Saturday, April 30, 2011

Super Saturday: Thor Hates Communists

No, seriously -- Thor really, really hates Communists. He was fighting them semi-routinely back in the 60's, starting with his 2nd appearance.







(Pages from Journey Into Mystery #84, 87, 93, 117, 123, and Thor #168. Plot/writer Stan Lee, penciler Jack Kirby. Dates 1962-1969.)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Irreparable

In the back of the 3E DMG, Monte Cook included a table of formulas for pricing new magic items. (Yes, they were suggestions only, yes they were meant for use by the DM, yada yada yada.) This has been, like, an unstoppable bleeding sore ever since. As Monte once wrote, "Some days I look at Table 8-40 on page 242 of the DMG and wish it wasn't there at all." I bet the single-most common question to ring out repeatedly in 3E campaign play is: "Can I really make an item that will cast cure light wounds at will, activated by a command word, for only 900 gp?" (Again, per Monte himself, here.) *

This is so constantly abrasive, that I actually got in trouble with the moderators at ENWorld once over it (having a signature line with a particular rules emphasis that got deleted by the mods). And here is the exact same question again last week on the Paizo forums, more than 10 years after the book's publication. (I ran into this while scouting for the Boats & Ships Map Pack from last Friday; and here's me writing on the topic back in 2004.)

* Perhaps this question also highlights how overwhelmingly important the healing ability is to D&D mechanics -- beyond any other specific spell, nigh-demanding that a certain character class devote all or most of their spell slots to it, etc. And that's one of the reasons why I delete the cleric class and remove responsibility for it from any one player.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

HelgaCon IV - Into the Forgotten Realms


On Sunday morning of HelgaCon I was a lot better rested, getting up for the final morning slot. I'd been looking forward to this game all weekend, because it was Paul (always an excellent DM) running the Ed Greenwood AD&D adventure "Into the Forgotten Realms" from Dragon #95 (from March 1985). A lot of people say that early Forgotten Realms is a prime example of old-school play (prior to later developments & merchandising), and since it's not a milieu that I ever touched, I was eager to experience it and learn more.

We had 8 players around the table, choosing from pregenerated characters included in the adventure: 5th-8th level, with fairly high ability scores (most with 2-3 bonuses by AD&D rules), but absolutely no magic items (or even missile weapons). The goal was to infiltrate an abandoned college of sorcery, head off an evil warlord to the site, and confiscate as much magic as possible (so as to keep out of the warlord's hands). Tournament scoring would be used as per use of the adventure at Gen Con XVII in 1984, on a per-player basis (with one player "winning" the event).

One funny thing that happened was this: I was one of the few players who had a physical copy of the classic AD&D PHB at the table (and wow, is it beat up at this point). To begin with, I was thinking that it might be useful for me to take a magic-user so I could reference the various spells easily, but other players were even more eager to do that, so I started looking at the pregens for a backup plan. And the funny thing is that one of the clerics' established personality/background descriptions almost exactly matched my longest running-character ever, a semi-whacked out priest of a war deity with a bit of a Napoleon complex. (From the adventure text: "He prides himself in, and enjoys, being a skillful fighter and an accomplished thinking-on-his-feet battlefield tactician, or 'general.'... compulsively honest, finding it difficult to be dishonest or even diplomatic. He is always blunt, open, and truthful, even when it hurts himself or his friends...") So with a big laugh, I figured I could play that, having done so for about 5 years in the 3E era (in fact, that old character's name -- at one point mangled by a hard-of-hearing NPC -- is actually where the "Helga" in "HelgaCon" originated from).

I did try to leverage both this PC and my knowledge of AD&D rules to give a lot of recommendations to the rest of the party and I hope (similar to BigFella's writeup of another game) that this was helpful in a tournament context and not too aggravating for other players. Maybe, maybe not.

Having now played and read the adventure, here is a critique that I can't avoid: This really did ring my "new school" bell in numerous ways. (And it didn't do much to dispel my impression of Ed Greenwood's design work.) Stuff like: (1) A big focus in the adventure text on "role-playing", with fairly detailed personality & background motivations given for the pregenerated PCs, and that used as the basis for points-award votes at the end. (Commendably, Paul downplayed this in practice.) (2) At the same time, a surprisingly small number of monsters to fight in the dungeon; we fought two, with another two avoided that could potentially have been released as traps. (3) A lot of time, emphasis, and detail on the NPCs, their motivations and background, room-by-room prior activity in the dungeon, etc. The primary goal of the adventure is ultimately: puzzling out the identity & negotiating with the master villain of the place (who is basically invulnerable to the PCs). I can't help but feel like the spotlight falling on this particular NPC resembles Greenwood's use of a character like Elminster.

The other thing that's super puzzling to me (and this was known going in: Paul & I had discussed it previously) is the use of per-person individual tournament scoring. The small amount of tournament play I've known has been team-based, with points awarded to the whole party, and the higher-scoring teams advancing to later rounds (such as writeups of G1-3 in Dragon circa 1978; tournament A/C modules published around 1980; or even the 3E D&D tournament at Gen Con 2004). But apparently there was some point in the "silver age" period circa 1984 when individual scoring was used instead -- and this also seems characteristically "new school" to me, that instead of pulling together as a team for an in-game goal, players are in some sense expected to compete with each other as to which individual character gets the most success or attention during play. I really wish I had more detail on the exact evolution of that tournament scoring over time.

So that's my critique of Greenwood and the design style of the mid-1980's (post-Dragonlance; within the year that Gygax would leave TSR) -- and I think it was really super educational for me to get to experience it firsthand, from the POV of a player interacting with an unknown adventure, and I value that greatly.

That said, Paul ran excellent game and it was a lot fun. He made good choices about parts to downplay (like not requiring deep in-character-acting; asking for vote assessments based on overall contributions to the game). His sense of pacing, responsiveness to player intent, fair-handedness at running the AD&D rules, and, ultimately, role-playing the insane undead boss at the end were without flaw and really compelling. He's independently come to the same philosophy I have about miniatures, not using them or battlemaps for combat at all (although minis were on the table for marching order), and again I like the flow of the game that way as a player. The other players in the game were exemplary as well, really working well together as a team and exploring basically the entire complex within the allotted time limit. At the end, voting took place under the rules provided (basically), with our very brave front-line thief player winning the overall award -- applause all around, a mint copy of Dragon #95 passed out as a prize, and then we wrapped up another year of HelgaCon (packing up, goodbyes, and travel to diverse parts).

Really great play and experiences all around that weekend, can't wait to do it again!

For more on this game:

Monday, April 25, 2011

HelgaCon IV - The Fallen Obelisk


This week I'll wrap up summaries of the action at HelgaCon a few weeks back. Having run games in each of the first three slots, by Saturday night I was ready to kick back and turn DM'ing duties over to other people and get to act player for a while. Also I interface with the event, I'd only slept a couple hours the prior night, so I was pretty tired.

