Archive for 2011

My New Book

Here’s a little book binding project I finished recently that I thought I’d share.  Back in August I picked up a couple B/X books at the GenCon auction for about $4 a piece.  The covers were in pretty bad shape, but the pages were in good condition and certainly usable.  My idea was to pull off the covers and then bind the two text blocks together as a single volume.  Finally, here is the result.

The pages are stitched together as two very large signatures.  I thought about breaking the pages apart and inter-mixing each section as the book suggest, but to do so I’d have to cut up the pages and then I wouldn’t be able to stitch the binding.  I could have gone with a perfect binding, but I’ve never tried that and from what I read such bindings are pretty crappy.  I’d rather have a book with a good solid saddle stitch that I know will last.

For the cover, I tried something new.  I cut up some pieces from the red book’s cover, which was in better shape than the blue, pasted them to the binder board, and then cut holes in the binding cloth to let the title and picture show through.  I’d say the end effect is OK, but not great.  You may notice this resulted in some air bubbles in the glue in the bottom right corner.  Also, I had to cut the pieces pretty close to the edge to get anything usable (those covers were really beat up), and as such I think the overall look is a little cramped.

Still, the book serves well, and I quite enjoy having a single volume to reference while playing rather than flipping back and forth between two books.  I’m starting to memorize where certain sections are too, making it easy to quickly flip to the right area during play, which really is the most important bit.  I find I’ve even stopped using the MM in favor of looking up the monsters in this book, which is good as we saw from the gray ooze article yesterday there are certainly some differences between the two editions.  I was previously using the MM before simply because it was easier to locate the right stats quickly than juggle the two books, but apparently just having them bound in a single volume makes it easy enough to not want to switch to the other book.  One less thing to have in my stack of books is only a good thing in my mind.

Oozes through the Ages: Gray Ooze

Technically the only “ooze” in the game, the gray ooze is the monster one of my players asked some specific questions about.  I suppose that might make this a very short series, though by 2nd edition all slimey monsters (green slime, gray ooze, gelatinous cube, etc.) get filed under the moniker ooze.  Actually, the real reason for the title is simply my preference for alliterative titles.  Let’s get on with it.

Let me start by summarizing my player’s questions:

Shouldn’t it have taken a full turn (10 minutes) for the gray ooze to dissolve our armor?  Also, the text says nothing about it destroying weapons.

They recently lost a magic sword fighting a gray ooze, so naturally they’re a bit distressed.  These questions are rooted in the B/X description, so I’m actually going to start there.  A bit backwards, I know, but don’t worry we’ll look at the OD&D description next.  For now, here’s B/X:

This seeping horror looks like wet stone and is difficult to see. It secrets an acid which does 2d8 points of damage if the gray ooze hits bare skin.  This acid will dissolve and destroy magic armor in one turn.  After the first hit, the ooze will stick to its victim, automatically destroying any normal armor and doing 2d8 points of damage each round.  Gray ooze cannot be harmed by cold or fire, but can be harmed by weapons and lightning.

What an unusual description.  Certainly there is text in there about it taking one turn to destroy magic armor.  How odd to list the special case (magic armor vs. normal) first, given that the next sentence directly states that normal armor is destroyed in a single round.  I didn’t even notice the second bit myself until typing it out above, and assumed B/X was going to tell me that all armor takes a full turn to destroy.  Probably my player made the same mistake.  Also, the player is correct, no mention of destroying weapons, or any other material other than armor.  Of course, one can infer that acid that can eat through armor can also eat through a sword.  And why is lightning specifically called out here?  Is it not susceptible to all forms of magical attack that are not fire or cord (eg. magic missile)?

Side note: Mentzer edition and Rules Cyclopedia are essentially identical, though the text is rearranged to make a bit more sense.  Also, RC changes “magic armor” to “magic items”.

OK, let’s pop back to OD&D for some context:

A seeping horror which closely resembles wet stone and is thus difficult to detect. It will not be spread by non-harmful weapons, but it is subject only to lightening bolts or cuts and chops by weaponry, for it is impervious to cold or fire. It does not harm wood or stone, but it corrodes metal at the same rate that Black Pudding does. It does two dice of damage to exposed flesh for every turn it is in contact with it.

And since it references it, here’s Black Pudding:

Another member of the clean-up crew and nuisance monster, Black Puddings are not affected by cold. It is spread into smaller ones by chops or lightening bolts, but is killed by fire. Black Puddings dissolve wood, corrode metal at a reasonably fast rate, have no effect on stone, and cause three dice of damage to exposed flesh. If an armored character runs through a Black Pudding the monster’s corrosive power will eat away the foot and leg  protection of the armor so that it will fall-away next turn. Black Puddings can pass through fairly small openings, and they can travel as easily on ceilings as on floors.

Clearly the whole special mention of lightning bolts is for specific comparison to Black Puddings, which have a specific reaction to lightning (splitting into multiple puddings).  As for destroying metal, it does so “at a reasonably fast rate”, whatever that is.  There is one mention of turns here, that when running through a pudding the foot and leg protection will “fall-away next turn.”  My first instinct was to say that here’s another confusion of rounds vs. turns in OD&D.  However, I suspect what’s going on here is the supposition that combat is not being entered, and thus the party movement through the dungeon is being tracked by turn.  The party in question here decides to push through a passageway totally ignoring the black pudding and walking right through it, the result of which is that the next turn (which is immediate when tracking movement by turn) the armor dissolves.  Interesting that the assumption here is that the black pudding does not pursue and attack, making it almost more like a trap than a monster.

Also as a side note, I’m tickled here by the direct reference to these monsters being “member[s] of the clean-up crew”.  You can just see the thought process of how these things were invented.  They players start to wonder what happened to all those orc bodies that they killed last time they were in this passage.  The DM, thinking quickly, replies “a gelatinous cube must have got them.”

