Monthly Archives: August 2012

Dying Earth spells for D&D

Image from Wikipedia

John left a comment on my recent post about magic-users drawing my attention to a document he put together: Dying Earth Spells for D&D. (Here’s a direct link to the PDF for people that don’t want to deal with Scribd.) This is perhaps the best collection of spells I have seen. Here are some of the spells: The Howling Rune, The Manifold Effigies of BeingThe Spell of Celeritous Relocalisation. There were enough entries that I assumed the document was just a list of spell names.

Imagine my delight as I scrolled down and realized that this free document contains 30 fantastically named spells per level (up to 6th, which God intended to be the highest level of magic-user spells). That is 180 spells, and every single one has a description. And further, they are all written concisely, in a format that I can imagine no way to improve upon.

Here’s one example:

Evard’s Frictionless Field
R: 1″ D: 3 rounds + 1/level AoE: 1″ square Save: Special
Save vs. spell or slip and fall. If cast on item then save or drop immediately.

Even better, it is organized by level, not alphabet.

Go forth, download, and enjoy.

Thank you John for creating such a fantastic resource. (I assume it’s okay to mirror the PDF since it is freely downloadable from Scribd, but let me know if you would like me to remove the direct link.)

Blogging

My first post on this blog was published August 21, 2011. So tomorrow is my first blogging anniversary. The first post was about a campaign called Blackwater Falls, which was one of the most successful games I have played in. That first effort has been followed by more than 300 others, and this blog has accumulated over 69k views; moderate success by the standards of our community, I think, but certainly way more than I expected! I had no intent when I began to produce anything so regular, and avoided the idea of a posting schedule intentionally, to keep fun high and pressure low. My only stricture was to try not to post more than once a day, to keep from flooding any potential readers and burning out my own enthusiasm (I have broken this rule once or twice, but only for minor things like links to other resources).

Sometimes I wonder about the effort involved. Blogging is not hard, especially compared to more systematic writing, but it does require an investment of time to get ideas into a form that can be consumed by others. However, I have found that this is a good way to figure out what I actually think about something. My first post drafts, which were never actually published, focused on the design of Fourth Edition, as that was what pulled me back into the hobby after a 10 year hiatus. Well, the edition itself didn’t pull be back in, it was more that 4E was the game my coworkers were playing. So my earliest posts were focused on explaining the ideas of class balance, roles, and power sources to myself.

As noted, those posts never actually got published, as I quickly realized that 4E catered primarily to aspects of the game that I wasn’t really interested in, despite having some innovative ideas (I still think, for example, that forced movement is something which could profitably be introduced to traditional D&D, without recourse to the grid or miniatures). By reading some blogs that focused on 4E, I discovered that other communities online existed dedicated to earlier styles of gaming, and slowly came to the realization that the OSR seemed to be more in line with my own priorities. As it turned out, many of the gaming practices that worked best for me back in my days of 2E gaming were cases of independently discovering things that the original game was designed around, but that were gradually sidelined or eliminated in later editions (and hence largely concealed from me during the 90s).

Despite that, I ran a hacked version of Fourth Edition D&D for something like 9 months, because the player interface was familiar to the people I was gaming with. It was fun. It gave me real experience regarding what “new school” D&D is good at, and what it is bad at. I’m glad, though, to be running and playing rule systems that are closer to my ideal now.

Engaging with the OSR and general gaming community via reading other blogs and writing this blog has been a very effective way of learning about gaming, and I often think I should apply the same strategy to some of my other hobbies. Specifically, I am pretty serious about weight lifting and fitness, and I think that fits the community reinforcement patterns present in blogging very well. I’ve been planning on starting up a fitness blog for a while, but have been hung up on picking a name (something that is always hard for me). I don’t just want to use a nonsense word like I did for this blog! (The story behind this blog’s name is that untimately is how I always mistype ultimately.) I’m also fascinated by economic history. Also blog material? How many blogs can one profitably have? That quote about serving multiple masters (Matthew 6:24) from the Bible comes to mind.

