21 December 2011

Travelling for the Holidays

The family and I are leaving tomorrow for a Christmas visit to my in-laws in Texas.  Blog posting will, correspondingly, be light to non-existent for the next week.

Have a great Christmas or whatever sort of winter holiday you celebrate.  Be merry, safe, and generous!

20 December 2011

I Made a Map!

Above is the small version of the map I made for the "Make Something" project I assigned in my class.  I used pencil to sketch the landforms, then went back and traced the coastline with a fine point black Sharpie.  I traced the rivers with a fine point blue Sharpie.  The water is colored with a mixture of colored pencil and crayon, while the land color is all colored pencil.  Part of the reason I drew a small version first was to practice with technique and color, hence the hodgepodge of color and materials.  If it's not apparent, this is a desert region  -- one I hope to develop into a campaign setting one day.

The larger version is about 18" x 24".  It's on a different type and color of paper, which really changed the way the colors turned out.  On the larger version, I ended up not coloring in all of the land, leaving large spots "blank".  I am not sure if it looks better to color everything (as above) or just color in the landforms that are particular (like deserts, jungles, etc).

What do you think?  

A Response to "Kiddie D&D"

This is a lengthy reply to two posts James wrote at Grognardia last week.

The first is a review/reflection on an old Dragon Magazine article, written by Frank Mentzer, that introduces the (then) new Red Box Basic set.  James sees this as a large shift in D&D, a shift mainly from a hobby into which one is initiated by "experts" to one which one can join and learn on one's own through reading the Basic books.

I think James is right here.  As I've argued before, in my Mentzer reflections, the Basic set is an explicit teaching tool, designed to gradually bring a solo player into the game.  As James notes, this makes sense from a business perspective; TSR wanted as many people to buy the game as possible.  It also makes sense from an "expanding the hobby" perspective.  If you have a fun thing, you want to share it with as many people as possible.  You want to make it easy for people to "get", in both senses of the word.  You want to make it easy for people to put their hands on it.  And you want to make it easy for people to understand what it's about.

Of course, doing so carries with it consequences.  In earlier iterations of the game, you had to be brought into the tribe by an existing member.  One needed to be taught the game by another person, since the game didn't do a good job of teaching itself.  This created immediate personal contact within the tribe; you knew people.  Thus, a sense of community was created, as one depended on others to learn the game.  This also created more room for customization.  Because everyone learned the game from somone else, rather than directly from the same book, there was inevitable differences between games in the form of house rules, rules interpretations, and styles of play.  These differences certainly did not dissappear with Mentzer Basic, but one could see how they could become muted, as individuals learned the game not from a variety of ideosyncratic misfits, but from a nice red book with Elmore and Easley art.

James is clear he doesn't necesarily think the shift was some horrible development, but is clear that there was a change and it had consequences.  As someone from rural South Carolina who began playing with Mentzer, I have different touchstones for the hobby.  There was no tribe for me to join; there was only a red box.  I learned the game from the box, then created my group from my assortment of 11 year old friends.  It worked for me, since there was no one around to teach me how to play.

The other thing that James discusses in the Mentzer post and a subsequent photo is the how the game skewed younger after Mentzer.  Again, he's correct.  The age range on the boxes changed.  There were the toys and the cartoon.  The expansion of the hobby to a younger age set is something that James' younger gaming self found deplorable; D&D was becoming a "kiddie game" which is something no self respecting teenageer/early adult wants to be assoicated with.

But look at the comments to James' post about the D&D figures.  Most of them say "cool" or some other form of positive feedback.  I had the same reaction -- those look cool!  I think this points to something I've been struggling with for some time -- the blurring of the line between childhood (and it's associated accpetable activities) and adulthood.

I think that the current list of what's acceptable for a kid to do and an adult NOT to do has shrunk considerably here in the 21st Century.  The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, but I'd pin in mostly on constant media saturation and the ascendency of "geek culture" in that media.  It's not just geek stuff, however; I have friends that play in a kickball league.

There are certainly postives to this blurring of acceptable activities.  Playing D&D as an adult and being upfront about it is one of those positives.  And, while I am upfront about my hobby with most of the people I work and hang out with, there is still a difference in reaction depending on age.  People my age, even those who are not gamers, don't particularly care.  People older raise eyebrows. The lines between adult and kid are bolder for people who are older than I am by a generation or so.

Generational differences aside, I am generally for people doing whatever they are enthusiastic about that doesn't hurt other people.  D&D, poker, fastasy football, kickball -- whatever makes you happy.  But I am also not sure that this blurring of adult/childhood lines is entirely positive.  I see a lot of supposed adults acting like children in terms of failing to resolve disputes between themselves, often as a result of being unable to back away from something that they are passionate about.  And, as father, I see a lot of things that are offered to/for children that (I think) are unacceptable for children to be engaged in.  I don't think I am being overly prudish here.

I wonder how much "kiddie stuff" really remains out there and whether or not that's a good thing.

Thanks, James, for some provocative posts.

16 December 2011

Glories of the Grid -- An Ode to Graph Paper (Deja Vu Blogfest)

I just found out about the Deja Vu blogfest this morning from Mythopoeic Rambling.  Apparently, it originated with DL Hammons back in November.  I thought it was a good idea, so I am jumping on the bandwagon, albeit very late.

The following is a post from waaay back in 2007, before this blog was a "gaming blog."  I think it stands as a nice piece of reflection on my own gaming past.  I'm interested to hear your thoughts!

An Ode to Graph Paper

I sometimes wonder why I keep a notebook AND a blog. It seems a little redundant. Granted, I can write things in a notebook I don't want to put out into the world. A notebook is portable (although I could twitter from my phone if I really wanted to). But one of the big reasons, I think, is that the notebook inspires me in ways the blog does not.

I started a new notebook today after filling up my Moleskin Pocket notebook last week. I've had this new one for awhile, ever since my 29th birthday/dissertation defense party. It was a gift, but I am sorry to say I forget from whom (the Moleskin was a gift, too. I think I received four notebooks/journals at that party. All of which have been used). This new notebook is thick, perhaps 200 pages, with a leather cover that is flexible and soft. It reminds me of the black King James Bible that seemed a staple of the churches I attended in my youth. In what is a first for me, it's neither lined nor blank; it's gridded.

The fact that I have a notebook full of graph paper leads me to think it was a gift from one of my gaming group friends. I remember someone saying "Hey, graph paper! You can use it to plan some D&D adventures."

I am not sure a page full of tiny squares has significance to any group of people the way it does to those of us who grew up in the 1980's playing Dungeons and Dragons. Graph paper meant dungeons (hex paper meant wilderness). I bought, collected, and hoarded graph paper. It was necessary equipment, like 50 ft of rope or a large sack. I had so many dungeons I needed to draw, I could never have enough graph paper. I'd ask for an extra sheet in algebra class, then take it to my dad's office after school and make copies, storing them in a red folder on the shelf with my D&D books. But this copied graph paper was always inferior to the green or blue lined paper you could buy. I preferred the green lines. That was the good stuff, because your pencil lines always showed up easier on the green paper. It was harder for me to get a hold of, so I was very pleased when my cousin gave me a big pad of green graph paper and a nice automatic pencil for my birthday. She worked at a bookstore and was well acquainted with my love for D&D. I immediately wrote on the front of this pad, in a 13 year old's feeble attempt at medieval script: "You are now in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons!", thus marking the pad for its designated purpose. It was for drawing dungeons.

Dungeoncrafting was some sort of esoteric science that was part art, a mixture of alchemy and cartography.  There was a special vocabulary of symbols to master, special signs for secret doors, doors that opened only one way, pit traps, crossbow traps, stairs that went up, stairs that went down, and stairs that collapsed on the unwary adventurer. There was always a compass rose, so you'd know that "the corridor stretches 50 feet to the north before ending in a stout looking wooden door." As a dungeon master, I'd do my best to communicate these directions, dimensions, and secrets to the players who, armed with their own graph paper (hopefully with green lines), would attempt to map the dungeon. This never, ever worked. Invariably, something went awry. Corridors didn't match up. Stairs ran into rooms. Dimensions didn't make sense ("uh, it's a magical room!"). So we'd spend what seemed like hours pouring over the player's map, trying to figure out if they had added 10 feet to a corridor or I'd forgotten to mention the side passage halfway down.

