Friday, April 30, 2010

HelgaCon 2009 -- S1 Tomb of Horrors

Now here's something I should get off my chest from HelgaCon a whole year ago. (In the parallel universe that is BJ's blog, he's also been writing about HelgaCons past.)

Back in 2008 I ran a game of AD&D module S1, the Tomb of Horrors. We had a good time, as you can see from the several posts two years ago.

Having gotten about a third the way through the whole complex, we decided to pick it back up again in 2009. This game was, honestly a bit more frustrating. I'm a pretty hard-core DM, and there's lots of places in S1 where the party can get just plain stuck without much action happening. Probably for 2 hours the players were hung up trying to find an exit from the Chapel of Evil (after having initially a TPK, as I recall, at the start there). I think at my prodding, they slept & memorized a legend lore spell, for which I gave a snippet of the riddle at the start of the module. This allowed them to proceed, find the False Crypt and (not being fooled) proceed to the Laboratory area and beyond. Having depleted the part of the riddle they had, they again got stuck, unable to find a key secret door, and finally the time was called, very late at night.

There wasn't enough interest for me to run the last part of S1 again this year, 2010. But, the upshot of this play is an observation that I've not seen in other discussions of module S1...

Give the players that starting riddle in the Tomb of Horrors! In the entrance to the tomb there's a hard-to-find (by the book) but in-plain-sight message from Acererak. In the two sessions we played, my players didn't quite properly discover it, and there were a lot of false starts and (frankly) wasted time. When I gave them a short snippet of it, the whole texture of the game changed. Now they were engaged, they were puzzling through the riddles, they were correctly guessing at traps and finding secret doors, etc., etc. When their part of the riddle ran out, they were again log-jammed. In retrospect, I feel pretty bad about not giving it to them in the first place; but, I simply didn't know, and trusted the adventure text as written.

So my #1 piece of advice if you consider running S1 is: just give the players the damn riddle. I'm sure that for a competitive tournament game, it makes sense to make this really hard (as I've written about previously); but for a home game, it allows for more entertaining play and keeps the players from just plain getting stuck. What I learned by accident is: Having the riddle makes Tomb of Horrors into a completely different adventure.

Side note: Players were again getting about 1/3 the way through the classic adventure per session, the same as we found at this year's HelgaCon. Perhaps with the riddle, they would have made even more progress (S1 is really more linear than sandboxy.)

If you've ever run Tomb of Horrors, did your players have the riddle? What was your experience?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

HelgaCon III -- Overall Recap

A grab-bag of miscellaneous thoughts from HelgaCon III:

What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. OD&D is just a great frickin' game. Jon (new to OD&D) commented on how refreshing it was to have characters fit entirely on an index card. Kevin & I had a conversation reflecting on the brilliant semi-accident of D&D players customizing the game complexity by way of class selection (fighters fairly straightforward and common-sense based; wizards with a whole extra section of rules, allowing hardcore players to dig into spells, options, effects, and combos). We agreed on the tragedy of 4E demolishing that system, leaving only an undesirable, homogeneous middle ground for all players (Kevin: "Now both sides are rolling their eyes"; Me: "It's like blowing up the Taj Mahal").
  2. Presenting a "win condition" in convention games. I wrote about this already in my Corsairs game writeup. This gives direction to the session & generates way more excitement than I expected. Last year, I had an open-ended dungeon crawl the petered out a bit at the end. This year I had: the Book of War tournament (single elimination brackets to declare a champion), G1 (tournament-style scoring with 4 criteria), and Corsairs of Medero (capture 3 merchants to be declared barons). It's amusing that there was even some skepticism that the win conditions I stipulated were real, but the greater point is that the players were very focused, really caring about whether they were going to "win" or not. (In the past I'd considered awarding actual, physical prizes, but clearly that seems unnecessary.)
  3. Using d6 dice as oracles. I got looser with my gaming this year, using a lot of d6's for my decision-making. As a youngster DM, confronted with unexpected player actions, I'd be likely to make a decision like, "I don't think that would work; so, it doesn't work". Now I find myself reasoning, "I don't think that would work; so, only 2-in-6 chance to work". Really difficult? 1-in-6. Probably should work? 4-in-6. Split decision? 3-in-6. The d6's are fast and intuitive and provide an opportunity for the DM to be overruled by the game itself. And you really don't need any more granularity than that (i.e., d20's or percentiles would be mentally counter-productive; see the "magic number 7" rule).
  4. Several of us found that our players were exploring about 30% of the content we'd prepared. (See my G1 game; BJ's "Valley of the Forgotten Kings"; and Paul's "To the Rescue!".) This seems about right for an old-school sandbox-flavored convention game. There's some legitimate freedom of action for the players, but the DM isn't wasting (say) 90% of the prep work, either. This all assumes a fairly fast-moving early-D&D-style ruleset.
  5. Assigning a leader/caller works really well. While this is mentioned in all the classic old-school D&D texts, I'm absolutely the only person I ever see engaging it for D&D nowadays; I actually require it for all my D&D sessions. This selection always comes with a warning from me ("The idea is not to be tyrannical"); the concept being there's one person I'll listen to for group direction in the rare case of a complete total party impasse/ disagreement. (Kevin that weekend compared the role to a construction foreman; I compared it to a union representative.) The advantage is this: Instead of a having some dominant personality taking over by default in the middle of the game, it front-loads the conversation about how decisions will be made, getting advance agreement (buy-in) and, in all my games, choosing someone diplomatic & supportive of the group. (You could say that I'm forcing a representational democracy into the proceedings, as it were.) I've never seen it go bad. I assume it would be different if the whole group were total strangers, of course (thus, players not knowing the other personalities they're dealing with). (Big thanks to Kevin for the discussion on this subject & ride to the train stop after HelgaCon concluded.)
  6. Critical hits. The one "advanced" thing that I'm adding to my OD&D games, I've started using a series of pretty sophisticated critical-hit charts from Dragon Magazine #39 (July 1980; by Carl Parlagreco). On a natural "1" or "20" I give the possible fumble/critical victim a save vs. paralysis, else the critical charts are consulted. I'm finding that it adds a very nice spice; detailed, surprising, and concrete. In the G1 game, once or twice a giant took triple damage; one PC fighter fumbled, knocking his helmet around backwards to become temporarily blinded. In the Corsairs game, while boarding an enemy ship, one PC accidentally hit the allied sailor coming right behind him with an axe, splitting his skull and dropping him into the sea. It's a nice "fog of war" touch.
  7. Encumbrance rules in OED work wonderfully. I actually assumed I'd do all the accounting myself as DM (I can do it in my head in a few seconds per PC) -- but the players in all my games picked it up easily & instantly, doing all the work without me even asking. Kudos to BJ who last year suggested that I provide a chart for encumbrance to the players.
  8. Book of Spells worked great. In all of my games now, I hand every wizard player their PC card, a list for their spellbook, and a digest copy of Book of Spells. There's no need to pass a single, monolithic rulebook around the table as wizard players look up their spell effects, and they don't have to repeatedly hunt through the book for where the spells section is. I got some great compliments on this. Spell descriptions really should be reserved for their own book, just for the wizard players.
  9. Customizable GM screen is just ideal. Again, it's simply the right tool for the job. It's sturdy, and it's low, so you can see & reach over it. I change it for each game, on my side having (1) an adventure-specific monster roster, (2) a reduced & annotated dungeon map, and (3) the new-for-me critical-hits tables (other than that, I can run OD&D off the top of my head). I drop player visual aids into the front at will (I used have to hunt for paper clips, etc.) All of us at HelgaCon are using one of these nowadays.
  10. Fantasy name generator by Chris Pound. As you may know, my buddy Paul & I were arguing about pretty much everything game-theory related for the whole weekend. With one exception: We realized that we'd both independently discovered & fallen in love with Chris Pound's "standard fantasy name generator", out of the hundred-or-so generators Chris has on his page. The great irony here is that Chris himself is down on this particular generator, calling it "a bit silly... not very 'cool' yet (as if it ever could be!)".
  11. Not taking a laptop computer. In the past, I brought a laptop; this year I ditched it. (1) Time available for using it is very limited anyway. (2) Weight in the traveling backpack kind of irritated my anyway. (3) Theft concern while traveling made me a little anxious sometimes. A pad of lined paper works perfectly fine (allowing me a quick thought-dump/ first draft of stuff on the bus in the ~2 hours I'm not sleeping).
  12. Using color-coded dice. I now have a big box of dice separated out into different colors of the rainbow. When I'm DM'ing I take mostly a big stack of d6's (hit dice, damage, searching, etc.) and a d20 of each of the different colors. Thus, when making a whole bunch of monster attacks or saves at once, I can roll the whole fistful of d20's and just sort them visually red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet, applying the results to a half-dozen monsters at a time.
  13. We have a fantastic late-Friday night chat at HelgaCon every year. I'm the biggest late owl (I always shut off the lights), and it's really gratifying for Adam & Kevin to stay up until 3 AM for a conversation about D&D, the gaming industry, philosophy of mind, cyberpunk literature, religion, etc., etc. It's really honest and humbling, and I feel fortunate and like an enormous amount of trust is there. It's funny that we get this intense re-connection just once a year.
  14. Big thanks to my girlfriend (Isabelle) for playtesting stuff in advance (including OED, Book of War, and the Corsairs of Medero games)! Her criticisms were almost unerringly on target, allowing me to fix/tune stuff ahead of time, cultivating the biggest successes at the convention. (In particular, simplifications we made to BOW, and movement scale funkiness in Corsairs). She doesn't consider herself a hardcore gamer, but by being sensitive to her "new player" reactions (complaints), and using her as a sounding board, it's paying huge dividends in the games I run.
  15. Personally, I'm growing older; yet, I'm comfortable with that. In many ways, I'm at my physical & intellectual peak. I get to share my experiences with younger players in the hobby (I've become one of the "wise sages" at our annual con), I get to be a bit more assertive in public and in class, and I'm okay with that. To my total astonishment, I'm feeling really lucky with my life (!).

