Archive for the ‘Role Playing’ Category

Volo’s Guide to Monsters

Wizards of the Coast has once again firmly cemented for me the idea that I am not their target audience.  An article showed up today on Polygon titled “Dungeons and Dragons is changing how it makes books“.  Man, with an opener like that, it’s really hard not get super cynical on this.  And that’s reinforced with quotes like this one:

“I have this kind of personal philosophy for managing the product line,” Mearls said last month in Renton, Washington. “I don’t want to duplicate any product that’s come before. I think that if people have seen it, then it’s not really new and it’s not really exciting.”

Really?  And you’re doing that by making a book that has more narrative fiction in it and titling it “Volo’s Guide…”  Because we’ve never seen anything like that before.  Sigh.

But I’m trying not to be too negative on this, because honestly this book simply underscores what I’ve known for a long time, that I’m simply not their target audience anymore.  So his it for, who wants 14 pages just on the beholder?  The answer I think must be people who are buying these books for the nostalgic factor alone, but don’t actually ever get to play the game.  Reading game manuals as a hobby in and of itself is definitely a thing.  Who am I to poo-poo that?

Honestly, I think my only problem is that D&D is still niche enough that friends and relatives will send me links to articles like this.  “Hey, you’re into Dungeons and Dragons, right?”  How can I explain to them that this is definitely not what I’m into?  The only arguments I can give are along the lines of “this is not Dungeons and Dragons” or “I’m only into early Dungeons and Dragons”, both of which really make me feel like a serious RPG hipster.  I wish Wizards would do me the favor of rebranding their product to stop the confusion, but obviously that makes zero fiscal sense for them.

I suppose ultimately what this means is that I really should just stop posting about stuff like this, as it’s basically not relevant to this blog.  In other news, Nike released their new Foamposite One sneakers today.

Monstrous Experience

I started in on my Monster Card project just to see how hard it was going to be.  I created a template in Libre Office, agonized over fonts, and searched the web for some place-holder artwork.  My thought was, let me create one card as a prototype, and then see how difficult it will be to fill in the rest from there.

I knew the text description would be an interesting challenge.  Dan had mentioned that most of this stuff was probably open gaming license, but I assume that does not extend to simply copy and pasting text right out of the Monster Manual.  That text is probably too long anyway, I can tell just from the existing cards that some heavy editing was done to make this fit on a 3×5 card.  I eventually decided as a start to just borrow the text from Labyrinth Lord, as it’s in the correct vein, is clearly open game content, and is available digitally for ease of copy and paste.  Even then I knew I’d still likely have to edit down, but it’s a start.

The next road block though is really something I was not expecting: stats.  I figured this would be an obvious straight copy from MM to card.  And for the most part it was, until I got to the entry “L/XP”.  What the heck is that?  The one bit of explanation text I get is on the back of the title card:

Monster Level / Experience Point value.  *Average value only, see DMG p.85.

OK, so I whip out my DMG and open to page 85.  Sure enough, there’s a chart there for XP value based on HD and special abilities.  The “level” bit is not there, so I dig through some existing cards and based on the fact that it’s shown as a roman numeral, I’m guessing that it has to do with what dungeon level on the wandering monster chart the monster appears on.  Where are those printed?  They’re not in the Monster Manual, maybe they are here in the DMG, but I’m not finding them.  Then I remember, didn’t they put a bunch of combined tables in the back of the Monster Manual 2?  So I get out that book.

Sure enough, there are the wandering monster charts in the back.  Great.  Oh, huh, this is interesting, that L/XP stat is here in the block for every monster in MM2, though again the intro text just vaguely refers me to the DMG (doesn’t even give me a page number this time).  Weird, why doesn’t this stat exist in MM1?  Suddenly, I realize that the use of this stat on these monster cards must be their first actual use case.  How do I know that?

Well, when making my template earlier I noticed that in the bottom right corner of each card is an indicator of where the monster came from.  For example, the Ankheg card says “MM 6” in the bottom right corner – Monster Manual page 6.  Almost all the cards in fact have the “MM” indicator, with a few interesting outliers.  The Nycadaemon stands out as being the one and only card with an “FF” indicator.  Why did they take one and only one thing from the Fiend Folio?  I have no idea.  The only other indicator is NEW, and it includes:

  1. Galeb Duhr
  2. Grippli
  3. Hybsil
  4. Korred
  5. Land Urchin
  6. Lycanthrope, Seawolf
  7. Mihstu
  8. Obliviax
  9. Thri-kreen
  10. Tunnel Worm
  11. Wemmic
  12. Zorbo

In fact, the front title card that came with each set, which BTW was about all that was visible in the original packaging (I recall they came in kind of flimsy clear plastic boxes that always eventually got crushed), says on it:

Monster Cards combine full-color illustrations with vital information on 20 AD&D™ monsters, including 3 totally new creatures, in handy 3″ x 5″ cards.

