Great Khan Enthroned

Great Khan Enthroned

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Thieves in D&D

****Note this is a slightly edited version of a rant I went on about Thieves back in 2012, at the end of a longer post about other things. I figured it never got as much of an audience because it wasn't it's own post, kind of lost in the noise, and I've been considering going through and editing for re-blogging some of my older stuff- consider this a test****

The Thief, D&D's biggest jerk class. 

I think I have finally figured out why though. The name of the class says "If you are a player that wants to screw over the rest of the party, play a Thief!". I know Conan was a Thief for a good portion of his career, but a lot of D&D players have never read Conan, or Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser*, or even Thieves World with Shadowspawn, so, even though AD&D doesn't come out and say "Steal from your party", it does mention that most Thieves tend to be Evil and they see things like the drawing of the shirtless Thief robbing somebody at knife point in the 1st edition Players Handbook right under Thieves XP table, or the "There is no honor among Thieves" drawing in the alignment description section of the Dungeon Masters Guide and they assume that's the code of conduct for Thief characters. The Moldvay Basic book comes right out and says it "..as their name indicates, however, they do steal- sometimes from members of their own party". Dr. Holmes states a little more bluntly in their class description "Thieves are never truly Good and are usually referred to as Neutral or Evil, so that other members of an expedition should never completely trust them and they are quite as likely to steal from their own party as from the Dungeon Master's Monsters.". When you couple this with the fact that they have that Pick Pockets skill, what are they going to do? Screw the party, that's what they're going to do. They don't have to, they level faster than every other party member, so stealing the gems or some extra gold so the get bonus XP they don't have to share is just damned greedy, but they do it because they can, the system encourages them to.



Kind of a dick, eh?


So I got to thinking about this, if D&D is fantasy F-ing Vietnam, then Thieves are like the Tunnel Rats, or SF or some kind of specialized warrior minus the name-tag and the Pick Pockets ability; because when you think about it, what else have they got? Find and Remove Traps? That's a pretty awesome and helpful ability to have in a party, very Tunnel Rat-esque too. Move Silently? Also damned handy and kind of militarily helpful, in a stealthy commando style. Hide in Shadows, same thing. Hear Noise, again, same thing. Climb Walls, again, same thing. Open Locks is the only iffy one there, and I can see an argument for it being a militarily useful skill, or at worst, an espionage type skill**. Even their Backstab ability is a pretty bad-ass commando type ability, so these guys could have been called something else (like, say- "Sneak Attack") and saved us all years of intra-party conflict and douchebaggery. 

I guess not every D&D Thief needed to be played like a raging douche, they could have been played as though they were modeled on Indiana Jones, he displays pretty much every single Thief skill (including Read Languages that I didn't mention because I was reading them out of the Moldvay Basic book and the Holmes Basic book when I listed them), but sadly, no, he's an Archaeologist, not a Thief (although that's a subtle distinction depending on when and where you are and who you ask); all I know is I'd rather have Indy in my party or a Tunnel Rat from 'Nam than any damned Thief, even if it is Conan. Conan occasionally screwed over his party***.

*I haven't for instance.

**Which brings me to the sad slippery slope argument that Pick Pockets makes for a great espionage type skill too. Maybe it would work if the Class wasn't called Thief and didn't have all of those references towards stealing from your own party and tending toward Evil.

***To be fair, if memory serves, they were usually Thieves that were planning on screwing him over, but you have to be careful about the company you keep. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not Gaming Today

It always seems like I think and write more about gaming when I am actually gaming less. I guess that makes sense, if I were actually gaming I’d have less time to think about gaming in general. Today I was supposed to GM the new Mophidius Star Trek RPG, but both my wife Mona and my daughter Ember are sick. This should have been the “good” week for Mona, the last weekend before more chemo, we even had an “extra” weekend here because of Thanksgiving delaying a treatment for her. Until her treatments are done it’s looking like we are going to be two weeks off, one week on for gaming, with a pretty good chance of losing the third week too.

Star Trek came as a bit of a surprise this week anyway, we were scheduled to start a new Savage Worlds Fantasy campaign set in my own Garnia setting, but they released the playtest into the wild and they would appreciate getting the results back within a few weeks. It’s not a long adventure, and it seems like it hits all the right rules to test, and teach, the game. In that respect it brings to mind the adventure in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG first edition book.

Working on a new campaign is always handy to distract me from my wife’s illness, so I welcome it. Writing up stuff for Garnia for Savage Worlds is a little weird for me, I easily fall into my AD&D mode there, which makes me want to check out OSR related blogs and such, then lose myself for a while reading about things like the implied setting of OD&D, or Vancian magic, or a myriad of other details about TSR era D&D, especially the early, Gygax era.



I engaged more than usual with the D&D groups on Facebook this week, which made me realize that I have DMed way more than I have played over the years. Made me think about whether Holmes Basic should be counted as OD&D or part of the later Basic line, or should each iteration of Basic D&D be considered it’s own thing? I only recall having two characters of my own for Holmes, an elf I named Elrond- I was a big fan of the Hobbit at the time, and working my way through Lord of the Rings, and a Halfling named Garn- who my campaign world would be named after. Both of those characters were played in my friend Chris’s campaign, which eventually collapsed because of his killer DM/Monty Haul tendencies. Elrond died on his first adventure, killed by a Vampire he encountered on the second level of the dungeon. Garn became a god, after his first successful adventure.