So that evening I got to play once again in BigFella's "Thousand Year Sandglass" milieu, an Arabian-themed campaign run with Labyrinth Lord rules and some lightweight use of miniatures and room tiles.

So the primary things here are that (a) BigFella runs a very nice, fun old-school sandbox (literally) game, (b) I get to play brothers with Paul again, the two of us running Hakim and Jiri Jarib (4th-level fighters with nearly identical statistics) which is really awesome, and (c) several of us being sleep-deprived, almost everything anyone said seemed painfully, ludicrously funny. So I was sitting there giggling and guffawing and gleefully mock-arguing in a slight Persian accent all night long. Sometimes I almost couldn't play rationally everything seemed so funny.

It's interesting action for a convention game, very open-ended, starting in a long canyon area with several different underground openings to potentially explore (the base of the great "fallen obelisk" tower, caves high up the canyon walls, giant temple statuary on one cliff-face, etc.), when you only have time for a single feature. Last year's action was a terrific bloodbath, with the Jarib brothers really lucky or smart to get out alive (everyone else went through 2 or 3 PCs that night, as I recall). This year had nowhere near as high a body-count (again, maybe the whole party being luckier or smarter or both). Jarib brothers are usually in the front of the marching order, ready to defend the rest of the party. Equipment is limited in this setting, with chain being the best available armor, as I recall, so at best you always feel pretty exposed/fragile. And at least last year there was a crapload of scorpions and other poison-y stuff crawling around.

The area we were exploring this time turned out to have mostly non-living stuff, like: a multi-armed skeletal swordsman; a trap that sucked the magic out of our wizards; a dust/vortex/elemental creature; a giant replica of the world's cosmology (a huge sandglass with upper & lower worlds); a spell-casting mummy (I think); and finally, a secretly bound efreet with centuries of experience playing chess for very high stakes. Some of the stuff I'm particularly fond of was luring the dust creature into a giant crushing room trap via an illusion; and having our smartest magician agree to play the efreet at chess, stunningly winning twice when the odds were very much against us, and so multiplying all of our treasure several times.

The new schtick between the Jarib brothers is that when we started fighting the first skeletal swordsman, it became obvious that it was only hit by magical weapons -- of which Hakim (me) happened to have 2 from PC generation, whereas Jiri (Paul) had none. So while fighting with a magic sword, I tossed the magic spear to Jiri -- who then started claiming it had been his all along by inheritance. Later we had to wrestle over it, and when I got it back he'd engraved his frickin' name on it! So that got carved off, but in a later fight he needed it again, and the whole cycle started all over. And pretty clearly it's now the "Jarib Family Spear" and I guess we're stuck with that. So see what your "hit only by magic" rule has wrought now, eh?

Very nice content and pacing. I think the party explored 12 areas or so, with maybe 4 or 5 monsters and 3-4 tricks/traps, and plenty of treasure to haul out. Also a nice feature with the in-game cosmic model; that really did conjure some nice campaign atmosphere, and I liked it a lot. Miniatures worked out fairly well (although there was some scrambling for the right room/corridor tiles at times). There was a point where I got totally panic-stricken by the dust monster, who was being represented by the same miniature BigFella will use for big stone elementals/golems, when we didn't really have to be quite so cautious. But other than that, a really nice game.

One thing I'll say I noticed throughout all of our games this year (goes for me, BigFella, and Paul): I could observe a steady improvement in all of our DM'ing abilities. I thought my G2 game was the best D&D I'd run in many, many years. BigFella here showed that he's chosen the right ruleset for his game, and he's getting even better at leveraging all of the rules to his best strengths, running the game efficiently and well. Paul (post on his game coming Wednesday) was also running a fair, pretty tough, really well-balanced game of old-school AD&D, and it very much nourished me to be in that game, too. I felt lots of confidence that rules were being adjudicated fairly, correctly, and quickly, so you could really totally focus on the in-game experience and what move your character/party should make next. Maybe this (the fact that we're all getting better at this hobby) is even more evident when I only play with these guys once a year or so. So there's a benefit, but I'd still trade that to play with them more frequently.

For more on this game:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Super Saturday: Incredible Shrinking Hammer

Most cartoons and comics seem to go through a period of style evolution in their early days. Below are a series of shots of Thor's hammer, starting with his first appearance in Marvel comics.













Compare that to the current "Thor Lightning Hammer" toy based on the design from the upcoming new movie:


(Pages from Journey Into Mystery #83, 94, 95, 103, 109, and Thor #130. Penciler Jack Kirby [except Joe Sinnott #94, 95]. Dates 1962-1966.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Boats & Ships Map Pack


On the one hand, last Friday I crapped all over using miniatures in an RPG game, and expressed pleasure at having (basically) personally ended that.

But within the same week I was browsing at The Compleat Strategist in Manhattan, and ran into a delightful product I couldn't help but pick up: Paizo's GameMastery Map Pack: Boats & Ships.

As you may know, I'm fond of running some D&D-at-sea games, and for that it really benefits you to have at-scale ship deck plans if most of the action will take place on that platform. In the past I've used several copies of black-and-white maps that I print & assemble at home. But no doubt this product blows that away: great, full-color, well-designed, accurately-scaled (in both realistic terms and classic D&D-type statistics), on sturdy cardstock, in convenient 8x5 inch tiled pieces (i.e., half-page, little brown booklet, stick-in-your-white-box size). As miserly as I am, I simply had to buy it. Really wish something this well-thought out and designed had been available years ago.

A couple drawbacks so I'm being fair: (1) There's more masts than I'd want for the technological level I presume; the sailing ships have 2 or 3 masts, whereas I like cruder cogs with just 1 or 2 (to give some nod to the historical period when both sailing cogs and viking-style longships were feasible options). (2) The viking longship has too few rowing benches and oars (positioned every other 5' square, when there should be one every square; but that's easily hand-waved). (3) You can't have two parties fighting on the same ship design if you own just one pack (whereas you can print off as many copies as you like of something from your home printer). You might also want to tape the tiles together or down to the table when you use them.

Philosophical point to conclude a week of miniature wargaming-type stuff: While I'm now fond of avoiding miniatures for in-the-dungeon, single-character RPG stuff (lower level?), I do like being able to run proper outside wargame-type stuff at a larger scale, I want that part of the D&D endgame (higher level?) to be retained and to work "right", and there's all kinds of advantages and traditions to miniatures for that. And on that continuum, I think that naval games present a very nice transition opportunity (mid-levels), where the PCs are leading a single ship's crew of men in the dozens or scores, and adventuring on the wide-open ocean. If possible, and in line with OD&D, I like to switch between high-level mass action and man-to-man deck melee within the same game. And if you do that more than once or twice, having nice ship deck plans helps the experience enormously.