What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. Remembering certain OED spell saves. There are some AD&D-era spell traditions that are really hard to work out of my system when running a live game. I routinely forgot to roll saves for things like sleep and magic missile (that we're all used to being no-save), even though there's no such language in the LBB's themselves, and I'm committed in my OED rules to giving them saves (like everything else). That's something I need to work on.
  2. Todo: Get a physical pointer. There's a lot of times where it'd be convenient to use one of those physical tools to point out a particular miniature or spot on a map (instead of leaning past people at the table). I could use it as a DM, as a player, and even while teaching math class.
  3. I should ask other people to take photos of games while I DM. This is actually something we discovered during the last tour with our band; it gets a great response, with someone feeling the warm fuzzies from being chosen for it, and being more involved in the performance itself. I need to utilize the same trick while DM'ing. There's no pictures for my last 2 games from HelgaCon; in each case I had a camera set out at the start, but once I set into DM'ing duty it never even remotely crossed my mind.
  4. In addition, my digital camera's really fucked up, which is too bad. Takes about 4 photos before draining new batteries. I really liked this thing when I first got it as a gift; I might have to break down and get a mobile phone with a camera in it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

HelgaCon III -- Other Games

A quick note about the other convention games I played in, both run by BJ as the DM. He'll be writing them up better than I can, so I'll be linking over to his blog site.

Friday night: Analog Team Fortress 2 -- miniatures game with Savage Worlds rules. This ended as a real nail-biter, Scouts with briefcases (capture-the-flag style) running through crossfire in opposite directions towards our end zones. We manage to win when I outdraw the opposing Scout's initiative "3" to "2", and then rolling a 10-on-d10 twice in a row for my run checks! Apparently the quote of the weekend was my crack, "My head's a freaking intelligence magnet!" (after riffing all night on the Scout's audio blurb from the Team Fortress 2 video game).

Saturday afternoon: Valley of the Forgotten Kings -- part of BJ's Arabian-themed "Thousand Year Sandglass" campaign, using Labyrith Lord (Basic D&D) rules. This was great stuff, and we were very successful in exploring & treasure-gathering. Paul & I made fighter brothers (after I noticed that we'd rolled mostly the same stats), and we had great fun side-by-side in heavy armor at the party's front. We were ribbing each other, but supportive, finding our Persian voices pretty quickly ("Ah, my brother! Why did I not think of that?!"). BJ claims he was sick as a dog during this session, but you honestly couldn't tell.

Click the links above to see more from BJ's site!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Corsairs of Medero

The HelgaCon game "Corsairs of Medero" represents another major itch I've been trying to scratch properly for something on the order of decades -- a high-seas D&D naval combat campaign. Pretty much any way you slice it, you've got to have a system for mass-combat in place before this is possible (granted that the players will have some scores of sailors/rowers/fighters aboard the ship; think of the action in the Odyssey and whatnot) -- so the truth of the matter is, my Book of War mass-combat game is really just a warm-up prerequisite that I needed to develop before I could play this game.

One thing that greatly assisted me was obtaining the Original D&D white box set about 3 years ago now. As I leafed through the little brown books, continually marveling at the breadth and depth and conciseness of the content, near the end I came to the Naval Combat rules in Vol-3, p. 28-35. "Aha!," I said, "Here's what I've been looking for all along!". High-quality D&D naval combat rules that are compatible with miniatures use (in fact, using the same model ship scale as Gygax & Arneson's earlier game, Don't Give Up the Ship!). Historically realistic movement & sailing attitude figures. Even the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide fails to include the same content (no turn-by-turn movement rules, no standard crew sizes, etc.); now I can only read that latter work as an addendum to the OD&D naval rules, not as a full work itself. OD&D's 8 pages are, in fact, far and away the best D&D naval rules ever published in the 35-year history of the game.