Blogging is also somewhat addictive. As fellow blogger Erik from the excellent blog/setting Wampus Country noted, the addiction of blogging comes from the continuous minor rewards of comment feedback. Should I be ashamed to admit that often the first thing I do in the morning when I wake up is to check my email to see if there have been any blog comments overnight? Intellectually, I know that comment volume is not a good quality metric. The kinds of posts that provoke the most comments are quite obviously not the best posts, looked at with any kind of objectivity. But that knowledge does not make the reward structure of our minds work differently. It’s the same thing that is behind slot machines and treasure drops in Diablo and World of Warcraft. Worth keeping in mind, I think.

If I had a single piece of advice for other bloggers, it would be to use writing about specific things as a way to get at a general idea. This is not based on a sense that what I am doing is the right way to do it, but rather on what I like to read on other blogs. For example, the Dwimmermount actual play reports on Grognardia are so good because they are not really actual play reports (which, let’s face it, are almost universally boring to read and are only useful as a record of happenings). Instead, they are investigations into how the elements of old school roleplaying work, with a mix of theory and examples taken from the session. Go back and read them some time, especially in chronological order, to see what I mean. Good literary criticism uses reading a novel as a vehicle to say something independently interesting. Similarly with any kind of discourse. I don’t always live up to this ideal, but I try.

So what do I see as the future of this blog? Well, I’m not sure. I keep thinking I should scale back my posts to a few per week rather than approximately daily, but then I worry that if I stop for a few days I may just never return. I would also like to occasionally delve into other games more deeply, especially Call of Cthulhu and early Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but I think I need to actually play them before I can do that. So I will probably keep on doing more or less what I have been doing. As my Vaults of Pahvelorn game continues, I would also like to start releasing some of my materials from that, along with continued musings on OD&D.

In addition, I have several other larger gaming-related projects that I am working on. I don’t like to talk much about projects before there is really something there, but hopefully these will progress soon to a point where I can start to talk about them without feeling like I am discussing aspirations as opposed to actual things.

Types of Ability Check

There are two common ways to do ability checks. One is the old school “roll d20 less than or equal to” method that I will call “roll under” or RU in this post. In this method, rolling lower is better. The other is the new school “roll d20 add modifier and hit target number” method that I will call DC (for “difficulty class”) in this post. In the 3E DC method, higher is always better.

The two methods have math that is slightly different. Using the 3E DC method has a slight dampening effect, as all that matters is the modifier (for example, a score of 14 and 15 have the same modifier, and so characters with strength scores of both 14 and 15 have the exact same chances of succeeding on any strength check). It is worth noting beforehand that ability score modifiers are different in 3E than they are in traditional D&D. The Moldvay progression looks like this:

0 0 0 0 1 1 1 2 2 3

Whereas the 3E ability modifiers look like this (and extend linearly off into infinity):

0 0 1 1 2 2 3 3 4 4

Both RU and DC style checks can be used with either style of modifier progression. The table I have included below uses the Moldvay progression, but I don’t think the results are much changed if the linear 3E progression is substituted (you get an extra 5% tier on each end, because of the -4 and +4).

A flat RU check with no bonus or penalty is approximately equal to a DC 10 check. Modifying the difficulty of an RU check is usually done by rolling with a bonus or penalty. To compare the two methods, I have calculated percentages DC 5, 10, 15, and 20 3E checks and corresponding RU +5, +0, -5, and -10 checks. Thus, the columns should be compared pairwise:

