Archive for 2010

High Speed D&D

Dyson Logos posted a very interesting article recently recounting his experience running a “high speed” D&D campaign, as a follow up to his post about the original idea.  Basically, the idea is to run a dozen games over a period time between which the players are awarded a huge amount of XP (enough to level a fighter) and a year of game time is skipped over.  The idea is to quickly seed the game world while simultaneously getting players a glimpse at what various levels of the different classes are like.

I have to admit that probably the coolest thing about this for me is the idea of skipping a full game year between sessions, and having the players actually give input as to what their characters might accomplish during that year.  It certainly requires some pro-active players who want to collaborate on the world building aspect, a type of player that I personally think is actually pretty hard to find.  The challenge on the DM’s side of then preparing a single iconic adventure for that year of game time to play at the next session really appeals to the way I like to write content.

I’m not sure I’d ever have the opportunity to run something like this, but it is pretty cool to fantasize about.

Dwarven Forge

I’ve mentioned before that I generally do not play with miniatures, at least not for RPGs.  However, here at work our crazy boss loves to encourage our group extra-curricular activities, and recently the following showed up at my desk:

dsc_0017

Yes, that’s a huge pile of dwarven forge stuff, for use by the RPG players in the company.  Now our company has gotten big enough that there’s more than one RPG group comprised mostly of coworkers, but somehow I’ve ended up the sort of administrator for all things tabletop RPG around here.  So I unpacked the boxes, inventoried them, found a place to put them, and then thought to myself “Gosh, I should probably run something to christen this stuff.”  So I sent out an open invite to anyone that wanted to play an old school dungeon crawl that Friday night.  With only a week’s notice I still got 8 players.  Have I mentioned how awesome it is to work here?

Anyway, a few coworkers who couldn’t make it asked if I would please take some pictures, which I did.  Hence, this post, and the pictures below.  However, let’s talk about how the actual game ran.  I had quite a mix of players, some old hands, and at least one that had never played a tabletop RPG before in his life (though he was familiar with the conceits, being a computer RPG player).  I ran them through character creation, and my plan was then to run them through my One Page Dungeon Contest entry, which takes place below a major city and has a lot of hooks to various entries to the dungeon.  Given that this group was so large and disparate, I started them off guarding a caravan to the city and immediately attacked it with some orcs, just to get the group a chance to gel before I started giving them leads into the dungeon.

So between character creation and the opening fight, we were a little slow getting into the game.  Even so, I still think using the miniatures and the terrain slowed things down noticeably.  For the most part I left it to the players to figure out the dwarven forge.  I described the area to them, and instead of mapping they laid tiles.  I think though the simple fact of having pieces and a “board” in front of you pushes the players into a mode of thinking, similar to combat, where each person should have a turn to act.  While when there’s no map or terrain and the players simply nominate someone to draw the map, they think more like a group while exploring.  One player saying “we go this way” instead of eight players each saying “I go that way” is obviously going to be faster.

On the other hand, you can’t deny that the stuff is pretty.  And the players all had such a good time, several of them requested a continuation of the game at a later date.  Even though we did wrap up the major thread they were following (recovering the company pay box that was stolen when their caravan arrived), it was clear there was still much of the underground to explore.  While I don’t expect to turn this into a second ongoing campaign, I may run a sequel in the future, and won’t rule out future sequels on an ad-hoc basis.  For now though, enjoy the pretty pictures:

Stocking the Dungeon

This morning while reading other blog posts I became aware of Dizzy Dragon’s Adventure Generator, a nice online random dungeon generator that uses Dyson‘s geomorphs as its basis.  I happen to really like his geomorphs, and this generator is unique in that it incorporates random stocking of the dungeon using B/X and AD&D charts.

I am home for Thanksgiving, and have offered to run an adventure today for my brothers.  I was briefly tempted to run one of these random dungeons, even though I have Palace of the Vampire Queen on me and am eager to give that a try.  However, despite Dyson’s very cool art in these maps, after reading through one of the random dungeons I find it pretty lacking.  Like any of these random dungeon generators, it’s simply too random.  There’s no feeling of purpose behind anything in the dungeon, or anything that connects one room to the next.