So, with HelgaCon approaching, I committed to running a D&D naval game using these rules for naval action, and Book of War for the tactical-level combat (the OD&D naval rules reference Chainmail for combat resolution, but of course the mass-scale Chainmail rules don't incorporate fantasy figures like high-level PCs, magic, or monsters, a problem that my system works to correct). The time was a bit tight, but I felt it better to set myself a deadline and see what I could come up with, using it to tune, playtest, and expand for some other game in the future.

The convention game, in a nutshell, is this: The King of Medero has declared hostilities on the allied free cities of Nevins and Muirhead, signing Lettres of Course authorizing privateers to hunt & capture their shipping. The hostilities only last for a single sailing season; 16 weeks. The players select & outfit a ship with men (either a fast, rowable longship or a slow, large, more defensible cog); each week an encounter happens 4-in-6 (results depending on which coast they decide to hunt; see player's screen at top); and if they capture & return 3 merchant vessels within the short sailing season, then the PCs are declared barons. As a campaign detail, only ships with a wizard navigator aboard (using a magical sunstone) can successfully cross the open sea between kingdoms. There are actually 3 zoom-in levels of game action: (1) the strategic campaign level (which coast to prowl), (2) the tactical ship-to-ship level, and (3) the man-to-man deck-boarding level, with scores of men each represented by individual counters.

Again, this game turned out enormously well. Things I was most concerned about as potential problems turned out to be advantages. Presenting options for outfitting ships, the hunting region charts, and ship movement (sails vs. oar, wind orientation, rower fatigue, etc.; all as in OD&D) allowed players like my friend Adam to engage in some serious system crunching & supported solid team-building. Kevin made for a great, supportive captain. The pacing worked very well (I discovered some narrative flexibility in whether I chose to zoom-in to the closest detail level or not). It was well-balanced in the limit to game-time (weeks) and also the PCs level & power (6th-7th level; allowing some limited tactical spell-use and the PC's narrowly surviving combat with a high-level captain at the end). My players were in fact victorious in capturing 3 merchant ships with cargo, returning as game-time almost expired, and being declared barons with great fanfare. (!)

Here's a week-by-week breakdown of the action:
  1. Sail in, Medero-to-Nevins.
  2. Encounter: Merchant (Copper) -- the best possible result, worth 2 ships' cargoes. Amusingly, since this appeared in the form of a heavily-armed caravel, the players took it for a patrol and evacuated. The fact that the enemy ship also turned away, instead of giving chase, made the players nicely suspicious that something different was happening.
  3. Encounter: Merchant (Copper) -- again!! And, with the same result (greatly amusing to the DM -- potentially the game could have been over already at this point; thus spake the dice).
  4. Encounter: Merchant (Salt). The PCs successfully captured this cog, killing most of the crew and capturing 10 men.
  5. Sail out to Medero, securing the captured ship. The players presented the captives to the king, asking for mercy; a bad reaction roll resulted in a terse, "Never! Throw the fools in the dungeon and let them rot!" (DM chuckles; the dice are telling me that the king's administration is crueler than I knew before.)
  6. Sail back in, Medero-to-Nevins.
  7. Encounter: Giant Leeches. A group of 10 hideous, giant, saltwater leeches catch the ship and climb up the side. Fortunately, the rowers draw swords and defeat them (on d6 die rolls of 5 & 6).
  8. No encounter.
  9. Encounter: Nixies. A host of 60 green-skinned nixies pop up in the sea before the players' longship, singing an enchanting song. The players immediately stop and back oars. Firing a barrage of arrows at the nixies causes unseen giant fish to attack; 20 men are yanked overboard and horribly torn to pieces as the ship reverse-rows off the tabletop.
  10. Encounter: Merchant (Iron). This occurred on a day with becalmed winds, so the merchant cog was a sitting duck for the PCs' longship under oars. Crew eliminated by missile fire at the players' leisure.
  11. Sail out, Nevins-to-Medero. This scored the second ship, and allowed the players to replace the crew lost to the nixies' giant fish cohort.
  12. Sail in, Medero-to-Nevins.
  13. Encounter: Merchant (Iron). Time running out (players needed a capture by week 15, so as to sail back in turn 16 for the win), they manage to grapple this ship just a few inches from the edge of the tactical tabletop (rationale: near the port, a patrol within sight, if the enemy gets off the board it has escaped). Here we zoom in to man-to-man combat, with deck plans at 1" = 5 feet, using 80 counters for the players' crew and 20 for the merchant crew, plus a 9th-level captain figure. After a fierce boarding fight ("Foul sorcery!" cries the enemy captain; one PC is brought to 4 hp and opts to run and hide under some canvas), this prize is captured as well.
  14. Sail out, Nevins-to-Medero. Interestingly, there was some discussion among the players as to whether or not the win condition I'd specified was true. Should they risk hunting for a 4th ship; would that be even better? In the end, they returned to Medero with the 3rd capture for the scenario win.
In summary, an enormously successful convention game. There were requests to do something similar again at next year's HelgaCon -- and possibly also a hex-by-hex stocked wilderness adventure in the same vein (and I'd previously already put some thought into an adventure set on the old Wilderness Survival map boards). I think the players legitimately beat the odds here with their win; no patrols or pirates had ever appeared. (Compare this to when I ran a short playtest with Isabelle, in which the first thing that happened was a life-or-death battle with an enemy patrol ship.)

