Monday, September 21, 2015

On-The-Fly Rulings In OD&D

For some players and DMs, the absence of rules is a problem. OD&D is seen as lacking "options". If something is not explained in the rule book, it is as if it can't be done. This is far from the truth of course; in fact, what rules ARE there are merely guidelines in the first place. Still, for a player or DM coming from a more modern iteration of the game, there is a bit of culture shock looking down at your character sheet. For some DMs, on-the-fly rulings and improvisation can be a bit daunting. This isn't strictly a modern problem; even in the OSR, you sometimes will see someone opine for decent grappling rules, and it is well-documented that Gygax and Arneson got numerous inquiries for "rules clarifications" in the earliest days of the game. This post is to throw a few ideas out there for players and DMs that need a little coaxing and reassurance to ditch the rule straitjacket. I realize the irony of doing so; in a way I am adding rules myself.

Combat maneuvers and skills have become more and more codified over time, reaching their pinnacles in modern editions. I am not trying to teach a history lesson here, so I leave it to the reader to chart the different permutations. The end result of it is that not only has the game developed lists of specific things you can try, it has also dictated the effects. This has hardwired a lot of notions into DMs and players. Take a look at this character sheet, noting the complete absence of modern trappings.

From a player standpoint, consider this as freedom. Freedom to try whatever you like in combat, whatever you like in a social situation, whatever you like period. This doesn't mean you will be successful. Indeed, this doesn't always mean you will even have a chance of success. You know your strengths and weaknesses, but that doesn't mean you cannot attempt something. Just know that your actions, and especially your failures, can have have consequences.

From a DM standpoint, be open. Allow players to be creative.

This still leaves the question as to how to adjudicate rulings. Try these simple ideas.

1. The better the related ability score, the better chance to succeed. 

Her high charisma and intelligence scores helped make Joan a shrewd negotiator.

2. Depending on the ability scores, a task might be automatic or impossible. It is up to you to decide when a chance of success or failure even exists.

Pip was so weak that he struggled to swim against even the slightest undercurrent.

3. When attempting a special maneuver that involves attacking another creature or object, use the AC as the base target number and the degree of success or failure to determine the outcome. 

Larry wants his fighter to trip an opponent. Larry beats the target AC by enough that the DM decides he has succeeded. 

4. When attempting a "skill", roll under the most closely associated ability score. Modify based on the situation if needed and use degrees of success or failure to determine the outcome. 

Hilda tries to balance on the thin edge of the cliff. The howling winds make it more difficult. Hilda rolls a 2, well under her dexterity score, even modified for the wind. She makes it look easy. 

5. Have fun with crits and fumbles.

Joan stood before the council, encouraging them to join the cause. Unfortunately, the player rolls a 1, and just as she opens her mouth to speak, Joan farts. 

Note that I have not listed any hard and fast modifier charts, or spelled out any degrees of success. I leave this to the DM. I personally suggest doing this based entirely on feel.

I am not sure how helpful this is. For experienced DMs of OD&D, you probably have had your own system for a long while, perhaps decades, and I am not telling you anything you do not already know. I do hope that for anyone reading this that has never tried OD&D and was either curious or biased about it, that it might have some use. A lot of it might seem like common sense, but the main idea I want to get across is that the perceived "lack of options" is a feature, not a bug.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Let's Read Polyhedron: Issue 1, Summer 1981

Inspired by The Other Side's series reading White Dwarf, and Grognardia's old Imagine mag posts, I wanted to do a "Let's Read....Something" series. I settled on Polyhedron, primarily because the issues were so short that it seemed like I might actually have time to keep up with it.

This of course was the RPGA newsletter. I completely missed out on the RPGA back in the day. I was aware it existed from Dragon mags, and it seemed like it would have been cool to be a member, but I was a broke kid and didn't really have the wherewithal to do anything about it. Years later I got to rediscover the newsletters, and there is a lot of cool stuff to be found in them.

It had actually not yet been given the name Polyhedron when the first issue came out in the summer of 1981. The first thing you notice is that awesome, familiar art style of Darlene, she of amazing-Greyhawk-map fame and the talent behind many other iconic illustrations, such as this one from the 1e DMG.

Inside, we begin with a hello from editor Frank Mentzer and the beginnings of the letters section.