(Photo by me. What appears to be an enormous cat is really a sleepy, polymorphed gold dragon on a lonely isle at sea.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

HelgaCon IV - Siege on the Borderlands

I've run this game a couple of times now (see links at bottom). Interestingly, it's never run the same way twice in the number of times that I've played it. There's a really interesting scramble at the beginning of the game as each player tries to feel out the new (to them) rules, finds it not working exactly as they first expected, and then spar with cat-and-mouse adjustments. Here's possibly the most interesting run to date -- this occurred on Saturday afternoon at HelgaCon, out on the porch (which gave delicious lighting, although somewhat out-of-theme for the dead-of-night monsters-over-the-walls action). I had two players whom I'll call Ms. A (attacker) and Mr. D (defender). Ms. A had never played a wargame before, but was very intrigued. Mr. D had done stuff like this before, and had great helpful comments at the end. Here's how it went (remember 1 figure = 10 men scale, Book of War escalade rules):

Summary of Play

Turn 1 -- Setup. Attacking monsters in blue (setup anywhere by player choice), defending men in red (fixed start per the classic module). Ms. A has setup her monsters about how I always personally envision -- and yet, she's the first monster-player to ever do so. She's got the weaker types ringing the lower outer bailey (goblins, orcs, hobgoblins with crossbows), and the stronger types positioned against the higher inner bailey (ogres and giants; some goblins too). This is advantageous because the higher bluff at the back is harder to climb (potentially even a fatal fall), and the giant-types counteract that with their higher strength. There are also some reinforcement monsters currently left off the table (see the chair at the top).



Turn 3 -- Advance. Here, you can see two turns of monster move attempts up the bluff. On Mr. D's first turn, he made a highly unexpected move: "Is there any requirement that I keep men in the outer bailey?", he asked. Receiving an answer of "uh... no", his first move was to immediately pull every unit out of the outer bailey, consolidating them all in the higher inner bailey (as you can see below). Privately I was thinking, "Oh crap, that's broken, I'll have to institute a rule penalizing lack of defense for the civilians in the lower town..."



Turn 5 -- Insertion. So with no one defending the walls of the outer bailey, the monsters could pull up their crude ladders and scale over the perimeter freely. Below, you can them packing in as tightly as possible, having entirely taken over the outer bailey (and the main gate). Now they're starting to exchange missile fire with the men atop the inner fortress (the inner fortress gives 2 figures complete protection, but others are hittable on a "6"). Again, all of this was unprecedented action.



Turn 6 -- Giants! Don't forget that there are ogres and a squad of giants trying to climb up over the higher bluff/wall of the outer bailey. The giants were delayed for several turns as they served artillery-fire with thrown stones at anyone in sight on the rear walls. Now that red has tired of the losses and retired from the wall (those 3 figures in the keep fortress are also invulnerable from missile-fire), the giants have ascended and are about to boost each other over the wall. (In a recurring theme for me this HelgaCon, frost giants are again the featured antagonist.)



Turn 7 -- Multiple Breaches. So here you can see that giants and some ogres have both gotten into the outer bailey, and are stomping on anyone in reach. (Frost giants have taken 3-of-10 hits; there are also some unfortunate goblins who have suffered falling deaths and routed.) But here's another intriguing move by Ms. A: instead of rushing ahead helter-skelter with her big mob of monsters (which is usual thing) she's showing the utmost patience, degrading the red defenders from a distance with missile fire as much as possible before moving from her position in the outer bailey. One figure in each tower is fully protected, but there is still one figure in the inner fortress that is a valid target, and there are a lot of hobgoblin crossbows firing each turn.



Turn 10 -- Collapse. The orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins in the outer bailey are now surging forward en masse. Partly they're trying to scale over the wall of the inner fortress, and meanwhile they're attempting break down doors into the towers on either side (one unit of orcs is now in the west tower, battling with red defenders). Ogres have been mostly killed, but the giants have actually stormed the main keep fortress and cleared out all of the defenders there!



Turn 15 -- The End. The defenders actually kill quite a number of monsters as the fighting turns hand-to-hand through each tower and building. However, the jig is clearly up. Below you can see one of the last defender units in an extremely bad situation. (Hey, it's almost like I designed those tower-tops to exactly fit that figure base or something...)



So the winner in probably the most lopsided game to date: Ms. A playing the monsters in her first-ever wargame. That said, Mr. D was incredibly gracious at the end of the game, giving great compliments on how it played out, and saying how impressed he was that his pull-everyone-back move failed to break the game (among other observations). At the end we realized that there's a specific rules clause already built in naturally that made it a very bad move to vacate the lower bailey -- but no one (including me!) really understood what the ramifications of that move were until very late in the game. At some point when Book of War is released I'll link back here and see if you can spot what they key rule is. Really fascinating play and an opportunity for some emergent-behavior discoveries. I'll skip the "what went right" section (pretty much everything, so no need to pat myself on the back too much)...

What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)

  1. Paint in Doors. An important part of the gameplay involves the monsters reaching inward-facing doors to the castle towers, bashing them in, and then meleeing with the defenders inside (thereby accessing other walls, the inner bailey, etc.) Every time I play there are numerous question from players about exactly where the accessible doors are, where they lead, I should have a map of B2 to confirm where they are, etc. Mr. D made the point that I could just paint in those doors to visually indicate where they are. Yeah, I painted in almost everything else except the one feature that's actually critical to scenario gameplay. Big "duh" for me, and great observation from him.
  2. Doors should Close. On the same point, I've been playing that once a tower door gets bashed in, anyone can freely move through that access point from then on. Mr. D made the point that's not exactly realistic, that winners of the tower should probably be able to board it up again, hoist the door, block it with shields, etc., thereby forcing other attackers to break it down again. I think that's good, and it has the further advantage of not having to remember which doors are in place and which aren't. (A secondary-level priority for my game is to not have any record-keeping other than what's immediately visible on the table.) So that's what I'll do next time.
  3. Morale on Bluff. One thing I'm a little wiggly on is the propensity for monster units climbing the high bluff to take a loss from falling, fail a morale check, and then get committed to climbing back down the dangerous bluff (as you can see for the goblins in the photo of turn #7 above), possibly taking more falls and more deaths. That's kind of a judgment call about what seems more dangerous: the deadly precipice below, or the looming defended castle wall above? Not sure where to take that. (Suggestions?)
Some prior games of Siege on the Borderlands:

Monday, April 18, 2011

HelgaCon IV - Book of War Round Robin Tournament

This was the second year I've held a Book of War test round robin tournament on the Saturday morning of HelgaCon. Again, in theory, I should be releasing a publication version of this soon: one of my priorities was to take this opportunity as a last-chance to run as large a game as I possibly could, and see if that would shake out any heretofore unknown bugs. I had three players (and thus planned 3 round-robin matches): Paul, Max, and Christian -- who, all being brothers, started referring to it as the "War for Succession". So of course I really liked that.

GAME 1: PAUL vs. MAX (500 points)

Turn 1 -- Below you'll see the end of the first-turn movement. Max (left side, in blue) has crossbows, horse archers, medium infantry, pikes, and heavy cavalry. Paul (right side, in red) has two groups of light cavalry, pikes, and heavy crossbows. Note that we're using some cardboard counters because I ran out of horse miniatures for this game.



