Archive for July, 2010

Making Magic Items Magic

One of my gripes about D&D, especially later editions, is the profusion of magic items.  After a few levels every character seems to be carrying around with him a huge collection of magical artifacts.  I think it really reduces the mystery and specialness of magic items.  Having a sword +1 is barely different from having a sword.  In my current game, I’ve tried to make any magic items the players find feel really special and different.  I noticed at last night’s game that it actually appears to be rather successful, which has really pleased me, especially given that it really wasn’t as hard as you would think.  Here’s a few minor things I’ve done and the effect they’ve had.

Adding a minor detail to the item goes a long way.  One player found a sword described to be “very finely made with a large ruby pommel.”  Another has a staff that is “a gnarled stick of wood with various feathers and fetishes attached to it.”  These are pretty minor and not terribly original, but the fact is that I don’t give that level of detail to normal equipment, and so it stands out.  I noticed as a result my player doesn’t say “I swing my magic sword” or “I use my sword +x”, he says “I pull out my ruby pommeled sword” and everyone around the table gets excited.

Make up command words. The staff above has charges that cause extra damage when expended in combat.  When the players discovered this I made up a command word on the spot: “breeshk”.  It’s a nonsense word I made up that felt right given the primitive appearance of the staff and the fact that it was taken as treasure from a gnoll camp.  Now my player never tells me he’s expending a charge from the staff, he merely shouts “Breeshk!” as he rolls his attack.

Tie it to the location.  One of the best things I’ve stolen from Stonehell is the magical material known as vaedium.  What I love so much about it is that in Stonehell there is no description of what it is or what it does, just that it’s a metal with a magical nature.  While my players were exploring Stonehell they found their very first magic weapon: a sword +1.  I decided it was in fact made of vaedium, which causes it to glow very slightly and imbues it with its power.  When the players tried to have it identified, the sage was stumped — he told them it had none of the usual enchantments upon it, but rather it appeared the very material it was made of was imbued with magic.  I still told them that mechanically it was a sword +1, so they got their money’s worth from the sage, but it’s become known now simply as the vaedium sword.  My players probably still wonder if there isn’t more to this sword than simply the +1 enchantment.  So do I.

I noticed this all last night as the party has its first serious encounter with a monster that required magic to hurt it: a group of three shadows.  The shouts of “breeshk!” and the descriptions of the ruby pommeled sword and the vaedium sword really made it feel like the party was pulling out all the stops, bringing to bear the full power of their magical resources.

Group Initiative and Interrupted Spellcasting

I play with a very simplified combat sequence. I like my combats to whiz by very fast. They should be exciting, but should not dominate the game. Combat is the punctuation of the game’s story. Perhaps it makes sense first to look at the official Labyrinth Lord combat sequence before discussing how I deviate form it, and what problems it creates. So here’s the standard sequence from the book:

  1. Players declare character movement or actions.
  2. Initiative: 1d6 is rolled by each opposing side.
  3. The winner of initiative acts first. The Labyrinth Lord may check morale for monsters.
  4. Movements can be made.
  5. Missile attack rolls are made, accounting for DEX adjustments, cover, and range.
  6. Spells are cast and applicable saving throws are made.
  7. Melee combat occurs; attack and damage rolls are made, accounting for STR and magic adjustments.
  8. Other sides act through steps 4-7, in order of initiative.
  9. When all sides of a conflict have acted and the combat will continue into the sequence begins again at step 1.

Group initiative has some advantages.  First of all, it’s much easier to go around the table than to write down a variable sequence of player order.  Also, it limits the side that can win to one of two: players or enemies.  Thus, it’s silly to roll initiative every round, you can just roll it once at the start of the encounter and then go round and round the table.  By the system above, not only do I have to write down an unusual order, I have to run through it 5 times: first for declarations, second for movements, third for missile attacks, fourth for spells, and fifth for melee attacks.  Yuck.

That said, I noticed that just going around the table and asking each player “what do you do?” leads to some problems.  Players can adapt their strategy based on what the person before them did.  This I’m OK with, and in fact I love the idea that the players can game the system by moving their physical seats.  Changing seating arrangement has so many other subtle ramifications on the game, I like anything that encourages it.  However, not having a separate declare vs. act step does mean that spell casting is much more powerful than it should be.  There’s no way to interrupt spells — the player declares he is casting and it is done.  It’s also easy to lose site of the limitations on casting, notably that you can’t also move, or be in combat, or really do anything else at all.