Anyway, let’s look forward now to AD&D 1st edition.  Remember that the Monster Manual was the first printed AD&D book back in 1977, four years before B/X is printed:

This creature corrodes metal at the same rate a black pudding (qv) does, i.e. chainmail is eaten through in a single melee round.  Its acids do no harm to stone or wood.  Spells do not harm this creature, and it is impervious to heat or cold.  Lightning, however, causes full damage to gray ooze, as do blows from weapons.  Note, however, that in the latter case the weapons striking the creature may corrode and break.  They strike like snakes when attacking.

Being AD&D there are of course several more paragraphs, but the one above is the most interesting for comparison.  Again we must consult the Black Pudding entry for specifics on the metal corrosion ability.  Here’s the pertinent bit:

Black puddings also eat away metal with their corrosive saliva: Chainmail in 1 melee round, plate mail in 2, and an additional melee round for magical armor at a rate of 1 melee round for each plus of armor.  Thus, +1 magic (plate) armor would have to be in contact with a black pudding for 3 melee rounds before it dissolved.

OK, as usual AD&D has to add some flourishes, now separating number of rounds for normal armor based on type.  No mention of leather here though — are we to assume that like wood and stone, leather is also impervious to the gray ooze’s acid?  Interestingly magic armor is dissolved much more quickly here than in B/X, especially considering the differing rounds per turn in each.  In AD&D, 1 round = 1 minute, thus 1 turn (10 minutes) = 10 rounds.  In B/X, 1 round = 10 seconds, thus 1 turn (10 minutes) = 60 rounds.  Wow, in AD&D my +1 plate armor takes one twentieth the time to dissolve as it does in B/X!

Also, did I just see that these things are totally immune to all magic except lightning bolts?  Holy crap!  For a 3 HD creature, this thing has serious potential towards TPK.  In AD&D, I’m thinking the best bet is to just run away.  In 2nd edition AD&D not much has changed, the description is simply a bit more concise:

The gray ooze strikes like a snake, and can corrode metal at an alarming rate (chain mail in one round, plate mail in two, and magical armor in one round per each plus to Armor Class). Spells have no effect on this monster, nor do fire- or cold-based attacks. Lightning and blows from weapons cause full damage. Note that weapons striking a gray ooze may corrode and break.

I’m noticing now this recurring thing of no real guidance on how likely it is a weapon striking it will corrode and break.  Simply that it may.  Does the weapon get an item saving throw?  I would argue yes, but there’s no text indicating such here.

Here’s the 3.0 edition (again, just the pertinent metal corroding and immunities parts):

Ooze: Immune to mind-influencing effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning, and polymorphing. Not subject to critical hits.

Acid (Ex): A gray ooze secretes a digestive acid that quickly dissolves organic material and metal. Any melee hit deals acid damage. The ooze’s acidic touch deals 40 points of damage per round to wood or metal objects. Armor or clothing dissolves and becomes useless immediately unless it succeeds at a Reflex save (DC 19). The acid cannot harm stone. A metal or wooden weapon that strikes a gray ooze also dissolves immediately unless it succeeds at a Reflex save (DC 19).

Hmm, now wood is also not safe, but at least our weapons and armor get saves.  Magic immunities have also been reduced to some very specific effects.  Here’s 3.5:

A gray ooze secretes a digestive acid that quickly dissolves organic material and metal, but not stone. Any melee hit  or constrict attack deals acid damage. Armor or clothing dissolves and becomes useless immediately unless it  succeeds on a DC 16 Reflex Save. A metal or wooden weapon that strikes a gray ooze also dissolves immediately unless it succeeds on a DC 16 Reflex save. The save DCs are Constitution-based.

The ooze’s acidic touch deals 16 points of damage per round to wooden or metal objects, but the ooze must remain in contact with the object for 1 full round to deal this damage.

Getting weaker here, the save DC is down by 3 points and are now based on Con rather than Dex (not sure how that’s pertinent to item saving throws, but my 3.5 knowledge is a bit lacking). Also I don’t see anything here about immunities to any kinds of spells.

The interesting thing I’m noticing here is that it looks like after OD&D, AD&D made this creature super hard while B/X made it much weaker, and then subsequent editions have progressively tried to find a middle ground.  The whole magic immunities thing I find very strange and really not appropriate for a 3 HD monster.  You might argue that the authors of B/X felt the same, though they may have simply been pulling from OD&D which makes no mention of such immunities.

So why the additional pull back on duration to destroy magic armor, and no mention at all about weapons in B/X?  Well, one interesting thing to note about the gray ooze in B/X is that it appears in the red book.  Yeah, that’s right, the authors thought this was an appropriate monster for levels 1-3.  Ouch!  It’s possible they thus decided to try and dial back some of its deadliness.  Also, as for weapon destruction, I’ll point out that item saving throws are not introduced until the Expert book, and even then the text is extremely limited:

The character’s equipment is assumed to survive if the character survives.  If the character is killed by a special attack form (fire ball, dragon breath, etc.) normal equipment is considered destroyed.  The DM may give magic items a saving throw equal to that of the character, and may allow a saving throw bonus equip to the item’s bonus in combat, if any (armor +2 saves at +-2, a ring of protection +1 saves at +1, etc.).

Expert Book, Page X24

This only seems to apply when the character is out right killed by the attack.  It makes no provision for attacks that specifically target the item.  Still, it is at least a starting point for introducing item saving throws when desired.

How will I rule it?  Likely I’ll just pull back to OD&D, being closest to what feels right to me.  I think the intention with these things is clearly to let them destroy armor, and taking 60 rounds to do so sounds bizarre.  It also begs the question, can the armor be saved in those 60 rounds?  There’s no mention of that here.  To keep things simple, I’d say armor and weapons both get a single save, and if they fail they are immediately destroyed.  OK, it may take some time for the acid to fully destroy the thing, but within the round they are damaged enough to no longer be used for their intended purpose.

So there you have it, the gray ooze.  I had no idea it varied so much between editions.  I’m kind of tempted now to look at the Rust Monster for additional comparisons.

Physical Artifacts

Though I can’t find a post to link to, I know Delta has mentioned in the past that one of the best parts about mapping dungeons is the physical artifacts of the game it leaves behind.  One thing I do when playing is make sure I know which player character is actually drawing those maps in-game, so I know if/when I have to take them away (such as if that player falls in a well).

