Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sacking the Keep on the Borderlands

(If you're one of my players, skip this post as it has potential spoilers for your upcoming game. Thanks.)

Two bloggers I follow recently discussed the old TSR Basic Set classic B2 The Keep on the Borderlands.

This first one reviews the good and the bad of the classic old module.

The second takes the idea that the keep is (suspiciously?) well detailed and runs with it.

I greatly enjoyed both posts, and since I've just re-read the Keep with an eye to using it (especially the titular keep!) in my GURPS Dungeon Fantasy game, I have a lot of thoughts on the subject.

Especially on the keep, the quality of magic items in the caves, and the random nature of the monster assortment.

So here are my takes and on the "why?" of some of these oddities.

Interestingly, while not D&D, the Rolemaster setting/adventure books always told you in complete detail about the military forces and major treasures of all the important places. That's allies and enemies. Want to know how many Cloudlords of Tanara there are, and how wealthy they are? Not a problem, it's details enough to run a combat with them on a moment's notice. That kind of detail is useful, and Gary Gygax was inclined to include it.

I'm not convinced the Keep is the target, as B/X Blackrazor suggests. Don't get me wrong - that's a great turn of mind, and a clever way to spin the adventure on its head. I'll also note that attacking a military fortress is one of the example NPCs responses detailed out in the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, too. So it's not like Gary Gygax was unaware of this. But I think the power of the keep's occupants have more to do with keeping the adventurers in check than in providing them with a target.

The wealth in the loan bank? It's a lot, but it's there for repeated loans to successive groups of PCs who get wiped out trying the Caves of Chaos. It's also for buying treasures off the PCs. The bank can't reasonably blow its whole reserve on gemstones and jewelry and converting coins. So if the Caves of Chaos yield more than the local fortress's bank, you'll end up with the PCs breaking the bank.

The tensions in the keep? A good source of "town" adventures.

The wacky monster assortment? Yeah, no worse than B1 In Search of the Unknown could be, or B3 Palace of the Silver Princess, or indeed any Gary Gygax module (cough, cough, S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, aka different monsters in every corner).

The specifics on the guards? Gary Gygax was a wargamer. No other adventure I can think of goes into this much detail on a fortress, but Gygax does it. Not to sack it, but because of his individual preferences. You have a titular keep as an adventuring base? You damn well write it up. The stupid village of Hommlet has more details than the other places you actually might want to adventure in, and has NPCs would could kick your ass from here to the Ruined Gatehouse and back without losing more than a few HP in the process. If you make trouble, he's detailed who the troublemakers must deal with.

Which brings me to another point - yes, the NPCs are more powerful and more wealthy than the PCs will be after the caves. Sure, of course they are. They are supposed to be not because they are the main bad guys but because they are the main good guys. They are powerful compared to the PCs so the PCs can't kick their asses, not because the PCs are supposed to. They are there to say, yeah, running a keep isn't some job for a 2nd or 3rd level fighter, you need to have real experience before you get that kind of post. And yes, they get the permanent magic items and you get the dross that gets burned up in the process of adventuring. So once the caves are down, you go elsewhere seeking more loot. You can't stick around, and you aren't more powerful than the keep (although you could take it down if you wanted to, the Caves don't exactly equip you to knock them off with ease).

So thanks to Blackrazor and to Lair of the Flame Princess for the thought-provoking posts.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

GM tips, or, Already Famous

I contributed a to the "Build a Better GM" Challenge.

It's been put together into a nice PDF, with and without illustrations, here:

Now Playing at a Free Download Near You

It's also available in a Kindle edition.

Support your local GM and download this great freebie.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: The Dungeon Alphabet

Periodically, I'm going to review stuff on this blog. It may be old stuff I found and liked a lot, new stuff regardless of whether I liked it or not, or anything in between. I'm going to try to err on the side of stuff useful to anyone in any system, but it really depends on what I find!

The Dungeon Alphabet
by Michael Curtis
Goodman Games 2009

Dungeon Alphabet is a system-neutral sourcebook for old-school style dungeon crawling games. The book's central idea is the alphabet, with a dungeon-themed word for each letter of the alphabet. It runs from "A is for Altar" to "Z is for Zowie" (okay, some are a bit of a stretch) and the other 24 letters in between.