Some may argue that this is “by the book” old school dungeon creation.  However, I think anyone who doggedly follows the dungeon stocking charts in the back of any of the old texts is missing something important.  I happened to be re-reading the LBBs yesterday, and landed on this part in volume 3:

The determination of just where monsters should be placed, and whether or not they will be guarding treasure, and how much of the latter if they are guarding something, can be burdensome when faced with several levels to do at one time.  It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures, with or without monsterous guardians, and then switch to random determination for the balance of the level.

OD&D, Volume III, p. 6

I think all of the texts include some statement along this lines, that the expectation is that you place the important stuff first, and then use the random charts to fill in the rest.  Random charts are great, they can certainly spark your imagination when you’ve got nothing to go one, but I think this first pass at intentional placement is extremely important.  This is what gives your dungeon that feeling of purpose, and usually what drives the hook that brings the players into its depths.

Players will rarely enter a dungeon without some kind of foreknowledge of its contents.  Rumors of a hidden treasure, maps of some particular section, or just knowledge that one of the inhabitants is terrorizing the nearby village is enough.  I think this concept is one that’s often overlooked simply because it’s not codified strongly in the books.  But how could it be?  This is the part where you imagine your setting, to give the dungeons the context in which they can exist.  How do you right rules for how to imagine?

I am rambling.  My point is this: random charts, geomorphs, and online generators are all excellent tools for sparking the imagination, but by themselves they are not enough.  It’s that “thoughtful placement” of the “most important” elements that sells the dungeon.  At some point, the DM simply must apply some creative thought to his world, even if it is just a one-shot dungeon crawl on lazy afternoon.

Spell Interruption By the Book

My poll on Spell Interruption pointed almost unanimously to the option of declaring spells first, then rolling initiative.  Turns out, though, that this actually exactly as it’s written in B/X.  Here are a couple quotes to prove it:

INITIATIVE: To determine initiative, each side rolls 1d6 (the DM rolls for the monsters).  The side with the higher roll may move first and attack first in combat for that round. … If combat occurs, the side with the initiative always strikes first in that round.  Both sides should roll for initiative each round.

Moldvay, p. B23

That’s not surprising, I always knew it was group initiative.  However, it’s kind of funny to note the emphasis on rolling each round — the book even places the word each in italics.  To round it out, some fine folks over at Dragon’s Foot pointed this one out to me:

The caster must inform the DM that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the initiative dice are rolled.  If the caster loses the initiative and takes damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost.

Cook and Marsh, p. X11

Yup, it’s right there in the Expert book.  Declare spells up front, then roll initiative for each round.  Thus each round one side has a 50/50 shot at interrupting spells cast by the other side.  Isn’t it funny how most of the issues I struggle with in this game could be easily solved by just sitting down and re-reading the original rule books a little more carefully?

Spells Through the Ages: Cure Light Wounds

Remember this little feature? Man, I haven’t written one of these in forever. Sorry everyone! OK, today I’m tackling a staple of the clerical spell list: Cure Light Wounds.  I’m going to start by just quoting the text from various incarnations and then review.

OD&D:

Cure Light Wounds: During the course of one full turn this spell will remove hits from a wounded character (including elves, dwarves, etc.)  A die is rolled, one pip is added, and the resultant total is subtracted from the hits [sic] points the character has taken.  Thus from 2-7 hit points of damage can be removed.

Holmes edition:

Cure Light Wounds — Level: clerical 1; Range: 0

During the course of one melee round this spell will heal damage done to a character, including elves, dwarves and hobbits.  A die is rolled and 1 is added to it; the result is the number of hit points restored (2-7).  The zero range means the cleric must touch the wounded person to heal him.

Moldvay:

Cure Light Wounds* Range: 0, Duration: permanent

This spell will heal 2-7 points (1d6+1) of damage done to any living creature (character or monster) when the cleric touches the individual.  This spell may also be used to cure paralysis, but will not then cure any points of damage.  The spell may be cast on the cleric’s own body.  The spell’s effect will not, in any case, increase a creature’s hit point total to more than the normal amount.  EXAMPLE: Tars the fighter normally has 6 hp.  In battle with goblins, he takes 5 points of damage.  Gantry the cleric casts a cure light wounds spell on him during the battle, and rolls a 6 on the die, which cures up to 7 points of damage.  Tars is restored to his original total of 6 hp, but the 2 extra points are wasted.

