Saturday, December 22, 2012

Trap: The Alchemist's Tower

The PCs enter a tower set up like an alchemist's lab. A potion can be seen brewring on the apparatus and filling up a large beaker with a glowing, blue liquid. A rack of similar potions stands next to the apparatus, already sealed and corked.

These are a modified type of levitation potion and have a sweet, fizzy taste. As soon as a player drinks a full potion, the drinker will begin to rise uncontrollably at a rate of 1 foot per second. If the potions are drunk in the tower, the drinker will have two minutes before he hits the ceiling where a razor sharp fan blade is spinning (instant death, no save).

Genre saavy characters may attempt to belch, to bleed off the gasses that provide the levitating effect. This will not work! Gas can only be bled off through flatulence.

A character who attempts to fart will succeed automatically on his first attempt. Roll a constitution check for every attempt thereafter (the PC may make 6 attempts per round). A fart will reduce the character's altitude by 20 feet for the first 5 successes. After that, the character will lose 30 feet for every successful fart. At 10 farts (the magic number), the character will continue to descend gently all the way to the ground. A character who makes an 11th successful fart will soil himself as the magic cuts out completely, and will plummet to the floor below, taking damage for the remaining distance. Altitude can easily be tracked with a simple line chart.

If any player is slain by hitting the fan or falling to the floor, a group of orange-skinned, 3 ft tall humanoids (treat as halflings) will filter into the room and perform an ironic song and dance routine.

The alchemist, Willhelm von Wonka, has left his notes scattered about haphazardly. If pieced together (takes about an hour), the recipe for these "Fizzy Lifting Drinks" (and details regarding their use), can be learned.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Twelve medicinal herbs for your campaign...

She's the one they call Doctor Feelgood...

Medicinal Plants & Herbs

Sometimes you need some good old-fashioned non-magical healing.  Plants have always been a source of medicine and our ancestors found a use for EVERY plant.  We've forgotten much of that old lore, but there's still a surprising amount of information that survived through the ages.  Google medicinal herbs and be prepared to have you mind blown.

It's not difficult to make your own fantastical plants and herbs, using real-world plants for inspiration.  Just decide what you want your plant to do and slap an exotic name on it.  In the meantime, here's a list of my own fantasy plants to give you something fun to do with that herbalism non-weapon proficiency.

1) Tuluni (Purgatus): This is a flowering vine with pale yellow or orange flowers. When the mature, woody portion is cut, a translucent amber fluid seeps from the vines .  This is a powerful natural laxative, but it does not travel well until it has been distilled into an oil by a skilled alchemist or herbalist. The purified oil is known as Purgatus, and a single drop is enough to get the most stubborn bowels moving.  The leaves can be boiled in a tea to produce a similar but weaker laxative.  Older folk sometimes use this tea to promote regularity.

2) Heshloi: This vine has small spear-shaped leaves and fluid-bearing nodules along the shaft.  The fluid inside is an emetic, used to induce vomiting.

3) Mugu: This shrub is mostly known for its bland, but edible berries and it's tiny blue flowers.  The leaves bear an anti-inflammatory agent that is often used to treat headaches and menstrual cramps, among other things.

4) Broadleaf (Wild Tea): A shrubbery, with large broad leaves and pink or white flowers.  It has caffeine and is often used to make tea.  Fresh leaves provide a stronger buzz but the flavor is inferior to dried leaves.

5) Goomuckle: This leafy vine bears a milky white sap when cut.  This sap relieves pain, induces sleep, and boosts the immune system (+2 to saving throws, +10% system shock vs disease).

6) Duliyec: This rare plant has long spear shaped leaves and a yellow flower with eight slender petals.  The leaves develop a hallucinogenic toxin when dried.  The leaves are then crushed and smoked, and used in dreamquests by the nomadic peoples of the Vardezzi grasslands.  These visions may or may not be helpful, but there's always a risk of insanity or burnout so the vision ceremony is never undertaken lightly.

7) Vejeldt: This thorny weed has a tangy, sour flavor to it.  The roots are nutritious (if bland) and the leaves are frequently added to salads to jazz things up and are a good source of vitamin C (prevents scurvy and is necessary for proper function of the immune system).

8) Whitestar: This is a slender tree with large white star-shaped flowers.  The berries have a beneficial effect on the immune system.  A small handful boosts the immune system against viral diseases (not fungal or bacterial diseases).  If taken before exposure to disease, it adds +3 to saving throws (+15% to system shock tests vs disease).  Once a virus has been contracted, it adds +1 to saving throws (+5% to system shock tests vs disease).

9) Friella: This small evergreen shrub contains a weak opiate. Crushed and ingested, it causes a sleepy state and a mild, happy buzz.  Offers good pain relief for minor aches and pains.

10) Strannus: This parasitic vine grows on tree trunks. The long thin leaves contain a powerful stimulant. It is usually chewed, but can be brewed as tea, or smoked. It can become addictive if used regularly.

11) Stirsey: This leafy shrub contains menthol, and the plant can often be smelt before it is seen.  It is used to treat coughs and as an aromatic herb.

12) Jahuul: Has a mild antibiotic effect.  As a tea, it can be drunk to cure many stomach ailments or boost the immune system.  To treat wounds, the leaves can be crushed and mixed into a poultice to keep a wound from getting infected. Adds +2 or 10% to to savings throws/system shock checks vs infection.  Check once per day.  If the save is successful, the bonus for the next check is 20%.  If that save is successful the patient will recover in d6 days as long as the treatment is continued.  If a save is failed, the bonus goes back down to normal.

NOTE: Antibiotics can only cure bacterial infections!  Viral or fungal infections cannot be treated with antibiotics.

I'm in yer gardin, eatin' yer herbs.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bards 2, The 2E Bard

                                              The rarely seen dual class nun-bard

The Second Edition AD&D Bard is my favorite class in the game.

Unlike the 1E bard, the 2E bard has rather lenient stat requirements.  You need a 15 CHA, 13 INT, and a 12 STR.  That's not unduly harsh (even for a straight 3d6 in order), and most DMs are more lenient than that.

As the description says, the bard is a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.  He fights decently, has a few thief skills, can cast a good selection of spells, and has his own unique bardic abilities. There's also a good selection of magical and mundane equipment that he can utilize. He's a character that can be useful in almost any situation.

While he isn't a tank, he is a fair combatant.  His THACO advances at half the rate of the warrior classes, which puts him near the middle of the pack, lagging just a bit behind the cleric.

The cleric has the advantage when it comes to taking damage, though.  He's got better hit dice (d8) and can wear any armor and use any shield.  The bard will usually lag behind in hit points and is limited to chain mail or less, and can't use a shield.

But the bard is capable of dishing out a lot more damage.  His ability to use any weapon means that he can use the best weapon for the situation, and he can use heavier weapons that do more damage.  His ability to use a bow allows him to provide much better fire-support than the cleric (who is limited to slings).

Even better, the bard can take advantage of some of the really awesome optional proficiencies listed in the Complete Fighter's Handbook.  In particular, two-weapon specialization gives the bard the ability to dual-wield like a ranger, which doubles his combat attacks.  The cleric can't do this (he gets an inferior weapon/shield combo instead).

The bard's thief abilities aren't amazing, but they are useful and flavorful.  He can pick pockets, hear noise, climb walls, and read languages.  Climb walls, in particular, is a very useful skill in a game based on exploration, and hear noise and read languages aren't bad, either.  Picking pockets may or may not be useful depending on the DM, but that's a whole different issue...

The bard's best (and most powerful ability) is the ability to use magic-user spells.  Magic is incredibly powerful in AD&D and spellcasting classes have a huge advantage over those classes who cannot cast spells. While the bard cannot access magic spells of 7th level or higher, I would argue that he is the second best spellcaster in the Player's Handbook (behind the mage/specialist wizard).