Each of the 26 entries has some introductory text discussing why the term fits in dungeons and how it fits. This text is well written and gives you a really inspiring sense of why you need altars, undead, statues, or jewels in your dungeon. Next is a very old-school style element: random tables. Each entry has a table with a corresponding bit of text attached to every random result. These range from random book titles for "B is for Books" to different forms of gold for "G is for Gold" and the strange effects of drinking from the titular bodies of water in "P is for Pools."

Some people might scoff at random tables, but this is a great way to either leave bits of your dungeon up to the universe or just inspire you. A quick roll on the Altar table might give you something to inspire your own version, or you could just stick with what turns up. For folks running a system heavy on the random generation side (say, white box D&D), it'll fit right in. For folks running systems that pretty much demand you decide what you want and then build it, this might be new. Or old - very, very old school. I'm just amused to no end, and I'm going to get a d30 just to use with a table or two in this book.

Speaking of dice and system neutrality, "system neutral" does need to be clarified a bit. While The Dungeon Alphabet will work for any dungeon-based fantasy game, it is really "any class and level system neutral" instead. You are expected to have a full range of polyhedral dice (including a d30) and there are lots of references are to going up or down a level or otherwise reference classes. So while it'll work best for games like OD&D and its clones, it will work just as well with a non-class and level system such as GURPS.

The entries are generally excellent. The only weak entry, in my opinion, was K is for Kobolds - with a die roll for unique kobold tribes. While it does have a reference to "Tucker's Kobolds" and a Jim Holloway illustration, it just felt merely "good" in a book full of "great." I know many low-level types cut their teeth on kobolds, and I'm not averse to using them myself, but are they that interesting that they need an entry? Or that boring-yet-required that they need an entry to spice them up? In either case the entry works, it's just not as strong as true gems like the lever table, the random book titles, or the creepy table entries for "Y is for Yellow."

The book is lavishly illustrated and the art is generally good. Some of the art is excellent. It is awesome beyond words to see "Erol Otus '09" on the front cover, but the goodness doesn't stop there. The illustration fo "L is for Lever" is so Paranoia-like that you could swap hapless clones for the hapless adventurers and it wouldn't need a single other change. There is the Holloway piece mentioned above, a few good setpiece illustrations showing the letter in action ("V for Vermin" and "U for Undead" work especially well).

Content: 5 out of 5. None of the alphabetic entries are wasted, all of the table entries are meaty adventure seeds, hooks, or just answers to player's questions.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Not even counting the Erol Otus cover, this book is well done. The text is easy to read and clear, the tables are equally easy to use, and the book is attractively illustrated.

Overall: This is a book I wish I'd written, and I'm sorry I took so long to find it and buy it. Outstanding stuff, and any dungeon fantasy GM (from OD&D DMs to GURPS DF GMs) can make use of this. It's better for a class-and-level, gold-and-dungeons game, but it'll work for any variation of fantasy world underground delving for treasure. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lighting the Way

One thing I often forget as a GM is to inflict lighting penalties. I'm trying to think of a visual cue for my maps and game table to cover it.

I was reminded of this by this excellent post:

Don't Be Cheap with Lighting over at Plant Algol.

In my games in the past my gamers have been the same way - no one wants to carry the torch, and even if they do, they want it to be effectively full daylight lighting conditions (-0) and not penalized for flickering torchlight (-0 out to 2 yards, -3 out to 6 yards per GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 2 p. 6). Often they want it to reach pretty far (out to dozens of yards, preferably) but not be especially noticeable.

I fully intend to be more of a bastard with lighting penalties in my DF game, and I started out on the right foot with that in our playtest session. Continual Light spells on rocks or amulets or helmet mounts and so on is a great idea. Torches tossed around like anything and Continual Light rocks tossed into rooms is also a great idea. So are torchbearer hirelings (although in DF they don't have much survivability, they'll last longer than a 0-level D&D henchman might).