Fascinating.  The inclusion of new unprinted monsters in each set appears to have been a marketing ploy.  And not surprisingly the above list includes just about every monster in the collection that I’ve always found to be a very strange choice.  Also note, almost all of those creatures were then included in Monster Manual 2.  Here’s to the rescue with the full details:

These “new” creatures were then incorporated into the Monster Manual II published in 1983 — presumably because the decision to abandon the Monster Cards line had been made during the new hardcover’s compilation (thanks to Ed Jendek for this info).

As an aside, while researching for this post another interesting bit of info comes from the wikipedia entry on the Monster Cards:

A second group of four sets was tentatively scheduled for release in 1983, according to Harold Johnson, and those sets would have included several monsters from the Fiend Folio book.

OK, so, I’m really flying off on a tangent now.  How did I get here?  Oh yeah, L/XP.  So, trying to figure out how the values were reached is pretty difficult, since this stat is not included in any text for monsters that came out of MM1.  There’s this reference to DMG p. 85, but that chart is super subjective.  How do I draw the line between a special ability and an exceptional ability?  Perhaps I can examine some MM2 creatures and see if I can reverse engineer the rules?

Let’s consider our old pal the troll. Probably a poor choice, given Dan’s own research into what an outlier he is in XP calculations.  Still, we have an interesting point of comparison: the MM2 includes the Marine Troll (Scrag), which should be pretty similar.

So, given the 6+ HD of the troll, and let’s assume his regeneration ability is “exceptional”, I guess that puts him at 400 + 8/hp XP.  Hm, that’s exactly the same number as the freshwater scrag.  Surely the scrag should get a little extra for it’s ability to breathe underwater?  Though maybe that’s offset by his regeneration being limited to when he is in water?  (Side note: huh, nothing in the scrag’s listing actually says he can breathe underwater.)  And wait a minute, the freshwater scrag has 5+5 HD, how does that work?  Even if we assume the special abilities somehow compensate to bring up the base value to 400, the per-hp value, at least according to the DMG chart, should be directly tied to HD and not modified.  So how the heck does he get +8/hp instead of +6/hp?

I jumped then to examining the Bugbear (don’t ask why).  His L/XP value on the card is “III/135 + 4/hp”.  OK, 4/hp does line up with his 3+ HD line on the chart.  But how do we get to 135 base value?  Base value on the chart is 60.  Hm, the extra surprise could be an exceptional ability for +65.  That gets us to 125, still 10 short.  Um, if he had two special abilities instead of one exceptional that would be +50…  Nope, nothing I’m doing here is getting me a total of 135.  Where the heck did they pull that number from?

Sigh, this is really discouraging.  And all for a number that frankly I never even noticed existed on these cards even from when I first bought them back in the 80’s.  My urge to be true to the original format is strongly fighting against my knowledge that I would never use this particular stat in my own games.  What should I do?

Picking Characters

Selecting pre-gen characters is a bit tricky, especially in games like Cthulhu.  For D&D I usually bring at least twice the number of characters required, so there’s always a nice stack to choose from and even the last person at the table gets a good number of options.  For Cthulhu though, usually you’ve got exactly enough characters, and they may even have some secret info attached to the sheet that should only be read by the person who’s actually going to play that character.  I’ve both GMed and played games where the GM describes the characters, then leaves it up to the players to figure out how to divvy them up.  This never goes well.  Usually it starts with an awkward silent hesitation, with everyone wondering who will lead the group into some magical equitable system of selecting characters.  Finally someone grabs the bull by the horns and just says “I really want to play X” and grabs up the sheet.  Then it’s a free-for-all, and polite players are rewarded with having to just play whatever is left over at the end.

I saw two things at Origins at two different games, both of which I think I’d like to steal for my next Cthulhu game.  The first is kind of minor – the GM of my first Cthulhu game began by putting out little name tents for each character that listed just the name of the character and their profession, then said “OK, select your characters.”  Name tents are a pretty common practice, often done on the fly with whatever scrap paper is lying around.  I like that the GM pre-made them, as they were of good quality: printed on stiff paper that did not droop and using a nice big legible font.  But also I thought it was clever to have players select based on this minimal information, and not deal with character sheets until all characters had been assigned using just the tents.

The second one occurred in our Star Trek themed game.  After listing off which characters were available, the GM told us all to roll percentile dice.  He then gave first pick to the highest roll, and choice then passed down the line from there.  Rolling dice to determine choice priority is not a particularly novel idea, but I liked that the GM just instituted it immediately.  There was no discussion, no hesitation, he just said this is the way we’re doing it and off we went.  It’s a reasonably fair way of handling things, and having the GM who is basically in charge anyway dictate it meant there was no dissension and the whole thing proceeded quickly and efficiently.