What Went Right (Best Practices):
  1. Convention win conditions. One of the main discoveries on my part at this year's HelgaCon is the enormous uptick in excitement from having well-defined win conditions in all my games. I've previously written about my frustration over the "point" of limited convention games. Gratifyingly, I think I just found a really simple, satisfying answer. The player interest at hitting the "win" goal was a lot more intense than I would have predicted in advance. Amusingly, there was some skepticism at the end over whether the conditions were real or not ("Would we get anything better with 4 ships captured? Should we risk it?"). Picking up on this player anxiety, I couldn't resist heightening the tension at the end by rolling some dice, inspecting them & a fictitious chart carefully, and going "Hmmmm....". (Improv-style: saying "yes, and..."). The conclusion, "... You are declared barons!" was met with some serious celebration. This is key, so I'm sure I'll revisit it again in a later post.
  2. Cutting aggressively. There was a lot of logistical juggling necessary on my part, what with the 3 levels of scale happening all at once. I was pretty decisive about cutting out, when asked, any tracking of food, water, ammunition, etc. on the players' ship. Kevin later suggested giving different details of ship management to individual players; I responded that the complexity of that would have "broken my back". In addition, I liked the team-based challenge of having to maneuver the one ship on the tactical side card table (working well with 4 players; maybe more would have been problematic). Much like teaching, the real challenge here is how to cut stuff to the bone, not finding more stuff to add.
  3. Half-time scale for OD&D naval combat. The OD&D ship movement rules are realistic within a Chainmail-like scale of 1 turn = 1 minute and 1" = 10 yards. However, this creates moves-per-turn on the order of 25" or 35" sailed; fine for Gygax's recommended 6x6 foot game table, but frankly too large for anything I or my friends have. The initial gameplay test with Isabelle highlighted this, giving me a chance to decide on cutting the time scale (and hence movement) by half. This, then, is even somewhat like the Chainmail/Swords & Spells sequence of play where moves are actually taken in half-steps. The half-time scale worked great, maneuvering was intuitive, and there weren't any complaints. I also cut the specified turn radius down to a level that would allow a full turn on a smaller 3x3 table, and that also worked very well. (My rule: Sailing allows a 45 degree turn every 10", rowing allows a 45 degree turn every 6". At a standstill, can still make one 45 degree turn.) I would highly recommend these two edits to anyone using the otherwise-exceptional OD&D naval combat section.
  4. Showing players the wilderness encounter charts. (Again, see player's screen at the far top.) This was enormous, to the extent that I'm sure to be proselytizing on this in the future. Much like Aaron Kesher's "Devil in the Details" racial-detail-charts, showing the encounter charts gives a concentrated, intense, highly playable window into the campaign environment. Suddenly, there was a lot of excitement at the die rolls for encounters each week in this game (I didn't actually show the die rolls, but the players knew what results were likely and that they'd be seeing the tactical results in a few seconds.) In my case, the charts used OD&D encounters tuned to the frequencies I'd expect off the wilder Muirhead, and the richer Nevins coastlines. (Results of "Swimmer" and "Flyer" would take you to the standard OD&D subtables of the same names.) You might consider using this technique more widely, for dungeon level encounters and random-effect-thrones and whatnot -- I personally wouldn't, being enough of a naturalist to not want to give players free info that wouldn't be general knowledge for the PCs. But I would highly recommend it for wilderness areas, to make concrete and concise the various rumors and legends on how dangerous a given area is.
  5. Wind rules. The OD&D by-the-book wind rules just felt right in every way. The fact that one merchant ship was discovered while totally becalmed, paying off the players' gamble to venture forth in a rowable longship, was a well-received gift from the dice.
  6. Wizard-only navigators. This was purely a campaign design thing on my part, but it was pointed out by my players that it implied they couldn't crew a captured a vessel and send it home by itself (i.e., it required an accompanying PC wizard). A beautiful little accident on my part, adding to the gameplay tension.
  7. Dicing for fireball placement. Following Chainmail rules, I require players to call out any missile-magic shot distance, and from the rolling deck of a ship, I also use the 2d6 roll to determine any under/over-shot. In the second week, Jon shot his fireball at the high-value copper merchant (thinking it a patrol), missing by a single inch. While Kevin made a comment at the end that this made magic use too difficult, I pointed out that no other PC could make any effective attack whatsoever at the tactical scale, and so it seemed to be a reasonable balancing factor.
What Went Wrong (Things to Fix):
  1. Here's the only thing that seemed honestly glitchy to the players: At the end they asked what would have happened if they'd engaged in an encounter with two ships, including a capture crewed by some of their own men. I said that I'd have just left it off the table out of the fight; they were highly surprised, saying they assumed it would be on the table and at risk of being lost, which is why they'd returned immediately to Medero after every capture. They considered this ruling a great advantage if they'd known about it, while I'd assumed the reduced number of men (e.g., proportionally slower rowing speed; OD&D Vol-3, p. 33) would have been a distinct disadvantage to the players. Partly I just didn't want the door open to the complexity of multiple-ship action in this particular game (see item #2 above), but I'm open to suggestions on this point.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spells Through the Ages -- Haste

In the past year or so, I've found it beneficial to analyze certain D&D systems, frequently spells, throughout the different editions from Original to 3rd, comparing languages, changes, and benefits. (For example: light and sleep.) I find myself planning to do a couple more, just at the same time as my friend Paul has started doing the same (for example: his recent post on silence). So, we've decided to join forces and start a mutual series that we'll call "Spells Through the Ages". Figured I'd get the first one out there before returning to HelgaCon wrap-ups, so here goes:

The first item in the series is born out of the emergency that occurred in my G1 game the other weekend. It seems like the whole session may have gotten thrown out of whack with a version of the haste spell (as in my Book of Spells) that has a +4 AC benefit, as well as double-move, double-attacks, affects the whole party, and fairly long in-game duration. Historically, haste first appears in the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement:
Haste: A spell which speeds the movement of up to 20 figures by 50% for three turns. (Complexity 3) [Chainmail, p. 32]
So the effect here is to merely boost movement by one-half -- not too bad. It affects 20 men (remembering that Chainmail Fantasy is at 1:1, man-to-man scale), and lasts for 3 turns (recalling that 1 turn = 1 minute here). It's reminiscent of the spell slowness that comes right before it, slowing 20 figures by 50% for 2 turns. Then came Original D&D:
Haste Spell: This is exactly the opposite of a Slow Spell in effect, but otherwise like it. Note that it will counter its opposite and vice-versa. [OD&D Vol-1, p. 26]
This is kind of amusing, because in OD&D it actually doesn't tell you what the effect is. Neither does the preceding slow spell, other than to tell you how many are affected, which is similar to Chainmail (Slow Spell: A broad-area spell which effects up to 24 creatures in a maximum area of 6" x 12". Duration: 3 turns. Range: 24".) Paul had a good laugh last year when he started playing OD&D and couldn't see any actual effect for these spells!

Result: I think we're forced to fall back onto the prior Chainmail description and use that. ("Special Ability functions are generally as indicated in CHAINMAIL where not contradictory to the information stated hereinafter...", OD&D Vol-2, p. 5). Compare, however, to certain magical items: potions of speed and boots of speed both double the movement of the wearer (Vol-2, p. 31 & 37; technically boots of speed say "speed of a Light Horse for up to one full day, but he must then rest one day", that being 24" to a man's 12"), so perhaps that was the intention for the haste spell as well.

The other wiggly problem you have here is that even while copy-and-pasting the "3 turns" duration, the meaning of a "turn" has changed between Chainmail and OD&D. In Chainmail it's simply one combat cycle (explicitly 1 minute); in OD&D, we are told, "ten minutes... constitute a turn... There are ten rounds of combat per turn." (Vol-3, p. 8). So as a more general problem, were spells like these in OD&D really meant to last 3 turns (30 minutes) or 3 rounds (3 minutes, as in Chainmail)? We may never know. Next, 1E AD&D:
Haste: ... When this spell is cast, affected creatures function at double their normal movement and attack rates. Thus, a creature moving at 6" and attacking 1 time per round would move at 12" and attack 2 times per round. Spell casting is not more rapid. The number of creatures which can be affected is equal to the level of experience of the magic-user, those creatures closest to the spell caster being affected in preference to those farther away, and all affected by haste must be in the designated area of effect. Note that this spell negates the effects of a slow spell (see hereafter). Additionally, this spell ages the recipients due to speeded metabolic processes. Its material component is a shaving of licorice root. [1E AD&D PHB, p. 74]
Okay, so here we now have double-movement, and also the first mention of double-attacks. Range is cut to 6" and number affected is limited by caster level (less, but still quite likely a whole AD&D party of around 7 or so). Duration has been cut back (or up?) to 3 rounds + 1 round/level. And, we have an explicit prohibition against accelerated spell casting, which is a good idea.