1st Edition AD&D PHB:

Cure Light Wounds (Necromantic) Reversible

Level: 1, Range: Touch, Duration: Permanent, Area of Effect: Character touched, Components: V,S, Casting Time: 5 segments, Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: Upon laying his or her hands upon a creature, the cleric causes 1 to 8 hit points of wound or other injury damage to the creature’s body to be healed.  This healing will not affect creatures without corporeal bodies, nor will it cure wounds of creatures not living or those which can be harmed only by iron, silver, and/or magical weapons.  Its reverse, cause light wounds, operates in the same manner; and if a person is avoiding this touch, a melee combat “to hit” die is rolled to determine if the cleric’s hand strikes the opponent and causes such a wound.  Note that cured wounds are permanent only insofar as the creature does not sustain further damage, and that caused wounds will heal — or can be cured — just as any normal injury will.  Caused wounds are 1 to 8 hit points of damage.

3.0 SRD (Sorry, don’t have a 2nd edition text here)

Cure Light Wounds Conjuration (Healing)  Level: Brd 1, Clr 1, Drd 1, Healing 1, Pal 1, Rgr 2, Components: V, S, Casting Time: 1 action, Range: Touch, Target: Creature touched, Duration: instantaneous, Saving Throw: Will half (harmless) (see text), Spell Resistance: Yes (harmless)

When laying the character’s hand upon a living creature, the character channels positive energy that cures 1d8 points of damage +1 point per caster level (up to +5).  Since undead are powered by negative energy, this spell deals damage to them instead of curing their wounds. An undead creature can attempt a Will save to take half damage.

OK, I’m not going to talk about the inflation of hit points.  Clearly cure light wounds follows the gradual increase of hit points that’s reflected in the editions in general.

The one completely unique thing in the OD&D text is its mention of subtracting hits taken rather than later editions which restore hit points lost.  It’s a minor difference, but it seems to imply that in OD&D perhaps the practice was to track hits taken, and death was caused when they equaled or exceeded the creature’s hit point total.  Later editions all seem to imply that hit points are lost, and that cure light wounds restores lost points, but not above the original total.  In retrospect, the OD&D system seems to have a bit of clarity to it that would be easier to explain to newbies that later editions lose.  I wonder how or why that change came about?

Also interesting in the OD&D text, and carried forward into Holmes, is the text about how it does in fact effect non-humans.  Was this a question that needed clarification?  Are there other spells that only effect humans?  Moldvay even extends this notion to indicate that you can even heal monsters.  I imagine this question probably came up when the party cleric wanted to heal the charmed orc the party was toting around.  1e goes ahead and switches to simply stating what it can’t effect, and this is carried forward into 3.0 with an interpretation of it being powered by positive energy, thus causing damage instead of healing to negative energy creatures (ie. undead).

Moldvay is my favorite, and not just because it’s the edition I actually play with.  First of all, this is the first case we see of the spell being reversible (that’s what the asterisk indicates).  Well, OK, that’s not actually what makes it my favorite.  In fact, this introduces some very odd ideas about good vs. evil clerics.  According to the Expert book, clerical spells can be reversed on the fly, but it’s generally looked on with disfavor by the gods.  Good clerics cast cure, evil clerics cast cause, and if either uses the reverse it’s only acceptable in “life or death” situations.  I suppose this makes a bit of sense when you consider good clerics smiting their enemies with cause light wounds, but the opposite doesn’t hold up.  Do evil clerics really not need to cure their minions, or themselves?

What I really love about Moldvay is this line: “This spell may also be used to cure paralysis, but will not then cure any points of damage.”  I assumed that this was because the limited spell list in Basic D&D did not include whatever the spell is in AD&D for removing paralysis.  But then as I searched my AD&D PHB, I couldn’t find a spell for it.  We’ve used this in my game for anything from ghoul paralysis to enemy hold person spells.  I even extended it via house rule to allow the spell to fix minor injuries (sprains, broken bones, etc) at the cost of not healing any hit points of damage.  It adds a very nice versatility to the spell that I think helps my cleric player feel less like he’s losing spell slots by being forced to pack a bunch of cure light wounds spells.  Of course, it only makes it even more questionable why a cleric would ever memorize any first level spell other than cure light wounds.