In high school, my friends and I played in a game set in Undermountain -- a giant, giant dungeon under a city. I cheated and didn't make it all up. I just bought the $25.00 boxed set with the four poster sized maps and the two books that detailed the place. I had the pre-made posters, which I copied in sections so I could keep them hidden behind my DM's screen, but I made the players draw their own map. It really didn't take that much convincing. They started with a 10x10 room at the center of a sheet of the green lined paper -- the well in the common room of the Yawning Portal Inn -- and expanded from there. Soon, the dungeon ran off the edge of that first sheet of paper, so they'd add others, labeling each new sheet "A, B, C" and so on. I think we got to K by the time I went to college. These guys would tape the new sheets to the old ones, being careful to allow enough room between the pages so that they could be folded and put away. At the beginning of each new session, they would take out the map and carefully unfold it, laying it gently on the green felt of the pool table that served as our gaming table. (We ruined that table for pool, by the way, with our pencil marks, drink spills, and tears in the felt). The group would tell me which unfinished corridor they wanted to explore next, and off we'd go, lanterns at the ready, carefully marking of 10 foot increments of stony corridor on a little grid of green lines.

We were exploring the unknown, fighting the evil that threatened to plunge the city above into chaos. The graph paper helped us keep track of it all. Otherwise, we would have been lost.

15 December 2011

Mentzer on Alignment -- Mentzer Reflections Part 14

For this next entry in my Mentzer reflection series, I am skipping around in the Basic Red Book to discuss alignment.  It's mentioned early on, as you work through the sample adventure as the fighter.  It comes up again on page 52, when Mentzer notes that even though one's character is chaotic, the player doesn't need to act wildly.  The principle discussion of alignment occupies about one-half of page 55.

Let me preface this with a few things.  First, I am not one of those players who hates alignment or thinks it has no place in the game.  I think it is useful to have an in game reminder of what constrains a character's actions.  And I think it's useful to be able to establish a character or monster's connection to cosmic/supernatural/primeval forces.  Second, I really do not like alignment debates.  I find few things as tedious as "would the paladin really kill the fleeing orc women" discussion.  Finally, this is also an area where my non-gaming/professional interests get in the way a bit, as I've taught and written about moral philosophy.

With all that throat clearing, let me begin with my initial interpretation of how alignment is presented in Mentzer -- as moral philosophy.  As presented, the alignments express essential moral beliefs and the consequent prescriptons for behavior.  Lawful is belief in order and following rules is natural; one should keep her promises and think about the good of the group.  Chaotic is the belief in a lack of order; one should act on impulse and whim, which does not entail group cohesion.  Neutral is the belief in balance between the two above forces; individuals and groups must work togehter.

I don't want to spend too much time picking these things apart.  They each get a paragraph.  This is a game for 12 year olds, not The Metaphysics of Morals.  Yet even 12 year olds can likely see that there's no direct relation between a balance between law and chaos (as the central beliefs of neutral are described) and someone "who is most interested in personal survival."  That sounds close to what chaotic individuals beleive, actually -- "the individual is the most important of all things."  If one thinks about this very much, it all gets tangled up into a big, non-helpful mess.  This is one way in which the alignment axes in AD&D is vastly superior, imho.

But maybe we're not really supposed think about this very much.  The text equaltes Lawful with good, chaotic with evil, and neutral with some sort of situational ethic (which doesn't make a lot of sense, either).  Why couldn't we just have "good", "evil", and "animal" and be done with it?

I am rapidly coming around to the view that the best interpretation of the three alignment system is that it expresses a being's orientation to some greater cosmic order?  There are literal forces of law and chaos out there; one's alignment expresses which "team" one is on.  That also gives some creedence to the idea of alignment languages; one's cosmic orientation is expressed in how one moves and gestures.  Otherwise, I've got nothing to account for those things!  There's not much of this "embodiment of cosmic forces" interpretation in Mentzer, however

14 December 2011

On Dungeon Design and The Big Room

I am a regular reader of Gnome Stew.  They generally give good GM advice over there; I've found a number of tips and ideas from their regularly-updated columns.

That being said, something about today's "Playing in the Big Room" article rubed me the wrong way.  The central argument of the piece is that you should start your dungeon design with The Big Room and work your way outward from there.  The Big Room is, literally, a Big Room -- the large room at the center of the dungeon.  Here, larger monsters can be placed, mounds of treasure can be stashed, and The Big Fight can happen.  Here, you can put that crazy monster you've always wanted to place in a game.  You should also dress the room up with cool terrain, NPC's, and atmosphere.

This sounds great, right?  What's my problem with this?

My problem isn't with the order one puts the dungeon rooms on a page.  I don't think that matters.  Nor is it with the desire to work in cool ideas, interesting terrain, or fun encounters.  My issue is with the assumption, explicit early in the article, that the dungeon should be designed for the players.
"There should be something to challenge each party member’s specialty ability or skill set, as well as something to amaze, to amuse, to frighten and  perhaps something it would be best to evade or avoid."
The Big Room then becomes:
"the centerpiece of the dungeon level. It often is where the PCs encounter the big bad evil dude, dudette or monster. It can be — but not necessarily is — the climatic point of the adventure. Which means, hopefully, the Big Reward is somewhere nearby." (typos in original)

No big room here.

I don't think dungeons need a centerpiece.  Nor do they need a Big Bad.  They do need things to fight.  And they do need things that are best to avoid, given the party's condition at any given time.  And I hope they have amazing, amusing, and frightening things.  I am also all for cramming fun and interesting things in your dungeon in whatever way you want.  I just think that should be done independently of any concerns about an adventuring party.

There are two reasons for this.  First, it's not as if whomever "actually designed" the dungeon in your fantasy world did so for the sake of murder-hobos out for loot (unless they did, which is cool).  They did it to keep prisoners in, or to keep the goblins out, or as a place where they could store their mad magical creations before setting them loose on the outside world.  Or maybe it's all just slightly acidic water eroding soft limestone.  This is not a plea for hyper-realism.  We're talking about mega-dungeons, after all.  It's simply to point out that, in making a dungeon, a logical approach to take is to assume the perspective of whomever would actually make the dungeon.  Whomever that is is not making the dungeon as a scaling series of challenges for an approproiate level party.

Secondly, I think assuming party composition in dungeon design limits creativity.  Now, instead of thinking about what's cool, scary, or interesting, one is worrying about having enough traps to challenge the rogue while not hamstringing the fighter, while creating enough big open spaces so the evoker can actually use all those spells he's prepared.  "Do what thou wilt" should be the mantra of dungeon design.  Maybe you don't need or want a big room.  Maybe there is no big bad evil guy.  I actually think that's what the Gnome Stew article is getting at with it's advice about The Big Room and the sharks with laser beams moment.  Sharks with laser beams don't care about party composition.  I just think that's contravened by this earlier assumption about overall dungeon design.  Designing with the party in mind contravenes the idea of tactical infinity, insofar as bulding challenges specific to certain party specilizations often limits solutions to those challenges to the invocation of those specializations.

There's also the very real possibility that when you're designing a dungeon, you don't have a party to design for.  That is, you're not making the dungeon as part of some exisiting set of adventures, you're making the dungeon because you have some free time and it's fun to do.

Of course, you could roll on some tables and randomly generate all of it, in which case this is all moot.

My point here isn't really that The Big Room idea is a bad one, it's just that the article somewhat contradicts itself by 1)encouraging gonzo ideas in construction of the big room while 2)beginning with the assumption that design needs to proceed from party composition.

12 December 2011

Heroes and Dragons -- A Friendly, Non-Local, Game Store

We headed out of town this past weekend to visit my family in Conway, South Carolina.  On our way back, we made a pit stop in Columbia for lunch; I talked the wife into letting me swing by Heroes and Dragons, an FLGS I had visited a long time ago.  Though they had moved across the street, we found them with a minimum of hassle.

I had great plans of taking some pics and posting a quasi-walk through, but then my (tired) four year old had a minor meltdown over a fairy statue and we had to cut our visit short.  (It did not matter that I had secret plans of buying her the fairy for Christmas as soon as she and her mom went back to the car.  She had to Have. It. Now.  And now I can't even get it for her because she threw a fit about it and I don't want to reward that behavior.  And, yes, I am still bitter).  Anyway, where was I?