Turn 2 -- Paul has sent his fast light cavalry charging to the other side of the board, and in single file, threaded between Max's pikes & heavy cavalry. He's trying to get in position to harass the rear of the opposition, but the disadvantage is how he's splitting his own army in three pieces. Max's pikes & heavy cavalry will swing around and get a few hits in before the top light cavalry can pull away on the next turn.



Turn 4 -- Paul's light cavalry has reached the backfield, but this has allowed Max's army to focus entirely on those isolated units. The heavy cavalry and pikes have tried to give chase. More importantly, the horse archers (mostly flat counters) have changed face and swung to the rear so as to fire at the left-most unit, mostly decimating them. And the crossbows on the hill have done an about-face, showering the middle unit with missiles, and routing them. (By necessity, they will flee off the top/left of the table on the next turn.)



Turn 6 -- Having lost all of his vanguard light cavalry, Paul is now positioning his remaining pikes & heavy crossbows on the central hill to finish the fight as a defensive battle. In another two turns, Max's horses attack up the far side and rout the separate group of heavy crossbows there (between Paul's arms in the picture). Shortly after that, time is called (this has taken about 2.5 hours) and Max declared the winner of this event on points!



GAME 2: MAX vs. CHRISTIAN (250 points)

Turn 1 -- Due to time constraints, we've reduced the point values for the armies in question. Max (top, in blue) has horse archers, pikes, and heavy cavalry. Christian (bottom, in red) has light cavalry, light infantry, longbows, and heavy crossbows. After terrain has been placed, both armies have chosen to group on the clearer side of the table -- which amusingly, has provoked a debate over whether it's properly the "left side" or "right side" of the table (depending on player perspective). So this means war!



Turn 3 -- Again, the light cavalry units have been sent galloping at full movement ahead of the rest of their respective armies. Christian (the newest player to the game) has tried to maneuver his light cavalry behind the woods, but this allowed Max's horse archers to ride up behind them and get some attacks off. Also, Christian has elected to send his slowest unit (heavy crossbows in chainmail) up through the woods, so they've fallen behind the rest of his army.



Turn 7 -- Action has separated into two locations on the field. Max's horse archers have gotten to the rear of Christian's army, so his light cavalry and infantry have turned to pursue them. After a few turns of maneuvering for position around the edge of some woods (white notepaper in the picture), melee has occurred, with Christian's cavalry taking the worst and being routed. In another turn or two, his light infantry will make contact: horse archers are reduced to just two figures before driving off that part of the red army, as well. (Apologies for blurriness in this photo.)



Turn 8 -- Meanwhile, Christian is doing better at the center of the table, where his own missile troops have taken the hill and quickly eliminated the light blue pikes. Then the slow, heavy infantry of blue have decided to advance up the hill under the same withering missile fire (in plate mail: move just 6", but hit only on die roll of "6"). On the next turn they take more hits and are routed.



Turn 14 -- The game is now reduced to cat-and-mouse maneuvers between the remaining missile troops for firing position (blue with 2 figures of fast horse archers, red with good-sized units of longbows & crossbows). Surprisingly, blue's heavy infantry regain morale before routing off the table and turn, marching back into the action; Christian's crossbows are detached to try and stop them. Difficult for just 4 figures, when the heavy infantry are hit only on a "6", and only at close range. You can see the result below.



Turn 16 -- Time is called and Christian, recovering from his early losses, is declared the winner on points!

What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. The Basics. At this point, there aren't that many unknowns surrounding the Book of War basic gameplay. Force selection, terrain, movement, combat, and morale all worked pretty much as expected without any big "that doesn't make sense" moments (either in terms of real-life or an extrapolation of core D&D combat). As usual, forces seem pretty well balanced (as evidenced by the newest player Christian losing on one front, but winning on another). So I won't belabor that point too much -- with a late "beta" test like this, if all works well, ideally there shouldn't be any big surprises.
What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. Time Management. Okay, so the single most glaring glitch in all my games for the convention was here, in not estimating the time right to play 3 battles. As you may have noticed, I had to abandon the 3rd game, so Paul and Christian only got to play in one game each for this session, and I failed to declare an overall champion without their game being played. So I felt bad about that. For some reason, I have a tough time pounding it into my head that more points/units (and space) means that the game will take more time. The first game at 500 points took about 2.5 hours (and was cut short at that point). The second game was reduced to 250 points and took 1.5 hours (more resolved, but also could have gone longer). Unfortunately my testing goal of seeing the biggest game possible get played got me overambitious with the point values, and collided directly with the tournament structure. (Compare to last year's single-elimination tournament, where 3 initial games were played at 100, and a final game at 200 points; link below) If I do this again in the future, I've got to remember to limit points to 200 maximum if I'm going to keep games to 1 or 1.25 hours length.
  2. Extra Ranks Bonus. There's a bonus to morale in the rules for having a formation with extra ranks backing up the first one (+1 to morale rolls per rank). But this was a bit off-key in play. (a) I actually forgot about in play, routing one of Paul's forces off the table when they shouldn't have. (b) It seemed wrong to grant this bonus to a unit in single-file column formation, especially if hit by missile fire, when if they just did a right-face they would lose all of that bonus -- such as Paul's cavalry. So arguably issues (a) and (b) sort of balanced each other out in this instance. I'm somewhat torn about either measuring unit width in both directions (solving (b), but adding some complexity), or just ditching it entirely (being sensitive to issue (a)). Maybe in this case make it an optional advanced rule, as I write this.
  3. Movement Trays. As part of my increase-size-of-game test, it became obvious that moving largely units was more of a hassle, and having some movement trays would have been nice. Obviously, you Warhammer players have known this for decades, but this was the first time the issue smacked me in the head. In my defense, I've been previously playing on a hardwood table where it was easy to slide the units around smoothly together with a stick or ruler. For this game I had to use a tablecloth which would snag the figures if we tried that (because the table itself was an outdoor porch table with an umbrella-hole in the middle).
  4. Terrain Tiles. Also an issue with the enlarged game, I forgot to print out additional terrain tiles, so we had to resort to some notepaper to fill in here. (That said, the overall ratio of terrain tiles was just what I calculated and expected it to be.)
So another fun and informative game, but the one that had the biggest room for improvement when I do it again (really just in terms of the points-versus-time-management issue). As usual, that will probably stick in my craw to "do it right" sometime in the future.

For more perspectives on this game:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Miniatures & Me


Here's the trajectory of my experience with miniatures in D&D: I got into D&D with the Holmes blue-book set around 1979, and very soon after that got the various AD&D hardcovers.

Those rules didn't require any miniatures to play. However, they tended to have a very short allusion to the fact that miniatures possibly could be used. In Holmes it's a single line (p. 5); in the AD&D DMG it's about 3 paragraphs (p. 10-11). While we didn't use miniatures, and we couldn't afford them as kids at the time, there was a sense in which we were missing out on something, that there was a "full and fancy" way of playing the game that was somewhat out of reach.