One particularly enjoyable bit of DMing magic happened for me recently: a long while back the players found the secret entrance to Stone Hell and sold a map of it to a local sage.  I insisted the players actually draw the thing and hung onto it.  Several months later the game moved location and we had a big shift in player base, and the remaining players decided to create new characters so we’d start with a whole new party.  It’s the same world though, and now almost a year later the new characters wanted to find Stone Hell and discovered a sage who had a map to sell them.  Imagine the look on my players’ faces when I handed them back the same poorly drawn piece of paper they gave me almost a year ago.  I bet they wished they had taken more care when drawing that map.

One other bit of fun physical artifact came up just recently.  For a long while BigFella was in my campaign, and he kept a running journal of the campaign on his blog (starts here).  When one of our players moved off to the west coast, I printed out the year of entries we had so far and bound them in a book for him as a going away present, titled “The Chronicles of Deacon Silver”.  Well, the current crop of players have found this blog and I’ve decided to simply rule that “The Chronicles of Deacon Silver” is an actual book in game (the Deacon Silver character was still somewhere in the world, why not write his memoirs?)

This has put a really cool spin on the game, especially now as the new group starts exploring Stone Hell, a dungeon the previous group explored a very little bit before seeking adventure elsewhere.  The best part is that BigFella’s memory isn’t always super accurate and sometimes his descriptions are a bit vague.  This means the group has access to a lot of flavor and background in the world, but it has yet to actually aid them tactically.

It’s just very gratifying to see these tie-ins from the old stuff making their way into the new content.  I at least really enjoy it, and I figured it was worth posting about so BigFella could share in the grins.  I suppose this is just a sign that my campaign is reaching a certain state of maturity, and I’m super-pleased about it.

Mysterious Magic and Monsters

One of my players emailed me recently with a question about the description of a particular monster.  My response became so long winded I thought I should rework it into a post here (and that will still happen in the future).  However, as I did that I found myself addressing a question that deserves its own post: why am I letting my players read monster descriptions?

The easy answer is that it’s not like I could really stop them.  One thing I rather like about the format of OD&D and AD&D is the separation of such things into separate books.  With B/X’s all in one book format, the monsters and magic items are right there in the player’s faces.  AD&D’s separation into a player’s and a DM’s book is something I tried to replicate when I was printing my own books, but that turned out to be too much of a hassle to maintain.  Interesting side note: I’m completely fascinated by what AD&D 1st edition decided to withhold from the player’s book, such as attack matrices and turning charts.  I love the intention here, but it does make the PHB kind of a strange beast, as it really is kind of incomplete.  Of course one could argue that likewise a game with all players and no DM is equally incomplete, but I’m veering off topic now for a third time and really have to stop.

Even if you use a system that hides monster and magic item descriptions in another book, the fact is that this game is over 30 years old.  Some of your players will likely have encountered these monsters before, or even controlled them as DMs themselves.  They will have all the standard monsters memorized, and know simply from memory that green slimes and trolls require fire to destroy, or that lightning is a poor choice when facing a black pudding.

Is this even a problem?  Certainly it’s easy to explain in game that stories of the monsters that inhabit your land may have circulated in the lands of men.  Even a new first level fighter may have heard the tale of how that one armed man he met in the tavern saved his life by burning the slime that covered his arm.  I do believe Matt Finch’s second Zen moment “Player Skill, Not Character Abilities” applies here:

The player’s skill is the character’s guardian angel – call it the character’s  luck or intuition, or whatever makes sense to you, but don’t hold back on your skill as a player just because the character has a low intelligence. Role-playing is part of the game, but it’s not a suicide pact with your character.

However, I also believe that this is a game of exploration.  That doesn’t mean just mapping dungeons, that means exploring all the details of the world your character inhabits, which includes discovering strange monsters and mysterious magical items.  One of the most fun aspects of the game is trying to noodle out how to deal with a particularly nasty creature or whether the glowing sword you found will wreath itself in flames or try to take control of your mind.  How do we achieve this when every player can simply look up all the details of every item and monster in a book?

The most common answer seems to be simply to create new monsters and items.  Just look at how many exist in the modern versions of D&D.  That’s not to say this doesn’t exist in the old school either.  Heck, half of the printed material in Stone Hell seems to be new monsters and magic items.  Honestly, I think this is a fine tactic, as long as it isn’t taken into the land of the bizarre or self-referential.  Take a spin through Monster Manual 2 and Fiend Folio and you’ll find plenty of examples of both.

Personally, I’ve been finding that small tweaks to existing stuff works even better.  A little variance here and there keeps the players on their toes and is pretty easy to do on the fly.  For example, I’m personally not a fan of level drain, however I didn’t want to simply gimp every undead in my game by removing a power.  I printed out Dyson Logos’ table of unique undead powers, and whenever the party faces an undead that should have level drain, instead I roll on that table.  The beauty is that not only has it kept the power level of the undead in my game at an appropriate level, it’s introduced a wonderful amount of variety to those creatures.

It’s easy to do similar things with other strange monsters as well, introduce new immunities or weaknesses, add a different attack, etc.  At one convention I found myself wanting a 5 HD giant spider, but the MM only has 4 and 6 HD varieties.  I flipped a couple pages back and found a nice 5 HD scorpion.  I took that monster as the base, switched his stinging tail for an equally poisonous bite, and gave him the ability to walk on walls and ceilings and create webs as per the spell.  Bang, just like that, a seemingly custom monster made on the fly that’s really just another monster in disguise.

You can do this with items too.  The easiest thing to do is just look for stats that can be made variable, like the capacity of a bag of holding or the duration or number of uses of a ring of invisibility.  Limitations can be cool in the form of uses per day, strange activation methods, or target creatures (eg. a wand of magic missiles that does +2 damage vs. orcs).  Or just change the object type: instead of a ring of invisibility, how about a hat of invisibility?  A backpack of holding, gauntlets of paralyzation, a rocking horse of flying.  Doing so may bring up new questions: do those gauntlets paralyze the user, shoot bolts of paralyzation like a wand, or give you paralyzing attacks like a ghoul?  Do boots of ogre power only give you super strength when used to kick?

