Thursday, February 28, 2013

Clerical Issues

Real quick: JB over at B/X Blackrazor has been talking a bit about clerics. Mainly its about how they really don't work given the source material that D&D draws on, and how the game might work better if they were removed. Delta figured this out way back in 2008. And his reasoning was my main inspiration for banning the cleric in my own OD&D house rules.

Its odd that we both were thinking about cleric banning at the same time. I was revisiting my decision to answer the question of "what 5 things would you change in D&D if you could only change 5?" I have said before that we live close enough to each other that we are drinking the same water.

The really interesting thing here is that JB is coming very close to the same line of conclusions as Delta but I am pretty sure he is completely unaware of Delta's work and reasoning. Maybe not. But including this blogger, that makes three guys in the OSR that have outright removed clerics from the game. Which makes me think we are on to something here. Both these guys make the points for me so I won't put them up here. Check out the posts linked above and draw your own conclusion. For me, I think the Thief has more right to be in the game than the Cleric. So I think we should kill the cleric. And take his stuff. Delta chose to just nix the cleric spells all together. I chose to give them to the magic-user since he was now going to be pulling insane priest duty for the foreseeable future.

What I realized reading JB and rereading Delta was that my solution for what to do with turning made sense but was inelegant. I gave everyone the ability to turn. It made sense, if you thought about it. Turning is based on vampire lore and more specifically Van Helsing's use of a cross in Dracula. Note however that Van Helsing is not a priest. He is not ordained. He has a sum total of 0 supernatural power. So in my book that means that everyone can turn. The mistake I made was that I gave everyone access to the chart. What a mess.

First off the turning mechanic is really clunky and a little fiddly to apply. This obviously varies with edition, but you catch my drift. Secondly applying it to everyone made it even more clunky in that you had to figure out how to determine at what power level the characters turned undead. Work. Work. Work.

Here it is: If you must be rid of that meddlesome priest, make vampires superstitious.
Holy symbols of any faith keep Vampires (and only Vampires) at bay. Anyone can hold up (or wear while facing) any symbol of a god and the vampire won't touch them. However the symbols are directional. So while Count Dracula in front of you is held at bay his minion vampire behind you is not.
This way you get the ability exhibited in the source material but you don't have to worry about clunky mechanics. What about the other undead? There is no pre-D&D precedent of priests holding other undead at bay, and undead are meant to be feared. Turning is really powerful and thus it is like healing: it is something a party can't go without if it is available in the game. Take out turning and the fear of undead returns.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Ultimate Dread

Legendary. That's the word. Not only in the numerous gaming worlds it inhabits, but also in our own real world the Isle of Dread is a thing of legend. It sits beside the Caves of Chaos and The Tomb of Horrors in the shared experience of D&D players of every edition.

The island is a strange eclectic mix. Start with one part homage to King Kong and the lost world literature that inspired it. Add stories of magic, pirates, castaways, mysteries, dungeons and of course dragons. Sprinkle with a bit of Sword and Planet and you are all set. Going to "The Island" is supposed to be a game changer. Arrival is easier than departure, and survival is always in question. As a location based module the adventure contained within the pages is perennial not just as an adventure but also as part of the lost world genre.

In recent years "The Isle of Dread" has reentered the field of vision of players and publishers alike. with expansions, retcons, retoolings and such found in Dungeon to ideas in the OSR, I wanted to try to tie it all together in this post so as to create a resource for information and ideas about the "The Isle of Dread" and to further develop notions about what the island is and what it could be.

First off I think the mistake that many writers and Dungeon Masters make when they try to use the "The Isle of Dread" is that they don't see it or populate it as a campaign setting. This mistake is an easy one to make, especially if you are not aware of geographic scales.  When we look at the map we think we are looking at something along the lines of a smaller Hawaiian island - or some small island  in the Carribian. We think Treasure Island, Skull Island, Jamaica and Gilligan's Island. We just don't see it as the the size of Ireland.

Yes, Ireland.

When you look at the map and count out the length and width of the outlying islands and reefs surrounding the main island, you get an area pretty much on par with Ireland. The actual Isle is about the size of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, or twice the size of Vancouver Island (which is longer than the western coast of the state of washington by the way). In truth, to really use the Isle of Dread is a major commitment. It's a very specialised campaign setting so given its size it might be best to treat it like one.

When it was left on its own in 1983 the Isle of Dread was just an island in the known world. 21 years after we see an update in Dungeon #114 that brings the Isle to Greyhawk. This creates the first new notion about the island - it moves from plane to plane.