Now, go back in time a little bit, before I started playing (and more generally, before the boom years of around 1978-1984). I now understand that our favorite RPG developed out of historical miniature wargaming with Chainmail and its appendage man-to-man fantasy supplement. But there was a big shift upon the publication of D&D, upon which miniatures were fundamentally no longer used. Even in original D&D, miniatures are absent from the list of Recommended Equipment (again, the one line reference: "miniatures are not required, only esthetically pleasing..." Vol-1, p. 5). As Gygax later wrote: "I don't usually employ miniatures in my RPG play. We ceased that when we moved from CHAINMAIL Fantasy to D&D." (Here.)

However, the artifacts of prior miniature gaming remained in the rules, with such things as moves and ranges in inches, copied forward directly from Chainmail, even if they were no longer intended to be used directly as such. For example, even though the PHB says that "Indoors 1" equals 10 feet" (p. 39), the DMG miniatures rule is that "Each ground scale inch can then be used to equal 3 1/3 linear feet" (p. 10). That is to say: the 1" technical indicator throughout the rules is no longer actually 1" -- rather, it becomes 3" on the tabletop if miniatures are being used by the book. On the other hand, Holmes D&D initiated the development of removing inch-units from the game entirely, instead indicating movement and ranges simply by in-game feet.

So the truth is that miniatures had become a vestigial organ in D&D, and truth be told, they couldn't physically be used at the scale indicated (see above for how a DMG inch isn't really an inch; or else try to fit three 25mm figures in a scale 10' corridor -- it can't be done). Nonetheless, this prehistory was unknown to me, and with those one-line-per book nods to miniatures, I still felt somewhat deprived.

Fast forward to 2000. 3E D&D was released, with a new heavy emphasis on tactical miniatures (spell areas-of-effect given with maps of affected grid areas, etc.) By that time, I'd become a professional with a fairly well-paying job, no family, and moderate disposable income. So this conjunction permitted me to dive back into the game and finally scratch that itch for tactical miniatures play. In the 3E era, I got a battlemap, markers, miniatures for my PCs and monsters, and so forth.

I did notice that 3E adventuring and combat was enormously slower than the D&D I'd been previously accustomed to. Obviously, there's a lot of factors for this: (a) the newness of the ruleset, (b) the complexity of the ruleset, (c) players counting battlemap squares like a chess game before movement or spell-casting (and explaining and debating attacks-of-opportunity, etc.) But I kept with it, thinking that the pacing would pick up if played properly at some point, making more and more tweaks along the way to speed things up, and stuff like that.

Around the time I started this blog (in the 3.5E era), I was in the process of giving up on the whole thing, first trying to craft a cut-down d20 System variant, and then just switching back to OD&D with some Greyhawk stuff and a bit of mathematical streamlining. I was dialing down my miniature play, telling myself that mostly I'd run things in a narrative fashion, and only use miniatures and a battlemap for more complicated encounters. The problem with that: As soon as you break out the battlemap, action slows down to a degree that one encounter may take up the whole night, and again you wind up with most of your playing time spent in miniatures-mode. (Example: My last year's G1 game.)

This past Thanksgiving I had some mostly non-roleplaying friends over, and on a whim I suggested that I get my Marvel Super Heroes game out of the basement and play a one-off game of that (here). This is a game that also comes with maps of city streets and buildings for tactical play, with specific rules for space-by-space movement, stand-up figures and counters, etc. As I pulled the box open, I started to realize what it would take to introduce my new players to the game -- and quickly thought it best to just skip the whole tactical map/figures part. Without them wanting to process those rules, I could just revert back to "Players tell me what you think to do, I tell you what's necessary for success", which is the easiest ways to dip new players into an RPG game. And it really worked a lot better and more crisply than any of my games for years -- although the maps, box of stand-up figures, and rules for space-by-space movement and ranges went unused. So that's what I also did for my G2 convention game recently (here), and likewise, it was the most satisfying D&D play I've had in a long time, getting to lots more interesting content than in any of the other classic modules I've run in years past.

I'm nowhere near the first person to observe this, but the basic tension for miniatures is something like, pros: (1) tactical specificity, (2) visual excitement, (3) tactile play enjoyment; versus cons: (1) pacing slow-down, (2) out-of-character thinking, (3) possibly limiting the imagination with fixed representations. In terms of Aristotle's dramatic elements, we might suggest that miniatures downplay Action and Language in favor of increased Spectacle.

So in some sense, you might say that I've come full circle, back to where I was in the late 70's, playing by narration only, and no miniatures. And that's just rediscovering the path that Gygax took in the same vein, discarding miniatures once the RPG form was discovered. And it's odd, too, that WOTC on the corporate level has also recreated that same progression, publishing D&D Minatures throughout the last decade or so, but ending that line in the last few months (and also printing some products with counters for use on a battlemap, as I've been told). Are we doomed to keep recycling that progression?

Of course, miniatures are not without a great deal of charm. One thing I realized after my G2 game, as awesome as the play was: I had no compelling pictures after the fact, since there was no instantiation of the game in visible form at the table; there was just people, talking and imagining and laughing. So miniatures are great for promotions and photography, and not having them is a real loss. (Maybe this argues more for the podcasting trend as a truer representation of the hobby, although it takes more effort to produce?) And miniatures are absolutely indispensable for a different kind of game, such as a more strategic game (like Corsairs of Medero), or a full-blown wargame (like Book of War) -- but not so much for an RPG where we want the players to experience looking through the eyes of a single character (especially in a dungeon-delving, hopefully claustrophobic context).

And the same goes for other classic games that come with maps & figures or counters -- like Boot Hill, Marvel Superheroes, Star Frontiers, etc. Holy god, every time I see my container of Star Frontiers counters I just get itchy all over, wanting to pull them out, make use of them, and see those sci-fi monsters, aliens, robots, and vehicles in action again. And of course my quasi-OCD makes it hard to avoid running games with rules of that nature "the right way" if I don't make a conscious effort to snip them out. And it's also true that I've spent quite a bit of time trying to "fix" the broken scaling rules in OD&D/AD&D and rationalize how they would be used with miniatures -- perhaps somewhat embarrassing, if I now don't expect to use miniatures regularly anymore. I would like them to be still usable if desired, and hope that my own scaling house-rules don't also go through a similar process of degeneration from neglect in the future.

But my recent experience, particularly with newer and less hardcore players, is that the immediacy and fast-pacing of play without miniatures removes a big degree of frustration I've had with the game (really, ever since 3E came out). I'm pretty much convinced that the slow-down effect of miniatures play is not wholly solvable. It's the linguistic and mathematical exchange that really fired my imagination for the game in the first place, and it's a lot of fun to be able to re-discover the essence of that.