I don't mind people minimizing the effects of darkness through clever actions. But I do have a problem with "have it both ways" folks who want the effects of full light without providing it. Honestly, if I wanted you to fight with -0 penalties and see everything without needing to use your hands, your money, your magical resources, or your ingenuity, I'd have put lights in the dungeon, right?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Building a Better PC

Stealing - and reversing - Beedo's and the Hill Canton's idea shamelessly, here is another interesting topic. I'd love to see anyone else grab this and run with it too (and if you do, tell me and I'll link to it).

How do you build a better PC? What are three things you can do as a PC to make the game better?

What can you do as a PC to make the game better? Here are my three - although one has a sub-rule, which is kind of cheap, but I think they are related but both worthy of expansion.

1) Be Reasonable. Also known as "Don't be cheap" and "Don't be a munchkin." So, you have a sword out, shield on, and you are opening the door . . . while engaging in a Wait maneuver and fully prepared to defend against an attack from the front, sides, above, behind, and below. Oh, okay. You fell down the well while mapping, but the map isn't wet and none of your potions broke, but they are within a 1-second action's reach? Yeah . . .

If you act cheap, the GM is invited to cheap you back. Be reasonable. Picture the world and engage in it. Picture that door and think, damn, I need to put my sword away. And I guess I would set off a magical door handle trap because I'm grabbing the door.
GMs generally do not punish folks for demonstrating they are engaged in the world and acting according to what they see. You'll lose a paper man here or there doing this, but everyone will have more fun.

You have to talk to the tavern wench, trust the slimy thief (at least a little), buy a new hat, open the door.

Remember that ultimately the game is about role-playing, so you have to do it. Don't just sit there. Even in an old school "roll up a guy who dies 10 minutes later" game, get into it.

2) Ask questions that show your intentions. I mean ask for details or helpful hints, talk to NPCs, or generally "look around" in such a way that it makes it clear what you want to see. Open-ended questions with no goal tempt a No from a GM. GMs don't want to say no, but they sure as hell don't want to fall victim to "Can I do A?" Yes. "B?" Yes. "C?" Uh, I think so. "So I can do D, because it follows from A, B, and C, and D is a total game wrecker! Awesome, I do it immediately!" GMs get suspicious of open-ended questions asked with no reason in mind. We've all seen Colombo and we've all had players try to snake gunpowder, ninjas, and especially gunpowder-using ninjas with a series of leading questions.

Not only that, a good question that shows your intentions invites the GM to say yes, because you're adding to the world, not trying to fish for random information that may help later.

Here is a good question: "Is there alley I can duck into? I want to hide in the trash to elude the guys shadowing me."

Here is a bad question: "What do I see?"
Here is another: "Is there an alley?"

The good question is good because you're telling the GM what the consequences of saying yes to you are. You've put a specific cool scenario in the GM's head - "Wow, yeah, that would be cool if he ducks in the alley, hides in the trash, and then his shadows walk past him . . . " and the GM can run with that. You've asked for something specific and plausible. You didn't ask an open-ended question that actually shuts down possibilities. The bad questions do just that. "What do I see?" sounds fine until the GM doesn't mention an alley or a wagon full of hay or a fruit cart you can overturn. Then it's NOT THERE. It's too late to put it in when you say, "Oh, I was hoping to duck into an alley." Even, "Is there an alley?" is too open, because you've left your intentions too open. Why do you expect one, and if I say yes, what do you want with it?

Even a GM that says "No, sorry, no alley" knows you're looking for a place to hide, and might say ". . . but there is a wagon full of hay . . ." because he knows what you're shooting for.

This works with everything. "Do they have an armorer who could sell me a lycanthrope-killing weapon?" is better than "I go sword shopping. What do they have?" Odds are they don't have a lycanthrope-killing weapon, but they might have had you mentioned it. Or the armorer might know the mage in the tower at the edge of town has a henchman who used to hunt werewolves, and he needs some magical components fetched for him . . . and adventure ensues.

