Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Different Direction for the OSR

I've been doing a lot of work on Emprise!™, specifically on the Players Manual, and one thing is become more and more clear to me as I continue the work. This is going to be flying in the face of a lot of the common wisdom about just what makes an Old School game Old School. Reading the latest draft of the LotFPWFRPG rules really made that point stand out in my mind.

This is not going to be a "rules lite" game. Where some of the OSR games go for a stripped down dune buggy that the owner can then bolt stuff onto, Emprise!™ is going to have everything from an mp3 player built into the dashboard to heated leather seats and one of those chrome skull trailer hitch covers with the eyes that light up red. And did I mention that it'll also come with tail fins you can attach yourself with a screwdriver?

The classes, for instance, are beefy and fiddly, as befits something that has the Unearthed Arcana rules grafted seamlessly into the old Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide. Every class description is organized by its powers and limitations, and even the lowly fighter ends up with a list of five special abilities, each of which is treated as a power:
  • Experience point bonus
  • Exceptional strength
  • Multiple attacks per round
  • Weapon specialization
  • Establishment of a stronghold and attracting followers at high level
And there will probably be more as the editing process goes on; I could easily have included better melee combat tables as a power/advantage. Barbarians clock in with 13 abilities/powers/limitations/what have you. The new classes, too, will have a variety of powers, similar mechanically to how the thief-acrobat and my jester class are set up. Bards and mountebanks especially will have powers to persuade and misdirect, making them much more effective against intelligent foes (or marks, as the case may be). And there will be a skill system on top of everything else, but not enough of one to drown out the primacy of classes as archetypes.

There will be new spells aplenty for the bard, seer and mystic, of course, but Emprise!™ will be the game that Unearthed Arcana pointed towards. Lots of class-based special powers, quirky little exceptions (as we see for the use of whips in melee, for example, in UA), and a large variety of racial choices that have in-game consequences for both the game master and players (with more than half a dozen types of elves to choose from, for example, the game master has to understand the consequences of leaving them all in, or taking one or more of them out; a lot of that information will be included in the Game Masters Guide).

Monsters are going to be a little more "fiddly" too. Not only are you going to see the denizens of both Monster Manuals and the Fiend Folio, but the monsters themselves are going to have variable hit dice. Some will use a d4, some a d8, and so forth. Nothing near to 4E, with its strikers and commanders and whatnot, but still a step away from the simplicity of hit dice = d8.

Compare this with, for example, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, or the upcoming LotFPWFRP game. They deliberately go down a "rules lite" path. Limited classes, and limited powers within the classes. Few choices of race (and in some cases, races that function as classes). Minimal spell descriptions. They follow the school of thought that says the essence of old school gaming is minimalism; a simple framework that can be bolted onto. I'm taking things in the opposite direction; throwing the whole toolbox at you and saying "take what you like, discard the rest, but understand what'll happen if you do." Neither is "better" or "right", but I'll be curious to see how Emprise!™ gets received, once the time comes. Who knows? You often have to fly a plane straight into the headwind to take off.

My ultimate goal

This is the game I would have given my eye teeth to own in 1985. Much like CotMA was something I needed for my own campaign, and shared with the community, Emprise!™ is the game I've wanted to own for 25 years, and will likewise share with those who want to see what it looks like. That's my entire goal; not to nudge the OSR in any particular direction, or advance it in the direction it's been heading, or even to sell games. My goal is to have these books on my shelf. Period. If anyone else wants to have 'em there as well, they're welcome to come along for the ride, and maybe you'll find some things to insert into you own game as well.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

CotMA in Action: Dreamation 2010

So ends another Dreamation convention, held in Morristown, NJ over this past weekend. This one was quite a bit larger than the last I attended; more people in general, it seemed to me, and thus more games. I haven't compared the program from last year to this year, but it seemed as if the board games were fewer, and the RPGs were more. I ran two sessions of Castle of the Mad Archmage, using the AD&D 1E rules, at the prime spots of 8:00 PM on Friday and Saturday night.

Both nights were sold out by the time I arrived at the convention around lunchtime Friday, which really floored me. I had brought fliers to promote the games, but they were completely unnecessary! Not only that, but there were alternates for both sessions signed up (for each, one alternate got seated, as one sign-up failed to show). For both sessions, and just talking to folks walking around the con and dealers in the dealers' room (three of whom were in the Saturday night session), everyone was quite enthused that someone was playing 1E. Many expressed dismay that the sessions were already full. I am already committed to running at least three 1E sessions at Dexcon (Dreamation's sister convention, held in July, also in Morristown), and maybe four.