Sure, the cleric has more spells (some very powerful), but clerical magic is much more restrictive, and it lacks the utility and damage spells that make the magic user list so amazing and versatile.  The clerical spell list has nothing like a fireball or a lightning bolt, or even something as simple and versatile as Grease.

And while the bard may have less spells and a slower learning rate than a typical wizard, he casts spells at the same power as a wizard once he learns them.  A 7th level wizard and a 7th level bard both cast Fireball spells with 7 hit dice.

The bard also has some unique class abilities of his own.  He can shift reaction rolls, buff his allies, counter music/sound based attacks, and he's got a special Legend Lore ability that allows him to know about obscure things in the game.

Legend Lore is an under-appreciated ability, but it can be extremely useful if used correctly.  Information is power, and the bard has a built-in ability to know a little bit about almost everything.

The bard's high natural charisma and ability to shift reaction rolls make him a great diplomat (or instigator), and a good party leader.  If you want to loosen up the tongues of a tavernful of townsfolk, there's nobody better than the bard for this task.  Put on an entertaining show, sing a few classic drinking songs, and you'll be pulling in rumors in no time.

He's also a good bet for scamming or weaselling his way into places where he can cause mischief.  Sure, the paladin might have higher charisma, but he's much too scrupulous to take advantage of anybody.  The bard, on the other hand, is naturally a bit of a rascal.

And speaking of bards and paladins, I've got a little story for you...

Back in an old high school game, I played the bard in our group, along with a paladin named Kylinar, and a couple of other characters.  We were all 2nd level or so, and we were doing a dungeon crawl when we came across a skull sitting on the floor, with gemstones in the eye sockets.

Knowing damned well that the DM was an asshole, I yelled out "Don't touch it, it's a demilich!"

So Kylinar, the paladin, walked over to the skull to poke at it with his sword.  And just as I'd suspected, the skull flew up and started screaming, and it killed everybody in the room... except for Kylinar.

Needless to say, we were all pissed off.  The DM was generous though, and he allowed the paladin to raise our characters from the dead, even though this is normally not possible if you die in this manner.  I guess the DM was feeling guilty for putting us up against something so nasty, so he gave us a little wiggle room to come back.

The first thing my bard did when he woke up was to compose a new song called "Kylinar the Klutz".  The DM thought it was hysterical (as did the rest of us who were slain), and the guy playing the paladin learned a valuable lesson when the song proved to be popular and it kept popping up in taverns wherever we went. It took him a long time to live that down.

Which brings me to the best part of the bard class, and the one thing that keeps me coming back to it again and again.

The bard is FUN.

The druid may be out of his element when he's in  dungeon.  The wizard may be useless once he's out of spells.  The fighter may be standing around, picking his nose, when there's no fighting to be done.  But there's always something useful to do when you play a bard.

As the "Swiss Army Knife" of character classes, the bard gets to be in the middle of everything. And quite often he gets to dominate the game, particularly in role playing situations where he shines.  The fact that he's not the "best caster" or the "best fighter" de-emphasizes the tendecy to power-game, and encourages the player to be creative and wily.  And the fact that he's an singing, dancing, juggling, attention whore brings out the role-playing element of the game out like no other character class.

I can honestly say that playing a bard has helped make me a better DM.  It's helped me loosen up, and take more risks as a role player, and has allowed me to really dig in to the personalities of the characters I play.

I don't get a chance to play very often anymore (I usually DM because it's hard to find  anybody else playing AD&D), but whenever I do, it's the bard that I gravitate toward.  Did I mention that the 2E bard fits nicely into 1E?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Magic Items: The Wand of Wonder

Back in my high school days I had a bard character that I played in one of our campaigns.  The bard had a name, but for the life of me, I can't remember it.  He was always just called "The Bard" (due to a high mortality rate, we weren't all that concerned about character).

Anyhow, I cam across a Wand of Wonder in one of our treasure hauls, and I convinced the DM to allow me to influence the outcome by coming up with a rhyme for the effect that I wanted to happen, in lieu of using a normal command word.

For example, if I wanted to heal somebody I might use this:

Boon companions to the end,
use your power to heal my friend!

Then the DM would roll the dice, consult the table, apply some DM bullshit and either my buddy would be healed or the wand would do something weird, like cover my buddy with nacho cheese.

If I wanted to use it offensively, I might use a rhyme like this:

Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,
make the knight's armor turn to rust!

Hopefully, the knights armor would rust, but the wand might just as easily shoot him with 1d10 pickles.

The catch was that I could never use the same rhyme twice, so I had to be very clever about the effects I desired and the rhymes I used, and I had to think up something BEFORE I needed to use it.

Sometimes the effect would be different than what I wanted, but would accomplish something useful.  If I called for a lightning bolt to zap a pursuing enemy, I might get a spray of marbles that tripped up the bad guys.  If  I tried to turn somebody into a toad, they might turn into a giant flametoad that would start breathing fire all over the place, turning on friend and foe alike.

The best thing about it was that this was always a FUN and entertaining magic item to use.  I had to be creative in coming up with rhymes, and the DM had to be creative in coming up with silly or interesting things for the wand to do.

                                                 Wand of Wonder: Now Available in LEGO

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Some maps I made a few years ago...

Last month I wrote a blog entry that talked about a large cache of my old DM notes that I discovered while going through my storage unit.  I'd thought a lot of this tuff was lost forever so I was quite pleased to find not just my notes, but also a bunch of maps that I'd drawn over the years.

This particular map was one that I'd gone to a lot of effort to create, inspired by those lovely maps for the Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms settings.  This map is intended to represent a huge peninsula attached to a much larger continent (if you look near the upper right corner you can see where the map continues off the page).  

Click to expand maps

This map is not quite finished, I left a few areas blank so that I could fill them in later once I'd decided what I wanted to go there.  There's large blank chunk of land in the lower right corner that represents a part of the main continent, and something that could be a large island or peninsula.  There's also a small blank island in the upper right quadrant.  More on that later...

The map was sketched out on a large sheet of heavy paper with a pencil.  I went back over the pencil lines with a fine Rapidiograph technical pen.  The colored areas were done with marker pens (hence the stripey look).

The areas in light green represent light forest, the areas in dark green are heavy forest.  Light blue represents shallow water, and dark blue represents deeper waters (some river areas are also very deep).  The orangey areas are desert, and the grey areas are mountains (some of which have snow).  There are also some light green hills drawn in over the grassy areas, representing rolling hills.

This section of the map shows the upper left quadrant in greater detail.  The upper center section has an area of canyons and badlands (the area with the elevation lines).  The lower right section shows the large forested mountain area in the center of the continent, and the large sea that it wraps around.  There is another large sea or lake near the west coast, and below that is a forested peninsula.

This shows the lower left quadrant of the map.  There's a large forest to the south, with a river delta that flows through the woods and empties into the southern coast.  There's a ring of mountains with a blank center (not sure what I was going to put inside it) near the center of this map.  There's also an improbably desert surrounded by forest areas.  Oops!

Here's the lower right quadrant.  There's a volcano near the top/center of the map (note the smoke coming out of it), and a forest with a marshy coastline on the east coast of this landmass.  Toward the west, the two large inland seas are visible.  The white areas were left blank to be filled in later, but are supposed to be connected to the main continent that this peninsula is attached to.

This is the lower right quadrant, and you can see where it connects to the larger continent in northeast.  Most of the interesting features have already been mentioned, but there is a small mountain pass drawn through the mountain range in the center of the map.  I think that was originally supposed to be a dwarven outpost where they offloaded stuff from the bay and routed it through the pass.

A lot of work went into this map.  While I'm not terribly happy with it, I do think that it looks great.  This was intended to be a player map, something that they could touch and see, to help them visualize the game world.  I planned to use the transparent hex overlays that came in the TSR boxed sets to measure distances, but this map never ended up being used, and was stored away for almost 20 years.

