Monthly Archives: April 2012

This and That

My print copy of ACKS arrived last week. It’s a beautiful thing. And now I don’t have to wait for my PDF viewer to finish rendering the giant images when I’m looking things up. It almost feels odd being able to quickly leaf through a physical book as I had gotten so used to ACKS in PDF form.

One of my new players knows how to use glue (I apparently don’t, as my Otherword Minis had been waiting for months to be assembled). So he very helpfully put them together for me and now we have more attractive minis to use.

Also, it looks like I’m going to be rather busy this week, so posts might be less frequent.

One For All or All For One

Back in the 90s when I played 2E, before Third Edition was released, we played with perception as a seventh ability score. I’m not sure if this was inspired by something, or if it was a purely original house rule. We relied heavily on “roll equal to or less than” ability checks (even basing a custom system entirely around this mechanic at one point). While the traditional six ability scores cover most situations, it is not obvious which should be used, for example, to notice a sneaking monster. So, we added another 3d6 score for perception.

The WotC editions of D&D were designed similarly, and I’m sure many (most?) other games work the same way. It seems to intuitively make sense that being perceptive, being able to notice things, is a personal trait, and should vary from character to character. However, this doesn’t really work very well in the context of an adventuring party. For one thing, it replaces 1 roll with N rolls (or N lookups if you are playing with something like passive perception). Further, a well designed group game will not have many opportunities for one character to go off and do things without the participation of the others, so the utility of tying perception to the individual is limited.

There are two main places where perception is relevant to the game. The first is when a PC is trying to locate something that is concealed (either actively or passively), the second is when one group might not be aware of another group (like an ambush). The original game used a per-character system for the first and a group system (surprise) for the second. From The Underworld & Wilderness Adventure (page 9):

Surprise: A condition of surprise can only exist when one or both parties are unaware of the presence of the other. Such things as ESP’ing, light, and noise will negate surprise. If the possibility for surprise exists roll a six-sided die for each party concerned. A roll of 1 or 2 indicates the party is surprised. Distance is then 10-30 feet.

Surprise gives the advantage of a free movement segment, whether to flee, cast a spell or engage in combat. If monsters gain surprise they will either close the distance between themselves and the character(s) (unless they are intelligent and their prey is obviously too strong to attack) or attack.

There is precedent for using the surprise mechanic as a general stealth system. This way of doing things was preserved with minor variations through all the TSR editions of D&D. For example, in Second Edition, the check is 3 in 10 per side (2E PHB page 111); there are options that allow individual character attributes to influence the group roll though. I didn’t understand or use the original surprise system back then though, for whatever reason.

Perception as we used it (and as D&D 3E and 4E use it) is a highest common denominator system. You only need one person to notice a sneaking bugbear and then they can alert the other PCs. In contrast, movement rate is a lowest common denominator system. The group can only move as fast as it’s slowest member. Trap finding is also a highest common denominator system. If connected to player options, any kind of highest denominator system will structurally devolve into a skill tax when taken to its logical end. That is, an “optimized” group will have one character that is perceptive (with perhaps one backup).

It just doesn’t seem like much is being gained by individualizing perception in this case. Perceptive or not perceptive is an uninteresting character trait for purposes of roleplaying; it is pretty much just system mechanics. Does this same line of reasoning apply to hearing noise and searching for secret doors? Well, there is one major difference that I can think of. Listening at a door and searching are both proactive. In contrast, perception (or surprise) checks are generally passive, in the sense that they happen to the PCs rather than being initiated by them, and are also part of combat, which benefits more than other parts of the game from mechanical streamlining (because there are so many die rolls involved). If you base the search chance on class (like some editions do where default is 1 in 6 but elves have 2 in 6 change) then you minimize (but do not completely avoid) the skill tax problem.

I will close with one last observation. In the 90s, as has been commonly observed, tabletop RPGs moved away from problem solving and exploration and towards character development (influenced by the White Wold games and products that started to focus on character options). Thus, the logic of the individual character was privileged over the group (and game) experience. I can’t help but think that small mechanical changes like the perception skill are but manifestations of this larger trend, and are closely tied to the idea of RPGs as wish fulfillment fantasies. That, however, is probably a larger topic.