  • Easy: RU +5, DC 5
  • Average: RU, DC 10
  • Moderate: RU -5, DC 15
  • Difficult: RU -10, DC 20
So, RU +5 and DC 5 are both “easy” ability checks. I used color in the headings to indicate which columns should be compared; hopefully it is clear. I have further colored the success chances in blocks of 25%. So, from 1% – 25% gets one color, 26% – 50% gets another color, etc.
Score Mod RU +5 DC 5 RU DC 10 RU -5 DC 15 RU -10 DC 20
3 -3 40% 65% 15% 40% 5% 15% 5% 5%
4 -2 45% 70% 20% 45% 5% 20% 5% 5%
5 -2 50% 70% 25% 45% 5% 20% 5% 5%
6 -1 55% 75% 30% 50% 5% 25% 5% 5%
7 -1 60% 75% 35% 50% 5% 25% 5% 5%
8 -1 65% 75% 40% 50% 10% 25% 5% 5%
9 70% 80% 45% 55% 15% 30% 5% 5%
10 75% 80% 50% 55% 20% 30% 5% 5%
11 80% 80% 55% 55% 25% 30% 5% 5%
12 85% 80% 60% 55% 30% 30% 5% 5%
13 +1 90% 85% 65% 60% 35% 35% 10% 10%
14 +1 95% 85% 70% 60% 40% 35% 15% 10%
15 +1 95% 85% 75% 60% 45% 35% 20% 10%
16 +2 95% 90% 80% 65% 50% 40% 25% 15%
17 +2 95% 90% 85% 65% 55% 40% 30% 15%
18 +3 95% 95% 90% 70% 60% 45% 35% 20%

This table should be read as follows:

  • RU +5 = add 5 to the score and then roll less than or equal to it on a d20
  • RU -10 = subtract 10 from the score, roll less than or equal to it on a d20
  • DC 15 = roll d20, add the modifier, and roll equal to or greater than

So what does this mean? The takeaway here is that DC checks have much less variance, and are thus less interesting in practice. They tend to be almost binary. That is, a DC 15 check is within the same 25% success bracket for all but the bottom 3 ability scores (that is what all that blue in the DC 15 column means). Compare to RU -5, which ranges from 5% to 60%, depending on character competency.

One last note. The Moldvay system assumes bounded ability scores, describing a population that observes the standard bell curve distribution (and races don’t modify ability scores). This says something about the nature of the characters so modeled, and I think this feeds into the general power curve analysis I did before.

Solutions? The monolith owes you none

Image from LotFP store

Let’s talk about agency and horror. A big part of horror is not being in control, and perhaps being in situations that don’t make sense. Horror movies use all kinds of techniques in an attempt to achieve this effect, from dissonance in music to odd camera angles. The general trajectory of a horror story usually goes from mundane reality to twisted reality, and then back to mundane reality after the denouement, though sometimes in a way that things can never be the same again (the is a common trope of Lovecraft, due to possession of some forbidden cosmic knowledge).

Agency is, in some ways, the exact opposite of this, and undermines horror to the extent that you have it. True agency implies that the world around you is understandable, is amenable to problem solving, and that ultimately the choices that you make matter. Agency is also what much old school gaming philosophy is based around. It’s the why nonlinear dungeons are prized, and why the sandbox is held up as the setting ideal. On the one hand, roleplaying as a medium is uniquely suited to horror, because the player identifies with the PC in a direct way that is almost impossible to achieve in other forms. On the other hand, choices that matter undermine the sense of helplessness that is intrinsic to horror.

The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time is thus in a tricky place, trying to straddle the somewhat incongruent genres of cosmic horror and gaming that preserves agency. At its best, Monolith presents some truly wonderful vignettes, set pieces, and innovative mechanics that can be used with any traditional fantasy roleplaying game. It also contains some absurdities, however, ostensibly in an effort to evoke the sense of paradox and impossibility of Lovecraftian horror. A few brief notes about the presentation of the module before I continue to talk about the content. The illustrations by Aeron Alfrey are wonderful and unique, and fit the mood perfectly (the lightsurfing invaders image is a particular favorite of mine). The layout is also clear and lacks distracting background images that compete with the text (a problem that has marred some past Lamentations releases). This is the best looking Lamentations module to date, in my opinion.

It’s impossible to talk about this module intelligently without giving anything away, so consider this a spoiler warning. You can jump down to the paragraph that begins “This module is a welcome reminder” if you want to totally avoid spoilers. Despite the hedged praise I have above, there are number of encounters and aspects of Monolith that just don’t seem like they would work very well in a roleplaying context, mostly because of predetermined endings.