Next is Dispel Confusion, a regular feature not unlike Sage Advice that clears up various rules questions. Firm rulings were actually crucial to the whole notion of RPGA play, something that seems familiar today to participants in Pathfinder Society or the Adventurer's League. Nothing too revolutionary here: questions on max/min MU spells due to intelligence, humanoid armor, paladins and lycanthropy (they can be affected as it is both a curse and a disease), and the weight of magical armor.

Then comes part one of a fascinating interview with Gygax. This is smack-dab in his ultra-fiesty period, which found him berating game reviewers and designers in Dragon and lashing out at houserulers everywhere. I love Gygax. I never knew him, and can't really pretend to understand his motivations, but it always feels to me when I read interviews with him from around this time that he just wasn't that happy. I don't mean clinically depressed or anything. I just think the incredibly rapid, massive success of the game would be a lot for anyone to handle. Being a CEO of a multi-million dollar company all of sudden and trying to adjust to being a "businessman" can't have been especially easy. One would also have to be pretty damn self-actualized for all of that success not to effect their ego as well. You often see him say things about how little time he had to write or play games, and his tone had sharpened considerably from the hippy free-for-all philosophy of the LBBs. So here we get quotes like, "One of the reasons I was able to [focus on AD&D design] that I felt that a game was needed that would have more control over its audience, and one that was going to have more uniformity of play." This, of course, fits with the RPGA perfectly. The interviewer (Mentzer?) also notes that Gygax gets "testy" during the end of the interview, and that he will have to come back for a part two. Anyway, I am not making a judgment about the man. I love him and am thankful for him every day. His attitude made for some great reading around this time, so I am not complaining.

We move on to a list of Boot Hill stats for western movie and TV stars. Clint Eastwood's stats come out on top. I think I have seen this same list in Dragon; can't be sure. Pretty cool though.

Notes for the Dungeon Master is next, a regular feature, this particular one containing little trick and trap tidbits for DMs. Nothing too inspired, save for the idea of a henchman who gets a case of the hiccups in times of stress.

There is a preview/review/advertisement for Fight in the Skies, a game I have never seen nor played, and do not expect to any time soon, so I skipped it.

Merle Rasmussen pens an "open letter" to Mentzer promoting Top Secret.

There is a roundup blurb about that year's GenCon South (held in Jacksonville, FL) tournament results. A highlight was said to be a game on the "world's largest sand table": the beach! Apparently they played a large outdoor game of Tractics. That would have been cool.

Next, Jim Ward provides a little insight into the thought process of the design of Gamma World. It is interesting. He addresses questions he gets about the game, plugs Legion of Gold, and mentions that he is currently working on a Metamorphosis Alpha rewrite.

The issue ends with a Tom Wham comic, Rocksnoz in the Land of Nidd. You can't help but get nostalgic seeing his familiar, zany drawing style. Yes! I got to use the word zany!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

4e "Themes" For 5e, Part One: Rambling

I enjoy 5e. I think part of why I enjoy it is that they actually succeeded in realizing their design goals. The game fits different playstyles. I have played a very basic, theater-of-the-mind, no feat game that approximated classic editions, albeit with far more character options. I have played a gridded-combat, option-heavy game with min-maxer types that felt a lot like later editions. While you see many gamers proclaim that 5e is a return to old-school gaming, even going so far as to call it an OSR game, it is remarkable how much 4e there is in it.

I am not sure why this isn't noted more often, but I can speculate. Certainly, a lot of people barely tried 4e, or avoided it altogether, so many are likely just unaware of how much made it into the game. WOTC also mastered the Orwellian art of language manipulation; by using the term "hit dice" for the healing surgish mechanic, it went down a lot smoother. In a similar way, avoiding the terms "daily" and "encounter" and substituting "long" and "short rest", the GNS theory debates largely subsided. The influence of 4e is also felt in what DIDN'T make it in, a point I touch on in this old blog post.

Anyway, I have had the idea bouncing around in my head since the game came out of introducing some 4e mechanics into 5e whole cloth; that is, without really editing them, partly to show it can be done, and partly just for the hell of it. I settled on themes. Themes, originally conceived by Rich Baker, came about late in 4e's run and were immensely popular. Somehow a game that felt bloated to many, with nowhere else to go, was able to handle another minor layer of complexity based on the sheer genius design of them. I didn't want to port them over exactly as they were in 4e however. Part of this is because themes often gave bonuses to skills, something that really would break skills in 5e. With static DCs, an extra +2 here or there almost defeats the purpose of rolling. I always enjoyed swingier skills anyway.

