medieval setting (with, in the tradition of good speculative fiction, one or two aspects varied).

Alternatively: dungeons are so dangerous that once discovered they must be sealed and guarded, lest their denizens overwhelm the surroundings (remember the turnstiles and holy water hoses of Blackmoor in The First Fantasy Campaign). Perhaps dungeon entrances are gates to hell, the no-man’s land in the never ending war between cosmic factions. This is not incompatible with the conception of the dungeon as mythic underworld. Rewards will be given by the authorities to those brave enough to enter and help subdue the demons. Entrance to the dungeon without permit is harshly punished, and secret entrances are highly prized by adventurers (though they also risk allowing the dungeon’s evil to leak out). The penalty for entering a dungeon without permit is death.

This evil could also be considered a bounty, by those imprudent and power-hungry. A dark magician, or evil high priest may try to ally with the denizens of the dungeon in order to harness the power of the underworld to subdue neighbouring lands.

The Big Purple D30 Rule

My set of 5 d30s arrived last week. I’m thinking of adopting The Big Purple D30 Rule:

Once per session each player may opt to roll the Labyrinth Lord’s big purple d30 in lieu of whatever die or dice the situation normally calls for. The choice to roll the big purple D30 must be made before any roll. The d30 cannot be roll for generating character statistics or hit points.