If you want to try a map like this, make sure you have a lot of markers because it takes a lot of ink to fill in those large areas.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bards- part 1

                                                   How to find wandering monsters.

Bards have been a part of the D&D universe for a long time.  Originally appearing in the 1st edition of AD&D, they have been a part of the game ever since.  In each version of the game, the bard has been radically different, changing more across each edition than any other class.

The first edition bard is one of the strangest, most convoluted classes the game has ever had.

It's also the hardest class to qualify for, requiring a 15 in Str, Dex, Wis, Cha, a 12 INT, and a 10 CON.  I looked up the odds for rolling that on a strict 3d6 (in order), and somebody figured out that 20 characters in one million would qualify.  Of course, you've also got to factor in the chance of character death on the way to becoming a bard, and since he's got to get to 5th level in fighter and thief classes first, that's a distinct possibility.

Now, it's true that the 1E game strongly advised against the 3d6 method that had been the standard up to this point.  The PHB flat-out states that a character should have at least two 15+ scores to ensure his survival.  Even stranger, the PHB does not tell the player how to roll his ability scores at all, instead telling the player to ask the DM (who will consult the DMG) who will presumably select a method that offers higher than average scores.

Now, given some of the extremely generous character generation methods proposed in the DMG, this made it much more likely that you'd get a special character class.  but even then the bard could be hard to get.  Method 1, probably the most popular option, only got you a bard about 1.5 percent of the time (to put that into perspective, Method 1 can generate paladins about 24% of the time) .

Unfortunately, a lot of DMs stuck with the old 3d6 (in order) enshrined in OD&D and the Holmes D&D set, which made it virtually impossible to get a bard.  It didn't help that the PHB and DMG were released a year apart, and that no character generation methods were presented in the PHB.

No wonder the 1E bard languished in obscurity.

Which is kind of sad, because it's actually a pretty interesting class.  It starts with 5-7 levels as a fighter, followed by 5-8 levels as a thief.  After that, they can start training as a bard, using the special advancement table provided.

While that might seem like a tall order, it actually takes less XP to get to 5th level as a fighter, thief, and bard than it does to get to 7th level as a single-classed fighter.

Unfortunately, the bard's fighter class doesn't really contribute much to the his skills, since the fighter doesn't really have any class-based skills of his own.  Only his d10 hit dice and THACO are retained, and the bard's THACO never improves afterward.  At low levels, this means that the bard is pretty badass compared to clerics, thieves, and magic users, but all of them will eventually overtake him.

A bard with maxed-out fighter levels (level 7) will be equal to or worse than level 10 clerics, and level 13 thieves and assassins.  Sadly, by level 16, wizards will actually hit more often than the bard does.  If he didn't max out his warrior levels he'll be even worse (and he'll have less potential HP too).

The thief's skills all carry over to the bard, however.  Effectively, this leaves the bard with all of the percentage-based skills, thieves cant, and backstab.

The bard's class abilities are based on a modified version of the druid (with weaker spellcasting), and the bard's own unique abilities.  He still gets all of the druid's goodies (including the ability to shapechange into animals), but he doesn't have to fight druids to advance, since he's technically a bard, not a druid.

The end result is a mediocre combatant with good hit points, with thief skills, druid skills, limited druid magic, and special bard abilities.  This is a very versatile character, but it's really not overpowered, since he's not allowed to use any of the higher level capabilities of his component classes.

Nonetheless, I think this is a good example of the worst excesses of the first edition.  It's unnecessarily complex (I'd hate to see that character sheet), hard to qualify for, and the individual parts really don't go very well together (fighter/thief/druid/bard?).  The whole thing feels rough and experimental, like a beta version that was never supposed to be released to the general public.

There's also this:  The PHB states that the bard must always have stringed instrument.  Fair enough.  But it never tells us why that is, or what would happen if his stringed instrument is lost or destroyed and he cannot find a replacement.  Given the delicate nature of stringed instruments, and the rigors of adventuring, it's bound to come up sooner or later.

Given the wonkiness of the 1E bard, it's no surprise that they were rarely used.  Sadly, it wasn't until the 2nd edition of AD&D that the bard really hit its stride.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure 31: Vampire Express

While many books in the Choose Your Own Adventure series utilised horror elements, only a few of the books were explicitly horror-themed.

Vampire Express is one of the more obvious horror entries, but it's also one of my favorite books in the series. The atmosphere, artwork, and plot are well executed, and there are a lot of memorable moments, no matter which path you take.

The book begins with you taking a train into the Carpathian mountains (an area with historic connections to vampires) to meet your uncle, the world's most knowledgeable expert on vampires.  He's planning an expedition that will scientifically prove that vampires actually exist.

The book never bothers to explain what your parents think of sending their kid on a potentially lethal mission like this, but that's par for the course in the CYOA universe.  The artwork depicts a kid that looks maybe 15 or so, so it's reasonable to speculate on the fitness of the parents.

But I digress...

Your uncle has gathered together a group of people to help him on his adventure.  Nina (who is conveniently about your age) is your partner throughout most of the book.  She is accompanying her elderly aunt who has a magic painting and necklace that are thought to be connected to vampires in some way.

The plot kicks off when Nina's aunt goes missing with the pendant. From that point, you've got to find her, keep the painting and necklace safe, and hopefully find a way to kill the vampires.

On your journey you might also encounter Phaino (a flamboyant magician), Professor Hartz, (a skeptic), or friendly gypsies. They're all associates of your uncle, but they're not accessible on every readthrough.

Count Zoltan and his wife Carmilla serve as the primary antagonists, and they're a creepily effective pair.  There are a lot of creatively grisly ways they can kill you, so they come off as credible opponents, especially for a book aimed at kids. 

As far as the adventure paths go, this book avoids any boring paths while still allowing the reader to experience different approaches to solving the problems.  Professor Hartz's path reads more like a mystery, Phaino prefers to try to trap the vampires, while the gypsies employ magic.

My favorite path is the one with your uncle, however.  That one features the party being chased by wolves while trying to find their way through a snowy forest.  And then one of your party is lost in the chase when a heavy fog rolls in... 

This sets up a memorable confrontation at the vampire's castle that leads to some of the best endings in the book (which include some particularly nasty deaths).

The interior artwork by Doug Jaimeson also helps add to the atmosphere (Paul Granger did the cover). While the art is occasionally too dark and sketchy for it's own good, there area lot of great pieces that really capture the mood beautifully.  The most horrifying is probably the one that shows you being swarmed by poisonous spiders while trying to climb the castle walls.

Needless to say, it doesn't go well for you...

Which brings me to the subject of endings.

The earlier books sometimes suffered from having too many endings and not enough story in between, but this book hits the sweet spot at 21 endings which is just about optimal. There are a lot of ways to win, and there are a lot of really horrible things that can happen to you, but on the whole, I feel that this book has some of the best ones in the series.

The necklace and painting figure prominently in most of the stories, and using them effectively is important in defeating the vampires. While the painting can kill the vampires, the necklace protects them from it. Needless to say, the vampires want both items and you've got to keep them from getting them.

While it's possible to defeat the vampires in many different ways, there's only one way to do it without the painting (by using fire).  The traditional methods of beheading and pounding a stake through the heart are not mentioned, perhaps because they were considered too violent for a kids series.  Then again, given the horrible things that happen to the reader in the average CYOA book, it seems a little hypocritical to worry about cruelty to vampires.

Of course, in a book like this, the bad endings are as just as fun as the good endings (and often much more fun!).  In addition to the spider ending posted above, you can be turned into a vampire, crushed in a trap in the vampires castle, drive the train off of a cliff, or abandoned in a village full of hungry zombies. 

There are also a couple of mediocre endings where you survive, but fail to defeat the vampires, and even one where you wake up and it was all a dream (lame).  There are even two gonzo endings that end up with you teleported out of the adventure (in one case to an alien slave planet).

