Friday, December 31, 2010

Old School -- Busting the Myths

As I've been following various old school blogs, I've read various things that I agree with and don't agree with.  In talking with other gamers, quite a few had a negative opinion of the OSR, either from things they've read, or their supposed experiences.  I present to you the most common of the negative comments I've heard or read -- most are simply largely untrue.  The myths and my take on them:

Old School Myth #1: Rules as Written (RAW)
I've heard this time and again.  I've actually experienced it too, when I have to roll a character using the 3d6 method, no assigning of abilities, getting killed just because one dice roll goes wrong (in the GM's hands), etc.  Most of these things annoy me, and more often than not is just an example of rigid thinking that doesn't do anyone any good.

But I think that RAW is just a play style.  Everyone has rules they like, from random chargen to abstract combat, and that's going to happen.  If they didn't like some aspect of the rules, why play?  But I don't think it's particularly Old School.  

D&D3E has a large number of skills and abilities that you can give your character.  In fact, I sort admire it because of that.  Properly implemented, this can give you a solid idea of where you came from or who you are.  Take Howard's Conan; we know he's from a land of ice and snow, can climb really well because of his upbringing, and also can fight well -- a region where the faint of heart would soon be dead.  This could be represented by skill bonuses and bonuses to fight, packaged in a background feat.  But, I digress...  

D&D3E has a great amount of rules.  Rules to see whether you can bluff or intimidate, rules to see whether you can spot something, etc, rules that allow you to do something out of the ordinary in combat.  There's nothing wrong with this, per se, but I kinda felt constrained gamemastering.  Because I would rather there be a way to solve it without skill rolls, and the designers were intent on simply rolling for everything, it seems.  What if I wanted someone to do something to notice something important (like move a cushion, or examine a wall)?  What if I would rather they creatively take out their foe, rather than invoking "Improved Crushing Blow" or some such?  I felt lost as a player, too.

The rules in Old School games for the most part are frameworks.  Each GM seasons his own game to taste.  While all GMs, Old School and Modern, do this to some extent, there's some more "on the fly" rulings that must be made.  No rules system can encompass everything, and a large part of the OSR loves to tinker with it, at least a bit.  If for nothing more than to make sure the next time someone does that, there's not a different set of rules that might hinder the player more or make it too easy.  
Old School Myth #2: Starting out as the Little Guy
Another myth is the beginning character as a schmoe.  Too often D&D is used as an example, but I can say definitively that every game does not do this.  Almost no one can deny that Champions is old (c. 1981), incidentally the same year Tom Moldvay authored his version of Basic D&D.  The characters  in old-school Champions were hardly average, being superheroes.  That also was the theme of Villains & Vigilantes (also '81).   70s-era Traveller was also a game where you were well-trained before you began adventuring.  In the Atlantean Trilogy and Palladium Fantasy your character was well-stocked with skills and class abilities, and you were no slouch in Rolemaster, Tunnels and Trolls, The Fantasy Trip, or even RuneQuest.  In Gamma World you had powers that set you above the rabble, and in Top Secret you were a secret agent ala James Bond.  Need I say more?

For my own part, I consider the "little guy" syndome to be reminiscent of Tolkien, where unassuming hobbits were the saviors of the world.  I like the idea of being able to have characters who aren't invincible, but formidable in their own right.  John Carter, Conan, Fafhrd, the Grey Mouser, etc.  

Old School Myth #3: Characters are akin to Checker Pieces
A comment at Playing D&D With Porn Stars mentions that "The (very) old school treats characters like checker pieces - I don't cry in my beer when I lose a checker piece..."  I'm not entirely sure that's the truth.  I think it is a bit related to #1.  All the rules in the world aren't going to instill a personality in your character, or make a campaign playable.  

I've been in those kinds of games -- more power to you if you like that, I'm not particularly amenable to that style.  I'd rather have a backstory for my character and have it be a bit more dramatically appropriate when I pass on, thank you very much.  It's probably the reason I don't care too much for wargames or FPS games, either.  I want to care about what I'm doing.