Play Aids

Following on my ideas for one page dungeon module prep, I’ve actually put together some materials. That’s 10 pages in the picture below (I printed the Blasphemous Brewery prep sheet double sided because I was able to fit the maps and prompts needed on two sheets). One of those sheets is a table for the effects of the purple lotus. I’m missing zone 2 of Hammers of the God because I haven’t completed it yet. It might need to be two pages; I’m not sure yet. The transfomorph from that module also has its own page because it requires several tables.

I’m in the process of running Death Frost Doom from these sheets. They are working out really well so far. They do take a bit of effort to construct, but if you do it at the same time you are reading the module in preparation, I don’t think the extra time is all that much. I would love to see this sort of play aid generally included with modules. Basically, I think that page flipping should be kept to an absolute minimum. It is a rare case where a session might require more than one or two of these sheets (if players are in a sandbox environment where they could jump in any number of different directions, you might need to have several available, but you will probably not need to actually use more than one or two).

As I said before, I don’t think these are replacements for traditional adventures. Modules, especially good ones, convey a lot of atmosphere with all that extra text. But I don’t want to read that during play, I want to read that before play to have a sense of what the scenario should feel like, and during play I only want the critical details.

I’m still playing around with the form factor. Assuming a single sheet like this works well, but perhaps digest size, printed like a booklet (one sheet of paper folded in half) would work better. That might make the front and back more accessible, and would also allow the sheet to be kept inside my adventure log notebook, which is smaller than 8.5 x 11. Right now I have a binder in addition to the notebook, and it would be nice to only need the notebook.

D&D Board Game Figures

I actually really like these monochromatic miniatures, as I think they have enough detail to be distinguished from each other but are still abstract enough to not weaken the imagination. To my eye, they look better than the prepainted plastic miniatures I have seen.

I don’t own any of these D&D board games, but now that Fifth Edition is looming, maybe these 4E-derived games will be available cheaply (and I’ve heard the games themselves are not bad).

Castle Ravenloft Miniatures (image source: Frontline Gamer)
Wrath of Ashardalon Miniatures (image source: Frontline Gamer)
The Legend of Drizzt (image source: Frontline Gamer)

They also remind me somewhat of the old Hero Quest figures, which is a game I did own when I was younger.

Hero Quest Chaos Warriors
Hero Quest Orcs
Hero Quest Skeletons

All hero quest images from this site.

Two Monsters

The blog Dungeons & Drawings has had several noteworthy monster illustration entries recently. First is the siege crab, which is:

[A] half-living tank, forged by the Kuo Toa (or any other evil sea-dwelling race, should you wish) by surgical and magical means. A live giant crab is taken and a chunk of its insides are taken out to create a small transportation area where its handlers can sit.

Then there is the elder brain, which is sort of like a cylon basestar for illithids, in function if not appearance:

The life of the mind flayer begins and ends in the tank of the Elder Brain. As little tadpoles, they’re placed in its tank, where it feeds off their psychic energy. Those who survive get to become fully formed mind flayers. At the end of an mind flayer’s life, the brain is removed from the creature’s head and placed in the tank, where it’s absorbed by their leader.

I believe both of these monsters were introduced in 3E and are official D&D monsters (though they were new to me). They are both great ideas. I have still never run a heavily aquatic scenario, and it’s something I would like to try at some point. I can imagine rather than tanks, what if the elder brains inhabited great airless flooded caverns and tunnels? This would necessitate descending into the watery depths to actually defeat an illithid colony; sort of like a fantasy Lovecraftian version of The Abyss.

5E Backgrounds & Themes

There is a post over at the D&D Next development blog about backgrounds and themes. I can already hear the old school groans. Oh no, more sets of options that can be used for character optimization! More complexity! But stay with me, I actually think there are some really interesting ideas here. In the article, backgrounds are described as a bundle of skills and themes are presented as a collection of feats. Choosing a background explains where your character came from, and choosing a theme identifies how the character plays. So far, so much like ACKS templates, right? Or Second Edition kits? Well, sort of, but not only.