As a gamebook, some might be annoyed by the fact that there is no way to achieve the goal set out in the first page; to scientifically prove that vampires exist. Although one ending implies that such proof might be found, it never gives it to you outright.  

One could also fault it for having too many was to succeed, but I've always viewed the CYOA books as as a story series rather than a game, so that's a minor niggle.  The goal is to have some good spooky fun, and this book does that well.

One of the things I like most about this book is how consistent the plot elements are.  While a lot of CYOA book have plots that change radically depending on which choices you make, the plot in Vampire Express builds up additional layers on each readthrough.

For example, when Professor Hartz tells you that Phaino is useless, it actually turns out to be true.  While Phaino is friendly, he's also dangerously incompetent. If you do actually succeed, it won't be because he did anything useful. 

All of this serves to give Vampire Express a much richer reading experience than the typical CYOA book.  Because the story is better than average, and because of the dark nature of the story, it feels a lot more "adult" than most entries in the series.  While kids should eat this up, adults that didn't grow up with CYOA books may find it a bit thin and unsatisfying without the nostalgia factor to cushion their expectations.

On the other hand, I know a lot of parents that enjoy these as much as their kids do, so your mileage may vary.

Personally, I still get a kick out of it, and I find a lot of inspiration in it as a DM.  This book really gets my creative juices flowing and I have borrowed a lot of great ideas from it.  It could even be modified for use as an actual module for Call of Cthulhu or the Masque of the Red Death setting for Ravenloft.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure!

If you grew up in the 80s or early 90s, chances are you are familiar with the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. They were incredibly popular when I was a kid, much like the Goosbumps books were for a later generation.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the CYOA books, I'll give you the basic idea:

Each book contains a story in which the reader is the main character.  You might be a detective, a spy, an astronaut, or just a plain kid, but the action is always related to you as if you were actually there. Throughout the narrative, you will be asked to make choices, and the choices you make actually change outcome of the story.

Lets say your character is a parapsychologist exploring a haunted house.  The book might give you an opportunity to explore the basement (which is filled with zombies), the parlor (haunted by the ghost of a kindly little old lady), or the attic (where an evil sorcerer lives).

Each choice you make leads to a different outcome, and there are usually about 20 possible endings for each book.  Some endings allow you to achieve one or more goals.  Some endings leave you disappointed, but lucky to be alive.  Some endings have you eaten to death by hungry, basment-dwelling zombies.

If this sounds an awful lot like a role playing game, that's because it IS an awful lot like a role playing game. In particular because the second person point of view resembles that of a traditional pencil and paper RPG, with the author acting as the DM.

TSR even made a series of official D&D-themed adventures in the same format.  In more recent years, the term gamebook has been coined to describe books of this type, reflecting a shift in the perception of the readers where they have gone from being viewed as literature to being thought of as a type of solo RPG.

The most successful line of these gamebooks was the Choose your Own Adventure series. And it was always my personal favorite as well.

I remember seeing Deadwood City around a friends house, and being kind of baffled by the concept.  The cover said that you could "choose from over 20 exciting endings" or somesuch, but the artwork was wonky and the idea seemed a little silly to me.  Plus, I didn't really like cowboys when I was a kid.  I was all about monsters, and aliens, and robots.

When I stumbled across The Cave of Time, however, I was much more intrigued. 

I was probably about 8 when I discovered this book sitting on my couch (where my brother had carelessly left it), and I instantly recognized the CYOA brand. But this time it wasn't cowboys... it was time travel.  And the cover was just awesome.  The illustration featured a creepy guy in armor, a kid riding a horse past a castle, a Chinese guy with a spear, a dinosaur, and a dragon.  I had to read this book!

And it changed my life forever.

This was the book that taught me how much fun reading could be.  Up to this point, the stories we read in school were pretty damned boring. I suppose they were dumbed down to make them easier to read, but it ended up making them boring, too.

But the CYOA books were different.  They were surprisingly adult.  Almost every book contains gratuitous violence, grisly deaths, and horror elements.  These books were so much cooler than the politically correct drivel that the schools were giving us, because they weren't afraid to be dark or scary or deal with more adult themes.

I soon began reading every CYOA book that I could get my grubby little paws on, and then the Narnia books.  When those ran out, I started on my mom's Stephen King books.  According to the tests at school, I was reading at a college level in elementary school. In fact, a lot of stuff I read in elementary school showed up again in my high school and college classes.

But during my elementary school years, the CYOA books were my favorite series.  I kept coming back, time and time again, because I could get a different story every time I read through the books.

I remember bringing a stack of 20 CYOA books to church and reading them throughout the long sermons, to keep myself entertained.  The adults were always a little surprised to see a little kid lugging a big stack of books around, so I'd always have to explain the concept (and a lot of them never quite got it).

By the time I got to Jr High school, I'd read my set of books hundreds of times. So when I was finally introduced to the D&D game, I recognised a lot of the same principles shared between the CYOA books and the concept of a role playing game.

As a DM, I frequently borrowed plot hooks, or interesting story elements from the CYOA books to use in my own campaigns.  And after awhile, I finally just sat down, plotted out flowcharts for each book, and started raiding my favorite books wholesale for anything of value.  I ended up with a an elaborate mess of notes that was eventually stored away and forgotten.

So when I discovered all my old gaming notes a few days ago, these notes were one of the things I was surprised to find.  They were filed alongside the rest of my insprational notes, but unfortunately, I couldn't make much sense of the notes because I didn't remember all of the little details those notes referred to.  Even worse, I didn't note down which notes corresponded to which books.

And just in case that wasn't enough, it was jumbled in with notes from movies, TV shows, modules, Dungeon magazine adventures, and all sorts of other ideas I'd accumulated over the years.  There are pages and pages of notes.  Tons of them.  It's a horrifying mess, and I'm trying to reconstruct my notes like an archaeologist by analyzing and sorting everything into a coherent whole.

So I've dug out my old Choose Your Own Adventure books, in hopes that I can separate and isolate those notes from the rest.  As part of that effort, I'll be doing the occasional CYOA book review.

As an old-school gamer, I think these are an under-appreciated part of the old-school gamer culture, and I'd love to introduce them to a new generation, or encourage the folks that have them to dig them out again and see what all the fuss was about.  It wouldn't hurt to share them with your kids, either...

Friday, November 2, 2012


Yeah, I know it's slightly after Halloween, but I'm still in the mood for spooky things so I'm gonna post about AD&Ds classic horror setting anyway.

The original Ravenloft module was one of the first modules that I had as a DM.  A buddy of mine had loaned me the old basic D&D "Red Box" set and a bunch of mismatched modules to go with it (Ravenloft, Bane of Lewellyn, Forest Oracle, Lost Tomb of Martec, Under Illefarn, The Final Enemy) so that I could learn the game on my own.

Since I only had the Basic D&D set I was kind of frustrated that all of these were AD&D modules, but I studied them all, nonetheless.  Ravenloft was the stand-out module of the group, due to it's strong storyline and compelling villain.  And it remains a favorite of mine (despite its many flaws) all these years later.

While I eventually had to give Ravenloft back to my buddy, I had an opportunity to go back there when TSR released the Ravenloft boxed set as the first part of its offical campaign setting.  And man, that set was cool!

The two books contained a ton of info on the setting and it's Dark Lords, but it also had a ton of cool accessories... maps, a set of large, cardstock sheets detailing the prominent lords and families, cardstock sheets on some of the more impressive castles, and even a cool transparent hex-overlay that gave you all the usefulness of a hex map, without having to ugly up the map with hexes of it's own. I appreciate that kind of detail.

On the other hand, even from the beginning, I realised that Ravenloft required a higher than normal skill in Dungeon Mastering to make it work.  Horror as a mood is difficult to sustain over long periods, and this required a lot more attention to detail when constructing adventures to keep that suspense building.