Both conventions cover the gamut of gaming options. RPGs, board games, miniatures, computer games, video games, LARPs; they pretty much have everything a gamer might want (except, perhaps, historical miniatures and hex-and-counter wargames, but I can hardly fault them for that). I don't partake of the LARPing myself, but it does add a certain amount of color. And, of course, any time that wargamers and RPGers can look at anyone and say "wow... dorkier than us" is a plus. ;-)

On Friday night, the CotMA crew was exploring a corner of the third level of the dungeon. As they approached the Castle, some unknown force teleported them into a corridor in the northeast corner of the dungeons (although they, of course, had no idea where they were). After a lot of exploring (including discovering a piece of a puzzle door that led to no end of puzzlement on their end), and a couple of quick and dirty battles, the party ran into a wandering monster; the dreaded gelatinous cube. Quick thinking led them to drive the beastie through the passages using torches, with the party following behind. What they didn't realize was that the 'cube was (through purely random rolls, I might add) leading them right into the lair of a large bunch of hobgoblins. Once the hobgoblins realized what was happening, they produced their own torches, and both sides proceeded to use missile weapons to destroy the 'cube in order that they might get to the real work of killing each other.

See, now, this is where my own ignorance and lack of experience (even after 30 years) comes into play. Not realizing the full implications of doing so (never having used one in my own campaigns ere now), I gave the thief a figurine of wondrous power- goat of travail. Ye Gods! That thing is a Continental Siege Machine. 16 HD, AC unhittable, a gazillion h.p., and 5 high-powered attacks (hoof/hoof/bite/horn/horn). Despite being able to muster up with pole arms and flank the party on two sides, the goat made short work of the humanoids, who fled into the depths. They were then able to use the goat to pummel through the portcullis that led to the stairs to the surface, and managed to escape with a bit of loot.

Saturday's session was a bit different. I jacked up each member of the party by 2 levels (albeit minus one figurine of wondrous power) and deposited them on Level 5 of the dungeons, declaring that they had a map that led them down to it (area #1 on level 5, for those of you keeping score). They found the mosaic path that led them into the conjuration room, while at the same time managing to cause a mass of ogres to spill out into the corridors. They fought off the ogres (with the help of their 6th level ranger, who was devastating in combat), got nailed by a pit trap (even after making such a big deal of "we know this is an old-school dungeon crawl-- we've brought 10' poles!" they never bothered to say they were actually using them) and decided to spend the night in the dungeon to recover spells.

That proved to be something of a mistake, however. Though they took great pains to secure the door of their chosen sanctuary, and set up alarms, they simply tumbled out of the door the next morning. Unfortunately, a number of giant centipedes, having sensed prey within, had ensconced themselves outside the door. When the party came out, the centipedes attacked, and the magic-user gave up the ghost to their poison. They tumbled into the 20' wide central corridor of the level, but hit the teleport trap before they reached the Great Stone Enigma of Greyhawk (alas-- I was really looking forward to their encountering one of the most iconic images of the original dungeon). They managed to stumble on a group of flinds, and defeated them soundly, but by that time the session was over. They had no idea where they were, and were nowhere near an exit.

Both sessions were a blast, and the comments of the players were that they had a great time as well. I'll be scheduling at least three sessions of 1E AD&D next time around, and might just take a stab at running a classic TSR module. Maybe The Village of Hommlet. Oh, that would be sweet.

But I cannot overemphasize the reaction that I got. Folks were really excited that 1E was being played, and the demand exceeded my capacity. I can't think that's a local phenomenon. To all my fellow OSR grognards, I say that this is an opportunity. Go to your cons, and run LL, and S&W, and AD&D 1E or 2E, and D&D 0E, and  C&C, and all the rest. Folks *want* to play these games; most of whom were born after they were even in print. Let's give 'em what they want, and maybe grow the base a little.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Brief Dreamation Update

Last night I had the chance to DM the Castle of the Mad Archmage at Dreamation, and there's a second session scheduled for tonight. I'll give a full report on both in a day or two, but just wanted to drop a quick note that last night's session rocked! Both sessions were already filled by Friday afternoon, and alternates were actually showing up to see if they could get in.

There really are a lot of folks hungry for 1E out there. If you can, try running a game at your next con. You might be surprised by the response.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Old-School Grind

I only recently came across the use of the term "grind" in an RPG context. I know, I know-- I am an out of touch grognard who is prone to telling modern gamers to get the hell off my lawn. And I certainly have no excuse, since both my wife and several of my best friends are complete Warcraft fanatics. So I should have known about this phenomenon, but didn't. To my understanding, a "grind" is a situation where you're just engaged in melee after melee, stacking up x.p. Hardly the epitome of role-playing, of any style.

