Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011 Game Readings

This is just a selection of the RPG books and products I have spent some time with in 2011. Some of these may get more extensive review posts in the future, especially the modules after I have used them in play. I’m probably missing several, and I often find myself grazing RPG products more than reading cover to cover (so some of those probably won’t show up here). In no particular order:

ASE1 Anamalous Subsurface Environment
Excellent gonzo setting marketed as a megadungeon level (it is that too). One of my favorite products. The only flaw is that there are ways to get from the first level to the second level (which is not included) relatively quickly. This one I read cover to cover. Unless you can’t stand robots and laser guns in your games, I would consider this a must-buy.
Realms of Crawling Chaos
Nice Lovecraftian crunch for Labyrinth Lord (or B/X).
Fourth Edition core rules
I started playing this when I got back into the roleplaying because it was the newest (and several of my players were familiar with it). More thoughts here.
Hammers of the Gods
Very atmospheric (though slightly linear) minidungeon. I’ve been working the backstory of this into my Nalfeshnee game (they have found some of the dwarven books), and I’m looking forward to when the PCs manage to read the treasure map they found and make their way to the adventure site. I still have some work to do in writing 4E conversions for some of the monsters.
XP1 The Spider-God’s Bride
Sword & sorcery D20 system rules, setting, and adventures. There is lots of flavor here, but the book is flawed by the fact that the maps (including dungeon floor plans) are digital-only, making the book strangely incomplete. A number of the adventures (I think there are 10 in all) are also rather linear (which the author fully admits). This could have been an excellent & seminal product (even allowing for the 3E rules, which I don’t use), but I don’t think it lives up to its potential.
Weird New World
An attempt at a LotFP arctic sandbox setting. There are some interesting ideas here that I may lift, but overall the setting feels a bit too sparse to function as a campaign setting without major work. This is probably due to the limited size of the product. Not bad, but I would check out the other LotFP stuff first.
Tower of the Stargazer
This has become one of my favorite modules, though I have not run it yet. It contains a perfect balance, in my mind, between classic fantasy elements and some gonzo genre bending. It’s not that large, but I bet different groups of players could approach it in many different ways. Also, though some might find the pedagogical sections patronizing (it was meant to be a referee teaching module), I found them very useful.
Eldritch Weirdness Compilation
Unique crunch (spells etc). Very open ended. Contains a random elemental creature generator. Recommended.
Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox
Like an annotated version of 1974 D&D. This helped me understand the 3 LBBs.
The Complete Book of Necromancers (Second Edition supplement)
There is lots of padding here, but also lots of good material (including an “necromancer’s isle” module as the last chapter which can be dropped into any campaign). This is one book that I used often in the 90s for PC creation (I loved and still love necromancers) despite the fact that it is intended for the referee. Many good spells that can also be re-used. I tried to read this cover to cover, but got bored.
Excellent pair of modules by Matt Finch (of Swords & Wizardry) that can easily be inserted into any campaign setting. Sinister fungus beings that are attempting to grow a new god. I can’t wait to use this content in my game. Read cover to cover.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess Grindhouse Edition
Perhaps the most innovative product I’ve read beyond the original rules. The encumbrance system is excellent (to the degree that my players are no longer handwaving encumbrance). This rule set has made me think more about how D&D works than pretty much any other source out there. Best “Appendix N” period (with extensive annotation). I haven’t had the time to read all of the spells unfortunately, but I have heard that they are excellent. High production values. Very graphic art though, if that bothers you (it doesn’t bother me). This is one of the few OSR products that I think might actually serve as an real introduction to the hobby (as opposed to the enthusiast fan base of most of the retro-clones and OSR products; not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Worth it alone for the bits of strange lore sprinkled within. Several have already strongly affected my settings. And the book is beautiful (unsurprising, given Zak’s day job). I haven’t tried to use the map generation techniques yet, but they look interesting.
The Dungeon Alphabet
One of the standout OSR products, as far as I’m concerned. Concise, fun to read, plenty of useful tables, and excellent art.
L1 The Secret of Bone Hill
Wonderful little mini-hexcrawl. I wrote about it in more depth here and here.
B/X: Moldvay Basic & Cook/Marsh Expert
If I had to pick a favorite rule set right now, this pair of books would probably be it. The level range is perfect for my taste (1-14) and it contains enough crunch examples (including plenty of iconic monsters & treasures) to be a complete game. The included dungeon and wilderness setting are nothing special, but they contain all the necessary techniques to get started. This was before my time (my exposure to “basic” D&D was the black box and the Rules Cyclopedia), so this is not nostalgia for me, but new exploration.
The Random Esoteric Creature Generator
A LotFP monster generator (though it came out before the rules). I hope to use this more in the future.