I did like the idea of keeping themes in the lower tier. These are still the most heavily played levels, despite the newer adventure paths. I didn't want to tie them to occupations and the like anymore though, as 5e's backgrounds (a term itself recycled from 4e) covered that design space. I decided to use 4e's utility powers more or less as-is as the theme features, as I was always a big fan of them. My first inclination was to make a theme for each class, thus a sorcerer theme, a ranger theme, and so on, but that didn't work out, partly because I found that the more you dig, the more 4e you find in 5e.

So while reviewing utility powers for 4e classes I ran into several issues that made me change the theme-as-class idea:

1. I wanted to avoid 4e mechanics that had no 5e analog. This included things like shifting, healing surges (as they operate a little differently in 5e), and the like. I still was stuck using dailies, at-wills, and encounters, but these fit fine with 5e: just make encounters recharge after a short rest and dailies recharge after a long rest.

2. I didn't want to give any bonuses to skills for the aforementioned reasons.

3. Many of the 4e utility powers appear in 5e. They might be slightly reworded, but they are there as class features, feats, and spells. I didn't want the themes to be useless to someone who had taken a certain feat, or for them to overlap onto class features.

With this in mind, despite the large number of utility powers, I quickly found there simply weren't enough to fit the criteria and still have them be unique for each class. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it gave me another idea: themes as ROLES. Yes, 4e roles converted to themes. So we have the striker, controller, defender, and leader theme, all able to be taken by any class (although some may suit one or another better), not unlike the choice of race.

This made it far easier, as I only needed three utility powers per role. And so, I started poring over all of the utility lists to find options that fit the ideas. This still proved tricky, as utilities often defy role. Some 4e fighter utilities are very striker flavored, for example. But finally, I think I came up with some good options.

As far as presentation, while I would like to just copy the things word for word, in order to keep within the legal framework of the licensing I have removed the names from the powers and reworded the mechanics. I still encourage people to buy 4e along with all of the other editions. This isn't meant to substitute that, and the powers are not sourced to specific books or laid out in WOTC fonts or anything like that. This is just a little exercise I am providing for free, more to promote their game line rather than take anything away or profit.

That will have to wait a bit for the free little PDF. This was just to ramble about the idea and hopefully whet an appetite or two. Look for the PDF sometime soon.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Prep Is For Ninnies: Froth's Sandbox Toolkit

I don't always run OD&D sandboxes, but when I do, I use my sandbox toolkit. Today I invite you to peer behind the DM screen.

The Massive Binder contains:

Compiled Judges Guild Wilderlands tables.

Cities by Chaosium, my go-to resource for town/city creation and random urban encounters.

OD&D reformatted; much easier than breaking out my LBBs; still the best system ever conceived for improvised play. Iron Falcon may soon graduate to this spot.

Plenty of hex and graph paper.

And extra no-frills, lo-fi character sheets.

I also keep the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets (so buttery) and the 1e DMG at my table regardless of edition.

I have plenty of other options in my bag of tricks, but these are the "core". With these tools, even spending five minutes on game prep seems....uncivilized.

Go ahead PCs, make my day.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

RPG-A-DAY In One Day

So there is this RPG-A-DAY thing going around, and while I would love to keep up with something like this for a month, it just isn't going to happen, so I thought I would post all of my answers in a single blog post.

1. Game you are most looking forward to? Jez Gordon's Dead West.

2. Kickstarted game you are most please you backed? Castles and Crusades core book reprints.

3. Fave new game of the last 12 months? Gonnerman's Iron Falcon

4. Most surprising game? I was surprised by Numenera, pretty breathtaking.

5. Most recent RPG purchase? I just backed The Oracle zine reprint on KS about an hour ago.

6. Most recent RPG played? Ran Call of Cthulhu last weekend.

7. Fave free RPG? many. I will say Iron Falcon again bc its recent, but there are too many to list.

8. Fave appearance of RPG's in media? Community

9. Fave media you wish was an RPG? Something Philip K Dick based, weird space colonies with drugs, that sort of thing.

10. Fave RPG publisher? There are many but I will give a shout out to Frog God, love their stuff.

11. Fave RPG writer? Too many but Kenneth Hite is blowing my mind lately.

12. Fave RPG illustration? The 1e Monster Manual Thought Eater, of course.

13. Fave RPG podcast? I don't really follow podcasts but Unspeakable! is good. The Tome Show also.

14. Fave RPG accessory? Hmmm...lately it has been this bootleg hex crawl compilation some anonymous person put together compiling most of the Judges Guild Wilderlands tables.