It also required a lot more effort on the part of the players to stay alive.  The monsters are more dangerous, the players abilities are more restricted, and the players' morality is under MUCH more scrutiny.  Ravenloft will eat n00bs alive.

Since I was a novice DM at the time, I set my Ravenloft gear aside until I felt I was a good enough DM to do it justice, but I kept adding to it over the years, and I'd occasionally write out scenarios and think about what I might do down the road.

Someone (I think it was James Maliszewski in his Grognardia blog), posted about how it was common in 2E for people to read the modules rather than play them, and I think he's got a valid point, given my own experiences.

Ravenloft, to me, is the epitome of a game setting that functions better as reading material than gaming material, because it's pretty much a clusterfuck as written.

It has been the most railroad-heavy setting in the game since the first module, and this is exacerbated in the setting by allowing all domains to be sealed off until the PCs confront and defeat the "puzzle boss" that rules the domain. 

The fact that the game is oriented toward higher-level gaming also makes it difficult to get 1st level characters to survive long enough to make it possible to survive those high-level encounters. 

It takes a DM with a light touch to keep players alive, while simultaneously requiring a heavy-handed touch when it comes to character morality and the story railroad.

And then there's the issue of the tone of the setting, which is much more modern than the late medieval/early renaissance vibe of the traditional game.  Which makes sense for a setting that is based largely on 19th century literature like Frankenstein and Dracula, and the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe.  But that anachronism can be jarring when worlds collide as they do in Ravenloft.

When I think back to the modules that are nearest and dearest to my Dungeon Mastering heart, it's the simplistic 1E stuff that I keep going back to again and again.  Village of Hommlet, Keep on the Borderlands, and Under Illefarn are my holy trinity of inspirational modules, while much of the high concept 2E modules sit on my shelves collecting dust.

And Ravenloft is the one that bugs me the most. There's so much potential there for awesomeness, but it's smothered under a layer of badly conceived game mechanics, and poorly written modules.

This is not to say that I dislike Ravenloft.  There's a lot of good stuff to work with there.  But I've long since lost any illusions I ever had about it being a good game setting.  Nowadays I prefer to use it as a source of insiration and ideas, instead of trying to use it as intended.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Level Draining Sucks

Yeah, it's Halloween, so I figured it was a prefect opportunity to focus on the undead and their much-feared ability to level drain.

I've always thought that level draining was a particularly unfair game mechanic, since it robs the characters of hard-earned expereince levels in a "cheap" and arbitrary way.  It's entirely possible that a high level character could lose expereince that took years worth of play-time to aquire.  Especially when if that character is fighting creatures that drain multiple levels at a time.

Needless to say, this violates the "Rule of Fun", and leads to player resentment.  It's the sort of thing that could easily cause players to just quit playing altogether.

Yes, a Restoration spell could restore the lost levels, but it's not exactly easy to find clerics with access to level 7 spells... 

A 1st edition cleric doesn't get access to restoration until 16th level, and it will only restore 1 level per casting.  A 2E cleric can cast restoration at level 14, but it ages him two years to do so (although it also restores all lost levels, not just one per casting).

I don't know about your campaign, but in mine top-level clerics are pretty damned rare, and they're not exactly happy to have adventurers bugging them unnecesarily.  Especially if they're asking for something that's going to shave a few years off of their natural lifespan.

Needless to say, getting a restoration spell for your character is a monumental challenge, and he'll be feeble and weak until he can make it happen.

And this is assuming your character survived the encounter in the first place.

Because level draining drains levels, you lose hit points for the attack, AND hit points from the level drain, AND class abilities, AND proficiencies, AND spells every time you get hit, so your combat ability goes down much faster than it does in a typical combat.  God forbid you're up against something that drains multiple levels per hit.

Which brings up one of the WORST things about level draining... the book keeping.  It's a royal pain in the ass to keep track of every level bonus you get when you level up, and then you've got to subtract all of that stuff and recalculate for every single hit. 

And if the DM didn't keep meticulous records, he's going to have to fudge it, which makes players even more unhappy, becuade they stand to lose more than they would have otherwise.

What a fucking pain in the ass!

When a game mechanic kills the fun for player and DM alike, it probably needs to be shitcanned.

It's particularly bizarre that energy draining (ie, experience loss) is not an really an ability that is associated with undead, especially vampires.  Vampires might drain enough blood to leave you feeling crappy, and they might leave you with some side effects, but if the vamp dies, the victims usually recover just fine.  The notion that a vampire would punch you and all of a sudden you've forgotten the last few years of your life is NOT a part of any vampire myth.

As near as I can tell, the energy drain concept comes was inspired by Tolkien's Ringwraiths, who inflict a kinda-sorta similar malady on those who come into contact with them (the Holmes version of the D&D game flat out states that Nazgul would be considered spectres in case you needed a more explicit connection).

And you know what?   I have no problem with them taking some inspiration form Tolkien.

But I do have a problem with the fact that they greatly exaggerated the effects.  Unlike the horrendous energy drain of the D&D game, the Ringwraiths affliction is easily cured by Aragorn using some herbs he found.

And it's worth noting that the Ringwraiths were not random, wandering monster-grade chumps, like D&D spectres.  No, the Nazgul were Sauron's elite death squad.  These guys were incredibly badass by the standards of Middle-Earth.

So the fact that they had a much weaker energy drain is particularly significant.  Yes, the Black Breath was lethal if left untreated, but it least it was a slow death that gave the character's some time to come up with a cure, and it didn't require 14+ level clerics to magic up an antidote.

Likewise, the barrow-wights were not nearly as dangerous as the D&D wights.  They made the hobbits sleep, but they didn't drain levels, or leave them permanently incapacitiated.  In fact, after Tom Bombadil rescues them, they turn out to be completely uninjured.

To make matters worse, though, this dodgy level draining mechanic was applied to all kinds of undead, not just the wights and spectres.  The crowning moment of excess is probably RQ2- Thoughts of Darkness, a module which features vampire Illithids and a boss vampire that drains 5 levels at a time.

Amazingly, the energy drain mechanic survived for 30+ years before it was removed from 4th edition D&D (probably the only thing they did that I agree with).  The current 5E playtests appear to be tinkering with it in a more limited fashion.

I have long been a proponent of ditching the energy drain completely.  Undead can be plenty scary without having to resort to "cheap" special attacks that screw the players over in an unnecessarily ruthless manner.

Vampires, for example have super-speed, super-strength, the abilities to fly, shapechange, charm, spiderclimb, turn into mist, and command creatures of the night.  They also have resistance to normal weapons, special immunities, and regeneration.  And immortality.

That's plenty scary and plenty dangerous without adding a "screw-you" mechanic like energy draining.  All you have to do is treat the vampire as an NPC instead of a stupid grunt-level monster.  Seriously... if you can't scare the player with all of that, you suck as a DM.

Likewise, you can change the abilties of other energy draining undead to make them a little more player-friendly without sacrificing their scariness. 

Wights for example, could inflict wounds that can't be magically healed, and take double the time to heal naturally.  This makes them a serious pain in the ass, but it makes it a more manageable threat and it doesn't kill the mood like the energy drain does.

Or hell, just bump up the wight's damage.  There are a lot of ways a creative DM can tackle the problem.  The important thing is to remember that the game should be FUN.

                                                                  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

An Unexpected Discovery

I was going through my storage unit today, looking for some of my old D&D books.  I was pretty sure I'd seen my old 2E Monstrous Compendium at some point when I was moving everything into my storage unit and I was hoping it would turn up.

While I didn't find my old MC, I did find a bunch of stuff I hadn't seen in ages.  Some of it was old 1st and 2nd edition modules, boxed sets, or accessories.  I managed to put together an old Battlesystem set, even though the parts were scattered across a couple of boxes.  I found a ton of graph paper of various types.  I even found the old Basic D&D Red Box set that was my first entry into the game.