I’ve been contemplating a way to solve this, and here’s what I’ve come up with.  When you want to cast a spell, you declare on your turn that you are doing so.  At this point we make sure you’re not doing anything that prohibits casting, such as moving or fighting.  Your spell does not go off until the end of the opposing side’s next turn.  So basically, turn sequence is something like this:

  1. Go around the table allowing players to act.  Note which players declare they are casting spells.
  2. Resolve spells from previous monster’s turn.
  3. Make all monster actions, including declaring which monsters are starting to cast spells.
  4. Resolve player spells from step 1.

If the monsters win initiative, you just start with #3 then loop back around.  This gives both sides opportunity to attack and interrupt spell casting.  It does introduce the problem though of what to do when a spell’s target moves out of range or vision while the spell is being cast.  Perhaps the caster need merely declare “I am casting…” on his turn, indicating what spell he is casting, but not declaring the targets until the spell gets resolved.  Though that still begs the question of what happens when all valid targets are gone by the time the spell resolves.  I’m guessing it either goes off where the target used to be, or just fizzles.

GenCon 2010 Schedule

OK, here’s my scheduled events for this year:


9am – 1pm Stonesky Delve, part 1 AD&D
3pm – 4pm Speed Painting
7pm – 11pm Come What May My Labyrinth Lord Game


9am – 1pm The House in the Woods Warhammer FRPG
2pm – 5pm The Wisdom Goddess’s Quest Tunnels and Trolls
6pm – 10pm The Burial Tomb of the Bandit Queen Labyrinth Lord


9am – noon Trouble in the Water Front Tunnels and Trolls
1pm – 3pm More Mayhem at Kobold Caverns Microlite 74
7pm – 9pm D12 Fantasy: Dragons Hoard D12 Fantasy


10am – noon D12 Fantasy: Dragons Hoard D12 Fantasy

As you can see, the scheduling was a bit wacky.  I entered in all my primary choices and all my backups, and that resulted in me getting into d12 Fantasy both Saturday night and Sunday.  I’m guessing I likely won’t really attend both, but I’ll figure out at the convention which one to go to.  Perhaps my performance in the speed painting contest will affect my decision?

I also ended up in two Tunnels and Trolls games.  I was tickled to see them being run, and thought it would be fun to play in one.  I’ve mostly only ever played the game solo.  I ran a session of it once, which was mediocre.  I’m very curious to see it run by someone else.  I didn’t really mean to play in two games of it though, so we’ll see how that turns out.

Originally I didn’t get into any games at all for Friday night, but then later on a couple tickets to the other Labyrinth Lord game opened up, and I snagged them.  I’ve promised the other one to BJ, and I expect it’ll be a lot of fun to play alongside him.  I call it “the other Labyrinth Lord” game because there are only two being run at the entire con, and I’m running the other one.  I was thinking for a while I might try running a second game of it at an open gaming table Friday night, but I’d rather play than run.  Maybe though if I drop the d12 Fantasy Saturday night I’ll run something then.  We shall see.  I kind of like having extra flexibility in my schedule.

I’ve got quite a few games with only an hour gap between them for meals.  That might make things kind of tight, but it’s still way better than the first few cons I went to where I packed it so tight I had to buy and pack meals in advance each day.  I have a nice window of time to visit the dealer’s hall Thursday afternoon (1-3, 4-6), as well as Saturday afternoon (3-6).  That should be just about right, but I’m sure I’ll find other gaps to go roam the hall.

Clearly this year is the year of old school gaming for me.  T&T, AD&D, LL, and Microlite all fit the bill I think.  I’ll be curious to see how long the legs of this thing is.  Is it a fad?  Will I laugh at my schedule next year?  Will it be just like my obsession with Savage Worlds?  We shall see.  It’s held my interest pretty long at this point, perhaps because it really is less about the system and mechanics, and more about the philosophy of what a game should contain.