3) Respect the flow of game. What is more important - a smoothly running game session, or stopping the game for 15 minutes to check if you get a situational +1 to Stealth because of your boots on this surface? Let the details go, and let it slide, as long as play keeps rolling. Know what you want to do when you turn comes up, don't wait until it's your Speed or Initiative Number or Movement Phase to decide what to do - or worse, find out what's going on. Asking for a clarification is fine ("Which guy looks more damaged?" or "Was the guy with the broken axe on the left, or was it this guy on the right?") but not "So, where is everyone and what are they carrying?"

A related subrule of this is to Know and Own Your Character.

Know what your spells do, what your equipment does (and costs and weighs, and where it is), what damage your weapons do, and what your skills do. You really have one playing piece to track, so keep good track of it. Make it as easy for the GM to run a game for your character as possible. It sucks to GM for, and play next to, the guy who doesn't know which equipment sheet is current, how to roll damage, how to roll to hit, what his powers do, or how his spells work. Or even where his PC is. Keep track of all the stuff you can and know its specifics, and you'll greatly help your GM. This alone will ensure you get all those bonuses you are owed, that the GM will trust your assessment of your bonuses and penalties, and that the game will run smoothly on your turn. You don't need to be a rules expert, you just need to be a "my character" expert - know your own rolls even if you have no idea how those numbers were derived. Don't forget stuff like Durkon does. It really disrupts the flow of the game.

Possible Table Rules

Here are a few table rules I am considering. I have not done these at all, or at least not across the board and consistently. Not yet . . .

1) Roll in the Open. I am a GM screen sort of guy. I have my laptop and soon-to-spring minis and scenario notes behind it. I also roll behind it. Partly this is to allow for nonsense rolls (rolling when the situation is pre-determined), mostly to cover up target numbers (more on that below), and partly because rolling past the screen is tough.

I'm considering rolling everything in the open. I'd use the screen to hide minis, etc. but otherwise roll in front of everyone. This will totally eliminate even the temptation for GM fiat rescues. It means the tension level of combat will go up - you know I can't save you even if I wanted to. It also means I can offload some of the combat burden on players by rolling hit locations and damage rolls in front of them and let them figure out what happens.

The big concern I have is players deriving target numbers. My players are extremely sharp, and one of them (Andy) is capable of great and accurate intuitive leaps. If I roll, they'll quickly determine the exact skills, stats, damage resistance (DR), target numbers, resistance numbers, immunities and damage reductions, etc. of monsters and opponents. Not everything, of course, since I won't be telling them how my HP an opponent has left or whatever. But if I roll a 15 and say "He makes his feint by 10" he's got a 25 skill, period. They can't wonder at his luck and skill, but rather know it. If I roll a 17 (automatic failure) or 18 (automatic critical failure) on a resistance roll and say "He resists anyway" they will know he's immune. My concern here is that it will take away from the atmosphere as they try to figure out game stats instead of adding to it by making it a boardgame/wargame like experience of "roll and pray."

I may just roll damage in the open, which is intimidating enough . . .

2) One Rules Question Per Session. I really hate rules questions, rules complaints (gah!), and rules commentary during play. Hate, hate, hate. I hate "I thought we were using rule X, but I guess not," I really hate "I'm pretty sure he gets a situational +2 on this because of blah blah blah, we should look it up," and I utterly explicative deleted despise "I don't like this rule but I'm going to accept the results even though it's a bad rule" comments.

I feel all of these trash the game system, break the atmosphere, and poison my enthusiasm for running the game. I think all of them are some form of "I don't like rules that don't favor my guy" combined with "let's maximize our benefits at all times, not matter how slow the game gets."

So my idea is to pass out a poker chip or other chit to each player at the beginning of the session. You can cash it in with a rules question or book lookup challenge at any time, but that's all you get. You can't ask for another chit, you can't borrow another player's chit unless you ask during an official break (see Table Rules. Here's the catch - if I deem it a good question, on topic and directly related to your power/skill/spell/etc. I may return the chip to you. That leaves the possibility open that you can ask something on topic that adds to the game and that you won't get penalized for doing so.