Oh, yeah.  Heroes and Dragons is a cool store.  It's huge!  They have separate sections for comics, toys/collectibles, games (RPG's, miniatures, and board games), used books, and game tables.  Everything was clean and well lit.  They had a large selection of high-quality used sci-fi and fantasy books, which skewed to newer stuff, though I did see some interesting Edgar Rice Burroughs volumes.  They also had a decent selection of pulp novels, though I saw more adventure books than fantasy pulps.  The game selection was good, with a glass display case with some older materials -- I saw a number of 1E D&D adventures in there, including Beyond the Magic Mirror.  There were maybe 8 tables set up for gaming in another section of the store.  My daughter seemed particularly fascinated by the terrain that was set up on and under them.

I ended up not getting anything, due to the aforementioned meltdown, but I definitely want to check the store out again next time I am down that way.

Here's their commercial:

09 December 2011

Character Creation -- Mentzer Reflections Part 14

After listing all the possible character classes, Mentzer takes us through the 10 steps necessary to create one from scratch.  Reading this again, I wasn't struck by much.  That is, it seemed to jive with my memory and my re-emergent old school sensibilities.  Again, one of the things I am after here is to figure out how the game ought to be, given what the text says.

For the stats, one rolls 3d6 in order.  There are provisions for rerolling an entire set of stats if the highest ability is less than 9 or if two or more scores are less than 6.  This is rationalized on the basis of "suitability."  The said character likely isn't suitable for dangerous dungeon crawling.  I don't want to read too much into that, but it does give some credence to the "characters are extraordinary" stance that D&D evolved into.  Stats come before choice of class, of course, with the reminder to look at a class's prime requisite and compare it to the stats before choosing.

One then has the ability to alter the rolled stats through what seems to be to be an overly complex process.
You raise your prime requisite by 1 for every 2 points you lower another score.  You can only raise your prime requisite.  You can't lower your dexterity, constitution, and charisma.  This means you only have strength, intelligence, and wisdom to play around with. And you cannot lower any score below 9.  Was this some recognition of the potential to min/max?  Was this all done to prevent charisma from being a dump stat?  This whole system puzzles me.

The remainder of the character creation process was straightforward, with the standard roll for hit points, write your saving throws down, figure your armor class, etc list.  One thing made me smile was in the "buy equipment" section, however.  There, we get this line: "Be careful shopping!"  What this means, based on the text that follows, is that one should select one's adventuring materials carefully, because you don't want to be in the dungeon and really need something and not have it.  It also speaks to the resource management aspect of the game, especially at the beginning stages.  It made me smile, however, because I pictured my newly made character getting ambushed and killed while selecting equipment, dying before he ever made it to the actual adventure, a la some other systems.

Two art pieces on these pages.  One is an Elmore drawing of a female elf, sitting on a log listening, with a look of forbearance, to a male halfling while a dwarf stands by rolling his eyes.  The other is another Elmore sketch and more interesting.  It's of a hand rolling dice.  We can see a pencil and character stats on a piece of paper (so far, the player has a 14 strength and a 9 intelligence, with a blank by wisdom).  I think it's interesting because it depcits the process of making a character and is not at all fantasy art.  I don't recall any other art in D&D that depicts a player or the process of playing rather than characters or fantastic elements within the game.  Can anyone help me out with other examples of the former?

Next in the series, I am going to talk about Alignment, which is already making my head hurt.  But we'll get to that next week.

07 December 2011

What Was Made

A few weeks ago, I posted about the final project I assigned my class -- to make something.  I just returned from that class; they presented their final projects today and discussed the process of their making.

I was blown away.  These things were incredible.  One student tried to replicate her grandmother's biscuit recipe because her grandmother has Alzheimer's and can't pass the recipe on to others.  She brought the results to class.  Another student stitched a stuffed animal that was the "daughter" of a favorite stuffed animal from childhood.  Another student illustrated a chapter from his fantasy-novel-in-progress.  Yet another student made a bento box and filled it with homemade traditional Japanese bento dishes (triangle rice balls, cucumber sushi).  She did all this in her dorm room!  The project that may have the most interest to this blog's audience was a student's work based on A Game of You.  First, she made a three-dimensional art project that used panels from the graphic novel, but arranged them in a new sequence.  She added dialogue in a creative way to illustrate themes of the course.  It looked awesome.  Then, she also made the Porpentine! And gave it to me!  I am wearing it around my neck right now.  If it's not apparent, I am extraordinarily proud of my students and jazzed about it all right now.

I made a map.  More about that soon.

06 December 2011

Boy, this sucks -- computer update

Just found out the hard drive on the old laptop is toast, with the only chance for recovery being expensive "we extract data from banks that tried to hide their money laundering and then burned their hard drives" companies. Big thing gone is a ton of family photos, but there was some work stuff and gaming stuff on there as well.  We have some backups, but not an especially recent one.  I know, yell at me later.

Back up everything, kids.  Early and often.

Anyway, a new computer is in the future for us.  The dead machine is a MacBook, which I really liked, but I am not an Apple snob.  I am intrigued by the idea of building my own PC, but wonder if I have the skills and the time.

02 December 2011

Awesome Friday

Friday is typically a light posting day for most folks.  I thought I'd keep it light today by just sharing a few things that I think are awesome.

1.  These GIF'ed up classic comic book covers by Kerry Callen: (hat tip to Andre Pope who posted this on G+)

Not animated here, but click on the link above!
2.  The fact that the barristas at the Starbucks here on campus know what tea I drink and have it ready for me when I make it to the counter after waiting in line.

3.  The fact that we have some old, battered piano in the big classroom across from my office.  Random people just sit and play it sometimes and often they are quite good.

Just a few awesome things this morning.  I know I am forgetting many other things.

Edit to add one other awesome thing:

4.  A band I really like, The Steel Wheels, has been performing new material that will appear on their new album that's supposed to come out in March:

01 December 2011

Computer Problems!

Computer problems today led me to all sorts of troubleshooting when I wasn't reading student rough drafts.  Unpleasant.  The problems, anyway.  Most of the drafts were pretty good.

Public thanks to Cthulhu's Librarian and his tech support.

30 November 2011

Basic Halflings -- Mentzer Reflections Part 13

I am probably not alone in the fact that my entry into gaming roughly coincided with my discovery of Tolkien.  Both happened in the 6th grade for me, as I discovered The Hobbit on my English teacher's bookshelf and Ricky Terzo started telling me about Dungeons and Dragons.  That has certainly colored my interpretations of game elements; it's very hard for me to read the halfling description in the Mentzer red box without thinking it's all about Bilbo.

The halfling's abilities seemingly come from being small.  They get a substantial chance to hide (90% in the woods, 2 in 6 in the dungeon)(1).  They have a bonus to their Armor Class against larger opponents (larger than man-sized, anyway).  These abilities make me think of Bilbo, always unnoticed, sneaking around in the elf-palace, hiding from the spiders, or going unnoticed in the Battle of the Five Armies.(2)  Halflings also receive a bonus to initiative and are good with missile weapons.  To me, this sounds like Bilbo throwing rocks at the spiders.

Then, there's the personality and implied setting material given in the description: "They are outgoing but not unusually brave, seeking out treasure to obtain the comforts of home, which they so dearly love.  Halflings are woodland folk, and usually get along well with elves" (p47).  Hello Bag End!  This sentence seems lifted from the first chapter of The Hobbit.  I can see some halfling looking in his larder and noticing that he's running a bit low on good cheese and decent wine.  He then strolls down to the local inn and talks some burly fighter and itinerant cleric into a venture into the local megadungeon of death, mainly so he can find coin to buy a jar of gourmet mustard and new wool slippers.

It's ridiculous, in a way.  It's also endearing and funny, with plenty of possibility for character personality.

The picture of the halfling helps this perception.  It's an Easley drawing of a halfling and and elf in a misty wood.  While they are "posing for the camera," we still get a good sense of what each of these people is about.  The elf is of indeterminate sex, with flowing blond hair and a serious look on his? face.  The halfling, meanwhile, has a scared or surprised expression.  His belly hangs over his belt; he clearly has not missed many second breakfasts.