GenCon 2010: the Anticipation

In 12 days I will be leaving for GenCon 2010, my 11th GenCon by my counting.  I’m starting to finally really get excited for it.  I went back to my old blog and re-read my summary posts for GenCons 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and a post about all the past GenCons I’ve attended.  It was kind of neat to see how well I’ve documented my experience for the past five years.  This year I expect to be even better — I have a tiny digital video recorder I tend to wear around, and I’m thinking of picking up a small p&s camera to take extra pictures.  I really just don’t want to lug around the giant DSLR in the convention hall.

This year my company is apparently going to have some kind of presence at the convention.  I’m not entirely sure what kind of presence, it’s certainly not going to be a big ass flashy booth, but from what I’ve heard around the office a few of the big wigs are intending to be there.  I’m not sure what that means for me personally.  Probably nothing more than a few minutes chat in the dealers room I expect, unless the lines are really long and I just shy away from them entirely.

Funny thing is, when I try to thing of specific things about GenCon that I’m really anticipating, I can’t come up with much.  There’s no one game that I think is going to be super awesome, no one dealer that I expect to wow me.  I kind of want to check out the auction this year which I’ve never done before, but I don’t really know what to expect from that.  Mostly, it’s really just the atmosphere of the thing that excites me.  I can’t wait to just be there, roaming the halls with 30,000 other people who all love the same thing I love.

Thinking Like a Monster

Tonight is game night, and I have to admit I’m really looking forward to it.  Bigfella posted a recap of last session, which in summary ended with the party discovering a Medusa was loose somewhere in the dungeon.  Worse yet she apparently knows the layout better than they do, having surprised them at first by entering a room they thought they had secured via a secret door they didn’t know existed.  At the very end of the session they holed themselves up into another room, discovered the secret door that presumably connects to the other, and started discussing plans for how to deal with her.

Whenever the session ends with the party disagreeing about some plan or other, I like to tell them they have a week to figure it out.  I’m pretty sure though that all thought of the game vanishes from their heads until they return to the table a week later.  I chided them in my email about tonight’s game, saying “I assume you have all spent the week productively coming up with a cunning plan for your current predicament?”  Then it hit me — did I come up with a clever plan for the Medusa?

Bigfella himself called her “an intelligent, mobile, and potentially very dangerous foe.”  She’s out numbered, but she knows the layout better than they do.  And they’ve locked themselves in that room to bicker about what to do for a  considerable amount of time (it took several turns for them to find that pesky secret door).  She should have her own plan, shouldn’t she?

I started thinking about what kind of scenes would be cool to play out.  Of course I have no idea what the players have in mind, so I’m thinking pretty generically here about how she fits into the rest of the dungeon’s ecosystem, what her own goals might be, and what information about the setting she might impart to the players.

Then the second revelation hit me — I shouldn’t be thinking about how she progresses the game, I should be thinking like she’s my character.  If I’m the Medusa, what do I do about these pesky players?  How can I get the upper hand?  Sure, I can petrify with my gaze, but there’s a lot more of them than me.  I’ve got to play it smart if I want to win.

And that’s the key right there: how do I win?  Oh sure, I don’t really expect to win.  The players are high enough level that they should be able to handle a medusa.  The real problem for them is doing so without suffering any petrification or player deaths.  But for this encounter to really be fun, I should be trying to win as best as I can.  Sure, I should know the answers to what kind of info the medusa has, how she fits in to the dungeon as a whole, but I should not be planning on how to use her to get that info to the players.  I should simply know the answers in case I need them during play.

With that info in hand, the real question is how can I best kick the players’ asses?  Man, this is going to be fun.

Run Away!

The ability to run away from combat in an RPG is, I think, extremely important.  It allows the players a way to lose without ending the game.  It also opens the door for more interesting combats where the enemy is known and more pre-planning is done.  I find in general that combats that the players know about ahead of time and plan for are pretty universally more interesting than random surprise conflicts.  Though that perhaps is another post.  Point is, in combat, either side should be able to have some chance of successfully escaping the combat.