Near the end, it also has a limiting side-effect bolted on, namely the "ages the recipients" clause. It's detailed in the DMG, haste being in a short list of spells with aging effects, adding 1 year to a creature's age. (DMG p. 13) While the potion of speed matches the 1E spell (double move & attacks), the boots of speed still act basically as in OD&D (light horse 24" base movement, rest equal to time sped up, no extra attacks), and also add in a +2 AC bonus for the first time.

In 2E AD&D, as usual, the spell is mostly just copy-and-pasted from 1E:
Haste: ... When this spell is cast, each affected creature functions at double its normal movement and attack rates. A hasted creature gains a -2 initiative bonus. Thus, a creature moving at 6 and attacking once per round would move at 12 and attack twice per round. Spellcasting and spell effects are not sped up. The number of creatures that can be affected is equal to the caster's experience level; those creatures closest to the center of effect are affected first. All affected by haste must be in the designated area of effect. Note that this spell negates the effects of a slow spell. Additionally, this spell ages the recipient by one year, because of sped-up metabolic processes. This spell is not cumulative with itself or with other similar magic. Its material component is a shaving of licorice root. [2E CD-ROM PHB]
Duration is again 3 rounds + 1/level; still double move and attacks, still one-year aging side-effect. The only change here is a +2 initiative bonus (done in 2E on a d10).

In the same general era, the BXCMI line has a haste spell which is a mixture of the preceding: 24 creatures, 3 turns (explicitly 30 minutes), double move and attacks. However, it adds a 9-paragraph section in "Dungeon Master Procedures" enumerating about the effects of just this spell (I think this first appeared in Mentzer's Companion Rules set; copy below is from the D&D Rules Cyclopedia). It allows multiple speed effects to stack, giving +2 to hit per step, and +2 AC if double-hasted. It ends thusly:
The DM may add other restrictions as desired. For example, problems in communication can develop through speed differences, especially when a character moving at four times normal speed tries to talk with other moving normal speed.

Speed can be an extremely valuable tool for characters in combat. If the bonuses gained by speed give the PCs too much power, you should add any controls needed to keep the game balanced and entertaining. [D&D Rules Cyclopedia, p. 147]
Perhaps the "add any controls" language is a wink at the AD&D aging rule, without actually including that complication in BXCMI? In any case, here comes 3E:
Haste: ... The transmuted creature moves and acts more quickly than normal. This extra speed has several effects. On its turn, the subject may take an extra partial action, either before or after its regular action. The subject gains a +4 haste bonus to AC. The subject loses this bonus whenever it would lose a dodge bonus. The subject can jump one and a half times as far as normal. This increase counts as an enhancement bonus. Haste dispels and counters slow. [3.0 SRD]
Now, this is more radically changed than most spells in the 2E -> 3E switch. The effect is more limited in creatures affected (just one!), range (25 feet + 5/2 levels), and duration (1 round/level). You get a +4 AC included in the spell (somewhat like 1E boots of speed and BXCMI double-hasting language). Aging is persona non grata in this ruleset, so that's not present.

More keenly however, the core effect of the spell is now: "an extra partial action", which is basically whatever "normal" thing you can do in a round, any one of: (1) an extra move, (2) one more attack, or (3) an extra spell. (!) That last bit is an enormous break with the strict "no extra spells" rule that was consistent in 1E, 2E, and BXCMI. It was so potent in 3E that some people argued it would still be desirable as a 9th level spell for any casters. Ultimately, WOTC adventures wound up having almost every NPC wizard with haste ready as their first action in any fight. This was perhaps the #1 item on the list of things that really needed fixing in the 3.5 update:
Haste: ... The transmuted creatures move and act more quickly than normal. This extra speed has several effects. When making a full attack action, a hasted creature may make one extra attack with any weapon he is holding. The attack is made using the creature’s full base attack bonus, plus any modifiers appropriate to the situation. (This effect is not cumulative with similar effects, such as that provided by a weapon of speed, nor does it actually grant an extra action, so you can’t use it to cast a second spell or otherwise take an extra action in the round.) A hasted creature gains a +1 bonus on attack rolls and a +1 dodge bonus to AC and Reflex saves. Any condition that makes you lose your Dexterity bonus to Armor Class (if any) also makes you lose dodge bonuses. All of the hasted creature’s modes of movement (including land movement, burrow, climb, fly, and swim) increase by 30 feet, to a maximum of twice the subject’s normal speed using that form of movement. This increase counts as an enhancement bonus, and it affects the creature’s jumping distance as normal for increased speed. Multiple haste effects don’t stack. Haste dispels and counters slow. Material Component: A shaving of licorice root. [3.5 SRD]
Well, it's certainly grown to a heck of a lot more text than it started out in the Chainmail days, hasn't it? It's back to affecting 1 creature/level. We've yanked out the 3.0 "partial action" language, and hence the ability to cast extra spells. It doesn't double moves & attacks, but rather gives up to one extra attack, and up to 30 feet extra movement (or double if that's less). It also adds a whole bunch of fiddly +1 bonuses: (1) +1 attacks, (2) +1 Reflex saves, and (3) just a +1 AC bonus.

Okay, so let's consider what happened when I drafted my Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells. I started with the 3.0 SRD text for everything because it was closer to older sources. In this case, I had more work to do, because "partial actions" are not a rule mechanic that we deal with, and extra-spells are certainly a hideous error, not found in any other edition of the game. I yanked out the "partial action" line and replaced it with the familiar, common thread from 1E, 2E, and BXCMI: double move and attacks, for a whole party of people. I left the +4 AC bonus in place (not thinking too much about it, or at least thinking it about balanced and simpler than 3.5's basket of various +1 bonuses). I was also turning all duration into "turns", just like OD&D, avoiding the issue of whether rounds or turns should really be intended, thus:
Haste: (Range: 6 inches, Duration: 3 turns) The transmuted creatures (1/level) move and act more quickly than normal. On their turn, the subjects can move and attack at twice the normal rate. Also, the subjects gain a +4 bonus to AC. Haste dispels and counters slow. [OED Book of Spells, p. 8]
So frankly, as I found in my recent G1 session, the +4 AC itself is just too potent for an OD&D game. (It's the first thing I've found in Book of Spells that seems to really need revision.) If it weren't for haste, no negative ACs would have been seen; it switched several fighters from AC0 to AC-4, cutting giant hit probabilities from about 1-in-2 to about 1-in-4 (from 12+ to 16+). While cutting the giant hits in half, it simultaneously doubled the hits the party fighters were dishing out with their extra attacks. (So that's sort of a 4-multiple swing in terms of hits-taken versus hits-given). It also affected the whole party for 30 minutes in-game; several players agreed that it would still be game-changing even if it only last 3 rounds.

