Archive for October, 2011

10′ Poles Through the Ages

One of my players just pointed out a discrepancy in the equipment list of Labyrinth Lord.  According to the equipment list, a 10′ pole costs 2 sp, while a 10′ ladder costs only 5 cp.  Thus, 1 10′ pole = 4 10′ ladders.  But surely one needs two 10′ poles to construct a 10′ ladder, right?  It seems one could make a killing by simply buying up 10′ ladders, knocking them apart, and then selling off the two 10′ poles individually.  That’s 15 cp profit right there, not even including what you might get out of the 8 or so rungs.

So where did this come from?  Like much in Labyrinth Lord, this is right out of the 3.0 SRD.  Take a look at the chart on the right side of this page, and you will see the same two items with the same costs.  Of course, I couldn’t leave it there, and started back tracking other systems.

In 2nd edition AD&D, a 10′ ladder is listed in the equipment section as costing 5 cp.  The 10′ pole is not listed at all.  Not listed at all?!  I am amazed that any version of D&D would leave out this staple of adventuring gear!  Let’s go back a bit further.

In 1st edition AD&D, a 10′ pole costs 3cp, while it’s the 10′ ladder that’s not listed.  That sounds a bit more reasonable to me.  Also, it would seem to be the origin of this error.  If you just blindly take stuff from the 1st edition list and stuff from the 2nd edition list and ram them together, you get this weird pricing of 10′ wooden implements.

Likewise, B/X and OD&D list only the pole and not the ladder.  OD&D of course lists no prices, but B/X shows a 10′ pole as 1 gp.  That’s quite the price increase from AD&D, though I suspect it’s simply because everything in the chart is listed in units of gold pieces with nothing costing less than 1.

It appears we have 2nd edition to thank for the ladder and the ham-fisted combination of 1st and 2nd into 3e for weird error.  For my own game, I’ll be increasing the cost of the ladder significantly.  Given the addition of rungs and the labor of construction, I think a 10′ ladder should cost well more than twice that of a 10′ pole.

Kidnapped by the Barbarian Prince

What happened to Paul?  He was posting so regularly for a while there, and then suddenly he dropped off the map.

Here’s what happened to me: I discovered this game The Barbarian Prince.  It’s really Maliszewski’s fault, look you can even see the date of the post which drew my attention to this game is about the exact same time I stopped posting. Curse you Maliszewski!

This little gem of a game from back in 1981 is now freely down-loadable thanks to the kind folks over at Reaper.  The rules and events booklets are conveniently available as word docs as well as PDF, so it was trivial to reformat them to booklet size, print them out, and staple them together with my handy long reach stapler.  (Really, if you’re into old school stuff, go buy yourself a long reach stapler, you won’t regret it!)

The map was only slightly more difficult.  I printed that out on four sheets of sticker paper and then stuck them together on a big piece of poster board.  The miniature is a pendraken 10mm barbarian, who fits perfectly in the hexes at this size.  Here’s the end result:

Seriously, this is a fun game.  I highly recommend you check it out.  It kicks my ass every single time, and yet I love playing it.  The emergent story it produces is always fantastic.  Even Lydia likes to play it:

Module Review – WG4: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun

Not a tournament module, but worth looking into on my quest for just how “Gygaxian” Gygaxian Naturalism really is.  This module is ostensibly related to S4, in fact on the cover it says  it is “meant to interface with THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH”.  It’s hard to call this a sequel, given that the level range for this module (5-10) is actually less than that for S4 (6-10).  The module fascinatingly informs us that this is because “it assumes that there will have been some weakening of power due to adventuring.”  Really?  Why on earth would you assume that?  I can think of only one reason — because that’s what actually happened to Gary’s group in the original campaign that this module is based on.

The connecting point is a friendly settlement of gnomes in the mountains.  Like S4, WG4 includes a wilderness section that must be searched for the entrance to the dungeon.  While the players may have heard rumors of Tharizdun, they’re ostensibly out searching for some marauding creatures that now use the temple as their base and harass the friendly gnomes.  The temple itself consists of a two-tiered pyramid with dungeons beneath, and a super-secret mini-level at the bottom containing some very cool items hidden within some really nasty traps.

Delta has mentioned curiosity over what I think about this tendency towards hidden content.  In S4 the stairs to the second level are hidden under a huge pile of boulders.  In WG4, the path to the hidden treasure is behind some secret doors and layered with traps that requires some real lateral thinking to get past. Honestly, I’m totally OK with this kind of content in a campaign setting.  In a campaign the players have effectively infinite time, and presumably some clues as to the existence of some hidden treasure in these dungeons.  In the case of WG4, ultimately the players can accomplish their goal (free the gnomes from their attackers) without even finding the hidden treasure.