So I think I’d like to institute both of these at my next game.  I will pre-print some nice character name tents, put them out on the table for everyone to see, then demand they roll dice and have them choose from the tents in the order they rolled.  Nothing really revolutionary here, just a couple solid ideas that I think will remove all awkwardness and delay from this first step of the game.


Recently I’ve found myself playing a lot of Call of Cthulhu at conventions.  I suspect perhaps the Old School fad is simmering down, and there are some cons I attend that simply don’t have anything old school at all.  The one stand-by that appears at every convention that does appeal to me though is Cthulhu.

I’ve played enough by this point to know that I’m not terribly impressed by the official system.  And I’ve certainly played in several games that use a totally different system or invent their own.  When I think Cthulhu, I think more of tone and content than any specific rules system.  It seems the point really is to find a system minimalist enough to get out of the way of the roleplaying and story telling.

In my opinion, a Cthulhu game is only successful if I go insane or die horribly by the end.  I only play it at conventions or as one-offs, so I don’t really understand the idea of a Cthulhu campaign, and convention games that don’t end in one extreme or the other feel a bit tepid to me.  My goal in playing is therefore to watch my character confront horrors unknown to man, and delight in how it causes him to either un-hinge and/or jump head first into doomed heroics.  Thinking of the game analytically, I came to the realization that Cthulhu is probably the most demanding style of roleplaying in terms of pacing.  Assuming all players at the table have the same desire for their characters, the GM must very carefully pace out the content to allow each player to have a satisfying arc.  For this to work for even 4 players, never mind 6 or 8 seems impossible.

insanity_cardsThis problem was percolating in my head during the drive home from the last Carnage on the Mountain, and I started to devise an idea for an insanity mechanic that would put more power into the player’s hands to pace out their decline themselves.  What I came up with is the deck of cards pictured here.  There are only five different cards in the deck: Anger, Obsession, Paranoia, Delusions, and Fear.  They describe broad reactions a character might have to confronting unspeakable horrors.  Each card then lists five levels of the particular reaction, in order of ascending severity.  For example, here’s the first three levels for Paranoia:

1. What Was That? – You have a vague feeling like something is watching you. Sometimes you glance over your shoulder and think you see or hear something when nothing is really there.

2. My Things! – Pick a small object in your possession to misplace. Discover it is missing and assume someone stole it. Start asking probing questions to try and ferret out who took your missing possession.

3. Not Sure About That Guy – Pick one player or NPC that you suspect is working against the group’s best interests. Subtly try to convince others of his guilt.

You’ll notice each level tries to list some specific examples of behavior a player can evoke in his roleplay.  I also made an effort to encourage players to involve others at the table in their insanity, as you can see in #3 above.  The point is to give some solid direction to the player so they feel like they’re losing control, while leaving it open enough for them to take it whatever direction they find inspiring.

So here are the mechanics on how the deck works.  Each player starts with a hand of 2 or 3 cards, I’ve tried both, I’m not sure which is better yet.  When the GM decides a player should take some sanity damage, he instructs the player to draw cards from the deck.  Maybe 1 card for a sort of normal but horrible experience, like witnessing extreme violence, or 2 to 3 cards for witnessing supernatural horrors.  The player must then play cards onto the table in front of him until his hand is back to the original starting size.  Cards can be played in one of two ways:

  1.  If you have no face-up card of the specific type, you may play the card face-up.  Thus you can really only play this way 5 times, once for each card.  You are not suffering the specific insanity yet, but perhaps you’ve just given your neighboring players a little tell about what direction you’re thinking of taking your character.
  2. You may at any time play any card face down in a stack beneath a face up card.  See how the backs of the cards have a “1” printed in the bottom right corner?  You should play the face-down cards in a vertical spread so you can quickly see exactly how many cards are in a stack.  Add up all the 1’s – this indicates the level of the insanity you are currently suffering.  So in the above picture, you can see the player is suffering from level 2 Paranoia, level 1 Anger, and does not yet have an Obsession, but maybe it’s not that far off.

The idea should be that players can pace their progression towards insanity themselves.  They can strive to get all 5 cards face-up and spread out their face-down cards amongst them, thus absorbing the damage and keeping their sanity relative in-tact, save for a few minor odd behaviors.  Or they can go all in right away and just dump cards into a single stack to go off the deep end.  Or maybe they start by spreading it out, and as they see the evening is coming to a close they switch to dumping cards underneath their favorite insanity.  The GM then controls the pacing at a coarser level, just keeping an eye on how many cards each player has and trying to find opportunities to hand out more.