Well, there you have it, the staple of the cleric’s arsenal, cure light wounds.  Love it, hate it, and always have as many as possible memorized.

Zombie Apocalypse Game

Here’s an idea for a silly little meme like game I thought up this morning while roaming about the house getting ready for work.  The inspiration came from the fact that there’s been a lot of zombie apocalypse related stuff on TV recently, well, OK, two actually: The Walking Dead and Dead Set.  As I got ready for work this morning and looked at some of the more unusual things sitting in my closet I started to think to myself, what would I grab before fleeing the zombie apocalypse?

OK, here’s the game.  Start off sitting in front of your computer or on the coach looking at the TV.  The news has just hit that the zombie apocalypse is here and the zombies are no longer contained.  You get a message that a friend of a friend has liberated a bus and will be at your door in one hour to pick you up and get the heck out of town.  Start packing.

Try not to pre-plan this.  You can work with a co-habitant (roommate, spouse, etc.), but don’t make a plan ahead of time.  You’ll have to shout at each other in a frenzy while packing up what you need to survive.  Remember that you’ll have to carry everything out to the bus in a rush, so make sure you can carry it all.

After the hour is up, take a picture of yourself carrying all the stuff you packed.  Then make an itemized list of everything you packed and post it along side the picture to the interwebs.  I’m thinking I’ll make up a scoring chart so you can figure out how well you did, but I haven’t worked out the details yet and I’d like to post it separately anyway.  Don’t cheat by reading the scoring chart ahead of time, the fun is in trying to quickly figure out what might actually be useful to you in surviving the zombie apocalypse.

And because this is a roleplaying game focused blog, here’s how to take this one step further for an awesome roleplaying game.  Get all your players to do the exercise.  Have them bring the picture and the list with them to the table.  This is their character sheet.  Grab your rules of choice (perhaps All Flesh Must Be Eaten?) and start playing.

Point system below break:

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Palace of the Vampire Queen

Palace of the Vampire Queen - 6th PrintingLast February, at TotalCon, I played an enjoyable game of OD&D GMed by Frank Mentzer called Palace of the Vampire Queen.  You can read all about it in my post here.  Frank billed the game as “the first published D&D module ever”, which is quite true, more history of the module can be found on the Aceum here.  Since playing that game, I’ve wanted very badly to read the module.  The problem is, it’s highly collectible, with the first printing fetching as much as $1200 on auction.  Worse still, apparently nobody has deemed fit to republish or even digitize the thing, despite it not even actually being owned by TSR.  TSR, as you may know, has quashed any distribution of their material in digital form, so that avenue is right out for most modules.  Despite this, a lot of early TSR material can still be found in digital form through um, other means of distribution (arrr).  Still, Palace of the Vampire Queen evaded me, I guess nobody ever felt like scanning the thing.

So I’ve been watching the auctions, and recently a 6th printing (the last one) came up and I dropped a bid on it.  As the price climbed, I started debating just how badly I really wanted the thing.  I was going to be gone when the auction closed, so I picked a high bid that was about half again what it was currently going for, and the absolute maximum I was willing to pay.  I figured either I would luck out and the bidding wouldn’t get that high, or the bidding would soar past it and I wouldn’t feel bad since I knew it would be much higher than I was comfortable paying.  When I returned at the end of the weekend, it turns out I won the auction.  My maximum bid defeated the next highest bid by 23 cents.

I got over my buyer’s remorse by forgetting entirely about the whole thing.  Thus when I got home from work on Friday and saw the slip on the door from the post office saying I had to come to the post office to sign for a package, I had no idea what it was, and was quite delighted to find out the next day that my copy of Palace of the Vampire Queen had arrived.