So go ahead players, read the source material all you want.  Sometimes it will pay off, to which I say good on you.  Just be prepared when the magic footwear you pull off that dead elf turn out to actually be boots of devouring.

Spells Through The Ages: Clairvoyance

I’m going to do something unusual with this one — I’m actually going to compare this spell all the way through 3.0 and 3.5.  Usually with these articles I stop at 3.0 assuming that’s far enough into the editions for my own interest.  Clairvoyance, however, has been my example of choice for why 3.5 was my personal breaking point with modern editions.  As mentioned in my last post, I played in a 3.0 campaign for some time, but when 3.5 came out we did not adapt to those rules.  A lot of people like to complain about 4e, but for me it was 3.5 that made me start questioning the blind adoption of each new edition as it came out, and ultimately in the long run what brought me back around to looking at the old stuff again.

But for now, let’s start at the beginning.  Here’s the very simple OD&D text for this spell:

Cairvoyance: Same as ESP spell except the spell user can visualize rather than merely pick up thoughts.

OK, like some other OD&D spells (I’m looking at you Haste and Slow), the description rather unhelpfully just points us at another spell.  So here’s ESP:

ESP: A spell which allows the user to detect the thoughts (if any) of whatever lurks behind doors or in the darkness. It can penetrate solid rock up to about 2′ in thickness, but a thin coating of lead will prevent its penetration. Duration: 12 turns. Range: 6″

What I find most interesting about the OD&D spell is the limited range and the explicit mention of the spell’s use for discovering what is “behind doors or in the darkness.”  Frankly, this is a much more tactical use of the spell than my memory of using it in the past.  I always thought of these spells (ESP, Clairvoyance, and Clairaudience) as more strategic story driving types of spells than combat spells.  I imagine using them during down time to spy on specific NPCs and plan long term goals, not just to see what monster is hiding in the darkness.  To see this use though, we’ve got to take a quick peek at Clairaudience:

Clairaudience: Same as Clairvoyance except it allows hearing rather than visualization. This is one of the few spells which can be cast through a Crystal Ball (see Volume II).

Ultimately all three of these spells are means of spying on your enemies.  To get this at an unlimited range in OD&D though, we must incorporate a specific magic item: the crystal ball.  Of course given that a crystal ball by default is purely visual, it makes sense that Clairvoyance makes no mention of it, as the crystal ball basically supersedes that spell entirely.  However, given how much these three spells reference each other, I think we can easily make the leap that they’re all related to and considered alongside the crystal ball.

B/X basically follows the OD&D model here, with a 60′ range.  However, it adds a new limitation of requiring a creature through whose eyes you are looking.  The spell even gives instructions on how to switch which creature the scene is viewed from, but the implication here is that the spell cannot be used to see an unoccupied area.  This as far as I can tell, is entirely unique to B/X.

OK, let’s move on to the 1st Edition AD&D text:

Explanation/Description:  Similar  to  the  clairaudience  spell,  the  clairvoyance  spell  empowers  the  magic-user  to  see  in his  or  her  mind  whatever  is within sight range from the spell locale chosen. Distance  is not a factor, but the locale must be known  –  familiar or obvious. Furthermore, light is a factor whether or not the spell caster has the ability  to see into the infrared or ultraviolet spectrums. If the area is dark, only a 1″  radius  from the  center  of  the  locale  of  the  spell’s  area  of  effect  can  be clairvoyed;  otherwise,  the seeing extends to  normal vision  range. Metal sheeting or magical protections will foil a clairvoyance spell. The spell functions only on  the  plane  on  which  the  magic-user  is  at  the  time  of  casting.  The  material component of the spell is a pinch of powdered pineal gland  from  a human or humanoid  creature.

I guess this must be the version of the spell I’m used to.  Here we have basically an unlimited range, and no requirement that the area being spied upon be occupied.  It’s interesting to note that the AD&D crystal ball now has some serious overlap with this spell, though it does have it’s own flavor.  The crystal ball focuses more on locating an individual regardless of location, while Clairvoyance seems more tied to a specific locale and discovering what is there.

The 2nd edition AD&D version of this spell is basically identical to the 1st edition.  3.0 likewise touches this spell little, though does combine the descriptions of both Clairaudience and Clairvoyance into a single text block, which I suppose makes sense given how the two spells only differ in terms of which sense is used.  Interestingly, 3.0 also introduces the spell Scrying, one level higher that combines the two spells allowing both vision and hearing, but also oddly incorporates a skill check.  This is the only case I’m aware of in any edition of the game that directly ties a spell with it’s own unique skill.

In 3.5 again the text is very similar.  The same locale targeting language exists, with the limitation that the location must be “familiar or obvious” that has existed since 1st edition.  Gone though is the phrase “distance is not a factor”, and range has changed from “See text” to “400 ft + 40 ft/level”.

In the past I have used this spell as evidence of what I refer to as the “board-game-ification” of D&D: that as the game evolved everything took on a tactical use in combat or dungeon exploration.  Clairvoyance, which in 3.0 was excellent for spying on enemies and doing long term strategic thinking that implies a complex campaign world, is now reduced to simply seeing what kind of monster is behind the next door.

However, as we can see, this was always its use.  Only in AD&D did the spell expand it’s range, and to give 3.5 it’s due, the new Scrying spell introduced in 3.0 retains the “any distance” range.  Much like OD&D’s crystal ball, the Scrying spell is given the advantage of infinite range, possibly to differentiate it from the lower level more tactical spell Clairvoyance.  Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that as you go from 3.0 to 3.5 to 4e you still see the “board-game-ification” effect, by which the game dwindles down to a game about moving miniatures around on a gridded board and fighting monsters rather than the exploration of a imaginary world with infinite possibilities.  However, Clairvoyance may not be the poster-child for this effect I’ve always thought it to be.