Lots of RPGs fail pretty badly at this.  Many RPG mechanics seem to encourage a kind of all or nothing mentality.  If you try to run away, you will fail, so you might as well fight to the death.  Some of this is from the mentality engendered by ‘do-over’ mechanics — players feel like there’s always a chance to turn it around until they drop dead.  Some is from the raw fallacy of turn based movement, which effects both players and NPCs.  A common mechanic is to allow a free out-of-turn attack on a combatant who flees combat.  This really doesn’t work with turn based movement though.  Combatant A flees from combat, and combatant B gets a free swing.  On B’s turn, he runs to the point where A is.  A flees again, B gets another free attack, rinse and repeat.

So how do I deal with this in our current LL game?  Well, obviously there is no do-over mechanic, so that’s not an issue.  I added a critical hit system to the game, originally just to reduce deadliness, but I find it has an nice secondary effect of allowing players the opportunity to feel overwhelmed and get out.  When a player drops to 0 hp and takes a critical effect (broken arm, punctured lung, etc.) it gives them that chance to realize they’re screwed and consider leaving combat.

Unfortunately the free attack mechanic is pretty strongly ingrained in my brain from years of D&D 3+ and the Warhammer RPG.  Even though B/X and LL don’t actually have that mechanic, I find it a difficult to remember not to do it, and now the precedent is so strong I think my players might get upset if I try to remove it.  That said, the lack of a scale model during battle (I don’t use a battle mat or measure inches) gives me some leeway to alleviate the problem.

First, some background for how I run combat.  I use group initiative — I roll a d6 and one player rolls a d6, whoever rolls higher starts. Play then starts either with me or the player to my left, and goes clockwise from there.  Initiative is rolled just once at the start of play, and hirelings go after the players but before any monsters.  We have miniatures on the table but just for the players.  They line them up for marching order when exploring, and I cluster them into combat groups when fighting.  Often this is as simple as a front line and back line grouping — the front line is the players in melee with the enemy, the back line represents players trying to keep a healthy distance between themselves and the guys with sharp implements.  If it becomes important to have two discrete combat groups (eg. group A is on the near side of the bridge, B on the far side), we just cluster the minis as required.  It is entirely non-representational of actual placement in combat, which I assume to be a swirling chaos of combatants moving around and constantly changing targets.  In practice I generally like to see the minis arranged in a line, which makes it easier for me randomize targets when I wish with a simple die roll.

So, what if someone wants to run away?  Well, the rules state you can either all out flee or you can make a fighting retreat at half movement.  In the case of the former, I allow free attacks from enemies as the combatant flees.  If someone gives chase and there are still enemies in the melee, then they also will be subject to free attacks as they leave the melee.  I assume the latter still allows a normal attack on your turn, it is a fighting retreat after all, and does not grant other free attacks.

Either way, when one side flees, I determine immediately if the other side wishes to press the attack.  If so, and it’s a fighting retreat, I just assume the entire combat moves its location and continues as before.  If it’s an all out flee, then we switch from combat into a chase (which generally I just compare movement rates to resolve).  If only some combatants of a side flee and some combatants press, it basically splits the combat into two groups, as mentioned above.  This has actually led to some interesting scenes in game, such as when a group of lizard men fled combat up a stair, and only one of the players decided to press the attack.  The lizard men regrouped at the top of the stairs and basically pounded the poor schmuck who chased them up there.  He in turn retreated back down the stairs, and we had a sort of stale-mate until both sides decided to move away on their respective levels.

So that’s it, that’s how I handle running away in combat.  Even after writing that out it still feels looser in my mind than I was hoping.  Actually, that’s probably a good thing.  Loose rules are easier to modify on the fly as required by the current situation, which just means I’ve got to be on my toes during play to make it as fun as I can.  Which really is pretty much what DMing is all about.

Time-travelingest Weekend Ever

Isn’t it bizarre when the universe conspires to present almost-related seeming things to you time after time?  OK, a lot of this is probably actually just my own subconscious (or conscious) thought pushing me in one direction, but there were a couple weird coincidences rolled in as well.

It started Friday night, the night Jenn and I reserve to do something fun together.  It’s usually pretty simple, go see a movie, or just hit a local restaurant for a nice dinner out.  Last Friday though we couldn’t seem to agree on anything (or there just wasn’t anything appealing out there), so we decided to order some take out and see if we could find a movie on TV to watch.  After scouring Comcast’s On-Demand menus, the best we could find was Hot Tub Time Machine.  I was skeptical when I first heard of this movie, but Jenn claimed she heard it was actually kind of funny, so lacking anything better we rented it.