Now, if you're still trying to wrap your head around all this, or simply do not know what old-school gaming is, pick up Matt Finch's excellent Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.  It's free, and chock-full of great advice.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Santa Motorcycle Pictures, Images and Photos

That's the way I'd travel if I were Santa, except I'd probably have Mrs. Claus in a sidecar :)

So Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Blessed Yule, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Ramadan, etc.  And whatever your traditions, may you game well!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rules Hack - Ability Checks

At some time during the course of the game, a random roll will be required that's right outside the scope of the rulebook.  What if someone tries to haggle with the innkeeper?  What if a Hero is trying to climb to the roof without benefit of a Thiefly Ability (those are handled differently in my game as well, but one thing at a time).  This would be handled using Ability Checks.  Ability Checks are simply d20 rolls against an Ability, such as Strength, Wisdom, Constitution, etc.

Apparently this is not new.  Swords & Wizardry has this, Castles & Crusades has it, 2nd Edition D&D had it (although in a sort of slapdash manner), and Tunnels & Trolls had it longer than any of those.  This, however, is my (hopefully) unique take on it.

As noted above, Ability Checks are used for many actions.  What makes them different in our rules hack is that they are also used for skills and saving throws.

I can hear the cries of "heresy!" and "3rd Edition!" now, but hear me out.

It simply makes sense to have Ability Checks used as Saving Throws.  It frees you from the tyranny of having to justify a Save vs. Dragon's Breath to avoid a lasso entangling you.  Now, instead of that, you can simply ask for a DEX Check.  And you can give certain character Classes and Races bonuses to specific situations (acting as Skills and Saving Throws) instead of making up a new procedure, or having to print yet another table.  A Dwarf and a Wizard might get bonuses to save vs. magical effects.  A Thief would get a bonus to any roll he made while attempting to steal something.  Very simple, very effective, doesn't require a hundred splatbooks.

Very simply, an Ability Check starts at 8 or less on a d20.  The Ability Score Adjustment adds to this (so a +4 would mean a 12 or less on a d20 for success).  Not only that, but as you rise in level, the Ability Checks increase.

Primary Checks
After the initial calculations, then you pick what you want to be your most rapidly advancing Ability Check.  For example, a Warrior might choose Strength.  This is called the Primary Check.  That Check will improve by +1 every two levels, plus add 2 to it in the beginning.  The rest will advance every 3 levels.  Checks follow this Table as you rise in level: 

Primary Check
Other Checks

The various Classes and Races will give you bonuses on some specific applications of Ability Checks.  Some are codified in the text, others are unwritten.  Still others are determined on the fly.  Anytime everyone in the group agrees that a Hero should get a bonus on an Ability Check, he gets it.

Note: Since I run with Ability Score adjustments only (It's not STR 12, it's STR +1), you may have to adjust the base number higher, say an 11 or less to start, instead of an 8. 

Common Situations and Ability Checks
I'm just listing a few, though close to 40 examples appear in my game.

Fear (WIS) - Some creatures instill blind, unreasoning fear into a person, scaring him stiff (cannot move).  Roll to resist.

Leap (DEX) - Horizontal jump. 

Save vs. Paralysis (STR) - Some monsters and spells can paralyze or hold victims, immobilizing them through magical means. 

Save vs. Breath Weapon (DEX or CON) - It's just a bad idea to sit there and let some creature, like a dragon, breathe on you.  DEX is for dodging and diving for cover.  CON is when something like poison gas is being resisted.

Opposed Ability Checks
These are used when two people are rolling against an Ability, and they are competing against each other.  For example, you would use an Opposed Ability Check when two people are racing to the top of a cliff wall, or when one person is trying to grab another. 

Opposed Ability Checks are simple.  Both people roll d20, and the highest roll wins.  That means that if one person had a Check of 18, and rolled a 4, and the other person had a Check of 13, and rolled an 8, the person who rolled the 8 wins.  Obviously, anyone who rolls over the Check fails.   

Critical Success
If you roll precisely your Check, you get a Critical Success, and something special happens above and beyond the effect you were looking for.  So, if you had a Check of 13, and you rolled a 13, you got a Critical.  Critical Successes on Opposed Ability Checks mean that the person who gets the Critical wins, regardless of how high the other person rolled. 

And it's important to note that the Checks don't have an ever increasing difficulty, it's simply make that roll, or not.  There's no adding or subtracting any modifiers except in special circumstances.