This background/theme split actually makes a lot of sense to me. I like it because it focuses on character concept rather than character function. This is a move away from the focus on “role” in Fourth Edition. In 4E, role is actually more important than class. Using backgrounds and themes, rather than selecting the skill athletics and a feat that gives a bonus to ranged combat, a player might select the soldier background and the sharpshooter theme. You don’t even really need to be familiar with the skill and feat descriptions (assuming they choose the background and theme names well). You just need to pick fighter, soldier, sharpshooter. Done. More examples from the article:

The first theme you choose is broadly descriptive and flexible. Think Leader, Sharpshooter, or Skirmisher. When you adopt your second theme at 6th level, you might choose another basic theme or you might choose something that grounds you a bit more in the game by selecting an advanced theme. Currently, advanced themes, in concept, resemble the prestige classes from 3rd Edition. They focus your character a bit further, building on the foundation established by another theme, to reflect deep specialization or some character-defining quality. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head. A Sharpshooter becomes an Arcane Archer. A Tempest becomes an Eldritch Knight. A Lurker becomes a Shadowdancer. A Mystic becomes a Necromancer or Enchanter or Abjurer.

A wizard specialist would actually be something you grow into, not something you start as. This makes sense to me intuitively and also follows the principle of character elaboration through play rather than optimized builds constructed before the game.

Background and theme lists also provide a way for the referee to tailor the player interface to a given campaign without requiring the players to read a large setting infodump document. (Such lists might be amenable to random tables, too, for really quick character generation.) One of the examples they give is a set of backgrounds and themes that might be appropriate for a Ravenloft game: Occultist + Avenger, Commoner + Werewolf, or Bereaved + Revenant. That’s only six words right there, and I bet you already have a pretty good idea about the style and content of that campaign (though I have no idea what “revenant” has to do with class play style).

I also like the idea of getting a new theme every five levels rather than multiclassing. It would fit well with E6-style level limits. If someone wanted to play, for example, an E5 game, then the second theme would essentially be an endgame prestige class. More complicated characters would be possible for those that wished to run campaigns with a higher level cap. Blending magical and mundane themes could lead to very interesting non-stereotypical characters (like a wizard who takes the sharpshooter theme) without the blandness of wizard-4, thief-2 (or whatever). This may also help prevent some of the multiclassing abuses like taking first level in several classes just to get the basic class features. From the article:

As I mentioned last time, I can imagine the fighter’s suggested background being soldier. That tells the story of the fighter throughout the editions. By replacing soldier with priest, I suddenly have a very different sort of fighter—even if the mechanical adjustments are shallow and focus on noncombat task resolution. Such a character might have been a temple guard, a crusader, or even Friar Tuck, armed with a quarterstaff.

And, for those groups that like just picking skills and feats directly, it should be immediately obvious how to do that (“DM 5: Come up with your own background by choosing up to four skills”). Or, one could use backgrounds and themes in a more abstract way, akin to the old secondary skill system.

Now, that’s not to say that this design might not devolve into endless options, but I think it has potential to work well with multiple play styles. As the article suggests, if you don’t want to play with skills, the way to do that is to run a game without backgrounds, and if you don’t want to play with feats, the way to do that is to run a game without themes. Elegant, and by reframing the issues it might also help get people to try playing other styles. I could imagine a tactical gamer willing to try a game without themes and an old school player willing to play a game with backgrounds, especially if all the other rules elements that they are familiar with stay the same. I think this is the most innovative and promising design preview I have seen regarding 5E yet, and one of the few that really starts to show how the system might support multiple play styles an a modular way.

Pathfinder Beginner Box 3

Now for the physical product. There are a number of extras in the box that I figured would be useful to me no matter what. Extra battle mat, cardboard miniatures, set of dice. The miniatures especially will helpful as I am still running my 4E-derived game, and my players love their tactical combats. They are heavy enough to feel like they won’t be falling over all the time during play, unlike anything I would be able to print out and make on my own. These were popular enough that Paizo is planning to release a standalone Bestiary Box this summer. The only downside is they did not include as many bases as minis, so you have to swap the bases around, which I imagine might wear out the cardstock after a while.