I'm hoping this one reduces the amount of "we should look that up" comments that leads to page flipping, disrupted game flow, and other things that chop up the focus of the game and change the atmosphere from "brooding but light-hearted dungeon fantasy" to "miniature wargame with non-disposable units."

3) Egg Time Action Plans. You have at most 5 minutes x the number of players to make a plan. After that, the action starts up. This is meant to cut down on the amount of time spent planning and re-planning and re-re-planning how to open that door and charge the orcs within. These plans usually end up with some elaborate use of magic and more mana than the group has to get some minor effect that has no material effect on the battle ahead ("We use Shape Stone to dig a 2' deep, 1' wide trench, and maybe the golems will trip" - followed by 10-12 hypothetical questions even an AD&D Wish spell wouldn't answer accurately).

This one I've done before and it works. It works well. But I'm wondering if it makes sense for DF. Do I need it when I have wandering monsters? If I'm rolling for WMs every 10-15 minutes of play time, maybe plans will shorten in and of themselves, and I'm effectively giving them a freeebie "no monsters will bother you while you discuss this out-of-game" situation. The rule works as intended but it might not be necessary in the game I'm intending to run this time.

I'd really like any comments or suggestions on these. I don't know if I'm on the right track or not. Does anyone have experience with these or something similar?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Table Rules

For my slowly-building Dungeon Fantasy (DF) game, I decided to try out a few new table rules in play. Amusingly, even as I typed this up, a challenge came up on Hill Cantons for your three top table techniques. I didn't follow the challenge exactly, but here are my three tips for keeping the game rolling and focused.

I've always, personally, had trouble staying on target and staying focused. I get distracted, pulled away by tangents, and then fatigued. This just feeds into the lack of focus. Couple this with the usual player indecisiveness, Monty Python jokes, and food/drink/bathroom/smoke breaks and you get a very disjointed session. So here is what I do.

1) Everything you say is in character, unless it's obviously out of character. So, "I do 10 damage" is out of character, as is "Peter, do you want a beer?" or "Hey, I think your PC is on fire." That sort of stuff. Everything else is in character. You need to rigorously enforce it, although early on you can get away with NPCs acting shocked as if at a bad joke ("What is this about coconut shells, sir? I only have horses . . . ") to nudge people back onto target. Rules questions that are on topic are fine, but disruptive ones should be treated however you treat poor roleplaying. "Do I know if my healing power can heal undead?" is fine, if the PC is faced with healing an undead. "Hey, if we were using Psi powers and I had a TL10 Psi Shield helmet, would that stop a Brain Sucker from eating my brain?" is NOT, not in a TL3 DF game when you are fighting orcs. Or even Brain Suckers.

Results so far: This has worked out pretty well, although it only got used in a playtest session we used as a dry run for DF. It helped keep people in character more, even if they are third-person ("My character draws his sword") instead of first person ("I draw my sword") players.

2) Table Music = In Play. When the background music starts, the game is in play. When it stops or is turned off, we are on official break. During official breaks, nothing is in character. You can ask anything, discuss anything, go get a smoke, order food, make Monty Python references. It's musical chairs - when the music stops, so does the game play.

Results so far: This has worked out very well. The music - so far I've used classical or soundtrack music - provides a nice background we can all easily talk over. But it's a constant aural reminder that we are in character and in play. Coupled with official breaks whenever the action stops or it seems like people need it, this has worked wonders. I knew people used music before but I saw my friend (and excellent GM) Ryan use this one. It exceeded my expectations in play, and it wasn't just "continuous background noise" but rather a tool in play.

3) Sit in the order of initiative. We go around the table in combat, so having people sit at the table in the order they play is very easy. I go as all NPCs, then the PCs go in order.

Results so far: This should work better than it does, but it does work. If you go clockwise, you know who goes before you so you can damn well be ready to go next.

Next time I'll post up some table rules I'm thinking of trying, and see if anyone has feedback for me on them.

Lessons from Gygax

I think I found a link to this over on Grognardia.

On page 18 of this PDF copy of an old wargaming fanzine is an article about designing a D&D campaign by Gary Gygax.