I can only think of four 1st edition AD&D characters I played over the years. Mandark, a Human Fighter that I played in my friend Tim’s campaign from the time I was in 5th or 6th grade until he went in the army when I was a junior in high school. He made 8th level in those years of heavy play. Second, concurrently, was Lodor, and Elf Fighter/Magic-User that I played in non-Tim run campaigns (except for once, and I’m still bitter about that), he maxxed his levels out, 5th/8th I think. The third guy, whose name I don’t remember, I think it was something like “Fredigar”, lost his right hand after his first adventure and I retired him. Lastly, there was another Fighter, named Brennos, who I played in the 2nd edition era in a campaign run by my buddy Steve, who was the OG of old school. Brennos made it to 6th level, then got killed at the end of the last session we played by a critical hit from a goblin’s arrow, when he was at full HP. Still a little bitter about that too, but that campaign my well have been the most sand-box, old school game I ever played in.


2nd edition AD&D had me DMing less often, adult responsibilities and all, but I played in a pretty long-lasting (for the grown-up world anyway) game where I had two different characters, an Elf Magic-User (generalist, no kit) named Celenor, who made it to 6th level before a Drow’s sleep dart killed him with a crit, while at full HP- seeing a pattern here, still bitter about it too; and a Human Fighter whose name I forget. He was a swashbuckler, I made him so he wouldn’t compete with the Dwarf Fighter

Sunday, November 6, 2016

What's on my mind lately...

So, I’ve been thinking about games a lot lately, probably because I haven’t been playing a lot lately. My wife Mona’s cancer has recurred, in her lungs this time, and she’s started chemo and not been up to doing much gaming. We may be looking at one game per month roughly until she’s done with this course of treatment, she goes once every three weeks and it seems to take two to recover enough to do anything. I have, along with my daughter Ember, been busy picking up Mona’s slack, making meals and cleaning and such, more work than I’d expected I guess, and taking care of Mona where and when she needs it, so I don’t really have too much extra time to miss the games themselves, with the extra work involved in prepping the house for a bunch of people to come over, but I have the time to miss gaming.

Months ago my group grew from just myself, Mike and Mona to include Mike’s son Mason, my daughter Ember- who just turned nineteen, and Mike’s adult daughter Marie and her BFF Rebecca, although the latter two have only shown up when Mike was GMing Savage Worlds. Oh, and our occasional guest star Darryl, my oldest friend.

Mike has been running Savage Worlds in a couple of settings- Weird War 2 and a stand alone adventure CRT, but mainly Thrilling Tales. Our latest Thrilling Tales adventure started before we realized Mona was sick again, when we found out we tried to rush to the end before her chemo started, but that didn’t work out. I halted my B/X-AD&D campaign I started with the “Isle of Dread” when I thought we were going to have two more D&D newbies and started running “Keep on the Borderlands”, which turned out to be unnecessary because Marie and Rebecca didn’t show for it, but I figured it would be nice for Mason to have the same shared experience there that I had when I was roughly his age. That turned out to be a blood bath, with multiple near TPKs. Mona missed about half of each session because she was working, and the game ran better after she returned from work. I guess having her there was the party’s good luck charm. Bad luck, poor intra-party communication, planning, preparation and tactical coordination were killing them while she was gone. I think Mason was on his fifth character before we went on hiatus to play the Thrilling Tales game after two sessions. I haven’t seen slaughter like that since that Oriental Adventures game I ran when Ashli was a senior in high school and we had two or three weeks in a row of TPKs.

I did play a board game with Darryl and Mona a month or so back, Supremacy. It didn’t go well. We butted heads over which expansions to use. We had agreed before hand to play with none the first time, but we wasted so much time that we only had time for one game before he had to leave, so he wanted to add a bunch. I did not, as I hadn’t ever played with most of the expansions the last time I played, which was in the 1980s. My thought was that I’d have to essentially relearn the game, and so would he, and we’d have to teach Mona and Ember to play (although Em bowed out before we started), so it made sense to me to take it slow and easy. Also, Darryl and I have a history with this game that has led to acrimony in the past. I once really screwed him over in an alliance against his dad and he took it out on me by making sure that he screwed me over, as hard as he could, in every game we played for the next couple of years. Ultimately the problem was more or less solved only, I think, by us playing Axis & Allies more or less exclusively for several years. The alliances there are concrete, there is no changing sides, we usually ended up on opposite sides, but eventually learned to work together again. The game of Supremacy we played a month or so ago really brought the worst in both of us out again, and we ended up destroying the world on the third or fourth turn. Not the best way to play a game we started as a memorial tribute to his dad.

I’d say it was the stress of me having to deal with my wife’s cancer and all that entails, combined with the fact that we were pressed for time by the time we got around to playing, and the fact that we actually bickered over which exact version of the game to play before we started, but I think it may just be that the two of us can’t play that particular game together anymore, which is too bad because I have fond memories of playing it as a teenager. It bums me out because Darryl doesn’t play D&D anymore either. He’s been drawn into a more character driven, story focused, role playing intensive kind of gaming, since he started playing with another group in Syracuse maybe fifteen years ago. He associates D&D with D20 era D&D on the one hand, with it’s multitude of skill checks, it’s broken challenge rating system and it’s deep focus on miniatures and tactics on the one hand and the lack of any real, deep role playing we played it with when were were kids on the other; and his mind set goes back to the “chess-master” when he tries to play. He hates Vancian magic, and magic was his thing back in the day, he hates rules too. He’s become a champion of rules-lite games, Mike is big on rules-lite too, but neither of them seems to grok the idea that pre-D20 D&D is pretty rules-lite, especially the pre-1985 variants. The 1981 Moldvay Basic book is 64 pages, Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer’s edition (the edition I have, and the edition Mike runs) is 188 pages. You might say “But that’s not a fair comparison, it’s not the complete rules”, OK, the Cook/Marsh Expert rules are another 64 pages, an arguably complete game, still much shorter than the 188 pages of Savage Worlds, but, when I suggested that I may run a Savage Worlds fantasy game instead of D&D (mostly so Marie and Rebecca would show for it too), it was immediately suggested that I should use the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion another 160 pages. Now I (mostly) run 1st edition AD&D, so the page count is higher, but I think that my point that Savage Worlds isn’t really rules-lite is made. There are versions of D&D out there that come in at as little as 2 pages- I am looking at you Swords & Wizardry light- so you can trim a lot of fat there.