I’ve run this a couple of times and I think it works pretty well.  I use Savage Worlds for an underlying system to give me stats, skills, and combat mechanics, but I rip out a lot of standard Savage World stuff to keep it as simple as possible.  (For those that know the system, I ditch bennies entirely, as well as the Shaken status, just moving on directly to wounds.)  I chose Savage Worlds mostly because I wanted something I’ve used a lot that would be very easy for me to rule off the cuff without looking up anything in a book.  The funny thing is originally I also ditched exploding dice, but later I added those back in.  I actually kind of like the idea that the system allows for wild success in mundane tasks.  Oh, you’ll still quickly become overwhelmed by things far too powerful for you, and die horribly or go insane, but hey, why not enjoy those couple early successes before we get there?

The other thing I found I really like about this mechanic is that I don’t have to break into play to resolve an insanity.  It’s all on the table right in front of the players, and they probably even had a little time to plan how they would roleplay out the specific insanity they are working towards.  And frankly, I’m often surprised myself at the result, as I don’t really pay attention to whose playing which cards, until suddenly someone starts asking me what the voices say, or where they can find a deadly weapon.

If anyone reading this has played in one of my games, I would love to hear your opinions on how it worked.  Or if anyone tries this themselves please do report back.  I’m including the PDF below for the cards, so have at it.  The PDF includes a page full of cards for each of the 5 types, plus one page that is the universal back.  I printed 12 copies of each card for a deck of 60, which is almost enough for a table of 8 players, though my opinion now is that 8 players is really too many for Cthulhu.

Here is the PDF for the Insanity Cards

Say My Name

As a follow-up to my earlier feminist gaming post, I happened to get in touch with a certain author of a certain fantasy name generator.  I’m being coy because while he was happy to share all his code and data with me, he explicitly asked that his name be removed from any credit or blame.  I guess that name generator is well over a decade old and not the author’s proudest work.  I think he’s mad, it’s wonderful and has been naming characters in my game world since its inception five years ago.

I have finally rooted through it, pulled out the data I wanted, reformatted it, and added in the missing female names.  It was actually pretty easy to just reformat the tables into something usable by my favorite randomizer: Inspiration Pad Pro.  Even better, I have discovered in the course of doing this that Inspiration Pad Pro now has an Android port, which means I get all these awesome names right in my pocket.  Huzzah!

And of course, share and share alike, right?  So here it is, my Inspiration Pad Pro table for Silly (Awesome) Fantasy Names:


Tropes vs. Women in RPGs

Last night I was recounting to Jenn what Adam and Mike had told me about the “overt sexism” they experienced in one of their games this past weekend at Carnage.  (Which, at first, I misheard as “avert sexism” and thought it was some kind of weird mechanic built into the game — roll to avert sexism!)  Apparently they were playing a game set in ancient Rome, and there was one female player playing the one female character who was a courtesan.  Despite the GM informing the group that at this time courtesans were a respectable role with some level of authority, this did not prevent some of the other players from immediately assuming courtesan is a synonym for prostitute, and making “clever remarks” in that direction.  And despite the female player’s obvious discomfort, and Adam and Mike’s attempts to move on to other topics, the comments persisted throughout the game.

It’s unfortunate that some RPG players will always jump to the conclusion that roleplaying a character in a time period when sexism was more prevalent that this means it’s OK to be as big of a jerk as possible, and we’ll all enjoy a laugh at their foibles.  Roleplaying really does require buy-in and trust on both sides of the table though.

I could ramble on about the need to read your audience and have trust at the gaming table, but that’s not my point here.  What I found most interesting was Jenn’s reaction to this anecdote, which was along the lines of “Yeah, if you’re the only girl at the table you should never play the only female character.”  It was such an interesting statement I started prodding into other edge cases.  What if there were other female characters to choose from but only male players?  (Wait to see if some of male players play one of the female characters first.)  What if there are other female players but only one female character?  (Skip the female character, play a male character.)  What I found so surprising here was not necessarily the actual answer, but the fact that Jenn had them so readily at hand.  Clearly she had thought this through and had made a set of mental rules.

This is kind of disappointing really.  I never think of such stuff when sitting down to play a game.  Generally I do prefer to play male characters over female, but only in the same way that say I prefer playing humans to elves and dwarves.  I have certainly played my share of female characters at convention games.  I suppose this is male privilege for you.

Also, over the years I have become accustomed to Jenn playing male characters at my own games, so much so that it is now ingrained in me to ask any female player if their character is male or female before accidentally using the wrong pronoun.  But I don’t do this to my male players, and that kind of sucks.  I am really not sure if this means I should try to stop myself from doing this, or do it to everyone, or just continue on as I have been.  Is asking this question being open and accommodating for players more likely to be playing a different gender?  Am I being insultingly sexist by only asking the girls this question?  Would it be overly PC to ask everyone?