The Black Company

Warning: I don’t think there are any spoilers here, but I am not afraid to quote later sections of the novel.

Many creative endeavors are the synthesis of two or more unrelated things. The Black Company is The Lord of the Rings (without demihumans and humanoids) crossed with the Vietnam War, told from the perspective of a mercenary company employed by the Dark Lord (though in the case, the Dark Lord is “The Lady”). And the Lady in the Tower has an all seeing eye that visits characters in their sleep (I’m going to be charitable and consider that an homage).

This may sound contrived on its face, but it works surprisingly well. Diseases, for example, are referred to by modern scientific names. I don’t usually favor settings that use magic as a replacement for technology, and there is plenty of that here. Instead of helicopters, there are flying carpets; wizards function as artillery; healing magic is used repeatedly (though its effect is limited since it seems to be the domain of very powerful sorcerers).

On flying carpets, page 176:

Flying carpets buzzed around the Tower like flies around a corpse. The armies of Whisper, the Howler, the Nameless, Bonegnasher, and Moonbiter were eight to twelve days away, converging. Eastern troops were pouring in by air.

And modern medicine, page 191:

At least I would not spend my night amputating limbs, sewing cuts, and reassuring youngsters whom I knew would not survive the week. Serving with the Taken gives a soldier a better chance of surviving wounds, but still gangrene and peritonitis take their tolls.

I think the fact that this works is due in no small part to the spare, almost clinical style. Only the horrific elements are granted much description (this might be another lesson for referees). What the other characters are wearing, for example, is mostly left to the imagination of the reader, which grants the narrative a somewhat timeless feel. Had there not been mention of bows, swords, and siege towers, I would not have had much difficulty imagining these characters toting M-16s or tanks assaulting the fortresses. The names are mostly short, descriptive, and sarcastic. It’s unclear which are nicknames and which are “real” names. This is exactly how I would expect cynical soldiers to talk. And this novel is tightly edited.

This is a gaming blog though, not a literature blog, so what is there here that can inform tabletop RPGs? First, I would say that the Taken are one of the more interesting depictions of lich-like beings in fantasy literature. They are called Taken because somehow The Lady (and her husband, the still-trapped Dominator) were able to bend the wizards to their will. When The Lady captures rebel wizards, she is able to “take” them into her service, to replace her fallen sorcerous lieutenants.

Many people seem to like the idea of dangerous magic (for example: the conflation of evil, chaos, and the arcane in LotFP). This is most often conceptualized in two ways. The first is as a danger of screwing up majorly and summoning something you can’t control. The second is as a creeping taint that slowly corrupts (some games use a sanity system to model this). What if using arcane magic not only attracted the attention of powerful entities but also made you susceptible to domination by them? Geas or quest spell mechanics could perhaps be used.

Here are some inspirational quotes regarding the Taken.

Page 45, on their origins:

The city of Oar lies in northermost Forsberg, and in the forests above lies the Barrowland, where the Lady and her lover, the Dominator, were interred four centuries ago. The stubborn necromantic investigations of wizards from Oar had resurrected the Lady and Ten Who Were Taken from their dark, abiding dreams.

Page 142, on The Hanged Man:

With the Guards battalion was the Taken called the Hanged Man. He was improbably tall and lean. His head was twisted way over to one side. His neck was swollen and purpled from the bite of a noose. His face was frozen into the bloated expression of one who has been strangled. I expect that he had considerable difficulty speaking.

He was the fifth of the Taken I had seen, followed by Soulcatcher, the Limper, Shapeshifter, and Whisper. I missed Nightcrawler in Lords, and had not yet seen Stormbringer, despite proximity. The Hanged Man was different. The others usually wore something to conceal head and face. Excepting Whisper, they had spent ages in the ground. The grave had not treated them kindly.