Some complain that D&D combat is too slow, I haven’t seen Savage Worlds run any faster really, although there does seem to be less bean counting for most NPCs, they are either good to go, shaken or gone, so there is that. The inevitability of using miniatures, rather than the choice, is reminiscent of 3e era D&D to me though, and I have to count that as a minus for the system. I only use minis for D&D combat maybe half of the time, usually when the group has gotten bigger and it’s harder to describe or conceptualize the space and the participants or when kids are playing*.

Skill based systems bug me. This isn’t news to anyone reading this probably, but I really hate making a skill check instead of telling me, the DM, what your character is doing. It makes sense that the kids have a hard time with this, in a video game, if you have the proper skills, things get highlighted or extra options appear in dialogue, or whatever; it bothers me when people my own age or older can’t deal with these things though. I know the argument for the other side- Marlon the Mighty knows how to do tons of stuff that I as a player have no clue about- casting magic spells, picking locks, heraldry, herbs, diplomacy, chatting up wenches, etc., so it only makes sense that I should get a die roll on these, right? Maybe, but it makes the players lazy to be able to JUST make a die roll. Maybe you are bad at thinking on your feet, embarrassed at having to improv on the spot etc., but you should have something in mind when you try to bluff your way past the guard. Not having this idea is the opposite of role playing, it doesn’t help with the immersive story experience that was a stated aim in RPGs.

I keep saying to people, Darryl, Mike, Ember, even Mona (who has heard it all before a thousand times), that the system (or engine) that you are using doesn’t matter. All RPGs are pretty much the same, and universal, you can tell a great interactive story with D&D as your engine if you try. You can have a bogged down, slow moving roll for everything fest with it too. DM skill matter way more than the system you are using. I have tried many RPGs, not as many as a lot of people, but more than most I’d say, and I keep coming back to the one I spent the bulk of my youth playing- D&D, usually with the “A” out front; it’s home to me. I find it simple to modify to whatever my campaign needs are at the moment. I can add and subtract from the rules, and I have a solid idea of what effect each change will have. I know what to modify, and what to leave be. I think in D&D when I design stuff, I have to convert it to other systems when I play them and that’s kind of an annoying waste of my time. AD&D is just OD&D with a bunch of accretions, bits of house rules added on, ideas from people other than Gary and Dave and the TSR band. Everybody started somewhere in the D&D timeline, I started with Holmes Basic just prior to the release of Moldvay Basic- I was actually confused and annoyed that a “new” edition was released so soon after I bought mine- I have never met an RPG player that had not played D&D. A lot of people didn’t play a lot of D&D, having quickly moved to different or more exotic systems, RuneQuest and DragonQuest were apparently popular alternatives at one point, GURPS was big later. Maybe Vampire the Masquerade drew in a different crowd to RPGs that never played D&D, but I never met a White Wolf/World of Darkness fan that had never played D&D. 5th edition D&D seems pretty popular, but it’s not really my cup of tea; I’d probably play, but I don’t want to DM. It has too many leftover rules from the 3e D&D era for me. Also, I hate Dragonborn as a PC race, but I was never a fan of Gnomes either, so your personal mileage may vary.




*This generation raised on video games seems to start at a real deficit when it comes to describing encounters versus showing them on a map/battle board. I should also note that “kids” seems to refer to everyone under thirty. Get off my lawn!  

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year End Review



I spent much of the last year moving from personal crisis to personal crisis, then I got settled in to my new life and neglected a lot of the things I wanted to do this year. I didn't work out, I didn't lose weight or any of the “normal” things I'd wanted to do. I started a bunch of projects that I didn't finish, not really new for me, but it seemed worse this year than before. I wasted a lot of time screwing around on the internet when I could've been working on something constructive or reading or literally anything else. I guess I lost a lot of focus when my wife was diagnosed with cancer last December, she seems to be doing fine by the way, and I couldn't even really focus on the stuff I was using to keep myself busy so I wouldn't be in constant fear for her life.

We moved. That kind of screwed things up for me with regard to working on things for my newly launched “Great Khan Games”, which is just really an excuse for me to maybe make some coffee money off my hobby. I started playing some D&D (and a couple of other RPGs and a couple of board games, and a couple of different card games) and made a new friend- which is about statistically impossible for a man my age.

I am facing the possibility that I am suffering from some kind of weird DM burnout, despite not actually playing that often. I am having trouble keeping things going. I just called it earlier this month on our meandering and somewhat poorly run (my fault) AD&D campaign, and started a new AD&D OA campaign the last time we played (2 weeks ago this coming Saturday- we had to cancel last week when my entire family got sick), and I am sorry to say I am already losing interest in it. I've no idea why. Just an overwhelming feeling of “Meh”.