Actually, I thought it was pretty hilarious.  Just the right level of not taking itself very seriously and not too much poking fun at the 80’s (if anything it was probably more satirical about modern day than the 80’s).  I thought while watching it that perhaps it might be an homage to Back to the Future, chiefly due to the presence of Crispin Glover, but I hadn’t seen that move in ages.  Jenn was headed to bed, but I wasn’t too tired, and I knew I had the entire trilogy stashed on my DVR.  So what the heck, I watched Back to the Future.  The movie holds up pretty well, and I would say there are definite connections between the two.  Hot Tub Time Machine has guys traveling from 2010 to 1986, while Back to the Future features a guy going from 1985 to 1955.  In BF, Doc tells Marty his initial plan is to go forward 25 years, which would be the year 2010.  HTTM’s musical performance pretty much apes BF’s famous scene where Marty plays Johnny Be Good.  Feels like an homage to me.

Saturday was Helga’s.  I went only to discover our host had laid out ready to play a game by Looney Labs called Chrononauts, a game in which players are time travelers tasked with repairing paradoxes in the time line.  This was pretty weird, but I was definitely in the right mindset, so I was happy to play it.  It was pretty fun actually, I’ll probably look for a copy for myself when we’re at GenCon.

Sunday it got pretty hot out, with occasional rain storms.  Just the kind of weather I did not want to face.  So we stayed in, and I let the weird mood flow and watched the remaining two Back to the Future movies.  BF2 is quite a hoot, if you can look past the crazy plot holes, especially in their depiction of the year 2015.  I’m curious why they jumped 30 years instead of 25, possibly for parity with the 1985->1955 jump of the first movie, or perhaps because it wasn’t made until 1989, at which time 2010 may not have seemed far enough into the future.  Anyway, the predictions of the future in that movie are pretty amusing.  We get anti-gravity (flying cars and hover-boards), but the best telecom advancement is video phone calls and faxes printed on dot matrix printers.  Not that you can really fault anyone for not predicting the internet, but still, dot matrix?  The fashion is especially humorous, being an extension of the trends in the 80’s to even more vibrant and wild colors and styles, instead of the actual reversal.

Finally, I was reading the weekly webcomics I follow before going to bed Sunday, and sure enough one of them made a time travel joke.  It was kind of a throw-away joke, but still, the theme was there.  Now I’m not sure how to get this all out of my head today.  Do I run with it and try to watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure or 12 Monkeys?  Or should I run screaming?

Maybe I just need to hear some more Huey Lewis and the News.

Thank God for Facebook

Never thought I’d say it, but yesterday I was very pleased to have a Facebook account.  I almost never log onto the thing, it’s always struck me as a waste of time.  Yet another site I need to check regularly and feel guilty about never writing on?  I already have a blog for that.

Yesterday though was my birthday.  It really sucks having your birthday that close to the 4th of July.  Growing up everyone was always on vacation for my birthday.  I always had to have my party a week later, and even then there was always a few friends out of town who couldn’t make it.  This year I tried to convince myself that now that I was an adult I wouldn’t have such issues.  Only families go off on vacation for the 4th, right?

I tried to hold a quiet gathering of friends at my house on Friday evening, and pretty much nobody could make it.  (Except BigFella, you rock buddy.)  They were all going to be out of town, what a surprise.  What did I expect sending out invites just a week in advance, and on the 4th of July weekend?  I ended up just canceling the thing.  Worse still though, is that this year both sides of my family were also on vacation.  Only my in-laws called to wish me a happy birthday.

The bright side though was the huge number of well wishes I got over facebook.  I suppose the site must alert you about birthdays somewhere?  Or perhaps it was just the ‘social networking’ thing of it — one person says happy birthday and then someone else sees that and joins in.  Now I’ve got almost 30 notifications in my inbox full of birthday wishes.

Thanks guys.  I really do appreciate it.

Maybe I should just officially move my birthday a week later.  I mean, if you can legally change your name, why can’t you legally change your date of birth?