Just an idea.  It's what I'm using in my game, at any rate.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Way to Handle "Speak With Dead"

I've got a way to handle the Speak With Dead spell narratively.  Now, in the Expert Set (Mentzer Edition) it says this:

Speak with the Dead

Range: 10’
Duration: 1  round per level of the cleric
Effect: Cleric may ask 3  questions

By  means of this spell, a cleric may ask  3 questions of a deceased spirit if the body is within  range. A  cleric of  up to 7th  level may only contact spirits recently dead (up to 4 days). Clerics of level 8-14 have slightly more power  (up to 4  months  dead), level 15-20  even more (up  to 4 years dead). No time limits apply to clerics of  21st  level or greater.  The spirit will always  reply  in  a tongue  known  to the  cleric, but  can only offer knowledge of things up  to the time of its death.  If the spirit’s alignment  is  the same as the cleric’s, clear and brief answers will  be  given; however,  if  the  alignments differ,  the spirit may reply in riddles.

This brings up some interesting questions about the afterlife.  Most real-world religions teach that the body is simply a shell, and that the soul is what animates it.  Once the body is dead, the soul departs it.  In Egyptian mythology, however, preserving the body after death meant that the dearly departed would enjoy eternal life.  So why would a pseudo-medieval society believe that the body had anything to do with the soul after death?

Perhaps in our game we can say that the soul departs within a number of rounds, making it impossible to resurrect.  Now, after the soul goes to its final reward, there is a sort of "remnant" of a soul in the body, that makes it possible to contact the person in death.  Obviously the person will only know what they knew in life.  Again, because the soul remnant is tied to the body, you must be close to the body to do so.  In time, the remnant fades, and is harder and harder to commune with.  You may only pick up an obscure word or two, and that's it.  Eventually, this too is gone.  However, there is still some soul energy left in the body even after that.  This energy is what allows necromancers to summon an army of undead, using the soul energy left in the body to power them.  The more powerful ones may simply be recently dead, and are using a full power remnant as an energy source. 

Obviously, YMMV. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Calendar of Andurantha

My last post was mostly systemless, so I thought I'd continue this in earnest.  I have a world I've been working on for awhile, and this world I'm trying to make as detailed as possible, while having as little to do with Tolkien as I can.  Tolkien is a bit old hat these days, and while a large amount of the populace is discovering Middle Earth through Peter Jackson's movies, the influence on D&D is too pronounced, and I'd rather steer away from that.  My ideas move more towards the Sword & Sorcery genre, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, et al.  So, without further adieu, I give you the calendar of Andurantha.  

A Note of Explanation: The Men of the Dawn were the first humans in the world.  They developed a highly-accomplished society, before betrayal brought about their downfall.  Their magic is ancient and some of the most potent known to any race.     

On Andurantha, they talk of time passing in 28-day cycles called "Moons."  Each moon represents a particular time of the year.

Wolf Moon -- Jan
Hunger Moon -- Feb
Sap Moon -- March
Spawning Moon -- March
Bear Moon -- April/May
Flower Moon -- Jun
Rose Moon -- Jul
Thunder Moon -- Aug
Red Moon -- Sep
Harvest Moon -- Oct
Hunter's Moon -- Nov
Frost Moon -- Dec
Long Nights Moon -- Dec

Wolf Moon - Amid the cold and deep snows of midwinter, the wolf packs howl hungrily outside.

Hunger Moon - Since the heaviest snow usually falls during this month, harsh weather conditions make hunting very difficult.

Sap Moon - As the temperature begins to warm and the ground begins to thaw, earthworm casts appear, heralding the return of the robins. The more northern tribes knew this Moon as the Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter; or the Crust Moon, because the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night. The Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is another variation.  It is considered to be the last Moon of Winter.

Spawning Moon - The herb moss pink, or wild ground phlox, is one of the earliest widespread flowers of the spring.  This is the time that the shad swim upstream to spawn.

Bear Moon - This is named for the time when bears begin to appear again most frequently.  Most bears begin hibernation during the Hunter's Moon and rouse themselves about now. They're usually not holed up for the entire time, but are rarely seen before this Moon.  They gain a lot of fat and tuck themselves into a cave or hollow tree.  Cubs suckle from mothers in winter as the mom slumbers.

Flower Moon - In most areas, flowers are abundant everywhere during this time. Thus, the name of this Moon.

Rose Moon - The start of strawberry picking season.  Strawberries are part of the rose family.

Thunder Moon - Normally the month when the new antlers of buck deer push out of their foreheads in coatings of velvety fur.  Thunderstorms are most frequent during this time.