Heck, this exists in Skull Mountain, a module I’ve already incorporated into my own home campaign.  I found the effect really gratifying.  The players got some play from the dungeon, and took the opportunity when hitting the road block to go back and rest and then even move on to explore other parts of the world.  Always in the back of their heads though was the idea that some day they’d like to go back and figure out how to find what they missed.  This is great from a DM’s perspective.  Re-use of material can be a fun exercise.  I have tons of ideas of what’s now in the upper levels of Skull Mountain since the players left.

That said, I don’t think hidden content is as good an idea in a convention setting.  In this case the players have extremely limited time, and I’d hate to waste that watching them bang their heads against an impasse.  I think in a campaign game you really have to stick to Rient’s tennent of “keep the main thing the main thing”.  Hidden content is fine if its a bonus, but not great if the players feel like they ‘lost’ because they didn’t find it.

I think campaign content is where Gygax really excelled.  Every thing he’s written looks to me like it would play well in a campaing, and most of it would be easy to adapt into any existing campaign.  As for convention content, well, I think the A-series style is just a bit more conducive to that style of play.  I could imagine running the A-series at a con, I could not imagine running S4 nor WG4 in the same setting.

As for WG4 specifically, I really love the vibe it has.  The hidden temple full of dark secrets is really present here.  The most interesting thing in this module though, I think, is Gygax’s attention to the initial assault.  There’s a lot of text here on how various forces within the temple will react to assault and what they’ll do to defend the temple.  While I think this would be awesome to play in, it’s the kind of thing I have a lot of trouble trying to get straight in my head as to how I’d run it.  I think I’d have to re-read this a couple times and take some notes to really get it all right, and then the players may not even favor a direct assault like this.  What if they sneak in under the cover of night (or silent/invisible magics)?  Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept, it just sounds to me like it would be really hard to run.

I think in the long run I could imagine incorporating S4 into my home campaign more readily than WG4.  I have no immediate plans to do either, especially given that my current players are much too low level for it, but I will keep them both in my back pocket.  I think this is where Gary had it really right — for a home campaign, too much content is far better than not enough.

Gygaxian Naturalism

So what the heck is Gygaxian Naturalism?  I believe the term was originally coined by James Maliszewski, and to be honest I feel a bit pretentious using it, but it really does describe exactly what it is I’m trying to talk about.  To describe it though, I think we have to look at what came before it, and what came after it.  I’m not implying that it was some kind of step in the evolution of game design, but certainly adventures existed before it, it had a period of popularity (not including the current OSR adoption), and then the practice declined.  I still might argue that the entire ebb and flow if it reside with when Gygax was writing stuff as he was the only real practitioner, but that’s an argument for another day.

Tim Kask likes to tell a story about a common early adventure design that he calls “massacre at the zoo”.  Essentially when D&D first came out there were no modules, so DMs invented their own stuff, and a large percentage of them invented something that went like this:  There’s a long hall with lots of doors.  The party opens the first door and behind it is a room containing a monster.  The party kills the monster, takes what treasure it may have had, and then proceeds to the next door.  Repeat ad-nauseum.

Besides the banality of such a linear design with no features other than monsters to kill, one of the things that really makes us roll our eyes at this is it’s total lack of any sense of reality.  Why on earth would a hill giant live in a room next to a basalisk?  Don’t they ever come out of their rooms and encounter each other?  Even once you move away from this literal design, a lot of people might argue that early modules had a fair share of this lack of logic.  Heck, in my recent reading of S4 I couldn’t help but notice the large number of strange creatures all living in close proximity to each other, and how unusual that felt.

Gygaxian Naturalism takes the step to try and explain this, at least a little.  The basilisk is the hill giant’s pet.  The trolls spread the fungus around to attract more cave crickets to eat.  There’s a reason things exist, some explanation as to how things got the way they currently are.  It also gives us some interesting flavor to add at the time of play.  What’s more interesting for a party, walking into a cave with three trolls standing around waiting to fight, or walking into a cave where three trolls are spreading fungus around on the floor?

Of course, it’s not surprising that this problem would also lead to the other kind of adventure design, the one that really came into it’s prime in later editions: story based adventures.  It’s much easier to come up with why things are where they are when you have some pre-defined story in your mind that the adventure is trying to tell.  The trolls are spreading the fungus to attract cave crickets not to eat, but to sacrifice to their dark god.  The party must reach the room with the altar and stop the trolls from sacrificing any more crickets or the god will rise up and destroy everything!

So here I think is the key difference:  Gygaxian Naturalism gives us a reason for the existence of everything in the dungeon, which more often than not is of little actual importance to the players.