The module has five levels, including both player and GM maps of each level.  The interesting thing is that the players are supposed to start with the map of the first level, and subsequent players maps are actually hidden in locations in the dungeon.  The players maps are obviously missing quite a few details, in one case notably missing is the staircase to the next level.  The odd thing about 6th printing is that it’s in booklet format.  The text part of the module has been reformatted to this page size, but the maps are still full 8.5×11 sheets.  Thus if you want to actually use the maps at all, you’ve got to open up the staples and remove the pages.  My copy came with the staples closed, but the player maps just loosely contained in the module already separated from the rest of the book.

The staples were old and a bit rusty, so the first thing I did was carefully remove them, separate the pages, and make high resolution scans of every page.  I then re-assembled the book with new staples (it didn’t seem worth putting those old rusty things back in there), bagged and boarded the thing, and now am considering how best to store it.  I’ve never owned such an expensive collectible.  Perhaps I should frame it or something.

Anyway, I cleaned up the scans and printed out a reading copy for myself.  It was quite a hoot to read, both for the history of the thing and to recollect my own adventure through the place.  According to my old post I kept “copious notes” on our progress.  I wonder where the heck I put those.  The module itself is incredibly sparse, with only the briefest notes on what each room contains.  Briefer even than most one page dungeon room keys being written today.  The adventure is pretty bizarre and I’m not sure I’d ever really run it other than for the novelty of playing the first ever written module, much as Frank ran it.  I certainly would not drop it into a campaign.

The maps though are beautiful, and I really do love the idea of incomplete player maps used as hand-outs.  It reminds me of all the “treasure map” entries in the old treasure tables.  I did this once in my own campaign, but of an area the players are no longer interested in, and the player carrying the partial maps since got himself killed and the maps were never recovered.  Perhaps I should try to find a way to work this concept in again somewhere else.

Part of me actually regrets reading it such that I can’t explore it myself anymore.  Of course the only solution to that is to run it myself.  Maybe I’ll bring it home with me for Thanksgiving.  My brothers might get a kick out of exploring a dungeon as old as their older  brother.

Casting in Combat

Spell-casters will always insist that they are able to use their powers during combat melee.  The DM must adjudicate the success of such use.  The somatic (movement) portions of a spell must be begun and completed without interruption in a clean, smooth motion.  The spell as a whole must be continuous and uninterrupted from beginning to end.  Once interrupted, for any reason whatsoever, the spell is spoiled and lost (just as if used).

– Gary Gygax, Dungeon Masters Guide (p. 65)

Of course, to adjudicate this statement, the DM must know when the spell starts being cast, when it completes, and which other combatants have opportunity to act in between.  What this boils down to is ultimately the initiative system, for which AD&D gives us a fairly complicated system involving the breakdown of a single round into segments and the assignment of a casting time to every spell.

On the other hand, B/X assigns no casting times, and assumes generally a shorter round (10 seconds) than AD&D (1 minute).  B/X by the book generally assumes a group initiative and no requirement to declare actions prior to making them happen, thus really there is never an opportunity in B/X for any spell to ever be interrupted.

This is an issue I’ve grappled with in the past.  My solution was to assume all spells took a full round to cast, and that any MU that begins casting on his turn does not complete the spell until it is almost his turn again (the beginning of his side’s initiative).  I’ve implemented this in our home campaign, and I’m not entirely sure I’m fully satisfied with it.  By this system every spell is easily interruptible, or if not at least easy to dodge by simply getting out of the line of site of the caster (who must not move while casting).  This makes it harder to cast spells than in AD&D, where there are many spells that take very few segments to complete, and could very well go off well before your opponent has an opportunity to react.

The only other solution I can come up with is to abandon a single initiative roll per combat.  Right now I do one roll to determine who gets the first swing and then go around the table from there.  By this toke neither side ever gets two actions before the other side.  However, if I were to require an initiative roll at the start of each combat round, as is written in B/X, then I could simply require that spell casters declare their intent to cast prior to the initiative roll, and have the spell complete when the caster’s turn actually comes up.  Thus, the ability to interrupt the spell would come down to whether or not the other side wins the initiative roll, essentially a 50/50 chance.