Mike has GMed here a couple of times and I had a great time. I still haven't tried gaming online. Various anxieties are keeping me from it. I really should play a game online, just to see what it's like, so I will attempt to do it within the next month. I am pretty sure that I won't want to DM online, because the amount of prep and the mastery of the VTT software seem like too much of a bother.

I guess we've reached the end of the review. Gaming wise, I have published 2 character classes (1 for AD&D/OSRIC and the other for B/X-Labyrinth Lord or AD&D/OSRIC), crashed and burned an AD&D game I was running, and started an AD&D OA game that I am hoping I can re-inspire myself for before Saturday. The list of shelved/abandoned projects is a lot longer, but sadder to me.

Aside from gaming I am doing pretty well. I live in a nice, new place, it's big. My wife's entire extended family is around and I mostly like them. Met and befriended a local(ish) gamer. My oldest daughter got engaged, and my youngest is a senior in high school. I wasn't disappointed by the new Star Wars movie. I got a bunch of cool OSR stuff over the course of the year (White Star, Yoon-Suin, A Red and Pleasant Land, Vornheim [I only had the pdf before], Petty Gods, Castle Gargantua, Silent Legions- just off the top of my head).



Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Another Taste

Here's another little taste of my new campaign setting, also from the gazetteer, the city that was supposed to be the "home base" for the first party that I ran a game for in this world. They actually quickly fled the city to avoid suspicion for the ritual murder that the party's cultist cleric performed shortly after arriving.

Dusk- The port city. 

Dusk is an ancient city, predating the Empire, back to the days of the Great Migration. Now it is in it's decay, having lost it's chief sources of revenue, the Grand Canal, when Hilltown sunk. Dusk is ruled by it's Lord Mayor and his council of Aldermen; they, in turn, are greatly influenced by the Knight Commander of the Imperial garrison, and the criminal organizations “The Family” and the League of Gentlemen Rogues.

Sites of interest in Dusk include the Theological Seminary of Dusk, located just to the west of the city proper; the Imperial garrison at Fort Dusk, located on the north of the city, just to the west side of the harbor overlooking the harbor mouth; and, during the summer months, both the Market of Dusk, which is run every week on Thursdays, and the Dusk Hippodrome, where, against all odds and reason, the Empire still hosts weekly chariot races, and one week long festival of chariot races to end the season each year.

Lesser known sites include the semi-legendary Undercity Tunnels, which may predate the building of the city itself, where dark things are said to lurk, guarding vast riches for those foolhardy souls that are willing to try and take them; and the Raider's Market, held on private land belonging to “The Family” just to the west of the Theological Seminary of Dusk, where more illicit or unsavory goods are bought and sold.

Details- Dusk has a permanent population of, roughly, 6500 souls. It's chief trades are fishing, it's markets (both official and unofficial) and it's many taverns and brothels serving the transient community of merchant sailors, traders and Imperial soldiers.



A New Campaign Setting

I have been working on a new campaign setting, on and off, for much of the last year. I intended that it should be used for my Swords & Wizardry campaign that never quite got off the ground, before I moved across the state in July. I call it "Shattered Empire", and it's a setting that could easily be used for "Lamentations of the Flame Princess", due to it's human-centric nature and it's semi-Lovecraftian feel. I almost went with LotFP when we started play, but jumped back to S&W because that was my starting point when I began the design. I also made fairly extensive use of Delving Deeper in the design, especially with regard to the monster list. Some bits of Carcosa were an inspiration too. I guess this works pretty well with any iteration of (A)D&D, with an emphasis on the original edition; or any retroclone, with a minimum of refitting. Anyway, here's a bit from the gazetteer for the primary campaign area- the most fleshed out part.

The Empire-



Official Name: The Manifest Empire of Divine Providence


The Empire was, at one time, a vast continent spanning entity; at the time of the Apocalypse the Empire was essentially destroyed and devolved into numerous small successor states. The heir to the old Empire that is considered the most legitimate is the one that still bears it’s name and it’s original title; even the other"mini-empires" that make up the bulk of the continental land-mass will grudgingly admit that “The Empire” is the one with it’s capitol at Whitehall and controls the great city of Neopolis. The Empire, for it’s part, still puts on airs like it is an immense entity, but in it’s darkest moments will admit that it is a shabby version of it’s ancestral self, unable to exert real control any further than the reach of it’s armies.
Despite having once been a republic, most positions within the empire have become hereditary – at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum. The powerful have become Dukes, Counts and Imperial Electors, the peasantry are attempting, without much success, to stave off the steady encroachment of hereditary serfdom.
The society of the empire has evolved to have a distinct split between it’s urban and rural components, with power largely residing in the rural and prestige with the urban. The urban citizens of the empire consider their rural brethren to be uncultured, uneducated, rude hicks. The rural folk consider the urbanites to be effete, lazy, corrupt fools. They are both essentially right.


Think of it like a cross between the late Roman empire and any decadent bit of Hyboria, only with extra-dimensional and cross-time pockets leaking in and the elder gods starting to sleep less deeply. I also had recently supported the Kickstarter for Silent Legions just prior to starting on this and my wife was diagnosed with cancer, so it is a bit dark.

I have a lot more, I just thought I'd float this tiny bit to see if it was of any interest.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In Memoriam

Last Thursday my best friend Darryl's dad, Big Darryl, died. His death was not unexpected, but it still came as a blow to me. A week has passed and I still haven't figured out just what kind of tribute I want to write or how to write it, so bear with me, I may ramble some.