Consider, for example, the Owls’ Service encounter (this is beautifully written, by the way, and works much better as a short story than it does as an encounter). In it, the players encounter a clearing with some large owl statues and a skeleton which are surrounded by tangled vegetation. There is no way out, and just to make that clear, here is the advice that the referee is given (page 14):

Slicing through the plants slowly drains HP through sheer exhaustion: 1 point per hour, or whatever is necessary to deliver the message. Parties or players desperately interested in prolonged, miserable combat with an unkillable foe too wet to burn and too deeply rooted to extract should be rewarded: suitably crawly wandering creatures, down where the plants hide them, begin striking for heroes’ Achilles tendons. Meanwhile, sap takes the polish off metal or lacquer surfaces as vines entangle straps and buckles holding armor on. The kindly Referee can provide a fighter’s corpse, pinned by thousands of plant roots and vines, the body slowly becoming the thing that killed it. If players seem particularly slow to get the point, the fighter wears ruined armor just like one player’s, down to the same maker and year stamped on a rivet or vambrace: armor now a useless, scummed-over basin for more plants. Moving back toward the clearing is considerably easier: the plant barrier effect seems directional.

The real meat of the encounter is similarly meaningless in terms of gaming content. There is no way to learn about it, defeat it through skillful play, or even avoid it. It is merely a way to inflict a tragic fate upon a PC. As Raggi writes:

Solutions? Explanations? The Monolith owes you none.

The Owls’ Service is a great story, but a terrible encounter. Inescapable tragedy is horrific (it is the source of the horror in the Oedipus cycle, for example), but I’m not sure it has any place in a roleplaying game, at least when applied to PCs. There may be exceptions for games with a very limited objective. Paranoia, perhaps? Or Call of Cthulhu? I don’t really have experience with either. In any case, I think that Monolith is marketed to games interested in weird fantasy, not inescapable fate. Also, many of the consequences of this module only flower in the context of a campaign that continues; it doesn’t really deliver its payload as a one-shot (the same thing is true of Death Love Doom, the other recent Raggi module, which I will probably cover in a future post).

The plateau encounter is another example of a “screw you” encounter that is impossible to avoid. The characters suddenly find themselves on a plateau and “turning around and going back is not an option” (page 15). Any attempt to descend the cliff safely results in damage as if they fell the entire distance, but jumping off the cliff is completely safe, and there’s not really any way to determine this from the player’s perspective. Further (same page):

If a character jumps off the edge in despair with the serious intent of committing suicide (Referee judgment), the character of course does not die, and they get to reroll all of their ability scores, keeping any results that are greater than the original values.

I consider this encounter to be a total failure from the design perspective, though it has potential to be interesting with a bit more infrastructure, especially if the hazard is also a shortcut of some kind. That would provide an interesting choice.

Here are a lot of things things that I liked, too. The mist encounter. Why should geography always work as expected in a fantasy world? Does anyone remember the enchanted forests from some of the Zelda games? This effect is similar, though I also believe it could use some clues. The community of hedonists is well crafted, if you like moral dilemmas (and this one is much more interesting than the standard “monster babies” dilemma). The great weapon whose wielder is also its sheath.

There is a fascinating bit of agency inversion at work in this module, though it does not live up to its promise. PCs have almost no agency at all while in the valley (most of the valley encounters force the players to engage with them, and don’t allow players to affect the outcome in meaningful ways). However, once they get inside the monolith, there is no physical layout at all. Expressing a desire for something causes it to manifest. If you desire the exit, it appears before you. If you desire something to fight, that triggers an encounter with monolith denizens. There are many other examples of locations keyed to player desire rather than game world spacial relationship (and it is worth noting that the module has no maps). There is something really interesting about going from no agency to absolute agency, which might actually work if the lead-in encounters weren’t quite so crude in their drive to force players to experience the referee’s cool thing no matter what they do.

Despite these seemingly harsh criticisms, this module is a welcome reminder that these games are what we make them; there are no limits. Why not make dungeons where certain aspects can be mentally adjusted by the PCs? Why not mess with time? Who cares if the economy of the starting village is upended by loot from the dungeon? The consequences of these things are the stuff that memorable games are made of. As referees, we are often too cautious, not wanting to rock the boat for fear of “unbalancing” a campaign. To quote Heath Ledger’s Joker again:

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh and you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.

