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.