Why include it at all then?  Well, as my old creative writing professor said, it’s the scaffolding.  It’s how you get to the good stuff, but ultimately doesn’t really matter.  Gary chucked in some fungus, then asking himself “what eats the fungus” he added some giant insects.  What eats those?  Trolls.  The content comes via the explanation, but it’s not important to the game that the players understand that explanation.  It makes the setting feel more tangible, it arms the DM with the tools he needs to figure out where the bad guys are and what they are doing when the players try whatever crazy plan it is they’re going to try.  But if the players don’t use it or even see it, who cares?  It’s just the scaffolding.

So why do I prefer this to the story style?  It’s that concept of arming the DM.  The DM needs all the tools he can get his hands on so he can invent stuff at the table.  The story model, well, that’s doing the invention for him.  And then we start to wonder what the DM is really for.  Is he really there just to roll the dice, reveal the secrets, and do the math?  Who is that fun for?


Tournament Modules – S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth

Apparently I’ve started a new series of posts on tournament modules.  What the heck, let’s go for it.  Actually, there are only two small indications that S4 was a tournament module.  On the cover it mentions that it was first run as a tournament at WinterCon V.  Inside, there’s a mention that the wilderness portion was not part of the original tournament.  And that’s basically it, there-after we hear nothing of it being a tournament or not.

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that this was a tournament.  I’d love to see the original tournament material, because this is no small module, and I can’t imagine they handed all this stuff off to the DMs at WinterCon.  The module is so big it’s broken up into two 32 page booklets, the first containing the actual adventure, and the second being a veritable supplement in it’s own right full of new monsters, spells, and magic items.  OK, all of these likely saw print in later books so they don’t feel all that new to me, but still, purchasers of this module when it first came out must have been delighted with the huge quantity of content it came with.

That said, I could easily see incorporating this module into a regular campaign.  The wilderness part is delightful.  Most modules assume you find a map to the location, this one makes you find it.  Also, I’m a complete sucker for modules that include an incomplete player map hand-out.  I know it’s a bit of a trope at this point, but it’s one that I completely love.

As for the dungeon, it’s a pretty solid one I’d say.  It’s broken apart into two levels, connected by a stair that’s somewhat concealed.  I’ll touch more on that issue when I review WG4, in which the connection to the second level is even harder to find.  My point in reading this module (and WG4), was to answer the question: was there a shift in adventure design in the early 80’s away from Gygaxian Naturalism, or is Gygaxian Naturalism by it’s nature, well, Gygaxian.  That is, was it just Gygax’s style, a style that other designers simply never got or emulated?

This module definitely has all the hallmarks of Gygaxian Naturalism.  For example, several rooms are full of fungus that crew from the large quantity of bat guano which in turn comes from the large bat population.  This fungus attracts giant cave crickets which feed on it, which in turn attracted some trolls who eat the cave crickets.  The trolls then start spreading the fungus around further to attract more cave crickets.  You get the picture.  There’s a real sense of ecology to this module.  That said, it’s not like the story of the trolls and the cave crickets is pivotal to the adventure, it’s just there.

That said, I’m not convinced this module, nor WG4, are really good examples of late Gygaxian adventure design.  Though this module was published in 1982, it was first run at WinterCon V which was all the way back in 1976.  And even that’s not clearly the origin of this module, as you can just tell from the reading that this was adapted from Gary’s home campaign (actually wikipedia tells me it was part of Rob Kuntz’s home campaign, but I think those two shared quite a lot of material with each other back then).  I can totally understand how this came about.  It’s 1982, the peak of D&D popularity, and there’s a huge demand for more modules.  Someone in a board meeting looks at Gary and says “Say Gary, you’ve been running stuff for years now, surely you must have some good stuff that could be printed in a module.”  Why yes, yes he did.

Perhaps to really analyze Gary’s later design sensibilities I’ve got to go out and find some Lejendary Adventure stuff.  To prove the above theory, I should probably also be on the look-out for contemporary modules from the late 70’s/early 80’s not by Gygax that also exhibit his same design sensibilities.  All that said, it really is starting to look to me like this is simply Gary’s style.  Sure, plenty of folks in the OSR are now picking it up, and I’d even argue that it really is the best style for reusable adventure design, but that said I’m not positive that anyone back in the early 80’s realized or cared about this kind of distinction.  Gygax wrote modules, and Cook wrote modules, and a whole bunch of other guys did too.  Some of them were good, some not so much, but I bet nobody really bothered to sit down and figure out what elements made for good vs. bad modules.  They were probably too busy pumping them out to stop and think about the process analytically.

Now I’m really deep in the land of conjecture so I guess I’d better stop.  I’ll still write up a review about WG4 soon, and maybe also a little high-level opinion piece on why  I think Gygaxian Naturalism is the way to go.  Now though, it’s time for lunch.