So where does that leave us?  Clairvoyance is a bit different in almost every single edition of the game.  My personal preference seems to lean slightly to the 1st edition AD&D version, simply because that’s the version that seems most familiar to me.  Likely this is because it’s unchanged in 2nd edition, which we know is the edition I really did grow up with.  I can’t say that I’m terribly fond of B/X’s insistence that it causes the caster to actually see through another creature’s eyes.  It’s a neat idea, but one I’d rather see as a separate spell or item, perhaps joined with the ability to summon and control a small creature as the subject.

As for limiting the range, I don’t really mind it so long as there is something in the game which extends that range.  In fact, I kind of like the idea of changing the crystal ball into simply a range-extending device for these kinds of spells.  On it’s own, it’s just a hunk of glass, but when clairvoyance, clairaudience, or ESP is cast upon it the spell’s range is extended to any distance.  Obviously that’s not cannon from any version of the crystal ball, but I think it has a nice feel to it.

What comes closest to all of my preferences above?  What a surprise: OD&D.  That could be due simply to the openness of the text to interpretation, or simply that these spells hadn’t had the chance yet to be over-worked and over-designed across many editions.  More and more I think that were I to start a brand new campaign tomorrow, I would seriously consider using OD&D as a base rather than B/X.  For now though, I may simply house-rule out the “see through another creature’s eyes” bit of the B/X text to make the spell more like the original version.  That of course means that long-range spying will require a crystal ball, but that in turn makes that into a much more interesting item, which isn’t a bad thing in my book.


My Personal Gaming History

I’m sure I’ve discussed my early history with this hobby in the past, but this morning I found myself thinking of how I got from there to where I am now.  Before I returned to my gaming roots and started playing B/X D&D again, I went through a lot of other parts of the hobby.

The actual thought that spurned this was trying to figure out when I started playing other non-D&D systems.  I think that did not happen until I went to college.  In the early days, around ages 10-13, I played in snippets with siblings or friends, but never really had a solid gaming group.  I knew I really wanted to play, that the game was out there, and was tantalized by the seeming largeness of the hobby presented in Dragon Magazine, but it was out of my grasp.

It wasn’t until high school that I got a regular group, and by then it was AD&D 2nd Edition.  I don’t really recall when I purchased the 2e books, I just remember having them.  There was certainly never a conscious decision to move from Basic to 1e to 2e, in fact, in my youth I probably had no concept that they were actually different.  We played once a week at my friend Chris’ house, and though he and I would exchange DMing duty, and the other members would change, and we would experiment with different campaign settings (Ravenloft, Darksun, etc.) it was always AD&D 2nd Edition.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of other systems.  In fact, by this time I was also going to my first couple of GenCons.  I even recall poking fun at the White Wolf fans when at my first Killer Breakfast I told Hickman that I was from Technicolor here to colorize the Vampire players.  Hickman killed me right away, though despite this Killer Breakfast was still vastly more entertaining than it is now.  As a side note, at last TotalCon I found myself alone for dinner and decided to pick up some light reading to fill the time.  I bought a copy of the first volume of Dork Tower, and was tickled to see Kovalic also making fun of the goth influence on the gaming scene in the mid 90’s.

That said, I had no interest in playing any of these games, and didn’t meet someone that was until my freshman year of college.  I attended the first meeting of the gaming club where a guy brought a whole suitcase full of White Wolf source books.  If I wasn’t already turned off by those games yet, that did it.  That meeting was also unusually crowded for the gaming club, I guess there was just gaming in the air in the autumn of ’95.  We never got a tenth that kind of attendance for the rest of my four years there, so that first meeting really did set my expectations completely out of whack.  However, I also met there Paul Kaiser, and signed up as interested in his fantasy setting RPG using his own system: Acheron.  Actually I was more interested in AD&D, and I think he even mentioned maybe possibly running his game in that if that’s where the interest was, but no, we played Acheron.

Don’t bother looking it up, you won’t find it.  Acheron was a pet project of Kaiser’s that he ultimately did self-publish down at the local Kinkos.  Not sure if he ever sold a book, but I have a copy on my shelf somewhere.  I guess Acheron was my gateway drug to other systems.  I tried playing some AD&D in college, but it never lasted long.  I also had some friends who were into Gurps and Warhammer Fantasy RPG, both of which I tried.  By the time I graduated I was running my own Deadlands campaign, and no, I have no recollection of how or why I got into that game.

In ’99 I graduated and moved up to Massachusetts.  I found myself with no game for a couple months, but eventually hooked up with a college buddy who had also landed in the same area, and we decided to try and start something up.  We picked AD&D (2nd edition), as we figured it would be easiest to attract players.  We even went out to local gaming shops and pulled numbers off of cork boards to recruit players.  Remember when gaming stores had those?   Do they still?  I imagine the internet has taken over that particular function.

Funny thing is, that was not to be the long running campaign we envisioned, but it did spark one for me.  While talking to my office mate about what we were doing he wanted to join, and soon the buzz was around the office about playing AD&D, and it seemed like almost everyone wanted to play.  OK, context: I was working for a very small video game company that made online CCGs  (Genetic Anomalies, which made Chron-X, if anyone out there recognizes those names).  So I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised at that outcome.  So we started a game in the evenings right there in the office, a game that would run for several years, and be the longest running campaign I had ever been a part of.

We did something a little unusual with that game: we had rotating DMs.  We had so many players both interested in running and playing, we decided to make one cohesive setting in which each person could run some sessions.  The DM would run “an adventure” which was expected to fill about 2-4 weeks of play, and then pass it off to the next DM.  While DMing, the DM’s character would find an excuse to be somewhere else, or otherwise be non-present.  I’ve tried this format a couple times since, and it’s never been quite as successful as that campaign.  I kind of wonder if that’s not because at the time we didn’t really know each other or our gaming styles, nor did we spend much time thinking about the set-up, we just jumped in and started playing.

Eventually when 3.0 D&D was released, we converted.  Delta (did I mention that job and game were how Delta and I met?) when we first started playing was all for 1st edition, but the rest of us over-ruled him and thus we were playing 2nd.  I think I had the silly mentality back then that a lot of us probably had — considering 1st edition old and out-dated.  Why wouldn’t you play the latest version with all the ‘fixes’?  The funny thing is our desire to ‘play the latest’ and Delta’s dissatisfaction with 2nd edition made switching to 3rd edition go over extremely well.  We were all pretty excited about it.