Page 144, on Shapeshifter:

I spied a brown hulk shambling down the switchback road. Shapeshifter, going out to practice his special terrors. He could enter the Rebel camp as one of them, practice poison magics upon their cookpots or fill their drinking water with disease. He could become the shadow in the darkness that all men fear, taking them one at a time, leaving only mangled remains to fill the living with terror. I envied him while I loathed him.

The last thing I note is the excellent and whimsical depiction of magic duels. Forgive the long quote, but it only really makes sense in context (page 166):

I heard a rustle, turned my head, found myself eye to eye with a snake. It wore a human face. I started to yell-then recognized that silly grin.

One-Eye. His ugly mug in miniature, but with both eyes and no floppy hat on top. The snake snickered, winked, slithered across my chest.

“Here they go again,” I murmured, and sat up to watch.

There was a sudden, violent thrashing in the grass. Farther on, Goblin popped up wearing a shit-eating grin. The grass rustled. Animals the size of rabbits trooped past me, carrying chunks of snake in bloody needle teeth. Homemade mongooses, I guessed.

Goblin had anticipated One-Eye again.

One-Eye let out a howl and jumped up cursing. His hat spun around. Smoke poured out of his nostrils. When he yelled fire roared in his mouth.

Goblin capered like a cannibal just before they dish up the long pig. He described circles with his forefingers. Rings of pale orange glimmered in the air. He flipped them at One-Eye. They settled around the little black man. Goblin barked like a seal. The hoops tightened.

One-Eye made weird noises and negated the rings. He made throwing notions with both hands. Brown balls streaked toward Goblin. They exploded, yielding clouds of butterflies that went for Goblin’s eyes. Goblin did a backflip, scampered through the grass like a mouse fleeing an owl, popped up with a counterspell.

The air sprouted flowers. Each bloom had a mouth. Each mouth boasted walruslike tusks. The flowers skewered butterfly wings with their tusks, then complacently munched butterfly bodies. Goblin fell over giggling.

One-Eye cussed a literal blue streak, a cerulean banner trailing from his lips. Argent lettering proclaimed his opinion of Goblin.

New Year’s Resolutions

I have a number of these, and a few of them are about gaming. In no particular order:

  1. Create a dungeon of significant size. Maybe mega, maybe not. I’m interested in exploring the creation of dungeons that can change significantly based on PC actions. I’m inspired by some of the dungeons from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and the Tomb Raider games, particularly how they control access using flooding and other mechanical tricks.
  2. Miniatures. I am totally new to this gaming subculture. I ordered some Otherworld minis a while back, not knowing that they would require much assembly. Well, they do. Even if I don’t care about painting them artistically, they still need to be based, and some sculpts come as more than one piece and need to be glued. I also bought some old Grenadier AD&D lead-based minis (including hirelings!) from Ebay. I want to give these a coat of primer or something so that I don’t feel paranoid about exposing myself to lead. I’ve already received some great suggestions for how to do some of these things (see here, here, and here).
  3. Classic D&D. I’m enjoying running my Nalfeshnee Hack game, but I want to play some traditional D&D. I have some ideas for a house document that I would like to try out (some of which have already seen draft form on this blog), so I’m going to say that’s the ambitious version of this goal: finish the house document and start up a game. Or, less ambitious: make some time to play in one of the many ConstantCon games.
  4. Art. I used to make art. I’m really out of practice though, and I want to get back into the habit. Somewhere I came across a quote about how a beginning artist should plan to throw away their first 100 attempts (the only reference I could find is this, but I don’t think that was the source I heard it from originally). I bought a sketchbook and messed around a bit already, but my efforts so far have made me embarrassed to think they might stick around, which has resulted in a distinct lack of enthusiasm. So, my goal is to knock out at least 100 pieces on looseleaf so that I can start to feel good about putting things in the sketchbook.
  5. Wilderness map. I am working on a hexcrawl setting for a B/X game. I’ve produced a few maps, but they’re mostly just for practice so far. I want to finish something with all the moving parts (encounter tables, strongholds, special hirelings, important monsters). Not finished in the sense of a published campaign setting, but finished in the sense of enough hooks to be ready for players. And maybe put it to use with item 3?
  6. Gaming purchases. I went from owning only the three core Fourth Edition books this past summer to lots more. (When I played in the 90s, I had a shelf full of mostly Second Edition gaming books, but I sold them all when I went off to school in 1999.) Time to slow the acquisition down. I have plenty to read and use now. Something like a purchase per month from now on is probably reasonable.