(Photo by Adrian Cotter.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Against the Giants Characters


I got a super-nice compliment on the pre-generated characters I use for my "Against the Giants" games (from Paul, over here), so I figured I might present them here in their entirety if anyone else is interested in investigating them. I am using the same characters throughout my multi-year convention run of the G1-3 series (which is particularly great when the same player uses the same PC consistently, as does Paul).

Click here to download the PDF document (124KB).

When I drafted the PCs last year, part of my motivation was to show all the possibilities allowed under my OED house rules (which I feel is really just the closest interpretation I could make of what's actually written in Original D&D, Vol-1). There are 3 straight fighters, 2 wizards, and 1 thief (all humans); 1 halfling thief, 1 dwarf fighter/thief, 1 elf thief/wizard, 1 elf fighter/wizard, and 1 human fighter/wizard.

All of the characters are made with 250,000 XP, assuming that multi-class characters can just split XP between classes pretty much at will (which is my best reading of the Vol-1, p. 8 language for elves; really on a per-adventure basis), with the normal level caps and 16+ ability score requirement for non-elf multi-classers in force (suggested on OD&D Vol-1, p. 10, under "Changing Character Class"). Because of the level caps, you'll notice that it's advantageous for most of the high-level demi-humans to add the Thief class, because that will be unlimited in level even when other classes are capped (so as not to waste any of the 250K experience points). The elven fighter/wizard is included because that's a standard expectation, even though both classes are maxed out (at levels 4/8), and thus may not be an optimal choice. The human fighter/wizard is included to show that's allowed just the same, too (reminiscent of AD&D's dual-classing); and in fact, he's an excellent choice since neither class is capped (generating levels 8/9), and he also has really nice ability scores.

The ability scores and magic items were all rolled randomly, with some minor tune-ups on my part (for example, ability scores for these high-level characters were rolled 4d6-drop-low in order; reroll one score; and swap two as desired for the class). The names were picked from a random online generator that Paul & I are both really fond of (even though the creator himself is pretty disparaging of his own work: here). The spellbooks for the wizards were also rolled randomly, with some slight tuning on my parts after identifying a theme to the character's name and magic items (usually at most 1-2 spell substitutions per level).

Note that the fighters also get some Feats (1 per 4 levels; i.e., 2 feats each at levels 8-11 here), as indicated in my OED house rules (and first seen in Fight On! #9). They're mostly explained on the character sheets, and in general they represent the sum of 2 individual feats each from standard 3E style rules (with emphasis as a way to generalize Gygaxianisms such as: exceptional strength from OD&D Sup-I; extra attacks from the AD&D PHB; or weapon specialization from the AD&D UA).

Keep in mind that as play starts, I also give the players the opportunity to add any other mundane item from the basic equipment list to their characters (no ships!), and the whole party also gets 3 jugs of 6 healing potions each (previously 2; I increased it for this adventure). Note that with clerics removed from the picture, there's no debate about how heavily the cleric player needs to stock up on healing spells; and there's no chance of the cleric character getting knocked out and having all of the party's healing resource lost. As DM, I can gauge how much magical healing the party should have, and provide them with that amount directly.

For the G2 adventure in particular, all of the PCs had "cold weather outfit" (1 stone) added to their equipment, and in several cases this slowed down certain PCs (switching from 12" move to 9"). I also converted all the potions of fire resistance to potions of cold resistance (which is technically a new item, just working like fire resistance in reverse).

Until very recently, I kept all of my D&D PC records on index cards, which I felt was very convenient. However, of late I realized there were some limitations to those: (1) They're hard to digitize into a document that can be easily printed or distributed online (like here), (2) Since I was filling them in by hand, if anyone wrote on them in a game I'd have to redo the whole thing by hand, (3) Since the back was used for equipment, the sum resources of the character were not visible to the player at any one time (necessitating flipping front & back repeatedly in play; making it easy to forget about certain magic items). So instead I now put each character on one side of a 5.5x8" sheet. The spellbook rosters are designed so players can just circle the spells the memorize for the adventure (simplified by my no-duplicate-spells rule), and erase as they get used. The whole collection is kept in a black, 3-ring binder of the same size.

There was actually one other very interesting character that got cut between last year & this year: Kari the Saber, a lawful elven fighter/thief (level 4/10) with gauntlets of ogre power and an intelligent +2 sword with detect evil (named "Heartseeker" by my player last year). Low intelligence and wisdom, but high everything else (strength 20 with the magic gauntlets). She made quite an impact last year, but got wiped out this year after I made a poll on how to generalize elven multi-classing, and the result was to run with "wizard, plus one other class". Since Kari had no wizard level, she would be in violation of this new ruling. (Potentially an elven character like this could exist, if she left the starting wizard class fallow at 1st-level, had a 16+ in either Str or Dex, and then added the fighter or thief class later on -- neither of which Kari would qualify for. But perhaps a modified version of her will show up later as powerful, driven-mad villain!)

Monday, April 11, 2011

G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl

HelgaCon started a week ago Friday night, with me running the classic Gygax adventure Module G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and honestly I was pretty excited. This is by far my favorite module series (not that I'm first person to say that), and my favorite bunch of people to run it for. I run with my house-ruled OD&D set, I feel pretty good about the prep work that I can do these days, and I was coming into HelgaCon possibly more relaxed (in terms of not staying up the entirety of the night before prepping) than I had in prior years. It was pretty neat to open up the weekend with a night-time, sleety-outside run of classic frozen D&D. Gygax writes in the AD&D PHB, "Playing well is a reward unto itself", and I feel like I got to see that very clearly with this adventure (and more generally, throughout the whole weekend). This was some of the flat-out best D&D play that I've seen in ages, with the players functioning exceptionally well as a team, very goal-focused, not wasting time, supporting the other players, and using their resources very wisely indeed (sometimes almost eerily at just the right time). There was a lot of honest excitement, well-timed and critical die-rolls, and a great sense of exploration and pacing. Just in the past few months I finally abandoned using battlemaps and miniatures in my RPG play -- not even bringing a battlemap with me for the first time -- and I'm convinced that's the right choice for the kind of gaming I like to see (more on that later). I'm really happy with the house rules I institute, and dedicated as I am to taking notes and tweaking things after every game, I'm finding that I have less and less fix-ups to do after every game. When I got done with the G2 adventure, I actually expounded, "Wow, I think I finally figured out how to run this damn game!" So far, so good.

Summary of Play (SPOILERS!)

  • We had 6 players at the table, choosing PCs from a group of 11 pregenerated characters I made for the game (under my OED rules). Two fighters, a wizard, a thief, a fighter/wizard, and a thief/wizard (all humans except for the last one: an elf). A variety of magic items -- armor and weapons usually +1, although two had intelligent swords with special detection abilities.

  • A few special rules: In the freezing environment, I assume a cold-weather outfit of many wool layers, fur hat & gloves, cloak and leggings, etc. (added weight: 1 stone). I was planning to adjudicate armored PCs sweating in a fight & freezing up afterward: 1d6/hour damage if they stopped moving for an extended period. Noting that water freezes (no carried water; drink melted water at camp only), I considered making potions freeze & crack, as per weather rules in Dragon #68; but since there are numerous potions in the treasure of the G2 module itself, we can make this conclusion -- the magic of potions keeps them from freezing in cold weather.