It got me thinking, though, about the applicability of the grind in an old-school dungeon crawl. I mean, my own Castle of the Mad Archmage could, if played that way, be considered a grind. There are tons of monsters, often in rooms not too far removed from one another. Certainly I don't use the "20% of rooms in a dungeon should have monsters" rule of thumb that the earliest versions of the game proposed. At best, I invert it.

But I must say, a grind is how you play it. It's a matter of attitude. Both the attitude of the players to the ultimate goal of entering a dungeon, and of the game master to the ultimate goal of having players enter the dungeon in the first place.

I think that the "old school" approach to dungeon exploration is not to clear the level and then move down to the next. At least, as it applies to the megadungeon; certainly smaller dungeons might well be designed with the ultimate objective to be "wipe out all the goblins who are raiding the halfling village". But in the old school approach, you're not out to kill the monsters. You're out the get their treasure. In the old school approach, a plethora of monsters might actually be considered a boon. There's a tribe of orcs a few corridors away from a derro outpost? The "grind" mentality would say, take out the orcs, then move on to the derro. The old-school mentality would say, get the orcs to fight the derro through clever play, and take their chest of gold while they're busy hacking each other to bits.

So I think that any grind you can come up with, short of something that was just one room after another, completely linear, stuffed with monsters, the old school could turn into a tactical challenge. That's why there are all those seemingly useless corridors; flanking! And there's no stat check for strategy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Castle of the Mad Archmage: Dreamation 2010

The schedule of events for Dreamation (held in Morristown, NJ the weekend of Feb 18-21) has just been posted.

I will be running two sessions of my Castle of the Mad Archmage, in prime time. Friday night at 8:00 PM (R229) and Saturday, also at 8:00 PM (R289). (I'll also be running the Diplomacy tournament on Sunday morning at 11:00 AM.)

This was a real hoot when I ran it last year at Dexcon; I can't wait to try it again. If anyone thinks they can make it over to Morristown for a session, I'd heartily encourage you to come on by!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

CotMA Preview: Carnivorous Albino Apes

The eleventh level was the home of the most powerful wizard in the castle. He had Balrogs as servants. The remainder of the level was populated by Martian White Apes, except the sub-passage system underneath the corridors which was full of poisonous critters with no treasure.

--Gary Gygax, Europa, 1975
I confess I am not a fan of ERB's Martian tales, and I really don't know the full extent of the lore regarding the Martian White Apes. But, diligent researcher that I am, I came up with these beauties for the next installment of Castle of the Mad Archmage (along with six new species of giant beetle). And aficionados of the World of Greyhawk will hopefully have something extra to look forward to, when the identity of that "most powerful wizard" is at last revealed. (Hint; it ain't the Mad Archmage himself, but the answer to me was most obvious.)

Ape, Carnivorous Albino

MOVE: 12”
% IN LAIR: 35%
DAMAGE/ATTACK: 1-4/1-4/1-4/1-4/1-8
SIZE: L (9’ tall)
      Attack/Defense Modes: Nil

Said by some to have been imported from some other world by some wizard or other traveler in the distant past, these distant cousins of the ordinary carnivorous ape are not only taller and more intelligent than their cousins, but they sport two pairs of arms, in addition to their muscular legs. Their senses of smell, hearing, and sight are all quite exceptional, and the beasts are only surprised on a 1 in 6. They are able to attack a different opponent with each pair of arms; if two arms strike the same opponent, the creature will automatically inflict rending damage of 1-8 h.p. They have been known to use tools and at times even wear ragged garments, but are generally accepted to be animals rather than true humanoids. Their fur is a milky white shock atop their head and shoulders, and their heads sport particularly prominent brow-ridges above their baleful red eyes.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Way

"Novices to the Way, I see," the little gnome squeaked. "Well, your worships have certainly come to the right place!" he added with enthusiasm. "Unlike some of our competitors, the Pavilion serves the main parallels -- and a few of the trunk lines, of course -- of the multiverse. We have no truck with the unhospitable planes, off byways, dead-end dimensions and the like. No, sirs!"
Taking them by the arms with his gnarled hands, the colorfully garbed gnome led Gord and Chert a few paces along the corridor. He gestured to a strange maze of shifting lines and glowing, pastel-colored dots displayed on the wall of an alcove. "There, see? All the routes that our gates serve are shown here. Fares are given in credits, domars, and sequins, as well as the standard precious metals, as displayed to right and left."
- Gary Gygax, "The Weird Occurrence in Odd Alley"
And with such a brief, prosaic explanation are we given a description of the Way, a means of trans-dimensional travel that is well-enough established to have a regular industry supporting it. In this wonderful story, we are given glimpses of a multiverse that smashes beyond the mundane understanding of "the planes" as seen in the Players Handbook or DMG. These aren't your everyday gates to the outer planes; these are a fully-developed system of travel between alternate dimensions.