Let's think about it more carefully this time. Assume that we just sweep the table of fiddly side-effects like the aging bolt-on, different action types, system-shock rolls, etc. Assume that we're playing a game as close to OD&D as possible, affecting the whole party as in every version except 3.0 (and in that way being symmetric with slow in every edition), and also interpreting "3 turns" in whatever standard way you use for OD&D. What would be a reasonably balanced effect for the haste spell as a 3rd-level wizard (magic-user) spell? (See poll results here.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

Saturday night at HelgaCon I ran a game of the classic module G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. In the past I assumed that everyone who's played D&D for any amount time will be intimately familiar with every detail of the classic modules, but I was thrilled to realize a few years back that that wasn't the case. To players just a few years younger than myself, the adventures are novel, so I get an opportunity to DM them all over again.

Although published for AD&D, I ran this using OD&D rules (with my usual house rules; see OED sidebar to the right). The past few years I ran sessions of S1 using AD&D itself (much of it being dependent on AD&D clerical spells like find traps and true seeing and commune that I felt obliged in that way). Due to the nature of this adventure, I felt totally comfortable running G1 with OD&D rules and deleting clerics (albeit giving the party a few jugs of healing potion), as usual. I'm more-or-less done with AD&D, and my tuned OD&D feels so "right" in play (finally!) that I really don't have the appetite to run anything else. I translated hit points by just subtracting a monster's Hit Dice (i.e., translating d8's to d6's on average), or else just rolling everything on the fly (more comments on that further down).

The action in this one surprised me a bit. The players started outside with tremendous caution (checking the entire exterior with invisible scouts before checking back). "Occasional bursts of shouting and laughter can be heard faintly from within", as per the adventure text. Entering the main door, they dispatched the stuporous guards and quickly located the Great Hall (one giant wandering out alone to find a shocking fate). So what they did at this point is have 2 invisible spellcasters walk up to the edge of the Great Hall in order to cast confusion spells inside, knowing that they would become visible for at least a round after spellcasting. The gambit was to create a mass giant-on-giant melee, but I think it overlooked a few things: (1) it's more difficult to affect high-HD types (with my Book of Spells text in play, it mostly just affected the servant ogres) and (2) the chance for attacks on friendlies is actually quite small.

So even allowing a d6 check to possibly avoid being noticed, the spellcasters were indeed seen, a shout given up (on the giantish order of, "eek a mouse!"), and chase was given. This turned into a many-turn run in the corridors, surrounded on all sides (the Chief smart enough to send separate giants into all the side corridors), the PCs mowing down giants as greater numbers organized, armed themselves from the Arsenal Room, and attacked in formation (at the end: a line of shielded, giant spears advancing with rocks lobbed over from behind). The young giants' dormitory was opened and cleared out. One hill giant was taken by a charm monster spell and pumped for information while the battle raged (dropping the name of "King Snurre" at one point, and otherwise providing some comic relief). With extremely heavy fighting, every giant from the Great Hall was slain -- except for the Chief & his senior staff who escaped to the lower level. A barrage of fireballs had been set off by a wand, but nothing came of the rolls to see if the whole wooden structure went ablaze. (Per the adventure text, the entire place is wet with nightly rain and fog, leaving all the wood damp with only an 8% chance to ignite from magical fire; one player saw the rolls and was quite seriously rooting for it to happen.)

Thereafter, there was a search of the Chief's room and chest (with assistance from the charmed giant), while mostly avoiding any in-depth searches of other rooms (merely looking in the door of the trophy hall, armory, now-abandoned kitchen, etc.). Near the end, the party entered into a large room with a lone male giant and several partially disrobed lady acquaintances, when time was called.

Trivia note: I've owned this module for 30 years, and not until this particular play session did it dawn on me (at the suggestion of BJ, that it was "some reference to somebody Gygax knew") that the chief's name, Nosnra, is basically just "Arneson" in reverse. (I tend to be thick about stuff like this; others observed this a long time ago.)

What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. Tactical maps for major areas: I had a bag of giant counters & a tactical map of the Great Hall made up in advance, even though my guess was that I probably wasn't going to use them (map above; prediction further below). When general combat did break out there, I pulled it out (with one or two player-groans at how many tables, benches, and giants were then appearing), and afterwards borrowed BJ's wet-erase battlemap as the chase led into the eastern corridor system (getting bottled up at the "T" between the sub-chief's, dormitory, and barracks rooms, for those of you with the module).
  2. Tournament-system scoring: This was announced at the start of the game, based on the original G-series tournament at Origins '78, as discussed in Dragon Magazine #19. This uses 4 components for the scoring: (1) number of survivors, (2) giants killed, (3) rooms examined, and (4) clue values. Obviously, the play in the Great Hall committed the players to more of an "exterminate giants" focus than anything else; they killed about 1/2 of all possible giants (including everyone in the Great Hall except for the Chief & senior staff), but had low exploring/clue finding scores. At the end of four hours, they had about 31% of the maximum possible score (259 out of 840 points with 7 players). Not-so-coincidentally, Paul & BJ also ran other sandboxy games at HelgaCon, and in each case we all found that players were exploring about 30% of the total available game space.
  3. Adjudicating spells (et. al.) by the spirit of the game: At one point I made a judgment call that Paul attempting to cast a wall of fire in a forward-shooting line, catching all the giants marching down the corridor, would not work. I'm pretty comfortable that this wasn't a total outright screw-job, because I informed him in advance of the intention of the spell I was working under, giving him a chance to withdraw it ("Oh, that makes me a cranky DM", and explaining why), and then allowing a dice-chance for it work anyway; saves rolled for the giants, and when one succeeded, the whole spell failed ("Red motes appear in the air, trying to materialize and connect into a barrier, but are disrupted by the giant bodies and fizzle out."). I do assume that spells are open to DM adjudication in the spirit of the thing -- but as you see above, (1) the DM communicates the more-surprising judgments in advance, and (2) the dice are still consulted anyway for a possible veto of me, the DM.
  4. Options for rolling hit points: Usually I'm rolling hit points for monsters on the fly, using d6's as in Original D&D. (AD&D modules have hit-point rosters, but the fact that they're sorted high-to-low makes them kind of useless for my purposes; especially in the enormous Great Hall dustup.) One thing I realized on the fly was that instead of rolling 8d6 for hill giants (or any similar big monster), I could more easily just roll 4d6 and double it (4 dice fitting into my hand & my brain a lot more efficiently). This, then, turned into a question in my statistics class Monday night: which procedure has more variation? (Instantly obvious to me, of course, but a challenge for my students.) Or alternatively, one could have a big pre-made roster of randomly-sorted hit points for a lair like this.