I think my character was the only casualty.  At that time I was fully into all the baroque flourishes of 2nd edition AD&D, playing an Earth Elementalist using the rules from the Tome of Magic.  That didn’t translate very well into 3rd edition, and based on the spell list alone I found it made more sense to convert him into a cleric, but then that didn’t feel quite right, and eventually I gave up on the character and made a new one.

Our mood had certainly changed though by the time 3.5 came out.  We discussed whether or not to update, and decided against it.  3.5 offered some things that we liked, but were often frankly already house rules we were using anyway, and some things we really didn’t like.  We decided to just house rule in anything we truly loved from 3.5 into our campaign, but I can’t recall anything that actually made that cut.  To be honest, 3.5 was my breaking point with D&D.  I’d keep playing in this campaign until it finally fell apart, along with the company itself in the early 2000’s.  My eye, however, was starting to be drawn to other systems.

I’ll just a second here to mention as an aside, that that campaign is the origin of Helga’s Heroes.  Basically everyone in that campaign drifted apart, but the email list I set up for coordination of that game remained, and everyone wanted to keep it to keep in touch.  We then for a while used it to coordinate monthly board game days, which evolved into a more formal board game club, and eventually petered out.   Before it did though, I’d start organizing an annual RPG weekend get-away called HelgaCon, which lives on to this day and is now the chief excuse for keeping that email list going.

Anyway, I now started playing with a variety of generic systems, like Simply Roleplay and eventually Savage Worlds.  Savage Worlds really stuck, and I found it an interesting way to try a dozen different genres without changing systems, including fantasy, pulp, sci-fi, historic, etc.  Savage Worlds still holds a special place in my heart, but I think ultimately it really was just filling in the gap left from turning away from D&D.

I also played a fair amount of Warhammer Fantasy RPG, 2nd edition.  I actually think that is the best edition of those particular rules.  I haven’t quite gotten to the point of forgiving all its warts like I do with D&D, but I do still quite enjoy that game.  I had one particular group of players that I had an absolute blast with, and suspect the departure of one of those guys to the wrong coast is a big part of why I don’t seem to want to run it much now.

So, remember that mention above about a weekend of RPG’s called HelgaCon?  Well the first one was in April of 2008, one month after the passing of Gary Gygax.  Delta was there, and brought some 1st edition AD&D stuff to run in memoriam, and we had quite a blast playing Tomb of Horrors into the wee hours.  He brought it again the following year, as well as the OD&D stuff he was getting into, and it’s that gathering in April of 2009 that I think I officially caught the old school bug.

Turning Through the Ages

In our last session we played with the B/X Changelist I posted earlier to see what it was like.  It was pretty good, but last session was dominated by a visit to town, so I’ll give it another session before really calling a verdict.  We did discover a few small problems, and one big one.  One of my players who plays a cleric asked if we would use the B/X turning chart or the LL one.  I hadn’t realized they were significantly different — turns out they are.

I decided to also look at other versions of the turning chart to get some historical insight on how the chart has changed over time.  I was surprised to see that it changes radically from one edition to the next.  Rather than post all the charts here to compare, I wrote up a spreadsheet (in open office) that you can download.  I also have that as a PDF for easier reading.  In both the first page is the raw charts from various editions of D&D, and the second page has them all translated into percentage values, as some editions use different size and numbers of dice.  Below is some discussion about the key differences I discovered in various editions:


Always the starting point, OD&D looks pretty similar to the charts I’m used to looking at from B/X and Labyrinth Lord.  It’s a 2d6 chart based on level vs. type of undead.  In my pdf I include the HD of the undead in parenthesis, as later systems will convert to HD based rather than call out specific monster types.  One thing that is interesting here is that the HD of some common undead is lower than I expected.  Skeletons are only 1/2 HD, and zombies 1 HD.  More on that in the B/X section.


B/X gives us exactly the same chart as OD&D, but the HD of the lower level monsters has changed.  This gives us the odd presence of two rows for 2 HD monsters (zombies and ghouls).  Of course, anyone that’s ever fought either will tell you that ghouls are way tougher than zombies and kind of deserve their own row.  Frankly, I kind of think OD&D did it right here from a mechanical vantage of having a unique row per HD, but on the other hand I just can’t seem to swallow skeletons having the same hit points as goblins.


In AD&D we get the switch to a d20, which forced me to convert all the charts to percentages so I could actually compare them.  (Probabilities for 2d6 shamelessly stolen from this site.)  The other thing AD&D introduces us to is a wider band of possibilities.  This is likely due to their also adding many more same-HD entries (look at how many 4 HD rows we have!)  Another oddity is the sometimes presence of a 19 value (levels 1-3, 9-13).  Also note that compared to B/X, AD&D is much slower to grant destruction.  A level 8 B/X cleric can destroy a 4 HD wraith, the same ability is not granted in AD&D until 14th level.


The 3.0 SRD switches us to HD based rather than specific monster based rows.  It also introduces a modifier to the roll, based on Charisma for some unknown reason.  For comparison’s sake I assume a cleric with no modifier, which essentially turns all those 22’s into not possible.  Given 3.0’s permissive ability rolling, I suspect this is probably not realistic.  Another interesting thing to note is the algorithmic autoturn.  In fact, I had to extrapolate this entire chart as the SRD just gives equations based on HD of undead and level of cleric.  The interesting is that by the chart auto-turning happens if the cleric is more than 2x the HD of the monster.  Given the presence of a “1” entry in the chart though (which is also essentially an auto-turn, except for you clerics with a very low Charisma), this means that auto-turn is basically non-existent until level 9.

Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth Lord is very interesting.  Here we revert back to a 2d6 mechanic, but expanded from B/X to include a wider band of chances.  Compare 5th level for example.  At 5th level a LL cleric has an 8% chance of turning a 7 HD monster, a power the same B/X character won’t get until 6th level.  On the other hand, the B/X 5th level cleric is automatically destroying 1-2 HD undead (skeletons and zombies), which the LL cleric won’t get to do until level 7.  It’s like the LL cleric gets a more gradual curve, with low chances (but still a chance) of turning more powerful undead earlier, while the B/X cleric has a sharper curve that automatically turns or destroys less powerful undead sooner.  Also of note, LL has special text in the ghoul entry noting that it turns as if it’s a 3 HD undead, but still only counts for 2 HD when totalling HD turned.  This is a curious ‘fix’ for the lack of a special ghoul row in the chart.

So I’m not seeing a clear winner here.  AD&D and 3.0 are just too far different to even consider.  OD&D and B/X are virtually the same, while LL is what we’ve been using to date and is better in some ways and worse in others.  I think ultimately I’m tempted to go with B/X for no reason other than it’s one less thing to put on the changelist.


B/X Changelist

To date I’ve run my game using as a source book some modified versions of Labyrinth Lord.  I made the effort to actually create physical books which has been well received.  The idea with these books was that if I needed to make further changes to the text, they would be easy to update (they have re-openable bindings).

However, the more I’ve worked with it the more I notice most of my changes are in reverting SRD-isms from LL back to the original B/X.  Also, I worry that while having completely custom books for home campaigns are awesome, they may be a put-off at conventions (vs. a “known system”).

So I sat down and tried to create a short document of all the house rules and changes from B/X that I want to use in my campaigns.  It was sometimes hard to pull out stuff that’s clearly contradictory to the text vs. a common ruling I use for something that’s simply not mentioned in the text.  There’s a gray area there, and I want to leave the door open for Finch’s “rulings not rules” concept.  That is, I want to be able to change my mind on the fly based on the situation, and it’s easier to do that when the area you’re talking about is simply not covered by the book at all.

So here’s the result, what I’m calling my B/X Changelist.  I’ve managed to whittle it down to 3 pages by being very concise in my language and preferring formulas to charts, especially where XP progression is concerned.  Please feel free to take a look and send me any feedback you may have.  I’d especially like to hear from anyone who knows B/X, has played in one of my games, or best of all both.  I’m sure I’ve missed a few things, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some bits of it need rewording or further explanation.

Download the B/X Changelist.

Improvisational DMing

Our g+ game was, I think, an excellent example of my favorite kind of play.  I ran this adventure, which was written communally over at the goblinoid games forum here.  I ran this once before at last GenCon, and it was very interesting to play it again with a different group.  To start, this adventure has several unique features that I think greatly add to requiring a good amount of improv at the table:

  1. The basic model is a inverted pyramid, with several different small sub levels (A, B, C, E, F), with the best stuff at their nexus (D).
  2. The contents of each room vary wildly, as you would expect from something written communally by so many authors.  Each room though also contains a lot of interesting features to be examined.
  3. There is a shocking lack of consistency.

Basically, the combination of lots of interesting stuff that makes little sense when combined is just the motivation I need to start improvising a the table.  As the players encounter unrelated stuff and start asking themselves probing questions as to why certain things are the way they are, I find myself altering the remaining contents to ensure it answers those questions, though not necessarily in the way the players may or may not be conjecturing.

Let me go through it room by room, and you can follow along and see what I’m talking about:


The players start by trekking up the hill where I describe the entrance to the tower and the creepy old tree across from it.  Both groups I have run this for have taken the time to examine the tree, found the second entrance, and opted to use it.  That’s kind of interesting.  I suspect it’s perhaps ingrained in D&D players that sneaking in the back door is always preferable to the frontal assault.  I suppose that makes sense for a game that essentially about tomb robbers, assassins, and spies.

F 14

The players examine the room with the weird mushrooms and ponder the gnome statues.  They then discover the kobold hiding in the closet, and rather than kill him, they question and then hire him to be their guide.  Brilliant!  The last group immediately attacked the kobolds, which pushes the adventure in an entirely different direction.


The newly hired kobold guide leads the players right to his home, provides an introduction to the kobold chief, and thus paves the way for making this into a roleplay encounter rather than a combat.  The kobolds reveal their desire to steal the gnome statues.  The players quickly make up some nonsense about doing such requiring consumption of a magic herb found above ground, and cleverly describe poison ivy.  The kobolds fall for it hook, line, and sinker.  They send 4 kobolds out to find the magic herbs, and recompense the party by giving them two kobold guides and what little info they have about near neighbors.  They describe the scary bats below, and the scary spiders to the south.

The party questions them closely about what they will do with the gnomes, and now I have to start inventing.  Thinking of rooms 4 and 6, I start describing a band of orcs they trade with, and how those orcs are very angy at them as they traded some gnome statues with the orcs for a couple cows (likely stolen from farmers back at town) which the kobolds promptly ate.  Once the statue vanished the orcs demanded recompense, which the kobolds clearly don’t have, thus the kobolds are trying to figure out how to get and keep some gnomes to pay their debt.  I’m already thinking at this point of converting level C to a more traditional orc lair on the fly, though haven’t decided if room #6 will contain live orcs or not.  It’s possible the dead orcs in there only died recently, thus alleviating the kobolds but they don’t realize it.  Or maybe the orcs are still around.  I’ll decide when the party gets there.

(Minor point of interest: room #15 is one of my own contributions and I was pretty proud of it.  I’m super excited to see it treated this way.)


The party decides the bats sound less scary than the spiders.  They go down the stairs and position themselves well in the doorway to the stairs to fight the bats two at a time rather than all at once.  This is an excellent tactic and may be the only reason the party succeeds, though the bats do kill and partially eat both kobold guides.


The party discovers the creepy altar and stairs, and decides to deal with this later.  They move on.


The party sees the carcass and disturbs the flies, but quickly retreats back towards E12.  I roll that they only anger 3 of the flies, which they fight and barely survive in the corridor between E12 and E13.


The party decides to take the stairs down, finds the webs, and sees one of them moving.  They decide to apply fire and crossbow bolts, actually bringing one of the two ogres there all they way down to half hit points before they start really fighting him.  That said, they held the line for a few more hits, but once the ogre landed a solid blow on their front line fighter they decided it was time to get out of there.  Actually probably a wise choice, but sadly it meant missing out on all that sweet sweet ogre treasure.