The box itself is very nice, and I don’t mean the cover art (though that is good too). It feels very sturdy, and is quite deep without being bulky. I might even start using it to transport my gaming materials as I have been trying to reduce the quantity of stuff that I bring to sessions. I like making arbitrary rules, so I give you THE PATHFINDER BEGINNER BOX RULE: everything needed for a gaming session must fit inside the Beginner Box such that it closes entirely. This includes notes, dice, campaign notebook, miniatures, writing implement, etc. It could easily fit a set of hardcover D&D core books in terms of the depth, but for some reason the dimensions are such that it is a bit too small (even for Pathfinder-branded hardcovers, which seems like a strange design decision).

If I was going to buy an intro RPG product for someone, and I thought they could handle it, I would buy them the LotFP Grindhouse Edition. The Pathfinder Beginner Box would be my second choice, I think, despite the risk of embedding the combat grid in a new player’s consciousness.

Secret Door Techniques

I was just reading the LotFP module The Grinding Gear. It has lots of secret doors, and none of them have any mechanisms described. This stuck out after just recently reading this post, OSR Contradiction 2: Player Skill vs. Minimal Dungeons, over at Roles, Rules & Rolls. Further, the Grinding Gear secrets are not “optional” extras; they are required to proceed with the adventure. Both Hammers of the God and Death Frost Doom also have major areas (as in, one third or more of the module content) that can only be accessed if a secret door is found (though some of these secret doors provide specific opening procedures).

When searching for information about how other people have run The Grinding Gear, I came across this LotFP forum post (*). Apparently, Moldvay only allows one try per character per secret door, but no other edition of D&D has a similar rule. This is one of those minor rules variations that has major repercussions on the nature of the game (and module compatibility). Jim goes as far as to say:

My entire style of running (and writing!) adventures just wouldn’t work with a “one chance only” approach, and to repeat again, I had no idea this was a rule in any version of the grand ol’ game, let alone having any idea that people actually played that way.

See also the comments quoted in Zak’s review of The Grinding Gear. (It is worth noting in passing that, unlike B/X D&D, LotFP search is a skill that can be improved, though only by the specialist class.) But then Jeff Rients chimes in:

I use the Moldvay/LL ‘one try only’ rule. It makes elven door-finding and dwarvish sliding wall detection more useful. And since the rule is one try per person, it encourages bringing more people on the mission.

And swords, wands and artifacts that detect secret doors are more valuable if you can’t easily find them.

Also, I like the game to have some roads that are just as real as the one trod by the PCs, but for some reason or another they can never go down them.

And then, how does one handle secret doors that don’t have any description if one wants to support descriptive trap finding? Courtney of Hack & Slash implies that such descriptive trap finding was the way the original wargaming pioneers played. This is, I think, the best statement of his method:

You don’t roll a die to determine if you find and open a secret door, you gather information by asking questions and using your personal smarts to make choices to test the situation to discover the door. Then you make choices about how to open the door.* There is one specific way to open the door. There isn’t a ‘proper’ solution to the encounter because there is no reason you are entitled to find the secret door and no reason it is necessary to find the secret door.

*But what about searching for secret doors, talking with monsters, and bashing doors? Situations that are common but just use some random game system to determine the result? How is that player skill?

Unlike modern systems where there is no consequences for failure, each of those is a choice that must be made. Do we risk one turn searching and increase the chance of running into a monster? Do we give up surprise to attempt to parley with the monsters? Do we risk the chance of monsters hearing us bash this door? Each is a choice, weighed with consequences for the attempt and for failure. That is why those are examples of skill based play.

Sorry for the extended quote, but it seems important to be clear about the various positions. So, the options are:

  1. Non-Moldvay: 1 in 6, as many times as desired; cost: 1 turn
  2. Moldvay: 1 in 6, once chance; cost: 1 turn
  3. Courtney: description; non-Moldvay option available

My general mode of operation recently has been none of these. My rule has been that if a secret door is indicated and no description is provided, then searching the area is sufficient to locate the door without making any roll. Just saying “I search the room” is not enough (but it does give you a d6 throw chance), but saying “I spend three turns searching the 30 foot north wall” is.