Big Darryl was a friend, a mentor, and a father figure to me which seems more important to me than just mentioning that he was a gamer. He was a gamer though, a wargamer first, an RPG gamer second. He was a smart guy, a trait he shared with his oldest son Darryl, and he was the first older smart guy I ever met that liked the same things I did. His son Darryl was, and is, my closest friend, which is how I met him when I was 13 or 14 years old. I spent about half of my weekends at his house through the entirety of my high school years, and we played a lot of games. Dawn Patrol, Speed Circuit, Star Fleet Battles and Axis & Allies were favorites there, possibly because they were more accessible to the other neighborhood kids that came over to hang out while we were there, although it's not like he ever coddled anyone when it came to gaming. Big Darryl's favorites were probably Wooden Ships & Iron Men and Flight Leader, I'd guess.

He had a lot of games. I thought it was normal for adults to have a small room dedicated to their hobby, my own dad does, he's a model railroader. He had tons of games we never actually got around to playing, some we only played once or twice, mostly wargames, but he had a pretty extensive RPG library too, pretty much everything ever printed for FASA Trek, but I don't remember ever getting past the character creation stage there. Multiple editions of Boot Hill, that I don't recall ever playing with him, the James Bond RPG, Star Frontiers, Top Secret. I guess it'd be easy to say he loved Science Fiction, he had a great library of Heinlein and Asimov and a bunch of other old school SF writers. He seemed to really love Star Trek, although he had occasional rants about the Next Generation.

He was a veteran of the US Air Force, he'd lied about his age, enlisted at 16 and was famously stationed in Morocco, where he apparently ate dog. He was a pretty damned good chess player. During the time I knew him, he worked as a manager for the service departments of several different automobile dealerships, an over-the-road truck driver and, lastly, a school bus driver for a head start program. He loved cars and airplanes, I went to more than one Warbirds show with him. He knew, with an encyclopedic knowledge, pretty much everything there was to know about any topic that caught his interest. When we played Dawn Patrol, he would tell us about various WWI aces, with Speed Circuit it would be Grand Prix drivers. He was a master strategist and an excellent tactician and he pulled no punches when he played against us boys, it made us better gamers. In his latter years, after we started gaming again in the months before my sister died, he took a little longer to play his turn, and he occasionally forgot some rule or other in a game we hadn't played in fifteen or twenty years. Darryl and I had gotten better, he had declined a little, it made for a more even game, but it was a little sad too. Back in his heyday he was a character too, his epic fits of temper when the dice screwed him over were a legend, one that created the warning for new players both to not be alarmed and by no means should they laugh. The man took games seriously.

He hated D&D, the way that only a true fan can hate. He worked for years on his own fantasy heart breaker RPG, an ill-conceived Frankenstein of a system that Darryl and I were occasionally forced to help Design, write, and playtest, with small success that would usually send him back to the drawing board and on another round of scrounging through the rulebooks to other RPGs for bits to cannibalize. He was a master of DYI and house-ruling, it took me decades to realize Dawn Patrol was actually a fairly simple, fast-paced game for instance, once you stripped away the accretions of his rules tinkering. The last game I played with him, I think, was the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (1st edition), it was fun- he embraced the unique setting and there weren't any of his anti-D&D tirades.

I hadn't seen him for a couple of years now, my own issues with depression and anxiety, particularly after the death of my sister, combined with the fact that he moved to Pennsylvania meant we fell out of contact again, which had happened before, more than once.


I miss him. I wish I'd taken Darryl up on his offer to go with him to visit his dad in PA at least once. I guess I just always figured we'd have the time to hang out at some point in the future.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Pair of Meditations on OD&D



I have been thinking a lot about the game, as it is played now, even by us OSR types, versus how it was played at the beginning. This led me down a couple of similar, related paths regarding the origin of the game and the expectations of it's players.

These days D&D, and RPGs in general, have evolved into two distinct categories. I do not claim that one style of play is superior to the other, I merely observe that there are two camps. They are not mutually exclusive of each other either, though groups tend to fall with a majority of players in one of the two camps and rules systems have developed to play to the advantages of both styles. I also do not claim that the camps are opposed to one another, they simply are.

The first category of RPG takes the RP part and expands upon it, to the near exclusivity of the other parts of the game, essentially making the experience a directed improvisational theater performance. Some D&D players do this, most everyone in the “Storyteller” type games is doing this. I have found this type of game to be generally too abstract and often too linear. I like to make the story for myself, reacting to the world around me, even as it reacts to my actions; I don't like to be locked into a pre-plotted narrative.

The second group embraces the G, and become somewhat gamist about it; meta-gaming and rules mastery are rewarded, most people playing 3.x D&D, Pathfinder, or 4th edition D&D seem to fall into this camp in my experience, which is, admittedly, small. Games that emphasize tactics and have detailed rules systems kind of encourage this, I found this style of play to be too simulationist for my tastes.

So I sat down and read a bunch of blogs about OSR gaming. I read through a couple of different iterations of the D&D rules from the early days, and their modern clones and variants. When I was done doing that I thought about it for a while.