At this point the party decided it was time to head back to town to rest and recuperate.  While doing so, they discussed hiring on a hireling to replace their lost kobold guides, but instead ended up sending the magic-user over to the bar to draw out a potential fighter and charm him.  Brilliant idea, but very risky in my mind.  Once they were alone and the spell was cast, I think our friend the magic-user would have been in serious trouble had the victim failed his saving throw.  Good luck was with them though, and they returned to the dungeon with additional companion.


The party now decides to try and enter from the other side and see if they can’t find those orcs they heard all about.  Looking at the map I see the giant killer bees described as living on the first floor, which is subdivided into two rooms, and it’s vague which room the bees are in.  I decide they are in the farther room as those orcs must get in and out somehow.  The party here’s the buzzing and decided to go immediately for the stairs and avoid the bees.


Again in deference to the supposed orc clan down here I reduce the amount of honey in the room below.  As cool as that room description is, I figure the orcs must get in and out somehow.  The party also checks the stairs for stick prints, which I figure must be there as well.  Clever players — I quickly devise a way to eliminate those tracks later in the dungeon, a line of boots in the hall just outside room #2.  I mean, who wants honey all over the floor of their lair?


The party makes an attempt for the bracelet and fails miserably.  The thief is stuck in the rubble.  They come up with a clever way of fishing him out using ropes and a 10′ pole, so I grant them a speedier escape than the 2d4 hours mentioned, but at the price of some additional damage to the thief.  Also, I was laughing too hard along with the rest of the party at the image of the thief being dragged out by his ankles from a pile of rubble to not push that through.

Stairs to C

First the party finds the boots, and debates whether or not they should take off their own boots.  They decide to go ahead and do so.  I love all the crazy theories they come up with regarding the boots, which were simply a dodge I invented to excuse lack of tracks further in the dungeon.  I start to ponder how I might further leverage trouble for the now barefoot party, but we never get anywhere I can use it.

Another invention I can personally claim credit for is the narrow stairs and fragile knotted rop, inspired by an actual staircase I encountered in England.  Not a real trap, just a dangerously old construction.  The party uses extreme care in examining it at first, sending a guy down slowly tapping with a pole and secured by rope, and given the slow careful pace he makes it down with no problem.  Then he comes back up, and they all proceed down at normal pace, avoiding the fragile rope, and thus naturally one of the fighters goes tumbling down the stairs and crashes into the door at the bottom.


Between the crashing dwarf and the collapse of the ceiling above, I decide any orcs below are well aware of the party’s approach and start to devise what kind of reception they might have planned.  I figure there are orcs laying in wait behind every door in the passage beyond.  As soon as the party encounters one group, the rest will all leap out to attack, hopefully surrounding the party.  They don’t quite get this off though, as the party opens the very first door, leaving their rear ranks still in the stairwell blocked by their second line of fighters.  Still, we have a pretty enjoyable fight with the front two lines facing two directions — into the room and down the hallway.  A well placed sleep spell ends the fight pretty quickly.

And that is where we had to end for the night.  What is in rooms C5-7?  More orcs probably.  Is the same stuff in there as is written in the adventure?  Maybe.  To be honest, I haven’t even read those rooms in advance.  I figure as they enter those rooms I’ll read what’s in there and maybe tweak it a bit on the fly to have some more orcs.   What about level D?  I have no idea.  I’d be just as excited to find out as the players.

This is what I’m getting at with all my talk of improvisational play.  I get just as many kicks playing as the players do.  I’m just as surprised to find what they discover as they are.  Yeah, I sort of know what’s there in advance, but through play the players are actually encouraging me to change it, and I greatly appreciate all their efforts.

Now, the trick will be figuring out if I can write a similar adventure from scratch entirely by myself, without the need for random conflicting ideas from other people.  I’ll have to give that a try sometime in the future.  I wonder if there are any little tricks I might try to add more chaos to my design, but still give more interest to the room than usually comes from random monster, treasure, and dressings.  Any ideas would be appreciated.

Crazy Gaming Week

I have just made it through the most intense week of roleplaying activities, excluding conventions of course.  It was a complete accident, but somehow I ended up with many roleplaying related things all being planned for the same week.  It started last Wednesday with my regular weekly game.  On Thursday there was a lunch gathering of all the roleplayers in the office (man, there’s a lot of us now) to discuss potential future gaming.  Friday was Veteran’s day, which I used to run a practice run of module A1, which I will run again at TotalCon.  And Sunday some old friends and I experimented with playing a little D&D over google+.  So basically I ran 3 games and discussed the potential for yet more over the course of 5 days.  Phew.

Anyway, I want to talk about the g+ game I ran.  First off, the tech is much better than I was expecting.  We had one player that lost connection twice, but he solved that by switching to a different machine.  There were 5 of us, and I toyed with having a 6th connection pointing a webcam at my dice.  I was using one machine with two user accounts, each with their own google account, and each with their own webcam (an external usb one and the built-in one as the machine was a laptop).  There was some weird echoing until I switched the ‘dice’ account to use line in/line out for audio, which meant it had no audio as nothing was plugged into those jacks.  Ultimately it turned out to be more trouble than it was worth what with Google occasionally hitting it with the “are you still there” dialog, which I would have to use the Windows “switch user” mechanism to address, which takes too long to be worth it.  Ultimately the one time we had a “pivotal” die roll I just switched my own camera to point at the dice which worked just fine.

I’ve had mixed success with virtual presence gaming in the past, and I’d say this quite exceeded my expectations.  I think it was especially cool getting to play with a group of guys that I haven’t gotten to play with all together like that in a long time, as life has scattered us about.  Fortunately we’re at least all still in the same time zone, even still scheduling a 4 hour window when we were all available was difficult.  We made it work though.

So I’m little run down from all that gaming, and looking forward to a week of normal gaming level, which is to say just this Wednesday and then no gaming for a full week.  Still, it’s hard to complain of having too much gaming.  🙂