(1)Which makes me wonder how or if the hide in the woods ability ever got used, given the basic rules focus exclusively on dungeon exploration.
(2) I know he had a magic ring to help him here.  But Bilbo (and, later, the other hobbits) always seemed good at hiding; indeed, it was expected of them.

28 November 2011

The Basic Elf -- Mentzer Reflections Part 12

Sorry about the unannounced Thanksgiving break.  I hope everyone had a great holiday.

Like the dwarf, the elf is presented as a version of another class.  In this case, it's the fighter and magic-user.  While this downplays the "cultural uniqueness" of the elves and other demi-humans, it makes them easier to learn to play.  This makes sense, given my argument that the Menzter sets are essentially the Moldvay rules presented in such a way as to allow someone to learn to play D&D by him or her self.

Mechanically, there's not a lot outstanding about the elf character descrption in the Basic book.  They have infravision.  They can cast spells.  They can speak gnoll, hobgoblin, and orc.  They can detect secret or hidden doors better than others.  They are also immune to ghoul paralysis.  Not a whiff of explanation is given for the later two abilities, however, so we learn nothing there about the nature and character of elves.

We do get a bit of what it means to be an elf in the introduction to the class, along with some implied setting elements.  Elves "prefer to spend their time feasting and frolicking in wooden glades."  They seem to have little contact with humans.  They also love magic, especially magic that's aesthetically pleasing; elves "never grow tired of collecting spells and magic items, especially if the items are beautifully crafted" (46).  The average elf day seems to be eating a decadent breakfast, hanging out in her magic library flipping through beautifully illustrated folios of spells, then going for some dancing after dinner.

This sounds, to me anyway, very Tolkien.  These elves are the elves of Rivendell, the one's who tease Bilbo and the dwarves, but also help them by giving them information and magical advice.

Interestingly, there's no illustration of an elf.  The closest we get is on the next page, where and elf and a halfling pose for a sketch.

22 November 2011

The Basic Dwarf -- Mentzer Reflections Part 11

Dwarves are essentially short fighters.  Mentzer says so: "Although the dwarf class is different from the fighter class in many ways, their tasks are the same."  They share the same level titles and the same hit die (d8).  Their XP progression is very similar, with dwarves needing only 200 more XP to advance to second level.  Considering how good the dwarf's saving throws are, the dwarf makes much more sense, mechanically speaking, to play than the fighter.  That advantage goes away as one progresses through the BECM sets, though, once things like level limits are considered.

Which brings up an interesting question: if you bought the colored boxes in order (where you didn't buy the Expert set until you advanced to level 3) and played a demi-human, would you feel robbed once you discovered level limits?  "No one told me my dwarf could only go to level 12!"

Of course, 13 year olds aren't necessarily focused on mechanics.  It's as much about flavor as anything else; we had plenty of fighters back in my youth with the red box.  In my current examination of Mentzer, I am as much interested in the setting and flavor elements implied by these class descrptions as anything else.

Outside of the physical descrption, we really only get two sentences about dwarf culture from Mentzer.  Dwarves are stubbon, practical, and like good food and drink.  They love gold and value craftsmanship.  Not a lot to go on here, which is probably why all our Basic dwarves were essentially the dwarves from The Hobbit with the pathological treasure-fever toned down.

Dwarves have infravision to 60 ft.  I think a lot of confusion could have been eliminated if the descrption of how one sees things (cold as blue, warm as red) was just left out.  Sure, infravision is the ability to see heat.  But dwarves can also see things that don't give off heat (a table or skeleton) and there's nothing to suggest that intense heat would "blind" the dwarf.  How about just letting them see in the dark up to 60 ft?

Dwarves also get additional langages: gnome, goblin, kobold.  This implies that dwarves come into contact with these other races enough to learn their langages.  Hmmm. . .

"All dwarves are experts at mining" (45).  This gives them their detection abilities for traps, sliding walls, sloping corridors, and new constructions.  I know there's some discontinutity between mining and, say, a snare trap.  I wonder how this larger affinity with traps (and new construction) could be explained as a racial ability via mining.  Maybe one could think of it as "affinity with stone and things of the earth" where the stones literally talk to the dwarf, telling him how old they are and how they've been rearranged.

I also love the drawf illustration by Elmore here.  He's holding his axe forward, but has this sad and tired look in his eyes.  It's almost a "son, don't make me use this" look.  Good stuff.

21 November 2011

Pathfinder Game Update

We gathered yesterday for our monthly Sunday session of Pathfinder.  We're still working our way through book one of The Serpent's Skull Adventure Path.  Here's a quick rundown of what's happened so far, with a focus on yesterday's session.

Jack -- Human Cleric
Lukka -- Human Fighter
Culver -- Half-Elven Bard (my character)
Lanliss -- Eleven Wizard
Sir Godric -- Human Paladin

The very short summary of previous adventures:
We had been shipwrecked on a small island in mysterious cricumstances.  The ship was clearly wrecked, but we and all our gear had been carried to the beach.  After spending some time scavenging for supplies and fighting some indegenous wildlife (crabs!), we set off through the jungle toward a mysterious lighthouse.  En route, members of our band were captured by the local cannibal tribe.  A rescue attempt resulted in a ferocious battle.  We defeated the cannibal chief and most of the warriors, kept a warrior around to give us the lay of the land, and let everyone else go.  The captured warrior told us about the tribe's terrifying "mother" who lived in a cave underneath the lighthouse, accepting human sacrifices.  We explored the lighthouse a bit, gathering clues that the cannibals were orriginally a shipwrecked crew.  For years, they had been feeding on (or adding to their numbers) with other shipwrecked sailors.

We were also struggling to piece together what had happened to our own ship.  The captain and his lover, a mysterious stranger taken aboard early in our voyage, were still unaccounted for.

Searching for futher clues and a way off this rock, we ventured into the caves under the lighthouse.  Here we were confronted with disgusting, pus-filled zombies -- spawns of the "mother" who turned out to be some bestial serpent-human hybrid.  A hit and run fight with her ensued, but we managed to bring her down.  We also found the captian, who had been brought her by his lover and given to the Mother.  He graciously took the time to scrawl the tale of his betrayal in blood as he was being transformed into a pus-zombie.  As it turns out, his companion was also a serpent creature, who was on the island looking for the Red Mountain and the secrets that lay within.  We discovered a temple to some forgotten snake god in the Mother's caves, a temple that had clearly been searched just some days prior.  The bas-reliefs showed snake-people using magical rituals to smash ships.  Figuring the captain's former friend had headed for the Red Mountain, we set off, hoping to find her and some way off the island.

While crossing a rope bridge over a ravine, we were set upon by some flying dinosaur, which promptly knocked Lukka into the ravine and then rended Lanliss.  We drove it off, then marched on to the Red Mountain.

The Mountain was the lair of the flyind dionsaur, which attacked us again that night.  We finally killed it, scaling the mountain at dawn to find it's lair.  We uncovered some magical loot.

At the base of the Mountain was a circle of stones, carved with more snake motifs, around a small altar-looking stone.  We remembered the wall carvings in Mother's lair!  Using sea water and blood, we activated some ritual that drained the lagoon and revealed a (now open) stone doorway.  We walked on the sandbar out to the door, pausing to inspect a shipwreck.  Inside this mostly rotten hulk was a strange gnome who thought we were members of his crew.  He urged us to "get back to work," so we left him and ventured into the seaweed covered door.  Someone else had recently entered as well, but we ended the session before we could find out who.

A great session -- one of the best of the game so far.

18 November 2011

Solo Gaming With Wrath of Ashardalon

It's solo gaming month and, like most of us, I don't game as much as I'd like.  So I thought I'd make an effort to engage in some solo gaming before the month was over.  An easy option was available right in my closet -- The Wrath of Ashardalon board game from Wizards of the Coast.  Though I have played the game before, I did it with some friends.  We skipped over the first scenario, as it was designed for one player.  Last night, the wife was out with some friends, so I grabbed the box after I put the kids to bed and started the solo adventure.

I chose the dwarf fighter.  I remembered being poisoned a lot in our previous Ashardalon game, so the dwarf's +5 to poison saves looked appealing.  The solo scenario is, essentially, "you fall down a hole into a dungeon and try to find your way out."  That's, well, as ridiculous as it sounds.  Do we even need an "in-game rationale" for these sorts of scenarios, especially when the victory conditions always involve killing the monster at the end?