But the best thing was yet to come...

In the farthest corner of my unit, is a huge stack of boxes.  I went through every single box, and in the last one, in the hardest place to reach, was a box with all of my old DM notes.  I didn't really have time to go through all of it in the storage unit, but I was surprised to see a lot of stuff in there that I though had been lost over the years, so I took it home to go through it at my leisure.

The first thing I noticed was just how much of it there was.  Apparently I was quite prolific in my younger years, but very badly organized.  Some characters are laid out on scrap paper and others are written out on custom-made character sheets.  Some maps are meticulously drawn and are quite lovely to look upon, and some look like they were scrawled out by a 3rd grader with ADD (in-game maps most likely).

This was stuff I hadn't really looked at in at least 15 years, and it might have been closer to 20 for some of the stuff in there.  Looking at the evolution of my handwriting and some of the drawings indicates that some of that stuff was leftovers from my Jr. High years.  

Up to this point, all I had was one page of old notes on adventure hooks that had somehow ended up with the bulk of my AD&D books.  Unfortunately, the ideas I had written on that page were fragmentary and difficult to make sense of without any context.  They were basically code phrases that only I would understand, but over the years I had forgotten what those codes referred to!

I spent a few days trying to figure out what the heck I had been thinking when I wrote that page, and I was able to piece together most of it by trawling through my old gaming materials.  Still, there were a lot of gaps where my memory had failed me.

But while I was going through this godawful hodgepodge of notes, I started making connections and filling in those missing gaps.  This stuff may have been a mess, but it had enough meat to make sense of the rest.  Not only did I have enough notes to show where I had stolen those old ideas from, I also had a bunch of inspirational pictures clipped from old magazines and whatnot.  This included a bunch of art from the articles on Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy that were snipped from old Nintendo Power issues.

Those pages and pages of ideas are enough to keep me supplied with years worth of gaming material.  I'll end up posting a lot of it when it's cleaned up.  Some of those ideas might be fleshed out in detail for articles and suggestions, and some of them might even end up as full modules.

What's really surprising is how much of that stuff is relevant to the campaign I'm currently building.  I came up with the basic concept back then, and I've been refining it over the years.  But I wasn't expecting to find a full synopsis of the original idea buried in my notes.

I was also delighted to come across an old list of gods that I was using for my pantheon back in the day, complete with holy symbols and the like.  It's a big messy thing, but I'll definitely be pilfering ideas from it for my current pantheon.

In addition to the big structural elements, there are also some smaller story fragments that figure in to my current campaign that I didn't realize went back so far.  For example, the ideas that Ogres are a servitor race to humans was an idea that I've incorporated into my current backstory.  Instead of being a traditional bad-guy monster, they're usually on the side of the humans, and serve as full fledged NPCs.

This is a pretty big departure from the traditional role of ogres, but I wanted to make my world unique and have a different take on the classic creatures.  And I was delighted to see that this idea was fully-fleshed out even back then.    

I even found a page of plants and herbs that I had sketched out, complete with colored pictures and everything, which was a part of a module that I was working on at the time.  Since I was already working on plants and animals as part of my background, this adds a lot of new material to pad things out.

I also found a bunch of maps going back to that period, including a map of the town, it's castle, and the peninsula.  And they're all in glorious color!  I was inspired by the classic Forgotten Realms maps and decided to make up a few big maps for the campaign and then fill them in with markers or colored pencils.  Discovering these lost gems put a huge smile on my face.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TMI: Too Much Information- Part 1

The Dungeon Master is the window through which the players see the world.
                                                                    Deez nuts!

To most people, this means that the DM lays out the background, sets up the plot twists, and plays the NPCs.  But one of the most critical jobs of the DM is to control the flow of information to the players. This limited control of information is an integral part of all dramatic storytelling, but it is also one of the cornerstones of role playing games as well.

Much of the game's dramatic tension comes from the players trying to solve problems with incomplete knowledge of what is actually going on, and trying to find ways to fill the gaps in their knowledge by exploring the gameworld.  Done right, this can make for an incredibly vivid and memorable expereince.

In my opinion, the game doesn't put enough emphasis on the control of player information.  I suppose that's because it is a difficult skill to develop, and because it depends so much on the individual DM's playing style.  Nevertheless, I feel it is one of the more important skills for the novice DM to have in his mental toolbox.

And it's all too easy to give out too much information even if you're consciously trying to avoid it.

I remember one game session I was DMing that revolved around an unusual monster that was terrorizing the local village.  I was trying to conceal the true nature of the creature from the players, because the plot revolved around discovering the mysterious nature of the creature, and figuring out how to defeat it.

So I described the creatures physical form but I didn't tell them what it was.  The players were fully engaged, asking questions, and coming up with theories, and having a grand old time digging into the mystery.

Unfortunately, when the players got into combat with the creature, I accidentally used the creatures name to describe it, and all of a sudden the players knew exactly what they were facing and how to defeat it.  This let all of the tension out of the game, and led to a rather limp climax since the players were able to fast forward to the end of the scenario.

Giving out too much information is particularly problematic if you're dealing with players that have been playing the game for years.  These players will tend to have the monster books memorized and will usually have a plan for dealing with anything they come across.  This can lead to jaded players and boring games because the players have too much power from their accumulated knowledge.

To make the game interesting and keep players on their toes I use the following strategies:

A)  Don't tell the PCs exactly what they're up against.  Let them figure it our for themselves.

Give the players vague descriptions of the monsters they meet, but don't use the monster's name.  Instead, tell them what they see, hear, smell, etc, and let the players come up with their own conclusions (which may be better than your own!).  Players may recognize some common creatures from past experience or from folklore, but much of the things they come across will be alien to them.  This is a good thing.

If my players want more information on a creature they just met, they'll have to do some research on their own. This is a good way to get your PCs to talk to the locals, or visit libraries, which makes the gameworld feel more real, and which makes the players feel like they have a larger stake in it.  It's also an opportunity to give out false or misleading information, or to introduce a new adventure hook.

B)  Change your notes.

For example; Instead of having a monster entry that says "Ghouls" change the name to "Flesh-Eating Corpse".  This gets you our of the mindset of thinking about you monsters as a DM, and puts you into the mindset PCs by telling them what they see.

It also introduces doubt about the creature's true nature.  These things might be ghouls, but they might also be flesh eating zombies, or something else even more sinister.  But the bottom line is that the players won't know.  They won't have the comfort of knowing that they are up against the same familiar monsters they've seen for the last several years.  And that uncertainty raises the dramatic tension of the situation and makes the adventure more exciting.

This also makes it a little easier to avoid accidentally using the monster's real name during the game and spoiling the surprise for your characters, like in the example shown above.

C)  Change the monsters themselves.

After a few years, the same old monsters can get pretty stale.  Changing the monsters' abilities keeps things fresh and keeps the players on their toes.  For example; instead of paralysis, maybe your ghouls have a "blood frenzy" that doubles their attack if a wounded character is present.  Their sensitivity to blood might also increase the chance of a wandering ghoul attack when characters are wounded.

You can also keep the rules the same and just change the looks, ecology, or background.  Maybe your hobgoblins are based on ancient Sparta, and have a pebbly, toad-like skin, in shades of green and brown.  The rules stay the same, but all of a sudden, the tone is radically different.

You can also change the names.  Maybe your re-imagined hobgoblins call themselves Therions and are the remnants of a once mighty people, looking to reestablish the power of their lost empire.  Now you've got something really fresh and interesting that your players won't see anywhere else.  And all you did was make a few measly changes to the hobgoblin entry.

Of course, there's nothing to say you can't got further and just make your own creatures from scratch.  It's more work than just slapping a new skin on an old monster's stats (as in the previous example), but it makes the gameworld feel that much more exciting when the players realize that they are dealing with completely unfamiliar creatures.