15. Longest campaign played? Like three years or so.

16. Longest game session? We played D&D all night one time back in the 80s.

17. Fave fantasy RPG? D&D, all flavors, spin-offs, clones, re-imaginings...I love it all.

18. Fave SF RPG? Metamorphosis Alpha or Traveller

19. Fave supers RPG? TSR's Marvel Super Heroes

20. Fave horror RPG? Call of Cthulhu (pre 7th edition)

21. Fave RPG setting? Pre-wars Greyhawk

22. Perfect gaming environment? My basement.

23. Perfect game for you? D&D all the way, baby

24. Fave house rule? Making Read Magic an at-will MU ability in classic D&D editions.

25. Fave revolutionary game mechanic? I like the 12 degree system in Colonial Gothic.

26. Fave inspiration for your games? The 1e DMG still inspires me every time I open it. Kenneth Hite's Suppressed Transmissions are currently being devoured.

27. Fave idea for merging two games into one? Probably Kult/Call of Cthulhu mashup; more mashups HERE.

28. Fave game you no longer play? Marvel Super Heroes or Judge Dredd.

29. Fave RPG website? Google + is where I go for all things RPG related, but OSR Today is nice.

30. Fave RPG playing celebrity? Colbert.

31. Fave non-RPG thing to come out of RPGs? Friendships!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Help Jim Ward!!!

The history of RPGs is pretty short. One of the cool things about that is that a lot of the legends of gaming-our elders that shaped and designed the first wave of games-are still alive. You can meet them at conventions, even participate in games run by them, correspond through social media and forums, and continue to support their work in various ways. The gaming community is nothing if not generous in times of need. Now is one of those times. Jim Ward, designer of Metamorphosis Alpha (MA), Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes, Gamma World, and more needs help. The good news is that a lot of people have helped already, but the truth is he still needs a lot of support to get through this tough time.

There are several ways you can help. You can go directly to his GoFundMe page. Taylor Frank, an OSR designer and creator of the excellent Dungeon Lord zine has organized several raffle opportunities; more on them HERE, HERE, and HERE. I think the drawings are on Monday, so check those out as soon as you can. Lots of killer stuff to win. Other OSR luminaries Tim Shorts, James Spahn, Tenkar, and Johua De Santo have also come up with creative ways to support Jim. There is an artwork auction HERE. Another awesome way to help would be to back Jim's new Kickstarter (KS) for Epsilon City, a new MA product that frankly looks completely amazing. I think anyone that backed the previous MA KS was very happy with the high quality products they received. This should be no different. 

If you are dead broke and just cannot swing donating, a great way to help is to simply share this post or the above links with others. If you haven't already seen "Help Jim Ward" three or four times...we aren't saying it loud enough. So please share. You could also reach out to Jim on Facebook; I am sure that getting a message or a comment means a lot. It would to me.

All this MA talk got me thinking. The MA game is usually ran with mutated PCs that are native to the Warden, with the true history of the place and the functions of the various technology having been forgotten over a long period of time. Here are three alternative setups for your MA game that allow for different levels of technological knowledge:

-You are crew members of the Warden that were placed in cryo-sleep chambers, You wake up in the far future in the bowels of the Warden somewhere. In this scenario you are aware of the layout, technology, etc of the Warden but must deal with the mutations and changes that have taken place.

-You and your party are of an entirely different culture with highly developed technology, and you spot the Warden on your ship's radar. You decide to investigate. You can use this method to mashup with Traveller, Stars Without Number, or any number of sci-fi games

-The Warden crash-lands on your planet and you decide to explore it. This scenario is cool because you can use any system or time period. Maybe a Colonial Gothic mashup? The Warden crashes on Indian land or in Boston harbor? Or perhaps late 19th century London, using Call of Cthulhu? Or just go the Barrier Peaks route and play it with your fave edition of D&D. 

A society can rightly be judged based on how it treats its elders. Let's do whatever we can to support a man who has given us so many awesome memories. Please share this information with other gamers. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Running Call of Cthulhu for New Players

I am a horror junkie and a voracious reader, and for my dollar no RPG horror game does it quite as well as CoC. Some of the scenarios are so well written that I can read them as literature. The scholarship and creativity that goes into many of them is incredible. I also find it to be a great game for new RPGers. The roll-under d100 mechanics are pretty simple to grasp, and the real-world setting (at least in the core game) is easy for new players to relate to and operate in. I have introduced a lot of new players to roleplaying through this game, and I thought I would share my tips on how to do so in a fun and effective way. I am not a fan of 7th edition, so this post really deals with prior editions. I also just play classic era (20's and 30's) so keep that in mind as well.