What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. Fighting was a lot easier for the PCs than I expected. Maybe the heroes were too high level, or had too much magic? (We had 7 PCs with 250K XP each; i.e., mostly around 9th-10th level.) The giants had great difficulty scoring hits (see next point). None of the PCs died or were ever seriously low on hit points or other resources. I'd consider lowering the levels here, or maybe just focus on...
  2. Haste. Friggin' haste, man. You'd think 30 years into playing this game it would be dialed in right. When I made the Book of Spells, I started by copying the 3E SRD text and cutting out all the non-critical late-era fluff. I knew there were likely to be some things in need of revision later (it's actually turning out to be very few), but this is one of them. Basically everyone agreed that the double-move, double-attacks, +4 AC bonus, and affecting the whole party for 30 minutes in-game, were overpowered. The +4 AC alone is highly potent in an OD&D context -- fighters switching from AC0 to AC-4 reduces giants from hitting on 12+ to needing 16+ (i.e., nearly halving hits). I'll plan to have a post & poll on that separate issue in the future.
  3. Going in, my top guesses for how the action would play out would be for the players to be either (1) scrupulously stealthy and avoid the Great Hall while they explored & scouted for clues, or (2) stage a massive, coordinated-fire attack on the giants in the Great Hall. What I didn't expect was sending in 2 PCs with non-damaging spells to "poke the hornet's nest", as one might say. But the truth is, the PCs could handle the giants a bit better squeezed into the chokepoint corridors, and the comments later were that it was fun to kill giants en masse (even for those players attesting to not normally liking tactical-heavy games), so maybe that's not really "wrong" except for my own weather-prediction abilities.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book of War Elimination Tournament

For more than a decade, I've been working on a set of mass-combat rules that are compatible with D&D. (That is: The combat probabilities should match what would happen if you rolled individual fights for hundreds of characters in D&D). I also want the ruleset to be simple, elegant, fast-moving, and fun to play. In some circles, merely observing the need for this will cause an eruption of fierce argument (see prior posts here & elsewhere). But at long last, I think I'm closing in on a release state; when published, it will be titled "Book of War".

So as part of a premiere/playtest, I ran a single-elimination tournament at HelgaCon this past Saturday morning. This went super-well; there was a lot of excitement at both the play of the game and the prospect of a high-fidelity D&D simulation. The whole thing completely exceeded my expectations. (My favorite comment was probably, "This inspired me to get back into WarHammer and start painting miniatures again.") It is indeed fast-paced, in that we were able to play 4 full games in a 4-hour slot, with players brand-new to the game. The tournament format concerned me in advance (most people would have to be sidelined most of the time), but this turned out to be a distinct advantage on Saturday morning (some people could sleep in late, run an errand, shower, snooze a bit between games, etc.) Below I'll run down the games one-by-one. Note figure scale is 1:10; when you see one miniature imagine 10 men in formation. Games were run solely with the "Basic Rules" (no fantasy, heroes, or magic); initial games had 100-point armies, final round 200-points.

Game 1: Preliminary, Max vs. Jon. (This was actually played in the 2nd hour, as these guys slept in late.) Very rugged terrain -- many hills, rough, and a section of woods. Terrible situation for Jon's heavy cavalry. Max takes a high point with his longbows. Jon maneuvers behind the woods, shielding him from the archers. (This is the game illustrated in the photo above.) He charges first with pikes, followed by the cavalry, routing Max's pikes, infantry, and horse archers. Then Jon lines up his remaining pikes & cavalry, charging up the steep hill under a withering barrage; pikemen sacrificed to shield the cavalry, the longbowmen are finally met and cut down. Jon is victorious with 2 heavy cavalry figures left atop the hill.

As a side note, we found ourselves spontaneously giving personalities to certain figures who achieved heroic accomplishments. Although it had no effect on the gameplay, we decided that the leader of Jon's heavy cavalry was named the "Iron Duke", and we started using a special figure for him.

Game 2: Semifinal, BJ vs. Allister. Field was mostly open, with two deep gulleys and some rough. BJ's roving horse archers charge forward, eliminating the enemy longbows early, allowing them to thereafter roam at will across the battlefield. Opposing cavalry clash on the far edge of the board, big die rolls making Allister look victorious at first, but quickly being routed after that. BJ's horse archers ride and shoot, easily wiping out the rest of Allister's forces.

Note: I've never seen horse archers used as successfully as BJ used them here. Usually maneuvering them doesn't work as you'd hope, but BJ made it look easy. This was the most lopsided game I'd seen to date. We started calling BJ's supposed leader the "Great Khan".

Game 3: Semifinal, Jon vs. John. (For clarity, I'll refer to the latter John as JS; we're friends from back when we worked at Papyrus Racing together, for those of you who know what that is.) This field had a narrow gap between several impassable ponds, woods, etc. Jon elects to use the same force configuration as before (i.e., the Iron Duke). JS has been studying the other games intensely, asking play questions, etc.; he elects to go with longbows, horse archers (a la BJ), and heavy armored infantry (taking a clue from Jon's heavy cavalry success). JS approaches carefully and deliberately; a slow, powerful line of heavy infantry shielding the longbows & horse archers behind, up into the gap. So, Jon's Iron Duke does the obvious thing: the heavy cavalry crashes headlong into this strong, armored line. He rolls 5d6, and 3 come up 6's, devastating the heavy infantry (instantly killing 3 of 5 figures, routing the rest). The rest is a nearly forgone conclusion; he runs over the fleeing longbows, and hunts down the horse archers. At the end, bad rolls create a long chase with the heavy infantry; JS can't regain morale and Jon can't hit to finish them off. JS finally does regain morale, infantry turn to fight, eliminate at least one cavalry figure, but the "Iron Duke" wins the final roll. Victory to Jon and the "Iron Duke" -- even more narrowly than last time -- with one single figure left on the table.

Game 4: Final, Jon vs. BJ. In the final game, we doubled the army point values (200 points instead of 100). Each player basically doubled their prior forces (focus on heavy cavalry vs. horse archers). Due to a 2d6 roll of "12" on the terrain set-up table, we also saw the first use of the river terrain in any of my game play tests -- which was used as a very nice protective barrier for BJ, accessible from his army setup area. To offset that, Jon placed a woods terrain at the inner edge of the river bulge, hoping to disrupt any archers positioned there. Also multiple hills and an impassable pond near Jon's side.

BJ starts by advancing a protective line of pikes to the inner river edge, followed by heavy crossbows & longbows. The Great Khan's horse archers drive deep (circling & firing at heavy infantry), medium cavalry advancing alongside infantry in the middle. So what does Jon's Iron Duke heavy cavalry do? What he always does -- charge across the middle of the battlefield and crash into the hardest possible defensive point of the enemy. (You'll see this situation below: Jon's forces mostly red, BJ's forces mostly blue/yellow.)

In order to succeed here, Jon's heavy cavalry has to withstand a barrage of heavy crossbow & longbow fire, reach the river's edge, take a rear attack from BJ's medium cavalry, take a full turn crossing the river, fight at half-strength out of the river through the light flanking infantry, cross the difficult woods, beat through the line of pikes outside the woods (and their free attack from reach), take another point-blank fusilade of crossbow fire, and then finally run down all the archers. With a series of good die rolls (and stupendously unlucky ones from BJ), the Iron Duke accomplishes all that, emerging from the melee his usual gory mess.

But meanwhile, the Great Khan's horse archers have cleared the rest of the field and begun shadowing the Iron Duke from the other side of the river, raining arrows down from his advantageous left side. (All other units have basically been eliminated or run off; it's Duke vs. Khan with about 3 figures -- 30 men -- each.) The Duke loses a figure and loses morale for the first time in the tournament (!), his men routing towards the edge of the table. Against the odds, one single inch from the edge, he manages to regain morale and rally his men. He charges back across the river, taking arrows the whole way.