Of course, that brings a lot more rolling into combats, and changes the dynamic of combat even when there is no casting at all.  We will see more cases where one side gets to make double attacks before the other side gets to react (by losing initiative one round, and then gaining it the next).  Is this a bad thing?  I’m not sure.

I’d love to hear some other opinions.  Please take a moment to cast a vote in this poll, or leave a comment with your own thoughts on how best to adjudicate it.

What's the best way to adjudicate casting in combat?

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Goldilocks Syndrome

Normally I try not to give my players any direct advice about how to play.  I want them to learn their own lessons and come up with their own clever ways out of a pickle.  However, we’ve been playing almost a year now and I see them make this same mistake time and time again.  I’m starting to feel bad for them when it blows up in their faces, so players, this post is for you.

My players suffer from what I’m calling “Goldilocks Syndrome”.  That is, they seem to think it’s a good idea to break into someone’s house, rifle through their things, and then stop for a nap.  They’ll be in the middle of exploring a dungeon, be it an ancient ruin filled with strange monsters or a simple thieves’ hideout, when they notice their resources have been pretty depleted.  By which I mean, the fighters are down to just a few hit points left and the spell casters are all out of spells.  Thus, they decide, let’s find a room or a corner to hole up in and sleep to refresh.  At this point I suspect they’re thinking of it too much like a video game, and not enough like a simulation of real life (or at least, fictional fantasy-land life).

As DM, I see myself as having two major jobs:  1.  Enforce the rules as written, and 2. Roleplay the non-players to the best of my ability.  For the latter I’m referring to every sentient being that’s not a player, be it the friendly king who asks the players to go on a quest for him or the band of goblins whose cave the players are invading.  Both of these jobs are directly at odds with the practice of “holing up” while inside a dungeon.

Item #1: Enforce the rules.  The rules in a dungeon often dictate that I roll a d6 every turn or every other turn, and on a 6 a wandering monster shows up.  Let’s be generous and say it’s every other turn and the players want to rest for just 8 hours (it’s often more, as they want to keep a rotating watch and still give every person 8 full hours of rest).  Even in this most generous case I’m rolling 24 dice, which means on average you’d get at least 4 encounters during that time period.  You want to face down those 4 encounters with a subset of your team who are already in a weakened state?  I think we know how that’s going to go.

Item #2: Roleplay the non-players.  This is even worse for the players.  Let me give you an analogy.  Let’s say you come home from work one day and discover some stranger is sitting on your couch watching TV.  You yell “Hey, what the hell are you doing in my house?  Get the hell out of here!”  In response, the fellow runs up stairs to the bedroom, locks the door, and lies down on your bed to go to sleep.  Do you:

a.  Go away so he can steal all your belongings and leave safely when he wakes up.

b.  Wait patiently at the door so the two of you can have a fair fight after he’s slept and feels refreshed.

c.  Call the police and let them bash down your bedroom door and beat the living snot out of the bastard.

When my players enter a dungeon, make huge amounts of noise, get into fights with the inhabitants and allow some of them to survive and escape, what do they think is going to happen when they try and stop for a nap?  This is especially bad when the inhabitants are at least somewhat intelligent.  I end up looking at the layout, which obviously the inhabitants know well while the players do not, and try to think “how would these guys eject or kill invaders?”  Then I try to implement that plan.  More often than not, it works.

So players, please, take my advice.  When you’re exploring a dungeon and feeling like it’s too dangerous to continue, leave!  Go away, rest, refresh, and maybe think of a new plan of attack.  And be aware that while you did so, so did the inhabitants of the dungeon.  If you think there’s any way they might suspect you’ll be back, you can bet things will be a little different than how you left them when you return.

Oxford

Our last day in England was spent in Oxford.  I think this was Jenn’s favorite, and though I do feel like we only scratched the surface of this town, I can’t say it’s on the top of my list of places to revisit.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s gorgeous, and I’d love to go back, but it just felt a bit too much of a college town for me.  Jenn of course absolutely loved it, so I’m sure our next trip to England will include at least some time in Oxford again.

One thing I really did like about the town was the huge quantity of gargoyles.  You’ll see a lot of pictures of them.  One of my coworkers loaned us a book about them, which I naturally forgot at home.  Oh well, still they were lots of fun to look at.