  • Exploration took place mostly down the west side of the rift, pretty carefully investigating each cave in sequence (so as to not be attacked unawares from behind). The party first encountered and managed to avoid surprise by the yetis in the first cave (13), blasting them with fireballs (the leader made a lone sneak counterattack, but was defeated and thus gave up his magic sword).

  • In another cave (15), snow leopards made a surprise attack but were slain -- followed by their wandering yeti masters coming up the cave opening behind the PCs.

  • The main giant barracks (16-20) was scouted by the invisible/silenced thief (wearing elven cloak and boots), accounted, and smartly bypassed.

  • A pair of frost giants were battled at the first unavoidable guard post (22), leading to their destruction. The party then backtracked and spent some time trying to investigate the colossal brown-mold deathtrap (21). After taking initial damage, a wizard eye was used to inspect the dead-end of the passage in question.

  • On the second icy ledge, the party continued to explore the caves in order, leading to the next guard cave (23) with twice as many giants, and thus a harder fight. After first contact (with the thief reporting back, and the party readying for a main assault), the blasting wizard shot a blind fireball into the cave past the first guard. This resulted in a huge cloud of icy steam and a confused melee in which the front-line fighters were rolling to avoid slip/falls (successful), rolling to avoid accidentally striking each other (passed), and the levitating wizard was rolling to avoid striking them both with a wild, thundering lightning bolt (also successful).

  • Rounding the south side of the rift underground, the party initially bypassed the tunnel to the lower levels, encountering an even larger guard complex with yet another doubling of giants (9-10). Here the party made an even more comprehensive ambush plan: with invisible fighters up front, first an ice-steaming fireball to cut off the first guard from those behind. A clever illusion of a wild man to draw off the first counterattack. Magic missiles and a charm monster spell prepared (although those were saved against). Mass attacks on the following giants who would come stumbling through the steamy barrier -- one actually slipped on top of a PC fighter, then grabbed him helpless in a huge fist, but was counterattacked and slain by the other PCs. One giant was heavily damaged and finished off by the party wizard levitating down from the ceiling and stabbing him in the eye with a dagger for 3hp damage. Other giants hung back until the steam cleared, to let loose with thrown boulders, but were similarly dispatched.

  • As time was running out, the party descended to the second level and the great entry cavern (1). Seeing the huge boulder to the east, they were wisely cautious against disturbing it, using a clairvoyance spell to detect the ancient white dragon on the other side (2), and after debating its significance, decided to avoid it. (Again: smart, and the right move.) Instead, they proceeded southeast to the deserted cavern (4), and were ambushed by the pack of ice toads there (the party blasting wizard being knocked out and needing a save vs. death to survive).

  • Somewhat at the DM's prodding, the party inspected the caved-in part of the last cavern, retrieving the map of the "Great Hall of the Jarl" from the dead giant skeleton there before retiring from the complex. The second party wizard then teleported home with his injured comrade, to give the confiscated map and information to the nobles sponsoring the expedition, and resuscitate his friend as soon as possible (planning to return the next day with additional potions of healing for the rest of the party).
What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. No Battlemap or Miniatures. I've been dialing down my use of miniatures over the last few years; I think there's a tradeoff between tactical opportunities/specificity, versus slower pacing and out-of-character thinking. (The pacing issue is really super-important to me.) Last year I brought a battlemap, saying I would only use it for one major set-piece -- but having commenced, that set-piece took up almost the entire evening's play. This year I committed myself to no battlemap of any sort, and it was immensely satisfying. The play was immediate and exciting and fast, and we got to explore a lot of interesting content in our 4-hour session. It was simple enough to mentally track distance and position with the number of combatants involved. Probably more than anything, this is what allowed several of us to re-discover what a role-playing game of our youth felt like. And from younger players, I also got great compliments, with some musing that they might run their own games like this for the first time.

  2. The OED House Rules. I really like how my house D&D game is playing these days (and you can read more about what that's like in the sidebar to the right). It's fast and it's snappy and it's easy for me to run mostly from memory. I do think that Original D&D with some smattering from the Greyhawk supplement provides the best kernel/foundation for the kind of game I want to play. I think it's pretty clear to players what's happening, and a small card with important highlights (like base weapon damage, how attacks & saves are regressed, etc.) helps to clarify. Most of my notes are half-page sheets now, and I realized for the first time ever that I wasn't at a loss for table real estate behind the DM's screen. I also really like being able to hand each wizard player around the table a copy of the Book of Spells booklet, and have them thumbing through it during the game to select which spell to cast next. I love not dealing with clerics. A lot of that stuff finally just feels right!

  3. Critical Hits. The only "extra complicated random table" thing that I add to my game is a two-page set of critical hits from Dragon magazine #39. This gets a position on the right-hand panel of my custom DM's screen (again, largely for pacing purposes, I want to run most of the game from memory, and spend no time flipping rules book pages). On a natural "20" a save vs. paralysis is called for, or else the appropriate critical table is rolled on with percentiles (which can result in double or triple damage, shields or helmets damaged, eyes gouged, knees shattered, all the way up to decapitation and instant death). I really like how this has a logarithmic effect of rising tension in the game: Paul (playing Ezniak, the fighter/wizard frequently throwing daggers at the towering frost giants) rolled about 6 "20"'s through the course of the evening. However, I managed to roll saves for the giants 5 of those times (rolling at least one or two "20"'s of my own in response, ha!). One time near the end of the game I failed a save and we went to the critical tables (player rolls percentiles), in this case getting a middle-road result for triple damage (killing the giant). Maybe if we played more often every third game or so would see some more specific special result (like, "shield arm removed at elbow"). You'd have to play a really long time before you saw the same specific injury show up twice. So I like the overall texture of that -- players are cheering as "20"s come up and booing me as I roll saves to counter them (I guess in wrestling parlance that's me "playing the heel"). Since the "save" is in the hands of the target, the player doesn't potentially "fail" at a confirm roll to end their round on a sour note (instead, the experience is that the monster target managed to skillfully avoid a potentially devastating strike). So my sensation is that all parties feel more skillful and deadly, and it raises the stakes instead of lowering them.

  4. Well-Balanced Resources. Maybe for the first time, I feel like I managed to pretty well balance the PC resources to the adventuring session time. At the end of the 4 hours, the high-level PCs were in fact running low on hit points and spells, had used up all of their potions of healing (namely, 3 jugs of 6 doses each), had one member get knocked to zero hp and need to be carried out, etc. Again, the faster pace from having no battlemap helped this match my classic D&D sensibilities (for example, at the end of last year, PCs were barely damaged and had lots of unused spells).