Too many goals? I hope not. This year I managed to keep my Nalfeshnee game running as a continuous campaign (15 sessions so far), built my little collection of RPG books, and learned from the OSR that there are words and concepts for many of my old practices (not to mention all the new things I have learned).

On Retro Clone Proliferation

Anyone who is familiar with the Linux community should recognize this phenomenon; it is the same thing as the proliferation of Linux Distributions. With a hobbyist community, an open license, and low startup costs, everyone wants to make their own “one true version”.

To get a sense of the scale of this, check this out:

Each one of those is a more or less independent, more or less compatible retro-clone of the Unix operating system.

This post is just a restatement of a comment I made over at Stefan Poag’s blog, but this idea has been in the back of my mind for a while. I’m surprised I haven’t seen this parallel drawn before, though it must have been. It seems really obvious to me. There must be a big overlap between RPG hobbyists and Unix hackers, and there are strong “old school” subcultures in both communities.

I think the same sociological forces are at work.

Damage by Hit Die

In a previous post about fighters & weapons (and probably a few other places), I mentioned that I’m planning to have weapon damage by class, rather than by weapon. I think this deserves a dedicated post even though it has been much discussed in other places.

Here is how it works. There are no weapon restrictions. Any class can use any weapon. Characters use their hit die for weapon damage. If wielding two weapons or a weapon with both hands, 2DTH is used. That’s it. Modified for situational factors by ruling (though that should go without saying). Missile weapons too, though range is by weapon.

You might be wondering, if all weapons inflict hit die damage, why should I prefer one weapon over another? Why not just write “two melee weapons and a missile weapon with 20 shots” on my character sheet and be done with it? For one thing, weapons can be used outside of combat as well. For example, a quarterstaff might be used to span a hole and secure a rope. A dagger might be hammered into a wooden timber and used as a foothold (try doing that with a battle axe). A dagger is easy to conceal, a two-handed sword is not. Bulky weapons are extra-encumbering. Some longer weapons can attack from the rear ranks (such as spears & pole arms). Some weapons can be thrown. Some weapons may grant automatic initiative in a one on one fight (this would depend on the circumstances). And so forth.

As I said in the post on fighters, this incentivizes smaller (for encumbrance purposes) and cheaper weapons, which seems to make sense. Why spend extra money and backpack space on a military weapon if you are not trained to use it?

I think this system follows the spirit of OD&D, where all weapons do 1d6 damage. It makes weapon choice more about a trade-off calculation than about mechanical optimization. The question becomes: should I carry a weapon & torch, weapon & shield, two-handed weapon, or pair of weapons?

This scheme is very similar to one presented in this Grognardia comment. Akratic Wizardry also has a similar system, though it uses a base damage die for medium weapons based on class and allows you to go up or down a die for small and large weapons, respectively. For example, if the base damage die is d6, then down a step would be d4 and up a step would be d8). This breaks down if the base die is d4 though (if you want to stick with the common polyhedral dice), and Akrasia also adds in some special cases (such as the ability of magic-users to do d6 damage with a quarterstaff despite the fact that it is categorized as a medium weapon).

Akrasia also mentions that dispensing with class-based weapon restrictions potentially weakens the fighter (relatively speaking), as then all classes are able to use magic swords (though with a smaller damage die). However, I follow the OD&D practice of capping bonuses at +1, and further only allow this bonus to be active when wielded by a fighter. Other classes still gain the benefit of the weapon being magical for purposes of being able to damage monsters that can only be harmed by magic weapons.

For more reading, there are Dragonsfoot discussions of similar ideas here and here. And at The City of Iron here. Most of these systems use lots of different types of dice rather than just using the hit die, which seems too complicated to me. There is one interesting variation that I might try out at some point, which is to have more variety in missile damage as suggested here, and maybe distinguish between thrown weapons and other missile weapons.

X13 Neutralize Poison

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

For the first revisitation entry, consider the fourth level clerical spell Neutralize Poison from the Cook/Marsh Expert booklet:

This spell will cancel the effects of poison and revive a poisoned character if cast within ten rounds.