On Player Characters-

D&D started out as a cooperative skirmish scale wargame. Players, at least beginning players, were encouraged to play only one “unit” in this game. One unit being a single individual, the character. Wargamers tend to begin to identify with certain units, or at least they think of certain units with regard for the memories of what those units have done in past games. When there is a campaign game, and units can gain experience, moving up from green, to veteran or even elite status, they care even more. Since early D&D, and presumably the “Braunstein” games that preceded it, adopted this experience system, and the players were identified solely with their single unit, those units developed a life and personality of their own. The game could be played with miniatures, and I am certain it was, in the beginning. That's how I played it when I started out. However, and this is important, it could also be played “theater of the mind” style, with out miniature figures, without a board or table. This opens up a lot of possibilities, you don't need as much space to play, and you don't need to have the “right” unit (miniatures wargamers tend to hate substituting in the “wrong” miniature), to name just two, off the top of my head.

My point here is that the single unit that you play in this cooperative skirmish game, becomes something you get attached to more and more over time, with repeated successes, or at least escaping death. Your character's stats may be written on a 3x5 card, but he ultimately becomes more than the card he's written on. He doesn't start that way though. Gygax is famously quoted as having said “Backstory is what happens in the first three levels”*. Generally as your character gets more experienced he starts to acquire retainers and hirelings, sub-characters whose job is to assist in the success of whatever “mission” the party is on and to help keep the primary character alive**. The player character becomes a “squad leader” as the game scales up, and it generally becomes expected that the trusted, experienced henchmen will become player characters in their own right over time, usually at the death or retirement of the primary PC; and all of this was necessary because PCs never reached the power levels that are common now.

I came to wargames and D&D at the same time- I played my first hex-and-counter wargame one week to the day before I played D&D for the first time. I had no preconceptions of how either type of game “should” be played, so I approached both of them from what my previous board game experiences had taught me, and, in the case of D&D, just what being a kid with a good imagination taught me. The lack of a board was slightly confounding, but I got that my single character was my “piece” or token for the game, and that, if I died, it was game over (a term I was just beginning to see in the nascent video game industry). The more difficult part to wrap my head around was the “play acting” part, that took time.

My original D&D crew also had to be slowly coaxed into having hirelings, and never really took to henchmen at all. I suppose AD&D taught us to regard them as experience point leeches. We did start to really give personality and individuality to our characters though, eventually, as they were played more and leveled up some. I guess we were more or less on point with regard to how the elders of the game had originally played there at least.

So, to sum it up. I think it's possible that we are placing too much emphasis on our player characters, making them too individual, with their own backstories and personalities too soon, jumping the gun trying to make all of our characters special snowflakes right out of the gate, where in the earliest days of the hobby that wasn't really a thing. Both schools of thought in modern gaming seem to have lost sight of what was just obvious in the beginning, for different reasons.

On Alignment-

My second thought was about alignment, which has been popping up here and there across a bunch of blogs, but I never would have understood in it's originally conceived form, if I had not thought about D&D as a wargame. Simply put, alignment has no real morality to it in it's original conception, it's just the faction or “team” your character plays for. Lawful versus Chaotic (Law vs. Chaos), with some neutral parties that could go either way, or they might form their own team and fight against both sides. This “which team does my unit belong to” alignment system makes a great deal of sense when coming at this from a wargaming point of view.

Admittedly, there was some moral component creeping in even at the start (or at least near the start).
This is the alignment chart from the Holmes Basic set, which I think we can all agree is closer to OD&D than it is to either AD&D or B/X.





















The moral component, or Good-Evil Axis only really comes into it's own with AD&D, where each of the nine alignments in the spectrum have distinct definitions. Few aspects of the D&D game have brought about more rancor and disharmony than the expansion of the “team” alignment system into the “morality spectrum” alignment system, and we lose an important part of what alignment meant back at the beginning. Holmes Basic was my first D&D, followed quickly by the X half of B/X and AD&D, pretty much concurrent with each other, so my entire concept of alignment was the AD&D style, until now. Now I like the “team” alignment system present in OD&D, that apparently continued, with a slight hiccup in Holmes, through the entire TSR D&D line.

To conclude I want to state that I wasn't looking to declare any one play style superior to the others, but instead to discover for myself what we do differently than the creators of the hobby did. Going back and reading through OD&D, skimming through Chainmail, and reading through S&W White Box and Delving Deeper, but from a wargamers perspective was an interesting exercise. The expectation of what the play experience was going to be is somewhat different than it is now. Regardless of whether the game is more story oriented or more simulationist, new games spend a vast amount of time in character creation, which means that high mortality rates are extremely undesirable. Contrast this with the five or so minutes of character creation in OD&D and it's simulacra, and the concept that the character is just a playing piece and the high mortality rate is no big deal, but you really start to feel it when they have some time invested in them later on.

I don't think any of this is ground-breaking news, simply stuff that I was unaware of. I may be wrong about the whole thing, this is just what I got from trying to see things from a different perspective as I read through these early D&D books and their more recent restatements. I had a similar epiphany the last time I did this, after I had read a series of blog posts about the post-apocalyptic assumed setting of OD&D with regard to setting and encounter design, and embracing randomness.


* Or five maybe? It's possible he never said it at all, but that doesn't make it a bad sentiment.