I laid things out -- no easy task given all the cards, miniatures, tiles, jots, tittles, and whogangs present in these board games -- and got started.  Things soon went south.

The thing I both love and hate about these recent WOTC board games is that something happens every turn. Either you place a new tile, which brings out a new monster, or you draw an encounter, which is always Bad.  More monsters, traps, walls turning into magma -- these are all encounters.  It keeps the action flowing, but it also makes it really easy to become overrun, especially when you're playing solo.  In no time at all I was darting from tile to tile, trying to whittle down the existing horde of monsters and praying the encounter cards I drew didn't cause a block of stone to fall on my dwarf's head.  (It didn't, but the walls did turn to magma).  Finally, I arrived at this (sorry about the blurry cell phone pic):

That's the end board, complete with the staircase exit from the dungeon.  Notice all of my daily powers are expended (face down there on the right) and the long line of monster cards at the edge of the table.

And then this happened:

That's my poor dwarf, dead a midst the no doubt gleeful throng of monsters that did her in.  If you're counting, that's a kobold Villian, two Orc Smashers, a Grell, a Gibbering Mouther, a kobold skirmisher, and three (yes, three!) frakking cave bears.  My only solace was that the cave bears likely ate all the other monsters once my dwarf died.

I died and was disappointed.  I also cursed more in this game that I have in a long time; it's a good thing my kids were in bed.  (Example: "Another &#^#% cave bear?!  You've got to be *&^%# kidding me!. I am so @#$%#*.  One thing I will say about these D&D board games is that, every time I've ever played one (three times now), it's come down to the wire.  The design, while occasionally frustrating, seems to eliminate the forgone outcome.  Though I died in the dungeon this time (will my poor dwarf's parents ever know what happened to her?), I had a good hour and a half of solo gaming.

17 November 2011

What D&D Character Am I?

A little surprised at this actually.  I think if I would have done this 10 years ago things would be different.

And only 5th level!  I need to earn some more XP!

I Am A: Lawful Good Human Cleric (5th Level)

Ability Scores:

Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment when it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron's vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity's domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric's Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

16 November 2011

The Thief as Player Challenge: Mentzer Reflections Part 10

If the Basic magic-user sucks, the Thief is difficult to play.  Again, it says so right in the text: "The task of staying alive by sneaking and using your wits, instead of just fighting, can be an exciting game challenge."  Thus, if blog posts about games I played when I was 13 have theses, mine here is that the Thief, more than any other class at this level of play, requires player skill.  Some of that skill is tactical, in-game sort of skill.  But a substantial part of that skill is interpersonal skill.  In order to play a Basic thief successfully, you have to know how to talk to the other players and, especially, the DM.

Like the magic-user, the thief is a very "weak" class.  Only leather armor, d4 hit points, limited weapon selection, etc all make the thief sneaky and combat averse.  Menzter gives this advice directly:  "when an encounter occurs, stay out of the way."  The thief, then, falls back on her Special Abilities (interestingly, this is always capitalized in the text)(1).  But these are horrible, at least in terms of chance of success: 10% chance to find or remove traps (separate abilities here, though the percentages are the same), 10% chance to hide, 20% chance to pick pockets. . .  The thief does have an 87% chance to climb walls, though.  If you are going to fail 9 times out of 10 in performing your special abilities, you not only have to have some restraint and patience, but you also have to be creative in ways your character can contribute to the party's success when your abilities fail (as they will most of the time). The XP curve is a lot nicer for thieves, however.  The thief is at 3rd level well before anyone else.  The thief player, then, needs to be able to figure out how to use her abilities as best she can, as well as contribute and not get smashed by ogres until things get better for her, which it will soon.

I think a lot of the player skill, though, will need to come in interpersonal skill with the players and DM.  The character is a thief, after all.  She steals stuff, though only "rarely" from other party members.  This can take some delicate balancing, depending on party composition.  I am beginning to think that the party is not a bunch of "murderous hobos" by default in Menzter, so the thief occupies a unique sort of grey moral area.  This is certainly true when the Guild is factored in.  The class description states that all thieves are part of a Guild, all thieves learn "The Arts" from a Guild teacher, and all towns have a Guild Hall!  This is a fascinating bit of world-setting, with potentially significant campaign implications!  Leaving that aside for the moment, it also potentially places more demands on the thief's player in terms of role playing and sorting out her role in the party without being an ass to the other players by stealing their stuff. (2)

There also has to be good player-DM communication for the thief.  The default is that the DM rolls for all the thief's skill  Ability use, so the player has to be comfortable not rolling her own dice and trust that the DM is being fair and honest.  There's also so much ambiguity in the ability descriptions that player/DM communication and consistency is a must.  How much shadow is needed for hiding?  Should the fact that the fighter is distracting the hired cleric give the theif a bonus to pick his pocket?   Then, there's the backstab.  What does it take to be noticed?  Menzter tells us "no roll is made; it depends on the situation and the DM's judgment." So, having a good plan, communicating it to the DM, and trusting that she understood and adjuicates it fairly is a vital part of backstabbing success!

I hope I am not sounding critical of all this.  I personally prefer some player/DM back and forth over all of this than six pages of modifiers.  The former is a major tenet of Old School gaming, I think.  I just think it's interesting how much the way the class is set up implies that the player of the class will be able to do certain things around the table.

(1)  I find it interesting that they are called "Special Abilities" and not "Skills".  That certainly implies that they are unique to the class, much like Turning Undead is to clerics, and not something that fighters should or could be doing.
(2) The Easley illustration of the thief certainly does not help the class's trustworthiness.  The example is not a fresh-faced young adventurer, but a middle-aged man with a cowl and a sneer, who is looking back over his shoulder, presumably to both check he's not being followed and to gloat at the dead body of his fighter "friend" who is now busy getting eaten by fire beetles while the thief absconds with a sack full of silver and electrum pieces.

14 November 2011

The Magic User as Delayed Gratification: Mentzer Reflections Part 9

I continue to work my way through the Mentzer Basic set.  The previous entry can be found here.

Magic-users suck.  And the book tells you how much they suck:  "Other Ability Scores are often low;" "Magic-users greatly fear damage;" all other classes can wear armor but "magic-users can only wear their robes;" "they are easy to hit;" "they have few hit points;" "one surprise could kill you;" "be sure to call for help if you get into a battle;" "Beware of other magic-users;" "never try to fight a monster hand-to-hand" (italics in original).

There's not much going for magic-users in the Basic set.  Really, you get two things.  First, the promise of further awesome power: "Magic-users start as the weakest characters, but can become the most powerful!"  Lightning bolts are mentioned, but we have to wait for the Expert Set for them.  The second thing you get is the sleep spell, which is a pretty good encounter-ender for the Basic level encounters.  So, in at least one encounter, the magic-user will be awesome. Other than that one encounter, however, the magic-user is just biding her time and hiding behind the fighter.

I was struck by how up front the Basic book is about the power curve of the magic-user.  They do not compare to other classes for the first few levels.  Implicitly, then, they are not for everyone.  As a player, then, you have to be patient, skillful, and in this for a longer haul if you want to have your magic-user doing a whole lot.  I think this asks a lot of 13 year-olds and is a marked difference from not only 4E, but even from 3E, where wizards get crossbows.  It's almost as if the Basic text is saying to the magic-user's player: "Patience, child. . . bide your time. . . let them do all the dirty work. . . then one day . . .one day you will make them all pay for their weakling jokes and snide comments with your FIREBALL . . . mwahahahahahaha!"

Or maybe that's just how I played my magic-user.

It also further justifies demi-human level limits, I think.  If the magic-user doesn't eventually grossly outstrip the elf in terms of magical power, then why bother to play the magic-user?

