Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: The Secret of Cykranosh by Wayne Rossi

I first encountered Wayne Rossi on Google+ and immediately began following him based on a mutual adoration for the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets. I eventually got to game with him once (a fun OD&D dungeon crawl with Tekumel beasties), and I have enjoyed his Dungeon Crawl zines. When I noticed he had recently released an adventure in pay-what-you want format, I immediately downloaded it to check it out.

This is a short (6 pages) location-based adventure, ostensibly set in Hyperborea, although with minor tweaking it could be set in pretty much any fantasy setting. It is compatible with classic D&D editions and OSR games.

I am always in need of short, easy-to-prep adventures that I can drop into hexcrawls and sandbox environments, and this fits the bill perfectly. The referee can read and absorb this in less than an hour, and it should provide a good session's worth of gaming.

The first thing to catch your eye will likely be a great map by Dyson Logos, who never ceases to amaze. The adventure itself is interesting. There are a lot of cool encounters packed into this thing. There are idiosyncratic flourishes that I found pleasing. For example, found among a bandit treasure is the coffin of an orangutan corpse stolen from a carnie caravan.

Perhaps the module's greatest strength is that Rossi managed to develop two rival factions in such a short adventure. This raises the value, as different groups can have wildly different experiences with it. A group could simply hack-and-slash their way through, work to pit the groups against each other, or perhaps find themselves the ones unknowingly manipulated. That sort of depth of possible experience is not typical for most short adventures I read.

It is tough to find anything to be too critical about. My only suggestion would be to have had the map take up its own page, as when I run PDF adventures I typically print the map or make it its own file in order to read the key simultaneously. A minor quibble.

Though I am sure things could change, Rossi has mentioned perhaps doing a number of these short adventures, then later combining them into a larger print product. If they are all in this vein I will definitely be purchasing it. In the meantime I would encourage referees to check it out for themselves.

You can find The Secret of Cykranosh HERE. Check out Rossi's blog HERE.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Let's Read Polyhedron: Issue 2, Autumn 1981

Issue 1 read-though HERE

Issue 2 has a great cover by Stephen D. Sullivan, with a dude being polymorphed into a tree. Harsh.

The Letters section is pretty standard, but it is revealed that the awful D&D Computer Labyrinth game retailed for $40-60 bucks! No wonder my parents wouldn't buy it for me. They weren't suckers. Apologies if you loved it.

There is a notice about Dragon subscription discounts and then the Sage Advice-ish "Dispel Confusion" column. The biggest takeaway here is that Carrion Crawler paralysis lasts 5d4 rounds, which is of course brutal as hell, but preferable to indefinite.

We get part two of the Gygax interview. He seems to have chilled out a bit since part one, but still takes a pot-shot at Bakshi's Lord of the Rings. Given the dubious quality of the script for the never-realized D&D movie, he was probably better off leaving it alone. He talks a bit about miniature licensing, even though to this day I still see posts here and there around the net insisting nobody used minis with AD&D.

The newsletter is very young and doesn't really have a name, so there is mention of a "name the newsletter" contest, along with a call for submissions to "Spelling Bee", a future column that will seek to clarify spell use and terminology.

There is a preview of Dawn Patrol, which I am completely ignorant of and likely always will be.

"White Rabbits" aims to become a forum to communicate about RPGA membership issues, especially in regards to errors and oversights.

Jean Wells has a decent article on monster creation that I might have found helpful back in the day. Turnbull pens a short essay on current gaming trends, extolling gaming clubs and dissing D&D knock-offs.

Probably the best article of the issue is Jim Ward's "Mutants", a Gamma World article containing new creatures and robots purported to originate from the chronicles of "Random of the Many Names". Gurosh the mutated feline requires three times its body weight in food per day, while the Wess Reel (mutated grape vines) have been known to protect secret societies in exchange for fertilization.

There is a list of RPGA products for sale, including R-Series modules such as Doc's Island.

"Notes for the Dungeon Master" has more trick and trap ideas, none of which really bear repeating. Allen Hammack offers some sensible Top Secret GM advice about keeping missions varied. There is a blurb about the world of Rocksnoz, he of the Tom Wham comic. The issue ends with an article about the RPGA tournament system.

Not a lot of meat on the bones in this issue, but it was still an interesting snapshot of a lost moment in time.

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!