And in pondering all that, I realized one of the problems is in the characters themselves.  I bring about double the character sheets I need for any game I run at a convention..  This is in part to give players options, partly to allow for the occasional character death, and partly because I use a random generator so it’s really very easy to do so.  My random generator in turn uses Chris Pound’s “Silly” fantasy name generator, which I absolutely adore.  The names are fantastic.  This weekend we saw a dwarf in full plate wielding two magic daggers named “Grisha the Killing Machine”.  We also had a hammer wielding fighter named Rodor the Laborer, backed up by Orzaize the Blue Wizard, whose player decided to describe all his spells as being colored in blue in some way, and some discussion was had about his hopes for promotion to Silver Wizard and tenure when he returned to the magic college.

Some players change the names, which I have no problem with, and I even often make the point that they should feel free to do so if they like at the start of the game.  Many players though (the good ones in my opinion), will pick a character in part because of the name.  All that said, in looking over the names spat out by that generator, I’m noticing a strong lack of female names.  In fact, I’d say all the names are either obviously male or ambiguous.  There are no clearly female names in the entire thing.  And that means that at the table when I turn to a female player and she’s playing “Grimbold Oakshield”, it does not seem unreasonable to ask “is your character male or female?”  And perhaps it explains why I’m more likely to do this with a female player than a male player.

OK, so resolutions:

  1. Find a way to incorporate some obviously female names into my random characters.  This may mean having a poke into Chris Pound’s name generator to figure out how it works so I can modify the output, or perhaps simply taking a dump of names from it and then hand-massaging some percent of them to feminize them.
  2. When starting up a convention game I often go around the table and ask for character name, race, class, level, and AC, just so I can make a quick cheat sheet and not have to ask those questions over and over while playing.  Perhaps I should add gender to that list, that way I get it from everyone and just don’t have to think about it later.

I am quite satisfied that resolution #1 there includes digging into some new code.  This reinforces what I’ve always found obvious: all problems can be solved with better code.  I am the man with the hammer.


After returning from my trip abroad I was greeted home with a horrible flu.  But I did manage to get that one post in before resigning myself to days of day-time TV curled up on the couch.  Actually, in this day and age of streaming TV day-time TV isn’t quite the same curse it was to the cold sufferer of my youth.  But, that’s all behind me, so what’s on my radar now?

Well, Carnage is this weekend and I’m woe-fully under prepared.  That’s not really true, I did cleverly sign up to run stuff that I have run at other conventions so really I should be able to just dust off my notes from previous runs and off we go.  The one bit of work I do need to do though is generate some characters.  I’ve been doing this long enough that of course I have some scripts I wrote to automate the process, but as my house rules are ever morphing I find each convention that creeps up I have to revisit those scripts and make some minor corrections.

This time around I find myself thinking about my rules for multi-classing.  First, let’s look at what I’m using in my home campaign right now:

IV. Multi-classing

Players may take on additional core classes (not including Ranger or Paladin) upon reaching 2nd level. They may never have more than three total classes, nor ever be both a cleric and a magic-user. A character’s second class can never exceed level 8, his third class is capped at level 4.

  • Must sacrifice single highest level of experience, XP is pro-rated at time of multi-classing.

  • Must have a 9 or higher in the prime requisite of the new class.

  • Must track all stats (XP, hit points, etc.) for each class. Always pick the current highest value as the actual value. May choose highest value for saves for each individual save.

  • Must choose at the start of each adventure which XP pool XP earned will go towards.

  • May use all abilities of any class. May not cast magic-user spells in armor heavier than chain mail. May not use thief skills in armor heavier than leather.

  • Elves may begin play as level 1/1 multi-class character, provided one class is magic-user.

That’s directly out of my 3-page booklet of house rules for my game, affectionately known as the BXCL (B/X Change List).  So, how has this affected my home campaign?  I currently have 7 players in my game, and they include 1 human fighter, 1 dwarf fighter / cleric, 2 paladins, 2 elf magic-user / fighters, and 1 elf magic-user / thief.  As the paladin class is specifically proscribed from multi-classing, that leaves 5 players out of which 4 have decided to multi-class.  In fact, the 5th one would have done so, but his stats are all so terrible that he doesn’t have the required 9 in any prime-reqs of alternate classes — likely why he chose fighter in the first place.

There are two things in play here that I’m not terribly happy with.  First off, that’s a lot more multi-classing than I would hope for.  I like multi-classing, but I prefer to see it in a minority of characters.  In my mind it should be for support characters willing to sacrifice some power for more flexibility, not an obvious tactic that simply makes all characters better.  Secondly, note how all the elves are first and fore-most magic-users.  I do like that elves encourage multi-classing, as it harkens back to the original B/X concept that all elves were essentially fighter/magic-user hybrids, but what about a fighter/thief, or even a fighter/magic-user over the magic-user/fighter?  It turns out that the rules above basically highly encourage players of elves to choose magic-user first, so that they won’t be level capped in magic-user and thus can conceivable obtain 5th level spells (available at magic-user level 9).  Conversely, what you miss out on for limiting fighter or thief to level 8 is far less powerful – a third feat for fighters, and the ability to read magical scrolls for thieves at level 10.  The choice to all my players has been obvious.