Several turns go by, horses galloping in the dust of the open battlefield, each maneuvering for position on the other (BJ faster but needing short range for an effective shot; Jon slower but unable to make any attack without base-to-base contact.) Finally, as we now see was fated from the beginning, they face off, motionless for a turn. (To my surprise, both players actually took no action for a turn. I started scrambling mentally for what to do in case of a stalemate.) Suddenly, the Khan races in for a shot, the Duke survives and charges with his men, each side pulls out swords and fights to the last. Jon's blood-soaked Duke is victorious, with just 2 figures left on the table at the end. A champion is declared!

What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. The game was so compelling that we couldn't avoid personalizing and giving names to particular figures, even though there was no in-game benefit (in the Basic ruleset).
  2. There was significant interest in the Advanced rules yet to come (heroes, magic, etc.)
  3. In the distant past we'd used WarHammer to play out D&D mass-combat, and we had a discussion on how it really hadn't been satisfying; there was no clear scale with which to convert either men or heroes (and the PCs' side was point-handicapped after every 4th-level PC was bought as a hero figure). This game holds the clear prospect of answering those questions in a fair and simple fashion.
  4. On a similar point, later in my Sunday game I discovered that, when necessary, I could convert regular D&D monsters to "Book of War" stats instantly in my head when, say, 10-100 of some totally random monster show up in OD&D. That was a really nice emergency discovery (not totally surprising, but first time I used it under fire); more on that later.
  5. It helps to have a 3rd-party referee at the table (especially so when it's the game designer). I was taking verbal orders from the players and then measuring & moving the figures in question. I didn't plan this in advance, but started it as a demonstration for the new players, and then I just kept doing it most of the time thereafter. Maybe just twice I had to make up an adjudication on the fly (like fighting while in the river, which I hadn't considered before), and obviously knowing the spirit of the game helped at those times.
What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. I got one suggestion to cut the hill terrain tiles into unique shapes. I think I'll probably skip that, because the rectangular tiles make it easy to pack up in an envelope and carry during travel (like, say, busing from NYC to Boston and back).
  2. While the river terrain piece worked great (designed by my girlfriend Isabelle: index cards taped at the back to a long string), in the photos they kind of stick out unpleasantly. I need to get some more photo-realistic river shots to fit in with the rest of my terrain. Either that, or I need some artist to create unique terrain pieces for everything in the game.

Final note: BJ's also blogged about his experience playing in this tournament, and as usual, he has better pictures. Check it out here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

HelgaCon III

So I just got back this week from the annual gaming convention that my Boston friends put together. We find a place on Cape Cod, fill up a big rental house, and have a big gaming blow-out over a long weekend. I'll probably be writing reviews and recaps of the action here, possibly for several weeks (what with my schedule and all).

In the meantime, you might want to check out some of the blogs of my good friends who also write about this kind of stuff. Most of the DM'ing duties fell to me, Delta (3 games), Paul (2 games), and BJ (2 games), all of whom keep gaming blogs; in addition, one game apiece was run by our friends Kevin, Dave, and Emily. It's a nice mix, because each of us have markedly different gaming styles. We used to do a round-robin campaign for about 5 years back in Boston; near the end for a year or so Paul & I co-DM'd a campaign, resulting in some (now) hilarious results from our colliding play styles. The other guys will be writing about HelgaCon at the same time as I am, so it might be an interesting compare-and-contrast opportunity.

Here's Paul's blog ("Paul's Blog"). Paul is both a star player and DM; he has enormous sensitivity to the needs of everyone around the table and pays very close attention to what we might call "best practices" in keeping the action running. He tends to run games that I think are more social- and narrative-based (although he had a sandboxy dungeon crawl this weekend), and while I wouldn't do exactly the same thing, the truth is that succeeds and excels at it. Game-theory wise, we're usually at opposite ends of most discussions. (Our friend John said: ""I don't understand how you two can even be friends, you're always disagreeing with each other.") You'll see some of that over on his blog today. In addition, he actually organizes & schedules the whole con in the first place, "For selfish purposes," as he said Sunday.

Here's BJ's blog ("Saturday Night Sandbox"). Again, great player and DM. BJ's a professional artist, so the thing that blows away players in all of his games is that he'll have prepared complete, rich illustrations for all of the unique elements in his games: new monsters, villians, pregen characters, terrain, etc. (As a side note, we all used to work together at a computer game company in Boston. Seeing some of my game concepts come to life in BJ's artwork was one of the high points of the job.) He's got music & miniatures & all kinds of accoutrements prepared for his games. As a player, he's analogous to the star actor who can make bad scripts good and good scripts great; his character will usually be the highlight of the session, both tactically smart and with great gales of laughter from his role-playing.

So check 'em out. More from me later.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

OED Player Tables

Made up a summary page of important tables in my Original Edition Delta game. This gets slid into the player's side of my custom landscape GM screen.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Money Poll

You may notice that the money poll (look to the right and here) is currently tied with 1 day left to vote. Here's your opportunity to impose your opinion on my actual games.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Gygax on Religion in D&D: Oct-1982

Frequently I'm browsing through my Dragon Magazine archive CD for a certain article, and I come across an interesting bit from one of Gygax's Sorcerer's Scroll articles. Usually it's interesting because of how forcefully he contradicts something he wrote at another time. This one's from Dragon #66, p. 28 (October 1982). It begins with a negative response to someone who's criticized Deities & Demigods, then:

This capable and knowledgeable individual suggests that data on the deities is insufficient for usefulness in an AD&D™ campaign. That religion, being so much a part of our real history, must likewise play a part in your campaign. J. R. R. Tolkien did not agree, for he wrote many pages without mention of religion. Most of the heroic fantasy and swords & sorcery books written do not feature any particular religious zeal on the part of their protagonists. Consider Conan, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, Harold Shea, and the list goes on and on. I do not agree that it needs be a significant part of the campaign. As AD&D™ games depend on participant input for their character, the detailing of deities and those who serve them is strictly a part of the role playing aspect of the game. Must all evil characters sound sinister? Does an elf have to be flighty? Need a ranger be lugubrious? Actually, the game system tells you what is necessary for a campaign, but how the campaign is role-played is strictly up to the DM and players.

Now, the two things I'll point out here are this. (1) This fundamentally contradicts the text he wrote in the Deities & Demigods book itself about what a core, indispensable element it was to AD&D. (He goes on in this article to say that he doesn't use the DDG in his own campaign, except in cases of transference to other worlds.) And (2) Note that his first supporting reference to the traditions of fantasy literature is -- as always! -- Tolkien. Only secondarily does he add in examples from Conan, Fafhrd, Harold Shea, etc.

As is often the case in these fundamentalist-text games, I'd be happy to claim allegiance to this position that "I do not agree that it [religion] needs be a significant part of the campaign", if it weren't for the awareness that you can find basically the exact opposite (regarding Clerics, etc.) in many other places in his writing.