Here we are told that Oerth alone does not the multiverse make. There are Aerth, and Yarth, and doubtless dozens of other variations on the theme (including, one presumes, Earth). Muchly maligned though it is amongst aficionados of First Edition, some of the information in the Manual of the Planes could really come in handy right about now, giving the DM nifty ideas for how magic works (or doesn't) on some of those alternate Prime Material Planes (and time, technology, etc.).

But what impresses me is the everyday business of it all. This series of gates is run like a railroad (complete with trunk lines), and is a sort of open secret amongst the well-to-do on the various worlds. It's even well-developed enough to have its own currency, and those In The Know are knowledgeable enough about the various alternate realities to know what a 1947 Margaux is. There are gates that connect to the system in the major cities of the Flanaess (at the very least Greyhawk and Rel Mord; one must assume others exist as well in places such as Rauxes, Niole Dra, and Irongate). Trade is conducted via these routes; the foppish Lord Maheal from the same story quoted above is in one of the extra-dimensional "sidings" of the Way on a mission to purchase wine to bring home to Nyrond.

The connections between these locations and the Way are carefully disguised and protected by magical keys; possession of a key presumes knowledge of where a suitable gate for its use may lie. Different keys-- some, at least, the size and shape of a common coin-- lead to different places. Or, maybe they merely open different gates which are linked to different places. We don't know for sure, and it may well be a combination of the two; use key A in gate B, and it takes you to plane C. Use it in gate D, and you end up in demi-plane E.

Not all of the destinations are full-fledged worlds. Sure, some gates will take you to a tower in the king's castle in Rel Mord, or to a seeming dead-end in the seedier end of Greyhawk. But others will take you to what I might call a "siding"; places under a mile in diameter, whose verges are clad in gray mist, such as Odd Alley, where one can find a brief respite on a long journey, facilities for transferring from one line to another, and perhaps a reputable merchant who can trade your wealth for domars, or a trading post where wares from distant dimensions can be found. From the standpoint of an adventurer, such sidings may be even more interesting than the "main parallels".

Those main parallels, one might conjecture, are the focus of the various worlds of the (A)D&D game. Oerth is certainly one, and I daresay Toril is as well. Surely the other worlds are, too. Naturally, each such world has its own set of inner and outer planes; we see this clearly at the end of the Gord the Rogue novels (spoiler in invisotext; highlight it to read) where Gord finds himself in a new multiverse complete with a new set of outer planes, the ravages of Tharizdun against Oerth (one possible Oerth, perhaps) contained in a pocket multiverse all to themselves. It also explains how the Forgotten Realms has planes (and inhabitants thereof) similar to, but different than, those in Greyhawk. Certainly some places, such as the domain of the Catlord, Weird Way itself, and various other extra-planar locales float above (or perhaps more accurately, between or within) such probabilities.

I think the Way is a fantastic means to shake up a campaign. Certainly it could be used to move from one to another; simply make a jaunt on the Way and the PCs are moved from Athas to the Viridistan. But I think its best value is in adding variety and spice to a long-established campaign; a hidden world known only to a few elite travelers. Perhaps a certain merchant has a reputation for importing impossibly exotic merchandise. Perhaps a newcomer to the Foreign Quarter is of a species never before seen. Perhaps a certain albino with a rune-carved blade is brooding in the corner of the bar...

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Need to Know

I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about rulebooks and how they are-- and should be-- organized. Naturally, the AD&D 1E rulebooks are the prototype for a great many RPGs; divided, in their pristine state, into one book for players, and two for the dungeon master. These are then supplemented with new material (Deities & Demigods, Unearthed Arcana, Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II, Oriental Adventures, etc.) that adds to one or more of those three "core" rulebooks.