A pleasant side-effect of changing the creatures up is that the players can't argue the rules with you if you're not using the rulebooks.  But they'll also be less likely to argue if they're looking at something mysterious and exciting, instead of the same old shit that's been around for 30+ years.

And if you do decide to trot out an old favorite, the players will have more appreciation for them, since it's a familiar face in a strange crowd.

Who knows, your players might even be happy to see a notoriously bad monster like a flumph.  You don't need to tell them that in this universe flumphs are chaotic evil and capable of shooting small lighting bolts.  Let them find out for themselves...

Monday, October 22, 2012


Alignment always seems to be a hot topic amongst the role-playing community.

Morality is such a integral part of the human experience that we spend a great portion of our lives studying it and trying to understand it.  For thousands of years our philosophers and religions have struggled to make sense of it.

Even today,  most of our forms of entertainment deal with morality on a regular basis.  So it is no surprise that we should give some consideration to the issue in a game where anything can happen.

The 3-alignment system from the original D&D game was inspired by the popular fantasy books of the time, in particular the works of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson.  

When I first got started with the old Basic D&D "Red Box" I found this alignment system to be confusing and rather arbitrary.  I didn't have the same literary background that game designers did, and the game didn't do a good job of justifying this odd law/chaos conflict. It just assumes that the major conflict of the gameworld is between law and chaos, rather than good vs evil, which tends to be the more relevant axis of contemporary morality.  

As an adult, I understand that lot of that law/chaos conflict was influenced by the wargamer mentality where the game is about the "big picture", and where there's little focus on individual actions.  And I know that a part of it also has to do with the tone of the pulp fiction of the day that featured morally questionable anti-heroes as the protagonists.

But I don't think it was an ideal moral system for a fantasy game, especially in the simplified version of the game where abstract concepts of grey morality are likely to be overlooked by kids who just want to kick Bargle's ass and get some payback for Aleena's death by magic missile.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against a great law/chaos conflict as part of the campaign background, but I do think it's rather presumptuous to assume that this would be the case in every fantasy world, rather than the good/evil conflict that is more universally understood.

So I was thrilled when I finally got some AD&D books and found that the game had 9 alignments, allowing for a much more nuanced approach to morality.  This 9-point alignment scale is incredibly versatile, and it allows us as gamers to communicate much about a creatures personality with a mere two letters. The simple notation "LG" denotes an upstanding guy who is reliable and kind-hearted.  Likewise, when you see somebody with "CE", you know they are dangerous and unpredictable.

This alignment system has been a resounding success, and over time it has become so dominant within the RPG culture that it has reached memetic status.  Even people who have never played the game can understand the concept when you stuff their favorite fictional characters into the appropriate boxes.

So it is particularly surprising to see the 4th edition of D&D do away with 30 years of success and tradition by dropping 6 of the classical alignments and going with a 5-point alignment system: Lawful Good, Good, Neutral, Evil, and Chaotic Evil.

I'm not sure why this was changed... it's not like the existing alignment structure was difficult to comprehend.  The fact that the 9-point alignment system has become a universally understood meme, and the fact that it persists years after the game abandoned it says something about the degree that people have embraced it.

I could understand doing a simplified good/neutral/evil system, or going back to the old law/neutrality/chaos system, but this half-assed approach is just really bizarre, particularly after the universal acceptance of the 9-point model.

While there are an awful lot of issues that people argue about regarding alignments, this dumbed-down alignment system doesn't really address any of them. It just changes a well-understood and much-loved game mechanic for something that's more awkward that the thing they were trying to fix.

Even worse, this attempt at simplification actually throws the established order of things into chaos.  Especially with regards to demons, devils, and other creatures that have always been associated with a particular alignment up to this point.  

Needless to say, this was an unwelcome change for long-time players, and it is one of many changes that radically alters the game in the 4th edition.  Given the negative reaction to the game, I sincerely hope WotC and Hasbro learn from their mistakes, but I have grave doubts about the future of the brand.

In the meantime, I will ignore that particular idiocy and continue to use the 9-point system as God and Gygax intended.


The Unfairly Maligned Flumph

The poor Flumph has long been considered one of the worst designed and least useful monsters in the D&D universe, but I believe that reputation is unfairly deserved.

It's true that there are a lot of lame monsters in the Fiend Folio, but I think that the Flumph has a lot of untapped potential that many of the others do not.

Take the Adherer, for example: It's a humanoid thing that looks like a mummy, but's really just a sticky dude that will tangle up your weapons if you take a swing at it.  It's immune to most 1st level spells, but takes a wopping 3-18 points of damage per magic missile, and is very vulnerable to fire, like a mummy.

Essentially, the adherer is a novelty monster.  "It's a mummy, oh wait, no it's not."  Once the players figure out the gimmick, it becomes a boring and easily defeated creature that doesn't really do anything else.  Even worse, the fact that the creature is a novelty creature in an official monster book means that even players who haven't met one before can study the book and learn how to defeat it, thus ruining the gimmick.

Part of the problem is fact that it is only semi-intellegence (2-4 INT).  This means that it's not really capable of communication... it may look human but it's really incredibly stupid.  It won't be able to fight intelligently, and it can't really be communicated with in any meaningful way, making it useless as an NPC species.  This creature is just there to be a nuisance and not a meaningful part of the adventure.

The Nilbog, the epitome of the novelty creature, is even worse.  It's basically a goblin that heals when you attack it, and takes damage when you heal it.  I get that the game designers were trying to make something that subverts the player's expectations.  But it begs the question of why getting hit with an axe makes it heal.

It's an illogical game mechanic, but unlike, say conjuring a lightning bolt, it is a game mechanic that strains the credibility of the gameworld's verisimilitude.

But as bad as that it, it gets MUCH worse.

The Nilbog has a vague sort of temporal field effect: "The adventurers have no control over their own actions and will generally pursue courses of action contrary to their normal intent."  As an example, the text states that the adventurers may feel an overwhelming compulsion to load all of their treasure into an empty chest in the Nilbog lair and leave empty-handed.  No saving throws are allowed, and a WISH spell can only offer temporary protection.

This vaguely-defined, heavy-handed approach to player coercion is a recipe for disaster.  Something that important deserves to be explained in great detail, but the Nilbog barely scratches the surface of what this power can do.  There are no parameters or limitations given for this power.

Not giving the players a save of any kind save is incredibly harsh, and you know something is way off-kilter when the rules suggest using a Wish to mitigate the effects of a low-level mook monster.  Most DM's I know don't exactly hand out Wish spells like candy.

Used as-is, this effect will result in some extremely pissed off players.  Which is probably why I have never seen this rule used in play when Nilbogs are actually used.

In comparison, the Flumph is actually pretty good. Heck, I actually think it has the potential to be one of the better monsters in the Fiend Folio.

I'll be honest... for a lot of years I overlooked the flumph based on the drawing alone.  It's ugly, and it's weird, and it's sitting right next to Russ Nicholson's bad-ass Flind illustration.  It's easy to pass on the flumph in favor of something flashier.  But if you actually give the thing a chance, it can be surprisingly useful.

It's basic appearance and combat abilities would make for an interesting low level gonzo monster, but it is the creature's human intelligence and Lawful Good alignment that make the creature particularly interesting.  This in not just a weird fantasy creature to kill for it's loot, it's a potential NPC.

And I loves me some NPCs.

And unlike a lot of the other critters in the Fiend Folio, the flumph doesn't have any rules that are messy or difficult to deal with.  In fact, the only real flaw in the rules is the part about the flumph being able to communicate only in the lawful alignment tongues.

Because nobody uses alignment tongues.

But if we ignore that bit of silliness and just say that it speaks the common tongue, we've got a surprisingly useful creature to interact with.  It can offer advice or information, provide adventure hooks, act as an ally, a henchman, or a familiar, or whatever.

And that, my friends, is the stuff adventures are made from.