So, here are some alterations I’m considering:

First, I think maybe I should increase the stat requirement for multi-classing in general.  Let’s make it a littler harder to obtain so we see a few more single-classed characters in the wild.  The obvious choice for me seems to be to raise it to 13, as that’s the point where the related modifier increases from 0 to +1.  That’s a pretty strong change in probabilities – according to this site the chances of getting a 9 or higher on any given stat is 74%, while the chances of a 13 are only 26%.  Assuming that we don’t care about the prime req of your starting class, and we don’t care about the 2 stats that are not prime-reqs for any class (Constitution and Charisma), the chances of any given character being able to multi-class is the chance of getting a 13 or higher on any of three rolls.  Or to make the math easier for me, it’s the inverse of the chance that you roll 12 or less on all 3 rolls — 74% x 3 trials is about 40%, thus 60%?  Am I getting that right Delta?

Huh, that’s still higher than I expected.  Should I go even more severe?  I don’t know, I don’t want to swing the pendulum too far to the opposite side, and honestly, it’s taken many many months of play to observe the current trend naturally in my player base.

The other problem is probably simpler to tackle – to find a way to encourage a more even distribution of multi-class typed elves.  Obviously whatever solution I find to the general rate of multi-classing will apply just as well to elves, so really the only problem here is that there’s no reason to pick magic-user as the second class when taking advantage of the free first level multi-class.  I could obliterate that rule entirely, but I do still like the idea that elves are somewhat magical in nature and thus more inclined to at least learn a little magic.  So perhaps I just need to restrict it a bit more?

Some of my players have suggested just changing it to a free second class in magic-user.  That is, a starting out elf may start as a level 1/1 something / magic-user for free.  This means players of elves that want to reach name level as magic-user will either be single classed, or have to pay for their multi-classing the same as every other starting character.  The bonus will be restricted to players who wanted to play fighter or thief primarily, and happen to have a high intelligence and don’t mind have a little free magic on the side.

I kind of like that ruling, but I want to think over both of these a bit more before I make up my mind.  I suppose that means for the coming convention that I will just stick to what I already have.  I really should make decisions on this stuff soon though, as I’ve been promising my players to do so for some time now.  Not that it’s hugely important, as obviously any already existing characters in my game will be unaffected.  Though you never know when a poisonous snake might get in a lucky bite, and it’s time to roll a new character, right?

Returned from my Wilderness Adventure

Sorry for the silence the past week, but I just returned from a lovely vacation in Merry Old England, and on returning the climate of New England has been like a punch to the gut.  Ugh, what happened here while I was gone?  Who said it was time to be winter?

Anyway, you can see some lovely holiday snaps via Google Photos here if you like of my trip to London and Oxford.  All the museum trips and exploration of 600+ year old architecture naturally sparks one kind of thought in particular for me though: how can I apply this to my gaming?  Here are a couple ideas that came to me while looking at the artifacts:

1. Narrow Stairs

I climbed the tower at Oxford Castle and at Christ Church in Oxford, both originally medieval military defensive structures, and they had one feature very much in common: super steep and narrow stairways.  Here’s a shot, notice how much my feet hang off the incredibly narrow step:

IMG_20151014_113001At the more crowded Oxford Castle when I went up and down such stairs as part of a large tour, we fit one person wide, and I could maybe see two people above and below me at most.  The stairs are also all curved in this same direction, so that defenders coming down them can easily swing swords with their right hands, while attackers coming up have the awkward choice between trying to swing around the central column, or switching to their left hand.

This strikes me as a great setup for a really interesting fight.  Everyone in single file.  You can only see two people in front and behind you.  It’s a huge crowd.  Fight!



2.  More Clever Locks
IMG_20151010_142525 IMG_20151010_142544Here is a chest I saw in the British Museum in London.  The little placard tells of how it contains three separate locks each with a unique key.  And note the weird hinges that would be entirely confined to the inside of the box when closed.  No breaking off the hinges to get into this sucker.  Add in super thick wood and lots of metal, and this is sure to drive any party mad.  Depending on how diabolical a DM you want to be, the interior could contain amazing treasure, or just another trap.  Similarly, I saw a mummy enclosed in no less than three nested coffins.  Makes that needle trap and orc guard seem like a pretty poor method of securing your valuables, doesn’t it?