Think about that. Parties with sixth level clerics become significantly less vulnerable to death from poison. Unlike magic-users, clerics have access to their entire spell corpus automatically, so there is no question of the cleric needing to do something special to learn Neutralize Poison (unless you are playing with house rules). Sixth level clerics require 25,000 XP, so while reaching sixth level is an impressive achievement in a reasonably dangerous campaign, it is not in the mythical realm of “name level” abilities that most players never reach.

This changes the nature of the game at sixth level. This is not the only spell that has this effect. As 1d30 writes:

All of this means the attention of the players gradually shifts away from counting food and water and illuminations, simplifying the Normal Equipment part of the character sheet just as the Magic Items inventory becomes more complex. … Which means low-level play was intended to be more focused on nonmagical equipment to solve problems, and high level play focused on magical equipment to solve problems.

Though that post is explicitly about AD&D, I think the same observation holds regarding basic D&D. It also shows how the availability (or lack) of specific classes can drastically change the nature of the game. If there are no clerics, then mundane resource management becomes dramatically more important at higher levels (it is always important at lower levels). This says something about party balance that I don’t think is often acknowledged within the OSR, especially since many people (myself included) like the idea that any character can try anything. However, if you don’t have a cleric, you have to carry more rations and be more cautious around poisonous monsters. If you don’t have a magic-user, you need to rely more on ropes and grappling hooks due to the lack of spells such as levitation and fly. Obviously, the point is not absolute, as magic items can take the place of some of these abilities, though the players have less control over whether or not such gear will be available.

The “within ten rounds” bit also reminds me of the AD&D death rules (see the Gygax DMG page 82) and the “Hovering on Death’s Door” optional rule from the Second Edition Dungeon Master Guide (page 75). Both of these systems see characters losing 1 HP per round if at 0 or negative HP and actually dying at -10 HP, which mirrors the “dead from poison in ten rounds” suggested by the Neutralize Poison text. Thus, one could think about a failed save against deadly poison as instantly reducing the victim to 0 HP (and unconsciousness) and starting the “final death” clock. (The 1E rules are harsher than the 2E rules, as a near death experience also results in 1-6 turns of coma followed by a week of required rest, but the idea is the same.) Further, this suggests that “death” at 0 HP is not medical death, though it might as well be for low level characters.

A bottled poison antidote would also be a reasonable extrapolation from these rules. (Is this already in the rules somewhere? I can’t find such a thing in either the Basic or Expert rule books.) Having antidotes available would turn poison into a resource tax, and would be particularly appropriate in games that also have Raise Dead spells available for a price. My preference would be for antidotes to be not economically viable for low-level characters. Clerical spells are available as scrolls, so Neutralize Poison could also be “bottled” in that way, though a cleric would still be required to use the scroll, unlike an antidote. Scroll creation also offers pricing guidelines; by the magical research rules on page X51, an antidote (really, a Potion of Neutralize Poison) costs 2000 gp and takes 4 weeks to produce. Market price should be higher than that, to allow for profit margin, so I would probably allow PCs to buy antidotes for 2500 gp. Brewing antidotes would be a nice little side business for an entrepreneurial cleric with some free time.

Neutralize Poison can’t be used as a prophylactic (such is noted clearly in the text). However, items that provide temporary protection against poison (following the example from the scrolls of protection) might also be interesting treasure items, allowing another level of resource management.

Secret Santicore 2011 Compilation

Jez over at Giblet Blizzard has completed the compilation of Secret Santicore 2011! It’s a free 10 MB PDF download, and has production values higher than many professionally produced publications. It’s fully illustrated as well. Minus the covers, there are 102 pages of content.

My regard should not be considered impartial, as my Weird Cult Generator is included.

Thanks also to Adam Watts, who provided my request, a wilderness stronghold generator on page 70 (I want more tools for wilderness stronghold creation based on my thoughts about power centers here).

Go, download, and thank Jez for his excellent work.

Spells by Reverse Engineering & Dissection

In a comment over at Gothridge Manor on a post about spells as treasure, Zzarchov mentioned that in his game (Neoclassical Geek Revival, or NGR) wizards can “learn” spells by reverse engineering magic items (destroying them in the process) or dissecting creatures with magic abilities. This mechanic could be thought of as a generalization of the rules for learning spells from scrolls (as the scroll is consumed). Reverse engineering is covered in NGR on page 12 (“Translate Magic”), though I don’t see any mention of dissection (I think it might have been a player innovation in one of his games).