This propagates the idea that we actually don't have to use it as an insular setting (with all the puns intended). We can make it far more interesting as a plane hopping island that touches other worlds and the planes themselves. In essence you have an island that can be the best of pulp adventure in one place. If skull island from King Kong is the conceptual father of the Isle of Dread, a strong argument can be made that it is the grandson of Neverland- native tribes, pirates, skull shaped rocks, and everything else that comes with the island that can only be found if you go straight on till morning and follow the second star to the right. 

So the isle of dread is in essence an amalgamation of all the mysterious islands from pulp and lost world literature and fantasy. But I would wager that the ideas about this island have not stopped, but that it continues to develop.  For me the most recent inspiration for an addition to the Isle of Dread is the television series LOST. In LOST you have an island not unlike the isle of dread and its adventure fiction cousins. Mystery and magical realism abound. Most of the concepts in LOST we have seen before and can easily move to the Isle of Dread. But the one real innovation was an island that moves in time and space.

So I like to imagine the Isle of Dread as this plane walking, time and space traveling island. It manifests from prime material to outer plane and back again fluctuating through time and all existence, picking up horrors, and strange things. A sort of mobile Carcosa. When it manifests it is surrounded by storms that draw in ships that get too close, like a hurricane that forces everything it touches into its eye. It stays for a time, often long enough to get on the charts, then it disappears to a different time and world, taking the sea of dread with it.

Given what we have learned about the 6 mile hex and how big the Isle of Dread really is, it turns out that we can put A LOT more on the island. Thus it becomes tempting to add in WG6 The Isle of the Ape. Since the natives come from the isle of dread, and both are inspired on some level by Kong's Island, why not just make them the one and the same. Imagine Castle Greyhawk not leading to the Isle of the Ape as a part of its dungeons but in those places it connects to the Isle of Dread itself. Imagine that combined with the Isle of Dread as a demi-plane that wanders around and is connected to Castle Greyhawk and numerous other dungeons like the Cavens of Tharcia. If you think about it, there are some planer doors in Thracia- a couple are not functional.  Why not make one of the broken ones lead to the island?

Using the Isle of read this way, you have a dungeon nexus. A way to plane hop, a way to get your retro stupid on. Here are some resources to help you with makeing your "Ultimate Dread:"

Official Sources:
Isle of Dread 1981
Isle of Dread 1983
Dungeon #114 Torrents of Dread
Dungeon #142
Dungeon #143
Dungeon #144
Dungeon #145

Adjunct Sources and connections: (possibly take these and put them on the island. Really, why not?)
Isle of the Ape
Drums on Fire Mountain
Savage Coast(?)

Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (Dungeon magazine played with this in the savage tide. They didn't put it on the island but it does bring up the question again - why not?)
Dwellers in the Forbidden City - could easily work as a location on the Island.

Caverns of Thracia (like I said before, one of the planar doors could connect well to the island)

Inspirational Viewing:

LOST - esp the first two seasons
King Kong 2005
King Kong 1935
Peter Pan original play

Inspirational Reading:
Journey to the Center of the Earth - Jules Verne
The Land that Time Forgot - Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Lost World - Arthur Conan Doyle
Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
Robinson Crusoe - William Defoe
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
The Mysterious Island - Jules Verne
The Island of Doctor Moreau - H.G. Wells

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mountains and Mole-Hills

I am going to try to get this one out really fast. Limited time here. Rob over at Bat in the Attic posted some long distance sighting rules. They are a great set of rules. The real genius behind them is the kind of linear rock paper scissors thing he has going on with the mountains, hills and plains with an assumed height for generic mountains and hills.

I wanted to offer a correction. The heights and distances presented are off by an order of magnitude for the mountains and in my opinion a little short for hills. If you go on the idea that the average height of a notable mountain peak is around 10,000ft (great peaks like Mt Ranier, and others land between 10k and 20k with legendary peaks like Everest and Denali topping out in the upper 20k's), and the United States and England both draw the "official" this is now a mountain line at 990ft and 2000ft respectively you see what I mean. You can see mountains from quite a distance on a clear day - getting into the 100's of miles.