  5. Great Teamwork. Frankly, this party was just a joy to watch in action. Things like: (a) Having an undetectable magic thief (elven cloak & boots) scout 40-50' ahead, being careful to not split the party, and reporting back to the rest as soon as she found something. (Several of us agreed this was the most effective scouting we'd seen in a D&D game.) (b) Having a pair of invisible fighters position themselves in front of the party wizard as he prepared to make a magical, preemptive strike on a giant guard post. (c) Turning the "fireball creates giant icy steam cloud" side-effect into a tactical advantage, using it as a barrier and a means to cut off groups of giants from each other. (d) Managing to mostly avoid the various tricks which are just time-wasters (like the misty ice cave (14), although they did get sucked into puzzling at the brown-mold ice cavern for a while (21)). (e) Not attacking the dragon near the end, with depleted resources, reasoning it had to be tangential to their mission.
What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. Tournament Scoring. Okay, so I've got a scoring system I use for these adventures (expanded from the brief mention in Dragon #19), and I do think it's important to have some kind of "win" goal available in these tournament games. However, due to the very large extent of content in these modules, it's almost unimaginable that any party can get to even a third of the encounter areas. In addition, at the end I sort of nudged the party into retrieving this misleading planted map (2nd level, area 4A), complete with elaborate prepared handout (which I stole from Andy Collins' adventure "Crumbling Hall of the Frost Giant King", ha!); and I took enormous delight in that completely snookering them into a big theory that the frost giants had been attacked by some outside force, defeated, and the Jarl slain (and of course, missing the concealed entrance to the actual jarls' caverns). So that's all in good fun, but I also penalized them points for that bit. Final announced total: 108 out of 1,200 possible points. And I think that disappointed the players a little bit more than I intended. But the funny thing is I think our party at HelgaCon managed to explore more than the party that actually won the original G1-3 overall tournament back at Origins '78, apparently not even finding any part of the second level (From Dragon #19: "What is truly amazing about this second round is how much they didn't kill and still managed to get into the third and final round. I’m sure that they mentally kicked themselves for what they missed when they got a chance to read over the material in DUNGEON MODULE G2... ") So I think lacking the context of a big tournament with many parties, it's difficult to see what that raw score really says about how you did (being unable to standardize to the population, as we might say statistically). My experience was that I was truly seeing very high-quality play; maybe in the future I could create a logarithmic scoring scale, or something like that.

  2. Thief Backstab. This I'm still a little wiggly on; when asked I was a bit unsure of exactly how I'd adjudicate it. Just going back to the rules-as-written, original D&D Sup-I says, "[b]y striking silently from behind"; so what I should do is just require the thief physically to be behind the target and roll for "move silently". If it had come up, I would've glitched up by sliding back to 3E rules and only allowing it on a surprise round (which would be incorrect and kind of lousy).

  3. Saving Throws. This is two quasi-related glitches: (a) I screwed up on saves versus magic missile. My house rules say that any damaging spell gets a save for half (really just a reiteration from OD&D Vol-1), and in my joy for a screw-job on the players, I announced that a save totally voided the spell, which was a mistake (and I just need to run it correctly next time). (b) I've got written in my rules that thieves & wizards get -2 saves to breath, death, and paralysis (which is a fair statistical representation of those classes' D&D saves), and I forget that every- every-every-time I play. Frankly, it even seems niggardly in play, with those classes being weak in armor and hit points already. I think I'm going to bite the bullet and write that out of the OED rules on the next update (or make it optional).

  4. High-Level Saving Throws. This was a critique from a player at the end which I'll honor here, but I don't think I'll change it. The observation was basically that high-level monsters in classic D&D will make their saves a lot, frequently nerfing the powers of the PC wizards. The player in question would prefer that a sliding scale be used, making it harder to resist high-level wizards and/or high-level spells (kind of like 3E; the player was smarting a bit at failing with a charm monster against a giant). However, to me, that's just the nature of classic D&D; a change in that regard would be more radical than I want to see in my system.

  5. No Memorizing Duplicate Spells. Similarly, I've got a critique that my (newish) rule prohibiting duplicate spell memorizing was harsh on the wizards, particularly in a context where many low-level powers were not usable against the main high-powered enemies (sleep, confusion, etc.). Again, I'll honor that by noting the critique, although I see a whole bunch of advantages to the rule, so I'll keep playing with it for at least some time in the future.
Special kudos go out to all the players. Also, I can't help but point out the gusto with which Max (who usually doesn't play OD&D) took to playing Jurdan the Red Wizard with his wand of fireballs and other blast-y type spells (who was ultimately knocked out at the end of play). Two anecdotes: (1) Even players from other rooms nearby were commenting later about hearing him yell, "Fireball! Fireball!! FIREBALL!!" during our game (while certain more experienced players winced and boldly ran towards the ground-zero battle anyway). (2) At one point players started debating whether drinking two potions would trigger the "potion miscibility" rule (from AD&D), and they thought to ask Max/Jurdan, who was at that point distractedly reading his spellbook. "Jurdan, is drinking two potions dangerous?". Max/Jurdan looks up and instantly asserts "Absolutely not!" (Having apparently neither heard the question, nor having any reason to know how those particular rules work, it caused great gales of laughter all around the table.) Can't wait 'til next time!

Now, want some other perspectives on this same game session? Then I would highly recommend the following:

Friday, April 8, 2011

Computer Code Poll Results


So a few weeks back I posted a poll asking "What computer language(s) would you find the most useful?", thinking in terms of what would be best to read, code-check, and tweak parameters for certain statistical results. You can see the results at the top here.

Somewhat embarrassingly, the selection that won (Python) is one of the only ones in the list that I haven't personally touched previously. (Remember, I just picked this from the top of the current TIOBE standings.)

So what you'll get in the immediate future are some code listings in the 2nd place runner-up, which is to say, Java. And in the longer term I'll take this as motivation to start picking up Python, add something a bit more modern to my skill set, and interface with the current gamer/coder community more smoothly. And I really appreciate the votes and the recommendation!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Back from HelgaCon

Back from the weekend HelgaCon, and it was flat-out awesome! Here's a quick summary in pictures -- more to come later:

Screen setup for my Friday night OD&D (Original Edition Delta) game, "G2: Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl" by Gary Gygax:


First round of the Book of War Round Robin Tournament:


Saturday afternoon "Siege on the Borderlands" (using Book of War):


My character for BigFella's Labyrinth Lord game, "Thousand Year Sandglass: The Fallen Obelisk" (lives again for 2nd year running, and so does his brother, run by Paul. Note to self: Get my magic spear back before next year!):


The table for Paul's run of the Advanced D&D adventure, "Into the Forgotten Realms" by Ed Greenwood (with the snacks that my CN war-god cleric referred to as battle cheese -- like Swiss but embedded with gunpowder, courtesy BigFella):

Friday, April 1, 2011

Off to HelgaCon


Leaving this weekend for HelgaCon 2011 up in Massachusetts. Forecast today in Boston is for an unseasonable spring snowstorm. Appropriate for the day I'm scheduled to run Module G2, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, yes?

(Photo by D Sharon Pruitt.)