3.  Prison

OK, this one I don’t have a picture of, but apparently the Oxford Castle was used as a prison for a pretty long time, and as such is a good record of Medieval methods for dealing with criminals.  The most interesting fact the tour guide gave us that made me think was that the prison itself was not meant as a punishment.  No, punishments were far more severe – prison is just where you went until they got around to dealing with you.  And conditions being so dreadful, probably you died just waiting for someone to pass judgement on you.  But if you survived perhaps you would get off lightly and they’d lock in you in the pillory in the town square for a couple days, with your ears nailed to the boards, to have rotten food and rocks and who knows what else pelted at you by the public.  And if you survived that, and you were very lucky, maybe when they opened the lock they’d give you a dull knife so you could cut off your own ears and go home.  If not, well, give ’em a good yank and I’m sure they’ll tear free.

So there you have it.  Use these to torment your players as you see fit.

Wandering Monsters

My favorite Order of the Stick cartoon, back when I enjoyed that strip, concerned the number of random encounters the party should expect while traveling overland to a dungeon.  Here’s the link, but I will summarize: the joke is that despite different travel times, all parties should expect exactly one random encounter when traveling, as “no matter how long the journey, you only have one random encounter before everyone gets bored and moves on to the main plot.”

It struck me as especially funny because it’s exactly what I’ve found myself doing on numerous occasions.  It speaks to the battle between keep the main thing the main thing and the oracular power of dice.  And unfortunately, there’s no real general purpose rule for handling this balance.

I have certainly run plenty of dungeons where the dungeon itself dictates the rate at which one rolls for random encounters.  I have on occasion ignored those roles simply because cool stuff was already happening, and I know that I along with the players would all be irritated if the flow was interrupted by a random monster happening along.  On the other hand, when the party decides to lock themselves in a room and camp for two days, or is simply being slow, loud, and clumsy at moving through the dungeon, those rates of wandering monster rolls are exactly the mechanic I feel justified in applying to balance things out.  Without a tangible downside to slow progress, who wouldn’t spend a full turn carefully searching every 10′ increment of the dungeon for traps, secret doors, etc?

This is exacerbated when traveling in the wilderness.  My preferred campaign setting is a large world littered with small dungeons.  I’ve tried the whole mega-dungeon thing, and while I still find it enticing, for extended campaign play I prefer short and sweet dungeons punctuated by travel to differing towns and some random encounters between, be they monsters or civilized folk.  Still, that means a lot of random rolling when the players start moving around the map, and some times this can really bog down play.  Sometimes the dice just refuse to let up, and after the third or fourth random encounter along the road, it becomes tedious and boring to everyone at the table, the DM included.

On the other hand, our last session was entirely composed of this.  The players were simply trying to travel around the perimeter of a mountain — should be easy, right?  Well there’s no road, and the south side of the mountain borders a place known as “the Gloomwood”, a heavily wooded region rife with lycanthropes and similar such deadly creatures.

So I turned to my random charts.  Here’s the rules from the Expert book I use as my starting point:

When travelling, a party can become lost.  A party following a road, trail, or river, or led by a reliable guide, will not become lost.  Otherwise, the DM checks each day, rolling a six-sided die (1d6) before the party begins movement .

Expert Book, p. X56

While travelling in the wilderness, there is a chance the characters will encounter creatures just as they would in a dungeon.  The DM should decide how often encounter checks are made.  Encounters are usually checked for once per day, but the DM may include planned encounters, or may make additional checks if appropriate.  No more than 3 or 4 encounter checks should be made per day.

Expert Book, p. X57

Charts are then given based on terrain type to show the chances in 6 for each event.  Usually it’s 1 or 2 in 6 for getting lost, likewise for encounters though in some rougher terrains it goes up to 3 in 6.  For well travelled areas I usually skip the lost check and limit the encounter check to once per day.  Sometimes I’ll even increase the die size to further lessen the chance of encounters.  In worst case situations, like say trying to circle around a mountain and avoid the Gloomwood, I will roll 3 checks per day, usually by designating three different colored dice as “morning”, “afternoon”, and “night” and rolling them all together.

So in our last session the party was attempting to circle round the mountain to find an old cave they knew contained a magical scrying pool (similar effect to a crystal ball) which they wished to use to their advantage.  Right off the bat they both got lost and hit an encounter.  I ruled this as them drifting too far south and accidentally entering the Gloomwood, where they were set upon by werewolves.  The next day the same result, lost and one encounter.  This time they overshot the mountain and ended up in the Dead Hills, a place where many ancient battles were once held that is now quite haunted.  The encounter came at night, so the party managed to witness a battle between two forces of undead which they cleverly avoided, though at the cost of losing all the benefits of a good night’s rest (no healing, no spells regained).  On the third day they climbed the mountain where they were set upon by Caecilia (giant gray worms) in a set encounter I had placed there before we even started playing.  They managed to get into the cave, use the scrying pool, and get out in time to make camp just at the tree line below the cave.  Wouldn’t you know it, another random encounter roll released two fire salamanders on them in the middle of the night (did I mention the cave is on the side of a  volcano?)  The party managed to fight them off, and the next day returned to their camp at the base of the mountain, which had been overtaken by an entire tribe of orcs (yup, another random encounter).  Being fairly high level, they managed to kill off the orcs and charm the chieftain, and so ended a full night of adventuring.