It's really interesting for a lot of reasons - historical for one, as a GM's set of design notes for another, and for being a lot less pontifical than Gary Gygax's writings for The Dragon.

Plus I'm totally going to steal bits from it for my own DF game's dungeon. No question about that!

Thanks to whoever held on to this old fanzine for years and then got it scanned.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Monty Haul

(This is a re-post of something from my personal blog)

I've recently been reading through my Dragon Magazine PDF archive (GREAT product, really), getting myself ready for my upcoming DF game. Which is blatantly an excuse to use my AD&D and D&D and Rolemaster adventurers with my players. Again, since I've done that before.

What I went looking for was inspiration, and what I found the most in was the articles by James M. Ward.

He wrote the various "Monty Haul" articles. In modern parlance, a Monty Haul GM is a giveaway GM. He/she gives out ridiculous amounts of power for little danger, and makes the game basically a gimme-fest for the player(s). But James M. Ward (and "Monty") did it differently. You really want to run an Iron Golem fighter? Sure, go for it. Here's a vorpal sword for you. And a laser pistol. And the Ring of Gaxx and the Inestimable Jacinth of Beauty. What the hell, here are all of Vecna's body parts and 10 portable holes and a lifetime supply of Rings of Wishing. You'll need them.

That's right, you will. The games described are totally over the top, the enemies as close to totally unfair as you can get as saying "they automatically roll 20s to hit and maximum damage." But the players get a fair shot at beating them. If they do, the treasures are equally amazing - the unique artifacts of D&D canon, powerful items of all sorts (as mentioned, vorpal swords, laser weaponry, grenades, rings of wishing, etc.) But about half of the stories seemed to end with some variation of "we used wishes to get the hell out of there!" to save their precious high level characters.

It sounds really fun . . . and it sounds like exactly the stuff Gary Gygax wanted to expunge from the game when AD&D rolled along. It's the sort of stuff the Out on a Limb letters column responses bashed. It's explicitly spoken of as a bad thing - high level characters with almost abusive power levels against totally unfair monsters recovering ludicrous treasures.

Like I said, this is what I grew up learned was bad gaming. What Chad Underkoffler coined as "hurting wrong fun." Stuff you weren't supposed to be doing - but the people doing it seemed to be enjoying it.

James M. Ward sounds like the best sort of GM ever. The guy who gives you whatever you want but makes it never enough to do more than get by. The guy who always has something terribly awesome in store for you, game after game.

All in all, I'd have loved to play a D&D game with Gary Gygax before he died. But I think maybe a game of Metamorphosis Alpha or original D&D with James Ward would be more instructive . . .

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Welcome to Dungeon Fantastic

Dungeon Fantastic is my new role-playing game (RPG) blog.

It is dedicated to RPGs in general, and fantasy RPGs in specific.

I've been playing fantasy roleplaying games on the tabletop since Basic Set D&D (the one with the Erol Otus cover) back in 1981. I was originally introduced to it by seeing my uncle's copy of the blue-box Holmes D&D set. He ran us through an adventure later, but my first gaming session was with sons of a family friend, who used a strange mix of AD&D rules and Basic D&D and forever messed up my understanding of "Spells Known."

I've been playing computer RPGs since 1984 with Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord.

I also ran games using AD&D, Basic Set and Expert Set D&D (aka B/X D&D), Rolemaster, GURPS 1st, 3rd, and 4th edition, too. I've long owned but never did run a game with white-box original D&D (aka OD&D). I've played other games but my go-to has always been fantasy games.

I'm also a writer, mostly for Steve Jackson Games (although in the past I did some articles for PBM house magazines when I was playing PBMs like Legends). No surprise, I've started to write a lot for the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy series, so expect more DF than OD&D.

This blog is dedicated to those games. It will include but not be limited to:

- to noodling on about fantasy gaming things I enjoy;

- reviews of current or past gaming products, especially fantasy-related ones;

- discussing my current fantasy games;

- talking about miniatures and scenery;

- blathering on about the Good Olde Days when I was 2nd level and fighting orcs.

So, welcome!
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