** I suppose that makes Charisma seem less like a dump stat, it affects how many retainers you can have and whether or not they stick around; which is important in the “squad leader” phase of the game.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Wee Update




I started writing again, pretty regularly, after I had more or less decided to quit this and start another blog, at least for a few posts, then I went on a communications blackout again. This time it happened because I started writing a post about how using ideas that you think suck when you first have them, or actually using elements of a game that you personally dislike, can actually lead to some pretty cool stuff. I started writing about how I kind of hate Gnomes in AD&D, and then came up with a pretty cool Gnome-based idea for my new AD&D campaign. So I wasn't ready to share it just yet, and I kept on working on it. I also started running a new AD&D campaign, we're two sessions in now, and I keep getting lots of cool ideas that I want to work on, so I have been. Again, something I can't really share just yet. Additionally, the AD&D Oriental Adventures group I started on Facebook a few months back has started to take off a bit, so I have been spending a bit of time making sure I keep up with that, since it's my group, my responsibility. Then there have been a few KAG related things I've been doing some work on, and lastly, but not least, I have another idea for a new (A)D&D campaign that I have been thinking about some, so I am writing that stuff up in my “campaign ideas” document; which I started specifically to document any ideas I wanted to explore for use at a later date- either because I didn't have an active game going, or I was running something else but didn't want to lose a good idea. I've been looking at a lot of “gonzo” old school stuff lately, and it has inspired me. That and Whitestar.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Monks, Monasteries and AD&D



Monks, love them or hate them, are part of the AD&D landscape. They have been around since the early days of the original D&D game, from the Blackmoor supplement in 1975. Ever since then they have been crapping up D&D's (and AD&D's) pseudo-western European fantasy vibe. They yanked them from the D&D line with Holmes Basic (which was really basic) and they weren't in B/X, but they returned there, renamed the Mystic, with the Cyclopedia, maybe BECMI, I don't know, I only ever had the Companion set for that edition. 2nd edition AD&D dumped them, although it's possible they showed up in one of the eight million splatbooks. They definitely made a return as a core class in 3rd edition*, and were/are presumably in 4th and 5th editions**.

I work, mostly, with 1st edition AD&D, so eventually the subject of Monks always comes up. They make decent villains, as the Scarlet Brotherhood, in Greyhawk; and, as such, appear in several AD&D modules set there. Greyhawk is about as close as you really get to an official, core, 1st edition AD&D setting. It belonged to EGG, pretty much all of the published modules are set somewhere in the World of Greyhawk, pre-1985 anyway, and Greyhawk means acceptance of Monks. So does 1st edition AD&D, by the book.

We may not use every single rule when we play 1st edition AD&D, for instance we mostly ditch weapon vs. armor, but it's tough to justify getting rid of a class from the Players Handbook. Assassins are probably the only other class people ever try to ditch, and you have more justification for that- I often run with a “No Evil Aligned Characters” house rule to promote a more cooperative and heroic style of game. But with Monks, we're just kind of stuck with them***, if we're playing AD&D.

It's hard to remove that whole Shaolin Kung-Fu image from them, and that flies in the face of the rest of the AD&D aesthetic. They should be tonsured and live a simple, contemplative life, away from the concerns and squabbles of the secular world, devoted to their deity, in short, another brand of Cleric. I keep trying to find a way to make the Monk Class seem more like traditional European monks, to justify their existence in an otherwise largely Western European assumed setting. Maybe something like Friar Tuck? I know he's not a Monk, but a Friar, but in a pseudo-European context isn't that what adventuring Monk would be?

I don't really offer any solutions to the Monk problem, I just wanted to air my thoughts on the subject a bit. What does everyone else think? Are Monks fine in AD&D? Do they need some sort of reskinning for a more western medieval setting? Do we say to hell with verisimilitude and go with it anyway, because it is a FANTASY world first and foremost?


*which should have been either called 3rd edition AD&D, or like 5th or 6th edition D&D. Does Cyclopedia count as a different edition than BECMI? What about that black basic book from the 1990s?
**I actually own, and gave a read through of 5th edition, but I honestly can't recall if the Monk was present, and I am not interested enough to go look it up.

***Mostly, I have run a long standing game in a world without any Monks and never had anyone complain.  

Monday, August 31, 2015

RPG a day



Just to keep in practice, but I am doing them all at once, because I am a rebel-

Forthcoming game I am most looking forward to:
I can't really think of any game that isn't out yet, that I have heard of that I want- so I am going to say the print copies of White Star.

Kickstarted game I am most pleased I backed:
I don't actually do a lot of Kickstarters. I got burned by the Up Front Kickstarter, and my disposable income has dropped significantly since my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I am going to say anything from Kevin Crawford.

Favorite new game of the last 12 months:
James Spahn's White Star, hands down.

Most surprising game:
Again, White Star. I was surprised by how much I loved it, and by how inspired I was by it. I have a couple of different settings for it that I am tinkering with, nothing I can publish (copyrighted IP), and I may not end up ever playing in them (too little time, too few players), but I was still surprised at how much this game affected me.

Most recent RPG purchase:
The Spectre King for the Pendragon game.

Most recent RPG played:
Labyrinth Lord, before I moved. I had decided to run a session of Stonehell with the system it was statted for.

Favorite free RPG:
Delving Deeper- but this was a toss up between retroclones. OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry were all in the running too, and maybe on a different day one of them would have been picked, but today it's Delving Deeper.

Favorite appearance of RPGs in the media:
I can't really think of any, odd question, pass.

Favorite media you wish was an RPG:
Falling Skies?

Favorite RPG publisher:
TSR, they gave us D&D. But for extant companies, I am going to go with New Big Dragon Games.

Favorite RPG writer:
E. Gary Gygax, but for living authors I'll pick Richard Leblanc.

Favorite RPG illustration:
Tough call, too many to choose from, old TSR stuff, OSR stuff, other games and companies. I always was fond of Twilight 2000's photo realistic style. “A Paladin in Hell” is certainly evocative and inspirational, as is pretty much anything by Trampier or Otus- in different ways.