NGR clearly owes a debt to D&D, but is not even close to compatible. Here is my D&D version of these ideas. Normally (Cook/Marsh Expert Rules page X51), spell research requires 1000 gp and 2 weeks of time per spell level. If you have a magic item that you are willing to destroy through reverse engineering, you can research a spell with effects similar to the item’s power. Instead of the normal costs, pay 100 gp and 1 day of time per spell level. Depending on the complexity of the spell, an intelligence check or 5 in 6 success situation roll may be required for complete (or even partial) success. Reverse engineering some magic items may be dangerous (save vs. spells to avoid or lessen the danger). Normal domain rules for spell research still apply, however. A magic-user cannot research a spell like cure light wounds, for example.

A newly dead creature with magic powers may also yield insight to spell research. The rules are similar to reverse engineering, but the corpse must be either newly dead or preserved in some way, and a lab (perhaps improvised) must be available. Costs are 500 gp and 1 day of time per spell level. Vivisection will increase chances, but may result in vengeful spirits. (I’m not sure if 500 gp is the right cost level for spell research through dissection; perhaps it should be lower.)

The discussion of counterspells in NGR also gave me an idea for why magic-users might be hesitant to share their knowledge like modern scientists: a magic-user who has been taught a spell by another magic-user (or copied it from their spell book) has insight into that particular method of casting, and can counter it in some way. Thus, if you teach someone your spell, you are also exposing your weaknesses. I’m not sure about game mechanics that might work well with B/X D&D for this yet, but I like the idea and will try to run with it at some point.

(Note: page references are to the “lion” printing of NGR.)

Thief Draft

I think it may be an OSR rite of passage to redesign the thief class. Here is my entry.

First, the literature review. I have been heavily influenced by Robert Fisher’s On thief skills in classic D&D, Philotomy’s musings on Thieves & Thief Skills, Matthew James Stanham’s article Thieving Ability (also discussed here). The Jovial Priest has an interesting article, though I decided to go in a different direction (his 2d6 resolution table is too complicated for me, and his “favored skill” system introduces complexity during character creation). Also see Talysman’s recent thief. I’m also becoming quite fond of Talysman’s situation roll, as you can probably tell from my section on skills below. Grognardia’s thiefly thoughts post is also worth a read for a quick summary of why some people think the classic thief is problematic. The LotFP specialist (Grindhouse Edition free Rules & Magic page 10) must also be noted as an important replacement thief. I like how the d6 skills emphasize that all classes can attempt certain tasks (climb, hide, search, etc) even if the specialist is better at them, but I don’t like how those skills take up extra space on the character sheet and use a point-buy system, necessitating choice during character generation.

The Cook/Marsh Expert rules (page X8) suggest some ideas for extending thief skills for higher level play: climb overhangs, climb upside down, ventriloquism, powers of distraction, mimic voices. Some of my thief skills are based on these ideas, and I may work the ones I am not using into a later draft in some fashion (particularly the improved climbing abilities).


  • Thieves are masters of stealth. They are commandos, spies, assassins, infiltrators, and skulks. They solve problems by guile, cleverness, and trickery. They will never fight fairly if they can help it.

Most thief skills consume the resource of time (suggested by the B/X Blackrazor “automatic” thief). Absent distraction or complication, thieves will succeed if they are not rushed (time required is included with the skill description). Wearing any non-light armor (i.e., anything other than leather following the B/X rules) will result in penalties for the physical skills (likely a penalty of one or two on the situation roll, but specifics are by circumstance and referee ruling). I will probably formalize this through the encumbrance system. I use LotFP encumbrance rules, so it should be easy to base the penalty on the encumbrance level (see the free Rules & Magic book, pages 38 – 40).

Thieves use d6 for hit dice. They may use any weapon or armor. Since mobility, speed, and agility are important to thieves for many reasons, they rarely wear non-light armor. I use hit die based weapon damage (with 2DTH for dual wielding or two-handed weapons). So, thieves do d6 damage with weapons. They use the “medium” base attack bonus by level (shared with clerics). Though I’m not a fan of the “combat advantage” DPS super-strikers of 3E & 4E, I do like my thieves to be a bit more capable in combat than they are in the various early rule sets.