The rules for magic that follow are also very interesting.  Highlights:

  • The DM is in complete control over what spells the magic-user has.
  • Spell books are big and not really designed for adventuring.  Later in the magic section, magic-users are advised to bring a mule on adventures that last more than one day to haul the spell book.
  • All magic-users of less than 7th level have teachers, who give the magic-user her spells when she levels up.  The text notes "they will not affect most games."  I found this fascinating!  A built-in NPC patron!  How can that not affect the game?  In addition to the "go get this McGuffin" and "I can certainly answer your questions, young pupil" aspects, I can just see some PC magic-user getting fed up that the only spells he's getting from his teacher are Floating Disc and Locate Object and hatching a plot to off his teacher and steal his spellbook, which sounds awesome.
  • "Any magic-user can cast a spell found on a scroll as if it were memorized, regardless of the level of the spell."  Whoah!  A first level magic-user can use any scroll!  There's a way to get rid of that pesky teacher right there!  While she can cast a spell from a scroll, she can't put it in her spell book until she can cast spells of that level.  That's another interesting lesson in delayed gratification, as well as creating an interesting resource allocation dilemma.
  • Magic missiles do not instantaneously shoot from the magic-user's fingers.  Instead, a glowing arrow follows her around for the duration of the spell or until she decides to shoot it.  Of course, the duration of the spell is only one round, so I am not sure how that really differs from being instantaneous.
Reading through the other spell descriptions was interesting as well, but nothing jumped out at me quite as much as the magic missile, since that's the spell that gets used over and over again.

I (re)learned lots of interesting things about the Basic magic-user.  Sure, they suck and are likely to die a lot at first.  But make friends with the fighter and cross your fingers for a few scrolls in the treasure horde, and your magic-user could be well on her way to becoming a Conjurer!

11 November 2011

Alcohol at the Gaming Table

This is a short post in response to one of the TRPBTNTWA from Monsters and Manuals.  I know, it's only one thing.  I'll get around to the others.

In my current gaming group, we always have alcohol at the table.  There's always wine and frequently beer.  The wine is there because our hosts are also amateur vintners.  They are always breaking out a recently made bottle of red to share around the gaming table.  They also always cook.  I am working on a post about the food, which is ridiculous!  A far cry from Mountain Dew and Cheetos.

I am not a big drinker myself.  I was a straight-edge kid though college and have never really acquired the taste for beer or wine, which seems to be developed mostly by drinking lots of crappy stuff to get drunk, then graduating to moderation and taste.  I do enjoy hard cider -- especially the dry, English style brew -- but I usually don't drink any when we're gaming on Wednesday nights.  I am typically worn out from work, so the cider makes me sleepy.  Yes, I am a lightweight.

The group I gamed with when I lived in Texas had a strict "no alcohol" policy set by the DM.  Apparently, there was some Mysterious Incident in the past due to drinking around the table, so he flat-out forbid it.  Maybe he was the reason Black Leaf died.

08 November 2011

What Should I Make?


I gave my class the assignment for their final project last week via email.  Today was the first time I've seen them since the assignment; there were blank stares and a palpable feeling of anxiety when I asked them if there were any questions about the project.  Note: you can read the entire assignment description here, but the gist of it is they have to make Something.
I was honest with them; I told them I knew the assignment was hard and that I was nervous about it, too, but I was going to make Something as well.  I am trying to stretch all of us, here, especially these honors students who likely don't do a lot of work with their hands.  I certainly fit that category, so I am defintely challenging myself.

So, what should I make?  It needs to be a physical object (so I can't "make" an essay about making things).  I'd like for it to be something useful and/or gaming related.

My first inclination is to hand draw and color a map, but there's a part of me that wants to make something more substantial.  Maybe some terrain (though I don't really use miniatures) or something else.

Suggestions are appreciated.  Any and all are welcome.  I don't have a lot of tools and can't afford to buy a lot between now and when this project is due, so that eliminates what I REALLY want to make, which are some bookshelves.

What should I make?

07 November 2011

Proud of the Wife!

My wife finished her half-marathon on Saturday with a personal best time of 2 hours, 6 minutes, and something like 34 seconds.  I'm very proud!

We missed her actually crossing the finish line.  Wrangling two kids, coordinating the drive in from Tybee Island with two other couples (and two more kids), parking, then navigating through the Savannah streets was a challenge.  There were something like 20,000 runners in the field and everything was a little crazy.  But we eventually found her and all gave her big hugs.

It was our first time out on Tybee Island, which is a cool place.  Savannah is always fun.

04 November 2011


We're off to Savannah, Georgia today, leaving right after lunch.  My wife is running in a Rock and Roll Half-Marathon.  There are 23,000 other people running as well, so Savannah should be a hot mess this weekend.  But there are bands all over the city, playing as the runners jog past.  I'll be waiting at the finish line with the kids.  I am very proud of my wife!

03 November 2011

Tentpole Megadungeon Design Question

I'm trying very hard to move the fantasy zombie apocalypse idea toward something more tangible than an idea I just talk about on my blog.  I thought a good (and fun) place to start would be the dungeon that serves as the game's beginning and "home base."

I'm going to sketch out some rooms and such tonight, but as I am gearing up, I am wondering if the dungeon needs a history.  So here's my question for all you dungeon designers:

How important is a history or some sort of rationale for your megadungeon?

One of the things I really like about Stonehell is that it has a reason for existence that's both simple and that makes sense: it was a series of caves made into a prison and left it it's own devices.

Just trying to get some thoughts on this as I sketch out some rooms and corridors.

31 October 2011

The Basic Fighter: Mentzer Reflections Part 8

Looking over the fighter in the Mentzer Red Box, it's clear that the fighter is the base or standard class.  Mentzer notes that every group should contain one or more fighters and that fighters serve to protect the weaker characters.  They can survive alone in the dungeon, even if they have to solve problems with brute strength.  They neither have, nor need, special abilities to make it.

Their saving throws are a straight progression (12-16) and their experience progression works in 2,000 point increments (at least from levels 1-3).

I wasn't surprised by the centrality of the fighter to basic play.  What I did find most interesting here, however, was the fighter's level titles.  At first level, the fighter is a "veteran".  I don't want to read too much into the choice of these particular titles, but that suggests that, even at first level, the fighter is fairly competent and has seen combat.  This fits well with the solo adventure, where the sample fighter was portrayed as someone who, while new to the dungeon, already knew his way around the end of a broadsword.

The fighter picture is a stern-looking fellow with chainmail, staring at the reader while resting his hands on the hilt of a sword.  It's a Jeff Easley drawing.

A dungeon in reverse

One of the cool ideas I want to play with in the zombie apocalypse game is the idea of a dungeon in reverse.  What I mean is using the dungeon not as the dangerous area where people explore to gain loot, but rather as a haven, where characters return to after forays into the outside world.  I know this could be done with the "monsters as characters" trope, but I'd like to do it with a traditional adventuring party.

The way I envision it, the adventuring party is part of a group that has fled to a dungeon or nearby series of caves in order to shelter from an impending disaster.  They've brought some supplies, willing to risk the uncertainty of the dangerous dungeon rather than whatever is happening in the outside world.  Eventually, they venture forth to see what awaits them, but the dungeon remains as a place where they return to take shelter.  Of course, areas of the caves are unexplored and dangerous, spawning monsters to menace the party upon occasion.

I just think it would be cool to reverse the gaming standards of "safe zone" and "dangerous dungeon."

28 October 2011

New Blog Template?

I am trying one of the new Dynamic Views template on Blogger.  This one is called Magazine.  What does everyone think?

Apparently, with the dynamic view, you can choose the way you view the blog, which is pretty cool.  Not really sure how to log into my own blog while in the default view, though, since the "sign in" link that was there at the top is now gone.

The Basic Cleric: Mentzer Reflections

I'm trying to resurrect my section by section of the Mentzer Red Box Basic set.  You can read my earlier entries here:

Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6Part 7

Before I get to the cleric, which is the first class covered in the Basic book, there's a one page introduction to the "Characters" section.  Up until this point, there's been plenty of solo play as introduction to the game.  The introduction to this section mentions two other modules (M1 Blizzard Pass and M2 The Riddling Minotaur) that you can play by yourself, but focuses on playing in a group.  In a group "fighters are always needed" and mention is made of trying to include most of the character classes if there are enough players.

The introduction also covers the Prime Requisite.  I found it interesting that the penalties and bonuses are not symmetrical.  The penalties are -20% and -10%, while the bonuses are +5% (for scores of 13-15) and +10% (16-18).  This would really serve to drive players to play classes that suit the rolled ability scores, I would imagine.