Let me preface this by saying these tips are really more for face to face or online games. In a convention setting I would use pregens for time's sake. But I think for new players it is much more satisfying to play their own character. That is the feedback I get. I actually think more experienced RPGers do better with pregens, but I digress.

New players want to do just that: play. The more you explain the rules, the more their eyes glaze over. I suggest just telling them to let the game come to them, and focus on picking an occupation that sounds fun to rp. You may have some optimizer types that have played other games and have a preconceived notion of how much individual stats affect their characters. In Cthulhu, the difference between a 12 and 14 in a stat in negligible. I don't even really bother to go into detail explaining stats, I just lead them through rolling.

Keep it simple: occupations afford you a certain set of skills. You add points in skills, the higher the better. I recommend hand-waiving starting wealth. Use what feels realistic or is common sense. A doctor will likely make more than a private investigator. Most importantly, do not get bogged down buying equipment. CoC has some of the most extensive equipment lists of any game I have ever played. You can buy toothpicks if you like. The way I handle starting equipment is this: you have whatever makes sense for you to have. Thus, a biologist has access to a microscope if he needs it. A doctor has some medical equipment, at least a first aid kit. And only occupations that make SENSE to start with weapons do so. A police detective will have a revolver, but to start an antiquarian with a small arsenal makes no sense. After all, they are new characters. They are just starting out exploring these mysteries (more on that later). I typically wait until occupations have been chosen to explain this to players, and I have never had a complaint yet. If later in a scenario they realize that they need to go buy something idiosyncratic or atypical, let them. Handling equipment this way saves a ton of time and lets you get right into the game much faster.

The best tips you can give new players have nothing to do with mechanics. Investigators investigate. The game would be over if investigators just decided to go home and not follow clues. The only real information a player needs starting out is to do what their character would do. You have skills that you are good at, but that doesn't limit you from trying anything else that makes sense. Focus on your character and let the Keeper call for rolls when needed.

I have written before about CoC combat and my houserules for it (some of which have been amended as follows). I recommend these even for experienced tables. I find it overly complicated and fiddly to have three mini-rounds possible within one combat round. Again, I stress keeping it simple. You can move and take an action of some sort on your turn. If you don't move, you can fire your weapon at its full rate of fire. If you move, you only get one shot (an exception being something like trying a long range shot with a rifle, in which case movement would be impossible). If you are able, you can parry once per round. You can also dodge once per round but this takes away your movement for the following round. A new round for a player starts over on their turn. That is as far as you need to go; anything further can come out during play. I don't get too detailed with firearms to begin with; I usually just give detectives and PIs a .38 revolver. Soldiers might own rifles but do not typically carry them up and down Broad Street.

Treat luck, know, and idea rolls as passive skills. Write down your players' stats and roll for them yourself if they get stuck or really get into trouble.

Finally, pick a scenario that makes sense for new investigators. I like starting without them knowing each other. Sure, if you have two Miskatonic professors at your table they may have heard of each other, but they don't have to be buddies. The scenario also shouldn't give away any Cthulhu Mythos information in its setup. Characters go into the first scenario blissfully unaware that they are "investigators" (this reinforces their relative lack of preparedness/weapons). Start with something innocuous. A dinner party, an event at a public place, etc. One of the best introductory scenarios in my opinion is The Sanatorium, the players all being invited by the doctor for a visit. Mister Corbitt starts with a dinner party, something that can conceivably be tweaked to include people that do not know each other. If you think you will be playing long-term, Masks of Nyarlathotep has a wonderful beginning, just have Jackson Elias telegraph them all. Similarly, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth can begin with the characters individually being invited to join the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight. Female characters can be members of the auxiliary group that have become curious and go in disguise, or if you do not care too much about historical accuracy, allow them to be invited along with the male PCs.

Using these tips puts you right into the action as quickly as possible. It is wonderful to behold players getting into it for the first time. The simpler you keep it, the less you will see them looking at their sheets, and the more time you will hear them in character having a blast.

Have you introduced the game to new players? What tips would you pass on to keepers?