That is, in the end, the rub, and the reason that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Monolith. There are parts of it that are not fair. There are no clues to many of the tricks within, which would be required for an agency-preserving game. Exactly what fair means in the context of a tabletop RPG deserves a more thorough treatment that is beyond the scope of this post, but I would be curious if anyone else who is familiar with the contents of this module would argue that it is fair.

OSRCon 2

That’s me in the black t-shirt, sort of in the middle (source)

I spent saturday morning at OSRCon exploring Dwimmermount with fellow blogger Ram (and several others). James M. was referee. I rolled up a second level magic-user named Eknuv and we proceeded to explore the dungeon. It felt like we were very successful (though who knows what all we missed), as we avoided a poison gas trap, defeated several groups of monsters, and discovered a hidden treasure room worth 10,000 GP. Along with other experience, this was enough to promote all of our characters to level 3, which we did. After that, we explored part of dungeon level 2 as well. Overall, this was a great example of how to get a lot done in a limited time, even with many players, and Zak’s suggestion about starting games where players can do things right away holds just as much for in person games as it does in G+ games.

In addition, delving Dwimmermount highlighted the value of small details. You really don’t need a paragraph of description to make a room interesting. One or two features is enough. For example, there was one room that was empty save for small metal rings set into the stone floor making up a pattern. We didn’t figure out what those rings were for, if anything, but the lingering mystery in and of itself is intriguing. This is a good reminder, being in the process of developing a megadungeon of my own. There were many other rooms with similar details, such as columns made of different elements. I’m sure some of those relate to puzzles that we did not solve.

Ed Greenwood running a Forgotten Realms setting (source)

I also played in a Labyrinth Lord game run by Carter Soles (from The Lands of Ara blog). I played Zephyr the cowardly fighter (whose character sheet I unfortunately did not retain, as I needed to leave the game early). That game was basically a commando assault against what seemed to be a haunted keep. As proper adventurers, of course we went in through the roof. There were undead sheep.

The conference as a whole was a lot of fun, though small. I got to play part of a Tunnels & Trolls game run by its creator, which was totally new to me. I also got to watch Ed Greenwood run a session in his Forgotten Realms. In hindsight, I wish I would have made more of an effort to exchange contact info with local OSR gamers or others that I might only know from blogs (for example, I now know that Akrasia was there, though I didn’t meet him). So, if any other readers just happened to be there, leave a comment! Maybe we can get some local Toronto OSR action going, at least semi-regularly.

Level Drain

D&D wraith (source)

In my OD&D session this past monday, one of the PCs was hit by a wight and lost a level. Miraculously, four first level characters with a few zero level retainers defeated a group of 5 wights (3 HD creatures with numerous invulnerabilities and the fearsome energy drain). Thus, I had to clarify how level drain was going to work.

Talysman posted this interpretation of level drain back in January. When levels are drained, experience points are not decreased, though all level-associated characteristics (hit dice, spell progression, attack rank, turning undead, etc) are adjusted down. Assuming the character survives the ordeal, the lost levels can be regained. This separates the idea of experience points from the idea of level in this limited case, but I don’t think that will cause any major problems.

In Talysman’s example, gaining a single experience point is enough to recover a level, but no more than one level can be regained per session. So, in essence, a drained level forces a PC to be run at below strength for one or more sessions. This is a bit less final than permanently losing all that XP, but still costs the player time. I can see how this would make sense in game world terms, too. An encounter with undead should be a harrowing experience, and characters need some time to recover their confidence and abilities afterwards. I don’t think this weakens level drain too much, as the wickedest aspect of level drain remains: PCs killed and reduced to level zero rise again, adding to the ranks of the undead.

The basic idea works particularly well for Vaults of Pahvelorn, as HP is rerolled every session in any case. So there is no hassle about remembering the previous hit dice rolls. However, it does require a few minor adjustments to fit my other rules. For example, I award XP when treasure is spent, so by Talysman’s rules a surviving PC that has been level drained would immediately regain a level following the session (assuming they had some treasure to spend). I think that PCs should be required to run at least one session at the lower level for the drain to have impact. Thus, rather than regaining lost levels after accumulating more XP, one lost level will return per following session survived. Practically speaking, this is almost the same thing, as it is a rare session that results in zero XP.