Turning the page to the cleric,  the first thing one reads is an explanation for the clerics power.  In Basic, clerics get their power from serving "a great and worthy cause" which is usually the cleric's Alignment.  The next paragrpah takes pains to remove any ethical or theological beliefs from the game: "This game does not deal with those beliefs" (emphasis in original).  No gods, no temples, no religion at all.  I can only assume this was done to sanitize the game a bit.  As an introduction designed to bring new players into the game, talking openly about polytheistic deities could have been seen as risky.  That's understandable, even if a bit dissapointing.  What it could do, however, is reorient the cleric (and the game's theistic frame) to Law vs. Chaos.  The cleric channels those primal forces to power her abilities.

The next bit deals with saves, experience, and other class features.  Though there is no theology present, the class titles are clearly religious (you're a priest at third level!).  Advancement would seem to be rapid, with second level gained at 1500 XP.

The next section details the cleric's special abilities -- turning undead and casting spells.  Turning undead is the 2d6, check the chart, then 2d6 of hit die system.  And, lest there is any confusion about how to use this ability, there is this helpful paragraph:

"When you want your cleric to try to Turn Undead, just tell your Dungeon Master 'I'll turn the Undead.'"

Umm. . . yeah.

For the spells, a cleric doesn't get to cast any until second level.  She meditates to learn the spell, choosing what she wants to learn at the beginning of the adventure.  There's a tacit assumption that the cleric will leave her home, go on an adventure, and then head back for a good night's sleep, as she only gets one spell per adventure at 2nd level, though there is a note that in "advanced games" where adventures can last for more than a day, she gets new spells each morning.  Only eight spells are given; none of them are remotely offensive.  They certainly emphasize protection, detection, and healing.

The cleric's role as a secondary monster-fighter and a caster of supporting spells is pretty clearly laid out here, even if the religious nature of the class is shoved way to the background.

I also like the Elmore illustration of the female cleric, running and brandishing her mace.  Wither her winged, feathered helmet and dark hair, I get an Eastern European vibe from her.

27 October 2011

Why the zombie apocalypse?

In a fantasy world, the rise of the zombies would need to be, well, fantastic.  Given the literal "dead walking the earth" thing, an event of tremendous magical magnitude seems appropriate.  A super-necromancer might have finally succeded in his arcane ritual.  Maybe a party of adventurers failed in their attempts to prevent it and evil has (temporarily) won.  The players in this game wouldn't know about this, however.  This set up wouldn't necessarily radically alter any game mechancics.  It gives a BBEG to fight against, if the PC's make it that far.

Although this is beginning to remind me, a bit, of the Midnight setting for 3E, which I did not care for.

Another alternative is something more akin to the Cataclysm in the Dragonlance setting.  The gods up and left, creating all sorts of havoc.  The principal consequence of the abdication of the pantheon is the dead rise.  Another serious consequence is the lack of any divine or clerical power.  No cure spells!  No turning undead!  This really ramps up the survival horror aspect of such a game, as traditional means of overcoming environmental hazards, especially injury, are now gone.  The denial of turn undead seems pretty harsh in an undead-centric game, but it also makes sense.  This gampaign frame seems a bit more open than the one above.  The PC's can try to figure out why the gods left and what, if anything, can be done to resore clerical power.  Or they can loot the now vacant churches.  Either way, they have plenty to do.

26 October 2011

Cannibals are better deep fried. (Pathfinder Update)

My character's name is Culver, by the way.  I know that was keeping all of you up at night.

Monday's session was very, very fun -- maybe the most fun I've had in the Pathfinder game yet.  It was essentially one long combat, as we tried to escape/were rescued from the cannibals.  Culver and the paladin managed to work free from their bonds and take a couple of guards from behind while the rest of the party drew off the bulk of the cannibals.  The cleric then led that group into an ambush by the rest of the party.  After the initial batch was dealt with, we reequipped, hid in the village, and ambushed another group of cannibals as they returned from the jungle.  Big nasty cannibal chief was with this group.  He proved to be pretty tough, but the fighter eventually took him down after we peppered him with arrows.  We ended up with one captured cannibal, who told us about the evil witch who lived in a hut outside the village and the wives of the chief who lived in the lighthouse.

In retrospect, it's hard to believe no one died.  There were something like 20 cannibals, plus the chief (who had in excess of 40 hit points).  In addition to a fair amount of luck, I'd like to say good tactics won the day.  We managed to separate the cannibals into smaller groups, drawing some away so we didn't have to face them all at once.  We used our spells to good effect -- ray of enfeeblement on the chief, increased speed from a domain power on the cleric to draw some of the cannibals away.  I also took a page from Cthulhu's Librarian and used grease to slow a bunch of the cannibals down as they charged us.  Not only did it buy us an extra round or two for missile fire, but then the paladin set the grease on fire, causing some cannibals to become deep fried.

Good times!  I still don't feel like I really know who Culver is yet, nor how he feels about being on this island.  But I still had a good time.

24 October 2011

Pathfinder Update

We're playing our Pathfinder game again tonight, after what seems like an extended hiatus, though it's only been two weeks.

The group itself is good. They are fun and smart people.

The adventure, thus far, is solid.  It's the Serpent's Skull adventure path.  We're the victims of a mysterious shipwreck.  Currently, we're making our way across the island to a mysterious lighthouse, which we hope will give us clues about how we ended up here and provide us with a way off the island.  There's an interesting group of NPC's tagging along with us.  All in all, it reminds me a lot of Lost, which is a good thing.  Of course, last session two PC's (including mine) and two NPC's were captured by cannibals; we'll see if we can make it out of this without being the main course!

I will admit to not feeling my bard/archaeologist character, though.  In all honestly, I can't tell you his name right now without going to the character sheet to look it up.  Granted, we're only four or so sessions in, so he and I might get closer as things progress, but I won't shed a tear if he gets eaten tonight.  I am not really sure why this is.  Maybe it's because he's sort of a generic support character who's not really good at any particular thing.  Maybe I haven't thought enough about his story and personality.  Maybe it's his 9 strength.  That -1 really gets in the way of a lot of rolls.  I'm not sure.  We'll see what happens tonight and I'll get back to you.

21 October 2011

The University, Red in Tooth and Claw

A red-tailed hawk keeps the campus here as part of his territory (though I am not sure where he nests).  I spotted him this morning as I was leaving the library.  Actually, I heard him first -- the clatter of his talons on the metal lampshade.  I looked up and there he was, enjoying a breakfast of some at this point unidentifiable meat.  My money would be on squirrel.   I snapped a quick photo with my phone.  I can't exactly say why, but catching him looking at me was very cool.

A beautiful fall day here.  Unless you're a squirrel, I suppose.

20 October 2011

Seriousness in RPG's

This is thought that deserves more attention, but all I have got is this for now:

I think RPGs, as a form, are capable of exploring some of the various aspects of the human condition like fear, love, tragedy, revenge, death, longing, etc.

These are games that would be more "serious" than others. (1)

I'd like to play/run games that do the above, at least sometimes.

But that never really happens.  I am not sure why,

(1) I am not implying that these sorts of games are better -- in any sense of the word --  than other sorts of games.  I am just trying to differentiate the tone of said games from others.  Also, I would imagine, there would be fewer jokes about bodily fluids and/or Monty Python references.

19 October 2011

The Character Funnel and Zombies

Continuing with the zombie theme, here's my latest brainstorm.  Granted, it's almost certainly been done before.  Also granted, I likely won't get very far with the idea.

A sword and sorcery post-apocolyptic zombie horror campaign.

This summer, I commented on my brief Dungeon Crawl Classics experience; I was critical of the character funnel idea.  I thought it was artificial in several ways, but would  make sense given certain initial campaign scenarios.  Well, zombie apocolypse is one of those scenarios.  Imagine that the initial party of 14-20 PC's are all that's left in a town after some Event happens that turns almost everyone else into zombies.  Viola!  Medieval zombie horror, where PC attirition is expected, resource management becomes key, and "heroes" emerge.

As an added twist, you could keep the true zombie-nature of the game from the PC's.  Game play begins in the dungeon.  The 14-20 person party has fled their village into nearby caves in order wait out the Event.  They've been stuck there for days/weeks/months, but finally have to venture out.  Part One of the adventure, then, becomes exiting the dungenon.  The party faces traditional dungeon monsters and hazards, with maybe a few more zombies than usual.  Those who survive stumble back into their village only to find it overrun by zombies, including friends and family who are now the undead.  In a nice reversal of tropes, the dungeon (which is at least partially cleared of monsters and hazards) becomes the safe space that the party can retreat to, while the vilage and most of the outside world becomes the "dungeon".