This is clearly not one of those oh my god you’re so stupid you’re doing it wrong kind of things. If Mr. Rients, Mr. Raggi, and Mr. Hack & Slash all have different (and incompatible!) approaches, I think the only conclusion to be drawn is that even within the relatively restricted field of traditional D&D (let’s say this set includes TSR D&D prior to Second Edition and the associated retro-clones and simulacra) there are several common methods of play. Learn how they work, pick your favorite, and modify any modules you run to fit your method of choice.

* Mostly unrelated, it seems like the original name of Hammers of the God was Old Miner’s Shame, which is pretty cool.

Pathfinder Beginner Box 2

My first post about the Beginner Box focused on the Hero’s Handbook, which contains the rules for creating PCs. Here I am going to talk about the referee side of the set, the Game Master’s Guide. It starts out with a simple dungeon adventure which is not bad, despite the fact that the map really does look like a set of video game screen shots. However, later on in their section on creating dungeons, they do use a more down to earth map that looks like it was drawn by hand and even make the following remark on page 31:

Your dungeon maps don’t need to look professionally drawn like the map for Black Fang’s Dungeon—the hand-drawn map of Raven’s Watch works just as well.

This is a strategy used several places in the Beginner Box; they lead with glitz and then qualify their recommendations further on, and it works well most of the time.

Excerpt from Black Fang’s Dungeon

There is a decent selection of monsters (forty-something) and some of them are moderately high CR, but there is not as much variety or content as the old basic sets. Each monster entry takes half of a page. The higher-CR monsters include salamander (CR 6), medusa (CR 7), manticore (CR 5), mummy (CR 5), ghost (CR7), and black dragon (CR 8). There is a bias towards enemies that can be defeated directly, but at least they included some stretch targets. And poison is so weak now. If you fail your save against giant spider venom you get all of a -1 on attack and damage rolls (cumulative if you get hit again). Seriously, that’s it.

The XP rewards for defeating monsters are off the charts! A ½ CR zombie gives 200 XP. I guess that’s what happens when you take away treasure XP, but I would think that some of the slack would be picked up by XP for solving puzzles, surviving traps, and achieving other goals. I think OD&D gives 100 XP per hit die, but those monsters are far deadlier. Using the rules as written, I bet PCs would level really quickly.

Just like the weapons chart that I mentioned in the previous post, these monster listings also somehow gave me the feeling of old console RPG supplements, like the Dragon Warrior poster below.

Dragon Warrior Monsters

Much info is presented in random table form, including adventure seeds, magic items, and most importantly encounters. This is another case where they wrote something (on page 84) that made me cringe:

By using the random encounter tables for that terrain, you can create fun battles for the PCs without putting in a lot of work.

But then corrected it it shortly thereafter (same page):

Although these tables are filled with monsters, you can have interesting non-combat random encounters, such as a strange statue, corpses from a battle, religious pilgrims looking for a shrine, and so on.

It would be nice if they had emphasized that not all monster encounters need to be combat either. Speaking of which, I really feel the lack of the traditional social mechanics. There are no rules for retainers, encounter reactions, or morale. This is the single biggest shortcoming of Pathfinder. Of course, it would not be that hard to house rule them in, though you would need to make up appropriate morale numbers. I also miss the “number appearing” and “percent chance in lair” info.

I think it might be fun to use literally nothing outside of the Beginner Box for a game. Use the town of Sandpoint and the surrounding hinterlands. Populate them using all of the entries on the d12 table of “dungeon storylines” and the seven sample “additional quests.” And make sure all the monsters have a place. Maybe roll for enmities. Another attractive option that comes to mind is to use the Third Edition Necromancer Games world and modules, but still cap the PC level at 5. So, if the player’s want to take on the harder challenges, they will need to be very creative.

Pathfinder Beginner Box 1

I recently picked up a copy of the Pathfinder Beginner Box. I’ve been curious about this product for a while as a sort of rules-lite version of Third Edition, perhaps also playable as a complete game (a sort of E5). The very positive reviews from many parts of the OSR have also played no small part (for examples, see OD&D Discussion here, Babbling Bane here, and Tenkar here).