Favorite RPG podcast:
I really don't listen to podcasts with any regularity.

Favorite RPG accessory:
What popped immediately to mind was the Kara-Tur boxed set, but when I think about it, I haven't really used it all that much, I used the module OA1 “Swords of the Daimyo” way more. I haven't actually spent enough time using any new stuff to properly assess their utility, but I'd like to say the “d30 sandbox companion” or the “Wilderness Alphabet” .

Longest campaign played:
I'd have to say Tim McDougal's Specularum based 1st edition AD&D campaign from the 1980s was the longest running, and probably the most often played campaign I ever played in. I DMed a pretty long running campaign concurrent with that, mostly 1-on-1 with my next door neighbor Scott Whitmore, but Tim's played more often.

Longest game session played:
A 1-on-1 week long Oriental Adventures sandbox with my friend Darryl Cook when we were 18 I think. I think I was unemployed at the time and he had a week's paid vacation. We holed up in my bedroom at my parent's house and never stopped for more than about 3 hours time to nap, which we did maybe 7 or 8 times in 7 days. We ate at the game table, and only had 2 or 3 15 minute (at most) bathroom breaks. He played a Kensai and kept really good notes about the whole game, I had those notes for like a decade after that. I eventually lost them, probably in a move.

Favorite Fantasy RPG:
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition, pre-Unearthed Arcana (but including Oriental Adventures). Runners up- 2nd edition AD&D and B/X D&D.

Favorite SF RPG:
West End Games d6 Star Wars. Runners up- FASA's Star Trek, Twilight 2000 (1st edition) and Gamma World (early 1980's edition).

Favorite Supers RPG:
TSR's Marvel Super Heroes.

Favorite Horror RPG:
Vampire: The Masquerade. I lost OSR cred there, but I stand by it, as it brought way more people. especially women, to the hobby. I was in college when it hit and the RPG scene exploded.

Favorite RPG setting:
I am assuming published, so I am going to go with 43AD. I know it's a stand alone game, but it's really just a setting book for Zozer Game's d6 RPG system. Plus, since I worked on it, I am intimately familiar with it- a real bonus. Otherwise, probably a tie between B/X D&D's “The Known World” AKA “Mystara” and EGG's own “World of Greyhawk”.

Perfect gaming environment:
A large table with comfortable chairs, good lighting, a small side table for the GM. Temperature at a comfortable level (AC in summer, heat in winter- these have been an issue in the past), snacks & drinks easily accessible. Nearby bathroom facilities. Bookshelves stocked with RPGs and their accessories are a plus. No distractions nearby- TV, radio, computer, etc. Handicapped accessible would be nice too. Most places I have gamed have met most of these criteria, few meet all.

Favorite house rule:
I don't know if it's my favorite, but it certainly is the most widely utilized among gamers I have played with- the nearly universal natural 20 equals a double damage critical hit. How the critical hit is applied has some minor variation- I double the number of damage dice, then add any applicable bonuses (Strength, Magic), other people just roll the normal damage dice and then double it, some people double bonuses too. Runners up include the d30 rule and “Shields Shall Be Splintered”, but they are forgotten too often at the table, and the 4d6 drop the lowest die x7, drop the lowest total, arrange as desired stat rolling system.

Favorite revolutionary game mechanic:
a 3 way tie of good rules from the 3rd edition era- the 3 saving throw system, the critical threat-hit system, and ascending AC. I don't use them but I recognize their excellence.

Favorite inspiration for my game:
History, followed by literature from various historical periods(Norse Sagas, Chansons des Geste), followed by historical fiction (I am a big fan of Simon Scarrow's Macro & Cato series, Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome, and there are several series about vikings I like.), followed by myth, folklore and legend, then lastly fantasy and science fiction literature (I really liked Katherine Kerr's Deverry series, Dorothy Heydt's “A Point of Honor”, Deborah Turner Harris's “Caledon of the Mists” and it's sequels, of course Robert E. Howard's Conan and more). They are all pretty tightly tied together for me. I guess movies and TV are pretty inspirational to me too, HBO's Rome was excellent, History Channel's Vikings ranges from OK to good. Gaming fiction I find next to useless as inspiration, as it is usually pretty uninspired itself. GURPS has some excellent supplements- Vikings, Imperial Rome, Celtic Myth, Middle Ages. There are quite a few books on adventure design that are pretty good whether you use the tables or not- Wilderness and Dungeon Alphabets, Tome of Adventure Design, even TSR's DM's Cookbook.

Favorite idea for merging 2 games into 1:
There's a special hell in which I have served too much time. Genre mashing is sometimes OK, system mashing usually is not.

Favorite game I no longer play:
I could be a smart-ass and say AD&D, just because I haven't got a new game going since I moved, but I'll go with Pendragon instead. I haven't played that since the 1980's. Every now and again I buy new stuff for it, but I never play.

Favorite RPG website or blog:
Tough call, I read a lot of gaming blogs, OSR blogs mainly, and each of them I have a good reason for reading. Commentary, content, or news; they're all pretty important to me in their own ways.

Favorite RPG playing celebrity:
I haven't played with any of them, and I don't know any personally, but I guess I'd have to go with Vin Diesel. The man preaches the gospel of gaming.

Favorite non-RPG thing to come out of gaming:
My marriage. I met my wife because of gaming nearly 25 years ago, started dating roughly 22 years ago and we've been together ever since. Most of my oldest friends I met through gaming too, so here's a shout out to my buddy Darryl- we met at the junior high D&D club in the fall of 1981.