So lets turn this into game stuff:
I have been thinking about mountains a bit in my game design efforts when it comes to travel and sighting. So this info is stored in my trivia banks an easily ready.  Humans start to experience altitude sickness at about 8000ft. Tree-line fluctuates around this depending on latitude an atmospheric conditions generally we could say that 7500ft is a good round ball park number. So I would assume that given navigating mountainous terrain is essentially a matter of finding your way through spurs, around mountains, along rivers and over saddles (the low arts between peaks) casual travelers will be at about 5000ft if they are in a mountain hex. 
Hills are a crazy beast. No one really knows when a hill starts being a mountain. There are all sorts of ways that use height to slope and distance around base. I like hills ending at 1000ft for game purposes. It allows us to say that most mountains are an order of magnitude higher than most hills. Just like when traveling through mountains, in hills you aim for the low areas rather than follow the ridge lines and go from peak to peak. So we can ballpark the height for casual travelers in hills at about 500ft. If you decide that hills go to 2000ft then you will obviously use 1000ft as the casual height.
I work on the 6mi per hex scale. So the hexes here are going to reflect that in my calculations.
Rob's note of about an hour to find a good sighting place is pretty accurate with my own hiking experience in hill like areas, but I would stretch this to 2 hours in mountains. On open area I would reduce it to 30 minutes and for swamps I would say you can only ever see into the next hex. If they want to strike out to tree line throw in an additional hour.  Breaking tree line is handy and generally offers wide unobstructed views. The same is true for peaks and I would say that gaining a summit allows you to see over the next 2 mountain hexes in mountains or hills.
Another point of note: Broken or overcast clouds are totally going to ruin your view from a mountain, but generally not hills.
If the mission of the party is to map large amounts of area they very well might want to climb the highest mountain. At this point they are climbing a specific mountain and are out of the scope and intent of this rules exercise.
Time Needed: Mountains: 2 hours (3 hours for tree line; 4 hours for peak)
Hills: 1 hour (2 hours for peak)
All other: 30 Minutes
Distance Sighted Over Lower Terrains: (counting for refraction: d~= 1.32 * Sqrt(h) where d is in miles and h in ft.)
Random Peak (10000ft): 22 hexes
Tree Line (often 7500ft): 19 hexes (may be high enough for altitude sickness, referees call)
Mountains (5000ft): 15 hexes
Hilltop(2000ft): 10 hexes
Hills/Hilltop(1000ft): 7 hexes
Hills(500ft): 5 hexes
Distance Sighted to Equal or Higher Terrain:
Mountains to Mountains: 1 hex
Mountain Peak to Mountains: 2 hexes
Hills to Mountains: 1 hex
Hills to Hills: 1 hex
Hilltop to Hills: 2 hexes

Broken or overcast clouds block mountain views to 1 hex, and may do the same for hill views.
The distance sighted over lower terrains is also the maximum distance that such a particular elevation can be seen. So a mountain can be seen fairly certainly 15 hexes away- but the foothills 10 hexes away won't be discerable (or only just so)  but any foot hills 5 hexes away would be visible but would block the view of those between 5 hexes and 15 hexes away.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Book of Wands
Recently there has been some talk about wands.
Timrod over at Unfrozen Caveman Die-Chucker fired the first salvo sometime going into the holiday season with Degrading Wands. Its a good idea that follows one of my game simplification axioms (reduce book keeping) to go against one of my others (reduce die rolling). The comments are good as Brendan and 1d30 offer up some cool alternatives that work if you are alright with adding more rolls to your game.

Speaking of Brendan the keeper of Untimately- He entered the mix with his post entitled Basic Wands just a bit ago. His post is full of pretty cool ideas. Initially I didn't think I would go with the elemental thing- then he cites a darn good post by Delta, but the target rolls a save to avoid 1d6 damage is complete gold. It gives MU's some kick in a fight. Somewhere the complexity gets out of hand but that's okay as you can pick and choose what you like here.

Next up was the first "unification post" by C over at Hack & Slash. Lots of good ideas there. Some decent stuff in the comments. The fact that he missed Timrod's post is pretty much the reason this post exists.

Now class, turn in your copy of Playing at the World to pages 198 and 199 for a description of the source material for wands and staffs from sources in Appendix N. The most interesting thing here is how Sword and Sorcery literature in specific and Fantasy literature in general does not really distinguish between a wand and a staff. They are simply sticks; with sticks being a requirement for working any magic.

This is something I would use as part of the argument that magic items should not be classed by form, but rather by function (a.k.a. the hat/cloak of invisibility problem from 3e). That is a history and argument for another time. 

Since ideas are free here are some more ideas about wands from our labs here in the steam tunnels:
  • Wands permit a MU to cast the last spell cast using the wand indefinitely.
  • Wands permit the magic user to cast any spell memorized without burning a slot.
  • Wands associated with a spell (like a wand of fireballs) can be used by any magic user that has learned that spell, and the magic user does not have to have memorized the spell.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I Have No Time and I Must Blog!