Regardless of level, all thieves have the following abilities:

  • Alertness: bonus to hearing noise (2 in 6 chance rather than the normal 1 in 6); this also makes the thief harder to surprise
  • Surprise attack: +4 to attack roll, double damage upon hit (in some ways this is the inverse of the alertness ability)

Skills are the essence of the thief class, and I have not neglected them. I am following my idea of giving the thief one awesome ability per level rather than many poor abilities all at once that develop slowly. This also fits my principle of introducing complexity slowly. I do think it is important to allow the thief to develop as levels are accumulated (this is why I am not following the B/X Blackrazor all-at-once automatic thief). The level advancement incentive is a big part of classic D&D play, and all the other core classes develop (cleric: turning & spells, fighter: attack bonus, magic-user: spells).

Thief skills by level (or roll d10 each level, re-rolling duplicates):

  1. Open locks (requires tools): Mundane locks take 1 turn to open. Complicated locks may require dice (5 in 6 succeeds, on failure dexterity save to avoid breaking the tools). Magical locks may not be opened.
  2. Move silently, 10’ per turn (20′ per turn is also possible but will likely require a dexterity save, or a 5 in 6 success probability, depending on circumstances)
  3. Hide in shadows, may not move
  4. Interpret languages, codes, and maps (5 in 6 success, on failure may only retry upon gaining a level)
  5. Climb walls, 10’ per turn, if distracted or attacked save or fall
  6. Voices: ventriloquism & mimicry
  7. Legerdemain: pilfer, distract, or amuse; can also be used to disable small mechanical traps (5 in 6 success, on failure dexterity save to avoid being caught)
  8. Brew poison: given 1 day and 100 gp, a thief can brew one dose of save-or-die poison sufficient to threaten the life of a human-sized opponent. How larger or smaller creatures react to poison is by referee ruling. 5 in 6 chance to identify and know effects of examined poisons. Other recipes (such as for a paralytic poison) can be found, or can be synthesized based on reverse-engineering an identified poison.
  9. Assassinate: successful surprise attack does damage in hit dice rather than hit points
  10. Use magic scrolls (5 in 6 success, on failure save vs. spells or backfire)

That’s right, if you roll for your skill, you could start with the assassinate or brew poison ability. I like that.

Am I missing any traits or abilities that are associated with the archetypal thief?

27 December 2011 edit: more good suggestions from Jeffro here.
11 February 2012 edit: added poison identification to the brew poison ability.
13 February 2012 edit: added reverse engineering to the poison ability.

Advanced Adventures

I took advantage of one of the recent Lulu sales to pick up the Advanced Adventures compilations (Compendium 1 and Compendium 2). They arrived at the beginning of the month, but I just now had the opportunity to page through them. They are beautiful books, and I can’t wait to use some of the adventures. I think Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom will probably be the first I run, as a prelude to Demonspore (my players have already encountered a raiding party of toad people slavers on the surface). If you’re interested in the contents of the individual adventures, Silver Blade Adventures has a nice series of reviews. I can imagine that it’s going to take a long time for me to even read all this material, much less make use of it on the gaming table. With these and the older TSR modules I have acquired recently, I have a lot to work with.

The heft of a hardcover book feels much more satisfactory than the thin saddle-stapled form of the individual modules (though I don’t like to make it obvious what module I am running and a hardcover is more difficult to hide in a gaming binder). That being said, these collections are literally just the AA modules sandwiched between hard covers. There is no table of contents. There is no index. You have to perform a sequential page search to find anything. These compilations could have become much more than the sum of their parts if they had included things like collected appendices of all the new monsters. I think this is a lost opportunity.

Books are a form of information technology. More advanced books have tables of contents, indices, lists of works cited, collected appendices of common entities, and bibliographies. Books that lack these features are not as capable. Too often, digital publishers don’t understand the technical value of these traditional features, perhaps assuming that full text search is a replacement for a human-compiled index (it’s not). Digital publishers often don’t even make use of the unique capabilities of a digital format, such as hyperlinks and internal bookmarks. I have bought Kindle books that don’t even include a table of contents. Happily, this seems to be slowly getting better (for example, the Carcosa PDF is heavily bookmarked).

Speaking of Carcosa, I wish all paper publishers would follow the lead of LotFP and include a PDF with any hardcopy purchase. It is quite useful to be able to print out individual pages for game binders and easily crop images for player handouts.