Red Moon - Sturgeon are most readily caught during this month. As Sha'kal rises, it appears reddish through a sultry haze.

Harvest Moon - The Moon of the autumn equinox.  At the peak of harvest, farmers can work late into the night by the light of the twin moons.  Corn, pumpkins, squash, beans, and wild rice are now ready for gathering.

Hunter's Moon - With the leaves falling and the deer fattened, it is time to hunt. Since the fields have been reaped, hunters can easily see foxes and the animals which have come out to glean.

Frost Moon - This is the time to set beaver traps before the swamps freeze, to ensure a supply of warm winter furs.  The beavers are now actively preparing for winter. This is when the frosts set in.

Long Nights Moon - During this month the winter cold fastens its grip, and nights are at their longest and darkest.  The midwinter night is indeed long; the Brothers are above the horizon for a long time. The midwinter full moons have a high trajectory across the sky because they are opposite a low Sun.

Each time a new moon comes around, the bells in the cities toll to formally announce it. 

Months last 28 days, based on the lunar cycle, also based on a woman's cycle, because women are the Bringers of Life.

There are 13 months (moons) a year.

Last day of the year (365th day) is called the Night of the Black Moon, when no moons are visible, the Dark Powers are at their prime, and monsters walk free.

Seasons are based on the time of year, on agriculture.  Since farming and ranching feed the populace, this is natural.

Planting...Sap Moon to the Flower Moon
Planting is when the seeds are sown in the fields.

Growth...Rose Moon to Red Moon   
Is when the crops are at full growth.

Reaping...Harvest Moon to Hunter's Moon
Is when the crops are gathered in the fields.

Preserving...Frost Moon to Hunger Moon
Is when grain is stored in preparation for the long months ahead.

Sha'kal and Kerrg, the twin moons.  Sha'kal and Kerrg were brothers.  Sha'kal was good, while Kerrg was evil.  They fought constantly for which one would be ascendant, and during the days of the Long Nights Moon, Kerrg captured the sun, and blanketed the world, known as Isryn, with snow.  Sha'kal eventually won out, and Kerrg was put in his place, further removed from Isryn.  Sha'kal is white, with yellow and black spots some say are the wounds that Kerrg inflicted while they fought.  Kerrg is smaller (as an orange is smaller compared to a watermelon) and it is red, like the color of blood,  striated with black.  Sometimes Kerrg is called "the Blood Moon."  The moons collectively are called "the Brothers."

The names come from the Dawn Times, when the Men of the Dawn were simply scattered tribes.

Major festivals and feast-days do not fall on a day of the week.  Imagine it as:  Monday, Tuesday, Midsummer day, Wednesday, Thursday…  This gives the festivals an extra emphasis, making them stand apart from the rest of the week.  Festivals and feast-days are not normal days, they are important events in the religions and beliefs of Andurantha, and they are far more than an excuse for a day off.  Anyone who expects to find people conducting normal business on a festival-day is going to be disappointed. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

World-building with Blogger Word Verification

Over on his blog, Swords Against the Outer Dark, Shane has posed an interesting challenge: take a handful of Blogger word verification captchas and do writeups for each of them in such a way so they could be used in your game.  Well, now that things have somewhat settled down here, I'm going to give it a shot.

The method I used was just to take some words that jumped out at me, and started thinking what they could be.  There were some on the list that just didn't work for me (mation) and others that were simply obscene (arshl comes to mind). goes...  

Trised (try-sehd) - The city-state of Trised is one made up of concentric rings, each ring is a ward of the city.  Walls between each ward keep them separated, though there is some bleedover at the walls themselves, as populations from one ward spill over into another.  The center ring is the castle ward, where the military governor Schor keeps residence.   

Challys (chall-iss) - Challys is a powerful sorcerer who lives on the edge of civilization, near Trised.  His tower stands forbidding and alone.  No one has actually seen Challys in many seasons, leading some to think he may be dead -- or worse, mutated by his forays into forbidden magicks.  Travellers passing near the tower have heard strange noises and seen flashes of light inside the tower's windows. 

Volut (vohl-oot...rhymes with 'droll foot') - Volut is a star appearing in the constellation Dotholh, and can be seen low in the southern sky in the northern hemisphere during Reaping and early Preserving seasons.  (Seasons are based on agriculture: Planting, Growth, Reaping, and Preserving).  Named for the warrior-poet from Al-Azyan, known for his poems of love and valor, as well as his military prowess.