I have a large number of posts on the back burner. Somewhere around 20. The game that started as Codex, stalled out, restarted, then became its own game. As a responsible creator, when that happened I had to hunt it down and kill it.  Lots of reasearch has been done, lots of lessons have been learned by watching others (in the OSR and in business in general).  With everything I have learned, and figured out, and seen someone else come up with design on a good game continues to progress at a snails pace. As an aside, I swear that B/X Blackrazor has bugged my brain, as that guy comes up with the same ideas as I do at exactly the same times.  Since we don't live too far from one anoher and don't know each other and have no frinds in common, I suspect it is something in the Greenwood water. Luckly for both of us we implement differently.  The thing that really slows me down is that a lot of my ideas require graphics to convey and I just don't have a lot of time to put them together. And those I think are the best ones.  There are many insights I have to share and many ideas that I have developed and I will endeavor to get them all here soon. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Sudden and Unexpected Endgame

Recently I have been reading The Hobbit.  The situation of this reading is causing me to look at each sentence, and what is really said.  I am constantly amazed at how much I forget and how much I miss.  It is a dense book.

What occurred to me is how a large hoard like the one Smaug sits on is seriously a game changer.  Most referees would rule that even after you discover one; or kill or remove the guardian of a hoard you have to get it back to home base before you collect the experience.  Now, what happens if you turn the dungeon that you are in into home base? This is pretty much what happens with the lonely mountain.  Thorin and Company don't have to transport the treasure anywhere once the battle of the five armies is over, and given the description of Thorin and the other dwarves as they join that battle, it seems like they have leveled up a bit as their eyes are glowing red!  

The thought here is that it no matter what the circumstance, the endgame can show up quite suddenly as dice are involved and players are clever.  Wise use of a hoard might be what allows a party to truly convert a dungeon into a legitimate home base.  Interestingly a megadungeon that can never be settled helps to prevent this.  And while something is statistically unlikely, it does not mean that it can't happen ever, or that it can't happen many times in a row.  A party could get lucky for example and find a +3 Sword in their possession after a lucky lucky victory.  How you handle that may determine what kind of DM you are.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Here's What Happened - Part 1: New Ways to Play

D&D is pretty hard to classify. Even experts on D&D can often disagree on exactly what it is. This makes it something that is very difficult to study. As James at Grognardia and the so called OSR at large has demonstrated much of the study of the game comes through examination of rules changes and additions through its history, with very little examination of actual play. Observing actual play of D&D is a lot like studying sub-atomic particles- it takes a lot of resources to find a game that can be observed and when observed you may not see what you are looking for or not know what sort of environment you will find when you do observe. And does observing the game change it? Possibly.

So a while ago James asked “What Happened?” The question he is asking here is: Why did D&D go from a game sold in the mainstream to a game that was not? In 1983 D&D was available in grocery store toy/game aisles, department stores, and books stores. By 1985 it was pretty much only available in book stores or specialty shops (comic/game stores). I posted in the comments for the post at Grognardia that there is not a single factor that was a “smoking gun” but rather several things working in concert. In addition all these things and how they combined were obscured by the "satanic panic" of the time. The panic obscured what was going on not because it killed the sales but because of the opposite: it blew them through the roof. This record level of sales due to hype obscured the impact that business and design decisions had on game sales. The degree of the success of the game based on its own marketing and its own quality was forever obscured. Even after the smoke cleared, it was impossible to say why after the panic sales were trending downward when before they had been on a healthy trend upwards.

We can’t know for certain what happened. However there are some places we can look that might allow us to figure out why D&D came out in a decline on the other side of the panic. There are two industries that happened concurrently with the development of RPGs, and it can be surmised that all three are something that occurs as a society computerizes. Both of these other industries share two key socio-economic traits with RPGs. One is that both were connected with a social fad and another is that both had steady economic growth to a peak and then a long decline after a fad phase. The first is interactive fiction which is almost as old as D&D itself and walks hand in hand with D&D and RPGs in general and always has. It breaks into two branches- the text and the electronic. The other was “arcade video games” which were not as influenced by content and concept but do share a similar fad and economic pattern.

Interactive fiction started with computers. “The Colossal Cave Adventure” was developed in tandem with the march of computerization and the appearance of D&D. It was expanded upon and also called “Adventure.” It was followed by “Dungeon” an early version of “Zork.” These games emulated the exploratory sandbox and puzzle aspects found in D&D. “Colossal Cave Adventure” was developed between 1975 and 1976 and improved upon in 1977 and had many variants. “Zork” was developed between 1977 and 1979, with the “Dungeon” variant appearing in 1977. While the text based variation on interactive fiction known as “Choose Your Own Adventure” did have its start as an idea around 1970, it did not find a publisher until 1975, and did not break into the critical success it had until 1979. All of these things are happening at the same time that D&D and RPGs are ascendant but before the advent of the panic.

The arcade video game industry developed largely independent of D&D. In all its faddishness it shares two traits with electronic interactive fiction and “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Additionally these two traits are shared by Dungeons and Dragons. These two traits I believe are the key to why all of these pastimes experienced a slow decline and their connection to Dungeons and Dragons will become readily apparent as we examine what happened to interactive fiction.