Types of Preparation

Download a draft PDF of my session document

What makes up the work that a referee does when preparing to run an RPG? Here is a taxonomy that I find useful for evaluating the utility of published products, and also for deciding how to spend my own limited time. I cover the categories from the general to the specific.

ATMOSPHERE

Atmosphere includes the kind of things that will define a setting at the highest level. Preparation at the this level is like basic scientific research. It is necessary if you don’t want stagnation, but is not very useful when the rubber meets the road in actual play. Luckily or unluckily, the vast majority of published RPG material is atmosphere. For example, most published tabletop RPG settings fit here. They are very far from being play-ready, though they might have some good ideas. Most game entities (the contents of “splatbooks”) also fit here, and include things like monsters, treasure, and spells. Even most modules are better situated here. Fun pleasure reading, interesting ideas, but often not so good at the table. I don’t want to denigrate atmosphere too much; you need to get your ideas from somewhere. But reading a module or game setting is often at the same level as watching a movie or reading a novel.

SETTING

At some point, you need to start deciding where things exist in the campaign world. In the simplest case, you don’t need to do much work here; a town and a dungeon are enough for traditional D&D. Genre expectations (e.g.: generic Tolkienized medieval fantasy, Gotham City) can do much of the work for you, assuming that you don’t require your setting to be unique. The standard tradeoff here is approachability versus specialness (the same tradeoff exists for base rules and house rules). This level, for me, is no longer about general info (that would go above in the atmosphere category); the point of this is stuff that PCs might interact with at a macro level, both in spacial and relationship terms (e.g.: north of the kingdom are mountains, the guild of thieves seeks to steal the secrets from the council of magicians). There are few examples of published setting material under this definition. Most published “settings” are 90% atmosphere with 10% actionable setting info mixed within. I’m still not sure what the best way to store and reference setting info is, especially for use during the game. Character generation rules (or creation of pre-gens), selection of base system, and house rules all also fit here, practically speaking.

ADVENTURE
In an old school style game, this will likely be a site to explore, but it could also be something like an NPC relationship map. It must allow players to make low-level tactical decisions. In terms of published RPG material, the module is the most obvious analogue, but I’m coming to believe that the one page dungeon is a better model. Unfortunately, historically most published examples have been flawed by verbosity and linear story-based presentation that do not allow player choice to have much influence over how the game plays out. Verbose modules can still be valuable, but as atmosphere as described above.
SESSION
This phase doesn’t have a published analogue that I have seen (pointers welcome!), and so it gets far less attention than it deserves. For many people (myself included, until relatively recently), this phase entails a few hastily scrawled notes, maybe a map, and perhaps some refresher cram-memorization if running a module. However, I find that I have been able to run games much more effectively given a slightly more structured approach. Specifically, I need to be able to track time and monster health. To assist with this, I roll up a set of encounters and hit dice beforehand (inspired by Jim’s DM prep posts over at Carjacked Seraphim and Courtney’s session tracker over at Hack & Slash). Turn sequence and hit dice are randomized before every session. This means that during play, I only need to check things off. It is surprisingly freeing to have this info predetermined, and I highly recommend it. Before I did this, I was unable to reliably track time. Afterwards, it became trivial. In addition to this tool, I sometimes create a list of more complicated encounters, compile a list of names to use for improvised NPCs, and have a section to note down treasure or “important things” discovered. This document is still a work in progress though, and I assume it will continue to evolve.

Magic-Users are awesome

JB has a post up about how the traditional D&D magic-user class sucks. I’m not putting words in his mouth, either:

So when I say, MAGIC-USERS SUCK, I’m only talking about the magic-using class, as used by player characters. And my astute observation (that they suck) comes from a careful review of the rules as written and their actual use in-play. My concern is about the “fun factor” of the class, both for the player who actually plays the character, the other players in the party, and the DM running the adventure.