Dotholh (doh-thole) - Means "the lion" and is one of the 12 constellations visible in the night sky over Andurantha.  The Lion is stalked by the Hunter, and the Lion is hunting the Stag ("The Forest King"). 

Schor (shor) - General Schor is military governor of Trised.  His normally strict, regimented decisions have been erratic of late.  This comes shortly after he led an expedition inside the Vault of Orak'vi, leading some to darkly speculate what he may have encountered down there.

Word list:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rules Hack - Tactical Combat

I've been playing Age of Decadence recently -- the combat demo -- and realizing how fluid the combat system is while still being highly tactical.  Combats don't take long at all, and the winner is determined in the same way as in traditional pen n' paper RPGs: a die roll modified by stats and skills. 

 Age of Decadence itself promises to be a fantastic game, somewhere on the order of Fallout meets Baldur's Gate, and the combat system alone is well done.

There's something to be said about the tactical environment.  While I don't care for 3E's or 4E's version of that, I can think of ways that combat can be made more interesting than just a bonus here or a wearing down of your foe's hit points.

I began thinking about how to easily port the same system into D&D, and realized that I'd have to radically change the initiative model.  Action points in this game can allow multiple attacks.

Spot Rules:
1) Use DEX to figure out "Action Points," which would be determined by the Ability Score bonus.  

Everyone has at least 1 Action Point. 

14-15      2 APs
16-17      3 APs
  18         4 APs

Basic D&D:
For basic, you simply add 1 to the Ability Score bonus.
13-15      2 APs
16-17      3 APs
  18    4 APs     

Action points are modified by the following:
Using a light weapon      -1
Using a medium weapon -2
Using a heavy weapon    -3

Generally lighter weapons do less damage.  Medium weapons do a moderate amount of damage.  A heavy weapon usually requires two hands, and does the most damage. 

Wearing armor can slow you down as well:
Wearing no armor  0
Wearing light armor -1 (leather)
Wearing medium armor -2 (chain)
Wearing heavy armor -3 (plate)

You will never go below 1 AP. 

It costs 1 AP to attack someone. Therefore, someone who has an 18 DEX, uses a light weapon and wears no armor can attack 3 times in a single round. 

2) You may want to double or triple hit point values, to avoid insta-kills in this system.

3) You have four things to take into account, hitting, critical hits, dodging, and blocking with a shield.

 A critical hit is that telling blow that allows something special, like knocking you down or interrupting your attack.
Dodging is getting out of the way of a blow.
Blocking is putting up your shield in hopes of deflecting a blow.

A D&D character in this system would rank these four things in order of priority, higher numbers mean you want to focus on that action more.  Dodging and Blocking are special in that they're mutually exclusive.  A shield will do nothing unless you are blocking, but if your dodge is a higher priority you will dodge instead.  You can dodge and hit in the same round, as a defense costs 0 action points.  So, a typical character might look like this:
4   Hit
3   Dodge
2   Critical
1   Block

This means he wants to hit most of all, but he also wants to dodge a lot.  Criticals are less important to him, and he won't be using a shield.

So, to translate these numbers:
To hit: +4 to hit
Dodge: +3 to AC
Critical: 18-20 (20 - Critical Priority)

Note that "Hit" is only to hit, not damage.

As a defense is separated from the Action Point system, you might wish to allow Dodge and Block to be performed on a successful Ability Check, rather than having them add to AC.

4)  Next we focus on weapons.  Each weapon has something that it does on a critical hit: 
Daggers - x1.5 damage (bypassing armor).
Swords - +1 to Critical Strike, x2 damage on critical.
Axes - split shields, if no shield x2 damage.
Hammers - knock your opponent to the ground.
Spears - interrupt attempts to close in.
Bows - +2 to Critical Strike, x1.5 damage on critical.
Crossbows - knock your opponent down.
Thrown Weapons - x1.5 damage (bypassing armor).

5) One square of movement is going to cost 1 AP.  So if you have 4 APs and you move 4 Squares, that's it for that round.  You must wait til next round to attack.  You may still defend, however, as that takes 0 APs.

Will this flow as well as traditional D&D combat?  I dunno.  I can't imagine that it would take that much longer to complete.  I wonder if it's workable...