My exposure to Third Edition is very spotty. I missed the 3E years almost entirely. So this is also a more systematic and thorough introduction to the 3E lineage for me. In this post, I will focus on my initial impressions and on the contents of the Hero’s Handbook (the player facing part of the rules). Most of this will be from the perspective of someone who already knows how to play tabletop RPGs and just wants to use the rules, but I will also note in passing that this might be the best introductory set for a new player as well (up there with Mentzer Basic D&D and the LotFP Grindhouse Edition).

The visuals are not bad. I’m not a huge Wayne Reynolds fan, but I like the level of detail in some of his illustrations, and his work for the box cover is quite good (the two adventurers facing off against the black dragon). I’m also fond of the example fighter picture. Valeros looks like a badass, but is still grounded in reality. In terms of game aesthetics, the overall effect is reasonable. The heavily stylized “dungeon punk” look is subdued, though there is a bit of a fantasy seventeenth century vibe. There is only one silly fantasy weapon (the starknife, which is sort of like an oversized shuriken with a handle in the middle so that it can either be wielded as a melee weapon or thrown).

The graphic design is reminiscent of a video game manual, and somewhat surprisingly that is a positive thing. I remember paging through the strategy guides for early Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy games and using them as inspiration for my tabletop games. It is that feeling that I get looking through the Beginner Box manuals.

Dragon Warrior Explorer’s Handbook

I really like how the class descriptions and spells are presented in “level-up” blocks, but the power inflation is notable in comparison to TSR editions. Each class has a few extra goodies (like the wizard’s “arcane bond” feature which gives the character a magic item that allows casting one spell per day without preparation). Hit dice are d10 (fighter), d8 (cleric and rogue), and d6 (wizard). (People can’t seem to stop bumping the thief’s hit die up.) Full HP are granted at first level. In terms of complexity, the caster classes take up 6 pages each (this includes all spells available for the levels covered) and the fighter and rogue take up two pages each (though half the fighter class is hidden in the section on feats and half the rogue class is hidden in the section on skills). In general, this feels manageable and flexible. This level of power advancement is not a problem if you top out at 5th level.

Both of the caster classes are unfortunately a bit bland, and not in an the archetypal “imagination fuel” way. The available wizard schools are universalist, evocation, and illusion (boring) and each grant a few extra powers usable several times per day (for example, the illusionist can use a magical disguise once per day and the evocation specialist gets a free daily burning hands and some force missiles). Cleric “orisons” (that is, at-will powers), include light, read magic, and detect magic. That’s right, as long as you have a cleric, you never need to worry about light sources. Wizard cantrips (at-will powers, in Pathfinder), include detect magic, mage hand (minor telekinesis), ray of frost (1d3 damage with 30 foot range), and read magic. This is a bit more than I would like characters to begin with, but I can work with it. The augury spell (available to clerics at third level) is an abomination and should be excised.

The fighter, wizard, and rogue are all recognizable takes on the traditional classes, though the rogue is significantly more combat-focused. The cleric, however, bears less relation to the traditional mace-wielding undead-smiting holy warrior. This seems like a strange choice for an introductory set. None of the gods resonate with me; they all seem like generic invented fantasy gods.

Demihumans keep getting bigger and bigger! Dwarves are described as on average about a foot shorter than humans. So, dwarves must be around 4½ to 5½ feet tall. That is much larger than I have ever pictured dwarves in a fantasy world. And elves are described as taller than humans. There’s nothing really wrong with these changes, I just think they are odd choices for default archetypal fantasy races. These are minor aesthetic details, but still worth noting.

The overall impression I get from the Beginner Box is that the system is tractable, and this is a very good thing. It seems like it would be possible to understand relatively completely without an obscene time investment. Character generation, though still more complicated than I would like, is not too cumbersome. As Zenopus says, the Pathfinder Beginner Box really is an homage to the classic basic sets, and it includes many nods to the style of traditional D&D as well, though many of them are contained in the Game Master’s Guide and so will be covered in another post.