In contrast, I think the magic-user as written is great, one spell slot at first level and all. First I’ll tell you why, and then I’ll address a few of the points he raises directly.

Eknuv the magic-user, tamer of hobgoblins

Eknuv the magic-user, tamer of hobgoblins

This morning I played a magic-user in Dwimmermount at OSRCon, and never once did I feel like I had nothing to do. We started at second level, but this still only gave me two prepared first level spells, a scroll, and two hit dice (which was 5 HP, as it turned out). Still in danger of being killed in one hit. I had AC 9, two daggers, and a small collection of adventuring gear. I had sleep, charm person, and a scroll of shield (which I never used). The sleep got us past a group of hobgoblins, and the charm person got me a hobgoblin henchman. But I didn’t feel the need to use any spells until fairly deep into the dungeon, on the second level.

Let’s also look at the list of first level spells. I’ll stick to the 3 LBBs here, because I think they encapsulate the essence of the class best. Later editions dilute the list by adding direct damage spells like magic missile too early, but the essence still remains if you look.

  1. detect magic
  2. hold portal
  3. read magic
  4. read languages
  5. protection from evil
  6. light
  7. charm person
  8. sleep

All of these spells are solutions to common dungeon problems. Detect magic can tell you which treasure is most valuable, or what aspect of a complex puzzle you should focus on (or avoid). Read magic allows you to use scrolls that you find without needing to retreat to the surface or potentially identify some magic items, if there are inscriptions. Read languages allows you to decipher maps or clues (I wished that I would have memorized read languages today when I was exploring Dwimmermount). Protection from evil prevents enchanted monsters from getting near you (like level-draining undead). Light is a failsafe in case you lose your main light source, or need to light an area that can’t be well lighted by torches or lanterns (like under water, in within magical darkness). Charm person gets you a retainer. Sleep allows you to avoid one direct confrontation. You get one of these potential wildcards in addition to everything else you can do as a person with two arms, two legs, a brain, and exploration equipment.

How much of a character’s capabilities should be located in the class “extras” and how much should be player creativity and interaction with the environment? I see the second category as primary, and the first as secondary. Everyone is an adventurer. Fighters get a small advantage in terms of combat (a bit more HP, better weapon selection, etc); thieves can climb and have a small advantage in some dungeoneering activities; clerics get to turn undead (and no spell at first level!); magic-users get a spell and the ability to use magic items and scrolls.

Which brings us to scrolls. How could JB have forgotten to mention scrolls? Scrolls allow magic-users to carry a potentially limitless number of utility and attack spells. If using the Holmes rules, they can be scribed for 100 GP per spell level, and if not using those rules DMs can place them as treasure or make them available for purchase (doing so is part of the class design, not a house rule). Even more spectacularly, depending on your edition of choice, you may be able to cast spells above your level from a scroll (I believe AD&D gives a chance of failure, but OD&D and B/X allow magic-users to cast spells of any level if they are on a scroll). In addition to scrolls, there are, of course, other magic items, most of which cannot be used by any other class. Even a small amount of adventuring will provide a fledgling magic-user with plenty of resources and options.

Now to individual points. Quotes are from JB’s post linked above.

The existence of house rules in many, many campaigns to change or increase magic-user effectiveness.

People house-rule many things. The most common house-rule I have seen in TSR D&D (and its simulacra) is full HP at first level. This is something I don’t think is necessary, is usually not specific to the magic-user, and even if implemented still leaves the magic-user often dead after one hit.

The modification and tweaking of the class and its abilities over-time and across editions, expressing dissatisfaction with the class as conceived in prior/earlier editions.

This has happened to all the classes, not just the magic-user. The humble fighter has probably come in for the most revision (due to some people not liking the lack of “awesome things to do” written on the character sheet), but every single class has been targeted at one time or another. The thief takes away skills from other characters, the cleric is a healbot, or is out of place in swords & sorcery settings, etc, etc. I do play commonly with several house rules about weapons and armor, but this is because I don’t care for weapons restrictions in general, not because I think that the magic-user class needs more weapons. Also, the OD&D method of using d6 for both hit dice and damage solves the same problem.