And honestly, I think we were all having a great time.  The wandering monster and lost rolls all made sense.  I did re-roll a couple times for the specific monster type when I got stuff that was just crazy, but I never fudged the chances of it happening.  I did not randomize the lost rolls because in both cases the monster type pushed me in a specific direction.  Werewolves?  They must have gone too far south and entered the Gloomwood.  Undead?  Clearly they’ve accidentally entered the Dead Hills.

So, clearly random encounter rolls can actually build some really exciting play.  Unfortunately, sometimes it also leads to tedious play, especially when it’s getting in the way of something exciting that everyone is looking forward to.  Any consistent rule here is simply too rigid to be followed dogmatically.  The DM simply must keep his thumb on the pulse of the table, and adjust the pacing as he sees fit.  While I fight the urge to fudge dice, and actually roll all my combat rolls in front of the screen to avoid the temptation, in the case of wandering monster checks I think it’s imperative that the DM feel a strong latitude to roll or ignore the rolls as he sees fit.

This, I think, is what Gygax was getting at when he described his own DMing style as “free-wheeling.”


Once again I missed GenCon this year, and it has left me feeling conflicted.  The 50th anniversary is coming very soon, and given that my very first GenCon was the 25th (still have the pin), I feel like I really want to be at the 50th.  That said, GenCon aint what it used to be.  And it’s not just me being old and grumpy.  I noticed some interesting reactions appear on Facebook after the convention:

“this convention is starting to feel like it did back in the days when it was in Milwaukee, when the only way to get a room near the convention center was to know someone with one of the big publishing houses or game vendors”

GenCon: The Worst Best Four Days of Gaming

“GenCon is just too damned big. …  If not for my involvement in the Auction, I would not attend any more.”

How Big is Too Big? Gaming Cons Today

As I continue to miss GenCon (for all meanings of the word miss), I have also started attending more smaller conventions.  Last year I attended Carnage on the Mountain for the first time, and their organization has impressed me so much I had to attend again this year.  Never mind that I get to see some folks in the past I have only seen at TotalCon (entirely my own fault as I regularly fail to show up to other scheduled gatherings), the fact is that the organizers of Carnage are both gracious and on the ball.  I was politely asked over email if I was going to sign up for games, and when I did, I was again politely asked if I wouldn’t mind if one of my games was run in its backup time slot instead of its primary one as the backup time slot had fewer games.  Geez, I fully expected that if they wanted to bump me they’d just bump me.  Isn’t that why I enter a backup time slot?  The extra care makes even a regular old DM like me feel like a special guest.  It’s fantastic.

So now Jenn and I are considering next year attending Origins instead of GenCon.  In the past I’ve heard good things about Origins, but it’s just as far away as GenCon, so if I was going to a big con why not go to the biggest?  The thing is, the biggest has now become too big.  The frustration of trying to snag a hotel in the 1 hour window when they’re available, getting into barely any of the games I want, having to schlep several blocks from one building to the next to get to games… it’s just not worth it.

As we’ve investigated Origins I’ve come to find some very heartening facts.  Attendance last year was around 16k, which is still freaking enormous, but nowhere near GenCon’s 61k.  Interestingly, my first GenCon in 92 had an attendance of 18k, which felt enormous at the time.  From what I hear online, the most popular hotel sells out in about a month, and many hotels that are right next to the convention center will still have rooms available up to the last minute.  This is quite a change from GenCon’s 1 hour scramble for housing six months before the show.

But still, it’s GenCon…  Do I really want to miss the 50th?

A few weeks ago I was grumbling about GenCon at an after-work gathering,  and starting to sound like a grumpy old muppet.  I wast trying to make the point that GenCon just didn’t feel like it was about the gaming anymore.  Our recently graduated intern said “Oh, I didn’t even realize GenCon was a gaming convention, I thought it was an anime thing.”  This is a video game company intern we’re talking about here people, not some uninformed person off the street.  She’s well versed in all things geek, and honestly, if I wanted to go to an anime convention, she may be the first person I would ask for recommendations.  And she didn’t even know GenCon was a gaming convention?

So there’s my proof I think — GenCon simply isn’t the convention it used to be.  It’s not a gaming convention any more.  Nor is it an anime convention — it’s a new stuff convention.  It’s a let’s wrap up every single thing geek culture is somewhat interested in and put a price tag on it convention.  The GenCon I miss just doesn’t exist anymore.

Geez, I feel like a widow trying to convince myself it’s time to date again.  Sigh.  OK Origins, let’s see what you have to offer.