In that model, since there is only one dungeon master per playing group (in theory, at least), only the game master needs to shell out the money for the complete set of rulebooks. The non-DM players can, if they choose, only purchase the PH and get along fine. Obviously, in real life, that wasn't the case in the majority of cases, as players wanted to see what was in that DMG, or swapped out the role of DM and needed all the books. But in theory, that's how it worked.

The other end of the spectrum is to put all the rules into a single book that both the game master and the players would use during play. Often, they would be internally divided into a "players section" and a "game masters section", because the game master would need a lot of information that was completely superfluous to the players; how to create planets, etc. The thing is that as supplements come out the players need to buy them all, if they are to have access to the full panoply of the rules available to them.

I most definitely lean towards the splitting of books by type, and will be taking that approach with Emprise!™, but in the process of going through the PH, DMG, and UA books, I must wonder at some of the choices that were made as regards to what is included in what book. In the end, I put it down to the production process; since the DMG came out a year or so after the PH, it perhaps contains additional information that might have made it into the PH if time had allowed it to be so.

There are some things that, I think, absolutely need to be made available to the players. The mechanics of turning undead, for example. I see no reason why such information would be for the DM's eyes only; that's why in my game, it's going in the Players Manual. Ditto for the details regarding followers at higher levels; it's a simple roll on a table-- hardly an arcane mystery-- and I see no reason to keep it from the players.

That said, I disagree with the idea of putting information about treasure, particularly magical items and the like, in a player's guide. In 4E, it makes a warped kind of sense, given the new game's mechanics regarding "trading in" magical items and letting the DM know ahead of time what sort of magic items would "fit with the player's vision of the character". (Fah! You'll get a vorpal sword over the cold dead body of the pit fiend that's wielding it. But I digress.) But in a game that attempts to recall the sense of wonder and novelty of struggling and making do with what the campaign gives you, I don't see much sense in it.

There are a bunch of things like that, that I'm finding myself integrating into the Players Manual for Emprise!™ that Gary Gygax either felt was better kept in the DMG, or which he came up with after the fact. Things like some of the extra information about clerics in the Deities & Demigods book. Details about followers and the construction of strongholds (I am particularly keen on including that in the Players Manual because I'd like to place a little more emphasis on that sort of end game than it has received in the past). Full information on healing and combat. Starting spells for magic-users. Character aging is a no-brainer to go into the Players Manual. Characters use poison; why not include the information where they can find it? That sort of thing.

The Game Masters Guide would have a lot more information on conducting the game and campaign design. There are some assumptions built into the rules that require the game master to make some decisions; just how far does the local druid hierarchy extend? What sort of special powers and spells are available to clerics of different faiths in the campaign? Rather than a whole book detailing the statistics of various sorts of gods and goddesses, there's going to be a couple of sample pantheons of deities, to give the game master an idea of what he needs to do in his own campaign (or what he should expect to see in a pre-packaged campaign setting). What sort of cultures are available to have as homelands for barbarian player characters? Hell, for that matter, what sort of decisions does the game master need to make before starting anything more than a pickup game? Are you going to allow drow and deep gnomes? What are the implications of doing so? Plus those game mechanics that the game master really does need that are superfluous to the players (or at least the sausage that they don't need to see being made). The combat tables. Magical items. Random tables to help when help is needed. That sort of thing.

This brings me to a point I've been sorta kinda wrestling with. Since the game master is the only one who really needs (or should have) the stats on monsters, why break them out into their own book? Why not include them in the Game Masters Guide? Simple economics says that one thick book is going to be cheaper than two thinner books. On the other hand, the pull of tradition is a strong thing, and there might be practical reasons for breaking out the monsters into their own book that I've not considered. On the other other hand, putting everything into a single book for players and game masters alike is the logical conclusion of that line of reasoning (although I think such a book would be too unwieldy to use in play, so there is a practical consideration). Thoughts?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion Now Available!

And if you order TONIGHT (Feb 3), you can get the softcover at Lulu for under US$20 (plus tax and shipping) if you put in the coupon code "shadow". Hurry-- that code only lasts for another few hours (it's a Groundhog Day special)! Link to find it --> here <--

I'm very much looking forward to this-- I like anything that the OSR puts out, but this one had me hooked from its initial announcement for obvious reasons. 1E is my game now, and I'm working on Emprise!(tm), so this expansion for Labyrinth Lord is a natural for me.

Even if you read this too late for that code to work-- I encourage everyone to buy it. It should be a hoot.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Mention at W.o.G.

Wow... Mortellan, of W.o.G. comic fame, has not only mentioned Greyhawk Grognard over at his site, but has based his latest strip on one of my recent blog posts. Cool!