Pathfinder recently redesigned the flumph to be a race of benevolent otherworldly beings drawn to the prime material plane to warn mankind about Lovecraftian cosmic horrors.  This is a terrific idea, and it works well with their unusual form, and their role as an NPC monster.

What's really impressive is that this upgrade doesn't really change anything important about the creature, it's still pretty much the same old flumph.  It's just that it now has a mission and a reason for interacting with the PCs.  This is a small role-playing tweak but it gives a great potential for an important role in the campaign.

But even the original flumph is quite usable out of the box.  Much more so than a lot of the other crappy Fiend Folio monsters like the Gambado (Italian skullfaced jack-in-the-box), Khargra (a living dirt-rocket), Sheet Ghoul & Sheet Phantom (haunted bedcovers... ooooh!), Sussurus (a weird plant gorilla that puts undead to sleep), and what is arguably the lamest D&D creature of all time, the Tirapheg.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Problem with Demi-Humans

One of the thing's that has bothered me a great deal about the D&D game is the increasing emphasis on playable demi-human races.

Demihumans have been available as optional PC races from the very beginning, but for the first few editions of the game they were limited to much lower levels than humans.  These level limits served as a deterrent to keep demihumans from pushing humans out of the limelight.  

The problem with this approach was that most people felt that the level limits were too harsh, and ignored them, but they still kept all of the bonus racial powers, making human characters weak and inferior in comparison.  Even worse, multi-classing allowed demihuman characters to stack the class abilities of multiple glasses for a trivial experience penalty.

This led to many min-maxers taking the most powerful demihuman race and class combinations and leaving humans in the dust.  This led to a massive surge of popularity for elves that is still going strong today. But it also ushered in an era of demihuman proliferation that gotten out of control in the 3rd and 4th editions. 

Now some folks may wonder why I favor a human-oriented approach to the game.  It all goes back to one of my guiding principles: "When everything is special, nothing is special."

Making humans the dominant focus of the game world makes it more plausible and easy to relate to, but it also makes the demihumans that do appear more mysterious and noteworthy.  When everybody is running around with a fey-touched, warforged, dragonborn it just sort of overloads the senses.  When there are literally hundreds of races, it's hard to give a fuck about any one in particular. This, to me, is a large part why the WotC versions of D&D seem so phony and frivolous.  

A big part of the blame rests with WotC for making new races a marketable aspect of the game.  The plethora of splatbooks marketed toward the players (rather than the DM), made character creation a sort of masturbatory aspect of the game, where many players spent more time on character creation than playing the actual game.

Unfortunately, the seeds of demi-human wankery were hardwired into the DNA of the orignal game.  While the game was originally built on the foundation of the pulp fantasy literature of the period, there were so many request for Tolkinesque characters that Gygax added them to the game, despite the fact that he didn't particularly like Tolkien.  

And unfortunately, that Tolkienesque racial assortment has dominated the game ever since.  TSR had an opportunity early on to change things up with their campaign settings, but the Tolkiensque races have been a constant, even in settings where they don't really fit well, like Eberron, Dark Sun, and Ravenloft.

The Lankhmar setting is the only setting to have it's own distinctly unique races (because the stories it was based on pre-dated the game).  It is also probably truer to the vision of the game that Gygax intended, being part of the pulp-fantasy tradition that formed the game's early influences.  As a result, the Lankhmar setting feels much more mysterious and compelling than the more generic settings.

Unfortunately, there was never much in the way of development for Lankhmar and it went largely unnoticed by the gamers at the time.  Even worse, the most generic settings, Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, proved to be the most popular and influential, which made it even harder to deviate from the established racial templates.

This Tolkienesque racial mix forces the game down a certain path, despite the fact that the game was originally intended to be flexible enough to do anything.  It's really pretty sad, how much potential was lost by trying to shoehorn elves, dwarves, and halflings into every possible setting.  

At this point in the game, it all just feels old and stale.  Sure, new races keep popping up, but I think that just exacerbates the problem rather than fixing it.  Sometimes less is more.

Now I'm not suggesting that I'm completely against demihumans, or that I'm against having them as playable characters.  But I do think that the official settings and novels have a tremendous impact on how people perceive the game, and they structure their own games.  So much so that even homebrewed campaigns tend to resemble the official product lines to an uncomfortable degree.

One of the things that I'm trying to do is to rebuild the D&D rules to be more flexible, to make it the game that I always wanted it to be.  A major part of that process is doing something that I feel TSR/WotC should have done years ago... make humans the default race and add additional races as needed (playable at the DM's discretion).

This gives the DM a clean slate to get really creative with.  By asking yourself  "Do I really need elves?  Or Dwarves?" it allows DM to look at the game in a fresh light.  By taking out those old standbys, you make room for something new and fresh.

In my own personal campaign, I've dropped elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, orcs, kobolds and most of the other commonplace races from the game completely.  Humans will be the only race available from the start although others may be available down the road as the players mingle with the inhabitants of the world.

Instead of doing humans in the normal manner, where they're pretty much the same anywhere you go, I've developed different countries and cultures that are reflect the real diversity of human civilizations.  This is something that is rarely done with most D&D games, which tend to use different demihuman races in lieu of developing separate human cultures.  

By restricting the amount of non-human races, you also make it possible to create unique backgrounds for the demihumans that you do use, instead of relying on the same old generic fluff in the rulebooks that wasn't great to begin with.

I've altered the different races that I did keep to fit into the background and setting of my game world in a manner that makes some kind of sense.  In addition, I've changed most of the races and monsters so that they're not the same old creatures you've been encountering for the last 40 years.

The goblins in my campaign, for example, are not the standard evil mooks that they're usually portrayed as. In fact, they're not even goblins at all in the D&D sense.  In my world, goblins and humans are both descendants of a common ancestor species, much in the same way that humans are related to other primates.

They are covered with fur, and have lanky but powerful bodies.  They live exclusively in the forests, and they are master bowmen and trackers. They fight primarily with stone and bone weapons, but often trade with humans for metal hatchets, knives, spear and arrowheads.

Culturally, they are more like wild elves or native Americans, using stone age tools, but with highly developed cultures.  While they generally avoid human contact due to past conflicts, they will sometimes befriend woodsman and establish trade relationships with them.  Alignment-wise they lean toward neutrality, though any alignment is possible.

Instead of being a traditional bad-guy race, these goblins are potential friends and allies.  Sure, a lot of the characters in the game world fear and misunderstand them, but as long as the players don't get on their bad side, they shouldn't have any problems with them.

This gives the goblins a complicated background that can be used in lots of different ways down the road, but it also shakes up the players preconceptions about the gameworld, and it makes them pay close attention to what's really going on.

                                                    Scarwood Goblins- by Ron Spencer

(I got the idea of wood-goblins from an old Magic The Gathering card for Scarwood Goblins.  The artwork by Ron Spencer presents a really nasty, gnarly looking goblin, and I always though these guys would make a great D&D creature.  My version is very similar to this goblin but with fur rather than bare skin.)

Simple changes like this can give a homebrewed campaign world a radically different vibe than what you'd get in the standard game.  By shaking things up a little I've created something that makes something old and tired and turned it into something that's fresh and new.  

There are familiar elements, but these are put together in a new and interesting way that takes the players out of the safe and familiar zone, and places them into unknown territory.  Most players are pretty much bored by the same old monsters they've seen time and time again. By changing the rules, you force them to deal with the game on it's own terms rather than relying on memorized monster manual stats.  

Even better, you've made the game more exciting by taking away the player's rule book crutch.  This has the added benefit of neutralizing rules-lawyering because they can't argue about what's in the rulebook if you're not using it.

This adds to the verisimilitude of the setting, and increases the immersiveness of the game.  And both of those things are, to me, a big part of what makes the traditional pencil & paper RPG so much fun... not just for the players, but for the DM as well.