Instead, they’ll be skulking around the back of the pack, or whining that they need to retreat the dungeon to re-memorize their sleep spell(s), or bitterly complaining that they “can’t do anything.” Or all of the above.

Retreat is a strategy that is often available to PCs. There is nothing wrong with this; it will have advantages and disadvantages like any other choice. I don’t understand the complaint about the 15 minute workday. By all means, retreat if you think it will benefit you! This is only a problem if you have a planned sequence of events that your players must experience in order. Also, can’t do anything? How about holding the light source, flinging oil, reloading missile weapons, or any number of other helpful things?

Another house rule I often use is to give magic-users a chance to retain spells after casting them by succeeding at a save versus spells. But the same house-rule also provides for spell fumbles if you roll a 1 on the save (the point was not to give the magic-user more utility, but to make magic less reliable and more flavorful).

In Praise of Modules

Hating on modules seems to be a common thing. Not just specific modules, but the abstract idea of them. I agree that many modules have problems. Many modules are so poorly laid out for actual use that it almost makes more sense to build something from scratch than to try using them at the table. Many classic AD&D modules fall into this category for me, with their huge wall-of-text room descriptions. However, even hard to use modules can also be read like literature and mined for ideas. James Raggi said it well in his introduction to Hammers of the God:

Anybody can make maps and stock them with monsters and treasure. You can even do it randomly. Off-the-cuff refereeing is a skill that indeed requires no outside support, be it commercial or free. But I know when I buy an adventure, I am seeking in-depth descriptions that make the map and the contents of the location come alive, and hopefully in a way that I would never have done on my own. When I run someone else’s adventure, it’s because I want the challenge of running something different, to present my group with something different. Changed names to integrate a work into my setting aside, I don’t want to make an adventure “my own.” The whole point is to escape that for a bit and to charge my own creative batteries by basking in someone else’s creative light.

I would add a few more practical considerations that favor modules. The first is that it’s almost always easier to learn from examples than it is to learn from manuals. Any programmer will vouch for that insight. The second is that modules provide communal shared experiences. The third is that time is limited. It’s not hard to bake bread, but I still often defer to the baker. Division of labor, baby!

A few good recent modules

City of the Beast

Image from Paizo’s page

I just finished reading City of the Beast (also known as Warriors of Mars), Moorcock’s tribute to the planetary romance of Barsoom. I picked this up during Paizo’s recent sale. It is indeed highly derivative, and even eschews Moorcock’s standard problematic hero in favor of a chivalrous John Carter clone (though Michael Kane hails from the 1960s, and fought in Vietnam rather than the US civil war).

Almost needless to say, I didn’t care about a single one of the extremely simple characters, but there are still some interesting setting ideas here. The humans of Mars (or Vashu, as the inhabitants call it) have a well established civilization of graceful, tall buildings of white stone and blue marble with golden traceries. They also possess much lost technology from an ancient race called the Sheev (page 32):

They are very great and few of them still live. They are remote and of an older race than any on Vashu. Our philosophers speculate on their origin, but we know little about them.

And (page 39):

We are content simply to use the things of the Sheev. We were warned in the far past never to tamper with their gifts since it might result in disaster for us! Their mighty civilization once suffered a disaster, but we have only a few legends which speak of it and they are bound up in talk of supernatural entities in whom we no longer believe.

These artifacts include mind-crowns that allow people who don’t speak the same languages to communicate (how convenient), flying ships, light sources which “had once burned much brighter” (nice!), “ethercraft” (space ships), and laser sidearms. Repairing and recharging these items is beyond the knowledge of Vashu’s people, which makes them perfect “magic item” treasures for a tabletop RPG.

Also briefly mentioned in passing are the Yaksha, “ancient enemies of the Sheev but originally of the same race” (page 116). The Yaksha left ancient ruins spread over vast plains covered in black mud and stunted, sinister shrubs.

By the way, despite the cover image, the blue dudes are supposed to be 8 to 10 feet tall (not 20 feet or more). They are called Argzoon and are standins for the noble savage Tharks of Barsoom, though they live in an underground cavern city located in the Caves of Darkness.