Next: other scenarios and possible rules modifications.

Image from tricketitrick on DeviantArt

17 October 2011

Zombies in Your Games?

My new favorite show is, certainly, The Walking Dead.  I missed it on it's first run, but I've watched the first season on Netflix and caught the season two premire last night.  More about the series later; now, it's got me thinking about zombies and gaming.

I know they are out there, but I've never really played in any sort of zombie-horror game, with any rule set.  With the exception of smashing and turning zombies in D&D, zombies have never really been a big part of any game in which I've participated.

So, how many of you folks have had games in which zombies have been a big deal?

What had happened was. . .

So, six weeks without posting.  Um, yeah.

Work, blah, blah. . . family, blah, blah, . . . perceived lack of gaming things to talk about, blah, blah. . . Google + will change everything blah, blah. . .

All of it, and none of it, but the simple fact is I like blogging (on my own schedule) and like interacting with the few folks who read and post here (and whom I follow and post on their blogs).  So expect more posts soon.

06 September 2011

The Pathfinder Character

The group got together last Thursday to roll characters and talk about backgrounds.  I was all about playing a fighter-type, with a straight up fighter as my preference and a ranger as backup.

I am now playing a bard.  So you see what planning does for you.

As we went around the table talking about preferences, it became clear that most folks were sticking pretty close to their comfort zone with character choice -- a fighter and a wizard were chosen almost immediately.  I had no desire to play a cleric, as my last Pathfinder character was a cleric.  I loved that character, but wanted something different.  Someone else picked a paladin (an odd choice for this player), giving us two melee characters.  Another player said he really did NOT want to play a rogue, so he took the cleric.  Every party needs a cleric.  Now, I was character-less and the party was rogue-less.  And I've always been a stickler for a balanced party, unless we all decided to play the same class in a game designed around that concept (which I've always thought would be cool, but have never done).  So I said I'd play a rogue.

We then worked out a pretty nice group backstory that both unites (most of) us and creates some intra-party tension.  I'll talk about this in another post.  That story got me sold on the character, but not on the class.  The Pathfinder rogue is as much about sneaky, backstabbing combat as he is stealing things and disarming traps.  My concept fit the later well, but not the former.  So I went home with an empty character sheet.

I thought for a couple of days about my character's role in the party and my role in the group.  Having played a lot of Pathfinder, I know the rules and the setting better than the other players, so likely I was going to take a leadership and support role both in and out of character.  I hadn't thought of a bard at all, but then I stumbled across the archaeologist -- a bard archetype that's apparently in Pathfinder Ultimate Combat.  Fortunately, it's also in the Pathfinder SRD (hooray for the OGL and Paizo's willingness to make so much of it's stuff available for free!).  The archaeologist swaps the bard's music abilities for some rogue abilities like trap-finding.  He also gets some extra luck in the form of a bonus to all rolls that lasts for a few rounds per day.  This sounded a lot more like my concept!  He'll know a lot about the world, have motivation to explore it, be competent at ranged combat, be good at tracking and trap finding, and have some spells as a reserve/support character.

I still haven't crunched the numbers or come up with a name, but I feel a lot better about this half-elf than I did at the table last Thursday.

02 September 2011

Here's some more!

I've read with great interest three recent blog posts about old school gaming and blogging.  Two from ckutalik at Hill Cantons and one from Mythmere.  The theme that connects them, if I read them right, is that the OSR blogsphere has reached something of a turning point, moving away from the production (or reproduction) of old school content and to something else.  What that "else" is is still vague, but it could be more about the practice of gaming itself rather than producing content for gaming.

To perhaps put it another way: the blogsphere has produced a lot of content, but it's also produced a community, and that community is now pretty busy playing games.  Google + facilitates games across the miles, and the ties built via the internet has also resulted in a fair amount of face to face gaming via mini-cons and the like.

I'll freely admit to being both a tiny speck of the community and fairly late to the OSR party.  I'll also admit to frequent navel-gazing about my blog, my own gaming, and what they mean to my overall life and work.  I've been anxious about my own lack of, well, creative output (particularly physical creative output).  I've gone for long stretches without posting and felt bad about it.

But at one level -- the level, I think my blog sits at most of the time, it's pretty simple:

1.  I like to talk about gaming.
2.  I like to make things related to gaming.
3.  I like to game.

I admit I am not so great at #2 (random cupcake table aside), but would like to get better.  I'd certainly like to do a lot more of #3, but job and family and the like keep me from doing much more than the every other week thing with the local folks.  That leaves #1.  I don't get to do as much of that as I'd like, but the blog lets me do more of it than I would otherwise.

Fundamentally, I think all three of those things are important for the creation and maintenance of a community.

(To be all philosophical about it for a minute, you could call them criticism, production, and practice).

Golarion Love

The upcoming Pathfinder game has rekindled my love of the developed setting for the game -- Golarion.  I bought the Gazetteer ages ago and dug it out for last night's character creation session.  It's marvelous; I don't think I've really liked a published setting this much since I bought the Forgotten Realms grey box in 9th grade.

The setting is such a glorious pastiche of history, fantasy tropes, and gaming homages.  Anything and everything is there -- decadent devil empires (Cheliax), pirate fleets (The Shackles and the Hurricane King), Norse-ish Barbarians (Lands of the Linnorm Kings), and tons of other stuff (gothic horror, proto-democracy, pharaohs, ape-kings, etc).  Listing it like that, it almost looks silly.  There's no way all this can be crammed into one game setting and not result in a terrible, terrible mess.

But it all works!  At least for me.  Adventure possibilities leap off of every page of the Gazetteer, as does potential socio-political conflict (if one chooses to include that in a game).  As sketched out, Golarion can accommodate almost every conceivable character background, drive for adventure, and adventure setting.

I know there are 478 published supplements that further detail areas of Golarion, including a larger hardback overview of the entire world, but I'm going to try and resist them.  The Gazetteer is just so fun!

Plus "Gazetteer" is a cool word in and of itself.

31 August 2011

The Pathfinder Character

Inspired by the recent, forgettable, Conan film, I'd like to play a fighter type in this Pathfinder game.  I want to punch and hack things.  I also don't want to worry about spell-managment, nor am I really feeling very roguish.

Barbarian?  Ranger?  Or straight-up fighter?  The party will likely need a wilderness-type, so if no one else is feeling it, I can play a ranger.  I think my preference, however, lies with a straight-up fighter.

Except there's no such thing!  This is the blessing and curse of systems like Pathfinder.  So many choices, so many ways to customize, which can often create option-paralysis.  In an old school game, you could just make a fighter.  If he wanted to bash things with a shield, cool.  If she wanted to use a net and trident, cool.  Minimal mechanical difference between the two, if any.  But now I'll have to think about feats and the interplay of mechanics, flavor, and concept.  There's a bit of stress there.

30 August 2011

So, Pathfinder

Gaming had been on the rocks for me since June, with vacations and the beginning of the semester getting in the way of the group getting together.  There were also some communication issues (as always); I'd put out an email or Facebook post saying "let's schedule some games" and would not hear anything.  Meanwhile, so and so would tell me that someone else "really wanted to play again."  I was frustrated.  So two Fridays ago I managed to gather the core members of the group at my house.  We played some Ticket to Ride and talked about what we wanted to do.  The result of that conversation was a Pathfinder game -- specifically an Adventure Path.  Very specifically, The Serpent's Skull.

I know there are some old schoolers who sneer at Adventure Paths, but this seems like a great solution to some problems with our group.  It reduces the amount of prep dramatically, which is always good for us busy folks.  It also has some built-in plot structure (though it's all fairly open ended and, in some instances sandbox-y), which satisfies the more story-oriented in our group.  The chapters of the path give us logical break points and, more importantly, accomplishment milestones to serve as nice positive reinforcement.  Our goal is to complete one book per semester and play out the whole thing.  We're also going to try rotating DM's, with at least one other person and myself switching up with each book in the path.

While Pathfinder would not have been my first choice (even though I like it), it fits well with a few group members who really came of gaming age with 3.0.  They like feats.  Really, I like the system well enough and the setting a lot.

All in all, I am looking forward to rolling the dice again.  Character creation is this Thursday.